Being a smartphone owner usually means doing without a hardware keyboard; and it's harder than ever to find a smartphone with an integral keyboard, such as the one on the Samsung Stratosphere. For somebody who just does casual browsing, an on screen keyboard is usually good enough, but when you live your life online - with a lot of texting, tweeting and Facebook sharing as college students do - the hardware keyboard comes in handy.
My daughter, Jacqueline, and I have been working with the Stratosphere on the Verizon Wireless network for a few weeks. And we found out the keyboard doesn't disappoint.
The Stratosphere's keyboard slides out like other hiding keyboards. But Samsung has added a few convenient new keys that mimic the four static keys on the bottom of most Android phones for Menu, Home, Back and Search. Those four keys, placed on the far left and far right of the keyboard, give you the same easy access to those four selections when holding the phone sideways as when holding it upright. After seeing them on this phone, it's easy to ask why nobody has done it before. The keyboard is solid, slides out easily, and the buttons are large enough to be comfortable for a full size adult hand.
In her testing, Jacqueline also noticed that there's a performance advantage with the hardware keyboard as well, because the onscreen keyboard action is often delayed when you press a button. The hardware keyboard doesn't suffer from the delay.
The delays on the onscreen controls seem to be associated in large part with the way the device charges because it is particularly bad when the phone is plugged into the wall. Not only do the reactions of the onscreen keys happen more slowly than expected, loading photos and starting up the camera when plugged into the wall also happens slowly. The obvious solution is to remove the phone from the wall outlet when doing one of these tasks, so it's not a major issue - just something that seems out of place.
The screen is a nice size - about the same size as the iPhone 5, although it is set up to show 16 movable icons on a screen like the iPhone 4 instead of 20 like the iPhone 5. It's thick, about twice as deep as the iPhone 4, due to the inclusion of the hardware keyboard. It weighs 5.8 ounces, again due to the keyboard weight. The weight and thickness are the price for the convenience of the extra hardware.
From a decision standpoint, the real selling point of the Stratosphere is that it gives you 4G speeds and the hardware keyboard - a combination that is difficult to find. You're not giving up screen quality, as it has a nice large super active-matrix organic light-emitting diode screen as well.
If you're looking to put a phone in the hands of somebody who Skypes a lot or uses other visual communications tools, the Stratosphere has dual cameras - a 1.3 megapixel on the front and a 5.0 megapixel camera on the back. In addition to letting you take a continuous panorama photo, it lets you take rapid fire photos (like sports mode), and combine two photos into a single photo, a mode that Samsung calls "Add me." It also lets you take action shots to see a moving subject at two different parts of the action. All of these add to the fun of taking pictures.
There are a few idiosyncrasies, like an icon that takes up space unnecessarily on the status bar when you're in battery saver mode. But they're distractions more than problems.