It’s hard to believe that Samsung’s attempt to tackle the iPhone three years ago was the abysmal Samsung Instinct. My, how far have they’ve gotten since then. Samsung has skyrocketed to become one of the top manufacturers of Android smartphones and arguably one of their greatest creations to date is the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G.
The version I was offered to review is available through Bell Mobility in Canada. A US release through Verizon, Sprint and AT&T is expected shortly the next week.
Features at a Glance
Just unveiled earlier this year, the Samsung Galaxy S II is the official successor to the wildly successful Samsung Galaxy S. Most of the variants of that phone were largely the same, like the Vibrant and Captivate, save for some minor design cues. The guts were all pretty much identical.
In the case of the Galaxy S II, the specs have pretty much been bumped up across the board. This starts with the positively gorgeous 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus display. All of the original Galaxy S phones had the standard 4.0-inch screen. I don’t need to tell you that this screen is easily the most amazing one you’ve ever seen on a smartphone. Photos really don’t do it justice. The colors are amazing vibrant, making games and other graphic-leaning apps that much better. And yes, it’s damage-resistant Gorilla Glass to boot.
Of course, the processor is worth mentioning too. Whereas both the original Galaxy S and the Samsung-made Nexus S were doing the 1GHz single core thing, this phone gets bumped to a 1.2GHz dual core Cortex-A9 processor. The full gig of RAM certainly helps too.
Other highlights include the 8MP rear camera (which I’ll get to in a moment), 2MP front camera, 1080p video recording, accelerometer, proximity sensor, 16GB of internal memory, microSD slot (up to 32GB), WiFi-N, Bluetooth 3.0+HS, microUSB, and GPS (plus aGPS support).
Design and Layout
With the Google Nexus S, they did that curved oleophobic screen and a cheap-ish glossy black plastic back. With the Galaxy S II, Samsung abandoned both of those ideas. You get back to a regular flat screen and that’s perfectly fine for me. I’m also happy to see that they got rid of that cheap black plastic and opted for a slightly textured back. It offers just enough grip and just enough “class” to make this feel like a premium product.
Two things will still strike you immediately about the Galaxy S II. First, it’s thin. Like seriously thin. Like 8.49mm thin. That’s pretty amazing, easily outdoing many other smartphones in this realm. It’s also very light at 116 grams. When you compare that to something like the iPhone 4 (137 grams) or the Motorola Atrix (135 grams), the difference becomes immediately apparent.
In terms of layout, there’s not a lot to report. You get the volume controls along the left edge and the power button on the right edge. The microUSB connector is in the bottom, but unlike the first Galaxy S, the port is exposed. You’ll also notice that this phone gets rid of the usual “home” and “search” buttons that accompany most Android phones, relying on the “menu” and “back” buttons instead. There is a hardware button in the middle, seemingly taking a square-ish approach to the iPhone home button, that serves as, well, the home button.
Gingerbread with TouchWiz UI
If you want a stock Android experience, you’re not going to get it here. You’re probably better off getting the Nexus S or waiting for the Nexus Prime. That’s because, not surprisingly, this phone does TouchWiz UI v4.0.
Yes, it’s somewhat iPhone-esque in that the apps are arranged in pages and you swipe horizontally to get through them. This is quite different than stock Android or HTC’s Sense. For some, TouchWiz is going to be a turnoff, but I have no quibbles about it. Aside from that, the customizable homescreens (as usual) come in handy with all the widgets and such. Interestingly, the “main” home screen is screen 1 (all the way to the left), which is different from some previous Samsung Android phones where “home” was the middle screen (4).
Front and Rear Cameras
That’s an eight megapixel shooter on the back, but we all know that megapixels are not the same as image quality. I’m surprised that Samsung didn’t equip the Galaxy S II with some sort of specially-skinned camera app, but the resulting quality is quite good given the right lighting conditions.
Consider this shot and this shot, both of which were taken outdoors under natural light. The second one is challenging, because I was in a space between a darker shadow and overbearing sunlight, so there is some significant “washing out” of detail.
With more even lighting, this photo turned out quite well. A photo I took with flash shows how strong the flash is, but it can easily blast out the photo too. Even though the front-facing camera is only 2MP, the quality of this shot is perfectly reasonable too.
As far as smartphone cameras go, I have little to complain about here aside from the lack of additional controls. That can likely be saved with a better camera app, giving you options like zoom, color balance, and so forth.
Performance and Network Speeds
When it comes to so-called Android superphones, the Samsung Galaxy S II is currently among the top of the heap. Spec for spec, it beats out the HTC Sensation 4G in a few areas, for instance. The processor is fast, there’s plenty of RAM, and I experienced virtually no slowdown even when running more than a few apps and widgets. This was even true when streaming media over the Internet. Unless you’re doing some heavy lifting, though, it’s unlikely you’ll notice a huge difference over the single core 1GHz smartphones out there.
Interestingly, battery life is largely unaffected by the increase in clock speed and the addition of an extra core. With intermittent “normal” use, I was able to get a solid day out of the phone without having to reach for a wall outlet. This is with the automatic brightness settings activated, and with both GPS and WiFi mostly turned off. I would like to see even more battery life, but all Android phones face this challenge. Compared to single core smartphones, even with smaller screens, the Galaxy S II might even outperform their battery life.
In terms of network speeds, Bell is marketing this phone as the Galaxy S II 4G. It’s up to you to decide if HSPA+ is really 4G, but in a very real sense, it’s pretty fast. I used the iPhone mobile speed test, ensured I was on the H+ network with full bar of signal. The download was clocked at 16.32 Mbps (based on 7936KB in 4 seconds). That’s not quite the theoretical limit of 21Mbps, but it breaks the 14.4Mbps limit of the HTC Sensation 4G (also through Bell). Upload, though, was pretty abysmal at 0.37Mbps.
Unequivocally, the Samsung Galaxy S II is one of the best Google Android smartphones on the market today. It’s incredibly thin, the Super AMOLED Plus screen is simply breathtaking, and it has performance up the wazoo. The only thing that might hold you back is the TouchWiz UI, which isn’t everyone’s bag.
That and you know that there is always something nicer in Android land just around the corner. At some point, you need to draw your line in the sand and choose what suits your needs right now, rather than waiting for the next Android phone to come out a few months from now. And the Galaxy S II is a great place to draw that line right now. I just hope that Samsung keeps up with the Android updates.