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Tuesday May 17, 2011 11:50 am
Samsung Galaxy S II review
The finest Android phone we've seen so far, the Samsung Galaxy S II isn't just a competitor to the current iPhone. It competes with the next iPhone. The Galaxy S II is the fastest Android device we've ever tested, with the best screen, the best camera, and the latest version of Android software. It's a pity that few people in the U.S. will buy it, because it's only available unlocked, with no carrier subsidies, for $799. That's simply too high a price in a nation where people are used to buying top-of-the-line smartphones for $199. Click on through for our full review of the Galaxy S II.
The Galaxy S II is one handsome phone, although it could be built from more luxurious materials given its price. Samsung decided to go for slim and light rather than rich-feeling here, providing an all-plastic phone with a black, textured back that rings in at a shockingly slim 4.9 by 2.6 by .3 inches (HWD) and 4.1 ounces. It's all good plastic, to be sure, but it doesn't shout "high-end" the way the Apple iPhone 4 and T-Mobile G2x do.
There's a Volume button on the side, but no dedicated camera controls. Below the screen, there's a large physical Home button along with virtual menu and back buttons. There's no Search button, oddly. The main sore spot is that the menu and back buttons tend to disappear without warning; you have to memorize their positions, but as there are only two of them, this isn't much of a problem. Also slightly annoyingly, the MicroSD card slot is under the back cover, and you need to remove the battery to change the card.
The star here is the breathtakingly beautiful touch screen. The new Super AMOLED Plus technology has the deep blacks and hypersaturated colors of traditional AMOLED, but it's also viewable outdoors in full sunlight. Next to this 4.3-inch display, the iPhone 4's screen looks sharper, but a bit washed out. The 800-by-480 resolution is industry standard for now; on a cutting-edge phone it might be nice to see something closer to the 960-by-540 display on the Motorola Atrix, but honestly, 800-by-480 is good enough.
Phone Calling and Internet
The Galaxy S II is an excellent voice phone. Signal reception on AT&T is strong, and the earpiece is loud and clear. The phone has no side-tone, the echo of your voice that prevents you from yelling, but that's a matter of taste. Transmissions on the other end sounded decent, and the phone did a good job blocking background noise. The speakerphone was a bit quiet, though. The phone connected easily to my Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset for voice dialing and Vlingo voice commands.
Screaming along at true 4G, HSPA+ 21 speeds, this is also one of the fastest AT&T Internet phones available. (The phone is compatible with AT&T's and foreign 3G bands, but not T-Mobile's.) The only handset that can match it is Samsung's Infuse 4G. I got 4.4Mbps down using the Speedtest.net app, and streamed full-screen video through the SPB TV app without a problem. The phone also works as a Wi-Fi hotspot, if you have the appropriate service plan, and connects to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networks. There are some more exotic options here, as well. Wi-Fi Direct and Samsung's Kies Air software let you share files with PCs over a Wi-Fi network, while Samsung's Kies PC software lets you sync your contacts, calendar, and media locally with Outlook and other PC applications.
Operating System, Interface, and Apps
The Galaxy S II is the first phone to use Samsung's dual-core Exynos processor, a Cortex-A9 equivalent running at 1.2Ghz. The clock speed suggests that it's slightly faster than Nvidia's Tegra 2, and our very basic benchmarks bore that out, although Nvidia's chip in the T-Mobile G2x did better at the Neocore graphics/gaming test. I'm suspicious of the benchmarks, though, because the Galaxy S II runs Android 2.3 while every Nvidia device we've benchmarked is on 2.2, and that can affect outcomes. (AnandTech ran more benchmarks, and found the Tegra 2 to offer better graphics and Flash performance.) This is a super-fast phone in any case. The UI, in general, is speedy, and the phone is compatible with the majority of Android's 125,000 apps.
Speaking of Android, the Galaxy S II runs Gingerbread (2.3.3) with Samsung's TouchWiz overlay. With its square icons and somewhat overbearing widgets, TouchWiz isn't as elegant as HTC's Sense or even the minimalist base Gingerbread UI. But it's functional, letting you do things like combine multiple calendar and contact sources into one view easily.
Samsung did a few quirky UI things here, but you can ignore them if you want to. Flipping over the phone mutes the ringer - that's cool. But tilting the phone while touching the screen to zoom the browser? That's just a little silly.
The Galaxy S II is loaded down with undeletable, and in some cases unusable, bloatware. That didn't seem to slow its performance, but it's a lot of icons. The BBC iPlayer on my test unit didn't even work in the USA. There are Samsung music, e-books and game stores, the "social hub" social network aggregator, Vlingo voice commands, two custom app stores (Samsung Apps and Samsung Suggests) and a lot more.
Some of that bloat is useful, of course. The Samsung Game Hub, a Gameloft-powered store, had 11 great-looking "HD" games that showed off the dual-core device's power. The Music Hub sells albums for $5, less than Amazon's rates. And Social Hub lets you respond to Twitter and Facebook messages within an email-like interface.
AT&T users will also be happy to see that as an unlocked phone, the Galaxy S II allows for non-Market apps, including apps purchased from Amazon, GetJar, MiKandi or other alternative stores.
The Galaxy S II is an absolutely terrific phone for music and video capture and playback. Let me count the ways.
There's 13.5GB available for media, plus a MicroSD card slot that accepts up to 32GB cards. The 8-megapixel camera takes sharp, clear photos with good color and light balance. In low light photos get a bit dark, but not blurry, and the shutter reacts relatively quickly at 0.6 secs. Recorded videos at up to 1080p resolution look absolutely terrific. They're a bright 30 frames per second outdoors, and 24 frames per second indoors. There's a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, which also performed very well.
Music and video playback was flawless in every format I tested, including XVID, H.264 and WMV videos up to 1080p HD resolution. Supposedly, the Galaxy S II supports HDMI mirroring using a cable with the new MHL standard. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any MHL cables actually on the market yet.
As mentioned above, Samsung includes Music Hub, a digital-powered music store which sells new albums for $5. There's no video store on board, though, and Blockbuster and Bitbop don't show up in the Market, making it hard to find legal movies for this phone.
The Samsung Galaxy S II is smokin'. It's stunningly powerful, generally well-designed, and everything a high-end Android phone should be. The screen could be a little higher-res, and you should be able to delete the bloatware. But this phone grooves.
There's one thing standing in your way, though, and that's the towering price of this unlocked masterpiece. The Galaxy S II is only available from specialty importers for around $800, and it's simply too hard to justify a price that high. Without a contract, the T-Mobile G2x is $499, the Motorola Atrix is $549, and the iPhone 4 is $599. If price is an issue, the G2x offers much better value for your dollar, even without a subsidy. Even still, the Samsung Galaxy S II's power, speed, and overall performance make it worthy of our Editors' Choice award despite its sky-high price.
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