A brand-new phone for AT&T's brand-new Aio Wireless prepaid arm, the Samsung Galaxy Amp does a fairly good job balancing entry-level Android features with cost.
Ringing in at $129.99 off-contract -- or $99.99 during an online promotion -- the Amp has a few notable points in its favor, like its strong call quality (it is a phone, after all), Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and a smooth, compact frame. However, exceptionally cramped storage space forces a microSD card investment on you, it has more-limited software than Samsung's top phones, and the phone lacks 4G LTE support. It also doesn't help that Aio's footprint encompasses only a handful of cities as the carrier starts out.
First-time smartphone seekers, read on to consider the Amp, but you may also want to peek at T-Mobile's $120 Nokia Lumia 521 (which has comparable specs, including the lack of LTE) if you're also open to getting a Windows Phone device.
Design and build
The Galaxy Amp is all Samsung, from its highly rounded corners and black face down to the oblong Home screen button on its chinny chin chin. A glossy gray trim and smooth, finely textured backing on the black back cover add elements of class you don't see in many cheerfully plastic smartphones of this type.
At 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.43 inch thick, the Galaxy Amp feels compact and pocketable by today's gargantuan standards. It tips the scale at 4.4 ounces, making the phone solid and substantial in the hand, even a little heavy compared with larger designs. It's comfortable on the ear, and smooth edges help guide the phone into pockets.
A black bezel frames the 4-inch AMOLED display with its 800x480-pixel WVGA resolution (that's 233 ppi, by the way). Colors are bright and colorful with the brightness level set to half, and the screen is easy to read. Sure, finer details, images, games, and movies won't look nearly as crisp as they do on HD screens with pixel densities in the high 300 and 400 range, but you won't be squinting at the Amp's screen, wondering if it's time to see your optometrist.
The phone's VGA front-facing camera perches above the display; below it, a physical Home button and two capacitive keys navigate you around Google Now, your "recents" list, and settings. On the right spine, a microSD card slot awaits your external storage, near the sliver of a power/lock button. You'll find the volume rocker on the left, the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom, and the 3.5 millimeter headset jack on the top.
Flip the phone around for the 5-megapixel camera module and LED flash just below.
OS and features
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean guides the Galaxy Amp, topped by Samsung's TouchWiz interface. At least, it's one version of TouchWiz. You won't find quite as many features on the Amp as you will on Samsung's other top phones, like the Galaxy S4 series, but there is Easy Mode (which is like Android with training wheels); options to customize the lock screen; and two gesture-triggered controls.
In addition, the Amp supplies full Jelly Bean access to Google Now and enriched notifications. There's all the usual DLNA and VPN support, though Aio Wireless cuts off the hot-spot feature, which other carriers generally ask you to pay for anyhow.
Samsung's default keyboard gives you two options for ways to type. There's the traditional one-by-one pecking, or you can trace the word you want. Swype, another input alternative, also comes preinstalled if you'd like to make a switch. Also onboard is Samsung's S Voice app, which competes with Google Now as a personal assistant.
All the typical Android capabilities are here, too, from multiple e-mail and social networking sign-ins to the full array of Google's apps and services, my favorite being Google Maps and Navigation.
Cameras and video
Image quality from the Galaxy Amp's 5-megapixel camera was decent. Colors came out looking rich and round. Yes, Samsung's shooters can oversaturate some hues, but on the whole, I got casual, usable pictures I could upload or share with friends.
Not having continuous autofocus isn't surprising on a starter phone like this one, but it will add a few seconds to your setup time if you manually focus before snaps. You can also press the onscreen shutter button to start sharpening your scene. In a few photos I shot at dusk, the camera took its sweet time readying the shot before I could capture. If you have squirmy kids or dogs in your life, consider yourself warned.
Samsung limited shooting options and effects for this lower-end device, so while you will see Panorama mode, you won't shoot landscapes in HDR -- though you will get essentials for white-balance and scene options, plus a few extras besides.