I tend to start reviews by focusing on the positive, then later mixing in whatever negative thoughts I may have. This is the rare review where I simply can't do so. The Samsung Epic 4G is awesome, in all respects--awesome screen, awesome capabilities, and awesomely bad battery life.
Here's the most succinct way for me to describe this...if you're in the target demographic for the Samsung Epic 4G, you simply won't be able to survive life with this phone. That's one hell of a paradox, but that's how bad battery life is. I'm not normally at a loss for words (and I know that some of you wish I was more often), but I had to turn to a thesaurus to grab a sufficiently broad range of adjectives to describe the Epic 4G's battery life...
Since my Sidekick, I've owned a Palm Treo 650, a BlackBerry 8700 and 8320 (Curve), and now the Epic 4G. If you know me, you know that I tend to be a bleeding edge, first day guy on some technologies, like the new Apple TV (already on order) or the Jawbone II. However, over the years I've been a slow follower from a mobile device standpoint; with my mobile as my lifeline to the world, I've tended to be a bit conservative in making technology jumps. Plus, since I seem to write essays on my mobile, I've been unwilling to give up a hardware keyboard. For all the cool things that an iPhone 4 can do, there's two features it doesn't offer that I desired on my next phone--a hard keyboard and mobile hotspot capability. The Samsung Epic 4G offers both; combined with Android as an operating system, I've been eagerly awaiting the Epic's arrival.
So, aside from the battery (whose awesome brutalness I'll expound on more shortly), how is it?
First, a look at what's typically in my bag at any given time, at least as of last week...
- T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve 8320
- Jawbone II
- 13" MacBook
- 64 GB iPad 3G
- Verizon MiFi
- Clear 4G USB stick
- A ridiculous array of cables to power and connect all of the above; look for me on wirelessmyass.com one of these days
As of now, no freakin' way, based solely on battery life. Sadly, there's a bunch of features that I can't even sufficiently test, as the battery's that bad--if I don't test at the beginning of the day, the phone's out of juice long before I get around to my typical late-night testing regimen; of course, the phone's already been plugged in for hours by that time, but hey. At least the Epic charges fairly quickly.
I'm less than a week in, but I'm already having the range anxiety typically associated with owning a plug-in electric vehicle. In fact, that'd be a recipe for an epic disaster--plugging an Epic into a Nissan Leaf would grind the car to a halt faster than driving it over a spike strip. At least now I know what it's like to own a plug-in electric vehicle without actually having to take the plunge.
What's to like about the Epic? A lot. What's to not like about the Epic? Not a ton, but of the stuff to dislike, the battery's such a dealbreaker that I've taken my eye off the ball on the other negatives.
The interwebs are full of out of box experience recaps of the Epic, so let's skip to what's important...
Keyboard: Really good, bordering on excellent. After more than six years on a portrait-shaped device, moving back to a landscape device is taking a little getting used to; and, while the device doesn't yet feel as comfortable as my Sidekick did, it feels good. On a scale of one to 10, I'll give it an eight, with possibility of a higher grade as I gain more comfort over time (assuming the Epic survives the 30-day money back guarantee, which it won't as of right now due to the battery issues). Love the cursor keys, too.
Screen: Awesome, except in outdoor light. Responsive, well-registered, and crisp. Unlike many reviewers, I don't find the Epic's AMOLED screen to be overly saturated to my eyes--but I'm also a guy that used to shoot Fuji Velvia 50, so yeah, I love contrast. Outdoors, the screen is challenging; in bright sunlight, it's worthless. I'm not sure how to state that more eloquently, but the best advice for trying to use the Epic in the sun is, don't. Go find some shade. I give it a nine for almost all uses, a three outdoors on a typical Beijing day, and a generous one on a San Diego summer day. Let's call it a seven, unless you live in a cave (with a 20 amp circuit, an Airvana femtocell, and a cable modem-attached Wi-Fi access point), in which case it's a nine.
Apps: While the Android Market is still well behind the iTunes app store in terms of number of applications, I'm pleasantly surprised at the depth and breadth of applications available on Android. In a side-by-side comparison with my iPad, I have quite a few apps which aren't available on Android. But, coming off of a BlackBerry, whose App World can most kindly be described as "crap", I'm not displeased with the currently available choices. Plus, in an open development environment and market like Android's, I expect that Android will continue to close the gap on Apple in terms of both quantity and quality of apps, particularly given the ability to sideload apps. I give it a six, with the expectation that over the next year, that grade will improve to an eight.
GPS: Solid, seemingly showing none of the flaws other Galaxy S GPS devices have shown at shipment. Both Sprint Navigation and Google Maps work extremely well. Turn-by-turn directions on Sprint Nav are a definite benefit. In 4G coverage areas, the GPS works great even when on a phone call; outside of 4G coverage areas, not so much. Seven.
Call quality: So far, so good, on handheld, speaker, and Bluetooth. Call completion is ridiculously quick; this is my first experience with Sprint as a carrier, and my first experience overall with CDMA for circuit-switched voice, so maybe this is a CDMA versus GSM benefit, but I'm pleasantly shocked at how quickly calls complete. Eight, maybe a nine.
4G: Sadly, not good at all. Over the last six months, my 4G stick has been pretty solid for me in much of the Chicago area. But, in places where I know I've had good Clear 4G reception with my USB stick, I'm getting zero 4G reception on the Epic--in many cases over the last week, when I've turned on the 4G radio, the status message has immediately informed me that 4G is disconnected. The Epic 4G without the 4G would be the Samsung Doh, as a 3G phone with lousy battery life would make me say little more than "DOH!" I intend to do some more testing over the next couple of weeks comparing the Epic 4G's reception with my USB stick's reception, as well as with my Verizon MiFi. While I understand design tradeoffs for packing antennas into mobile devices (something that Apple's learned a little bit about, too), my hunch is that the poor 4G reception is a firmware issue, not an antenna placement issue. Right now, I'll grade the 4G capability a two, until I'm able to do some more testing. Speaking of 4G and potential firmware/software issues...
Mobile Hotspot: Disappointing in two of the three cases where I've needed it; there've been other times when I've wanted it, but didn't want to take the battery hit (again, a range issue which is simply unacceptable). I still haven't been able to test the mobile hotspot with 4G coverage, owing to the coverage/reception issues I mention above. This demands much further testing. For now, I'll grade mobile hotspot as a three, based on the fact that the one time I've been able to successfully use the feature (albeit over 3G), the battery drained so quickly that the device was dead before I accomplished much.
Android OS: Wow, am I conflicted here. Seriously, there's a ton to like about the OS on this hardware. In particular, Google Apps users will LOVE the instant synchronization of contacts and calendars. The device is extremely responsive, the OS boots quickly, and all in all, I find the performance and usability of the OS to generally be quite good. But, note I said "generally". For now, I have to grade the OS as Incomplete, with a few items that are particularly mind-boggling...
- On a calendar appointment, you can't click to dial a phone number. Seriously? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? For a conference call I had earlier today, I had to dial in six times before I remembered the correct combination of phone number and passcode. This should be an A-1 priority fix for whoever's responsible for this calendar app, whether it's a Samsung app or an off-the-shelf Android app.
- The built-in mail reader (not to be confused with the Gmail app, which is an external app with its own shortcomings, including the inability to view a combined inbox of multiple mail accounts) doesn't support push mail, at least that I've been able to determine. Worse, there doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to how the mail reader goes out and gets mail, if at all. In the combined view (which is great), you can see all your accounts in a single view. The key problem is, despite the fact that I have the reader set to pull e-mail in five minute intervals, I have to manually go out and refresh in order to receive new mail; worse, I can only do so from within each individual account, rather than from the combined inbox--meaning, if you have five mail accounts, you have to go to each inbox, then refresh within each. I can't possibly imagine that this would've been a design feature in a PRD--although I can't imagine that a ridiculously short battery life was a goal, either.
- The Google Search box on the main screen takes a little getting used to, but is a reasonably beneficial way to access contacts, one which I could see myself getting used to with more use. However, there's a dealbreaker here--the fact that the voice-activated Google Search doesn't work with a Bluetooth headset attached. That's so entirely brain dead, it deserves its own bullet.
- Voice-activated Google Search doesn't work with a Bluetooth headset attached. (See? I told you it deserved its own bullet). Let me paint a picture for you. You're driving and need to make a phone call. You tap the voice-activated Google Search icon, and say "Call Jimmy Carter". The device returns a "No speech heard" error, since for whatever cotton-pickin' (or peanut-pickin') reason, the inter-app communication between voice-activated Google Search and the Bluetooth stack doesn't seem to exist. I mean, I understand pressure to get products to market, but how the hell do you ship a device that almost requires a driver to cause an accident? Between the inability to dial from a calendar appointment and the requirement to either disable Bluetooth to search for a contact to call, or to spell out the contact's name on the virtual or physical keyboard, the Epic should come with both its own liability insurance policy and a stack of get-out-of-jail-free cards, which you'll need from continually messing around with the device while driving.
- A number of other things are annoying--in addition to copy and paste functionality being limited, the main home screen doesn't rotate to landscape mode unless you slide open the physical keyboard, which is particularly annoying when you have the Epic in the battery dock--which you will, since you need to keep it plugged in every time you're near an outlet.
- But, the single most annoying "feature" is apps firing off in the background with no rhyme nor reason whatsoever--which could be the single biggest battery-sucking issue on the entire device...
Case in point--right now, after rebooting the phone, then killing all the running apps, the following apps have loaded themselves into memory within a couple of minutes...
- Sprint Navigation
- Sprint Hotspot
- Google Voice
- Voice Dialer
- Sprint Football Live
- Sprint Zone
- Battery Monitor
- Amazon MP3
I'd heard that Advanced Task Killer was absolutely the most beneficial app I would download from the Android Market; to each of you (Ward, you were first) who told me that, thank you, thank you, thank you. Plus, ATK could almost serve as a pseudo-random number generator--every time I go into ATK, there's a different and unique combo of self-launched apps running in the background, spitting battery life onto the floor.
So, after a week, where are we?
With a bit of a crazy week heading into the Labor Day weekend, I didn't get a chance to use the device in anything approximating a normal day's use. Today, I did, and it ain't pretty.
That's right--four hours and fifteen minutes from a full charge to flat-out flatlined. That's beyond brutal.
That sucks. And that's putting it kindly.
I mean, not only does that suck, but that makes me say there's no possible way that this could've been within the design envelope for this device, and that I absolutely must have some kind of a hardware problem.
Let's break this down a little. While I didn't have a pen and paper with me (which I regret, since that's the sole mechanism to successfully dial into a conference call from a calendar appointment), I have a pretty good idea of what my usage looked like.
(By the way, to those of you who might suggest that I need to be more diligent in turning off radios that aren't in active in use--I did. I read all the Evo reviews, so I know all about turning off radios to extend battery life. In this case, we're talking about trying to treat a punctured femoral artery with a piece of scotch tape and a slide rule.)
I pulled the Epic out of its desktop dock and immediately jumped onto a conference call--or tried to, as I had to dial in six times before I remembered/guessed the proper phone number and password combo; at this point, the Bluetooth and CDMA radios were the only two in use, with 4G, GPS, and Wi-Fi turned off. About five minutes in, I turned on the 4G radio and ran a speed test; 3.5 mb/s down and 500 kb/s up during a phone call is pretty awesome performance. A couple of minutes later, I turned on the GPS, and punched in the address of my destination, which was about 20 minutes from where I was at that point. Due to the spotty 4G reception, it took a while before I could actually get directions and maps, but once I had them, navigation was a cinch.
When my conference call ended after 67 minutes, I jumped on another call, but not before checking my battery life remaining. I was at 60% of battery left, after little more than an hour undocked from the cradle.
I spent a little less than a half-hour on the second call, still with the GPS and 4G radios on so I could navigate to my next destination. Once I arrived there, I jumped on another call which took about 20-25 minutes; I turned off the GPS during that call, but left 4G on, as I wanted to be able to get e-mail while on the phone. I spent the next 45-50 minutes or so doing other stuff that allowed the Epic to drain battery on its own, rather than with my direct intervention. I then turned on the mobile hotspot, which connected over 3G (but not 4G). I had my iPad attached to the mobile hotspot for about 10 minutes--just long enough to do a couple of speed tests spaced out a few minutes apart. I then checked e-mail a few times, before the phone finally croaked at the four hour and fifteen minute mark.
As I sit here shaking my head at the device's paucity of power, the only word that comes to mind is "incredulous". I just don't understand how a product, particularly one from a top-notch consumer electronics leader like Samsung, could come to market with such a woefully inadequate usage experience.
I mean, the Kin had a longer battery life than this.
Let's tie this up with a neat little bow. The Epic 4G is the first 4G phone with a slide-out keyboard, and has mobile hotspot capability, a gorgeous screen, a pretty darned good camera, and a whole bunch of other compellingly interesting features. Just don't try to use them all at once, for any period of time.
And that, my friends, may be the single biggest shortcoming of this entire experiment. Samsung has delivered a device that's world class in many aspects, but in the most important aspect--actual usage--the device is nearly worthless. Two hours of phone calls, a couple hours of the GPS and 4G radios turned on, and a bit of hotspot usage, and the Epic isn't.
Here's an analogy for you. Boeing is going to eventually ship the 787 one of these years. While the Dreamliner's testing hasn't quite gone according to plan, at least they're testing it. I have serious doubt that Samsung (or their contract manufacturer) did much real-world testing, at least to any level of depth. If the Epic was an airplane, its cruise height would be 7,000 feet, with a ceiling of 11,000 feet. Loading the airplane with actual passengers would lower cruise and ceiling by another couple thousand feet each; allowing those passengers to use any amenities (lavatories, air vents) would chop off another few hundred feet. Ultimately, the plane would only be allowed to fly mail stop routes, cruising at 4,000 feet, ensuring that when the engines flamed out the Epic could dead-stick its way to its next stop a few miles down the road.
I mentioned earlier the paradox that if you're in the crosshairs as a potential user of this phone, it's the wrong phone for you. As of right now, that's absolutely the case--Sprint's most expensive phone is laden with features, albeit ones you may not be able to use for any period of time if at all. If you can justify spending (after rebate) $250 on this phone, it's highly likely that you're a person who has a need for speed, for functionality, for business e-mail and calendar integration, and for ease of use. The Epic does some of those things well, some more than others. But, until I receive a unit with stable hardware (a category in which my current Epic doesn't qualify, as I gotta believe there's something wrong) and stable software (where my current Epic also doesn't qualify, as unattended app initiation is to me a showstopper bug), I can't recommend the phone to anyone, unless you have money to fritter away. If you do, buy a couple of spare batteries and a couple extra chargers, as you're going to need them.
In the meantime, I'm going to return my Epic to the Sprint store tomorrow and pick up a different one--one which I hope has come from a different manufacturing batch. I want to love this phone. I need to love this phone, purely from a capabilities standpoint. But the only way I'm gonna get some love from this phone is a decent user experience, which a ridiculously short battery life totally ruins. Right now, I feel a little like Charlie Brown in his relationship with the little red-haired girl.