November 09, 2010

Android+Keyboard = Win: Switching to the Samsung Epic

The Samsung Epic 4G from Sprint

When I switched from iPhone to Android after Google I/O this Spring, one of the major reasons I gave for my move was the opportunity to choose between different handsets, if for whatever reason, one offered compelling options lacking in my current model. While there were many reasons I switched away from Apple's ecosystem to that from Google and its partners, the flexibility and many offerings made me more comfortable that I wasn't tying myself to a particular model, but instead, a platform. And after seeing a significant number of positive reviews and sales reports on Samsung's Galaxy S phone - as well as friends' comments that this Android phone "beat the iPhone in every possible way", I checked for myself and left behind the EVO I've been using since May, which had been a Google freebie from the conference.

A Sprint customer, now that I moved the family off AT&T, Sprint's model of the Galaxy S is the Epic, labeled as the Epic 4G, thanks to its using Sprint's slice of the 4G wireless spectrum for advanced features. In contrast to the EVO, which has been a reliable workhorse, the Epic is much lighter, seems more polished both in hardware and software, and - as a kicker - it offers a slide-out keyboard in addition to its virtual keyboard option. Much to the chagrin of my wife, no doubt, I have been gaga over this phone since getting it - wanting to show off each cool little feature, from its rapid shutter speed for photos, to its Apple-like gallery to display images on the device, to the UI details that put Samsung ahead of all other Android devices I've seen to date.

My Samsung Epic 4G Home Screen and Secondary Screen, With Widgets

I switched to the Epic not just because of its well thought-out hardware and software, and the addition of the keyboard, but two more reasons - first, to see how easy it would be, and second, to remove any need for disclaimers in the future, knowing I'd put down my own money for my own Android device, and wasn't living on Google handouts.

When I bought the Epic at the Sprint store in Palo Alto, less than a block from the Apple Store, where others were considering iPhone 4s, my phone number was practically immediately transferred from device to device. After connecting to my Google account, the device also pinged the Android Market and recognized all the applications I had purchased, allowing me to download them again for free. Without a centralized hub on the desktop, like iTunes, Google's over the air handling of this was seamless and almost invisible. Just about the only downside to this process was downloading the free apps, which were not automatically remembered. But as I had the EVO with me still, comparing the two's application libraries made rediscovery simple.

The Phone Pad on the Samsung Epic and Improved Notifications Area

When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone and led us to start thinking about the touch interface replacing the keyboard or a stylus, it kicked off a revolution - one in place on all major smartphone platforms. But the ability to open up a real hardware keyboard on the Epic is a great backup for longer e-mails or text messages, or for typing in URLs not previously visited. For any experienced Blackberry touch typist, typing on the Epic is immediately familiar, and the slideout keyboard is very smooth.

Using the Keyboard to Tell My Friend A Happy Birthday Message

Thanks to Android letting manufacturers lead the way in terms of deciding how their phones should appear, there are small nuances between the EVO and Epic that took some relearning. For example, the EVO has its power button on the top of the device, and volume buttons on the right. The Epic has its power button on the right of the device and volume buttons on the left. The EVO's microUSB port is at the bottom of the device, and open, while the Epic's microUSB port is at the top of the device under a protective sliding door. Similarly, the Epic swapped placement for the Home and Menu keys to positions 1 and 2 instead of 2 and 1 on the EVO. It seems like an odd decision, but quickly comfortable.

Samsung's design UI is the best I've seen outside of Apple. The Epic even comes with a Dock with four icons (Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Applications) which are static on all screens. You can't customize them, like on the iPhone, but they are very handy. The Applications folder is especially useful, letting you rapidly access apps not on the home screen, and drop them in new places. You also, like on other Android phones, get the option to add widgets, bookmarks or folders anywhere you like.

In contrast to the EVO, even Samsung's phone pad options are well thought through. The keypad is well defined and colorful with fast access to the call log and contacts. During the call, options to add another call, mute or put the call on speaker are prominent and clearly marked if in use.

The EVO's most maligned drawbacks, its weight and battery, are much improved with the Epic, no doubt behind the Galaxy S's setting sales records in Japan. The phone is clearly easier to carry around than the EVO (and fits in the belt carrier I already had) and doesn't have me looking into buying external batteries, as I did with the other device.

Maybe switching phones every six months seems a little nuts. It's not my usual style. But I wanted to get access to a real keyboard, a clean interface, and experience the breadth of the Android ecosystem as the opportunities are available. Rather than waiting around 18 to 24 months for the next iterative update from Apple or praying it gets access to one more carrier in the US, I'm on a great network that works for me, with access to a fast-growing application marketplace that is now getting interest from the top developers. After all, we just got 45 more levels in Angry Birds today. And I've got a great new screen to play them on.