Meet the Samsung Galaxy Axiom, the U.S. Cellular poster product for the GS3-ification of entry-level and midrange phones. The Axiom shares many of the same basic elements and a lot of the same design philosophy as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini. Although it's roughly the same size as the Mini, its hardware and software features are still a step down.
That isn't to say you should steer clear of the Axiom. Its excellent price -- just a penny on contract if you live in a 4G area and $79.99 if you're in a 3G 'hood -- keeps it in the running as a midrange Android phone, and it comes with a lot of hardware features, including two cameras and HD video, plus the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS and NFC.
These features make it a good choice for people who are watching their purse strings or who are transitioning to a smartphone; however, I wouldn't recommend it for those looking for more power. There are a few red flags in addition: call quality was a little choppy, the roaming 3G network was slow and frequently stuttered, and the handset is a little bulky. Since I wasn't able to test the Axiom's 4G network -- or even its 3G network in its home area -- take my experiences with a grain of salt.
Design and build
With its rounded corners, gray-blue brushed-metal look, and central physical home button, the stylish Galaxy Axiom strongly resembles the Galaxy S3 Mini. Like the Mini, the Axiom has a 4-inch screen and some slick metallic-looking accents. That's where the similarities stop. The Axiom is thicker than the Mini, and uses a different display technology, an LCD touch screen with WVGA resolution (800x480 pixels) rather than an AMOLED screen.
As for the size, the Axiom's curved back fit well into my hands. At 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide, it's small enough to operate one-handed. The 0.47-inch thickness and 4.8-ounce weight made the phone seem thick and heavy, but more than once I forgot I had slipped it into my back pocket, which means in the end, it didn't really weigh me down.
Below the screen, you'll find touch-sensitive navigation buttons for the menu and the back button. Between these is the physical home button. In Android 4.0, these take on double functions, such as launching thumbnails of recently opened apps. Above the display are all the proximity and light sensors, plus a front-facing camera. The bottom of the phone houses the Micro-USB charging port, and the top has the 3.5mm headset jack. You'll find the volume rocker on the left, above a microSD card slot. The power button is on the right and the 5-megapixel camera lens and flash are on the back panel.
I really like the handset's appearance, and although it is broad in girth, on the whole I did enjoy the illusion of a premium product.
OS and apps
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich powers the Axiom, with Samsung's TouchWiz interface on top. Thanks to the combination, you can customize multiple home screens, access system settings from the notifications menu, pinch to see all your screens, and trace your words on a virtual keyboard. As on all Android phones, you'll be able to manage multiple inboxes and social-networking accounts, syncing contacts and calendars.
A plethora of Google services at your fingertips includes access to turn-by-turn voice navigation, YouTube, and Google Music. The Play store is your source for thousands of other apps and games, and of course, you'll get a browser, a music player, a file manager, and a calculator all bundled into Android.
GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are smartphone standards, but the addition of NFC support means you'll be able to share photos among compatible phones via S Beam, and you can pay for goods and services using the preloaded Google Wallet app.
Speaking of preloaded apps, you'll also find Flipboard, Samsung's Media Hub, and Google's Chrome browser. The S Voice assistant is on tap to help out, or you can continue to use Google's own built-in voice actions feature. U.S. Cellular refrains from adding its own apps, which helps keep clutter down.
Samsung cameras are generally pretty good, and the Axiom's 5-megapixel shooter conformed more or less to my expectations. Outdoor shots taken in natural daylight situations were the best of the bunch. Artificial, indoor lighting tended to overwhelm the mechanism and produce blurrier photos.
I was pleased with the way that the Axiom reproduced colors; they were neither oversaturated nor flat and dull. The camera had a harder time with shadows and details in a photo I took of flowers in CNET's planter. This isn't the first camera to struggle with the same problems in distinguishing nuances in petal shadows and surfaces, though of the many photos I took inside and out, the Axiom produced only a handful of winners. I'd say for casual photos meant to capture a moment, the Axiom does just fine, but if I wanted to create larger or more lasting images to show off online or to frame, I'd be a little disappointed.
The Axiom takes some lovely 720p HD video that adjusted well when I panned around a scene. It also quickly adjusted to lighting changes with shifts in color. Audio was a weaker point, and I had to boost the volume to medium high to be able to hear the video well in a quiet room.