Not all that long ago, tapping into Verizon's rapidly expanding 4G LTE network meant choosing a huge, expensive smartphone with poor battery life. But oh, how things change in just a short time.
Billed as "a Galaxy S phone," the carrier's Samsung Stratosphere (aka SCH-I405) nicely fills a niche as the first 4G LTE-enabled smartphone for users who prefer an old-school slider QWERTY keyboard coupled with a 4.0-inch, 800x480 WVGA Super AMOLED touchscreen display.
Weighing in at 5.8 ounces and measuring 4.96 inches tall, 2.54 inches wide and a not-so chunky 0.55 inches thick, the Samsung Stratosphere offers a nice compromise for users who want a slightly larger display. However, it does so at the expense of being able to comfortably hold the device to your ear for any length of time while having a conversation.
The front of the Stratosphere features a thin earpiece slightly raised above the surface of the display, with a Verizon logo emblazoned below. A 1.3MP front-facing camera is embedded at right. At bottom are four capacitive buttons for Menu, Home, Back and Search, crowned by a Samsung logo.
Up top, the device features a lone 3.5mm headphone jack, with power/sleep button on the right side, placed just a bit too high for our thumb to comfortably press. The bottom features a lone micro-USB 2.0 port at center, while a volume rocker rests at the top left side.
The back of the handset includes a 5.0MP auto-focus camera with LED flash. The keyboard slider requires both hands to open, but it's solidly built and the keys are firm and easy to type on.
Verizon Wireless offers the Samsung Stratosphere for $99.99 with a two-year agreement ($409.99 retail price); a 4G data plan is required.
Display and interface
The WVGA display on the Samsung Stratosphere is certainly bright and colorful, but there's no denying that this PenTile screen is old school by today's standards, especially with the proliferation of 720p HD devices. Given the potential midrange buyer for this device it's not much of a hardship, but the display was a tad on the soft side for our tastes.
Don't get your hopes up for Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich: The Stratosphere comes with Android 2.3 Gingerbread (version 2.3.5 to be exact), and this particular handset is (sadly) not on Samsung's current list of devices to be upgraded.
Once you've made peace with that reality, users can find comfort in the loving arms of an unidentified flavor of TouchWiz, which very capably runs on the Stratosphere's 1GHz processor. We prefer Samsung's lighter touch when it comes to skinning Android compared to the likes of HTC's Sense.
When waking the handset from sleep, a cutesy lock screen shows a puzzle with a missing piece – slide it into place and you're in. A large clock widget is perched atop an AccuWeather.com-powered weather widget, with space for two rows of icons below.
By default, the bottom row features icons for Voice Mail, Email, Browser and Android Market, which quickly switched over to the new Play Store after being launched the first time. Pinned below is a dock with icons for Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Applications.
A tap in the upper left corner of the home screen allows quick access to choosing a different home screen from four other pages, accessed by swiping left or right. All in all, a fairly fluid UI that's not overly cluttered with options.
Contacts, calling and messaging
A tap on the Phone icon in the dock calls up the dialer, featuring a large, finger-friendly keypad. Start typing a phone number and a bar appears above the keypad offering suggestions; tap one and the complete number is entered, ready to call.
Call volume was quite good through earpiece and speaker alike, although actual call quality was a bit on the digitized side for our tastes. During a call, users can switch to another task and then return to the call, mute, speaker or end it, all from the notifications window.
The dialer also includes buttons at top for quickly accessing Keypad, Call log, Favorites and Contacts. Orange buttons below offer voice dialing, which failed to find the correct contact after repeated attempts, and a shortcut to messaging, which worked like a charm.
We really like the TouchWiz soft keyboard, which comes with Swype baked right in. Whether you're banging out a quick SMS or simply typing a URL into the web browser, you'll find the soft keys are among the best Android has to offer.
Samsung also has a slick, clean UI for Messaging, with easy access to Recent, Contacts or Group recipients. MMS messages can be attached from pretty much everywhere, including a full slideshow, movie or image files, contacts and calendars.
Internet & Media
The Samsung Stratosphere comes with a fairly stock Android web browser that performed about as expected in our tests: 5832.9ms with SunSpider 0.9.1 and 160 with PeaceKeeper, compared to the far zippier 2246.2ms and 315, respectively, with an iPhone 4S.
The stock Flash-enabled browser doesn't quite have the kick of the Android 4.0-only Google Chrome, but it's perfectly serviceable for those who don't want or need to sync bookmarks from the desktop.
On the other hand, the Stratosphere manages to make the most of Verizon's 4G LTE, pulling down a whopping 16.11Mbps while pushing a respectable 5.97Mbps upstream. The results were far less impressive on the carrier's aging 3G network, which only managed 0.33Mbps down and 0.61Mbps up in our tests.
Although we can't imagine surviving with such slow 3G, the Stratosphere is at least noteworthy for its ability to completely switch off 4G LTE (under Settings > Wireless & Networks > Mobile Networks > System Selection) for those who prefer to maximize battery life while on CDMA only.
The Stratosphere isn't exactly a slouch when it comes to multimedia connectivity, either, with a surprisingly comprehensive array of preinstalled options. AllShare allows playing or downloading media from your phone to a compatible player, tapping into the same from a PC or laptop and more.
Verizon has also loaded up the handset with its own media content available in V CAST Music, V CAST Tones and V CAST Videos. Samsung's Media Hub also allows for renting movies, TV shows and more right from your handset.
Camera and video
The Samsung Stratosphere's 5.0MP autofocus rear camera is capable of shooting still images up to 2560x1920 or capturing video at up to 720x480 (480p). Not quite state of the art, but in our tests, the results were better than expected, particularly with still images.
While we didn't have much luck trying to snap decent photos of subjects in motion, actual picture quality was quite rich in detail. Images were a little on the soft side, but otherwise had accurate color reproduction and contrast.
The camera app offered a surprising number of options given the Stratosphere's lower rung on Samsung's ladder. Users have nearly full control over how their images are shot (including four choices for the actual shutter sound!), although Effects options are quite skimpy (Negative, Black and white and Sepia only).
480p video recordings are made in the MP4 format, but exhibited a noticeable amount of noise and even some moderate pixelization upon playback when played back on our iMac, even with movies shot in bright sunlight.
While the lack of HD video recording was a bit of a mystery to us, Samsung has done an otherwise admirable job here. We're more impressed with the Stratosphere's optics and camera software than the company's more high-end Galaxy Nexus, which has a notoriously poor camera considering its lofty status.
Battery life and connectivity
The Samsung Stratosphere comes packing a removable 1800mAh battery, which can be accessed by using a thumbnail to pry off the entire thin plastic shell covering the back of the unit. Once opened, you'll also find the LTE SIM card slot above the battery and off to the right, space for a micro-SD (4GB preinstalled, up to 32GB supported).
Samsung and Verizon promise standby time of up to 212 hours (just shy of nine days) and usage time up to eight hours (or rather, 480 minutes, which the carrier touts in an effort to impress). We didn't quite reach those lofty heights of usage or standby time, but given the 4G LTE data connection, we have no complaints.
The Stratosphere is also a cost-effective way to tap into Verizon's 4G LTE, since the handset is Mobile Hotspot capable for up to eight devices (five devices over 3G). The device includes 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 as well.
Speaking of Wi-Fi, the Samsung Stratosphere includes a setting we've not seen before: "Notify me." When toggled on, the device nags you when known Wi-Fi networks are available before consuming high-speed data on one of Verizon's notoriously capped 4G LTE data plans. Thankfully, this feature is easily toggled off for users who don't want to be bugged each time they want to tap into some LTE goodness.
Maps and apps
Verizon bloatware is at an all-time high on the Samsung Stratosphere, with no fewer than 20 such apps gobbling up space on the handset's 4GB of internal storage – and no, you can't delete them, sorry.
Football fans will appreciate the included NFL Mobile, while Big Red also includes V CAST Media, which has now been replaced by Backup Assistant Plus for accessing pictures, videos, music and documents on your desktop from devices like the Stratosphere.
Verizon also crams a number of other apps onto the device including Amazon Kindle, Blockbuster (which includes $5 free credit upon signing up), My Verizon Mobile (for account management), Quickoffice and Slacker Radio.
A couple of games are also thrown into the mix from Gameloft: Let's Golf 2 and Need for Speed: Shift, but as usual, both are playable demos that require purchasing the full version to truly enjoy. Last but not least is City ID, a $1.99 per month service for displaying the city and state of incoming phone calls.
On the navigation front, Verizon has included the $4.99 per month VZ Navigator (free 30-day trial included, also available for $2.99 per day as needed) along with the free Google Navigation, which is one of our favorites.
For Sprint customers who might be making the jump to Verizon Wireless, you could feel right at home with the Samsung Stratosphere: It's basically a souped-up version of that carrier's Epic 4G. Although the handset doesn't do any one thing exceptionally well, it's a worthy companion for budget users who want to tap into LTE speed on the cheap.
Samsung's TouchWiz has always been less overbearing than the competition, and the Stratosphere makes good use of this UI skin here. For a handset lower down the food chain, it comes packed with quite a lot of functionality, which makes it a good choice for first-time smartphone buyers.
The camera actually rivals higher-end devices like the Galaxy Nexus, so Stratosphere owners won't have to feel like they're being shortchanged – especially compared to competing handsets from the likes of HTC.
We've never really cared much for QWERTY sliders and while the keyboard works just fine, the slider mechanism itself feels pretty stiff. You'll need both hands free to make any use of this one.
The screen resolution doesn't quite live up to the Super AMOLED display, but otherwise the Stratosphere is bright and colorful. Like many Samsung handsets, the back of the device comes off easily, but it's so thin and fragile that we fear having to tape it on by the end of a two-year commitment with this handset.
QWERTY slider keyboard fans don't have a whole lot of choice when it comes to 4G LTE data, but they could do a lot worse than the Samsung Stratosphere. It's not a handset intended for Android power users, but the sum of its parts is overall a good value.