In the past year, Android smartphones have increasingly fallen into two distinct camps: large-screen phones with outsized specs and smaller phones with poor performance. The Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G on T-Mobile tries to take a different path, allowing users who aren't looking for the biggest and fastest to still get a phone that has something better than budget-level performance and specs. Based largely on the successful Galaxy S line of phones, Samsung has given it just enough of an update to justify a new release — or so the theory goes.
The question I had going in to a review of the Blaze 4G was simple: why does this phone exist? Its business-like looks make a clear play for BlackBerry converts, its 4-inch screen offers a refreshing alternative to ever-larger Android smartphones, and its $149.99 on-contract price puts it smack in the middle of the Android pack. All of these details are fine for demographers, but the most important detail for an actual end-user is that it is compatible with T-Mobile's 42Mbps HSPA+ network. Did the Blaze 4G ever hit those mythical speeds, and absent that, can it at least justify its own existence? Read on for the full review.
Hardware / design
Forget copying Apple, Samsung has copied RIM
It's not difficult to imagine how the basic look and feel of the Blaze 4G came into being — I can picture sitting in Samsung's design studio and hearing the word come down: "Make us a Galaxy S Android phone that looks like a BlackBerry." It's not just that the Blaze 4G has a buttoned-down corporate aesthetic, it's that looking at the back of the phone, only the most rabid smartphone aficionados would take it for anything else. There's a dark chrome rail around the screen that bends around to the top rear of the phone in a way so similar to BlackBerry Bold 9790 that I half-expected to see "Research in Motion" stamped inside the battery door.
The BlackBerry comparisons don't stop at that chrome swoop, either. The feel of the device in your hand is also similar. Partially, that's due to the dimensions of the Blaze 4G, which at 4.79 x 2.48 x .44 inches feel more in line with those QWERTY business phones than the Blaze's Android brethren. To be honest, it's actually refreshing to use an Android phone with a 4-inch (technically 3.97-inch) screen again. It's a humane device size, and the curves of the device around the back and sides are equally comfortable. The back of the is a simple plastic battery cover with a patterned finish that adds a bit of grip — it's not quite soft-touch, but it's close. Inexplicably, that finish doesn't extend to the sides of the device, making it just a little more slippery than it needs to be.
It's a humane device size
If this is the successor to the Vibrant / original Galaxy S, then Samsung has replaced the rough edges from that device with all the best design cues from BlackBerry smartphones. It feels solid and comfortable to hold, and manages to achieve a business-like appeal. Those refinements extend to the hardware's functionality: the (side-mounted) power button and volume buttons feel solid while the four capacitive buttons at bottom perform without any lag and with a haptic response that's subtle enough to not be too jarring. I was also pleasantly surprised to see an external microSD card slot (though with only a 4GB card to start), a rarity in this day and age.
Colors pop brightly and accurately even at low brightness
The Blaze 4G shows is Galaxy S roots most strongly in its display, a straightforward 800 x 480 Super AMOLED panel that might have impressed a year and a half ago, but doesn't seem like any great shakes now. The good news is that colors pop brightly and accurately even at low brightness and also show up relatively well in bright sunlight. That perception is no doubt buttressed by the (overly) colorful TouchWiz skin, which splashes garishly bright icons all over the home screen experience.
This being AMOLED, it is of course a PenTile display and that means that text isn't as sharp as it could be. The fact that it's "only" 3.97 inches helps reduce the visibility of pixels (and subpixels), but nevertheless when compared to more modern smartphones and tablets things aren't as crisp as I feel they ought to be — you won't want to do long reading on this device. For a device in this price range, on balance the screen is better than just acceptable, but it it just doesn't stand out — for better or for worse.
When the phone isn't overcompensating for light or saturation, it produces images refreshingly devoid of noise
The Blaze 4G has a 5-megapixel rear camera and a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. Both perform on par with the rest of the Samsung's Galaxy S line and certainly better than the camera on the flagship Galaxy Nexus (though that's faint praise). Focus time and snapping speed isn't as lightning fast as on more expensive smartphones, but an extra half a second for a good, well-focused shot is well worth the wait. That's assuming, unfortunately, that you have a steady hand — it didn't take much shake or movement to get plenty of blur, in even medium light.
In bright sunlight, colors can be a bit over-saturated, but I think this is more a matter of the post-processing Samsung is applying to images. What you see in the viewfinder and what you see after the image is taken are often two radically different things. It's especially apparent in low light, where the Blaze 4G really tries hard to autocorrect images, sometimes to a fault. However, when the phone isn't overcompensating for light or saturation, it produces images that are refreshingly devoid of noise.
I'm also quite happy with the camera software here, one of the few benefits of a custom Android skin. Controls for flash, shooting mode, exposure, focus, timer, white balance, ISO, metering, and more are all not only present, but you can surface any of them into one of four customizable shortcuts. Tap-to-focus is also available, though in practice it's difficult to get any real depth-of-field going unless you're working very hard to contrive a shot.
Video was less impressive, though luckily Samsung didn't overreach and "only" supports 720p. If the device supports stabilization, I certainly didn't experience it, and anything that taxed the phone led to some jagged moments. You won't be shooting any masterpiece short films with this camera, but in good conditions it will hold up well enough for YouTube.
If there's a spot where the Blaze 4G moves from pleasant surprise to disappointing norm, it's the software. It's launching with Android 2.3.6 with TouchWiz on top and in both cases there's little to celebrate.
TouchWiz remains an Android skin that's blessedly fast and light when compared to other Gingerbread skins (still looking at you, HTC Sense), but I find the colorful icons and attempts at offering customization on both the home screens and the app listing to be overbearing and confusing. The main bright spot to this skin is the power toggles at the top of the notification drawer for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, sound, and auto-rotate.
In terms of pre-loaded software, T-Mobile didn't restrain itself, including a rogue's gallery of useless apps and shameless attempts at up-selling you into services that you don't need or want. Not including some pre-loaded Google apps and some decent inclusions like Netflix and Slacker, T-Mobile has slathered the app section with a 411 app, "Game Base," Lookout Security, MobileLife Organize, "More for Me," My Account, My Device, Polaris Office, a link to another app store called "Pro Apps," Social Hub, T-Mobile Mall, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV, a custom T-Mobile version of Qik called T-Mobile Video Chat, a trial version of TeleNav, and T-Mobile's visual voicemail. There are custom TouchWiz apps from Samsung as well, but at least those offer some added utility and functionality I could imagine a user actually wanting. That user will at times have to work his or her way past multiple, confusing pop-up messages as at least one of Samsung's apps required a separate download and a visit to the "Unknown Sources" settings. To repeat: Samsung's Media Hub is placed on the default homescreen, yet requires jumping through half a dozen pop-up dialog boxes and the Android settings just to function the first time. It's mad.
The elegant exterior belies a cancerous mass of pre-installed dreck
Diving into settings reveals that most of these apps can't be removed and, what's worse, even more mysteriously-named apps that this veteran of mobility can't identify. Add in randomly-named apps for fonts and other system files and you have a toxic mixture of defaults foul enough to send even the most rabid Android fanatic into the arms of iOS. There are beneficial add-ons like the Swype keyboard, T-Mobile's Wi-Fi calling, Google's Tag app (to go along with the support for NFC), and a few others, but they're lost within a sea of crapware. If you remember the nightmare of cleaning out a Windows ME machine from Gateway in the early 2000s, you know what you're facing here, only this time it's not really possible to remove this stuff short of rooting the phone.
T-Mobile and Samsung should both be ashamed. The elegant exterior of the phone belies a cancerous mass of pre-installed dreck that seems designed to trick unsuspecting consumers into giving up money they don't need to. All of this assumes that one should give both companies a pass on shipping a device with Android 2.3 instead of Android 4.0 — and I don't.
In day-to-day use I'm actually quite impressed with its performance
Besides a more refined body, the other big changes between the Blaze 4G and its Vibrant cousin comes in the spec department. Instead of the 1GHz Hummingbird processor, the Blaze packs a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon. In day-to-day use I'm actually quite impressed with its performance, with virtually no lag in the core apps or home screen. The Quadrant scores back that up, averaging around 3600.
The browser similarly handles itself decently for a device in this price range, rendering pages as quickly and as well as any Android 2.3 device I've tested. I got Sunspider scores around 3150, which is good but not stellar. More importantly, scrolling performance and even zooming outperformed anything else in this price range that I've tested. I can only imagine what the efficiencies of Android 4.0 (to say nothing of the Chrome browser) would bring here.
The best speeds I've ever personally experienced on HSPA+
The other big feature on the Blaze 4G is full compatibility with the latest iteration of T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, which has a theoretical max download speed of 42Mbps. It should come as no surprise to anybody that I never experienced anything anywhere near that, even when visiting an area T-Mobile tells me supports its fastest speeds. That said, if you put those unrealistic expectations out of your mind, you'll be pleasantly surprised to hear that I saw speeds as high as 14Mbps down and 4Mbps up — the best speeds I've ever personally experienced on HSPA+. It was almost enough for me to forgive T-Mobile for stretching the definition of "4G" beyond all rational meaning... almost. I wouldn't call this 4G, but when you're averaging 10Mbps down and 2Mbps up, it's certainly better than what most people understand 3G to be.
The downside to those speeds is that they came on T-Mobile's network, which in my experience is feast-or-famine. The great thing about T-Mobile is that you can generally trust the signal indicator on your phone to give you an accurate representation of what your data connectivity and voice quality will be. The terrible thing about T-Mobile, at least where I live and work, is that those bars too often hover dangerously close to the zero.
Call quality was fine, and I was impressed with the speaker's volume and clarity on both speakerphone calls and general audio. I haven't run a full suite of battery tests yet, but I'm getting through the cliched "day of average use" on the 1750mAh cell and, in fact, better. Samsung rates the battery for 7 hours of talk time and a silly 9 days of standby. While neither of those numbers are very realistic, my very busy work email pushing, Twitter, and and a couple hours of web browsing weren't enough to make me reach for the charger until the next morning.
The Android ecosystem moves fast: the Blaze 4G would have been the dark-horse hit on T-Mobile just six months ago. Today, the Blaze 4G is not a hero device, it's not top-of-the-line, and it's not going to turn any heads — except for people who do double-takes when they realize it's not a BlackBerry. That said, Samsung has put together an Android phone that overachieves in the performance category and can lay genuine claim to super fast download speeds relative to other non-LTE devices. Sadly, with all that going for it, at the end of the day it's saddled with software that ruins the experience. The combination of the older Android 2.3 software, and the embarrassing amount of software junk T-Mobile has tossed on, makes for a frustrating experience.
The Blaze 4G is exactly the kind of phone I'd like to be able to recommend: competent, capable, and a very good deal if you don't need the very latest and greatest in Android. Sadly, it just isn't worth even the relatively inexpensive $149.99 on-contract asking price. With Android, it's always the case that there's something better around the corner, but on T-Mobile that something better is likely going to be the HTC One S in the next month or two. If I were a T-Mobile customer, I'd wait.