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Notes on three new Android phones: Verizon's Fascinate and Droid 2, Sprint's Epic

This weekend's column started out as a comparison of a few different Android phones. Along the way, it turned into a different story, one much less likely to make me new friends in the PR departments of the wireless carriers.

Here, I'd like to return to where I started: my thoughts on Sprint's Samsung Epic 4G, $249.99, and Verizon Wireless's Motorola Droid 2 and Samsung Fascinate, $199.99 each (arranged clockwise from the top in the photo).

epic_droid2_fascinate.JPG

The hardware on all three sticks to the basic Android pattern. All include 5-megapixel cameras with flash; the Epic adds a front-facing camera for video conferencing but undermines its utility with Qik software that doesn't link to other video-calling services. All three also run on fast processors that kept them responsive throughout.

The Epic, however, can connect to Sprint's faster 4G service, but only if it's available where you live -- not the case in most of the country. Verizon's phones are 3G-only.

The Epic and the Droid 2 also incorporate slide-out physical keyboards that make them a little thicker. The Epic's keyboard includes a separate row of numerical keys, but why did Sprint then waste a key on emoticons instead of the @ symbol? Both keyboards feature four-way navigational buttons -- a helpful aid to text selection.

The Epic loses points for having its core system buttons (menu, home, back, search) disappear when their backlighting dims after a few moments of inactivity.

To test the battery life on each phone, I left its WiFi and Bluetooth on but not connected, set it to check two e-mail accounts and let the Pandora Web-radio program play non-stop. The Fascinate did best, lasting about seven hours in repeated tests; the Droid 2 averaged six and a half hours; the Epic did worst, at slightly less than five hours. (The Epic had its 4G receiver on but not receiving a signal, a common scenario.)

What sinks two of these three phones is their software.

Beyond Verizon's self-defeating decision to handcuff the Fascinate to Microsoft's Bing services, the Fascinate incorporates some singularly dumb applications. Start with its home screen, on which you see a "Select City" form to set up WeatherBug's app; the developers apparently forgot that phones with GPS don't need to be told their location. On the inside, it's loaded down with the usual non-removable Verizon bundle: Blockbuster's movie player, a suite of VCast apps for those who miss the software preloaded on their old Windows Mobile phones, a $1.99/month City ID tool to display the city and state of incoming calls (my old Palm Treo did that for free), a copy of the inexplicably Verizon-locked Android version of Skype, and so on.

The Epic hasn't mutated to use a different search engine, but otherwise it's still a mess. Sprint's contributions include unnecessary football, NASCAR and navigation applications, plus a Sprint Zone program that will pop up alerts in the notification bar.

Samsung hasn't done either carrier many favors with its custom Android interface. The application icons you may know from other Android phones appear inside colored tiles that clutter the view for no good reason. The memo app won't let you edit a note unless you tap a pencil icon to open it in edit mode; on the Epic, it loses any changes you've made if you switch to another app.

The Droid 2 looks like a winner for merely including a slightly pared-down version of Verizon's software set, rid of the VCast apps but still encumbered by City ID and Blockbuster.

So if I had to buy from among these three, I'd get the Droid 2. And I'd root it almost immediately to take out Verizon's trash.

Got other questions about these phones, or any other tech topics I've covered lately? I'll be online for my Web chat from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern today. Or just leave your thoughts in a comment below.

By Rob Pegoraro  | September 24, 2010; 8:28 AM ET
Categories:  Mobile  
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Comments

Have you looked at the DroidX yet? Been thinking of getting one to replace my Razr V3, which is a bit old, and doesn't do texting particularly well.

Posted by: wiredog | September 24, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad that Rob took the time to review three recent phones. I'm thinking of getting a smartphone this weekend. Specifically, I was thinking of getting the Fascinate for the buy one get two sale. I know about the Bing search issue in the Fascinate over Google. I don't understand Verizon's insistence on shoveling junkware on new phones. Still, I'm thinking of getting the Fascinate anyway; can you convince me not to? I thought that there were workarounds for the Bing issue and that the upcoming 2.2. would offer Google as a search option.

Posted by: manfromtallahassee | September 24, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

One more question. If you root your phone, what happens when your carrier gives you OTA updates? Will that brick the phone? What happens?

Posted by: manfromtallahassee | September 24, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

What a depressing review. Thank you for focusing on this issue. Google needs to figure out what it did wrong with the Nexus One and try again. (Maybe customers want to touch a phone before they buy it? What a thought!) If there were a popular Google reference phone, the cellular companies would be forced to think twice about junking up their product. Apple clearly understood this dynamic from the start.

At some point it will become obvious to everyone that the cellular carriers are just selling bandwidth, and that their attempts to add value are pathetic. Until then we're going to see a lot more of this behavior.

Posted by: rmcd | September 24, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

wiredog, I have a Droid X. I definitely use it more than my boyfriend, who has a Blackberry Storm II. The main reason is that the screen is nice and large. I think that's the main reason to get a Droid X.

A note about keyboards: you can always install a software based keyboard that more closely matches the keyboard layout you prefer. I like that the Droid X does not have a pull-out tactile keyboard because such a keyboard would make it thicker, and I can install whatever keyboard layout I want. Another advantage might be that without a pull out keyboard, it's easier to keep your phone scratch free. I have a silicon cover that covers everything except the screen. I don't think you can get a cover like that for phones with a pull out keyboard.

Extra software that I can't remove seems very silly, but unless it's obtrusive (e.g., has alerts you can't prevent or requires space on your home screen), that would not prevent me from buying a phone. I suppose the Droid X does have some software I can't remove, but I haven't noticed anyway.

I can see why developers might choose to require you to enter a location for the weather. I might not want the location to change based on where I am. In the best world, this would be optional. I have a weather app (from weather.com) which let's me set up a 'home' location but will display the current temperature for where ever I am.

The advantage of Android phones should be flexibility. It's very disappointing to see Sprint and Verizon getting in the way of that. Seems like such a poor business decision.

Posted by: kimk1 | September 24, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

rmcd, I so agree with your second paragraph! How can the wireless carriers be so dumb?

Posted by: kimk1 | September 24, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

@kimk1
Thanks. The larger screen is why I'm interested. As a 45 year old guy I find that I need reading glasses, so a larger screen is better.

Posted by: wiredog | September 24, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

@kimk1
Thanks!

The larger screen is why I'm considering it. My 45 year old eyes need larger fonts.

Posted by: wiredog | September 24, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Hmmm. The WaPo blog software is Having Issues with timely updating... Sorry 'bout the double post.

Posted by: wiredog | September 24, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

You have to really laugh at the irony of the "open" android platform (versus the "closed" iPhone platform) where it's the carriers who close it up and you have to root it to make it useful in the same way you have to jail-break the iPhone. In other words, the android phones are no more open than the iPhone. My daughter has a Pantech from AT&T that can't use anything but the expensive monthly Navigator to access the built-in GPS. On my iPhone I can choose which GPS-enabled application to use (Google maps, Tom-Tom, etc.)

Posted by: rogernebel | September 24, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

The reason for the junk is that the carriers are getting paid by those companies to place their software there and if you subscribe then the carriers get additional monthly revenue which is what they are after. Android-based phones, as currently sold by the carriers, are no more open than the iPhone or any other phone. Google and the carriers attempted to compete with Apple but in trying to be different they ended up the same with the carriers being the proprietary ones not the OS and phone makers. Now that's funny.

Posted by: rogernebel | September 24, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

As owner of a Samsung Captivate, while I agree many of these manufacturer/cellphone company interventions with Android devices are irritating, but nothing more than just that-"irritations".

The Touch Wiz interface has been oft criticized for its choice of icons, but I think this is like complaining about your favorite color and mainly an aesthetic complaint.

It is irritating that you can't delete the carrier installed apps, but you can just remove them from the home screen and ignore them.

In any case, you get many more customization options with any Android phone than you do with the iPhone.

Posted by: skshrews | September 24, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Please do list all the customization options you can do on the Samsung Captivate that an iPhone can't do and why they're useful.

Posted by: rogernebel | September 24, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

The Epic can connect to "Exchange" accounts, but appears not to fully use Active Sync to accomplish this like the iPhone, HTC Evo, T-Mobile Touch, etc.

As a result, you cannot move emails from your inbox to folders in Exchange and turn on the "out-of-office".

When you click on the Epic Email Settings > Advance Settings > Out-of-office settings, it says "Feature not supported" even though you have the button for it!

Posted by: paul_i | September 24, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I have to say that the three phones you listed are all very good but I still would choose the HTC EVO 4G again if I had to do it again. The EVO has been great and has been running the OTA 2.2 version since the beginning of August (When it became available).
Once you get used to those EXTRA things the EVO gives you (HTC Sense + 4.3" screen) and the fact that the 3G speed almost doubled from my previous Sprint 3G I think the EVO should be in the list.

Posted by: tsecreto | September 24, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Do these phones hav "Visual Voice Mails"?

Posted by: michal195 | September 24, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Hi Rob. You can change the backlighting on the Epic's core system buttons in settings. You can set it to be the same as the screen time-out. I don't know why, but as far as I know, this is the only Galaxy S phone that has this menu option. It is bothersome that it can't be changed on the Vibrant.

Posted by: midanae | September 24, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Software released for attacking Android phones
Two security experts said on Friday they released a tool for attacking smart phones that use Google's Android operating system to persuade manufacturers to fix a bug that lets hackers read a victim's e-mail and text messages. "It wasn't difficult to build," said Nicholas Percoco, head of Spider Labs http://tinyurl.com/22r9saw

I prefer using technology that doesn't threaten my security.

Posted by: kkrimmer | September 24, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

A friend had one of the Androids, a Motorola I think, at breakfast today. I have an iPhone, but was curious about it, so he let me play with it a bit. He had complained about the seemingly short battery life. He said he was told it was because he had a Skype app. I suggested that it might be because he had WiFi on all the time even though no WiFi was available. It also had a a "hotspot" app. I tried to find a "toolbox" to deal with these things and couldn't! He then should me how it takes video. My lowly 3G iPhone has an app that takes video, too. Bottom line... It just wasn't easy to use or as intuitive as an iPhone, at least for me.

Posted by: IslandDawg | September 24, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

The Droid X is the best new piece of technology since the debut of Tivo.

Posted by: PowerBoater69 | September 24, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Great article! I'm about to switch over from iPhone to an Android phone. From all the readings I've done so far, it seems Droid X is the best one of the bunch. I just wish that Droid X has the same 'rounded/softer' looking edges that Samsung Fascinate does.
@Rob: could you do a review between Droid X and Droid 2?

Posted by: jagnerc | September 24, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

"Tastes great" / "Less filling" wars aside, it is useful to remind readers that Google's Android operating system is available in three flavors:

* The obligation-free option: Handset makers are able to load Android with as many apps as they'd like except for official Google titles like Gmail or Google Talk

* The small strings option: Just like above except the handset makers sign an agreement to load Google apps on the handset.

* The bigger strings option or the no-censorship version: These phones have the "with Google" logo on the handset and include a range of Google apps. These apps are not removed by the carrier or the handset maker and there will be zero limitation in the Android Market.

Posted by: BoteMan | September 24, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Just realized that the Bing issue is removed by the addition of Launcher Pro so you can use Google anytime you want. That means eliminating Samsung's TouchWiz so you'll never see Bing.

Posted by: manfromtallahassee | September 24, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

What is so horrible about the Blockbuster app? Maybe it is completely worthless, but is its presence actually bothering you? Is it popping up windows or slowing down the phone?

Posted by: washingtonpostmassysett | September 24, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

AT&T cripples HSDPA speeds intentionally on the Captivate. This is a fairly well known services rip off that has been proved. They also have disabled USB tethering with the last software update. So, while you may see that as an advertised feature in every review, the Samsung product literature, and elsewhere they disabled it this week for no good reason (but some form of greed one can safely assume). With the software update, well known problems with the GPS in the phone have apparently been fixed. It is possible as part of that update they uncapped the HSDPA, but I wouldn't bet on it. They also disabled access to debugging menus as well with the last update.

It's also stuck on Android 2.1 until some undetermined future update.

It's a nice phone, however it's quite sad that AT&T has seen fit to cripple core functionality, as well as create a situation where owners are paying more for less service than iPhone owners. Also, the removal of USB tethering is rather inexplicable. It would be reasonable to suspect they're engaged in some rather underhanded dealings with Apple to bias the market towards their products.

Due to their bad behavior I have been considering requesting that the FTC investigate their decisions in the marketplace.

Posted by: Nymous | September 25, 2010 3:04 AM | Report abuse

@manfromtallahassee

I'd not buy Fascinate from Verizon just to send a message to carriers that I don't appreciate them gimping my phone. If you root the phone (takes about 5 minutes on this phone and is nothing like jailbreaking the iPhone), you will get OTA updates, but you will then lose root. So you'll have to wait until the devs release root for the new version. Now if you root and change the ROM as well (there is no really good cutomized ROM for the Galaxy S yet), then you can decide whether you want to do an OTA or not. The best ROMs are for HTC phones since the Android mod community is naturally most familiar with it. BTW, just using LauncherPro is not enough. I have read that Verizon has also screwed up Google Maps and the navigate links send you to Verizon Navigate. If that's indeed the case, you may need a custom ROM to fix this.

I know that T-Mobile doesn't have the best national coverage. But of the 4, I have found them to have the best customer service and lowest prices. They also have the fastest speeds with HSPA+. For a long while they didn't have good Android devices, but they have 2 excellent devices now. The Vibrant (Galaxy S) and the HTC G2.

@rogernebel
Android is just incredibly customizable. The iPhone, while it has its pluses, is really sorry in that department. I can change the keyboard to use Swype or SwiftKey. After using either, it's very difficult for me to downgrade to even my iPad's keyboard. I can change the launcher. The launcher's themselves have incredible amount of customization. I can put widgets on the screen and have a number of home screens. With HTC Sense, I can further customize them with "Scenes". I can change the notification dropdown to access often used apps like Google Gesture Search - from every screen on the phone without first having to go to the home screen. I could just go on and on and on, but you get the point.

Posted by: os2baba | September 25, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Rob, I bought a wall charger at a Verizon Store that said it was for Motorola phones, but the charger made my Motorola Droid go haywire. When I tried returning the wall charger to Verizon, the store manager told me that the issue was a software problem and that if I waited for the next Android update, the problem would go away. Silly me, I believed him.

I waited for the next Android update, and the problem persists. So I go to a Verizon store to return the wall charger they sold me that doesn't work with my Droid, and they refuse to accept the charger back. The person I talked with told me, "This is third-party product, made in China."

"Yes," I said patiently. "And it's a third-party product that was sold to me in a Verizon store as wall charger for my Motorola Droid."

I'm wondering, is this kind of issue common? I'm a tech professional and Verizon successfully deceived me into thinking that it was my fault I bought the wrong phone charger. If you could do a column on the complex world of wall chargers for cell phones, that would do the world of good. And it might make Verizon just a touch more honest in dealing with their customers.

Posted by: pshapiro99 | September 26, 2010 6:56 AM | Report abuse

I forgot to explain in my comment above: I originally entered the Verizon store and asked to buy a wall charger for my Motorola Droid. The staff person on duty went to the find me the right wall charger and handed me the one that made my Motorola Droid go haywire. I did not select that charger myself. I was relying on the staff person to select the correct phone charger, and after I was sold a phone charger that didn't work with my Motorola Droid, Verizon refused to accept it back.

Posted by: pshapiro99 | September 26, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

I recently dumped out Sprint Epics for Evo.
a) the 3G speeds are terrible on Epic. 100% of all users getting under 150 kbps upload reported on forums for four weeks. that is not slow 3G it is 2G. When I was getting these speeds (1/5 the speed of other 3G phoens I called and I was told no one else had reported it. I did some googgling and everyone has been reporting this for almost a month.
b) GPS on the Epic has problems, as do all the Samsungs Galaxies. Given the problem Sprint should have better tested GPS on its version. Sometime sit works and sometimes it just sits there with a perfect view of the sky. I am not going to have my wife or daughter depend on that GPS when all the other phone makers get it right.

Posted by: ID716 | September 27, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

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