As 4G coverage continues to spread across the United States, the smartphones built for these fast data networks are growing increasingly affordable. The Samsung Exhibit II 4G from T-Mobile is one of the most competitively priced handsets we've seen yet.
While this smartphone on a budget skimps on some of the more luxurious features, it's hard to argue with its price, and the inclusion of a prepaid option available at Walmart.
You won't be hopping on a 4G network for much cheaper than this, but is a low price point the best thing this Android handset has going for it?
Hardware-wise, the Samsung Exhibit II 4G (T-Mobile) is identical to its predecessor, the Samsung Exhibit 4G. Both phones run Android 2.3 Gingerbread with a 1Ghz Snapdragon processor and 512MB of RAM. The differences are mostly external; the Exhibit II has a completely plastic exterior, while the original Exhibit had a rubberized casing.
It's a compact phone, with a 3.7-inch screen and a light body that fits easily in the hand. The WVGA touchscreen is bright, responsive, and at a resolution of 480 x 800, it has a respectable pixel density for its small screen size.
The Exhibit II's screen is 3.7 inches, a mere .2 inches larger than its predecessor's. Indoors, it was colorful and easy to read, but outdoors, it had real problems. Even in moderate sunlight, it would get washed out. Bumping up the display brightness helped, but even at maximum brightness, the screen was difficult to read while outside. Also, maxing out the brightness did no favors for the battery life - we'll get into that later.
The phone features a front-facing VGA camera for video chatting, a generous feature for a budget smartphone.
At a mere 4 ounces, the Samsung Exhibit II 4G (T-Mobile) is light. It fits easily in a pocket or purse without feeling bulky or cumbersome. It's a compact 4.54 by 2.35 inches, with only .45 inches of width.
The Exhibit II has a rather dull appearance. It's not very handsome or eye catching. We appreciated the "grippiness" of the phone's marine blue back, but missed the tougher exterior of its rubberized predecessor, the original Exhibit 4G. We also wish it was available in more colors.
On the Exhibit's backside you'll notice the lens for its 3-megapixel camera and an LED flash. No, that's not a lot of megapixels, compared with the 8-megapixels that's become standard on most smartphones. Still, the phone is capable of taking a decent quality picture, but we'll get into further detail on that later in this review.
The back casing comes on and off easily, revealing a 3.7-volt lithium-ion battery and removable SIM card. Opening the phone is simple, but the case is secure. It never opened accidentally in our pocket or in a bag.
While no SD card is included with purchase, you can add up to 32GB. Onboard storage is a scant 1GB.
On the left side the phone you'll find a volume rocker, which is convenient for quickly silencing the ring of an incoming call, or adjusting speaker levels.
The Exhibit II's power button is on the right side, in convenient range of your thumb. Tapping it once wakes it up or locks the screen. Holding it brings up a quick menu for switching to silent, airplane mode or powering off.
Unfortunately, being located parallel to the volume rocker makes it easy to accidentally lock the device when adjusting the volume.
At the top you'll find a mini-usb port and the standard 3.5mm headphone jack.
With a two-year T-Mobile contract, the Samsung Exhibit II 4G is available for only $29.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate, or for $199.99 from Walmart with no annual contract. This pricing makes it one of the most affordable 4G-enabled smartphones on the market.
The Samsung Exhibit II 4G (T-Mobile) runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread and Samsung's TouchWiz. While this smartphone has unfortunately been left behind by the even more deliciously named Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the dual technologies are a useful combination.
The lock screen displays the time and date in big letters. Incoming text messages are displayed briefly, in small letters at the top of the screen, and the phone displays icons for quick access to missed calls and new texts until they are viewed.
The top of the lock screen is rather cluttered with icons, including a second clock, battery level, ringer status, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and alerts for apps in need of updating. Facebook and email alerts also appear here briefly.
Gingerbread and TouchWiz
The Exhibit II's combination of the Android Gingerbread OS and Samsung's TouchWiz interface allows for up to seven different home screens, which can be outfitted with apps and widgets of your choosing. The four primary icons at the bottom of the screen are Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Applications.
Newly downloaded apps start off under the Application icon, and can be dragged to a home screen for easy access. This helps reduce clutter, since not every app needs to be on a home screen.
Many Widgets of varying degrees of usefulness come pre-loaded, and can be added or removed from any home screen. A Google search bar with voice recognition is an essential, and an Android widget that offers interface tips is helpful for new smartphone users. T-Mobile's recommend apps Widget was an eyesore, but easily done away with.
All in all, the interface is simple and pretty, but did have a tendency to become sluggish or unresponsive with multiple apps running.
With only 512MB of memory (356 available for non-OS functions), multitasking is not one of the Exhibit II's strengths. Thankfully, the phone has an Active Applications widget, which tells you how much system memory is being used, and allows for easy management of multiple apps.
While app loading times were generally fair, the interface became slow when exiting or resuming processor-intensive apps such as games or streaming media services. Home screen navigation would be noticeably slowed, and icons would pop in after a second. It was nothing unreasonable; just don't expect the snappy response of a multi-core processor device.
Overall, the Exhibit II performed well enough if given a chance to "catch its breath" in between applications.
Contacts and calling
The Contacts app on the Exhibit II's dock can be synced with your Google account or Microsoft Exchange, as well as Facebook and other social networks. It will also bring in your friend's profile pictures, and your calendar.
Contacts can be sorted via Favorites, or by marking people as Friends, Family or Co-workers. The Contacts app also creates a group for contacts who use Qik, a pre-installed video mail service (video chat too if you sign up for premium).
Contacts is integrated with the dialer and call history for easy access.
The Phone icon on the dock handles calling and traditional voicemail. Visual voicemail is available, through a separate pre-loaded app.
Phone is integrated with Contacts, for quick access to your phone book and sorted contacts.
The Exhibit II's earpiece speaker is a little on the quiet side. The speakerphone, however, was nice and loud, and picked up our voice well.
In the city of San Francisco, T-Mobile's HSPA+ network performed admirably. Calls were stable and clear, and never dropped.
The Messaging app on the Exhibit II's dock handles all the phone's SMS and MMS messages. Messages are listed in order of the date received, and are grouped into conversations by contact. The icon on the dock displays the number of unread messages.
Typing text messages in portrait mode felt cramped, due to the Exhibit II's small screen. Switching to landscape mode was much more comfortable. Thankfully, TouchWiz provides Swype, which makes drafting messages much easier, especially in portrait orientation. We recommend using it.
Email communications are kept separate from text messages via an E-mail app. It can easily be synced with Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Apple's iCloud, Microsoft Exchange, or any POP or IMAP mail services.
The Email app does a commendable job of organizing mail from multiple accounts, using colored icons to differentiate mail to different addresses, and breaking up messages by date received.
Email can be browsed by separate inboxes, or all in one place. The search function efficiently navigates multiple inboxes.
The Samsung Exhibit II 4G uses T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G network, which proved to be speedy and reliable throughout the city of San Francisco.
Websites loaded quickly, and streaming media services such as Netflix and YouTube performed especially well. Videos generally played at the highest available resolution, almost never needing to stop and buffer.
Network speeds were consistently between 3.8 and 5.5 MBPS.
The Android Gingerbread browser under the phone's Web app is speedy, simple and functional.
Web pages loaded smoothly, without shifting around or awkwardly resizing images.
The browser also supports Flash video. Playback was not as strong as videos in the YouTube app, but it was functional.
As mentioned, the Exhibit II's camera is only 3-megapixels. Still, it's capable of taking decent pictures, but not anything we'd want to frame and put up on the wall.
In even outdoor lighting, the camera takes colorful photos, but since the resolution is limited to 2048 × 1536, they're lacking in detail.
Focus can be set manually by touching the screen, and the LED will provide a fill light as needed in addition to a flash, but the camera still struggles with uneven lighting conditions. The results can often appear washed out.
The camera's shutter speed is a little slow, and since there's no dedicated camera button (you must select Camera off the home screen), it's not great for capturing spur of the moment shots.
Still, the photos are of a passable quality, certainly good enough for Facebook or snapping a picture of a plate of food. Also, the camera can easily take self-portrait shots, but they may not be good enough to be your online avatar.
Both the front and rear facing camera on the Exhibit II 4G can capture video. It records at a maximum resolution of 640x480, and video settings are limited to adjusting the white balance or reducing the resolution.
While the phone is capable of taking videos it's obviously not intended for anything more than playing around with. This is not what you want to record a high school graduation or a baby's first steps with.
Videos are saved in the MP4 format, and can easily be transferred to your computer via USB or the Kies Air app. You can even record directly from the YouTube app, which makes uploading to the web remarkably simple.
The Samsung Exhibit II 4G (T-Mobile) has individual applications for listening to music, browsing photos and watching videos. Your personal media can be synced via USB. Since the phone only has 1GB of onboard storage, an SD card is a necessity for getting the most from these functions.
The phone's Music app has several equalizer presets that make for good quality listening. Obviously, you don't want to listen to music using the tinny, external speaker. That's where the headphone jack located on the top of the phone comes in handy, making it easy to run headphones to the Exhibit while tucked away in a pocket.
The Music app has a strong search function, which can quickly locate a song based on artist, song name or album.
The Videos app is very similar, but much simpler. It displays preview icons for videos captured by or transferred to the Exhibit II.
The Media Hub app is a movie and TV rental application that comes pre-loaded on the phone. Its interface is intuitive, and its prices are competitive with services like iTunes.
Battery life and connectivity
The Samsung Exhibit II 4G is rated for 5.5 hours of talk time, an estimate we found to be accurate with the phone at default settings. The OS features a Settings tab for Power saving mode, which allows you to tweak battery-draining options such as WiFi, Bluetooth, Email checking and GPS monitoring all in one place.
Keeping these settings to their defaults makes for optimal battery life, but most users will want to adjust them, most especially screen brightness. As we mentioned before, the Exhibit II's screen becomes quite washed out in sunlight, and bumping up the brightness is the only compensation. This puts significant strain on the battery, as does heavy 4G use, media streaming or playing games.
The Samsung Exhibit II 4G (T-Mobile) made it through days of light to moderate use with 40% of its battery remaining. We made multiple calls, sent text messages, checked email and Facebook and did a little web browsing. Using WiFi rather than 4G also helped extend battery life.
On a day of heavy use, doing all of the above as well as playing games and streaming Netflix over T-Mobile's 4G network, the phone needed to be charged by early evening. If you're going to be out and about and entertaining yourself with your smartphone, the Exhibit II will not make it through the day on one charge. Luckily, the phone's battery is easily removed, so carrying a spare is an option.
The Exhibit II's mini-USB port allows you to connect to a PC or Mac for fast and simple file transfers. It can also be synced over Wi-Fi with the onboard Kies Air app.
If you purchase an SD card (the Exhibit supports up to 32GB) the phone can be used as a mass storage device. It will function like an external hard drive, with simple drag and drop file transferring.
Maps and/or apps
The Exhibit II 4G comes packed full of Samsung apps. Most of them are useful, and those that are not can be left in the Applications folder and forgotten about. Unfortunately, these proprietary apps cannot be deleted, which may frustrate some users, especially since the phone's onboard storage is so low.
Kies Air is a stand-out application, allowing you to manage files on your phone via a computer's web browser. You simply connect your computer and the phone to the same Wi-Fi network, and Kies Air generates a web address where you can access all files on your phone. From a browser, you're able to look at pictures and stream videos from the Exhibit II, or transfer files to and from your smartphone or computer. It makes for simple communication with any computer, without the need for drivers or a cord.
In addition to the standard Google Maps app, the Exhibit II comes with two GPS navigation apps that provide spoken, turn-by-turn directions. There's Navigation, powered by Google Maps, and TeleNav GPS Navigator, which is a TomTom application. Both apps feature surprisingly accurate voice recognition. Of course, GPS is a significant drain on battery life, but provides a very accurate and useful service.
Social Hub is also among the best of the pre-loaded apps. It puts text messages as well as email inboxes and social network feeds all in one place. You can view them individually or as one large feed/inbox. It quickly replaced the Messaging and Email app as our go-to communication app.
Other apps include Slacker Radio, a music streaming app, and Qik video, a video mail app (video chat available for premium users). They were functional, but pale in comparison to more widely used, third-party apps such as Spotify and Skype.
At either $30 or $200, depending on whether you accept a two-year T-Mobile contract, there's no argument that the price for the Samsung Exhibit II 4G is right, but have the developers cut too many corners?
As we said, the Samsung Exhibit II 4G (T-Mobile) is very affordable, and the chance to go pre-paid on a fast, reliable 4G network like T-Mobile's is very nice. The low initial cost of this smartphone, coupled with the variety of payment options offered by T-Mobile make the Exhibit II very tempting for the budget conscious.
This smartphone has a lot of bells and whistles for a low-cost device, even if they aren't as beefy as what you'd find on higher-end models. A front facing video camera opens up the wide world of video chatting, and free, onboard GPS with spoken turn-by-turn directions will make even iPhone users jealous.
The GPS as well as several other proprietary apps impressed us. Kies Air is an especially convenient app, perfect for a quick sync or file transfer while at a friend's house, and frees you from having to carry a USB cord. Social Hub was also very useful, providing quick access to multiple email accounts and social network feeds.
TouchWiz and Gingerbread make a good combination. The browser is fast and attractive, and having Swype makes for fast message composition. The Active Applications widget offers the kind of honest assessment of memory usage you'd normally only get from a third-party application, and allows you to easily manage background activity. All in all, these apps put the bloatware found on most new phones to shame.
The Exhibit II's screen was a major point of irritation. Even in moderate sunlight, it gets washed out. Bumping up the display brightness is all you can do to compensate, which hurts the already not-so-great battery life. Even with the brightness cranked up, it's still rather hard to see it outdoors. Also, the screen is none too wide, so typing in portrait mode is tough with big fingers. Using Swype or switching to landscape mode is much better.
The camera is none too great either, but this is an understandable, "get what you pay for" situation. We'd rather have the front-facing video camera than 8-megapixel image quality.
The place where the Samsung Exhibit II 4G (T-Mobile) really feels like a budget phone is in overall performance. Coming in and out of processor and memory-intensive apps like games and streaming video kills the frame rate and makes the phone sluggish and unresponsive. Usually it goes away if you give the phone a second, other times you need to go into Active Applications and dump the memory-hogging app. This is not a phone for the impatient; someone who's used to an expensive multi-core device will find it frustrating.
Also, while T-Mobile's network proved itself throughout our trials, and the company offers a wide range of flexible plans, we don't like that it limits how much data you can have at 4G speeds. For example, on a $50 unlimited plan, only your first 100 MB of data is delivered at 4G speeds. At $60 dollars a month, it's your first 2GB. While this is becoming standard practice among many carriers, and T-Mobile is absolutely upfront about this fact - it's not hidden in the fine print - it makes us question the value of paying for 4G service.
It's hard to argue with the Samsung Exhibit II 4G's price tag. At $30 (after a $50 rebate) with a two-year contract, or $200 for pay-as-you-go at Walmart, you'll be hard pressed to get a better smartphone for your money, especially at 4G speeds.
To get to this very low price point, Samsung has obviously skimped on some of the hardware, but the only place it really hurts is the screen, which is hard to see in sunlight and cramped for typing. The phone's low memory is manageable, thanks to the Active Applications widget.
Finally, the pre-loaded apps and T-Mobile's network really impressed us. The data speeds were consistently fast, and the quality and reliability of calls were among the best we've experienced. If you want 4G on a budget, or crave the flexibility of a month-to-month plan, you're not going to do much better than the Samsung Exhibit II 4G.