Samsung’s approach to Android smartphones in 2011 appears to be by market saturation, with a range of devices to suit all, from the low- to high-spec and the indeterminable in-between. The Samsung Galaxy Ace on review here falls into this middle space, not able to compete with the top of the line Samsung devices, but offering design and (some) specs that surpass some affordable rivals.
It’s a serious looking phone, looking like a slightly better dressed little brother of the original Galaxy S. It also looks remarkably like the iPhone 4, which may perhaps be part of the appeal for some customers. The Galaxy Ace measures 112.4 x 59.9 x 11.5mm, so it is slim and compact enough to slip easily into your pocket. At 113g it is lightweight too, thanks to the use of plastics throughout.
The build quality is good though. It feels solid and doesn’t bend or flex under pressure in your hand. The back is textured, providing a little extra grip and resulting in a smart fingerprint-free phone.
The layout of controls will be familiar to those who have played with Samsung phones before, with the slightly unconventional placement of the power/standby button on the right-hand side, the sliding Micro-USB cover and 3.5mm headphone on the top and a volume rocker on the left-hand side. On this model, Samsung have put the access to the microSD card slot under a flap on the side, so it is truly hot-swappable without the need to remove the back cover.
Externally then, the Samsung Galaxy Ace seems to have a lot going for it. It is a good size, it looks well finished and doesn’t look, a first glance, like the affordable phone it certainly is. The chrome detailing on the front speaker and encircling the central home button adds a touch of class.
Under the skin
When you dive into what actually makes the Samsung Galaxy Ace tick things become altogether more typical, with hardware specs that do limit some of the experience that Android 2.2 offers. Although Android 2.2 offers Flash support, for example, you’ll find that the Galaxy Ace doesn’t meet the requirements to run Adobe Flash Player. That’s normal for this type of device, but it does mean that if you head over to the BBC iPlayer website, or try to hunt down the app, you’ll find yourself denied.
Many budget devices find themselves with a small screen which can inhibit the experience. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy Ace you get a rather more generous 3.5-inch display, the same size as the INQ Cloud Touch, also packing the in the same pixels with a resolution of 480 x 320. This is a low resolution and the larger screen size means the pixel density is rather low, so images don’t look as sharp and crisp as they do elsewhere.
Aside from that the screen is bright and vibrant, and generally speaking the Android experience is good. The lower resolution means you need zoom in and our just a little more when you are reading text from websites, but you’ll still get a passable result from video playback. Sure, there is less detail, but for YouTube videos, or catching up on some music videos from Vevo, that’s of little concern. The browser is at least fast enough to load pages and the screen size means it's a little less painful to browse than on some smaller devices.
You’re not short changed on connectivity either, packing in the normal run of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS. This isn’t a pared-down smartphone experience the likes of which we saw a few years back. That means you get you cut around town ably aided by Google Maps in all its pinch-zooming glory. There is an FM radio included and as normal, you’ll need to connect headphones to use it.
As with most other Samsung handsets, you’ll find TouchWiz is installed over the top of Android 2.2. It is not as intrusive as some Android customisations and there is little here that really detracts from the core Android experience. That said, TouchWiz doesn’t really add anything that Android doesn’t already offer. As always you can customise the homepages you are offered, as well as add a range of shortcuts and widgets as you see fit. Samsung have added some of their own widgets to the mix, but there is little to get really excited about: if widgets are what you are after, then perhaps the HTC Wildfire S will be more up your street.
Some will say that TouchWiz just clutters up the native Android experience. To a certain extent that’s true. At the same time it’s a light touch, different from native Android 2.2 but not hugely so. Samsung have added some of their own apps into the mix, All Share offers to stream content from a sharing device to another device, but doesn’t, in this instance, offer to play network content on the phone itself.
Social Hub will pick up your social accounts but then just collates access to the mobile sites in one place, along with a link to messaging. Set alongside the fully-featured Android Twitter and Facebook apps it isn’t really worth bothering with. If Facebook is your thing, then perhaps you’d be better suited the INQ Cloud Touch, which offers an innovative twist on Facebook integration.
The keyboard is responsive enough, but can feel a little small at times in portrait. Samsung also bundle in Swype, so you can trace the letters across the keyboard rather than having to press each key. On a smaller device this can save you a lot of time and frustration, so it's worth getting the hang of, or you can always opt to download a more advanced keyboard from the Android Market.
In the case of the Samsung Galaxy Ace, TouchWiz doesn’t add much, but it doesn’t interfere too much either, so we can’t complain too much. You still get access to the great Android experience, with all the syncing with your Google accounts that you expect and an otherwise stable and relatively smooth experience.
Not being the most powerful phone around, you’ll find it is a little slow in opening apps and in general navigation, but that’s typical for this level of device. We feel that video capture could be a higher resolution, as we’ve seen better results from similar spec devices; the Samsung Galaxy Ace offers you a maximum video resolution of 320 x 240, which is well behind the times. One thing we like about the video capture is the option to pause meaning you can easily string together different scenes without the need to edit out boring bits or combine clips when you get back to your PC.
The internal memory is minimal so you’ll need to throw in a microSD card of a decent capacity to handle all your music you’ll undoubtedly want to carry - our sample device came with a 2GB card in the box which will get you started. The low internal memory may limit the number of apps you can install, although in reality you should be able to cover most bases without issue, and an increasing number of apps can stored on the SD card rather than internally. You'll need a memory card to use the camera, however.
Video playback is something of a limitation too as the Galaxy Ace doesn’t want to crunch your media like it’s bigger brothers do and it struggled to play our normal run of test video files. This can be bettered slightly by trying a different video player from Android Market, but video is never going to be the phone's strong point.
Ending on a positive note
There are a couple of surprises however. The 5-megapixel camera (with largely useless LED flash) can give some nice results, although struggles with high contrast scenes as so many camera phones do, and returning noisy results when the light drops. It's an autofocus camera and offers up a range of options, including panorama shooting, along with a selection of scene modes and some basic effects (sepia, negative, etc.). It's not hugely exciting, but works well enough.
The external speaker is also good quality, especially when you place the phone down on a desk or table. If sharing music from your phone is what you want to do, then the Samsung Galaxy Ace sounds pretty good with appreciable volume. We found call quality to be fine with no complaints from callers.
Battery life is average, but surpasses many of the high-end devices because you’re not drawing so heavily on the 1350mAh battery. We made it through most days without running dry, but obviously battery life will depend on usage - if you use it as a full time music player it will need charging every night.
The Samsung Galaxy Ace doesn’t really step out of its remit as a budget smartphone. It has many rivals in this area: the INQ Cloud Touch offers a similar range of specs but with a stronger leaning towards Facebook, then there are the likes of the HTC Wildfire S or the Orange San Francisco, which find themselves delivering similar performance and all offering good value for money.
Ultimately, if multimedia isn’t important to you, then the Samsung Galaxy Ace offers the flexibility of Android effectively and in a clear and hassle-free package. But the Galaxy Ace doesn’t really offer up anything truly distinctive outside its good looks. For some that might just be enough, but others might be drawn to slick interface highlights elsewhere.