Charge for a device and people can get critical, but give it away for "free," and minor annoyances might suddenly evaporate. That's how it goes with Verizon's Samsung Galaxy Stellar. What makes this phone such a great option, though, is that Samsung and Verizon aren't tossing you scraps; the Galaxy Stellar is fully loaded with 4G LTE, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, a dual-core processor, a 4-inch display, and camera technology that delivers quality outdoor shots, though not a high megapixel count.
While the Galaxy Stellar won't blow away those with larger budgets, the cost -- or lack thereof -- sweetens the deal for those looking for a deal on Verizon's network. Free isn't really free, of course; the price comes with the condition of a new two-year service agreement. The carrier now forces new users into a shared data plan, which will raise the price for some. On the flip side, Verizon's 4G LTE network is currently the most extensive.
Design and build
At first glance, the Galaxy Stellar strongly resembles the Droid Razr Charge, also for Verizon. A little smaller, it nevertheless has the same glossy black plastic body, similar port placements, and, most distinctively, a slightly peaked chin. The Stellar is softer and less pronounced than the Charge in that respect.
The handset's 4.8-inch height and 2.5-inch width are barely worth noting, but the 0.47-inch depth is thicker than the slim high-end phones in the Samsung family. Still, a half-inch thickness is within the realm of normalcy, though it feels as hefty as it looks at 4.7 ounces. The slick, reflective coating will help the Stellar glide into loose pockets. Weight aside, it feels comfortable to hold, and my ear had no complaints.
You'll find a 4-inch Super AMOLED display as your window into Android. The Stellar's resolution is a respectable 800x480 pixels, also known as WVGA. It's fine for the Stellar's screen size, where icons and text look typically sharp and bright on the automatic brightness setting. Support for 16 million colors helps achieve the rich look.
Beneath the screen is where I find my favorite Samsung convenience, a fourth capacitive navigation button that pulls up the menu keys. This is an onscreen control on a lot of Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) phones, but in stock Android, the menu placement can jump around. I enjoy having the context menu where I can see it. This isn't new for Samsung, which has long included a menu button as part of its usual controls. What is different is the use of Google's vertical ellipsis symbol, and the placement all the way on the right, where you'd find it in stock ICS.
Moving on to the physical controls, you'll find the charging jack at the Stellar's chin, the power button on the right spine, the volume rocker and microSD card slot on the left spine, and the 3.5mm headset jack up top. There's a rear-facing camera, and above the display there's a front-facing camera lens. Nearby, you'll also note the blue LED indicator light.
OS and dual mode
An Android 4.0 phone, the Stellar includes several hallmark features, including the capability to view recently opened apps, peer into your data usage, set up face unlocking, and take advantage of some reorganization and housekeeping. Samsung's TouchWiz interface adds a lot of its own aesthetics and software extras, including the quick-access settings at the top of the notifications pull-down menu, and the option to pinch the home screen for a view of all home screens.
Like AT&T's competing Pantech Flex, the Stellar has a simple bootup mode to help Android newbies to get acquainted. However, it's far less drastic a change than the Flex's, which limits the number of home screens to one and replaces the menu pages with a simple list of settings on a single screen. In contrast, the Stellar keeps the multiple customizable home pages, but does make them simpler. The drop-down menu and app tray remain the same as standard mode.
Any customizations you make to either mode gets saved if you feel like swapping back and forth, perhaps sharing profiles between two people on a single handset.
Some of the pared-down features are what make the Stellar stand out as a starter smartphone. At least 90 percent of the Android experience is the same, from the sign-on for Google and multiple social-networking accounts, to GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and hot-spot support (up to 10 devices).
The lack of near-field communication (NFC) is one difference, and it means that the Stellar won't be able to take advantage of Android Beam or of S Beam, Samsung's enhanced version. NFC would have been a bonus for the Stellar, but its absence isn't necessarily a demerit for this class of smartphone. There is, however, support for Wi-Fi Direct.
The Samsung virtual keyboard is your only option on the Stellar, but it does let you trace words as you would with Swype or SwiftKey (which you can independently download through the Google Play storefront).
Holding and pressing a capacitive touch key won't bring up voice actions, but you'll have your choice of two assistants. Google Voice Actions remains the typical option for voice search through the Google search bar, for example. You can also use Samsung's own S Voice software, which you can load as a separate app. At this stage in the software's development, I much prefer Google's contribution.
Verizon and Samsung have loaded up the Stellar with a ton of apps. Some call it bloatware, others might think of it as a head start. Luckily, ICS lets you hide and disable unwanted apps, though you won't be able to completely uninstall them. Among the haul, you'll see a passel of Amazon-related apps (Amazon store, Kindle, music, IMDb, Audible, Zappos), Amex Serve, several game demos, the Quickoffice productivity app, and a scoop of Verizon apps, like VZ Navigator.
The titles complement Google's preinstalled services like the Maps app with turn-by-turn voice navigation, and essentials like a clock, a calendar, a calculator, and a music player. You're free to download other apps, TV shows, movies, and music from the Google Play store.
The Galaxy Stellar's 3.2-megapixel rear-facing camera has a slightly unstable personality. Many of Samsung's camera modules have a good reputation, and so long as you're outdoors in abundant natural light, this shooter delivers photos that are some of the best they can be for the limited resolution, from a smartphone. Colors were vibrant and only a little oversaturated (but at least evenly so), and images have defined edges when kept small, so they're ideal for uploading to social networks. However, there's no autofocus, so you have to make sure your manual focus is spot-on.
There's also no flash. That helps keep the phone's price low, but indoor photos taken in artificial light will take a dive in quality. The difference is especially notable with photos of people.