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Samsung Galaxy S II

August 28th, 2011
Samsung targets the highest ranks of smartphones and makes it.

With the Galaxy S II just hitting US shores, Samsung is poised to make its biggest impact on the smartphone market ever; it's already the second-largest smartphone maker after Apple. The phone itself is, at least on paper, a powerhouse with a dual-core processor and a massive display. Will it give the iPhone 4 (and possibly iPhone 5) a reason to worry in Apple's home territory? Our Galaxy S II review will find out. Design and display

We've taken to calling the most recent crop of Android phones "gigantophones" for a good reason: they often push the limits of what you can hold in your hand. At first, it looks like the Galaxy S II would fit that mould too, and to some extent it does. The 4.3-inch display, 4.5 inches on the Epic 4G Touch, the T-Mobile model, or the Galaxy S II X, is wide enough that you suspect some women or younger owners might feel strained trying to make a one-handed grip.

And yet, for the most part, the shape is very inviting in the hand. The version we're trying is 8.5mm (0.33 inches) thick; that's just slightly thicker than an iPhone 4 (9.3mm, or 0.37 inches). Not only does that make for something that's easier to fit in the pocket than a rival like the HTC Sensation, the Evo 3D, or the Motorola Droid Bionic, it goes a long way towards making for an easier grip. We had no trouble with average-sized hands, and the carbon fiber-effect back makes it fairly stable both during a call and while you're browsing away.

What it really thrives for is typing. Many of those who insist on hardware keyboards are worried mostly about accidentally pressing the wrong keys. On the Galaxy S II, that isn't really an issue once you've adapted to the dimensions.

That size does still work against it sometimes. Other than smaller hands and pockets, it makes one-handed input more difficult: even just the swipe to unlock the screen can sometimes be tricky. You can certainly type one-handed, but reaching for the various onscreen controls will be a challenge, if you can do it at all. It wasn't a serious issue, but if you already think the original Galaxy S or an iPhone is big, the S II might break your limit.

A tour of the sides shows a mixed prospect for controls and expansion. We liked the button placement for the most part. Samsung's preference for a side-mounted sleep/wake button works in the Galaxy S II's favor here, because you don't have to reach up on a rather large device just to shut it off. The volume rocker is generally well-placed, although we found ourselves periodically hitting it by accident when fishing it out of a pocket.

Your front control scheme will vary greatly depending on the country and carrier you get. Most countries, including Canada, get the international version, and there's no way around it: the big, central home button makes it look like an iPhone. Yes, the differences are visible, but this isn't evident in virtually any other Android phone. There's little surprise that Apple is suing Samsung with trade dress as one of the arguments, and Samsung may well be aware of it given that the AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile versions of the Galaxy S II use the more conventional four-button Android scheme. If you do have the international version, though, it's certainly convenient.

Something must also be said about the plastic body, which cuts both ways in the look and feel. It's the ticket to that ultra-thin profile and contributes greatly to the phone feeling very light in the hand, being just heavy enough to be substantial without feeling like a rock the way some Apple and HTC phones do. At the same time, it does feel unusually cheap given the premium components inside.

Amazingly, in spite of the very thin frame, Samsung has not only made the back removable to get at the battery but managed to stuff in both 16GB of internal storage (32GB in some versions) and a microSDHC card slot accessible from the inside. We think card slots are somewhat overrated -- often the price of the card pushes it past what it would have cost for a phone with more storage -- but there's no denying that it gives headroom if the built-in space isn't enough. We like that Samsung not only has a micro USB port for charging and sync but that it's at the bottom, making possible a few docks for charging and other tasks that we don't normally see outside of iPhones.

And as much as that screen can stretch the limits, all may be forgiven just by looking at the display itself. The resolution at 480x800 is a bit low next to the 540x960 that some competitors are using. With Super AMOLED Plus, though, Samsung has come very near to an ideal display: it's bright, vivid, and most importantly sharp. The Plus tag may seem small but makes a big difference in quality, as it drops the pixel grid whose shared green pixels led to a "fuzzy" look, instead going for a more conventional layout. We noticed that the very colorful tones don't appear somewhat gaudy and oversaturated like they did on the original Galaxy S.

The design has some incidental benefits, too, such as being brighter and chewing about a fifth less power. While visibility is still tougher outdoors, it was quiet possible to read the screen and managed to beat out an iPhone in that area despite OLED's historic weakness outdoors. As we'll explore in depth later, the big screen wasn't a drag on battery life, either.

There is a quirk in how the display reacts to the ambient light sensor. Rather than dim softly, it steps down several clear gradients of brightness if there's a significant change. It's hardly a big setback, but it's jarring next to other devices.

Android 2.3 with TouchWiz 4.0

Most Galaxy S II phones are currently on Android 2.3.3. As such, they won't get video chat through Google Talk but do get just about everything else Google has done with its phone-sized OS as of summer 2011. Most of it is polish, but it does mean some better app and power management, not to mention some future-proofing. What's there of Android in pure form is still one of the best mobile interfaces.

Performance-wise, though, the OS is on a whole other level, even when stacked up against other dual-core smartphones. The 1.2GHz Exynos or 1.5GHz Snapdragon chip Samsung uses, depending on whether you you bought most versions or the T-Mobile edition, is clearly powerful in itself; in the Exynos models, it's also matched with what may be its real secret weapon, ARM's Mali-400 multi-core graphics. We've seen other dual-core phones bog down in graphics transitions because of their slow video; not the Galaxy S II. It's utterly, consistently fluid throughout the entire OS, not just in juggling apps, and things that normally lag such as browser scrolling and zooming are, dare we say it, iPhone-like in their responsiveness. This isn't Android as some have come to know it.

Combined with the 1GB of RAM, it was virtually impossible to bog down the OS by running multiple demanding apps. Flash performance still isn't perfect, but the Galaxy S II is one of the few phones where it's generally tolerable. The benchmarks are also outstanding, again even when compared to other dual-core phones. Quadrant Standard on our 1.2GHz unit gets a score of 3,216 with nothing else running; that's well above the roughly 2,200 of an HTC Sensation and easily more than double the performance of the Nexus One baseline. Neocore and Nenamark2 turn in similar results at 59.6FPS and 44.4FPS respectively, and they're proof the phone can handle modern mobile graphics detail exceptionally smoothly. The iPhone 5's expected A5 chip will give the Galaxy S II a run for its money, as will a crop of very late 2011 and early 2012 phones, but until that point, there is literally nothing better.

Of course, Samsung considers the Galaxy S II its defining phone, and with that comes its defining interface, TouchWiz. Now at version 4.0, it now occupies virtually all of the OS and has a mix of genuinely helpful features as well as a few gimmicks. The helpful starts off right at the lock screen: if you've missed a call or a text message, new tabs appear that when tugged will unlock the phone directly into the relevant app section. It's not as advanced as HTC Sense 3.0, where you can customize what apps are available from the lock screen, but it's a time-saver if a friend just pinged you to tell you they would be late.

The feature additions now touch on virtually every level. It's now easy to reject a call, including with a text message; you can start a call by swiping a contact and check that person's history; mail now has a tablet-style look when the phone is tilted on its side, showing both a list and a resizable look at the message itself. Samsung has borrowed from HTC and has a feature which, itself somewhat like Mac OS X's Exposť, lets you pinch to zoom at the home screen and pick the screen you want to leap to visually.

Motion plays a much stronger role in TouchWiz 4 on the Galaxy S II, though it's here where the gimmicks start to creep in. One liberally appropriated HTC feature is the muting of any and all sound by flipping the phone face down. It's very valuable when at a desk or in a meeting. Not so useful is the option of moving an icon between home screens by putting a second finger on the screen after you've entered the icon move mode and then tilting the phone; more often than not, you end up overshooting. In between is a somewhat similar trick that lets you zoom in the browser by holding two fingers down and then tilting forwards or back. We liked it when we wanted to quickly jump up close to an image or text, but it's not nearly as precise.as a finger pinch.

A whole whole host of features are present in TouchWiz that are handy, new or not. Having quick access to common wireless and sound tasks in the notification bar is one of the handiest, again like what HTC has. It's possible to sort apps and even take screenshots -- something Android can't normally do without an app. Vlingo's voice command app is not only on the phone but integrated with the home button, so you can double-tap to start a call or send a text message. We found its utility somewhat mixed, since the voice recognition wasn't top-flight and much of Android 2.3 already has voice recognition shortcuts. An iOS-style app folder feature on the home screen is familiar if you've used a modern Sony Ericsson phone, but it's still rare on Android and very helpful for organizing apps.

The on-screen keyboard is one of the better Android keyboards when paired up with the larger screen, and once you're accustomed to the layout, you can move quickly. We'll note, though, that the stock Samsung keyboard doesn't auto-predict text or auto-correct. Depending on the model, you'll have the option of Swype's keyboard to fill that role, but it's not standard.

Two core issues come up TouchWiz. First is the question of how it affects timely updates. Such heavy modification invariably prevents Samsung from updating as soon as Google releases a new version of Android; when Ice Cream Sandwich arrives, the Galaxy S II won't necessarily be updated for several weeks or more. Certain apps similarly might need special support that a stock phone like the Nexus S (also made by Samsung) wouldn't. Samsung has, however, pledged to end the habits that led it to sometimes wait half a year for an update or simply give up on updating a device altogether. The company is now part of an anti-fragmentation coalition that promises faster updates; we'll see how well it honors this in the future.

The other is the core of the TouchWiz interface itself. Just like the basic hardware, it's more than slightly reminiscent of the iPhone, down to the approach to the app tray and some similarly-designed icons. Even the voice recorder app borrows some distinct cues. There's Legal battles notwithstanding, there are some who find that style of interface too simplistic. Others chose Android precisely to get away from the iOS feel. TouchWiz clearly goes beyond that and still takes advantage of what makes Google's OS distinct, but HTC's Sense, Motorola's Blur, and of course a pure Android phone like the Nexus S are more distinct if that's your inclination. We enjoyed enough of the customizations to consider it more of an addition that demystifies the phone for some newcomers.

Samsung's hubs and preloaded apps

Like virtually every Samsung Android device from late 2010 on, the Galaxy S II has Samsung's hub apps preloaded. Our version came with the Game Hub, Music Hub, Reader Hub, and Social Hub, while a few areas will get a Movie Hub as well. In practice, only some of them are useful. The Music Hub is effectively a rebranded version of 7digital's music shop, which you can also find on the BlackBerry and elsewhere; it's a good alternative to Amazon MP3, iTunes, or other music shops. Reader Hub also works as well, even if it's really just aggregating sources, such as Kobo books and Zinio's magazine shop.

The Game Hub just doesn't serve much purpose. It amounts to a small selection of free and paid apps that can normally be found in Android Market. Apart from getting a fast start on an app collection, there's not much purpose to it, especially not when some bigger games like Battleheart, Cut the Rope, and their kind aren't present. Social Hub also keeps on a common practice among Android phone designers of trying but failing to merge all social networks and messaging into one spot. In theory it's convenient, but in practice it just means having to sift through lots of notifications, even if it's well laid out. Anyone with a large number of Facebook or Twitter friends, which is many of those who would use them, is better off running the official apps separately.

These hubs are unified by Samsung Apps, the company's own store. As with the Game Hub, it's really just a subset of what you can get elsewhere. We moreover found both it and some of the hubs horribly unreliable. Samsung Apps kept insisting on an update it would never install properly, while the Reader Hub wouldn't update the news and book app components. The Social Hub had days' worth of problems even just signing on to Facebook and Twitter where the official apps worked smoothly. You thankfully don't have to use these, and we'd honestly rather do away with them.

Android Market, assuming you get or install the new layout, is much better. Exploring it is still slightly more difficult than Apple's App Store, but it's much better at exposing new apps and highlighting older but well-received apps. There are still definite gaps in the overall quality of apps, but that gap is closing quickly. At 250,000-plus apps, the selection is broad enough.

Preloaded apps will vary widely from carrier to carrier. Everyone gets Allshare, Samsung's very simple DLNA media sharing tool. We liked it as a way of quickly sharing a video to our PlayStation 3, and some other media hubs and TVs themselves can see DLNA sources directly. Kies Air is even more powerful: as long as the phone and a computer are on the same local network, you just need a browser to either push media and files to the phone or to get them out. You can even play certain content on the phone, like music, without having to transfer it at all. It's not as polished as an app like iTunes, but it goes very deep and lets you remotely manage the phone without having to install anything on a computer, even down to replying to a message on the phone. A Kies desktop app is available on Macs and Windows PCs if you want a more local conduit, although it will only sync over Wi-Fi in the Windows version for now.

Our version of the Galaxy S II came from Bell, and unfortunately, its fairly heavy-handed approach to app bundles is still present. You get several apps such as GPS Navigator (a TeleNav subscription service that isn't needed), a remote DVR control, and other features of Bell's services, along with demos such as Gameloft's first-person shooter Nova. Although they're not necessarily problems in themselves, the real challenge is that you can't delete them: despite Android being an ostensibly open platform, even Nova is treated as a "default" app you can't remove. The issue isn't fatal given that you can delete shortcuts or otherwise tuck them away, but they do chew up space.

On other carriers, expect typical carrier-specific apps, but perhaps more freedom to remove them. An unlocked version bought outside a carrier will only have what Samsung loads on it if you're concerned about free space.

Camera apps, quality and editing

Samsung has developed a bit of a reputation for strong photography on the Galaxy S line, and that carries over to the Galaxy S II. Just in the custom camera app, there's a surprising amount of depth: you have access to a wide range of camera settings like exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity, macro focusing, and even metering. Tap-to-focus exists, too. There are understandably fewer settings in the video portion, but it still feels full-featured for a phone.

The eight-megapixel back camera is a significant upgrade in resolution from the original Galaxy S, and it's at least as good as the generally well-regarded original. Apart from a slightly "dingy" approach and the expected lost detail in high-contrast outdoor scenes (where white highlights clip and lose detail quickly), the Galaxy S II's camera produces sharp, clean, and color-accurate images. We were actually surprised at how much detail it could catch in macro and nighttime shots, even if the lens doesn't have a wide enough aperture to do some of the shallow depth-of-field effects you'd expect from a dedicated camera. The flash is reasonably high-powered, although its location so close to the camera means you'll get red eye and other effects. Still, it means the difference between scrapping a photo and getting an in-focus image with detail.

Front camera photos aren't as solid in image quality. At two megapixels, though, they're a lot higher resolution than the 1.3-megapixel or even 0.3-megapixel cameras you'll see on phones such as the HTC Incredible S or iPhone 4. Video quality generally holds up, too, not the least of which is for resolution. The phone is one of the few this year to support 1080p recording from the moment the phone shipped, and it makes a big difference in viewing on a larger TV or desktop display. We saw no significant artifacting, and image quality was dictated mostly by the limits of the camera: a night video shoot was understandably noisy, although it avoided much of the blurring we were worried we'd see. Audio quality is generally quite good for a phone, if still somewhat low-bitrate, and can pick up some fairly subtle detail, like a woman's high heels on the street. Wind noise didn't creep in during our tests.

For both still and moving images, there's on-device media editing, although the expectations shouldn't be set too high. The video app is simpler than iMovie on the iPhone and mostly just involves stringing clips together with a common transition type, a soundtrack, and a largely very static theme. Imagine editing is simpler again and is mostly limited to cropping, special effects, and common fixes. We'd use them in a pinch, but they're there for convenience's sake and not much else.

Internet speeds, call quality, and battery life

Unlike many of Samsung's earlier smartphones, the speed of the Galaxy S II on the Internet can very quite widely based on your choice of network. If you use the original Galaxy S II and happen to be on a carrier that supports HSPA+ 3G -- they may call it 4G, but it's still 3G -- you'll get a respectably very quick 21Mbps in peak conditions and faster than regular HSPA in realistic conditions. On Bell, a Speedtest.net app check netted us 7.5Mbps downstream and 1.2Mbps upstream, which was very respectable. Subjectively, it lags behind a good landline connection but is a lot faster than what you might be used to from an older phone, especially given that the dual-core processor is much less of a bottleneck.

It's when you get to the upgraded versions that the magic starts -- or should, once the devices are out in earnest. Sprint's Epic 4G Touch might actually be the slowest, since WiMAX peaks out at 10Mbps and more often gets 3-6Mbps. T-Mobile's version will run up to 42Mbps and should almost literally double the speeds we saw. And if you're in the right situation to use the Galaxy S II LTE or HD LTE, you'll be in for a real treat at up to 100Mbps down and much lower latency, to the point where it should feel as good as some of the faster cable and even fiber Internet providers. The only real limitation is the carrier you choose.

Voice quality is surprisingly high, at least on GSM/HSPA versions of the smartphone. While audio quality won't make you forget you're on a cellphone, it's clear and, more importantly, loud. There weren't any issues understanding a call out on a moderately busy street. Outgoing call quality is also good; there was a slight digital tone to the voice on Bell's network, but it was very clear and loud without background effects unless it was particularly noisy. We'll add that there's a clever trick to keeping the speakerphone loud: the slight hump on the bottom of the phone conveniently tilts the phone up slightly to keep the speaker exposed when it's on a desk, so there shouldn't be danger of a muffled hands-off call.

Battery life comes across as something of a minor miracle: namely, it's solid. In spite of the giant screen, dual-core processor, and HSPA+ data, we could still easily get well over a full work day's life out of it, even with substantial tasks like recording 1080p video, automatic photo and video uploading to Google+, ample amounts of browsing, and some gaming. If you do put your phone through such exercise, you'll need to charge it, but it's entirely possible that you could go two days without charging if you're not doing anything extreme. That's something rare in smartphones, let alone notoriously battery-hungry Android phones. The length can be attributed both to the dual-core chip, which ramps down to as little as 200MHz when it's idle, as well as to Super AMOLED Plus saving some battery life.

A word of warning: while we haven't tested it yet, expect the Galaxy S II LTE to use more battery life when 4G is active. Samsung has taken this into account and has stuffed in a larger 1,850mAh battery (up from the 1,650mAh of the regular Galaxy S II), though it remains to be seen if that will make up the difference.

Wrapping up

The beauty and danger of Android's flexibility is that it's possible to either get the hardware or software very right or very wrong. We've seen more than a few devices this year that were either flawed genius or, in extremes, were ruined by poor custom interfaces and hardware gimmicks where stock Android and straightforward hardware would have saved the day.

Thankfully, the Galaxy S II hits so many right notes with its distinct hardware and software touches that it becomes that much sweeter. Quirks with Samsung-made apps and the uncanny Apple-like design elements notwithstanding, the S II feels like a best-of-all-worlds smartphone. The interface goes some way towards smoothing out Android wrinkles, while the performance is so much above any contemporary rival that it's in another category. It certainly has one of the best displays in the business and is proof resolution isn't everything.

What's most surprising is how there are very few "gotcha" elements that you'd expect in a phone with this profile. Battery life and call quality are genuinely impressive; the thin profile doesn't preclude a replaceable battery or a microSD card. A plastic body is about the only sacrifice; we'd like to see metal, but not if it makes the phone much thicker or hurts reception. We'll take it as-is given the balance.

Competition does loom for Samsung. Even if you get the potentially blockbuster Galaxy S II LTE, there will be rivals from HTC and possibly Samsung's next Google-blessed Nexus Prime. And the iPhone 5, if the widely reported rumors are true, should close much if not all of the hardware chasm. Clock speeds won't necessarily guarantee that the Galaxy S II will be faster than an iPhone 5, since the actual chip and the OS can make all the difference.

With that in mind, it's still the case that the Galaxy S II is an outstanding entry in a field where so many go wrong. Does Apple have to worry about Samsung stealing its thunder, particularly in the US? Execution is everything, and Apple is better at communicating its message, but we're inclined to say yes, it does. Whether you think the court battle is justified or not, Samsung has fired off a powerful return shot that will take a lot to answer.

- Very fast processor and 3G/4G data.

- Excellent, huge Super AMOLED Plus display.

- Very thin but still has ample built-in and microSD storage.

- TouchWiz generally helps.

- Good cameras for photos and 1080p videos.

- Unusually good battery life.

- Top-flight call quality.

- DLNA media sharing and Kies Air/Wi-Fi sync.

- Some TouchWiz, Samsung apps flawed.

- At times a touch too iPhone-like for Android die-hards.

- May be too big for smaller hands.

- Question of long-term OS update support.