How do you make one of the best phones ever released even better? With the US-only Samsung Epic 4G Touch, which was released recently in the US by Sprint, the super-thin (9.59mm) and super-light (128.9 grams) device is remarkably similar to the Samsung Galaxy SII, our Android-leading current 5-star phone.
Even the demigods at Apple might need to worry a little about the Epic 4G Touch. Sure, the iPhone 4S has a bright and crisp screen, with a fast A5 processor.
Yet, the Epic 4G Touch goes a few steps beyond those specs. Outfitted with a 1.2GHz Exynos processor, the Epic is one of the fastest phones we've ever tested. Apps pop up suddenly. Flipping between widgets, there's none of the annoying pause of some earlier Android models. Games like NOVA 2, a sci-fi shooter, pump pixels as smooth as butter on the screen in an almost PC-like fashion.
We're also big fans of the 4.5-inch AMOLED Plus screen technology, which makes the Epic 4G the brightest smartphone screen we've ever seen. The iPhone 4S screen looks slightly dim and washed out in comparison. Movies pop off the screen like you're watching a Samsung HDTV in miniature.
The 800x480 pixel resolution of the screen, at this size, helps makes everything you view look clearer, from Web pages, to games, to photos and movies. The screen is just a wonder to behold.
At 129.5mm, the Epic 4G Touch is a bit longer than the SII. It's hard to notice - both phones look about the same - but the extra height means a slightly bigger screen for movies and photos. The Epic has more rounded corners than the SII; also, the power button is a bit closer to the top edge.
The SII and Epic both have a slight raised edge on the bottom back cover. Both phones are light and thin, but the Epic's plastic casing does feel like it could crack easily if you, let's say, roll over it with your bike.
This model has two cameras, and both are exceptional. There's a rear-facing 8-megapixel camera that snapped wonderfully clear and colorful photos - so good, we even left a Nikon D7000 at home during a day of testing. Photos of a bright fall day looked rich and fully saturated. The front-facing 2-megapixel camera also worked well for clear and colorful Google Talk video chats.
Sprint improved the hotspot capabilities of this phone, offering up a Wi-Fi signal to anyone around you for up to 8 people, tapping in to the speedy 4G signals (up to about 2.5Mbps in our tests).
The Epic 4G Touch has 16GB of internal memory and 1GB of RAM. Like its SII cousin, the Epic 4G Touch does not have an external SD card slot. You can a card up to 32GB by removing the back cover. As you'd expect, there's Bluetooth 3.0, Wi-Fi (including 802.11N), a gyro, GPS, and a six-axis accelerometer.
The Epic 4G Touch runs on Android 2.3.4 and, as such, has only one major drawback: it is standing in the rather tall shadow of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which will debut soon in the Samsung Nexus Prime.
That phone promises to include more powerful (and resizable widgets), improved built-in apps, a new UI, full app multitasking, folders for files and apps, and a better phone dialer.
As expected, Samsung included both the Media Hub app (for buying or renting movies and TV shows) and the Social Hub aggregator (for checking social network status). These apps add some extra zing to a phone that is already giving Apple a serious threat, mostly because Samsung has nailed the ecosystem for adding content to apps from the phone (no desktop app required).
The Social Hub app is not nearly as powerful as a true social dashboard like HootSuite or SproutSocial, but it works well enough. The one obvious missing feature is that the Hub does not let you generate any reports on your social success.
For this model, Samsung added a few interesting perks. One is that there is now a notification light on the front of the screen near the 3.5mm headphone jack. You'll see a blue light when you get a text or email; the light flashes red when you need to think about re-charging.
The Epic 4G Touch also has a slightly brighter screen than the Samsung Galaxy SII. It's especially noticeable when you play a movie: we tested the movie Fast Five and the outdoor sunny scenes looked especially colorful.
This model also has an 1800 mAh battery for another hour or so of battery life, up to about 8 hours in our tests. That's a boost over the Galaxy SII, which has a 1650 mAh battery.
The battery power comes in handy, since this 4G phone from Sprint tends to chew up usage time when you play movies and music, and when you play games that tend to stress the processor, like NOVA 2.
Another major difference between the SII and the Epic 4G Touch: Samsung is taking the "touch" part seriously with this device. Samsung has added four capacitive touch icons below the main screen: menu, home, back and search.
When you press the buttons, there's a slight haptics buzz to let you know you've activated that button. The SII has just one large home button. With the four buttons, not only do you get access to those features through hardware-like buttons, but time-saving access in any app. That said,the new buttons do not match up well with the Galaxy Tab, which does not have the same buttons.
So what's not to like? Well, one potential gripe is the price. This is a top shelf phone with a top shelf entry point: $600 without a contract, or $200 when you sign a two-year deal with Sprint. We say this exceptional phone is worth it, if you can live with the plastic non-rugged case.