The Samsung Droid Charge is the second Verizon Wireless smart phone with 4G LTE connectivity — the HTC Thunderbolt was first. While this device is not a part of the Galaxy S II family, there is a lot it still has to offer with a large 4.3 inch Super AMOLED display, a front-facing camera for video calls, HD video capture with another 8 megapixel camera, and a built-in 4G mobile hotspot. This device might appear to some as a Samsung rush job with a better handset on its way, but Verizon Wireless customers considering an Android smart phone should not dismiss the Droid Charge without a closer look.
Those searching for a compact device should probably turn elsewhere. The Droid Charge stands a little more than 5 inches tall, is 2.66 inches wide, and about 0.46 inches thick — it weights 5.04 ounces. Surprisingly, this phone is actually much slimmer and about an ounce lighter than both the HTC Thunderbolt and the LG Revolution. When it comes to build quality, Samsung uses plenty of plastic which explains the lightweight design. While the Droid Charge is by no means flimsy, it does lack a premium feel which other device have. The back side of the phone has a glossy gray finish with as subtle underlying pattern and a shiny silver finish surrounds the sides of the phone for contrast.
While the phone looks quite fancy as it leaves the box, the Droid Charge unfortunately attracts plenty of finger prints — expect to find yourself wiping it clean regularly. Other Samsung devices such as the Nexus S 4G also have a “chin” on the back side, but the bulge is more apparent on this device. With those complains aside, I should complement the unique bezel surrounding the 8 mega pixel camera and LED flash on the back which has a sharp Transformers logo shaped design.
There are four physical buttons for Menu, Home, Back and Search below the display while a 1.3 mega pixel front facing camera and the ear piece are right above. Also on top are the ambient light and proximity sensors. A pin hole microphone is at the bottom and a speaker grill is on the lower back side. The micro USB port and a volume rocker are on the left side of the phone while the micro HDMI port and the power button are on the right. A standard 3.5 mm headphone jack is on top. Prying off the back plate reveals a battery pack, a 4G SIM card, and a microSD card slot.
The latest generation of smart phones including the HTC Sensation 4G and Motorola Droid X2 now have dual-core processors, but the Droid Charge still runs on a single 1 GHz one. Including 1 GB of RAM would be great, but buyers will have to deal with 512 MB. I was actually impressed to find a 32 GB microSD card pre-installed and there is even over 1 GB of internal storage for apps. The Droid Charge lacks NFC, but it fortunately has a Bluetooth 3.0 and a GPS module.
Although a higher resolution qHD display would have been nice, the quality of Samsung’s 4.3 inch 480-by-800 pixel resolution Super AMOLED screen is beyond impressive. Colors are rich and vibrant. Interface elements feel as though they pop out at you. While blacks on most screens are usually dark gray, the Droid Charge probably has the deepest representation I have come across. In fact, at times it is difficult to tell whether the display is even on during black loading screens. Devices with normal TFT LCD screens definitely can not say the same.
The image quality looks much like the Sprint Nexus S 4G, but without contour curved glass. The ambient light sensor maintains the brightness at comfortable levels. Viewing angles are also rather impressive and using the phone under direct sunlight is not too problematic. However, I was slightly disappointed to find that there was just enough spacing between the display and bezel to catch dust. The same issue applies to the gaps in between the four standard Android buttons. The display is quite responsive and sensitive to the touch, which is always a plus.
With Android Ice Cream Sandwich likely making a debut any day, it is a let down to find the Droid Charge still running on Android 2.2 Froyo. The TouchWiz interface overlay is likely the reason for delay and Samsung will hopefully deliver an upgrade to Android 2.3 Gingerbread sooner than later.
Unlike the traditional Android lock screen, the Droid Charge features a custom Windows Phone 7 inspired one. The custom home screen is flexible enough to accommodate everyone from lightweight to power users as they can choose to have just one window or up to seven. The interface zooms out when pinching two fingers together to get an overhead view of all the available screens.
TouchWiz includes widgets for news, calendar, clock, stocks, social feeds, and weather. While these are well-polished, the style is a bit too childish for my taste. Most of the widgets are also too large taking up a whole home screen in many instances without smaller counterparts. I felt that HTC Sense widgets look fancier and sharper in comparison. The tray at the bottom has four icons with one reserved for the app drawer and the other three remaining interchangeable.
TouchWiz continues to add random backgrounds to each icon for a fun look in the application drawer as we first saw on the Samsung Epic 4G last year. Rather than one long list, there are side-by-side pages for the grid view and users can rearrange icons in a custom order. Dragging down the notification bar reveals quick settings for WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, Mobile Data, and Auto-Rotate — alerts are listed below as usual. While the level of customizations did not suit my tastes, I was glad to find that TouchWiz is not detrimental to performance. The entire interface is very fluid and runs without any hiccups.
Droid Charge owners can choose between a default Samsung keyboard and Swype for typing. Of course, voice-to-text input is available as it would be on any Android device. The stock browser performs quite well and Adobe Flash 10.3 is available for web sites which do not offer HTML5 video. TouchWiz also provides social networking integration for Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.
My main concern with this device is the excessive amount of non-removable bloatware. Certain additions such as the alarm clock, calculator, desk cradle, visual voice mail, or voice recorder are not too problematic, but other ones can get in the way. A default weather app works, but better options are in the Android Market. Verizon also includes their own app store, a backup assistant, VCast Media, and City ID. A built-in chat client offers access to AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger. ThinkOffice is one welcome addition for editing documents. VZ Navigator also comes with the phone, but I do not see why anyone would pay for this service when Google Navigation is entirely free. Samsung also includes a rather simple file browser app to manage content on your microSD card.
I am sad to have to continue on the topic of bloatware here as well. Samsung pre-installs Amazon Kindle, Bitbop, BlockBuster, Let’s Golf, Rhapsody, Rock Band, and Slacker Radio. There is also a Music Hub app which overlaps with Google Music for those taking advantage of the new cloud powered service. Media Hub offers movie purchases and rentals, but I am not sure if people will use this with Google Movies heading to smart phones any day now. However, I do welcome the All Share app which allows streaming content from and to DLNA compatible devices.
The micro HDMI port also allows playing photo slide shows, videos, and other compatible content on a HDTV. The built-in mono speaker is appropriately loud, but a stereo configuration would be nice. Plugging in a pair of headphones offers a better experience anyways. There is no FM radio unfortunately. Syncing content is easy with a microUSB cable since the Droid Charge appears as a mass storage device on Windows 7. I did not have to install any drivers for those wondering. Apps for Hulu and Netflix are already on certain Android device, but neither are compatible with this one.
Although having an 8 megapixel does not necessarily equate to quality photos, it is clear that Samsung actually went with quality components. Images are appropriately bright and color rich too. While the native Android camera interface on the Nexus S 4G was a let down, Samsung includes their own software on the Droid Charge. Users can easily adjust exposure levels, control the flash mode, among other actions. Some standard features include geo-tagging, a self-timer, and a few color effects.
Capturing 720p HD video was rather impressive too. The Droid Charge actually has real-time focusing capabilities while recording unlike smart phones which require tapping to re-adjust. The LED flash can remain on for capturing video in the dark too. The only missing feature is probably a physical shutter button. In terms of quality, this device is rather getting close to the quality of an affordable dedicated point-and-shoot. Sharing captured content with friends and family through Email, Facebook, Twitter, or other services is also quite easy as it is on just about any Android device.
Verizon Wireless may have demoed a Skype app with video capabilities at CES 2011, but it is still not available over 6 months later. While the Nexus S 4G comes with Google Talk for video calls, the Droid Charge will not have the feature until Samsung delivers an upgrade to Android 2.3.4. Fortunately, a few third-party solutions such as Tango and Qik Video Connect are great alternatives.
I placed a few quick calls over 4G LTE and WiFi with no issues. There was a little lag, but nothing worse than expected from a smart phone. The 1.3 megapixel camera is also clear enough to easily make out faces. It works great in well-lit areas, but suffers in low-light conditions.
Connecting to my router was no issue since the Droid Charge packs WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, however 4G LTE connectivity is more interesting. I had plenty of coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area with download and upload speeds both reaching over 20 Mbps at times. Even in areas with mediocre signal strength, I was still getting nearly 15 Mbps transfer rates. While the speeds are exciting, Verizon Wireless caps transferred bandwidth to 5 GB. A little math and at those data rates, you can technically consume your entire allocated bucket in as little as 30 minutes. (See my calculations.)
Although I did not like the Samsung TouchWiz dial pad too much, placing calls was still easy and I had no dropped calls. With noise reduction built-in, callers on the other end could hear me clearly even when there were minor disturbances around me. This is great for those who do not have a fancy Bluetooth headset with noise cancellation — though there is support for those too. The built-in speaker phone was also loud and clear. I definitely enjoyed Google Voice integration after installing the app as well. Did I mention this phone supports simultaneous phone calls and data use when on 4G?
I just about always end up needing internet access on the go. Even with a smart phone, there are times I need to use my computer to get online. While on a trip, I tried powering up the hotspot feature on the Droid Charge to find it malfunctioning. After a full reformat, it still failed to work. About two weeks later, Verizon Wireless shipped an over-the-air update which eventually resolved the problem.
When it works, the Droid Charge lets up to ten devices simultaneously get online over a 4G network. The hotspot also works on 3G, but software limits the maximum number of users to just five. The app launches rather quickly, but it really takes a minute or so before the hotspot actually begins working. I was glad to find that the app supports WPA2 security and choosing your own SSID network name.
During my week or two in use, I was getting about a full day’s worth of power with moderate mixed use of short phone calls, texting, checking emails, and browsing the web. Performing power-hungry tasks such as running Google Navigation or the 4G Mobile Hotspot will run down the battery in few hours. The capability of the removable 1600 mAh battery was about on par with Samsung’s claims for usage, but the 11 day standby claim is likely far-fetched. It is unlikely users will get more than two days if they barely touch their phone.
The Droid Charge comes with a USB cable which can plug into a computer for data transfer or charging. The packaging also includes a tiny square AC wall adapter with a USB port for faster recharging. I should note that mileage may vary when it comes to battery life for others and especially those living in areas with spotty 4G coverage. Smart phones generally waste plenty of energy searching for networks. I fortunately had nearly 4-5 bars of 4G coverage at most times and never had to see the Droid Charge fall back to 3G.
The Bottom Line
Verizon Wireless currently offers three Android smart phones with 4G connectivity: Droid Charge, Thunderbolt, and Revolution. Our review of the latter LG device is coming soon, but I would have to say the decision would be between the first two anyways. Samsung offers a slimmer profile, better battery life, and a nicer screen. On the other hand, HTC offers a fancy Sense interface which is quite important in many regards and a kickstand. Both devices lack the latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system and dual-core processors.
Those urgently looking to upgrade will definitely like the Droid Charge, but be aware that the industry is on the verge of moving to dual-core processors. The ridiculous amount of bloatware is also a concern, but there is fortunately plenty of internal storage space for other apps. Those looking to buy one can find this phone online and in Verizon Wireless stores for $299 after signing a new two-year contract. And yes, the price is probably the other barrier. The HTC Thunderbolt is available for a $100 less.