Mobile Phones‎ > ‎

Sharp Galapagos 003SH

This is a review of the Sharp Galapagos 003SH mobile phone sold by Softbank mobile in Japan.  Specifically, we will be comparing it to the iPhone 4, and the older Sharp 931SH feature phone.

What is the Galapagos?
Until recently, you have had to choose between two types of phones:
  • Japanese feature phones: These have all of the standard features that Japanese consumers expect from phones in Japan - Wallet Phone/Train Pass, 1Seg TV, IR Data, email with icons and flash animations (DecoMail), iMode Browsers, Java Apps, QR Code readers, etc.
  • Smart Phones: With better PC email, PC web site browsers, a wider selection of apps, and more storage - but lacking the standard features above. 
This was obviously a bad situation for the consumer, and many people were disappointed when they put down a substantial portion of their hard-earned paycheck for a fancy new phone, only to find that it lacked even basic features common in the Japanese market.  Apple obviously doesn't seem to care, and even Sony's Xperia line didn't do a lot to solve this problem.  Sharp sensed this divide, and decided to make a truly Japanese Smart Phone, combining the best of the Japanese phone features with a modern smartphone OS.  The result is the Galapagos phone.  (Incidentally, the name Galapagos is not coincidental, as Galapagos is a small island known for being separated from the rest of the world - in this case, it refers to Japan, since this phone incorporates Japan specific features).  Sharp has implemented this as a heavily customized version of Android OS 2.2.  We are testing with Build 1400S of the Galapagos' OS.

Sharp has released four Galapagos devices to date:
  • Two tablets, a 10.x inch and 5.x inch varieties.
  • 003SH - Touch screen only smart phone.
  • 005SH - Touch screen + slide-out qwerty keyboard smart phone.
We will be focusing on the 003SH for this review, however, the 005SH is nearly identical except for aesthetics and the addition of a hardware keyboard.  For this review, we will not be differentiating in a detailed way between pros and cons caused by the carrier, OS, and hardware, but we will separate them where the cause is obvious.  Since they come as a package, this is what most typical users will experience.  We are assuming a non-Jailbroken iPhone, and a non-rooted Galapagos phone, and the current version of the OS of each.  Except where noted, we are testing the standard built-in applications.

First we'll cover the negative points, or things missing from the Galapagos phone when compared with the iPhone.
  • The built in email client doesn't have push mail, it only checks mail every 5 minutes at the most often.  This is a minus if you want to essentially use the mail for test messaging.  We tested the built-in mail client with Softbank's (i) mail service (which they supply standard with iPhones).  The GMail client does have push mail support, and some 3rd party applications can be installed to enable it for non-GMail accounts. (The iPhone 4 is much better about this).
  • Softbank doesn't supply the (i) mail service for non-iPhone smart phones - though if you have an iPhone or iPad, you can set up the account using the standard mail client.
  • The WiFi tends to turn off when the phone is not in use and the display is off - even if you have set it not to!  This is very bad for those who want to leave their 3G data off in order to save on fees, but still receive messages in a timely manner.  (The iPhone 4 is much better about this). Update: This issue appears to have been fixed via a recently software update.
  • This should be obvious, but the Galapagos can't play encrypted content from Apple's iTunes music store.  Non-Encrypted content, of course, plays fine.(Most music you can purchase via ITMS is non-encrypted, but most of the music videos and television programs are encrypted).  However, there are other services one can use to download content - more on that later.
  • Folders - The default launcher application that Sharp is providing doesn't support folders.  If you want those, you will have to install a different launcher.  On the other hand, since you don't have to put less frequently used apps on the home screen at all, this isn't as necessary as it is on iOS. Update: Actually, folders can be added with a long-touch on the main screen background and then selecting the folder option.  
  • Front facing camera - The Galapagos phone doesn't have a front facing camera.  That means no Facetime-like chat on this model.  (Note that there are no Facetime compatible apps for Android yet anyway, and Skype for Android doesn't yet have video chat capabilities.  Some other third party applications, such as Fring,  do.)  Update: Skype for Android has gained video chat capabilities.
  • GPS - This is a minor point, as the Galapagos phone does include GPS functionality, but it generally seems to take longer to get a lock than the iPhone.  (iOS uses WiFi and Cell Tower estimations while it waits for a GPS lock, while many of the Android applications seem to want to wait for an accurate fix).  This is comparable with the 931SH.
  • iTunes - There is no default PC management software - though it's not really necessary.  The Galapagos can be managed in media player mode by Windows Media player or equivalent, or can be mounted as a USB drive, so you can simply copy the contents across as you want to.  There are several third party packages to integrate Android with iTunes, for those who prefer that approach.
The good - Things that the iPhone can't do, but the Galapagos phone can:
  • Operating System & Application Features
    • Live wallpapers - this is a feature of Android that iOS lacks.
    • Widgets - Similar to the dashboard widgets on Mac OS X - Again this is an Android feature that iOS lacks.  These can show the status of various things on the home screen.
    • More general multitasking - Android allows more or less true multitasking, which enables a wide range of possibilities. It's also clear to see what's running and what's not.  For example, Skype and other background applications won't mysteriously stop running anymore as they do in iOS. 
    • Dictionary - While dictionaries exist for the iPhone, none are included, and the decent ones aren't cheap.  Sharp has included Genius dictionary.
    • QR Code Reader - QR Code 2D barcodes are standard in Japan, and used on all sorts of advertisements, for coupons, etc.  There are applications for the iPhone to do this (some of which work to varying degrees), but it's included by default with the Galapagos. 
    • Business Card Scanner - This feature has been standard in Sharp's high-end phones for a while, and is carried forward to the Galapagos phone in a convenient manner.  (Again iPhone has 3rd party apps to do this...)
    • Text Scanner - There are several types of text scanning included, but basically it's similar to the 931SH in that it can recognize Japanese text shown to the camera and convert it into actual text.  This is especially convenient if you want to input an unknown word into the dictionary.
    • Navigation - This is a standard Android feature, but worth mentioning since iOS doesn't include any comparable application, let alone a free one.  Google's navigation app is much like the system on dedicated car navigation units.
  • Hardware Features
    • Standard Micro USB - Say goodbye to the annoying proprietary Apple connector.  What about the Standard Japanese mobile phone connector?  An adapter is supplied.  This is especially convenient because you can use a standard Japanese phone charger to charge the Galapagos. 
    • HDMI Video out: HDMI video out is a standard feature on the Galapagos, but the cable is not included with the phone.
    • SD Card - You can expand your storage yourself, back up data to the SD Card, etc.  Perhaps best is that there is program to restore backed up data from other Japanese phones, making your conversion from a previous phone to the Galapagos seamless and easy. 
    • 1Seg (One Seg) Television - This is a standard feature here in Japan, and a somewhat glaring omission in the iPhone 4.  (Note that there are kits to add this feature to the iPhone, but they all require you to plug a tuner into the dock connector). 
      • Besides just watching TV, it will show the program guide, subtitles, and allow you to record TV shows in the background, and play them back later.
    • Pedometer - Like the 931SH, there is a built in pedometer application, which records your walking and can provide a history, calories burned, etc.  There is also a home screen widget to display this information at a glance. 
    • Sekigaisen (IR data) - IR is a standard feature on all Japanese phones, and again glaringly absent from the iPhone.  It is used to exchange contact information between phones, thus it is an important feature.  Besides this, there are applications to control your TV, etc. 
    • 3D - This phone has stereographic features similar to the new Nintendo portable 3DS.  What's most amazing is that it works in both landscape or portrait modes.  More specifically:
      • Sharp has baked in functionality to view 3D photos and movies
      • Many of the default wallpapers (including live wallpapers) are 3D enabled
      • The 1Seg TV feature has a 3D viewing mode.  Note that 1Seg broadcasts are generally not in 3D, so this is some sort of simulation.
      • The camera is not 3D, but there is a built-in application to make 3D photos by taking two snapshots of the same scene at different angles and merging them into a single 3D image.  These 3D photos can be viewed in Mac OS by the preview application, but will show up as two separate images, similar to an animated GIF.
      • There is also a built in feature to convert videos into 3D.  This works well for some videos, less well for others.
    • Camera
      • Still Photos: The camera of the Galapagos phone easily beats the resolution of the iPhone 4 on a nominal basis.  Whether the quality is actually better is a separate question.  The built in application has many presets for everything from food to fireworks.  There is of course flash, and the performance in low light conditions is reasonable.  Unlike the latest iOS, however, there is no built-in HDR in Android 2.2. The photos can be imported into iPhoto or Picasa easily using the USB Mass Storage mode and USB.
      • There is a function to take 3D photos, but since the unit only has one camera, this feature required you to move the phone and (automatically) take two shots.  Update: The newer Sharp Android handsets have dual cameras built in so solve this problem.
      • Video: This is where the Galapagos shines, the video is quite large and very clear.  In fact, if there is a down-side, it might be that you need a relatively recent PC to be able to play it.
    • Veil View (Privacy block) - Sharp has long included this on all of their phones, and the Galapagos phone is no exception.  The phone has a color veil view features, and  includes a number of patterns, both still and animated.  This means that you don't need to buy one of those privacy sheets to stick on your phone, because it's built in - and it can be turned on and off at will.  Note that 3D and Veil View can't both be enabled simultaneously.
    • LED Indicator - This seems like a minor touch, until you own an iPhone for a while.  Users who are constantly unlocking their iPhone to see if there is new mail can stop worrying, and just look to see if the light is blinking.  Not only that, but different colors can mean different things.  For example, Blue = unread SMS, Green = Unread email, Red = Missed call, etc.  You can tell from a glance what happened without wasting the time to unlock your phone and see.
    • Felica! (Wallet Phone) - The wallet phone feature ("Osaifu Keitai" in Japanese) is one of those things that you never knew needed - until you try it.  Using Sony's Felica NFC technology, you can pay electronically at convenience stores, etc.  This is basically prepaid in most applications, and can typically be recharged via your credit card or bank account.  Currently EDY electronic money is working, Suica train pass support is in the works and scheduled to be released within the first half of 2011 (soon).  There are also applications to send contact information via IC Card, which work between other phones with the Felica chip.  Though Felica is (mostly) a Japan only feature, this is a huge differentiator, as it saves the owner from constantly having to go to the ATM and carry change around.  Update: Mobile Suica has been released for the SBM003SH.
Real Life Usage:
While the above is only a summary, we want to get into more detail to help the reader make an informed decision.  Obviously, the added hardware (Felica, 1Seg, IR, etc.) that the Galapagos enjoys means that the iPhone simply can't compete in those areas, but we want to focus on where there is competition. 

SMS features are basically the same on the Galapagos and iPhone, with both supporting photos, eMoji (icons), etc., in a reasonable way.  The Galapagos' Softbank mail app is a bit more like a normal email app, which makes us prefer it.  Both the iPhone and Galapagos have a peculiarity that when 3G Data is off, they can send/receive SMS/MMS to Softbank members by phone number, but can not use S!Mail, and thus not send/receive to customers of other carriers.  This is quite annoying because it means that in order to send/receive S!Mail from people reliably, you need to leave the 3G Data on, which will likely cause you to incur unexpected charges as other applications may access it.  On the iPhone, the solution is easy, use the Softbank supplied (i) Mail address instead.  This works as a normal IMAP account, and is accessible from WiFi.

PC Mail/iMail:
As mentioned above, Softbank supplied a special mail account called (i) Mail for iPhone (and iPad) users.  There is no technical reason why this can't be supplied for other smart phone users, but they have not chosen to do so.  If you have an (i) Mail account, you can register it on the standard Galapagos mail app, but there are some problems:
  • No push mail updates - it can only check every 5 minutes, or you can manually update it.
  • No eMoji - Icons in the mail will not show up properly.
The first problem can be solved by installing a 3rd party app (such as MailDroid), but the second problem is not easily solvable.  Another problem with using (i) mail on either platform is that most Japanese phone users never go into the settings and set their name properly.  With SMS, when a message comes in, both the iPhone and Android look up the user's name in the address book by matching the sender's phone number or email address.  With (i) Mail (or any other normal email), if the name is blank, both systems just show the email address instead of a name.  This means that when you open the mail, the sender will be shown as whatever (often random) address they happen to be using, such as  Not exactly wonderful from an end-user perspective.  This is kind-of understandable for normal PC email, but especially annoying for (i) Mail, since that's targeted for mobile use.  On the iPhone, the ugly email address will be shown both places, but when you actually open the message, it will show the name you have registered in the address book.  On Android, it shows the raw email address both places. 

Either way, Softbank needs to get their act together, and start offering (i) Mail for Android, and preferably a native app that supports eMoji and push email, as well as showing the name from the address book when the sender' name in the mail is blank.   At least some of these things can be fixed in Android by 3rd party apps. 

Both Android and iOS support IMAP, POP, and Exchange.  The Galapagos separates GMail and other Mail via two different apps, while iOS groups them into one Mail app.  Android has better native GMail support, as would be expected.  Both platforms have separate SMS apps.  One area where the Galapagos has the edge is that the notifications for different accounts can be set separately.  For example, I want my GMail to ge registered on my phone for convenient reading, but I don't want my phone beeping or vibrating every time I get a message in my GMail account.  On the other hand, I do want it to beep or vibrate when I get a message in my (i) Mail account.  Likewise, GMail doesn't need to update automatically, whereas my (i) Mail account should.  There is currently no way to set these things independently in iOS, but it can easily be done in Android. 

On the other hand, iOS does have the advantage of a consolidated account view for all messages, with threading support.  (Caveat, the iOS threading support is not "real" normal threading support, but rather based on the subject line.  This means that if you send messages to different people with the same subject, iOS will mistakenly convert them into a single thread). 

Another issue we discovered is that even when set to "Never Disconnect", the Galapagos phone sometimes disconnects the WiFi when the phone is asleep (the display is off) - which of course prevents new messages from being received.  (There are some 3rd party apps to alleviate this, but they haven't been tested for this review) Update: This has been fixed via a software update.

This isn't to say that the Galapagos can't be made into the perfect mail client for those wishing to replace SMS, but rather that the stock configuration of the iPhone is much better for this purpose, with little tinkering needed.

The combination of all of the above means that if you make heavy use of email as a replacement for SMS, then the iPhone still has an edge over Android, or at least the Galapagos phone.  If you want more customization of the settings of individual accounts, then the extra tinkering that Android allows should make you happy.

Although this phone is for sale exclusively in Japan, it supports Google Voice, which can allow you to send and receive SMS messages to US users for free.  This can be a real boon for those with friends overseas.

Still Camera
Both the Galapagos phone and the iPhone 4 have high relatively quality cameras with flash.  Obviously the iPhone has the edge in video-chat, due to it's additional front facing camera.  The read-facing camera on the Galapagos is higher resolution at 9.4MP, but the overall quality isn't that much different.  (That said, if you find that your photos are a bit cloudy looking, it probably means that you forgot to remove the protective sticker from the lens!)  In addition to the enhanced resolution, the Galapagos phone features face tracking, and a wide variety of presets for different scene types.  The low light performance seems comparable, although the iPhone seems to have an edge - but it's difficult to say without scientific tests.  Both phones have built-in flash.  The camera app on the Galapagos is generally faster to open, and faster to focus and take a shot.  The Galapagos does not seem to have an HDR mode built in.

Video Camera
Both phones take reasonable quality video, but the video on the Galapagos is certainly higher resolution. 

The Galapagos kills the iPhone in general as far as the screen goes, because the Galapagos screen is bigger, 3D, and has veil view.  On the other hand, the iPhone 4's Retina display is a little higher resolution. 

Media Playback
The first question for a new Android user is "How do I transfer media onto the device?"  Luckily, this is easier than it seems.  Just copy the media files onto the SD card.  Most media player applications scan the entire card, so the location isn't so important, though we chose the /media/audio folder, since it already existed.

Overall the iPhone has the edge on ease of use, which is not surprising, since it is produced by the leading maker of portable music players, and the iPod feature is central to the iPhone experience from the beginning.  There are several media players included on the Galapagos out of the box, but the search and organization features are not up to par with iOS on any of them.  This is probably due to the fact that they use a folder structure, rather than a database to keep things organized.  That said, they work perfectly fine. 

The headphone jack is one area where the Galapagos has departed from the standard Japanese phones, and included a normal audio jack in lieu of a Japanese phone audio output connector.  The sound quality is very good, but the headphone  volume doesn't seem to go as high as the iPhone.  Unfortunately, it also seems that iPhone style remote-control headphones don't work, so you'll have to use the screen to control playback. This is also a disappointment in the sense that handsfree chat isn't really possible without Bluetooth, unless we are missing the secret special cable for sale. Of course, you can always use Bluetooth, and it's possible, but unlikely, that Sharp Zaurus (PDA) remote controls may work. 

As for video playback, we threw videos converted by Handbrake and Miro from various sources in iPhone 4 and iPad formats.  All of them played without issue.  In fact, we didn't even try the Android handset presets in Miro Video Converter, since there was no need (and we don't know which of the mentioned models would be closest to the Galapagos).

YouTube also works quite well, with HD video available.  Even more fun, there are free YouTube downloader applications available on the app store that anyone can install and use.  Similar apps for the iPhone require that your phone be jail-broken.  There are native players available for Flash video (.FLV files), although basically AVI or other formats have to be converted before transfer.

Web Browsing
The Galapagos ships with the stock Chrome Lite browser.  This is both better and worse than Mobile Safari.  Pages load and render faster in Chrome lite, and more JavaScript seems to work.  On the other hand, the experience is smoother on Safari.  Android 2.2 does support Flash Lite 10.1, but I don't make this to be that big of a deal as far as web pages go. 

Phone Calls
It seems that the Galapagos gets slightly better reception, and the voice quality is better for us, at least indoors.  That said, the iPhone has noise cancellation, so it may work better in noisy outdoor environments.  Both handsets support Bluetooth, but the iPhone comes with the spiffy remote control/microphone cable.

Skype is available for Android, and works much better than Skype for iOS, in that once you launch it, it stays running (And you have proof of that by looking at the status bar at the top of the screen for the Skype icon).  It can be set to launch at start-up time, and automatically sign in.  Since it runs in the background all the time, you can easily receive incoming calls at any time.  Besides Skype, there are of course many SIP clients available.  Perhaps one of the most interesting options, though, is GrooVe IP, which is a program that uses both Google Talk and Google Voice in order to allow you to place and receive calls using your data connection and Google Voice number.  This means you can call US numbers from out of the US for free, and can receive any incoming calls for free (so long as you have a data connection).  Calling to non-US numbers will cost you a small amount (usually less than Skype), and unfortunately, Google Voice only offers US numbers for the time being.  

General / Controls
Those used to iOS will find the Galapagos TapFlow interface a bit confusing at first.  Since iPhones only have one physical button, there is usually a "back" button on the screen.  On the other hand, the Galapagos has three buttons on the front: Menu, Home, and Back.  Pressing the back button in any application will cause it to go back to the previous screen.  Clicking the button on the main screen of an application will quit that application and return to the launcher (home) screen.  Pressing the Home button will return to the home screen, while leaving the application running in the background.  A long press on the home button will bring up a menu of running applications, where you can switch programs, or close those you don't need open anymore.  Pressing the menu button will bring up a context-menu, similar to the right mouse-click on PCs, this allows more screen real-estate to be freed up for the main purpose of the app.  Some applications also have on-screen soft-buttons for frequently used functions. 

In general the Galapagos is around the same speed of the iPhone 4, or a little faster - however, the speed is more variable, depending on what's running in the background, etc.  Many of the in-store models seem sluggish, but upon examination, it's because they have been running for days, touched by hundreds of customers, and have 40 or so apps running simultaneously.  iOS would have killed the applications not recently used, but that makes switching apps on iOS slower in general.  It also means there is less flexibility in iOS than an in Android.

    One of the shining point about Sharp's TapFlow interface, and Android in general is the excellent integration between apps.  Whereas iOS apps basically each live in their own little world, Android apps are much more connected.  Once you log into your Google account, all sorts of services, like Latitude, Google Talk, Voice, Picasa Photo Albums, etc., all become available.  Not only that, but many of the stock apps support these services.  For example, the camera and photo gallery support synchronizing photos to Facebook, Picasa, etc.  Any application that wants to get your attention can simply add an icon to the menu bar to notify you unobtrusively that something has happened.  If you tap the menu bar from inside nearly any app, it will pull down and show all the notifications you haven't seen.  This is very convenient and less obtrusive (if less obvious) when compared to the iOS approach of pop-up dialogs.  Update: Apple had decided to follow Google's lead on this starting in iOS 5.  Further, the availability of widgets means that in many places where you would have to open an app in iOS, you can conveniently see the status on the home screen in Android.  The weather widget is a great example of this. 
For example, there are apps available for Android which will block incoming calls and automatically send an SMS to the caller saying "Sorry I am busy now, I will call you back when my meeting is over.", etc.  These sorts of applications are simply not possible on the iPhone.

App Store
    For a long while, Apple bragged about the number of apps available.  Anyone who's been paying attention will notice that recently they stopped talking about numbers and started focusing on quality.  There are two reasons for this: 1. They can't brag about numbers anymore, because Android market has more free apps available now.  2. Apple is supposedly stricter about quality. 
    Is Apple really more strict about quality?  Perhaps so, but there seem to be a lot of "garbage" apps in both app stores.  There have been some malware apps in the Android store, so perhaps Apple's vigilance is a good thing in some ways.  Yet, Apple doesn't simply police quality, but enforces it's likes/dislikes on users, with no recourse for those who disagree.  With Android, Google is more open about what they allow.  Further, they allow loading software directly from a computer, and there are other competing markets run by (at least) au and Amazon. 
    One positive of the Android market is that it is accessible from a web interface on PCs.  In fact, if you log into your Google account, you can browse apps on your PC, select the one you like, and click "Install".  It will then be installed on your android device automatically.  One negative when compared to iOS is that since there are more models of Android handsets (with different capabilities), and more carriers supporting them, some apps will not be compatible with the device you are using, including the Galapagos phone.  These apps will be filtered out by the app store when browsing on the device itself.  They will show up on the PC App Store web site, but not allow you to install.  If the restriction is artificial (i.e. if your carrier has asked Google to block the app), then you can always download the app to your PC and install it via USB, or get it from another app store - a possibility precluded by iOS. 
    As for available applications, most of the standard apps are there: Facebook, Mixi, LinkedIn, FotoFunia, Photoshop Express, Angry Birds, Uno, etc.  Some have more features than their iOS relatives, some have less, a few are exactly the same. 

Other Information
Sharp has supposedly released almost the same phone in China, under the model number SH8158U.  You can check the relevant web page for more information.