|The affordable Samsung Galaxy Spica i5700.|
The budget Android phones are around, they just don't get as much glowing press. But why wouldn't they? For the price of an iPod Touch, you're getting an iPhone. The truth is on the budget level, what you get is something that only aspires to be as good as an iPhone. The catch is what you get for less money is not as polished, not as complete, and often not as fast or efficient as the more expensive offerings.
Exhibit A: Samsung i5700 (Galaxy Spica/Lite)
The i5700 is representative of the lengths phone makers go to in order to draw a line between premium and budget. Apart from its limited memory, its hardware spec sheet is actually quite impressive:
- 800MHz processor
- 180MB phone memory, up to 32MB microSD card support
- TFT capacitive touchscreen, 320x480 pixels, 3.2 inches
- 3.15 Megapixel camera with video and Geotagging
- Quad-band GSM, EDGE, 3G HSDPA, GPRS, WiFi B/G
- Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP
- A-GPS, Compass, Accelerometer
- Video Playback for MP4/WMV/DivX
- 1500mAh battery for over 500hrs standby time and over 6hrs talk time
The Spica with 2.1 Eclair is not a frustration-free package. The experience is definitely not on par with an iPhone. Switching between apps is definitely a great feature to have, but you also need to have some patience as it can struggle, especially when reading large amounts of data. Once you inevitably end up with less than 40MB of phone memory, the slowdowns and pauses become unbearable.
Touch input is still a little flaky, made worse by a cramped screen. Sometimes you will end up making unintended and unread key presses on the portrait keyboard. There is a lack of sensitivity in the corners (though actually better than on an iPhone). When not gripping the phone it can be tricky to unlock it from the lock screen. It may have as much to do with the OS and tweaks as it does with the physically cramped size of the 3.2" screen. The landscape keyboard is a relief, but can also frustrate, as some apps forget your input in landscape when you switch back to portrait. For its faults, the 3.2" screen is actually better than more recent budget offerings that shrink both size and resolution even more (example: Samsung i5500 and HTC Aria).
The included Samsung-developed software is at best passable and at worst horribly buggy. The Pantheon UI included in the 2.1 update consumes a lot of memory and will sometimes crash repeatedly. Luckily with Android you are not stuck with just one home screen or launcher. ADWLauncher and LauncherPro are quick and free fixes for Samsung's buggy home screen app.
The Samsung Camera app actually has a good feature set and produces good photos in good light, but has a critical bug that forces the processor to run at its highest speed and leaves it running in that setting, which depletes the battery in a matter of hours. You would also do well to replace the app with one of many alternatives. The only downside is the dedicated camera/shutter button does not work with many of them. Another alternative is to download CoolS, an app specifically made to compensate for this bug.
The Samsung widgets included with the Spica, if I'm honest, are not the prettiest widgets out there. There are many free alternatives that do more and do better while looking prettier.
And that's the good thing about having an Android OS, even an obsolete one like 2.1. Even when the phone maker fails to provide you with a good experience, there are alternatives that can replace just about any aspect of the phone you don't like. Android Market gets you access to many free apps that are sometimes as good and sometimes better than what is available on the iPhone, and better than anything on the Blackberry, Windows Mobile 6.5 or Symbian platforms.
Another sublime feature of the Android OS is it lives on the cloud, and can automatically synchronize your data for you. Your phonebook and calendar are synced with your Google account, and so as long as you occasionally get an internet connection, you'll never lose another contact. Push notification is even more so pervasive with 2.2 (as not only Google but also third parties get access to it), but at least with 2.1 you have access to all of Google's sync services.
Planned Obsolescence is Obsolete
Where the open source nature of Android really pays off is when phone makers are mandated to release their source code out for anyone to see. This opens it up to improvements from groups of volunteer developers who donate their time and knowledge to make better software. For the Samsung Galaxy Spica, the work of the samdroid.net community have unlocked a lot of the potential that Samsung's last official update did not deliver on. Bugs have been fixed, multitouch enabled, and the JIT compiler incorporated into 2.1. Developers have even managed to add extra features like Live Wallpapers, Adobe Flash Lite and Apps2SD. Even better, developers are now close to producing a stable version of Android 2.2 FroYo for the Spica.
It's now difficult to review an Android phone. On the one hand you can review it on the basis of what you get out of the box. In that regard, you really do get just what you pay for with budget Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy Spica. On the other, you have to consider the potential of the hardware, as the software can improve. The Spica that Samsung ended development with is now miles away from the Spica that you can have down the line. In that light, the Spica is probably the most improved budget Android phone (that was) on the market. And if the Spica stands as a prime example, budget Android phones are a safe bet.