Update (12/18/2012): I recently updated my Epic 4G Touch to firmware version EK02, and my GPS reliability has taken a hit. Where it would get a GPS lock fairly quickly (albeit not as quickly as the Photon), it was taking tens of seconds. This morning, I couldn’t get a GPS lock at all. Loading up the awesome GPS Status app from the market let me reset the GPS cache, which got it working, but that’s a bit of a frustration. Let’s hope Samsung gets this resolved (trips to some forums hints that this might be a fairly widespread problem).
Update (3/27/2012): Both Samsung and Motorola have confirmed that the Epic Touch and Photon, respectively, will be getting Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.X). No word from either one on when, but it’ll be sometime in 2012.
Amazon’s recent Penny Pincher sale, where they offered every phone on Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon for $.01 with a new line, coincided perfectly with my family’s need to add a couple of lines for my wife and son. I’ve been using the Motorola Photon for a few months and liked it, but when an opportunity arises to get something for a penny, it makes sense to buy whatever’s worth the most money. Right now, on Sprint, that’s the painfully-named Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch (hereinafter to be called the Epic Touch), and so we bought two of them.
This fortuitous coincidence means that I’ve had a week now to compare the Photon side by side with the Epic Touch, and I thought there might be some value in posting my experience. After all, if you’re looking for a new phone on Sprint today, then the Photon and Epic Touch are probably at the top of your list (with maybe the HTC Evo 3D tossed in for fun). I’ll outline those experiences here, but this won’t be a review, exactly. Instead, I’m simply going to make note of those areas that are important to me and where there’s some difference (or none) between the the two phones.
In general, let me stress: both are great phones. You can’t go wrong with either, and if you’ve already purchased one or the other then nothing I say here should be taken as indicting your choice. Indeed, I’m having a difficult time deciding between them myself. I’m 99% there, but it’s definitely not a clear-cut decision.
We stare at a smartphone’s screen for literally hours a day, and its quality can make or break the experience. In the case of the Photon and Epic Touch, and for me at least, deciding which phone’s screen is better has been the most difficult part of this whole process.
The Epic Touch has a brilliant Super AMOLED Plus screen with lots of color and deep blacks, but it’s also a very large screen (4.52”) with lower resolution (800X480). For me, the resolution and size is a positive because as much as I hate to admit it, my eyes are getting a bit older and near objects a bit more blurry. For someone with better eyes, however, a higher resolution would mean more information displayed on-screen. Colors on the Epic Touch can also be a bit over-saturated, which can be attractive in some cases but also a bit unnatural.
The Photon’s screen is a PenTile-based, higher res (960X540), and much brighter LCD. In direct sunlight, the Photon wins hands-down, and its colors are more natural. In particular, I’ve noticed that whites are truer, with the Epic Touch being quite a bit colder (i.e., more blue). Note that I don’t notice the PenTile pixellation that so bothers some people; if you do, then you might hate the Photon’s screen.
Ultimately, which screen is better comes down to how the phone is going to be used. Video on the Epic Touch is excellent, with good color and great performance in dark scenes. Video on the Photon, however, is pretty bad; dark scenes are terrible and flesh tones are unnatural. If you watch a lot of video on your smartphone, then the Epic Touch is the better choice.
At the same time, because whites are truer on the Photon, reading ebooks in particular is a much better experience. Contrast between text and the background is greater than on the Epic Touch, and so if you read a lot of ebooks or other textual information on your smartphone then the Photon is the better choice.
Further complicating matters is the fact that AMOLED screens use a good deal of power when displaying color but none when the screen is black. Therefore, Samsung has dialed down the color on the Epic Touch’s user interface (UI), meaning it’s very dark compared to the Photon’s. Backgrounds on the Epic Touch are mostly black, including the calendar, contacts, and email apps, whereas the Photon’s UI has a great deal more white throughout. If you like a brighter UI, then you’ll like the Photon.
Winner: Epic Touch for video and overall sex appeal, Photon for reading ebooks and other textual information.
In general, the Epic Touch offers better performance than the Photon. There’s virtually zero lag on the Epic Touch when switching home screens, opening and closing apps, and scrolling through lists. The Photon isn’t a poor performer by any measure, but the Epic Touch feels more fluid overall. Gaming is roughly equal between the two phones, although the Photon has the advantage of running Tegra 2-optimized games.
Winner: The Epic Touch is an excellent performer, and edges out the Photon.
Build Design and Quality
The Epic Touch is a relatively wide phone because of the screen, but it’s still very light. It also has a bit of a plastic-y feel, and is a bit slippery. The Photon, on the other hand, is heavier but generally feels better in the hand. It also feels like the better-constructed device, and the battery cover has a nice non-slip feel to it. The kickstand on the Photon is also a nice touch. Overall, I much prefer the Photon’s design, but if you like light devices then you’ll likely prefer the Epic Touch.
Winner: For me, the Photon just feels like the better device.
I’ve found the Photon and Epic Touch to be roughly equal in terms of cellular signal strength and call quality, in spite of the fact that Motorola is known to have better radios. The Photon does tend to show more bars, but I’ve noticed no significant difference in actual use. Both are good enough for making voice calls, although the Photon’s voice cancelation capabilities might make it marginally better in high-noise environments. Speakerphone is better on the Photon.
Winner: Essentially a tie as far as I’m concerned, although more precise testing might give the Photon the edge.
The Photon gets a stronger Wifi signal and better throughput on my networks at home and at work. However, the Epic Touch connects and disconnects more quickly, and the Photon sometimes has difficulty reconnecting to a network. Here are some performance results, using the ubiquitous SpeedTest app:
Poor Wifi signal strength (in my home office in the garage), Photon on left
Good Wifi signal strength (10’ from router), Photon on left
Winner: Photon, although it does have that pesky intermittent reluctance to connect and reconnect.
Sprint’s 3G service has been extremely inconsistent, and generally terrible, for some time now. Comparing two phones in these conditions is probably impossible, and so any results are probably be meaningless. All I can say is that both phones have very poor 3G performance, and leave it at that. For what it’s worth, I’ll go ahead and post some scores here, but they can’t really be trusted.
3G Performance, Photon on left
Sprint’s 4G performance, however, remains the same as always where I can get it, which is just a few miles east of me in Los Angeles. I have some of the same kinds of issues with the Photon in terms of actually connecting to 4G (during my recent test, it wouldn’t connect until I rebooted the phone, and usually it takes a few attempts before I can lock onto a 4G signal), but once connected the Photon gets better performance than the Epic Touch.
4G Performance, Photon on left
Winner: In 4G, the Photon gets better performance but has inconsistent reliability. I’d have to give the nod to the Epic Touch for being a bit slower but for locking on more quickly. Ultimately, a reliable connection is more important than the fastest performance, at least for me.
Both the Epic Touch and the Photon connect quickly to Bluetooth devices and provide good quality. I’ve tried a number of devices, including my car’s Bluetooth handsfree, a Samsung Bluetooth headset, and a set of Motorola Bluetooth headphones—all connected to both devices without issue and maintain solid connections with good audio quality.
Winner: It’s a tie.
The Photon’s GPS gets a lock almost instantly, while the Epic Touch takes a few seconds. Both maintain a consistent lock, however.
Winner: Photon, by a hair.
The Epic Touch has a very nice camera, like all Galaxy S II devices. The camera app opens quickly, taking pictures is snappy, and the results are excellent in most lighting conditions. Video quality is also very good, and there’s some nice built-in functionality (e.g., pinch to zoom). The Photon is a different story: the camera app opens relatively slowly, taking pictures is sometimes difficult because of a significant delay between pressing the shutter and the picture actually taking, and picture and video quality is inferior.
Photon on top – The Photon’s colors have a serious blue tint to them
Photon on left – the Photon’s blue tint is even more apparent here
Winner: The Epic Touch wins this one by a huge margin. If taking quality, spontaneous pictures and video is important to you, then you’ll love the Epic Touch and probably hate the Photon.
The Epic Touch seems to get better battery life than the Photon, both in use and even more so on standby. I haven’t quantified the difference, but I’d say that the Epic Touch is more likely to get me through a full workday without charging.
Winner: Epic Touch.
User Interface and Built-In Apps
User Interface example, Photon on left – note the default multi-select option in the Photon’s email client
As mentioned earlier, the UI on the Epic Touch is generally darker than the Photon’s, and there are some differences in how Motorola and Samsung approach various built-in functions. Here’s a quick list of some of the pros and cons of each UI:
- Notifications on the Photon can be individually dismissed without acting on them, making notification triage easier.
- The Photon’s email app makes it easier to manage (move and delete) messages, by making multi-select available at the main email screen for each account. The Epic Touch enables multi-task for delete only, and it requires an extra step. The Epic Touch email client offers more sorting options, along with an optional conversation mode.
- The Photon has smoother transitions, for example from landscape to portrait, opening and closing apps, etc. The old TV effect when turning the phone on and off is also nice.
- The Epic Touch has a split-screen landscape mode in email that’s nice in concept but not quite as useful in practice. The screen, though big for a smartphone, is just a bit small for this sort of functionality. It can be turned off, however.
- The Epic Touch has a great built-in screenshot function. It’s easy to use and just works. Ice Cream Sandwich adds this functionality by default, but it’s nice to have it today.
- The Epic Touch has some fun built-in motion controls, such as zooming by touching with two fingers and tilting the phone. Laying the phone on its face also mutes the phone, a nice feature during meetings. The Photon’s one interesting feature, which is supposed to turn off the display if the phone is put into a pocket or purse, doesn’t work.
- The capacitive button lights can be configured to stay on with the screen on the Epic Touch, which is nice if you have a hard time seeing them otherwise. The Photon does not have this feature.
- The Epic Touch has radio buttons in the notification screen, which is convenient. The Photon ships with a set of widgets to toggle radios, which work but aren’t nearly as convenient.
- Both phones ship with software for syncing and accessing files on the phones from a PC. Both work fine, although Samsung’s Kies app will also work over Wifi (the Photon’s is limited to connecting via a USB cable). The Photon has better options when connected via USB, offering to connect via USB storage mode, MTP, or charging only. With the Epic Touch, MTP is the the default and USB storage mode must be manually configured in settings.
Winner: The Epic Touch has a number of features that make it more fun, while the Photon is in many ways the more functional. Overall, I lean toward the Epic Touch, but the Photon has some nice features as well.
The Photon’s car dock is extremely well made, has outstanding audio quality via an AUX connection, and a nice built-in car dock app with customizable buttons and a day/night mode. The Epic Touch car dock is a little less solid, has significant line noise when nothing is actively playing, and defaults to a Samsung-branded version of Vlingo when the phone is docked. Simply put, the Photon’s car dock is a few orders of magnitude better. In fact, I needed to install an alternative car dock app, CarHome Ultra, from the Market to make the Samsung dock usable for me; fortunately, that’s an excellent app.
Winner: Motorola did a great job with the car dock. The Photon wins this one by a mile.
Here are some other quick notes:
- Audio quality via headphones is good on both phones.
- The Epic Touch boots significantly faster than the Photon, taking only 30 seconds or so to reach a usable stateÂ vs. the Photon’s 3.5 minutes (or more). Every smartphone needs a reboot every now and then to resolve issues, and on the Photon the process is downright painful.
- Auto brightness on the Epic Touch can sometimes be a bit wonky, but it’s also more likely to quickly find a good level. The Photon is less sensitive and mainly seems to adjust when the phone is brought out of standby. It’s a tossup, really, as to which is better in this regard. Both are functional.
- The Photon is a world phone, and so if you travel extensively then it’s your best choice.
It’s a tough decision between these two phones. Sometimes I like using the Photon, sometimes the Epic Touch.Â I could be happy with either, but since I can’t actually use them both, I’m going to go with the Epic Touch. The Photon is more refined in many ways, but the Epic Touch just seems more pleasant to use overall. It’s just more fun, if that makes any sense. The much better camera weighs in favor of the Epic Touch, as does the superior video quality, while the Photon is a better phone for email and ebook reading.
Which is better for you depends entirely on how you’re going to use your smartphone. If you already own the Photon, enjoy it. It’s a great phone, and I’ll miss some things about it. But I think I’ll be happier with the Epic Touch—at least until my final Sprint Premier upgrade is available in 2012.
If you’d like my opinion on any aspect of the phones that I haven’t covered here, let me know in the comments.