Samsung Stratosphere

It's not fair, really. The Samsung Stratosphere is a better-than-adequate smartphone that hit the market at the same time that people were first getting a look at the iPhone 4S, the Droid Razr

, and Samsung's own Galaxy Nexus, which features Android 4.0. To stand out in that crowd, a phone would have to include a feature like teleportation -- something the Samsung engineers just somehow didn't get around to for this release.

What the Stratosphere does include is a 4G LTE, a slide-out WYSIWYG keyboard and something rare: dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi, the only such combination in Verizon Wireless's lineup. Most phones advertise 802.11n support, but that support is usually for the more crowded 2.4GHz band used by 802.11g networks. When I tried it out, the Stratosphere recognized a 5GHz-only network and operated on it smoothly and quickly.

The tradeoff to all this, of course, is battery life. Run all the radios all the time, and you will not get a full day's use out of this phone, despite the 1800mAh battery and single-core processor. Samsung lists a 3000mAh extended battery ($50) among its options. You will likely need it, especially if you use the phone's mobile hotspot feature.

Notwithstanding the 4-in. Super AMOLED screen -- which was, as expected, impressively sharp and clear -- this is a phone clearly built for connectivity speed, not for entertainment. The OS is Android Gingerbread 2.3.5. There's no HDMI output port, and the processor is a single-core 1GHz ARM chip. The camera is 5 megapixels and does video only at VGA resolution, not HD. Aside from the speedy network, the phone itself doesn't lag in operation, but neither does it fly.

Physically, the phone is a little tubby -- much more so than most phones built on Samsung's Galaxy S platform. That's because of the keyboard, of course. At 5 in. long, 2.5 in. wide and 0.5 in. thick, the Stratosphere is half an inch longer, a quarter-inch wider and a little more than one-eighth of an inch thicker than an iPhone 4. At 5.8 oz., it's about 0.7 oz. lighter than the non-keyboarded HTC ThunderBolt and 0.7 oz. heavier than an iPhone 4S.

The Stratosphere's sliding keyboard makes the phone feel less tightly built than it might have been. I felt that there was some play and looseness about the slide, although that may have been a sample defect. The backlit keyboard is the first I've seen with dedicated Android keys -- Menu, Search, Home, Back -- along with dedicated keys for launching the texting and browsing apps.

The slightly domed keys are reasonably comfortable, though the keyboard felt uncomfortably wide to me. Maybe I have short thumbs, but it felt like I was stretching to reach keys at the center of the keyboard. This is a matter of personal preference, though; try before you buy.

At a Glance

Samsung Stratosphere

Samsung

Price: $199.99 with two-year contract at Verizon Wireless ($149.99 with online discount)

Pros: Comfortable slide-out keyboard, dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, 4-in. Super AMOLED display

Cons: Limited battery life, single-core processor, bloatware

If you don't like hard keyboards, the Stratosphere includes Swype and standard Android soft keyboards, as well as a very simple one from Samsung. The phone comes with a typical load of Verizon bloatware: the useful Quickoffice; the marginally entertaining Lets Golf 2, NFL Mobile and NFS Shift; four different VCast multimedia apps; plus VZ Navigator mapping and navigation.

Cost-wise, the phone is a comparative bargain: $150 online plus a two-year contract with data plan at Verizon Wireless.

Bottom line

There are people who will only consider a smartphone with a physical keyboard. There are people who demand the latest and fastest in network speeds. This is a phone for them; indeed, it's the only Verizon phone that has them both.

But if you're looking for a Verizon phone, and can compromise on a soft keyboard or 3G networks, there are better choices. If you want 4G and like soft keyboards, wait for the Razr, which currently is due to ship no later than November 10. If you insist on a hard keyboard and can hold off on 4G, think about the Droid 3. If you don't care about Android, like soft keyboards, a faster 3G network and lots of bells and whistles, there's this thing called the iPhone 4S that you may have heard about.

In other words, the Stratosphere is not a bad phone by any means. But it sure didn't help that the Stratosphere hit the market in the shadow of giants.

Dan Rosenbaum, by day a search strategist and content maven, has been reviewing mobile technology since the 1990s. His MicroTAC and StarTAC phones are still in a box somewhere.

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