Samsung Galaxy S Aviator (U.S. Cellular) Review

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Right now, the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator is the only phone on U.S. Cellular’s 4G LTE network, but it isn’t the best phone the carrier offers.

(4 out of 5)

Pros

  • First 4G LTE phone on U.S
  • Cellular
  • Good call quality
  • Solid camera and camcorder
  • HDMI out port.

Cons

  • Dated single-core processor
  • Limited LTE coverage area.

U.S. Cellular’s 4G LTE network may be brand new, but the $99.99 Samsung Galaxy S Aviator looks and feels an awful lot like last year’s Samsung Droid Charge ($99.99, 4 stars) for Verizon Wireless. That’s not a bad thing: the Aviator has a sharp, beautiful display, good call quality, and a great camera and camcorder. It’s also the only smartphone available to tap into U.S. Cellular’s 4G LTE network. It’s a good choice if you live in an LTE coverage area and want in right now, but the carrier offers better options if you stick with 3G.

Physical Design and Call Quality
As previously mentioned, the Aviator bears a close resemblance to the Samsung Droid Charge (check price). Like the Charge, it measures 5.1 by 2.6 by .5 inches (HWD) and weighs 5 ounces. The area beneath the display dips down into a slightly pointed chin shape, and features four physical function keys. The display itself is another lovely 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen from Samsung. At 800-by-480-pixels, it is lower resolution than the 960-by-540 display on the Motorola Electrify ($129.99, 4.5 stars), but the colors on Super AMOLED Plus are richer. Typing on the on-screen QWERTY keyboard feels fine in both portrait and landscape modes, and dialing phone numbers is fast.

The Aviator is a dual-band EV-DO Rev A (800/1900 MHz) and 4G LTE device with 802.11b /g/n Wi-Fi. Voice quality is a strong point. Reception is solid, and calls sound clear and full in the phone’s earpiece. The speakerphone also sounds good and is just loud enough to use outdoors. Calls made with the phone sound clear and easy to understand, with decent noise cancellation. Calls also sounded good and voice dialing worked well over a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset ($129, 4.5 stars). Battery life over 3G was average, at 6 hours and 28 minutes of talk time.

4G LTE
U.S. Cellular was the winner for customer satisfaction in our most recent Readers’ Choice survey, and is the seventh-largest carrier in the nation, with about six million customers in 26 states. The carrier roams on Verizon and Sprint, offering nationwide 3G coverage when outside of its native coverage area.

The carrier’s new LTE network currently covers six regions: Madison-Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Lawton-Wichita Falls, Texas/Oklahoma; Bangor-Portland and Presque Isle-Houlton, Maine; rural eastern North Carolina; and metropolitan Iowa. While it’s the only LTE carrier in Maine right now, at least part of all of those other areas are covered by Verizon’s 4G LTE. The carrier plans to expand throughout 2012 and 2013.

We haven’t yet tested U.S. Cellular’s 4G network, and the carrier isn’t quoting speeds publicly. We’re expecting fast LTE speeds like the ones we’ve seen on Verizon, as opposed to the more-like-3G speeds on MetroPCS, because of U.S. Cellular’s comfortable spectrum position. That can mean average download speeds around 9.5Mbps, like we saw in our Fastest Mobile Networks tests.

4G plans for the Aviator cost the same as 3G plans for U.S. Cellular’s other devices; that’s a good thing. You can get 450 minutes of voice calls, unlimited texting, and 5GB of 4G data for $79.99 per month. That same plan on Verizon costs $89.99 per month, and you only get 2GB of data (or 4GB, for a limited time). An additional $25 per month allows you to use the Aviator as a mobile hotspot, and share its 4G connection with other devices, like a laptop or tablet, though you’re pooling from the same 5GB of data.

Processor and Apps
The Galaxy S Aviator is powered by the same 1GHz Cortex A8-based Hummingbird processor as the Droid Charge, along with half a dozen other original Galaxy S handsets, now almost two years old. That’s a far cry from the 1.2GHz dual-core Exynos processor found in the Galaxy S II ($229.99, 4 stars). The Aviator benchmarked accordingly—at about half the performance level of the Galaxy S II, or other dual-core devices like the Motorola Electrify. It should still be able to run most of the 450,000+ apps in the Google Play store without a problem, but even navigating around the UI feels noticeably slower than on a dual-core device.

The phone is running Android 2.3.6 (Gingerbread), along with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI extensions. There’s no word yet on whether the device will receive an upgrade to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). The phone comes preloaded with a fair share of bloatware, none of which is deletable. And the Aviator lacks some of the cooler preinstalled software you get on the Galaxy S II, like Kies Air, as well as that phone’s motion-activated UI controls.

Multimedia and Conclusions
The Aviator comes with 1.4GB of free internal storage, along with a preloaded 16GB microSD card; our 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards worked fine as well. All of our music test files played back without a hitch, and sound quality was excellent over both wired 3.5mm headphones as well as Altec Lansing BackBeat Bluetooth headphones ($99.99, 3.5 stars). Our test videos played back fine as well, at resolutions up to 720p, though audio was off sync over Bluetooth.

One benefit of the Aviator over the Galaxy S II is the HDMI out port on the phone’s right edge. It allows you to easily connect the phone to an HDTV, and mirrors everything you do—from navigating through menus to watching movies on Netflix.

In addition to excellent multimedia support, the Aviator does double duty as a good digital camera. Shutter lag is relatively short, at .6 second. The camera has an 8-megapixel sensor, and photos captured with it have strong detail and accurate, vibrant color. The camera also records sharp 720p videos at 30 frames per second both indoors and out. There’s also a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for self portraits and video chat.

If it had a faster processor, the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator would be a shoo-in for our Editors’ Choice award on U.S. Cellular. But as it stands, the Aviator is your best choice only if you’re looking for access to the carrier’s 4G LTE network, which is very limited right now; it’s also a good option if you’re looking to use the tethering option to get other devices online with 4G LTE. But if you’re looking for sheer smartphone power, you’re better off with either the Samsung Galaxy S II or the Motorola Electrify, both of which feature dual-core processors for faster overall performance than the Aviator. But if you don’t want to compromise on either network speed or processing power, you may want to wait a few months to see if U.S. Cellular unveils a device that features both 4G LTE support and a dual-core processor.

Benchmarks
Continuous talk time:
6 hours 28 minutes

By Alex Colon, PCMag


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