Samsung Galaxy Xcover Extreme S5690 £225
13th Feb 2012 | 10:50
Samsung's first rugged Android smartphone hits the deck
Overview, design and feel
We all know that Samsung isn't exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to smartphones. It has a wide range of handsets, spanning all price points and covering Android, Windows Phone and even its own Bada operating system.
Samsung has been in the rugged mobile phone arena before, although only with 'dumb' phones such as the Solid Extreme B2100. Now, though, Samsung seems to have finally noticed the success Motorola has had with its Defy and Defy+, and has decided to jump onto the bandwagon with a rugged handset of its own.
The result is the rather heavily named Samsung Galaxy S5690 Xcover Extreme, which you'll probably see referred to as either the Samsung Galaxy Xcover or the Samsung Galaxy Extreme. We're opting for the Samsung Galaxy Xcover for this review.
The Samsung Galaxy Xcover is IP67 certified, meaning it's able to survive under a meter of water for up to 30 minutes, and can withstand dust too. Clearly it needs to be well sealed to perform these feats. The sealing looks relatively subtle, but we'll test it later.
Both the headset slot on the top and the USB slot along the bottom are protected by hinged covers. The USB slot is also quite recessed, and we had trouble getting our usual 'one size fits all' connector to fit into the hole.
The power button on the right and the volume rocker on the left are fairly flush with the chassis, and presumably well protected underneath.
The backplate is held firm with a screw-type lock, and even when you release this you need to prise it away. There's a secondary seal around the battery for double protection. The Samsung Galaxy Xcover's screen, of course, is made from Gorilla Glass.
The handset is a somewhat chunky beast, measuring 121.5 x 65.9 x 11.95mm and weighing 135g. There is a lot of unused space above and below the screen that makes it seem a bit over-engineered, and the 3.65-inch screen looks a little lost.
Beneath the screen are three fairly large buttons for Home, Back and Menu. Yes, they're well sealed against water and dust, but this doesn't in any way affect their comfy feel under the fingers.
Look closely at the volume rocker, incidentally, and you'll see a torch icon. Hold this end of the rocker down and you can toggle the camera LED for use as a, well, as a torch.
Specs-wise, Samsung hasn't really pushed the boat out with the Galaxy Xcover. Android is version 2.3 Gingerbread. The 800MHz processor isn't what we'd call state of the art, and with just 150MB of free storage you'll need a microSD card almost immediately.
The camera is another letdown, offering just 3.1MP of shooting power.
Considering that Clove, who supplied our review sample, is selling the Samsung Galaxy Xcover for £226.80 SIM-free in the UK, then maybe these specs are to be expected. In the US, we found it priced at $385 SIM-free on Amazon.
There's also the usual GPS, Wi-Fi and HSDPA on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover.
There's nothing very unusual about the way the Samsung Galaxy Xcover works. The user interface is very familiar indeed, with TouchWiz sitting on top of Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
That means that all the home screens have four shortcut icons at the bottom, taking you to Dialler, Contacts, Messaging and Apps. When you switch into the apps menu, for example, the four shortcuts remain, but the Apps shortcut is now replaced by one for the main Home screen.
You start out with three home screens, but if you hit the Home button then choose Edit you can add more, up to a total of seven. This Android 2.3 feature means you can customise the number of home screens to your own taste.
Meanwhile Samsung provides a reasonable range of apps, including Active Applications, which shows you when system resources are getting low and gives a quick link into the Task Manager to close any you don't need.
It also includes a neat weather app that links into AccuWeather for five-day forecasting.
Meanwhile, if you pull down the notification bar on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover, you can access connection settings and even switch the sound to vibration mode and disable automatic screen rotation. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but it is all good stuff.
One user interface aspect we really like is the message notification on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover's lock screen. Just slide it to the left and the handset opens right up into the messaging area.
Contacts and calling
The Samsung Galaxy Xcover supports Samsung's SNS services, which means it can bring in your social network contacts to one place.
Setting up accounts is easy, and you can tell the Android smartphone how often to check for updates.
And you can instruct the handset precisely what updates to check for.
Once you've set up Facebook and Twitter, the contacts area is populated and you can see everyone's little photo by their name, and whether they're a Facebook or Twitter contact.
You can easily search this list using the search box, and if you click through you can see people's contact details and history.
The other way of reaching out to your contacts, of course, is via the Samsung Galaxy Xcover's smart dialler. Call this up and start tapping out a name or number and matches are displayed. There isn't much space for the display, but a little number to the right of the only match that shows tells you how many there are, and tapping it gives you the full list.
In-call services are well thought out, with easy links to hold, the speaker and mute button and to go back to the dial pad.
Call volume on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover was good, although we'd have liked a bit more volume from the speaker, which seems under-powered.
As with TouchWiz, there's nothing here that we haven't seen before, but Samsung lays all the elements out well, and the feature that any phone must get right - calling - is well handled.
The Samsung Galaxy Xcover handles your Facebook and Twitter contacts via its Social Hub, which is where it also handles SMS messages.
Initially this looks inviting, but in fact it doesn't mean there are integrated Twitter and Facebook apps on board. Tap either option and you're taken to the mobile web versions of each social network.
Worse than that, while we were automatically logged into our Facebook, the Samsung Galaxy Xcover had the cheek to ask us to log into our Twitter again. It's hardly a fully-integrated solution.
Moreover, there are no dedicated apps for Facebook or Twitter pre-installed. You can get both from the Android Market, of course, but their absence makes the Samsung Galaxy Xcover a fairly socially unaware handset out of the box.
To add a little insult to injury, we had a bit of a problem with sessions expiring and found we had to log in again quite frequently. If this were an ongoing problem with the Samsung Galaxy Xcover we'd be pretty annoyed, since the whole point of seamless social network integration is that it is seamless.
Moving on to SMS text messaging - the other thing the Social Hub handles - this is a rather more pleasant experience. Missed calls are listed here, as well as text messages. Click through to create a new SMS, and the screen offers smart dialling in its search box.
When it comes to typing messages, the keyboard lets things down a bit. You have to pop onto a second screen for punctuation and numbers.
It slows down the rush of fingers across the screen a little.
On the other hand, the threaded message view works well and gives you a reasonably lengthy view of an SMS chat.
The Samsung Galaxy Xcover offers Swype, but you can't turn it on and off from within the keyboard settings. It's in the general settings area under Locale and Text.
This is also where you can turn on and off predictive text and different keyboard types, including old fashioned numerical style keypads and handwriting recognition in portrait mode.
Of course there's email support too, and you can set up accounts very easily by adding in the standard information. It's nice that the keyboard offers '@' and '.com' shortcuts here for quick information entry.
The Samsung Galaxy Xcover has both Wi-Fi and 7.2Mbps HSDPA, so it ought to be able to cope well with web browsing in simple terms of downloading pages.
And it did, too. It took about 12 seconds to pull down and resolve the TechRadar home page over the network, which is nice going.
The 3.65-inch screen is just about big enough for comfortable web browsing, although its resolution, at 320 x 480 pixels, is some way behind what we'd expect from a higher-end smartphone these days. Still, when we did a double-tap to zoom in, web text was readable and not blocky at all.
Text reflowing isn't what it should be, though. A double-tap to zoom into a TechRadar story we wanted to read didn't result in good news.
We only really got to read without a lot of scrolling when we flipped into landscape mode. What you experience in everyday life may vary depending on the websites you read and how they're originally formatted, but we weren't too happy with what we found.
Moving on to take a look at how the Samsung Galaxy Xcover handled Flash, there was more disappointment. Its 800Mhz processor isn't up to the job, so embedded video was a bit of a no-go area.
On the other hand, there's a nice bookmarks area, which also offers your most visited sites and browsing history, enabling you to get around fairly quickly. To add a bookmark, you just tap a little icon to the right of the search box.
The camera on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover is something of a disappointment on paper. It shoots stills at just 3.1 megapixels, making it pretty much entry-level as far as today's smartphones are concerned.
The lens is slightly recessed, so it should be able to avoid getting scratched and buffeted by all the rough and tumble the phone is designed to take, and there's a flash.
The flash doesn't work well more than a few feet from your subject, however, and even then it's not great.
Shooting modes are fairly limited, but there is a panorama mode and alongside the usual sports, indoor and night modes there's a mode for photographing text.
Camera controls sit on the edges of the Samsung Galaxy Xcover's screen, where they are easy to find by touch. Because there's no shutter button, you can assign the menu key as a camera shutter, or use the on-screen button, which is just as easy.
WHITE SKY:You can see at a glance that the camera delivers only average quality photos. It can't cope with the sky in this photo, though the water and the bridge are OK, as is the greenery. Zoom in even a little bit and you notice the pixelation.
PANORAMA: Panorama mode stitches together eight photos, which are taken in sequence automatically as you pan. The result is a photo 2640 pixels wide x 400 pixels high. The stitch quality isn't too bad, and the process is fairly fast.
MODES:Moving through the standard Normal, Black and White, Sepia and Negative filters, you see again how badly the camera handles variance in light. The sky wasn't especially bright on our shooting days, either.
INDOORS:Indoors, the camera copes fairly well with average household lighting conditions. But don't try to take pictures as it gets darker.
The major problem with the Samsung Galaxy Xcover's video camera is that it is limited to shooting at a maximum resolution of 640 x 480. It captures 25.7 frames a second at this resolution.
That's really not good enough for video you want to share, although videos do display well enough on the 640 x 480 screen of the handset itself.
The Music Hub icon on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover's apps list might look appealing and interesting, but in fact it's fairly bland.
The app isn't even pre-installed. It has to be downloaded from the Samsung App store via a link, and as you start the download process the Samsung Galaxy Xcover tells you that you have to change a setting first.
Now, call us churlish, but that might put the odd newbie off.
Still, if you do go ahead you get the Music Hub, which is basically an online store.
If you'd rather play music you already own then you'll need a microSD card, since there's only 150MB of internal storage for any data you might have.
The microSD card slot is under the battery, which under normal circumstances we'd grumble about because it makes hot swapping impossible. But because the Samsung Galaxy Xcover is rugged, the slot needs as much protection as possible, so we'll forgive its location in this case.
The music player is a basic rendition that does its job well enough, but without frills. It has so few frills, in fact, that it could only be bothered to find album art on our microSD card some of the time.
When tunes are playing, there's a playback controller in the notifications area. Just pull that down and whatever app you're in you can move around within a playlist.
The built-in speaker delivers quite a good volume, but there's a bit of distortion to the output at top volumes. Plug in a headset and you get the benefit of Dolby 5.1 sound, which does make a bit of difference, but there's still noticeable distortion even with quite good headphones.
An FM radio adds another facet to audio-based entertainment, and the auto scan kicks in the first time you run the app without you having to ask. That's a nice little feature, and scanning only takes a couple of seconds.
The radio has a round dialler button you can sweep to move through frequencies, or you can simply choose a channel from the presets. There is room to store four favourite stations at the bottom of the screen.
When it comes to video playback, the Samsung Galaxy Xcover isn't hugely capable. It can cope with MP4, H.264 and H.263. It played our samples without jerking, though, and colour rendition was good.
Battery life and connectivity
The Samsung Galaxy Xcover has a 1500mAh battery, which is pretty generous and should, on paper, provide a relatively long life. We've not seen an official battery life quote from Samsung, but elsewhere we've seen it quoted as good for 11 hours talktime on 3G and up to 640 hours of 3G standby.
We found the battery to live up to the usual smartphone expectation of delivering about a day's worth of life between charges, but what you get will of course very much depend on how you use the Samsung Galaxy Xcover.
When we left it on overnight just with Wi-Fi on, it lost about a tenth of its charge just ticking over. Playing music for an hour lost it about 20 per cent.
And over a two-and-a-half hour period when we used the video camera, played music continuously and sent and received emails over Wi-Fi indoors and 3G outdoors, the battery drained down to close to half of its power.
So, we reckon if you use the Samsung Galaxy Xcover on a daily commute, you ought to budget for an afternoon power boost, and another in the evening.
Connectivity options don't run to the likes of DLNA and HDMI - this isn't an expensive enough smartphone to warrant those.
But Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are of course here, HSDPA supports 7.2Mbps downloads and 5.76Mbps uploads, and those who like their location-aware services will be pleased to see A-GPS is here too.
In addition, you can use the Samsung Galaxy Xcover as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot.
Maps and apps
With GPS and Google Maps on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover, mapping and navigation is nicely taken care of. There are plenty of information layers available these days, such as satellite and traffic data, and Google Maps often proves itself really useful when we are out and about.
Samsung has added a few apps to the Android standard set. It's a pity the nice Notes app from the Samsung Galaxy Y isn't here, but then you can very easily find oodles of notes apps in the Android Market.
Polaris Office looks like it's installed because there's an icon present, but like the Music Hub we mentioned earlier, you have to download it from the Samsung App store.
It is free, and we suppose this ensures you have the latest version, but the download process is a bit of a pain.
Once you have it, Polaris Office enables you to create documents that are compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as edit existing documents.
There's also a books app, which gives you access to ebooks including a good few for free, although the idea is really that you buy ebooks. When we looked, there were plenty of new titles on offer.
There's also a little workout helper called Cardio Trainer, but if you are into using your phone for fitness you can find better apps in the Android Market.
With both the Android Market and Samsung Apps - Samsung's own app store - on board, you've plenty of scope for beefing up the apps content of this smartphone.
We've noted that the Samsung Galaxy Xcover is classed as a rugged smartphone, yet it looks quite attractive.
The USB and headset slots have protective hinged covers, the backplate is held down by a screw, and inside the back there's a seal around the edge and a second seal around the battery.
SIM and microSD card slots are under the battery. To cap it off, the screen is made from Gorilla Glass.
We subjected the Samsung Galaxy Xcover to a few tests to find out how rugged it really is. We dropped it semi-accidentally a few times, including against the edges of metal filing cabinets, onto pavements and down the stairs. There wasn't a scratch on the chassis.
We tried to scrape scratches on the screen with a knife. No joy.
We took the Samsung Galaxy Xcover on a run, stowing it in the sweaty back pocket of our training bottoms, and it weathered the storm. We even sat the handset under a running tap for 15 minutes, and it survived that too, although a little water did seep under the backplate.
Hands on gallery
The build doesn't feel quite as solid as that of the Defy, and the general specifications aren't as advanced either.
The Motorola Defy+ has a 3.7-inch 480 x 844 pixel screen vs a 3.65-inch 320 x 480 screen on the Samsung Galaxy Xcover.
The Defy+ camera shoots at 5MP as opposed to 3.1MP here. The Defy + processor runs at 1GHz as opposed to 800MHz on the Galaxy Xcover.
And there's no price difference to mirror that, with the Defy+ currently costing exactly the same as the Samsung Galaxy Xcover, priced at £225/$385.
The Samsung Galaxy Xcover looks neat - its bronze sides really help it stand out from the crowd.
The microSD card is under the battery, where it's best protected from water and dust.
The camera LED can be used as a torch thanks to a feature added to the volume rocker.
The build feels a bit on the plasticy side, and there was a little water seepage under the backplate in our 'run under the tap' test.
Web browsing isn't too great, with poor text reflow and no Flash support.
The handset feels a bit big in the hand considering its screen size, and it is in particular a bit on the tall side.
Screen resolution is on the low side for a modern smartphone.
Camera resolution is quite low, at 3.1MP, and video resolution is woeful, at 640 x 480.
Samsung has made rugged handsets before, and not done too bad, but this is the first time the company has brought rugged features to an Android smartphone, and we aren't all that excited, because the general specifications are average rather than great.
If we were choosing a rugged smartphone right now, we'd choose the Motorola Defy+ rather than the Samsung Galaxy Xcover. Sorry, Samsung.