If you're looking for a budget prepaid Android smartphone, you can do better than Virgin Mobile's Samsung Galaxy Ring. Although the phone's entry-level specs sound fine on paper -- a 4-inch touch screen, dual-core processor, and 5-megapixel camera -- in the real world, the $149.99 Ring falls short of expectations.
We've seen high-performing smartphones from Samsung before, like AT&T's 99-cent on-contract Galaxy S3 Mini; that makes it extra-disappointing that the Ring drops several rungs below.
Do yourself a favor and opt instead for the LG Optimus F3, another $150 smartphone with comparable specs, which also includes 4G LTE support.
Design and build
Visually, the Ring is cut from the same cloth as a fair number of other phones in Samsung's lower-end catalog. Unless you know where to look, you'll have a hard time distinguishing it from the Galaxy Axiom (U.S. Cellular), Galaxy Admire 2 (Cricket), and Galaxy S3 Mini (AT&T).
It has the same bubbly, rounded corners and slick, smooth, glossy surfaces. In fact, I more than once grabbed the wrong phone thinking it was the Ring. The device is bluish-gray, with a strange black border around the screen and front-facing camera, almost like a filter. It comes in at about the same dimensions as its cohort, but thicker: 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.47 inch deep, and weighing 3.4 ounces.
The phone is comfortable on the ear and in the hand, but it feels a little thick in pockets.
Remember that filter over the screen that I mentioned a minute ago? That's not a good thing. When the 4-inch display is resting, it looks gauzy and opaque gray, almost like e-ink, or the surface of an old-fashioned TV. Samsung displays are often reflective, but the Ring's mirrorlike surface bounces back more than most, more even than the Galaxy Admire 2 and S3 Mini that look so similar.
At least colors are bright and rich with the 800x480-pixel resolution (233ppi), but good luck trying to read anything in bright sunlight. My suggestion: try to find yourself a spot of shade.
Typing on the screen's virtual keyboard is a little cramped, especially if you've handled larger-screen phones. Samsung's trace-to-type software can help take the sting out of tapping if you're tired of accidentally writing the wrong thing.
Navigation is Samsung-standard with a physical home button that also pulls up recent apps (this model doesn't seem to have S Voice loaded by default). Press and hold the Menu button to get at Google Now.
A Micro-USB charger sits at the bottom, and is joined by a microSD card slot (up to 64GB) and volume rocker on the left spine. In a nice change from Samsung's usual, the power/lock button is up top, which should cut down on accidental bootups, and there's a physical camera shutter button on the right.
That 5-megapixel camera with LED flash is on the back. The other half of the camera equation, a 1.3-megapixel camera, sits on the front. You'll need to pop off the back cover if you'd like to remove the 1,750mAh battery.
OS and features
Running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean topped by Samsung's TouchWiz layer, the Ring is reasonably up-to-date. I wouldn't hold my breath for any sponsored upgrades to Android 4.2.2, 4.3, or higher, but you really don't miss too much when it comes to major functionality and interface changes.
The Ring gives you Google's standard package of titles, like Navigation, the Chrome browser, YouTube, and numerous doorways into the Google Play store for entertaining content and apps. Android's more essential mobile tools -- a music player, a calendar, a calculator, a clock system -- come with every device.
Samsung and Virgin Mobile, too, pepper the Ring with preloads, like an account manager, featured apps, and a news feed. Mobile ID packs load up apps and wallpaper relating to a certain theme -- say, sports -- into a predesigned profile.
If Android seems a little overloaded for your tastes, the now-standard Easy Mode is Samsung's stab at training wheels. It's a nice touch that you'll see in various forms from several manufacturers.
As for basic communications and connections, the Ring has Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth 4.0 covered, but there's no NFC support, so you won't be able to use Android Beam or Samsung's S-Beam adaptation.
Cameras and video
Samsung's usual 5-megapixel camera can take some snappy pictures, with rich, deep color and sharp edges. The Galaxy Ring, unfortunately, wasn't invited to the photo party. Autofocus is always a boon, and worked well here. Pictures, though, came out faded, with dull colors and indistinct edges. There is an LED flash, but as a general rule, the more natural light you can introduce, the better.
The same mediocrity that afflicts the main camera also makes photos taken with the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera dull and mostly blurry, but still usable if your standards aren't high.
If you feel like tinkering with the camera settings, you'll be able to adjust resolution size and white balance, and choose from a few filters and modes, such as night and landscape. There's panorama, which is always a nice option to have, but no designated macro mode. Instead, expect to lean in for close-ups.
I'm sad to say that the Ring's 720p HD video let me down. Image capture was fairly smooth, but the camera once again pumped out dull, flat colors and soft edges instead of sharp, defined lines. Videos shot outdoor in natural lighting will look the best, but you can forget about preserving conversational gems.
The weak microphone wasn't able to pick up individual voices amid the din of outside traffic, and inside, a hilarious conversation among two co-workers and me went almost entirely mute from about 5 or 6 feet away, only picking up their audio when I got within 2 feet. Even then, my own audio sounded quiet when played back at maximum volume over the Ring's speakers. Video sounded louder through my high-quality headphones.