The Galaxy S II is the typical smart phone to make everybody curious. The expectations are high, so are the stakes. Based on the list of specifications, the ‘S2' has the best papers.
Clearly, something is at stake and before the phone came in, we were excited for days. Does the ‘S2' live up to the high expectations? Our conclusion was remarkable.
Of course, we could talk about its dual core processor that works on 1.2 GHz, and bore you with Quadrant scores. But we are not that interested in the cold hard facts. We want to know what all this violence under the bonnet means for you. Is the phone indeed that much faster? For how long does the battery work? And is the Galaxy S2 comparable to its direct competition, for example the LG Optimus 2x Speed, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and the HTC Sensation, that is still to be released?
We tested the ‘S2' with Android Gingerbread 2.3.3 and ROM-build XWKE2.
The box in which the Samsung Galaxy S II is delivered, looks suspiciously like the Apple iPhone-boxing. A small, compact box, in which the device barely fits. Apart from the device, the box contains a starter guide, an in-ear head set with ear plugs in different sizes, a data cable and an adapter. It all looks very nice. There are removable stickers on the device at the front and at the back. So, there is not much chance on damage during the transport.
While its predecessor looked suspiciously like the iPhone, the Galaxy S II has more of its own character, even though its roots show clearly. The corners look a bit more smooth this time, and the curves are minimized. It all looks rather professional and, luckily, less plastic than its predecessor.
The front gives space for the large 4.27 inch touch screen that is protected by the scratch free Gorilla Glass. The touch screen does not feel too rough or too slippery: it is in fact just right. At the left side of the speaker, next to the second camera, are some sensors. Among others, these are the light sensor and the proximity sensor. At the bottom there's a single button, that brings you to the home screen in just one click. Two presses starts the Voice Talk, with which you can give the S2 spoken assignments. A long press opens a window with the most recently opened applications. To the left and to the right of this button we find touch sensitive buttons, for ‘options' and ‘back'. A search button, so standard on many Android phones, is missing.
On the right side we find the snooze/on and off-button, while the volume buttons are place don the left. There is also a gap in which you can put a cord. Strangely enough, this is not in the box. Next to the gap is a notch. Who puts his nail in this, quickly opens the cover to reveal its insides. In order to replace the back cover, you would have to start with the bottom part.
On the top side, we find the 3.5 mm audio jack connection and a microphone. This is only used in the speaker function, but we will tell you more about that later on. Finally, we find the microUSB connection at the bottom side, including the microphone.
The smooth back side has a carbon fiber-ish coating that has a practical goal, apart from the esthetics: it avoids finger prints! Next to the Samsung logo we find the 8 mega pixel camera including its flash light. At the bottom there's another speaker, that brings forth quite a lot of sound.
The plastic bezel reflects light swiftly. That is why it looks like aluminum, while this is not the case with its predecessor. It is a small feature that makes you appreciate the design more. Apart from that, the relative breadth of the S2 catches the eye. Because the device is very thin at the same time, it feels like compact phone anyway. All in all, this is a modern smart phone that looks a lot more professional than its predecessor.
The Galaxy S2 is provided with a large 1650 mAh battery and this creates high expectations. That may not be such a good idea on a smart phone with such a large screen: it can be nothing than disappointing! This is the case with the S2: when you play a game regularly, it doesn't even make it through the day. Unfortunately, the Super AMOLED Plus technology combined with the battery saving functions, doesn't seem to make a difference. The update to version XWKE2 brings a large improvement, but we will talk about that later.
Moreover, there is a very annoying function in the device: the S2 gives a sounds signal whenever the battery is fully loaded. A noble idea, but it does not always comes in handy. We were woken twice by the beeping noise. It doesn't last long, but it is loud enough the wake you from your sleep. As long as Samsung is working to make this function optional, there is no other option for us than putting the sound of ‘system' on 0. Too bad, since you miss out on all the other system sounds.
The first conversation we recieved on the S2 was interrupted immediately. That wasn't very promising. The following conversations didn't show any progress: there was no sound. And this continued for a couple of ‘conversations'. After restarting the S2, the problems were solved, but it leaves a worrying impression. Apart from that, we must admit that we have heard better calling sound. There is a soft murmer in the background all the time. It is not really bothering, but it is there. And you can call us spoiled, but this is where we miss a second microphone to filter out the sounds of the surroundings.
We can do nothing else but praise the display. Some may find the colours of the Super AMOLED Plus screen a bit too bright, but there is no accounting for tastes. Luckily, there are a couple of applications to adjust this.
The screen is just a good successor of the Pentile-ish Super AMOLED display with which the Galaxy S was provided with. The Super AMOLED Plus screen has a different sub pixel structure that gives a more sharp picture, especially up close. This is especially remarkable when the device shows text. It all looks just a bit sharper. And on the level of contrast, the S2 is master. Black is really black, something that attracts even more attention at night. You will learn the appreciate the display quickly, and once you're used to it, it will be very, very hard to return to an ‘average' TFT.
The Galaxy S2 is provided with Samsung's very own TouchWiz interface that now has been released in the fourth version. It is something not everybody will like. On the other side, it can be personalized in quite a few ways, so it can be adjusted to your own taste.
We will scroll through it quickly. The lock screen contains a clock with unlock buttons to the left and to the right, with the number of missed or received calls. The home screen counts no less than seven different pages, on which you can place your widgets. The TouchWiz widgets use the space optimally, so that there are no empty sports when you want to have a screen full of widgets. There are calendar wizards, clock, email and typical Google widgets.
Moreover, TouchWiz is very cooperative when it come to placing widgets. For example, it tells you beforehand how much space a widgets needs. The whole process is stuffed with smoothly running animations. The S2 reacts very smoothly, almost instantly, and it all looks great graphically. We are spoiled with eye candy and we like it!
At the bottom of the home screen there is space for no more than four shortcuts, and for us, this is exactly one short. Absolutely necessary are a shortcut for calling (of course, contacts is allowed as well), messages, internet and email. But since the application button cannot be replaced, we miss one space. Even though TouchWiz has folders to its disposal, these cannot be placed here. This is contrary to the newest Xperias by Sony Ericsson.
Once you have pressed the applications button, we see the installed and present applications in a square of 4 by 4. You can also choose for a list, but we do not see anybody using that. You can scroll through the pages horizontally, quite alike the iOS by Apple. The grouping of the pages goes very well, and as we said before, it is possible to use folders.
If you want to delete applications, we would advice you to do this trough TouchWiz. Press the options button in the menu, choose ‘change' and click the application that you want to delete. If you try to do this trough the ‘menu > applications > manage applications': this caused several errors after which the Launcher crashed and we needed to do a reboot.
We ran into unwanted errors quite often. Several parts crashed regualry, and we had to reboot the device several times in order to get rid of the trouble. This is very worrying, and something should be done about this soon. We didn't have a day without a reboot, but for a device for everyday use this is more than desirable. We had two updates during our reviewing period, so Samsung is heading in the right direction. And it must be said: it went a whole lot better after the second update, but they are not quite finished.
The Galaxy S2 phonebook is quite standard for Android. Next to the contact is a symbol that tells you where the information comes from. When you slide a contact to the right you call him immediately, when you sweep it to the left you send a text message. Contacts are put together as much as possible, so that you don't have different contacts for every source, that are the same at the same time.
It is very practical that at a contact that also appears on Facebook, Twitter and/or LinkedIn, its most recent activities are showed. This requires a account from Samsung's own Social Hub.
Sending messages with the S2 is quite a pleasant thing to do. Of course, this has everything to do with the presence of Swype. This makes adding words, especially long words, a piece of cake. Doesn't the phone know the word yet? In that case you use the keyboard like it is a ‘normal' keyboard, and you add the word for one time. After that, Swype knows the new word. It almost can't get any easier.
Messages are showed in a conversation, and it is even possible to adjust the colour scheme. Emoticons are shown as such, and attachments can be added quickly, which turns the message in an MMs message. Apart from that, there is an email application in which you can insert more than one account. Luckily there is a combined inbox, so that you can keep an overview easily. Accounts are checked by the Samsung server, after which the messages are ‘pushed' to your device. The advantage is that you don't have to ‘poll' your S2 on messages yourself, which is hard on the battery. If you only use Gmail, we certainly advice the separated Gmail application.
The S2 supports FOTA updates, through the device itsself, but for that you need to make a Samsung account. Unfortunately there is a division between the different updates, because we could get one particular update through ‘KIES' only. With the S2 it is not possible yet to use the Mac-version ‘KIES mini'. Mac users who think they can add their device on a virtual PC under VMWare, will be disappointed. Moreover, KIES only seems to work when you are logged in in Windows as an administrator. Very frustrating.
Who sweeps the toolbar down finds all kinds of practical buttons with which one can switch functions such as WiFi and Bluetooth on and off immediately. This comes in handy, and we don't miss anything besides the ‘flight mode' option. Everything works excellently and thanks to the presence of WiFi Direct one can connect to routers that support the same technology. Besides, the WiFi sleeping option can be used, which avoids the WiFi function from being active for too long a time. This helps save your battery. Finally, there is an option to set up your phone as a hotspot. This makes it possible to share your internet connection with as much as five other devices. When it comes to security, the S2 supports the save WPA2.
Finally, a compliment for the GPS support. This is excellent and much better than, for example, the Nexus S, that also comes from Samsung. Probably, the S2 uses the SiRFstarIV GSD4t chip set that uses less energy, apart from a quicker fix. And we really do notice this while using the device.
When it comes to the browser, Samsung has chosen to do something different. One can zoom in and zoom out by keeping two fingers on the screen and ‘tilt' the device. It is possible to use pinch-to-zoom as well. When you zoom out a whole page this way, you end up in the page overview. A nice idea, but we reached that unintentionally often.
What is striking after a while, is that Samsung uses elastic scrolling in the browser, instead of kinetic like in the rest of the system. Scrolling a page feels like there is a rubber band attached to it, which only follows after a second. But this is not bothering, it is just something we noticed. We found it odd that the option ‘pages fit to screen' is not switched on all the time. This function is very practical to make it possible to make wide texts readable. Apart from that, the browser is very good and it works exceptionally well.
Now we arrive at the part where the S2 is a real winner: the camera. Especially the combination of the great camera sensor and the fantastical display makes this a good duo. Pictures and clips look almost better on screen, than in real life. We deal with everything one by one.
Luckily, the camera interface in not the basic Android interface. The buttons are well-positioned and the applications can even be set up as a shortcut for an even quicker use. In the camera mode, the maximum resolution is 3264 x 2448 pixels while one can choose for 6.5, 3.2, 2.4, 0.4 en 0.3 mega pixel as well. Further applications are: self portrait, flash light (automatically, on, off) photo option (one, smile shot, beauty shot, panorama, action and cartoon), scene mode (off, portrait, landscape, night, sports, party/inside, beach/snow, sunset, dawn, autumn, fireworks, text, candlelight and background lighting), lighting value, focus (autofocus, macro and detect face), timer (off, 2 sec., 5 sec. and 10 sec), effects (no, negative, gray tints and sepia), white balance (automatically, daylight, cloudy, artificial light, TL lighting), ISO (automatically, 100, 200, 400 and 800), measure (centre, spot measure and matrix), visibility outside, anti shaking, automatically contact, blink detection, guidelines, overview, screen quality (super high, delicate and normal), GPS tag and storage. This is a lot, and most of them are no more than gimmicks.
In the video mode the possibilities are more limited, although you can tape in Full HD quality! The thing we miss most is video stabilization. Taped material is very shaky, even with a steady hand. Although the Nokia N8 tapes a maximum of 720p, this stabilization would have been very nice! Besides that, we could complain about the absence of a physical camera button. You can't have it all, anyway.
As far as settings go, one can choose between flash light, video option (normal, limit for MMS, self recording), lighting value, timer (off, 2 sec., 5 sec. and 10 sec.), effects (no, negative, grey tints and sepia), white balance (automatically, day light, cloudy, artificial light and TL light), visibility outside, video quality (super high, fine and normal), guidelines and overview. Apart from the maximal 1080p resolution there is choice between 1280 x 720, 720 x 480, 640 x 480, 320 x 240 and 176 x 144 pixels.
Recorded material can be shared through the channels that are usual for Android. Samsung only added AllShare to this. With AllShare, you can send videos to your AllShare compatible television wirelessly. In practice, this is going to be mostly the newer Samsung TV's and gadgets.
All in all, this part is worth a nice B. Pictures are very sharp, videos in Full HD have an astonishingly high resolution and quality. Anyway, this declines quickly at dawn, which is usual with phones. Unfortunately, the missing of video stabilization is still a grave one. To make up for this in some way, we can adjust the pictures and videos on this devices ourselves, using a separate app.
Apart from the usual Android applications, we find some specific apps: the Hubs. Samsung has pre-installed four of them on the S2: Social Hub, Music Hub, Readers Hub and Game Hub. The Social Hub combines all your social networks into one, while the Music Hub is a well-meant online music store. We call it ‘well-meant' because the prices of a single song are mostly 0.20 Euros higher than in iTunes. This is why we wonder whether many people are going to use this. Even though the prices for a complete album are mostly lower than in iTunes.
The Reader Hub is an interesting way of collecting books, magazines and newspapers. When we look for papers, we even see some Dutch ones, including the Volkskrant, the Pers and International Herald Tribune. If we look beyond this, we found out that every category works through a system for a third, which is why we need another account. Zinio for magazines, Kobo for books and PressReader for newspapers. Still, it's a nice try. Besides, there is a bol.com app where you can buy books. For that, you will need a Adobe account, apart from a bol.com account. You guessed: you need a whole bunch of new accounts to get it all running.
The Game Hub Works through Mobage and it takes very long to start it up the first time. Finally, it turns out to be a store where you can download free as well as paid games. Fortunately, the paid ones have a trial possibility, so that you don't have to grab your wallet immediately.
Furthermore, there is a standard application for file management, several speech applications of which three of them are almost the same, Polaris Office in which you can edit documents, a Mini Diary application and a ‘AppStore' of its own. This last one is a nice try, but we prefer the Android Market.
There are no pre installed games, but through the Games Hub we spoke of before, you can download several games.
Here we want to pay some attention to the ‘KIES air' application. It makes it possible to approach your phone through your browser and even manage it on a low level. It makes us think of the Motorola Milestone, which had a similar function.
It is very practical, because it is a lot easier to add some bookmarks this way, than through the device itself. Downloading pictures and videos is possible this way as well.
With the Galaxy S, Samsung had a selling success, and so it took a qualified successor. Not only to avoid looking like a fool, but to take a piece of market share from Apple and other Android builders. The Koreans have tried their very best in order to realize this: and they built their own processor and a new type of display. This two components alone turned to S2 into a winning team.
But it is more than the hardware you are going to deal with, the software counts just as much. And this is where the critique comes in. if you want to enjoy your Galaxy SII in a proper way, you simple have the KE2 version installed. And for that, you have to go through the hell of KIES, but you HAVE to. It is necessary to turn the S2 into a functioning phone! To go without it is not an option, and it does no justice to the capacities of the Galaxy S2.
Because with this version, the S2 is simply the best that you can get hold of today. We could complain about the missing of video stabilization or NFC, but who notices that with a Super AMOLED Plus screen? Moreover, the S2 is very fast. Not necessarily faster than the Optimus 2X Speed, but the Samsung looks better, is thinner and has a better display. We'd like to close with the thought that the Galaxy S2 may be the best phone on the market today.