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Samsung Galaxy S II Smartphone Review
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Date: Aug 04, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications

Samsung's Galaxy S II was first introduced to the world at Mobile World Congress 2011, and despite the fact that quite a few smartphones have shipped in the months between then and now, Samsung's top-tier smartphone remains a favorite across the globe. In fact, it hasn't even shipped to America yet. With a potent dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 16GB of internal storage, a full gigabyte of RAM and the latest version of Android (2.3 aka Gingerbread), it stands as a powerhouse to compete with other top tier handsets.

There aren't any gimmicks here. No 3D. No qHD display, and no extra fancy design construction. What is here, however, is a powerful smartphone with a shockingly slim body, a lightweight design, true 1080p out via the micro-USB port and a subtle Android overlay (TouchWiz 4.0). And the 4.3" Super AMOLED Plus, while WVGA, is the display to beat in terms of image quality. What's interesting is how the Galaxy S II stands out in a sea of rivals.  There's never been more competition in the Android smartphone universe, and it really takes a lot to cut through at this point.


In addition to Android 2.3, Samsung includes the latest version of its TouchWiz user interface. It's a subtle overlay that isn't nearly as intrusive as Motorola's BLUR or HTC's Sense, and fans of stock Android will likely be pleased at the minor changes that are implemented.

Make no mistake: this phone is a high-end device aimed at those willing to pay top dollar for the best in performance. As of now, this phone isn't even offered by a U.S. carrier or retailer. The only way to acquire one is to have it imported; the Latin American build (i9100) supports AT&T's 3G bands, and that's the one to grab if you want to snag one right now in unlocked form. There's a build out there for T-Mobile bands as well; you just need to take caution to purchase the one with the frequency bands that fit your carrier. NewEgg and Negri Electronics both offer the phone, but at upwards of $650, it's an investment you should think long and hard about. That said, the unlocked phone will likely have a few design cues that'll set it apart from subsidized versions that should come to U.S. carriers within the month.

We'll discuss those, as well as our opinions on the overall performance and usability, in the pages to come. For now, let's take a look at the raw specifications breakdown:

Samsung Galaxy S II Smartphone
Specifications & Features
Processor and emory
1.2 GHz ARMv7-based dual-core applications processor
16GB Internal memory
1GB RAM
No microSD card included; supports up to 32GB

Operating System
Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and the latest version of TouchWiz (v4.0)
Connectivity
HSPA+ 21Mbps/ HSUPA 5.76Mbps
EDGE/ GPRS Class 12
Quad band GSM 850/900/1800/1900
Quad band UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
Wi-Fi – 802.11 a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 3.0+HS
GPS/AGPS
micro-USB

Display
4.3 inch WVGA Super AMOLED Plus resolution display
Size and weight
125.3mm x 66.1mm x 8.49mm
 4 ounces

Cameras and multimedia
2 megapixel front-facing camera
8 megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash
3.5mm stereo headset jack

Additional Features
3G Mobile Hotspot capability, supporting up to five Wi-Fi enabled devices simultaneously
Simultaneous voice and data capability

Battery
1650 mAh Lithium-ion battery
Carrier
None; Unlocked versions support T-Mobile and AT&T
In-Box Content
Galaxy S II
Standard Li-Ion Battery
AC USB Charger
Getting Started Guides
Information Booklet
Wireless Recycling Envelope

Price
$672.99 off-contract and unlocked
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Design and Build Quality
Design wise, Samsung's Galaxy S II is amongst the most impressive handsets on the market. As was the case with the revamped Galaxy Tab 10.1, it's clear who Samsung is gunning for here. It's not the HTCs or Motorolas of the world, it's the smartphone maker with the biggest target on their back: Apple. At just four ounces, the Galaxy S II is 0.8 ounces lighter than the iPhone 4. And at 8.5mm thick, it's also thinner than the 9.3mm thick iPhone 4. We're sure Apple is none to happy about being trumped in those departments, and there's of course a chance that they'll retake the slim-and-light lead with the iPhone 5 (or whatever it'll be called).



But being slim and light is just part of the story. The phone itself is just beautiful to look at. It has a glossy black panel that does a fantastic job of rejecting fingerprints, and the rear has a black plastic cover that shields the battery and SIM card. There are two subtle bulges on the rear; one at the top and one on the bottom, both of which act to provide a very nice cradle area for grasping the phone to make a call or holding it while using the Web.


As we mentioned in the introduction, there's one thing in particular that separates the unlocked global unit from the subsidized versions that'll most likely hit the big 4 carriers in the fall. That's the physical Home button. It's likely that the carrier version Galaxy S II will just have three or four capacitive touch buttons, much like the Nexus S and Nexus One. So, why care? Because the physical Home button is superior in our estimation. Basically, it acts the same as the Home button on the iPhone. With most Android phones, there's only one way to activate the screen: hit the power button. But with this Home button, you can activate the screen with that as well. Furthermore, you can always tap it from within any application or pane and get back to the home pane. It's a little odd to applaud a design decision for near-perfectly imitating one of our favorite iOS features, but there it is.


Also, double-tapping the Home button pulls up a very intuitive voice recognition software panel, where you can say "Call Mom" and it'll dial up whoever is listed as "Mom" in your Contact list. You can even send text messages in this manner, and in our testing, the app worked incredibly well. We were simply impressed at how great the app recognized our voice. Most voice recognition programs that we've used in the past few years have been downright poor at understanding what we were saying, but not so here.

Like the original Galaxy S 4G, the Galaxy S II is one of the lighter phones we've reviewed. Here's how it stacks up:

Samsung Galaxy S II
4.0 ounces
Samsung Galaxy S 4G 4.2 ounces
Samsung Captivate
4.5 ounces
Nexus S
4.55 ounces
HTC Droid Incredible
4.6 ounces
Apple iPhone 4
4.8 ounces
Samsung Droid Charge 5.04 ounces
Motorola Droid X
5.47 ounces
Samsung Epic 4G
5.47 ounces
HTC EVO 4G
6 ounces
HTC EVO 3D 6 ounces
HTC Thunderbolt
6.23 ounces

The entire phone is incredibly clean. Beside the centered Home button along the bottom, you'll find a Menu capacitive touch button to its right and a similarly-styled Back button to its left. Since there's no Search button as there is on many Android phones, you can long-press the Menu button to pull up a search menu.  Along the right edge, you'll find the volume rocker. The top edge is home to the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the left edge has the (admittedly tiny) power button. The lower edge has a micro-USB 2.0 connector.


The WVGA Super AMOLED is, quite simply, world-class. The viewing angles are unlike anything we've ever seen. Even at the most extreme angles, you can see the screen perfectly clear, with no color bleed or fade to speak of. Yes, a qHD screen would've been preferred over the 800x480 that's here, but once you see how bright this thing is in sunlight, and how clear it is in any situation, you'll be won over as well. It's hands-down the best mobile display we've seen to date, all things considered.

The only other design aspects is the speakerphone output on the rear bump and the dual cameras (2MP front; 8MP rear with flash). Being as thin and light as it is, the Galaxy S II is just lovely to hold. It feels light but solid, and it exudes a premium feel that matches its high price tag. The fit and finish here is second only to the iPhone 4, and in some respects, what you get here feels even more premium perhaps.
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Android 2.3 + TouchWiz 4.0 User Interface
Largely, Android 2.3 is just like Android 2.2 There are a few minor performance tweaks here and there, but if you've read our in-depth review of Froyo, you'll largely know what to expect here. Because this is an unlocked phone, you'll have no problems sideloading APKs and applications, and the Mobile Hotspot feature is enabled without any extra plans necessary from your carrier. Be careful how much you use it, though.

We won't bother recovering what you've come to know and expect from Android itself, but suffice it to say, the Galaxy S II's hardware runs Gingerbread like a champ. The 1.2GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM and spacious screen allow for a truly exceptional experience, and if you've used Android on anything else a year ago, you'll feel as if you've found smartphone heaven here. We can only compare this experience to iOS on a blistering A5 processor over on the Apple side. It's buttery smooth, and regardless of how hard you tax it, you'll find a pleasurable overall experience in this device.

     
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As with Motorola (BLUR) and HTC (Sense), Samsung has thrown their own overlay over Android. It's called TouchWiz 4.0, and it's the most subtle of the major overlays. We tend to think that Sense and BLUR distort the overall Android experience in a way that makes things more cluttered than they need to be. TouchWiz, however, is subtle enough to let Google's design choices shine through, and for the most part, TouchWiz only stands to enhance things and make using the OS easier.

Here's an example: the Contact list looks largely the same as on the stock Nexus S, but a simple swipe to the left will call a contact, while a swipe to the right will allow you to message them. It's simple, but effective. Also, one of the widgets we have loved in Android 2.x is the "Settings" widget, where you have one-tap access to activating or deactivating Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, etc. Samsung makes it even easier to access by placing it in the pulldown notification bar; just drag that down and it's there. Easy as pie.

     
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Moreover, users are able to mute a ringer by simply turning the face of the phone toward the ground (great for quickly squelching that incoming call during a meeting), and there are even a few unique multi-touch features that you won't find on just any build of Android. Rather than using pinching actions to make a webpage larger and easier to read, you can simply hold two fingertips on the screen and tilt the entire phone forward or back; it'll zoom in and out, respectively. You can disable any of these special zoom features if you so choose, but in practice, we found them to be very useful.

There's also seven home panes to choose from, and you can easily access them by either pinching inward on any screen (for an Expose-like view of all seven) or by holding down along the dots signifying which pane you're on and then scrolling left or right. Our only complaint? You cannot swipe from pane seven to pane one -- it simply doesn't loop around. You have to swipe back through panes 2-6 in order to reach #1 again.

  
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Samsung also includes an App Store of their own, which is largely like the stock Android Market, albeit with a collated collection of apps that Samsung themselves would recommend for use. If you're a bit worried about downloading something that'll negatively impact the performance of your phone, shop here and you'll have nothing to worry over. Think of it as an app shop with an extra level of checking completed before anything is allowed in.

Samsung also includes four "Hubs" that act to bring together subsets of content that usually reside in different places. There's the Social Hub (which integrates feeds from various social networks into one place), the Music Hub, the Games Hub and the Readers Hub. All of these serve their purpose, but none of them struck us as being particularly amazing. We still found ourselves reverting to the real Facebook app, the real TweetDeck app, Amazon's reader app, etc. If you really have a problem handling multiple apps, though, these do bring various things together nicely -- it's just not for everyone.
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Performance: Display, Camera and Battery Life
Let there be no mistake here: the Galaxy S II feels lightning fast. With a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU, you'll be hard-pressed to find a smartphone in today's market that'll run Android as quickly and as smoothly as this. We found the benchmarks to be a little weaker than we had honestly expected, but in real-world use, this thing is a screamer, and having 16GB of onboard storage space for applications, cache files, etc., will help out during long-term use


Its screen, as mentioned earlier, is truly world-class, and the 8MP camera sensor around back is also amongst the strongest in the industry. Samsung's Camera app here is also slightly different the stock Android camera app. The company loads up a number of highly sophisticated controls that will probably best be appreciated by high-end users or fans of manually tweaking camera settings, but of course, that's the market that the company is hoping to hit with this handset. Below are a number of samples taken, with no editing outside of downsizing. Colors, on the whole, were incredibly rich, and the depth of field was fantastic. At night, of course, things got a bit noisy, but the flash worked well compared to rivals. It's certainly amongst the best cameraphones that we've used -- now, if only Instagram for Android would ship.

     

     

 

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Samsung isn't making any outright claims when it comes to battery life, and that's not surprising. Smartphone battery life figures are hard to wrap your head around. No longer do "talk" and "standby" times have much to do with anything. Instead, we tested the phone as we usually do with smartphones, which serves to represent a taxing use pattern that should be a worse-case scenario to judge uptime by.

In an attempt to put a quantitative measure on the phone's battery life, we set up our own web-surfing test. In this test, we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text. The page automatically refreshed itself every three minutes.

We set the device's display to 50% brightness and turned off Wi-Fi. When we ran this, the Galaxy S II did amazingly well, clocking in just over 8 hours. In a more average test (i.e. just using the phone as our primary device for a full day), we easily went from sun-up to sun-down with around 18% life left at the end of the day.

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Performance: General and Gaming
Since this is a phone, after all, we ran it through a solid week of phone calls. While on EDGE, we'd occasionally hear from those we were calling that we sounded a bit muffled, though people always sounded clear on our end. While on 3G, we never had any complaints at all. We also had no real issues with dropped calls. The only issues we had were as such: the earpiece could stand to be a bit louder.  Also, the Wi-Fi range is seemed subpar compared to other Android and iOS phones in our testing stable. While connecting to a router downstairs, we had no issues maintaining three solid bars of signal on three sample phones, while the Galaxy S II dropped that connection routinely. The Wi-Fi to Cell handoff was smooth, but still, it's annoying.

In addition to using the Samsung Galaxy S II in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well it compares to other smartphones.

CPU testing
Android CPU testing

Update on Linpack: Our original testing found scores on the multi-thread benchmark to hover between 50 and 60. A fresh reboot saw scores between 20 and 88, but the majority were in the 80-86 range. Needless to say, the scores here were erratic, but based on our research on similarly-spec'ed phones, the figures above best showcase the capabilities. It's also quite possible that the CPU was intelligently underclocked during some of the tests for power saving measures.

Graphics testing
Android graphics testing

 

JavaScript testing
JavaScript Android and iPhone testing

 

In the Linpack test, the Galaxy S II bested pretty much everything else in this category, save for the EVO 3D. Of course, there's a 1.2GHz CPU in that as well, so it's no surprise that these two are knuckling each other for the speed crown.

The phone once again showed its strength in the An3DBench test, outperforming other smartphones we've looked at recently, save for one. Well, sort of. The Galaxy S II outpaced the EVO 3D in one test, but fell slightly behind in another. It's pretty obvious to us from these scores that each of these high-end devices are awfully similar in terms of real-world performance.

The Galaxy S II earned a top-ranking score in the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, handily outpacing the competition. Mobile browser-junkies, take note.

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Performance: Web Browsing

Since browsing the Web is a key feature of any smartphone, we also conducted some formal speed tests to see how well the Galaxy S II compares to some of today's hottest smartphones.

We ran the Xtremelabs speed test here ten times on AT&T's HSPA+ network. Granted, network conditions will obviously impact your results (which will always vary), but it's safe to say that the Galaxy S II underperformed somewhat compared to the competition, but it wasn't awful by any means. Also, this phone is unlocked, so it has never passed through AT&T's optimization labs. If and when this handset comes to AT&T, we suspect speeds will improve.

It's a similar tale with the Speedtest.net scores. The Galaxy S II landed right in the middle of our combatants, and in real world use, we found ourselves quite pleased with speeds. We also found performance to be somewhat higher when outdoors compared to indoors. Wi-Fi felt somewhat faster than HSPA+, but not dramatically so.
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Summary and Conclusion

Put simply, the Galaxy S II is possibly the best Android phone we've laid our hands on to date. Of course, the qualifier to that statement is that new Android phones are hitting the market on what seems like a weekly basis, so the champ today may not be the champ tomorrow. It's a brutal market out there, and while it's great for consumers in one sense, it's also tough to know when to bite the bullet and buy a phone.  Much like beige boxes in the 90s, you can bet that by the time you get a device home, it'll probably be outclassed by something else rather quickly. Sure enough, the Galaxy S II was the only commercial 1.2GHz, dual-core phone for a while, but now that the HTC EVO 3D is out, it no longer has that distinction.

The folks at Samsung clearly focused on the design and performance of this device. When this phone was launched at MWC, it was said to carry a 1GHz CPU. That clearly didn't work out so well back at HQ, where Samsung delayed the phone long enough to get a faster 1.2GHz dual-core processor in there. Furthermore, the chassis itself is lighter and thinner than the iPhone 4. It's been tough for handset makers to match or beat Apple in many areas, so for Samsung to beat it in a handful of categories proves Samsung's mettle.


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This phone also isn't for everyone from a price and availability standpoint. It's not available (yet) on any U.S. carrier, so the only way to get one is to import an i9100 model that was originally destined for another region. It's possible, yes, but it costs nearly $700. But of course, that's the price you pay for having an unlocked phone (one that can accept local SIMs from foreign countries if you happen to travel a lot), as well as getting that "Home" button beneath the screen.  We wouldn't be surprised to see that button vanish on the U.S. models due to the legal spat that's ongoing between Apple and Samsung. It's just a little too much like the iOS Home button, but it's something we dig about the global build of this handset.

Generally speaking, we're not big fans of bloatware. Thankfully, TouchWiz 4.0 is anything but. The gentle enhancements to Android 2.3 are useful, and we found ourselves missing them when using a phone that lacked the UI overlay. These also have no impact at all on performance, which is a huge factor. Even Samsung's Music player overall provides you with a better experience. We won't hesitate to say that TouchWiz is our favorite (at the moment, anyway) of the major Android skins, as it doesn't really "skin" Android so much as add simple improvements here and there.


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Sure, there are a few things that could've been improved with the Galaxy S II. A qHD screen would've been appreciated, but the sheer beauty of this WVGA Super AMOLED display makes it hard to complain. We would've liked to see a few more built-in camera color effects (Samsung could craft their own sort of Instagram, for example), but beyond a few minor quibbles, it's easy to be thoroughly impressed with this phone. The most obvious downside is the price. It's pushing $700, which is steep even for a cutting-edge, unlocked GSM smartphone. If you're the target market for this, as someone who travels a lot, doesn't enjoy being tied down to cellular contracts and is a lover of Android, it's worth every penny. If you're one to balk at the price from the outset, it's likely nothing will convince you that it's worthwhile. The Galaxy S II is definitely a polarizing device with a ton of upside, and we suspect it'll sell quite well once it hits the states later this month with a subsidized deal behind it to defray cost.

 

     
  • 1.2 GHz dual-core processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 4.3 inch Super AMOLED Plus display
  • Thinner and lighter than rivals
  • TouchWiz 4.0 overlay is genuinely useful
  • Expensive
  • No qHD resolution
  • No microSD card included


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