Finally it's T-Mobile's turn to take a swing at the Samsung Galaxy S II, almost six months after the rest of the world. No adjective soup for this variant; its official name is, plainly, the "T-Mobile Galaxy S II." Formerly known as the "Hercules," this is the misfit in the GSII family. In its heart pumps a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, instead of the normal Samsung Exynos. So it's not just a carbon copy of all those other GSIIs. My initial impressions were posted a few days ago, and since then I've had some time to see if this thing was really worth the wait.
Let's get this party started with some specs!
- 4.52 inch, 800x480 Super AMOLED Plus screen
- 1.5GHz Dual Core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3
- 1 GB of Ram
- 16GB of internal storage (11.25GB /sdcard partition)
- 1850mAh battery
- 8 MP camera with flash
- 2 MP front-facing camera
- 1080p HD video capture
- "4G" HSPA+ 42 Mbps download speed
- NFC (!)
- WiFi a/b/g/n
- Bluetooth 3.0
- HDMI out via an MHL cable
- Dimensions: 129.8 mm x 68.8 mm x 9.4 mm
- Weight: 4.77 ounces (135 grams)
- Micro SD slot (up to 32 GB)
- Android 2.3.5 with Touchwiz
I want a camera button. Other than that, I love the look and construction of this phone. Like I said in the initial impressions, It's thin and beautiful, and the materials are just wonderful. The back is coated in a soft touch plastic that almost feels like leather. The screen is very large at 4.52 inches, but the thin bezel means the overall phone size isn't comically large. There's a metal colored band around the edge of the phone, but it's dark enough that it doesn't look like a cheap 1st gen iPhone knockoff or a Blackberry.
The haptic feedback (aka vibration) is surprisingly pleasant. Most other phones have it set way too long, and it makes it feel like the phone is vibrating for no reason. But the GSII has a very crisp, sharp vibrate. I actually want to keep it on.
The "S" stands for "Seesaw."
One part of the design that I absolutely hate, and it's almost a deal breaker for me, is that the phone doesn't sit flat on a table. The above picture shows just how unstable it is. Tapping this phone anywhere other than dead center will send it incessantly rocking back and forth like a seesaw. I can honestly say at one point I wedged folded-up post-it notes under each side so it would stop. It's really a shame, the phone is very solidly constructed, but the rocking motion (and the noise) it makes whenever you use it on a table makes it feel cheap and poorly thought out.
Also in the negative column: no notification light. Really, Samsung? This is like, basic phone functionality. Am I supposed to constantly check my phone anytime I may have missed the notification chime? I can confirm NoLED works -- it will put a hit on your battery though.
All the phone stuff works great. The earpiece is nice and loud, and the speakerphone is VERY loud. Some of the notifications actually hurt my ears a bit. You aren't going to want to listen to music on it or anything, but it works great for conversations.
The first ever phone with an integrated JumboTron!
The star of the show, the 4.52 inch screen, is, sadly, a mixed bag. It's a "Super AMOLED Plus" display, so the colors are bright and beautiful. You get the full compliment of subpixels, not that crappy pentile stuff from the first Galaxy S. The blacks are so black they almost blend into the bezel when the phone is off. The viewing angles are flawless.
The mixed in this mixed bag comes from the resolution -- it's 800x480. With a 4.52 inch screen, that puts you at around 206 DPI. Let me show you how bad that is:
- iPhone 4: 326 DPI
- Nexus Prime: 320 DPI (rumored, but true)
- Motorola Atrix: 275 DPI
- Motorola Droid: 265 DPI
- HTC Evo: 240 DPI
- Samsung Galaxy S: 233 DPI
- T-Mobile Galaxy S II: 206 DPI
- T-Mobile G1: 180 DPI
That's right, the only device the T-Mobile GSII can claim DPI victory over is the original Android device. You know, the phone with 528mhz processor from 2008. The pathetic DPI means apps on this phone are HUGE. Everything is too big. It reminds me of the Jitterbug phones for old people with vision problems. Screens this big should be able to show you more Android. I want to see more messages, more email, more everything. This is just bigger Android. There is no benefit to a screen this size when you don't have to resolution to back it up. Check out Gmail on the 4 inch Atrix vs the 4.52 inch GSII:
The Atrix packs 1.5 more list items into it's smaller screen because of it's higher (960x540) resolution. There is no point to a giant screen when the DPI is this low. Webpages are actually unpleasant to read in portrait mode, apps are blown up to ridiculous proportions - it's just a waste.
Remember, this is the weird Galaxy S II. You get a 1.5 GHz Snapdragon instead of a 1.2 GHz Exynos. More GHz=Faster, right? No.
Why did the higher GHz phone lose? Well the main factor seems to be a different GPU to go along with that Snapdragon. The T-mobile GSII has a Qualcomm Adreno 220 GPU, the other GSIIs have a (much better) ARM Mali-400. Apparently the reason for all this chip swapping is the limited compatibility with T-Mobile's HSPA+ modem, so I hope the service in your area is worth it.
But let's ignore all the technical stuff for a moment. How does the phone feel? Well, great. It's fast. Scrolling and zooming is buttery smooth everywhere, even a in browser full of flash ads. Samsung has done some serious work in the smoothness department and it shows. It's one of the real high points of the phone. Auto rotate is the fastest I've ever seen on an Android phone. So yeah, your friends may pull higher benchmarks than you, but don't worry about it. The phone experience is as fast as you can ask for. It's really a joy to use.
Battery life also is great. I can easily get through a whole day. And the Super AMOLED Plus screen gives you the option of blacking out everything for even more battery life. (Black AMOLED pixels take no power) So if you're concerned, grab a black wallpaper and find some modded, blacked out apps for serious battery life.
Marketing might want to have a word with Qualcomm.
Network performance is great, when you can get a signal. HSPA+ will deliver speeds around 9mbs down and 1mbs up at a sub 100ms ping - at least it does in my area. The problem is getting a signal. I usually use Pandora for music in my car, and while AT&T and Verizon can handle that with no problem, T-Mobile just can't. For me, the network was just spotty all over. Music skipped and sometimes I was driving in total silence. Very disappointing. Speaking of driving...
If you somehow hadn't heard, the first Galaxy S had a bit of a GPS problem. There was a combination of hardware and software problems which made the GPS never really work without some serious hacking. There were petitions, massive forum threads, recall demands, and a million news stories - it was a disaster for Samsung. So are the GPS problems a thing of the past? Let's find out.
From a cold boot, I went outside, fired up GPS Test, waited a few seconds, and took some screenshots:
In short: you can relax; the GPS works great. Satellites start pouring in 2 seconds after you turn GPS Test on, and it'll get to 12 ft accuracy in about 20 seconds. Apps like Google Maps will find your location in about 5 seconds, and Navigation always worked without a hitch. It's a normal, working GPS.
An AMOLED screen puts you in a bit of a predicament when taking pictures. They look beautiful on the phone, because the vibrancy is so over the top. But you will be very disappointed when you view them again on a computer. You want an accurate view screen when you take pictures; nothing more, nothing less. AMOLED is just awful for judging the lighting, you always think the lighting is way better than it really is.
I also cannot stand the camera lens placement. Most phones have the camera at the top corner of the phone, so you can hold it and not obscure the camera lens. The GSII has the lens smack in the top center, so if you hold the phone horizontally with a normal grip, you're going to cover the lens or reflect the flash back into the camera.
TouchWiz Is My Candy-Coated Nightmare
Oh god. The software. It hurts.
In fact, to help you share in my pain, I'm going to TouchWiz skin this article. Hold on... **TouchWiz!** Ok I'll stop now, you get the idea. While Google is moving more towards a monotone (or at least color coordinated) theme, Samsung goes for full-on eyeball shock and awe. Every color that could be used has been used.
Your display is high contrast, Samsung, I get it! Pack in a pretty demo video or something, don't make the entire phone feel like Computing in Candy Land.
COLOR ALL THE THINGS
Maybe it's a combination of colorizing everything and the hyper vibrant AMOLED screen, but the whole package comes across as unpleasant. It's childish. I don't like it.
I guess I'll start with the lock screen. It's the big, pink, streaky thing above. The notification unlocks are very cool - you can jump right to a text or phone call when you have a notification. Only texts and phone calls though. Gmail and Google Talk don't work. Unlocking it is... difficult. It doesn't give you a direction to swipe, you can just kind of do it anywhere. The pink layer reveals your home screen when you move it. It's exactly like moving around a Photoshop layer. The hard part about it is the unnaturally long swipe distance required for an unlock. The standard lock screen clears after around a 40% screen distance swipe. Touchwiz requires something like 80%. In the picture above, swiping from the colon all the way to the right isn't good enough, you have to start around the middle of the "7" for it to unlock. I whiff the unlock all the time because I don't drag it far enough. After a day or so I decided it was a totally unnatural movement and installed NoLock.
The app drawer, editing the app drawer, and the app drawer's list view
The home screen is very basic. You get a dock and some icons. None of the stock widgets are scrollable, and it doesn't support 3rd party scrolling. You are allowed to rearrange the horizontal app drawer to your liking, and if you're really a masochist there's a list view that shows 6 items at a time. I won't spend much time on this because I feel like 90% of people reading this will replace the stock launcher. It's serviceable, but nothing special.
Samsung has added tilt gestures to the home screen, browser, and gallery. There is no subtlety here. You need to make big, sweeping movements for anything to register. Doing this in public will certainly get you some funny looks. Luckily the response time is so slow, you will never be tempted to start waving your phone around like a Wii controller in a public place.
The zooming gesture is very strange, if you are going to put two fingers on the screen, pinch zoom is much faster and more precise. If you don't like pinch zoom, you also have a zoom button. What problem are they trying to solve here?
"Panning" is for moving an icon between homepages. I'll admit that can be a little difficult currently, but the motion version isn't any better. A zoomed out view of all your homepages would be much easier.
I really like the camera app. Anything would be better than the stock Gingerbread app (which hasn't been updated since 2.0), but this is nice in its own right. Across the top you get four customizable shortcuts to camera settings. The left picture is your choice of shortcuts for the four boxes. It looks nice and works nice. Thumbs up.
The poor Gallery. It's based on the original N1 gallery, which is great because it syncs Picasa and G+ pictures, but Samsung got ahold of it and packed it with garbage. The menu in the right picture literally scared me when it popped up. I mean it -- I jumped a little. This menu is supposed to have about five items on it. I did not expect Samsung to somehow triple it. That's impressive. A quick rundown:
- "Edit" sounds really interesting doesn't it? It brings up the bundled photo editor. You get filters, saturation, contrast, crop, cut and paste, zoom, fill, marquee select -- a really nice suite of tools. Except marquee doesn't let you select in a square -- only circles. I'm not kidding. The other tools are pretty useless without a good select tool.
- "Print" pops up in a couple spots on the phone, but you need a Samsung printer to use it.
- "Motion" is the same silly dowsing rod maneuver from the home screen.
- "Set Default Destination" is completely mystifying to me. The option pops up in every view, whether a picture is selected or not. Touching it brings up a menu with Contacts, New Email Address, and New Phone Number. At first I thought it would funnel every new picture to the selected location, like G+ Instant Upload, but it's had my email for a few days and none of the 100s of pictures have made it to my inbox. I'd love to hear your theories in the comments.
- Share via, Send via, AND Send to. Bravo. You can't make this stuff up, folks. Different apps are in different menus, I think one is for stock apps and one is third party apps. Good luck remembering which is which.
Samsung included a couple useful apps in a "Utility" folder in the app drawer. You get a to do list, calculator, note pad, and diary. For the most part they are very pretty. I wish the rest of the phone looked like this.
27... Twenty-seven pieces of crapware. Two are uninstallable. The rest you have to keep forever. It's such a bizarre collection of apps to force upon someone, too. Lookout will always be installed on your phone. So will Netflix, whether you subscribe or not, and a game called Asphalt 6, which I can't play unless I download another HALF A GIG worth of game.
"Apps that download more apps" is kind of a general theme. Would you like to check out the "T-Mobile Mall"? Perhaps you'd like to browse the "Bonus Apps" widget? It's like crapware Inception.
There's also duplication of Stock Android functionality. Telenav GPS, when Google Maps is vastly superior. Something called "Bilo" (a book downloader) when it already comes with Google Books. Qik Video Chat instead of Google Talk Video Chat (you get the old version).
They put an icon for "Accounts and Sync" in the app drawer. You're going to use that the first week you have the phone and never use it again. Leave it in settings where it belongs.
This phone is going to need some industrial-strength Root.
Not everything is perfect in Candy Land. Samsung, in its zeal to screw with every bit of software on this phone, has managed to introduce some bugs. Bugs that no one in Q/A paid attention to.
H...Hey! Phone! I want to change the brightness... Hello?
Occasionally the brightness just greys out and won't let me change it. I can't think of any good reason I should ever be locked out of the brightness control, so I'm filing this under bugs. The browser also has a screen brightness setting in the menu (why?), which Samsung has added, so they've been caught red-handed on this one. The weirdest part is that the brightness display will light back up if I plug the phone in, and it seems to happen more often at low power (though it also happens at other times). Don't call it a power saving feature though, because, 1) boy, that would be annoying, and 2) it doesn't turn the brightness down or do anything for power savings. It will happily lock you out at max brightness and blaze down a low battery.
While we're on the subject, can I talk about the auto brightness? It's broken. The SGSII is about half as bright on auto brightness as any other phone on auto brightness. There's a big difference between "I would prefer it to be brighter" and "Hey, this is broken." It jumps to the lowest brightness setting in a fully lit room. That's broken. There doesn't seem to be anything physically broken; the sensor works. A flashlight or the sun will get it to its brightest setting -- the calibration is just way off. On auto brightness the screen looks dull and ugly. Looking at it is very uncomfortable and causes eye strain. Pray for a patch, or don't use auto brightness.
The gallery: Props for including the (sort of) stock gallery and all. It's very nice to sync my G+ pictures. But they forgot to put a frame limiter on the animations. They all run at about 10x normal speed and just looks silly. Silly and broken. I appreciate a show of power as much as the next guy, but I've started to hum Yakety Sax whenever I use it.
Above: Angry Galaxy S II owners. Note the lack of an uninstall option.
Oh and hey fellas, when you based your hacked-up turbo-gallery on the Nexus One gallery, you forgot to change the package name. Out of the box the market thinks I have "Gallery 3D" installed. Not an official version, It's a hack owned by some dude named "Rayman50" and, oh yeah, it's uninstallable. It sure would suck if he got wind of this and decided to offer a malicious update.
Items in the notification bar have a dark background. Normally items have a light background. Apps are supposed to adjust for this but many do not. So frequently you end up with dark text on a dark background. Sure, you could say this isn't Samsung's fault, but the fact that Pandora, the 4th most popular Android app, doesn't support dark backgrounds means you probably should stick to the regular color scheme. What's really inexcusable though, is that some of the bundled apps don't support a dark background. The picture to the right is Slacker Radio; it came with the phone. I know what you're thinking: Just squint really hard, right? Not really, here's the Deadmau5 notification after a trip through Photoshop:
I bet you thought it was only 2 lines of text...
The Bottom Line
It's fast, sturdy and beautifully designed, but it has the DPI of a Lite-Brite. Touchwiz is an ugly mess. There's a few bugs that need to be worked out. Root is a requirement because of the amount of crapware.
This phone is the last of a generation. Ice Cream Sandwich is right around the corner, bringing with it buttonless phones and 720p screens. The US launch of the GSII was delayed for many months and its age is starting to show. If only this was for sale six months ago. Today, it's very hard to recommend.
- Beautiful design. Thin, sturdy, and made with wonderful feeling materials.
- Fast with buttery smooth scrolling and zooming.
- A giant, beautiful Super AMOLED Plus screen.
- Very crisp and surprisingly pleasant haptic feedback.
- Worst in-class DPI. Everything is huge. Apps show less information than on other phones. You need to zoom in further than you would think to comfortably read web pages.
- Doesn't sit flat on a table. It incessantly rocks back and forth when you try use it.
- No notification light. Why?
- Automatic Brightness is darker than other phones, and occasionally you get locked out of the brightness settings.
- 80 Metric tons of non-removable crapware.
- Touchwiz 4.0 is ugly and childish, and, like a child, it will sometimes break things.
If you somehow aren't yet sick of reading about this thing, I'm holding a Q&A in the comments section! Ask me anything. No fun stuff though, I'm not allowed to root it.