May 16, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka
More than a few Android phone makers have added important features to phones that we’ve already seen, just to repackage and sell them as new. Meanwhile, a few genuinely new devices emerge that are on par with these remix phones, save for a virtue or two. Can devices with last-gen specs keep up with next-gen wants?
Verizon seems to think that the Droid Charge can. Available for $299 on a two-year agreement, the Droid Charge follows the HTC Thunderbolt as the second phone to take advantage of the Verizon 4G LTE mobile network. The Charge also follows the design trails of the Nexus S, only Samsung gave it slightly more bulk. There are also lines that meet at points or bevel rather than the continuous curves of the Nexus, and a row of actual buttons instead of glass keys. It’s a nice design upgrade to accompany LTE speeds, but is that enough? Let’s see.
The Droid Charge internals are more familiar than they are futuristic. The Charge has a 1 GHz single-core Hummingbird processor and 512 MB of RAM and ROM. That’s not cutting-edge, but it gets the job done for the most basic needs. Apps load in a reasonable amount of time, and games play as smoothly as what we’ve seen on the Galaxy S line of phones. But when you really start to push the phone, the lack of a beefier, dual-core processor becomes apparent.
One area that was definitely upgraded is the Charge’s 4.3 Super AMOLED Plus screen. Android users should already be familiar with how beautiful are Super AMOLED screens, which show richer colors and images that have more life in comparison to LCD screens. Super AMOLED Plus takes those virtues even further, offering more subpixels that display more detailed images, despite having only a 480 x 800 resolution. “Plus” screens are also thinner and more efficient, which creates better displays that consume less energy.
And you’ll want to conserve as much energy as possible with the Droid Charge. On it’s own, the Charge performed respectably when not using 4G LTE. Despite having 50 percent brightness, keeping auto-sync and background notifications on for multiple apps, playing TuneIn radio for 3 hours, tweeting and emailing frequently, and playing Stupid Zombies for 40 minutes, the Droid Charge lasted from 8:30 am to about 5:30 pm. But once I turned on LTE other days, all bets – and juice – were off. Charge users will find that they pay a price for getting those faster speeds, a lesson that HTC EVO 4G users have already discovered with WiMax. However, it’s very much worth it to use LTE because that’s one of the Charge’s best virtues. 4G speeds are available only in select markets and results will vary, but I tested in Miami and San Francisco with ridiculously fast performance. Even when my Verizon Mi-Fi couldn’t establish a connection, the Droid Charge was pulling down fast and consistent speeds. And while we’re on the subject of Mi-Fi, know that the Droid Charge has a Mobile Hotspot feature to wireless provide Internet access for multiple devices (available for free until June 15).
Let’s do the bad news first: the Droid Charge is running Android 2.2. I know, I know, that’s incredibly frustrating considering that Samsung was the first company to gain access to Gingerbread (Android 2.3), and this phone could have benefited from the battery-saving options of Gingerbread. But that’s not even the worst of it.
Samsung TouchWiz tweaks the Android UI in welcome ways, namely the much better looking dialer and messaging apps, a top-notch media player, DLNA media sharing, and increased support for multimedia playback formats. But there are just as many negative changes, including a dreadful keyboard that is incapable of keeping pace with fast typing or adapting to the user. And aside from coming packed with pre-loaded software that most people will never want or use, the app drawer frustratingly displays apps in order of when they were downloaded rather than alphabetically (unless in list mode).
Swype comes available as a secondary text-entry option, and someone can download any of the many launchers out there to deal with two of those frustrations, but there are more. The Droid Charge initially ran well, but movements occasionally lagged and could not be helped. The blips, stutters, and stalls weren’t frequent, but they came at frustrating points when I was doing something important or had limited time. The draw of the Charge is its ability to pull down 4G data in seconds, but the phone wasn’t always equipped to handle my activities. While I’d overall rate the software experience as favorable, there were enough complaints to give pause about fully embracing this as my next phone.
The media options may help nudge some people along. I’ve already mentioned how TouchWiz handles codecs exceptionally well, and the music and video players are better than anything that I have seen on Android. Users can also discover more content to watch using Samsung Media Hub, a distribution place for movie and television rentals or purchases. I was able to quickly download an episode of The Office and watch an all new episode the day after it originally aired. The experience was very favorable on the large Droid Charge screen, and Samsung even throws in a $25 Media Hub credit for all new phone purchases.
The Droid Charge features an 8 megapixel camera with LED flash on the rear and a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera for video chat and self-portraits. Either camera can be accessed from the powerful Camera app that Samsung has customized to give users more control over how their photos and videos look. The video camera has custom settings for digital zoom, white balance, exposure, quality, and resolution. Photos have the same features, but also have the option to change ISO, contrast, use face detection, anti-shake, or take advantage of a great auto-focus that adjusts on the fly. The front-facing camera performs well in video chat but trails the quality produced by the HTC EVO 4G, a device that came out a year ago, when filming video.
Most picture results of the Droid Charge are not great but good. Some photos look exceptional while others don’t auto-focus quickly enough to snap sharp images. The vast majority of results were worthy of being passed on to Facebook, and the custom settings for changing contrast, brightness, or lighting, can make snapshots look even better. Video can be recorded up to HD 1280 x 720, and those results are equally respectable under the right conditions. Judge for yourself by browsing the photo gallery of Droid Charge pictures and video examples below.
Camera test outside on the street
Front-facing camera indoors
Camera test inside during concert
The Bottom Line
Faults and all, the Droid Charge is a good Android phone. You have to remember that nothing will ever be perfect and there are certain frustrations that every modern phone will produce. However, weigh those frustrations against all of the awesome things that a device can do. When the Droid Charge is awesome, it’s awesome. However, at $299, it’s the most expensive phone on the Verizon network. It’s tough to warrant spending that much considering the aforementioned shortcomings.
The only reason to buy a Droid Charge is if you want an LTE phone and you want it now. The HTC Thunderbolt offers HTC Sense UI that looks better than TouchWiz, but a pretty face won’t mask the terrible battery life available in the Thunderbolt. The Droid Charge doesn’t have phenomenal battery life, but it provides more juice and can match the Thunderbolt tit-for-tat in almost every category. A patient man could cross his fingers and hope Verizon introduces more LTE options that further advance smartphone technology. An impatient man, or one in need of a phone next week rather than next season, should get the Droid Charge.