Samsung's original Galaxy S was undoubtedly a great success for the company. One could say it was their first serious smartphone, and its core was widely dispersed around the globe, appearing as the i9000 in Europe and Asia, and - perhaps more familiarly - the AT&T Captivate, Sprint Epic 4G, T-Mobile Vibrant, and Verizon Fascinate in the USA. While we have yet to see firm plans for a repeat of this four-pronged attack with the successor to the Galaxy S, the Galaxy S II i9100 (aka the Samsung "It's Over 9000!") is already widely available throughout the rest of the world and is making waves while at it. Let's take a look at this shiny new handset.
In the Box
Unboxing smartphones is usually a highly unsurprising experience. With the GS2... well, at least Sammy hasn't strayed from the norm. A compact navy box contains the device on top, along with a microUSB cable, some highly disposable paper items, a charging adaptor, and some isolating earphones. Not wishing to sully the hygienic levels of our review unit, the earphones were left alone in their wrapping. A course of action which, given the sound quality of most packaged earphones, you may wish to emulate. On the upside, at least they will provide some noise reduction, which can't be said for the flimsy buds packaged with most other phones, and the in-line microphone should benefit those who don't already have a headset of their own.
While the GS2 has support for HDMI video out with an MHL cable, there was not one included. Clearly profit margins are a huge concern on a phone costing upwards of €500, and an extra cable (with a charming profit margin of its own) is too much to ask for. A USB on-the-go adaptor was not included either, but thankfully those can be had for quite reasonable prices online.
After lifting the GS2 from its cardboard bedding and powering it on, you are immediately captivated by its screen. Given the fairly minimalist design of the handset, the screen's 3:2 4.3" expanse dominates the front in such a way as to make the rest of the device disappear. The screen utilizes Samsung's latest OLED panels, christened Super AMOLED Plus, a nice increment from the already highly titled Super AMOLED of its i9000 forerunner. Thankfully the improvement is not only in title but in performance also. Put frankly, the GS2's screen is stunning. The black levels cause the display to simply melt into the surrounding front fascia, in an even more awesome way than previous OLED panels. The screen makes a mockery of viewing angle testing, and challenges your eyes with contrast that seemingly can't be real. Which is kind of a problem. If you spend a lot of time in front of a standard TFT, like a generic computer monitor, you might find the colors of the GS2's screen a tad bizarre. Putting the phone next to another device without SAMOLED+, there is a very impressive depth to the colors due to the amazing contrast, but it is also quite unnatural. So, if you like consistency in the color of your screens, the GS2 makes it rather hard for devices with other display to keep up - an unexpected negative to this handset's party trick.
Unlike typical OLED/AMOLED, SAMOLED+ performs quite competently in direct sunlight, and its sterling viewing angles further improve this due to the ability to tilt the phone any which way to deflect glare without degrading colors. However, due to the variations in OLED production, some buyers have been receiving units with subpar screen performance, including tinting at low brightness and strange color casting when tilted. This did not occur on our device, but there would seem to be a few handsets out there with issues out there, as is to be expected.
In terms of resolution, qHD would have been more in-line with the GS2's competitors, but most will be satisfied to absorb the hit in sharpness for the colorful presentation of Super AMOLED Plus. Indeed, given the standard RGB stripe sub-pixel layout used in the SGS2's SAMOLED+, the WVGA resolution of the screen should provide clarity comparable to that of the Motorola Atrix's "Pentile" qHD screen. On the other hand, the SGS2's display was noticeably blockier than the HTC Sensation's SLCD (also employing standard RGB stripe subpixels), and the extra saturation of the SAMOLED+ panel resulted in something of a cartoonish feel to the visual experience, compared to the duller but more natural-looking Sensation.
Although Samsung was quite late to the high-end Android party, the original Galaxy S was a rather impressive phone. Its Samsung-made Hummingbird chipset kept it well ahead of the rest of its generation, and with the GS2, it seems like the same story all over again. Samsung has once again opted for an in-house developed system-on-a-chip, this time the Exynos 4210. Once labeled the Orion, the Exynos incorporates a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU based on ARM's Cortex A9 design, paired with a Mali MSP-400 GPU. The CPU in this case is a synchronous dual-core, such that each core is limited to operating at the same clock frequency as its partner. The GS2 was expected to turn a few heads with its powerful processing core, and that has certainly turned out to be the case. Samsung's decision to back itself has clearly paid off in the benchmarks posted on Android message boards around the 'net.
The processing unit is not the only place where Samsung's flagship outdoes its competitors. It seems that Samsung has taken every opportunity for a statistical advantage over the rest of the Android elite. 1GB of RAM, 2 megapixel front camera, 10-point multitouch, 1650mAh battery, 116g weight, 16GB internal storage, 8.5mm thickness - these are all clear victories for the Galaxy S II over its most prominent rival, the HTC Sensation, and stack up quite favorably against any other high-end Android device you would care to mention. This list of technical specs, thankfully, translates to a device with supreme performance and smoothness of operation. Gone is the lag that occasionally plagued its predecessor, and in its place is a buttery-smooth experience free of any hiccups in transition or stuttering in scrolling.
One sad note on performance is in the field of audio playback. The original Galaxy S was quite exemplary in this regard, and found itself the subject of some great modification by developers on XDA. Unfortunately, it appears that components of an equal level are not present in the GS2. After personally testing the audio myself by comparing it against a Sansa Fuze (highly regarded in the audio community), I found that the GS2 did not keep up in terms of stereo width and impact. Still, the sound clarity was certainly acceptable, and hiss was low with a variety of earphones and headphones.
Keeping in line with its excellent core processing unit, the Galaxy S II includes a rather choice pair of image sensors. The front-facing camera employs an unprecedented 2-megapixel sensor that produces commendably clear images and video. With the Galaxy S II shipping with Android 2.3.3, there was no video-calling functionality built-in to Google Talk on the unit, and we hope that the incremental 2.3.4 update will arrive sooner rather than later.
The GS2 also includes an 8-megapixel rear camera, with an impressively powerful LED flash. While this is not as powerful as the Xenon flash found on other more camera-centric phones like the Nokia N8, it produced adequate illumination for most shots and worked well as a flashlight.
As a point-and-shoot camera, the GS2 works rather nicely. The images it produced were certainly crisp, and after achieving focus, the camera took shots with hardly perceptible shutter lag. A few of the camera's negatives include a tendency for over-saturated colors and boosted contrast, which look particularly unrealistic on the SAMOLED+ screen, and the slightest hint of pink spot syndrome every now and again.
In addition to being a decent stills camera, the GS2 seems a likely candidate for replacing your pocket flash camcorder. Recording at up to 1920 x 1080 at a standard 30fps, the GS2 showed itself to be quite adept in the field of video. Footage is recorded to the generously large 16GB internal storage, which provides a stable and predictable transfer speed. This allowed Samsung to be quite adventurous with their video bitrate - getting close to 20Mbits at times. While the camera software did lack touch-to-focus when recording video, autofocus responded sufficiently quickly to be able to get by most of the time. While filming, audio is recorded in mono with the single microphone on the phone's rear. Though the results are not on the level of a dedicated sound recording device, the microphone was adequate for its purpose, and community mods exist to further its performance.
While TouchWiz certainly differs in places from the typical stock Android UI, it is one of the least intrusive custom skins we have come across. In fact, barring the rather gaudy launcher, there is functionality contained within TouchWiz that is quite impressive and which we have seen crop up in community ROMs such as Cyanogen - application-specific lockscreen sliders, power management widgets in the notification area, and several additional applications. Pushing aside the obligatory shovelware, there are a couple of interesting applications provided by Samsung. First up is KiesAir. This application, once activated on your home wireless network, provides you with an HTTP access point to view and utilize various facets of the device, all from the convenience of your desktop browser. This includes viewing photos, playing music, and reading and replying to text messages. While there are suites that provide similar functionality on the Market or on enthusiast sites, it is nice to see Samsung take a hands-on approach in making the interaction between your phone and computer a cohesive one.
Further to this goal of improving inter-device connectivity, Samsung has also included an application going by the name of AllShare. Filling in a glaring hole in the Android media experience, it provides wireless media support, letting you stream music and videos to and from UPNP servers and compatible DLNA devices. In effect, this can allow you to play music from your phone on your PC's speakers, or to provide your earphones with a link to your desktop's music library by using your phone as a wireless bridge while you wash the dishes.
The other software provided in TouchWiz is mostly superficially different but functionally quite the same as its stock Android counterparts. The Samsung keyboard, for instance, is nigh-on indiscernible from the standard Gingerbread keyboard, save for the positioning of a few buttons. Likewise, the browser is not remarkably different from what you will have seen before, save for one important thing: the Galaxy S II's browser is hardware-accelerated. Coupled with that substantial processing horsepower mentioned earlier, this makes for an impossibly smooth experience in terms of loading and panning pages. Some issues did crop up with text not reflowing as intended when zooming in, but given the generous size of the GS2's screen, it was not an issue that presented itself too frequently. On the subject of the browser, we are happy to report that Flash playback on the GS2 was top-notch, handling 720p content with no problems at all. This is no small feat, considering that 720p Flash is typically one level too far for a lot of netbooks on the market.
Another area where the GS2 performs better than most is its hardware-accelerated video player. This played back our HD content excellently, including several high-bitrate 60 FPS 720p MP4s. Strangely, there was an issue with an MKV file of ours not playing back the sound, but for the most part video support seemed quite solid.
As you can see in the above video, Samsung has added USB host support to their kernel, which allows for some more computer-like functionality such as mounting of USB memory sticks. We also had some success with a USB mouse, which happily displayed and tracked a cursor on screen. Unfortunately, the keyboards we tested were less cooperative, and the PlayStation DualShock 3 was also unresponsive due to its higher-power requirements.
As a Phone
Despite being of diminishing importance, it's worth mentioning that the GS2 worked well as a 1.2GHz dual-core cellular telephony device. The large surface area has clearly made for some fairly capable antennae, as there was no noticeable reduction in signal quality no matter which way we held it (the same goes for WiFi). The earpiece worked as intended and did not explode when used.
Given the size of the GS2's screen, we weren't expecting brilliant battery life. However, thanks to the power savings afforded by the new SAMOLED+ screen technology, the GS2 lasted for a day of use quite easily. This could partly be put down to the rather conservative auto-brightness settings, but it seems more likely that it can be ascribed to the generous sizing of the GS2's battery. The screen's above-average outdoor legibility also added to the longevity of use due to the lack of a need to crank it up to full when in sunlight.
The battery cover is an almost sticker-like thin sheet of plastic which peels off in a slightly uncomfortable way, but appears to be flexible in a somewhat robust way. According to Samsung, this apparent frailty is a result of NFC only being able to penetrate very thin plastic. Sadly, our UK model did not have NFC at all, so this design choice was made unfortunate by serving as a reminder of what had been omitted.
Hardware Design and Build Quality
As we intimated in an earlier section, the center-piece of the GS2 is its screen. The display takes up such an enormous amount of the phone's physical real-estate that there really is very little opportunity for further design. That leaves you with a phone that is something like a stylistically simple competitor, right down to the single physical button centered beneath the screen. The front is coated in protective "Gorilla Glass" and resisted scratches well in the time we had the device. The back does not receive the same treatment, however, and some micro-scratches were apparent on the phone's lower "hump," which was made of glossy plastic. Considering how little time is spent looking at the back of a smartphone (particularly one with a 2MP front facing camera), this is not much of a problem. The battery cover's diagonally gridded texture breaks the plain design of the back and provides some appreciable grip.
Between these two surfaces, the front and back, is very little at all. Which is another way of saying that the GS2 is extremely thin. Indeed, Samsung lays claim to it being the thinnest smartphone around, a stake which may well have been invalidated by forty other handsets by the time this page finishes loading. But that's not to say the description as "slim" is invalid. This is surely an extremely skinny device, with a depth of 8.49 mm. Yes, Samsung's marketing goes down to the hundredth of a millimeter. But all those hundredths of a millimeter really add up, or rather don't add up, to a device that is so lightweight and wafer-thin that at times you forget it is in your pocket at all. Given the phone's chart-topping performance, this slender body is a truly impressive feat.
One area where Samsung has consistently fallen down is with provision for software updates on their phones. While it is certain that some blame also lays with the convoluted "approval process" imposed by carriers, Samsung has something of a reputation for being particularly negligent in this regard.
In the case of the GS2, any anxiety of such scenarios should be countered by Samsung's stance on the software currently present on the device. According to Samsung, they are fully prepared for Ice Cream Sandwich - in fact, they went as far as to say that this phone was designed towards future versions of Android. They didn't hint too much on what these future versions would bring, but supposedly they will unlock even better performance from the GS2 as well as "split-screen" multitasking. All sounds very promising, but given how tight-lipped Google itself is on this front, we can't read too much in to it.
Of course, there is another way to get software updates on your phone. That is doing it yourself, manually. With a lot of recent phones this approach has become impossible due to various lockdowns on the system software of the device, but mercifully Samsung has left this option open to those in the know. The Galaxy S II's bootloader is unlockable, which means you are free to do as you please with the OS running on there. This has already sparked a great deal of activity in the developer community, and if customizing your phone appeals to you, the GS2 is definitely a strong choice.
Samsung clearly aimed high with the Galaxy S II. In fact, you could say they aimed for the sta- no, I hate puns. The phone's performance was stell- ah, damn it. Whether you like puns or not, the Galaxy S II is a device that has exceedingly high performance in just about every field, and is quite clearly ahead of its competition in most areas.
On the other hand, there are plenty of ex-Samsung owners out there who have been let down in some way or another with their previous devices, and who will be highly skeptical of buying from the Korean electronics giant a second time without a strong indication that their purchase will be supported and guaranteed for a long time to come. This early in the GS2's life, it is difficult to say exactly how things will pan out in that regard, but on paper it is currently the most attractive Android device out there - and in a market where people seem happy to change their phones upward of once a year, the spectacular specs of the GS2 will be an enormous pull. American availability has yet to be announced, but the overwhelmingly positive reception that the phone has received outside of the US leads us to believe that Samsung must be doing its best to bring it to you sooner rather than later.
It's a phone that is not without issues of its own, but they are easy to forgive thanks to the GS2's continually pleasing and surprising performance.
Review unit generously provided by Clove UK