Reviewer: Phillip Brown
A small-screened phone with plenty of power and zippy software but boring hardware? Sounds like a Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini Mini to us.
Tired of giant phone screens you can’t stretch your thumb across? While Samsung may be one of the biggest culprits behind the trend for oversized smartphone screens (its new Galaxy Mega phone-tablet measures a staggering 6.3-inch diagonally) believe it or not, it feels your pain.
While it’s trumpeting the launch of the five-inch Samsung Galaxy S4 flagship, and hurriedly prepping an even bigger, third Galaxy note ‘phablet’, it’s quietly slipped out this model, the Samsung Galaxy Fame, a seriously mobile mobile phone with a, wait for it, 3.5-inch screen.
Nowadays that could get you laughed out of the pub; even Apple, after years of insisting people don’t want big screened phones, upped and made a bigger iPhone anyway. Yet just a few short years ago this was the industry standard, from the first iPhone to the HTC Hero, you didn’t get bigger. Can Samsung turn the clock back? It’s made us yearn for something different, at any rate.
The Samsung Galaxy Fame is playing in an overcrowded market, one saturated in super cheap Android smartphones already. Many of them however are creaky, faded black numbers with washy, leaky displays. Think cheap rather than affordable and you’re on the right lines.
While Samsung doesn’t exactly have the same reputation for build quality as Apple or Nokia do now, it’s still in a different league to its low-rent rivals, and the Galaxy Fame feels like it’s built not for 15 minutes of stardom, but to last.
The 121g, 113.2 x 61.6x 11.6mm frame is light and sturdy: plastic, yes, but the lack of give is very reassuring. It’s a bit of a pity that it seems so stumpy, there’s a noticeable bezel around the display and it’s not too thin.
Nokia has managed to turn that heft into a design character of its low-end Windows Phones like the Lumia 520 and 620, and Samsung’s not quite as successful here, but regardless, the pebble design Samsung’s been pushing since 2012 still works here. Also, we have to admit, it houses some impressively beefy speakers.
In fact, our only real criticism of the shell is that it feels a bit slippery. It’s easy to imagine this popping out of clammy hands and crashing to the floor, though as a silver lining, we can’t see anything bad happening as a result of that, as tough as it seems.
Unfortunately, however, the display on the Samsung Galaxy Fame doesn’t get the same passing grade as the rest of the hardware. While the TFT panel is bright and visible, it’s also extremely low-resolution.
Some of today’s phones offer full HD, 1920 x 1080 displays with 13.5 times more pixels in. By contrast, 320×480 is the same resolution as the very first iPhone from 2007. If you’ve ever used a phone with a sharper screen than the Fame, we doubt you’ll want to switch back to it.
It’s fuzzy and frankly a bit of a strain on the eyes, especially if you like to read long articles on the web, or use Amazon’s excellent Kindle Android app. Go check one out in a shop first if you’re not sure, or alternatively, pull the phone before your last phone out of the draw and see if you’re still alright with that.
On the plus side: the 3.5-inch screen size means it’s extremely manageable. You can touch every corner of the screen with one hand ‘ just imagine ‘ which makes dealing with multiple browser tabs much easier than on larger phones, but it’s not so small that you can’t type comfortably.
It makes us wonder what Samsung could do with a screen this size and Galaxy S4-esque specs.
Out of the box, the Galaxy Fame runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. This isn’t the latest version of Android, 4.2, but few phones offer this yet, especially at the low end of the market, so that’s anything but a con.
And unless the upcoming iOS 7 for iPhone pulls some surprises, even Android 4.1 is frankly untouched right now: it’s simply the best smartphone operating system out there. It’s every bit as powerful as it is easy to use, and the combination of an iPhone like app-list with space for widgets too is brilliantly customisable.
Navigation is easy, just hold the home button to switch between or close apps, and pull down the tray to see your notifications and even reply to them. Google’s suite of preloaded apps are unsurpassed too; everything from Google Maps to Chrome and Gmail works flawlessly, even on a phone screen of this size.
Samsung has added a few useful extras on top of that too, like shortcut icons to the lock screen, and media player controls in the pull down notification tray.
Thankfully the Fame is still remarkably free of flab. When it comes to software, Samsung’s new flagship Galaxy S4 is one amazing phone. But it definitely suffers from feature-creep: the sometimes inevitable, gradually accumulating set of features designed to help it stand out, but do little more than clutter it up.
Here though, all the frivolous Samsung extras you’ve heard about on the Galaxy S4 (S-Life and S-Translate) are gone. You still have to put up with Samsung’s utterly pointless own-brand app store, but just ignore it and keep on downloading from the better stocked Google Play.
What you’re left with otherwise is a much cleaner Android experience that’s far easier to use. Just do yourself a favour and try out a new keyboard though: while the stock touchscreen QWERTY on the Fame is capable enough, it’s not nearly as smart and accurate as alternatives such as SwiftKey and Swype.
Performance and CAMERA
Don’t be put off by the single-core 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM inside the Fame: it performs very well indeed, thanks to the low pixel count and the speed boost Android 4.1’s Project Butter provides.
The camera too is a pleasant surprise. The 5MP snapper takes solid, clear pics in daylight, some of the best we’ve seen for the price. But of course, it all but collapses indoors under the noise.
What is a shade more disappointing is the meagre 1300mAh battery. The Fame’s charge only lasted as long with the Fame as we did with more powerful Android phones, from morning until around 10pm on a charge.
Is it worth the price?
At around £150 on Pay As You Go and free on contracts of about £12.50 per month, there are cheaper phones with more impressive spec sheets out there than the Galaxy Fame.
For around the same price, there’s the 4.5-inch Huawei Ascend G510. And, in some ways, the four-inch ZTE Blade III offers the same experience for a much cheaper £69 on Pay As You Go.
Both the Ascend and Blade have sharper screens, but neither feels as robust as the Fame and they have much more built-in software garbage to boot.
Overall, the Galaxy Fame is a perfectly pleasant and inoffensive option. But that’s OK, because not every useful phone needs to be a celebrity too.
If you want a cheap smartphone you won’t find it with a Samsung. The brands to worry about are Huawei and ZTE, who can offer more for less. Samsung provides a compact, modern Android experience for only marginally more and if you want to run your digital life with just one thumb, there’s definitely a Fame in your future.