Samsung Fascinate Review: Did Samsung Save the Best For Last?

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The release of the Fascinate this week on Verizon marks the fourth and final Android-powered Galaxy S smartphone from Samsung in the US this year. Much like its brethren on T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint, the Fascinate shares the same basic hardware specs with slight modifications here and there, including an LED flash for the 5-megapixel camera. A 1GHz Hummingbird processor powers the Fascinate and a 4-inch Super AMOLED screen round out the featured specs.

While the Fascinate may have a flash for the camera, it does not share one key ingredient with the rest of the pack– Google Search. It also comes packaged with Bing Maps as a default rather Google Maps. (I thought Verizon and Google were bud buddies.) Does it make a bit of difference? Read on to find out.

What We Like

The Fascinate’s exterior isn’t a radical departure from its T-Mobile or AT&T kin but it lacks a physical QWERTY keyboard that can only be found on the Sprint Epic 4G. It is, however, a pretty solid device that feels good in the hand. Unlike the T-Mobile Vibrant, the Fascinate looks like a premium device and not a previous generation iPhone knockoff.

Battery life is impressive compared to other Android devices we have lying around, like the Nexus One. Talk time was well over 6.5 hours with standby hovering around 3 days. Calls came through loud and clear and the speakerphone is plenty loud, though there doesn’t seem to be adequate noise cancellation.

The Fascinate’s 5-megapixel camera is top notch. A bevy of controls are available but they’re really not needed. Performance under low light is tolerable and the flash doesn’t seem to wash things out. There’s really no shutter delay either. It performs much better than the Droid X or Incredible, and that includes HD video capture. However, the Fascinate’s review mode for photos doesn’t allow you to share or delete without having to jump into the photo gallery.

We know there are apps readily available in the Android Market, but the Fascinate ships with a Task Manager app straight out of the box. Speaking of apps that come preloaded, the Fascinate comes with standard Verizon bloatware like V Cast apps and Navigator. Apps like BlockBuster and Kindle are also present but they can’t be deleted.

TouchWiz isn’t for everyone but after jumping between the Fascinate and Nexus One (which runs stock Android 2.2), we wholeheartedly like the shortcuts to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and Airplane mode in Samsung’s notification bar. Android is capable of running apps in the background but it can be a pain when you have to navigate away from what you’re doing to flick on Wi-Fi from Power Control. TouchWiz also merges your calenders (Exchange, Google, Facebook).

What We Don’t Like

It’s unclear why Verizon went ahead with Microsoft’s Bing for Search and Maps as a default rather than the staple Google Search and Maps, but we don’t really like it. You can download Google Maps but there’s no way of installing Google Search, and Bing’s voice recognition – while good – isn’t as good as Google’s. For instance, Google recognizes when you’ve stopped talking, while Bing requires you to tell it that you’re done. And Bing Maps doesn’t support multi-touch. Of course, you can just use Google Maps and Navigate to bypass the $10/month VZ Navigator.

You’ll hear us lambast handset manufacturers about which flavor of Android is being run until Google and everyone else involved figures out how to distribute the latest version of the OS at the same time. However, Samsung’s Fascinate is capable of functioning as a hotspot and has voice dialing via Nuance, but there’s no support for Flash 10.1.

One other little nitpick we have is the absence of a HQ mode button in YouTube. You have to dig into the menu to stream videos in HQ.

Wait…there’s one more thing! We honestly hate that the Android buttons (Home, Menu, Back and Search) on the Fascinate are A) haptic touch buttons and B) only light up when they’re touched.

Odds and Ends

Media playback isn’t as dreadful on the Fascinate as it is on a device running stock Android and it supports a wide variety of formats for both audio and video (OGG, WMA, MP3, AAC, H.264, WMV, MPEG4, DivX, Xvid). The simulated 5.1 surround sound is actually pretty decent. You can sync music over MTP mode.

After Thoughts

It would have been nice to have a physical keyboard on the Fascinate but Swype makes the Fascinate’s on-screen keyboard tolerable. It’s hard to say which of the four Galaxy S devices is the best since they all have the same core components, but the Fascinate has a few key additions that the others don’t. While the hardware of the AT&T Captivate is preferred over the Fascinate, we can’t overlook the fact that AT&T doesn’t allow you to install non-Market apps, whereas the Fascinate allows for such things. And little things like a built-in Task Manager put the Fascinate ahead of the Vibrant from T-Mobile. Things like Bing over Google make us wonder what Verizon is up to, but in the longrun, we don’t have any reason not to recommend the Fascinate over other Android devices readily available on Verizon. The choice, however, is ultimately up to you.