Portable Digest

Samsung Stratosphere Review

The Samsung Stratosphere arrives as a bit of a conundrum for Verizon landscape QWERTY smartphone fans. On one hand, there’s finally a competitive handset that’s not a Motorola Droid, a big accomplishment for Verizon who seemed to give anything else short shrift (HTC Merge anyone?). With that it has great community potential for tinkerers, a different UI skin then MAP, and a less overtly masculine industrial design. On the other hand, Stratosphere’s essentially a rebadge of the Samsung Epic 4G that debuted in August 2010. While the specs of the Galaxy S line were some of the best you could get on an Android phone, a lot has changed in a year. Dual core processors, copious amounts of RAM,  and 4.3+ inch displays of ever increasing resolution are now commonplace.  Not to mention that Motorola is about to come out swinging after the lackluster Droid 3 with the Droid 4, a decidedly high end QWERTY phone that will also have LTE and could steal Stratosphere’s thunder.

Which begs the question: Can LTE and a attractive pricetag make this mid-range handset soar to stratospheric heights? Follow the jump to find out.

Physical Design

If you’ve seen or held a Epic 4G, then you’ll have a good feel for what to expect here. There are minor differences though. For instance, there’s no physical camera button, the camera itself is moved to the left, and the keyboard has a slight inward curvature instead of the gridlike rows of the Epic. The Stratosphere also loses the Epic’s sliding Micro-USB port cover, and moves said port to the bottom of the device. This can be a bit of an annoyance if one is using a car charger with the Stratosphere without a car dock: I often found myself nervously re-positioning the phone  in my car’s center console box to avoid putting unnecessary strain on the Micro-USB port while still retaining quick access.

Stratosphere fits well in the hand

Overall, the design remains relatively modern, with a chrome accent around the 4 inch 800×480 Super AMOLED screen which is covered by a protective layer of Gorilla Glass. Instead of the glossy battery cover of the original Galaxy S line, there’s a textured semi-rubberized matte cover. The matte cover feels great in the hand and instantly makes the phone feel that much more premium than I suspect it would if it had a glossy one. The familiar capacative Android controls grace the bottom bezel, again echoing the Epic. Obviously Verizon didn’t spend a whole lot of coin on differentiation, but personally I think it was for the best: It keeps pricing low and the design of the Epic was pretty solid. No need to change something that wasn’t broken.

The back of the Stratosphere-Notice the different camera placement

The battery cover of the Stratosphere feels very good in the hand and provides excellent grip for typing.

One focal point of the original Galaxy S line of phones were their brilliant Super AMOLED displays. Bright colors that pop, with deep blacks and high saturation levels impressed in a time of not so brilliant LCD displays, with promises of improved battery life  and daylight readability as a bonus. I’m glad to say that the Stratosphere continues the Galaxy S reputation for a good display. Even on it’s dimmest setting, the screen is plenty bright, and viewing angles are good all around. While the display uses PenTile technology, I’ve never noticed it unless I was right on the display, unlike some Motorola handsets I’ve played with.

The five row keyboard on the Epic is regarded as one of the best in the business, with only the HTC Touch Pro 2 and Motorola Droid 3 being better. The Stratosphere takes clear advantage of this praise by retaining the same general layout and feel. While the wide spacing threw me off from the cramped confines of the OG Droid’s keyboard, I quickly became comfortable with it within a few days and was typing at a fairly good clip. Individual keys are of a decent size and have a very nice “clicky” feel. I especially grew fond of the triple wide spacebar’s firmness: Unlike the OG Droid’s mushy bar that caused one to miss spaces if it wasn’t hit just right, I had no issues on the Stratosphere, no matter where my thumb happened to hit the bar. I do wish that the question mark key and comma didn’t require the use of the function key, but the tradeoff is quick access to the same Android controls as the touchscreen via buttons that flank the left and right edges of the keyboard. The combination of the Android controls and arrow keys make it possible to navigate the entire OS sans touchscreen. For a phone that’s aimed somewhat at business customers, the keyboard is essential and Samsung nailed it with Stratosphere.

The Stratosphere Keyboard

Stratosphere's keyboard is among the best I've used.

Fit and finish is pretty good on the Stratosphere, there’s a teeny bit of fore and aft play when the slider is extended and there’s a bit of left to right play when the upper left and right portions of the screen are tapped while extended, but the spring assist keeps these in check when you’re walking around and typing. Gaps between components like the slider and keyboard base are very small and all are even. Physical buttons like the volume rocker and power button have a precise tactile feel and the headphone jack is nice and tight. Overall, I was satisfied with the Stratosphere’s physical quality.

Software and Cameras

Samsung Stratosphere Homescreen

The Stratosphere's homescreen comes fairly well stocked

The Stratosphere is running Android 2.3.5 with a version of TouchWiz that splits the difference between TouchWiz 3 that was on the original Galaxy S line and TouchWiz 4 on the Galaxy S II and Captivate Glide handsets. Personally, TouchWiz is my favorite of the manufacturer added enhancements, because it allows a lot of Android’s native UI to bubble to the surface unlike Sense which seem’s heavy. It also adds functionality that appeals to me, like the ability to jump to your text messages and voicemail’s via a very attractive looking “puzzle piece” lock screen. I do wish that Samsung would allow one to add a custom shortcut, like the camera, to this screen like HTC Sense 3.0+ devices.

Stratosphere's puzzle piece lock screen

The Stratosphere's puzzle piece lock screen is a unique feature of TouchWiz 3.5

Imagine my dismay to find out that either Verizon or Samsung removed a lot of the nice social features of TouchWiz. Again, the Stratosphere’s corporate bent comes into play: beyond a multitude of clock widgets and a weather widget that I found annoyingly imprecise regarding my location, there’s really no other TouchWiz specific widgets beyond Power Monitor ( a way to see how many apps are running + a link to Samsung’s task manager) and a Power Savings widget that is a modified version of Android’s “Power Control.”

There is still a bit of social network integration, but it’s awkwardly done via the contacts app, a “activities” tab in the app, and a “My Profile” submenu. It gets the job done, with status updates reliably being sent to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, but I’d have loved to see a widget on the homescreen that showed updates and allowed me to post a status as well. Also the activities tab was laggy and stuttery, even over LTE, making using it a bit annoying. I’d also like to see an ability to “like” posts seen in this tab as well as view photos inline. Additionally, having to link contacts to Facebook manually is inexcusable in this day and age.

The Stratosphere's My Profile/Status screen allows one to update their Facebook, Twitter or MySpace Status. If only it were easier to get to.

Save yourself the trouble, download the official Facebook app and deal with it’s mediocre performance….unlike say HTC Sense or standard TouchWiz 3 or 4, the official app is actually a far superior experience on this device.

It wouldn’t be a Verizon handset without copious amounts of preinstalled software and the Stratosphere sadly is no different. Personally, I don’t mind apps like My Verizon Mobile and Backup Assistant as they’re legitimately handy and essential for many customers. However, the phone was also loaded up with the following:

  • 4 VCast apps (Media, Music, Tones, and Video)
  • VZ Navigator
  • Visual Voicemail
  • Slacker Radio
  • Need For Speed: Shift
  • Let’s Golf 2
  • NFL Mobile
  • City ID
  • Blockbuster Mobile
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Mobile Hotspot

Why is all of this crapware on here? Yeah yeah, we know, to subsidize the price of the handset.  While it doesn’t get in the way of day to day use, a lot of it is inexcusable for a “business” device. While you can “uninstall” the two games that come preinstalled, their icon’s remain in the app drawer and a tap will bring up the standard Android permissions screen to reinstall them. Luckily, a feature of TouchWiz 3.5 and up is the ability to create folders in the app drawer. One could clean up the drawer this way by filing away the crapware.

Another downer is Verizon’s Wi-Fi programming. Due to tiered data plans, Verizon wants users on wi-fi as much as possible. As such, wi-fi is on out of the box and the phone alerts you to connect to a wi-fi network each time a data intensive app is launched. That’s fine, I guess, but the popup’s “don’t ask again” setting never seems to work quite right. Even with the “Notify Me” option unchecked in Wi-Fi Settings, I see the popup at least once per day. It’s plain annoying in it’s current state. Further irritating is Verizon’s decision to remove the Wi-Fi toggle from the TouchWiz controls in the notification shade AND the Power Control/Power Savings widget. What this means for most people is that Wi-Fi will remain on even when you’re away from a hotspot, sucking down battery life unnecessarily unless you remember to drag down the notification shade and tap the persistent “Wi-Fi status” bar that takes up a line of the notification shade and turn it off in the main settings screen. I know Verizon wants people to use as little data as possible but this is excessive.

On a positive note for the privacy concious, the Stratosphere along with all other Verizon handsets, doesn’t use Carrier IQ analytics software.

The Stratosphere does not have Carrier IQ

We plan to incorporate this information into our reviews from this point forward.

The Stratosphere has a 5 megapixel rear facing camera with LED flash, along with a 1.3 megapixel front shooter that was surprisingly clear for Skype video calls. The rear facing camera took decent photos especially for a mid-range set. Most people won’t have a problem with the quality. I was disappointed to find that the Stratosphere doesn’t retain the 720p capabilities of the Epic 4g for video recording. Instead it shoots DVD quality 480p video. No big deal for my needs but those expecting more due to it being a  “new” handset will undoubtedly be disappointed. An area of the Stratosphere’s imaging credentials that isn’t disappointing is the camera software. Samsung’s camera software is among the best on any smartphone, due to their experience making traditional digital cameras, and it’s nice to see many traditional camera features like face detection and panorama mode.

Performance, Stability and Battery Life

Beyond social networking follies and a dearth of widgets, the rest of the phone’s software is pretty good. Performance was reasonably snappy, thanks to the 1 GHz Hummingbird processor, with largely stutter free swiping between the Stratosphere’s 5 homescreens. This is true even with the phone’s infamous RFS file system (note to Samsung: stop using this on the Galaxy S derived phones you release today…you know how bad this is from the first time around no?) and I expect that it could feel even faster once the system is changed to EXT4. The phone also handled having many apps open with 512 MB of RAM just fine.  Quadrant scores were pretty good for a mid-range handset, 1345 which is around neck and neck with the Nexus One running Android 2.2. Everyday performance supported the claims, you should have no issues with performance really with the Stratosphere. I will say that the time it takes to boot feels very slow even if it’s actually about one minute long.

The web browser does experience some “checkerboarding” on complex webpages, but they fill in nearly instantly when you stop scrolling quickly. Pinch to zoom performance is buttery smooth thanks in part to TouchWiz’s GPU accelerated browser. I do wish I was able to open more than just 4 windows though…that’s a bit annoying. Netflix streaming video played smoothly and a local 720p video file  was also buttery smooth. Music playback was stutter free even with many applications loading in the background and I appreciated the music controls on the lock screen and in the notification shade that let me fast forward and rewind by holding down the appropriate button.

Speaking of web browsing, the big story here is LTE and boy is it an upgrade from Ev-Do Rev. A!  Speeds were consistently fast throughout my testing in a local 4G coverage area. Pages load with little to no delay, videos play with next to no buffering, this is the future my friends. It’s finally practical to download things like podcasts straight to your device over the air, they’ll download pretty much as fast as they would on your PC, and I reveled in this throughout my experience in the LTE coverage area. A downside is that battery life takes a hit, even with a larger than average battery as standard. If you want LTE all day, I recommend you consider picking up the 3000 mAh battery.

All isn’t well in Stratosphere land from a stability perspective though. I’ve gone through 2 Stratosphere units so far. Both experience issues with the touch screen not responding properly to touches while charging. Even worse, both units have a propensity to soft reboot randomly and without warning. This occurs even without any of my information on any of the devices and is very disappointing in terms of quality control, although based on forum reports, I seem to be the only one experiencing this issue. Still, this smacks of the issues that early Captivate owners faced due to issues with the Hummingbird processor.
I wanted to like this handset more, I really did. The physical hardware one can touch is excellent, but the deadly combination of somewhat annoying software tweaks and hardware stability issues make it a handset I simply cannot live with on a daily basis. I feel myself getting frustrated when the phone screen suddenly freezes and goes black…reboot time and it’s not fun. It’s likely that these issues are just flukes especially since others aren’t reporting issues, but it’s enough to turn me off.
Through a typical day’s use on 3G, I’ve found that I’m able to get through a day and a half’s use with the phone’s stock 1800 mAh battery. This includes using Tapatalk, light web browsing and messaging, occasional FourSquare, plus 2 Gmail accounts, and a Facebook account being synced in the background. A 3000 mAh battery, and accompanying larger battery cover, is available as an accessory and I could easily see someone getting a full day on 4G really hammering the phone without issue.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, a Verizon customer wanting a 4G QWERTY will basically have the Stratosphere and the upcoming Droid 4 to choose from. The Droid 4 has the benefit of being thinner and more powerful than the Stratosphere. Major downsides of the Droid 4 are an inability to change the battery, an encrypted bootloader that makes tinkering with the phone that much more difficult, and of course an expected price tag of $299 on a 2 year contract. The Stratosphere’s advantages begin with the price which is well under $200 at most retailers, an unencrypted bootloader that gives greater community support potential, and a removable battery with extended battery support. Disadvantages include the fact that it’s thicker than the Droid 4 , seem’s to have hardware quality control issues, and can’t really compete spec for spec with the Droid 4.
While the Stratosphere might not reach new heights of QWERTY excellence, this mid-range handset is a solid offering if you manage to get a stable unit.

3 comments on “Samsung Stratosphere Review

  1. Pingback: Samsung Stratosphere – Two Months Later… | Portable Digest

  2. Pingback: Samsung Stratosphere II emerges from the shadows | Portable Digest

  3. Pingback: Samsung Stratosphere Gets Mythical “Galaxy S Value Pack” Upgrade | Portable Digest

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This entry was posted on December 10, 2011 by in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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