It's said that good things come to those who wait, and if you've been biding your time while looking for a midrange Android smartphone that won't cost you more than a small chunk of dough, you're in luck, because AT&T just recently dropped the price on the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate from $49.99 to $29.99 with a new two-year service agreement.
Price isn't everything, and even $10 for a terrible handset could be $10 too much. Luckily, the Exhilarate is packed with features very similar to those of its next of kin, T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G. There's AT&T's 4G LTE, which was crazy-fast during my San Francisco tests, and it has a dual-core processor, a lovely 4-inch Super AMOLED display, and a quite decent 5-megapixel camera. There are a few drawbacks, but the value-to-price ratio is all in your favor. Since AT&T is billing it as one of its first ecoconscious handsets that's built and packaged with a smaller carbon footprint, consider it extra credit.
The Galaxy Exhilarate has a simple, familiar design that falls in line with the original Galaxy S family: rounded corners, a black body with a pair of shiny dark gray accents, and a comparatively thicker build. The backing is a simple matte black with a slightly rubbery feel and lightly tactile pattern that's good for grip. At 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.46 inch and 4.6 ounces, it feels thicker and heavier than the lithe Samsung Galaxy S3. Other than that, the Exhilarate feels fairly comfortable in the hand and I had no complaints about it on the ear. Its width didn't bust my back pocket. It felt bulkier there than some phones, but no thicker than the iPhone 4S with a case on it.
To me, though, the overall shape of the phone is far less important than the screen quality. Samsung has given the Exhilarate its now-signature Super AMOLED technology on a 4-inch screen, and the results are as nice as they are on similar screens, like on the Galaxy S Blaze 4G and AT&T's Pantech Burst. The WVGA resolution (480x800 pixels) works just fine for the screen size -- your photos and text won't look grainy.
Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. Below it are four touch-sensitive navigation controls. On the left you'll find the volume rocker, and up top is the 3.5mm headset jack. On the right spine are the microSD card slot for expandable memory (conveniently accessible) and the power button. The phone's heel has the Micro-USB charging port, an awkward placement that always gets in my way. Turn it over and there's the Exhilarate's 5-megapixel camera lens with LED flash.
Android 2.3 brings with it the certainty of hardware features like Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, in addition to access to Google's online services, plus essential apps like maps and navigation, the calendar, clock, and calculator combo, and Google's stock music player.
The Exhilarate also has the Swype virtual keyboard as an input option, and is NFC-capable -- though you won't be able to turn on NFC (near-field communication) features in the Settings menu so long as the phone keeps its Gingerbread OS.
Samsung and AT&T have added their usual scoop of branded apps to help you manage your phone and share content with other devices. Starting with Samsung, you'll find AllShare and Kies Air, plus the Media Hub and Social Hub. AT&T adds its scanner and family-mapping apps, AT&T Navigator, featured apps, Live TV (the mobile U-Verse app), and the MyAT&T account management program.
Additional apps that greet you from the app tray include Amazon.com and the Amazon Kindle app, a memo and messaging program, Mini Diary, and Quickoffice.There are no fewer than four voice apps, some Google-issued, including voice command, voice search, voice talk, and voice recorder. AT&T rounds out the list of preloads with its usual YP Mobile yellow pages app.
I had no complaints using the Exhilarate to listen to my Google Music collection with my higher-end headphones. I'm usually pretty easy to please when it comes to audio quality, and the songs were nice and loud and didn't sound tinny or fuzzy to my ears. Your experience could vary depending on the quality of your headset and your music files.
Camera and video
By now, Samsung has figured out how to make a good camera, a fact that it's proven time and again with phones in its Galaxy S II and Galaxy S3 lines, especially. Some of Samsung's 5-megapixel camera modules are very good as well, like the camera on the Samsung Focus 2 Windows Phone. However, the Exhilarate's picture-taking prowess doesn't entirely live up to this legacy.
You can tap to focus, but it isn't continuous, so if your arm is unsteady, you may knock off the focus before you take your shot. Colors looked natural for the most part, but the phone did tend to bring up brighter hues. One shot I took completely oversaturated the fuchsia color of a certain flower petal. In addition, it couldn't separate the petals or show other details.
On the bright side, indoor shots looked pretty good in scenarios with abundant indirect lighting. The studio shot also looked pretty sharp, but had a grayish tint to the edges, while adding a pink center I've never seen in our photo studio. You can find more studio examples from other smartphones in our photo comparison gallery.
On the controls side of the equation, the Exhilarate has multiple scene modes for portrait, landscape, and so on. Shooting modes like Panorama, smile shot, action shot, and cartoon mode are also present. You can take photos in macro, mess with the exposure values, and add a few color effects like sepia and grayscale. You're also able to manually drop the resolution from 5 megapixels to 1.5, or four other sizes in between. I took all my test shots using automatic settings to see how well the camera did straight out of the box, without any additional adjustments.
The 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera was definitely not my favorite. Focusing was sometimes a challenge since the tap-to-focus indicator never made an appearance. The lens is often close enough that you don't have to compete with such a large field of objects to photograph. The image quality will work just fine for self-portraits and video chats.
Video was also a strong suit of the Exhilarate; the camera shoots in 720p HD video. Clips looked crisp and colorful. There wasn't any choppiness or blockiness, but if I fixed my gaze on the legs of a woman who was walking in the corner of the frame, her motions tended to blur together. Audio also sounded good and strong to my ears, without any extra whining. On the whole, I'm happy with daylight video on this phone. The Exhilarate has 2.5GB of user-accessible storage, and room for 32 extra gigabytes in the microSD card slot.