Yahoo! technology writer Ben Patterson was lucky enough to get a hands-on with the all new Samsung Epic 4G. Here's his first impressions and a few highs and lows:

Set for release later this month, the Android-powered Samsung Epic 4G makes for the second WiMax-capable smartphone in Sprintís lineup, not to mention the first with a slide-out QWERTY keypad. I met with a pair of Sprint execs in Manhattan yesterday to check out the Epic in person; read on for my hands-on impressions.
Before we begin, a quick note ó what follows is not a review. I only had about 30 minutes with the Epic; obviously, there's no way I could thoroughly wring out all the phone's features (such as the 5-megapixel camera, the front-facing VGA lens for video chat, and the handset's mobile hotspot capabilities) during such a brief test drive. Still, I was able to make a few observations, such as ...

Surprisingly light: Typically, thereís never anything "thin" or "light" about QWERTY slider phones, with the slide-out keypad adding an extra ounce and a few tenths of an inch of girth on the Epic 4G ($249 with a two-year Sprint contract, after a $100 mail-in rebate; on sale Aug. 31) compared with Samsung's other, QWERTY-less "Galaxy S"-style phones (such as the 0.4-inch, 4.2-ounce Samsung Vibrant on T-Mobile). But while the 0.56-inch-thick Epic 4G tips the scale at a relatively hefty 5.5 ounces, I was blown away by how light it felt for its size. (The new, six-ounce Motorola Droid 2, another QWERTY slider with a smaller display than the Epic, feels like a brick in comparison.) How did they do it? Beats me. (Also nice: the grippy feel of the Epic's back panel.)

Gorgeous display: The 4-inch display on the Epic (click here for more details, specs, and a promo video) uses Super AMOLED technology for vivid, high-contrast images that pop off the screen, and it looks spectacular ó indoors, at least. I didnít get a chance to see the Epicís screen outside, but Iíve tested Super AMOLED displays on other Samsung Galaxy phones in the great outdoors, and the image dims pretty rapidly. In general, standard AMOLED displays tend to look worse in natural light than LCDs, and while the "Super" AMOLED screens used by Samsung are designed to improve viewability outdoors, donít expect a dramatic improvement.

Smooth, snappy performance: Swiping through the various home screens and tapping on menus on the 1GHz "Hummingbird"-powered Epic was a smooth, pleasurable experience. Windows opened quickly and with a minimum of stuttering, and switching from landscape to portrait modes took only a second or so. The Motorola Droid 2, which Iíve been testing for the past couple of days, feels a bit jittery and sluggish in comparison.

Nice QWERTY keypad: The Epicís QWERTY keyboard slides out from the rest of the phone with a pleasingly smooth, springy motion, revealing a full five rows of keys, including a dedicated row for the numeric keys ó no need to "alt" your way to the numbers. The "Chicklet"-style keys are nice and tactile, making it easy to feel your way around with your fingertips. Iím bummed that the Epic lacks a dedicated "@" key, and the space bar is too small for my taste; otherwise, though, nicely done. (Indeed, Iím hard-pressed to come up with anything bad to say about the Epic 4Gís hardware.)

You might actually be able to buy one: Sprintís other 4G phone, the HTC Evo 4G (the one with the mammoth 4.3-inch display) has been sold out online for months now, with Sprint stores setting up waiting lists for eager customers. The Epic, on the other hand, seems to be flying below the radar, with a Sprint exec telling me that interest in the new phone just "isnít the same" as it was for the Evo ó perhaps because the Evo was heavily hyped in the weeks leading up to its June release. In other words ... you might actually be able to buy this thing. (Sprint has also started taking reservations for in-store Epic pickups.)

So far, so good, right? Well, so much for the pros, and here come the cons:

Ships with Android 2.1, not 2.2: Iím not thrilled with the size and feel of the Droid 2, but itís got one tremendous advantage over the Epic:It comes with Android 2.2 ó the latest version of Android, complete with Flash support (and yes, it works!) ó out of the box, marking the first Android smartphone in the States to do so. The Epic 4G, on the other hand, is stuck with Android 2.1 ó so no Flash. Why no 2.1? Because Sprint and Samsung were "too far along in the process" to add the update in time for the Epicís August 31 ship date. (So, how did Motorola manage the 2.2 trick with the Droid 2? Guess weíll have to ask them.) When will an Android 2.2 upgrade be ready for the Droid? The answer is pretty vague, as in "soon" or "in the coming months."

Itís $50 more than the latest Android "superphones": The HTC Evo 4G on Sprint sells for $199 with a two-year contract ó as do the Droid X and Droid 2 on Verizon, the Samsung Captivate on AT&T, the Vibrant on T-Mobile ... you get the picture. What makes the Epic 4G so special that itís $50 more than those other hot Android phones? Because of its "premium" hardware, Iím told ... although Iím not sure what makes the Epic more of a "premium" phone than, say, the Droid X. (The slide-out QWERTY, maybe? Wait; the Droid 2 is a QWERTY slider.) Anyway, $50 isnít a truckload of cash when youíre already talking upwards of $200; still, given the $100 mail-in rebate, the Epic 4G entails an initial cash outlay of $350 with a contract.

The $10/month 4G tax ó er, "Premium Data" add-on: For the Evo 4G and now the Epic 4G, Sprint is charging an extra "Premium Data" add-on fee of $10 a month on top of your standard voice and data plans (Sprintís voice/data bundles start at $69/month), and you must pay that fee whether or not you live in one of the 48 cities (search here to see if you're in one of them) currently served by Sprintís 4G WiMax network. How is that fair? Isnít that, like, a 4G "tax" or something? No, Sprint execs insist ó itís just that users of "premium" smartphones with 1GHz processors like the Evo and the Epic are using more data than on other Sprint phones, such as the HTC Hero and the Samsung Moment. Well, maybe so, but for now, only Sprintís two 4G phones are subject to the mandatory $10-a-month "premium" data fee.

Battery life: Of course, thereís no way to conduct a battery test during a 30-minute demo in a coffee shop, but like the Evo 4G, the Epicís removable battery can get hammered if the phone is furiously trying to lock onto a weak 4G signal. If youíre in a solid 4G coverage area, you should be (relatively) fine, Sprint reps say; but if youíre in a 3G-only area or anywhere with iffy 4G coverage, Sprint advises you turn the 4G antenna off to conserve battery life. Consider yourself warned.

ó Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.