droid charge review  03The Droid Charge is the second smartphone capable of using Verizon’s uber-fast 4G LTE network. It’s a handset that many “power users” have been waiting for a long time, as the HTC Thunderbolt finally gets some competition. The Droid Charge design is nice and elegant, but is also aggressive at the same time. This fits very well with the “power statement” that Samsung undoubtedly wants users to project when they pull their phones from their pocket (or purse).

But is the Samsung Droid charge as fast, and powerful, as it seems? And more importantly, does it suffer from the “4G battery curse” that we’ve seen with the competition? You’re about to find out as we dive into the Samsung Droid Charge…

Context

We all have different usage patterns, and that’s why it is impractical to write a dogmatic review that simply says “buy/don’t buy”. I find it more helpful to tell you what I do with these devices, and how they worked for me. From there, you can figure out how things might work for you.

Typically, I check my email often with Exchange, and I reply only moderately because typing long emails with the virtual keyboard is a chore. I browse the web several times a day to check news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music on my phone. I run apps: mainly the camera app, social networks (often) and a tiny bit of games. I don’t make many phone calls – maybe 10 minutes per day, if at all. This usage pattern affects battery life and my perception of which features are important or not.

Design (neat!)

droid charge review  04

I find the Samsung Charge design to be very nice In my opinion, the phone would have looked even better if the Samsung and Verizon logos were on that back, but maybe it’s just me… Samsung says that the Droid Charge is the slimmest 4G LTE phone @ Verizon, but next to the Thunderbolt, it does not look particularly thinner.

droid charge review  05

Most phones have capacitive buttons, but this one has mechanical ones. I like it.

On the left side, you’ll find a micro-USB port and the volume buttons (I prefer the USB port at the top or bottom…). The top only has a 3.5mm jack audio connector and the right side has a power button. At the bottom of the phone, Samsung uses mechanical buttons for the four Android function keys (Menu, Home, Back and Search). I like those quite a bit, they have a crisp “click” and I have the perception that they react better than the capacitive buttons from previous Samsung Android phones. This might just be perception, but it is satisfying nonetheless.

The back side has a plastic cover with a “faux-carbon” texture similar to the Google Nexus S, which is nice. The design of the camera and flash also look very good. Samsung knows what is doing in terms of design.

The Droid Charge feels bulkier than most smartphones, and so far this seems to be a trademark of 4G LTE phones. The HTC Thunderbolt too is fairly big compared to its 3G cousins.

Display (beautiful)

droid charge review  06

Super AMOLED+ is colorful, contrasted

Samsung has opted for a Super AMOLED+ display that delivers beautiful contrast and saturation. Like its OLED predecessors, the screen tends to have over-saturated colors (most people like that by the way), but the “white” tends to be “blue” if you compare it to an LCD display. If you care a lot about color accuracy, this is something that you should know.

Despite of the color accuracy being off, I’ll say that the screen is very good, especially indoors. In an outdoor situation, OLED tends to require users to crank the brightness up to the maximum level, which is detrimental to the battery life.

droid charge review  07

iPhone 4, LG Optimus Black and Samsung Droid Charge -- in direct sunlight

Power consumption: Super AMOLED+ is a really great display technology, but if you have used Samsung OLED devices before, you might notice that they often use a black user interface for the App Manager, Email, Settings etc… beyond aesthetics, OLED displays tend to consume less power when they display a darker image. This is important if you want to optimize your battery life.

What’s new?

Next-Gen Network (read this!): because the main improvement is located at the wireless mobile network level, it’s important to understand that network performance is the combination of two things: raw speed and latency.

Raw speed (in Mbps of download/upload) is a common metric that most people with a home Internet connection have heard of. It basically shows you how fast you can download/upload data. The higher, the better.

Latency (in milliseconds, or ms) is a less common topic. Latency represents how long you have to wait between a request from your smartphone, and a response from a web server. Latency is very important because this is an *incompressible* delay, and wireless networks tend to have higher latency than home networks. When it comes to latency, the lower, the better.

A web site can require dozens of requests, each inducing some level of latency. This is important because desktop websites are usually not optimized for latency, at least not to the point of making them mobile-friendly.

The Verizon LTE network has much faster download speed *and* low latency. For the latency we’re talking about 250+ms (3G) versus 75+ms (LTE) in our tests. That’s about 3X faster.

4G LTE measured speed

droid charge review  19

When I ran some tests from our office (2/4 signal bars), Verizon’s LTE network was the fastest of all. This is not an easy location for smartphones in general, but with Speedtest.net (free app), we’ve been able to measure speeds of 08-12Mbps. Although we had seen similar speeds when we had tested the HTC Thunderbolt, today, the Thunderbolt never passed 6MBps in the exact same location (I did about 10 tests runs with each phone).

Although this suggests that the Droid Charge is faster, I would probably do more tests at different location before reaching any conclusions.

What does 4G LTE do for you?

Google Maps: With the faster networks, a number of apps are suddenly much nicer to use. For instance, the Google Maps tiles load a whole lot faster as you move around, or zoom in and out. It is great to use, and the 4G LTE “boost” basically makes it that much closer to a desktop utilization. I believe that everyone will perceive the difference in terms of responsiveness – it’s very obvious.

Facebook: this is another app that I use a lot. Facebook is known to be slow, but the LTE network does improve the situation quite a bit. Photo thumbnails load faster, and Facebook for Android is just better in general – there’s no question about it.

droid charge review  11

Web browsing is good, but huge pages might become slow

Web browsing: as you can guess, web browsing is noticeably faster when compared to 3G, especially for desktop sites. Mobile sites are so small that the difference is not always felt, but full-size websites are significantly faster.

If you’re not familiar with the Android (2.2) browsing capabilities, they are really good. Websites do render properly almost all of the time, and I haven’t found a site (that I normally use) that would not look OK on this phone.

Keep in mind that web browsing can be accelerated by a faster network and/or a faster “system on a chip” (SoC), for example one with two cores. The Samsung Droid Charge does not have a dual-core SoC, but the LTE Network does a great job of accelerating web browsing.

Adobe Flash support: Flash is fairly well supported by new Android devices these days, and the Droid Charge is no exception. I’ve tried browsing a few Flash sites (ex: wechoosethemoon.org), and they all worked fine. This phone will do OK with Flash sites that are mildly intensive like restaurants and promotional sites. However don’t expect action games or HD video to play at full speed on it. We’ll come back to the performance aspect later, but keep in mind that many Flash sites have been designed for desktop computers.

I’ve chosen a few examples among the apps that I use the most, but the basic idea is that anything that’s remotely demanding in terms of wireless network communications should exhibit a visible difference in terms of responsiveness and speed.

Software

As you know, Google lets handset makers tweak Android in many ways, sometime to add missing functionalities, sometime to use a design that is different. In any case, “differentiation” is critical for handset manufacturers because the last thing that they want is to be commoditized to death.

I won’t go over *all* the little tweaks that Samsung made, but here are a few that I found interesting:

droid charge review  18

I like Samsung's Power Control, but I prefer having that widget to be on the home screen

The integrated power control: Android ships with a Power Control widget that lets you turn things on and off. It’s very useful to optimize the battery life. Samsung has such a widget built into the status screen of your phone (that’s where all the alerts go). You can see it by swiping down from the top of the screen. Samsung’s controls have “Mobile Data” and “Auto Rotation”. Mobile Data is the interesting one, because if you’re not using your phone to receive email in real-time, you can turn mobile data off. And that can extend the battery life significantly.

The integrated contact search box: by default, many Android phones require you to tap the Search button if you want to find one contact among a great many using the keyboard. Samsung knows that for power-users, that’s one tap too many and has integrated the search box directly in the contact screen.

Email search: It might sound weird, but many Android phones don’t have an email search… that’s kind of annoying when you’re looking for that email buried among the 200 others you received yesterday. Samsung’s email app has a search, and it also has pretty colors in its email interface.

I wish that they would let us use a white background, but with AMOLED, it’s a no-go: white consumes more power than black…

droid charge review  16

The task manager is a great idea

Task manager: Android is notoriously bad at letting us know which apps are on/off, and closing running apps can be daunting for novice users. Samsung has a task manager that shows apps that are running and lets you shut them down with ease. It even shows how much CPU running apps do consume. That’s great, and I wish that it was a stock “Android feature”.

That said, the task manager doesn’t show you *all* the apps that are running, among them, some bloatware that come pre-installed. For example, why are Slacker, tuneWiki and the Verizon App store running? I’ve never launched them.

Bloatware

“Bloatware” is the name for the pre-installed software that we wish wasn’t there. The Droid Charge comes with a bunch of apps, but in my humble opinion, Samsung and Verizon should instead use shortcuts to the Android market. Why? Because pre-installed apps use storage space, memory and simply “bloat” the phone.

There are also apps that are pre-installed, but not running: Kindle, Bitbop, blockbuster, CityID, Guided tours, Let’s Golf, My Verizon, Rock Band, ThinkFree Office, TuneWiki, VCast, VZ Navigator… I’m sure that some users will be glad to have some of them, but again, it’s just best to add some pointers instead of pre-installing all of them. Also, you can’t uninstall most of them.

We went throught that bloatware phase in the PC world, and the conclusion is: bloatware is not a good thing, and laptop makers often have the option of having a “clean” install. Hopefully, handset makers will come to the same conclusion soon.

Share the 4G love with other devices

droid charge review  15

The Hotspot feature is great for occasional internet sharing

WiFi Hotspot: like all recent Android phones, the Droid Charge can turn itself into a mobile hotspot for your other devices. As such, it can share the 4G LTE connection with up to 10 devices. To enable it, you can go to settings>networks>mobile hotspot, or simply use the shortcut icon that Samsung has preloaded on the device. This feature may be available for an additional monthly fee (right now, it seems free, but I’m getting a warning that it won’t be down the road).

This is the most convenient way of sharing a web connection in my opinion. It’s driver-free and works with all WiFi devices. Keep an eye on the battery life because this will drain the battery very quickly (1 hour?).

4G USB Modem: The Droid Charge can also be used as a USB modem if you want. That saves a bit of power consumption, but you’ll need to install a driver before your Windows system can recognize the phone as a modem. Be aware that in some instances, even the USB power won’t be enough to keep the phone charged. I can do more tests but at the moment, it’s good to know if you were thinking that USB power could charge the phone while you’re using it as a modem.

Work

Email

droid charge review  12

Email support is good, except for the lack of copy/paste

Microsoft Exchange: the Samsung Droid Charge has very good support for Exchange, and overall I’m quite happy with it. I’m a heavy email user, so I’m quite sensitive to this. When you get in the email app, the latest emails are already loaded an ready to read. This is not the case for many smartphones that notify you, but fetch new emails only when you get in the app. I’m not sure what the power usage trade-off is, but it makes the email experience good.

Standard email: Most email services support Pop and IMAP, and setting things up is usually very easy with most email providers. Just enter your email and password and you should be good to go. If you are hosting your email yourself, you might have to enter the server address and so on, but most people who own a domain would know how to do that. No biggie.

Attachments issue: My only complaint with the email app is that I ran into issues with attachments downloads. For some reason, the app seems to hang and it either take a long while, or forever, to get small documents (<20KB). I don’t know if other users are experiencing this.

droid charge review  01

GMail is a great app on Android

GMail: it has its own app, and the email client is better than the standard email app. GMail users can switch from reply to reply all or forward whenever they want, and they can “star” important emails. Desktop features like labels are also completely usable on the go. If you’re already a GMail user, this is a great option.

Contacts & Calendar Sync

When it comes to contacts and calendar sync, most modern phones (including Android phones) are designed to synchronize everything from the network. Things typically work best with Exchange, GMail, Facebook or other web-based products.

If you want to sync with your desktop, there might be an app on the Android Market, or one provided by the handset maker that would get the job done. Samsung has confirmed to me that the Droid Charge does not have a desktop sync app, but remember that it is also possible to use a desktop software to sync your contact list to Google, then re-sync that over the air to your phone.

Documents

droid charge review  13

The Droid Charge is Microsoft Office-Friendly

Powerpoint, Word, Excel compatibility: With the ThinkFree Office app, it is possible to open Microsoft office documents. I have been able to open a simple PowerPoint file (I don’t make complicated ones, lol), an Excel spreadsheet, with charts and all, and a .docx file. ThinkFree office app will also let me edit the documents if I choose to. It’s not that I particularly look forward to editing a word document on a touchscreen phone, but it’s nice to have the option if I *need* to.

Google Docs: using Google docs is always an option as Google made some fixes to let it work on mobile devices some time ago. I would think that Google Docs could consume considerably more battery life as it is saving your modifications almost in real-time, so I would be cautious with that. In general, I tend to send notes to myself via email instead of editing some text on my handheld.

droid charge review  10

The copy/paste works... but not in every app

Copy/Paste (inconsistent): Samsung has a functional copy/paste, and that’s a relief, given that some Android 2.2x still don’t have a good one. This is working well, however it doesn’t work in all applications. For example, if I’m reading an email and want to copy/paste something, I can’t. However, if I’m on a web page, the copy/paste works. It’s not consistent enough, and some improvements are needed here.

File Explorer: The Droid Charge comes with MyFiles, a file explorer application that lets you look into the handset folders and files. You can open files at will. It’s very computer like, and people who copy content over USB will appreciate this little app. Similar applications can also be downloaded for free on the Android Market.

Play

Smartphones have become great entertainment devices, and the Droid Charge is no exception.

Videos can be played smoothly (30fps) on its colorful display, even files in 740×800 pixels. All my MP4 files from the PSP days can be played by the Droid Charge.

Actually, the main issue with Android today is finding a legitimate source of HD content. Android users really deserve a good solution here. For tech-savvy folks, there’s always PlayOn for Android, but this requires having a PC media server.

Games: I’ve tested Raging Thunder Lite 2, and although it does work, the framerate is lower than on other phones that I have tried recently. The textures also seem to be smaller and less detailed. In short, games do run, but they might not look as good when compared to other smartphones like the Optimus 2X or the Atrix.

Music: music has been a “solved problem” for some time now. On Android, you can buy music from multiple sources, like Amazon, and it is rumored that Google is working on its own music store. Overall, the search and play functionalities are easy to use. No problem here.

Photos and Videos (good, focus needs help)

droid charge sample 09

A photo shot with the Droid Charge in a low-light environment

The Samsung Droid Charge captures good photos, even when lighting conditions are relatively poor/dark; you know, that’s the kind of lighting that you might get in a party, or at a diner. The result is photos that have much less noise than let’s say… an iPhone 4. That said, the iPhone 4 will trade off noise for luminosity. As long as we’re talking about uploading photos to Facebook in low-resolution, the iPhone 4 photos will look fine. However, the Droid Charge would probably produce a much better print. Check out our full size samples on Flickr

The one thing that Samsung should tweak is the auto-focus. Many times, it did need some help in the form of a tap on the screen to show it where I wanted the camera to focus. This is the type of things that should be mostly hassle-free.

Video Capture: The video capture often exhibits the same optical properties as still photos.  DVD-resolution movies are fluid at 30fps, but the autofocus struggles in low-light. In my sample video I could see it “pop” out of focus all the sudden, and never come back. With outdoor lighting, things should be much less challenging.

Data Sync over USB

Media files: it is easy to connect over USB and browse/copy user files just like you would on a regular USB drive/key. If you don’t have a lot of files to move around, this is actually much easier to deal with than Apple’s iTunes. Want to copy some photos? Connect the phone in “disk mode” and copy your .jpg files just like you would with any disk.

If you have a lot of media files that constantly change, it’s a bit more complicated as this is a typical case where a data management application like iTunes is helpful. The thing is: people who tend to have large collections of media files are probably savvy enough to figure things out. Secondly, iTunes is not an option out of the box, but some 3rd party apps will help you sync with it…

You also have the option to upload your content to an online storage (and streaming) service like Amazon Cloud Music. It works well, but you need to have an active Internet connection, which can deplete your battery faster. Winamp can also be used to manage large quantities of music files.

In the end, you’ll have to poke around and see what works for you, but I think that the large majority of users will do just fine with copying their media files manually over USB. I actually like it.

Contacts, Emails: out of the box, Android is built for synchronizing everything over the Internet. However, some vendors add utilities to synchronize contacts and media files. Samsung is not one of them.

Desktop email sync is not an out-of-the box option (you might be able to find an app for that). Even Microsoft does not provide an Outlook email synchronization software with its Windows Phone 7, so in this smartphone world, you’re clearly better off with an online service.

System Performance (below average)

When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress *specific* parts of the system.

On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user’s observation of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important. After all, why care if you can’t tell?

“Measured performance”

droid charge sunspider

droid charge browsermark

BrowserMark and SunSpider are two tests that measure the speed of Javascript, a key component for interactivity in websites. To be clear, this does not measure “how fast” pages are loading. Instead this look at how fast scripting code can execute. Javascript is used in modern websites for user interface or even complete applications/games.

The Samsung Droid Charge doesn’t so well and gets left behind by older phones like the iPhone 4 or the Droid 2. This is probably due to a slower processor, as I doubt that Samsung has done any change to the Android javascript engine.

droid charge cpubenchmark

CPU Benchmark: This test tries to measure the number-crunching capabilities of the phone. It explains why Javascript performance is relatively low: the Droid Charge main processor is by far the slowest at this particular test.

droid charge guimark2

GUIMark 2 (Flash): This test measure the Adobe Flash performance. Flash is a widely used multimedia platform and you can find it virtually everywhere as advertisement, video or other forms of interactive web page module.

Here again, the slower CPU is taking its toll on Flash performance, and the Droid Charge is the slowest of the phones that we’ve tested recently. For many Flash sites the phone might struggle a bit, but casual gaming seems out of the question.

droid charge neocore

NeoCore Graphics Benchmark: Neocore is an old polygonal 3D graphics test, but most Android games are still using relatively old graphics techniques, so it is still relevant – hopefully not for long.

Interestingly, the Samsung Droid Charge does well in this test and obtains results comparable to other popular smartphones. This means that if a game isn’t too demanding in terms of non-graphics computations, things should turn out to be OK.

“Perceived Performance”

The Samsung Droid Charge is relatively fast, especially when using it just out of the box. However, I have felt slowdowns or mini-hangs for a couple of seconds here and there more often that I have been accustomed to with recent Android smartphones.  It’s not too annoying and doesn’t happen *that* often, but more than usual for a 2011 smartphone.

Most web applications will feel faster just because of the sheer network speed. However, other things like translating a file, or converting a file might take longer because the processor seems slower than competing phones.

The Droid charge can also be perceptibly slow when rendering full-size web sites. Depending of the sites that you browse, this could be an issue. The page components load quickly, then the phone can struggle to render the page. The homepage of our website is a good example: with a bunch of big photos, it can be intense for a mobile site. However, other smartphones handle it fairly well.

In the end, I find the overall speed of the Droid Charge to be a bit below average. The synthetic numbers show it, and my own perception confirms this.

Battery Life (poor) – did you call it “Droid Charge”??

When it comes to 4G LTE phones, the battery life is often the delicate part. Unfortunately, the Samsung Droid Charge does not escape this rule. The battery life might be a roadblock for may users, while others will be ready to deal with charging often. My goal is to provide you the information necessary to make an educated choice.

Battery depletion
Most phones often do close to nothing. They sit in your pocket with the display OFF and check for signal, and cell towers. In this test, I did setup the phone to receive push-emails over Exchange. This is basically represents the very best case scenario: the phone is left alone, fetching emails (over 4G LTE, no WIFI), and I turn it one every once in a while to check on battery life.

droid charge battery depletion

The battery depletion is very fast... too fast

As you can see, in the best case scenario, the Droid Charge can survive for about 17 hours. Other phones can stay on for 1.5 to 2 days in the same conditions, which again, are the best possible conditions. If you actually use the phone, the display kicks in and it is one of the most power-hungry component. Don’t forget that if you use it, the CPU is also going to work harder, possibly with the graphics processor, that’s why I urge you to consider this as a baseline and a rather hypothetical scenario.

I’ll probably run more tests, but I think that this is a good representation of what I’m seeing on the ground. At this point, I’m not sure why the battery deletion is so severe. I’ll have to try without 4G LTE.

Tip: how to disable 4G:  Settings > Wireless & network > Mobile networks > System selection > select CDMA mode to turn off LTE.

Conclusion

droid charge review  17

The Samsung Droid Charge is a phone that comes with an awesome data speed connectivity, but it does so in style: the design looks great (I like it very much), the phone feels good, and although its raw performance could be better, the sheer network speed should make the experience enjoyable.

But… the experience seems poised to be short. Very short. In our review of the only other LTE handset, the HTC Thunderbolt, we felt that battery life was already to short — but the Droid Charge’s battery life is even shorter, and in the best case scenario, it is shorter by a fair amount.

As it stands, it’s hard for me to recommend a phone that has such a short battery life, except if you know what you are getting into. A power user might charge it often and in various places (car, office, home), but the average user will probably not tolerate such a fast battery depletion.

Links

Direct competitor: Droid Bionic ReviewHTC Thunderbolt Review (4G LTE, Android 2.2.1)

Android Reviews: Motorola Xoom ReviewLG Optimus 2X Review, HTC EVO Shift 4G Review, EVO 4G Review, Epic 4G Review, Droid X Review, Droid 2 Review,

Apple: iPhone 4 Review, iPad Review, iPad 2 Review, MacBook Air Review, Macook Pro Review
BlackBerry: BlackBerry Torch Review, Blackberry 9700 Review
Windows Phone 7: HTC HD7 Review, Samsung Focus Review, HTC Surround Review

Technical Highlights

1GHZ hummingbird SoC (what’s an SoC?)
Model name: SCH-i510
OS: Android 2.2
Display: 4.3” AMOLED+ 480×800
Cameras: 8MP (back) + 1.3MP (front)
2GB storage + microSD ext
Wireless: 4G LTE, WIFI, BT 3.0,
GPS: Yes

Filed in Cellphones >Featured >Reviews . Tags: Android, droid, droid charge, reviews and Samsung.
User Comments