Samsung Galaxy S II: The Best Android Phone So Far?

Samsung have always had a strong track record when it has come to mobile phones. They have always been cutting-edge and have seemed to bend the norm when it comes to mobile phone standards. Their phones have always been admired for their design, interface and practicality – and this admiration has been reflected in their sales figures; according to Mobile Burn, Samsung shipped 280 million units in 2010 (by contrast, Apple shipped a mere 47.4 million units).

In June 2010, Samsung released one of their most famous phones, the Galaxy S, which was seen as unbeatable at the time due to its claims of being the fastest smartphone on the market. Now there’s a new beast on the prowl: the Samsung Galaxy S II. It’s been around in Europe for a couple of months now (the phone was first released in the UK and South Korea in May 2011) and the U.S. launch is due very soon.

The Samsung Galaxy S II is, without a shadow of doubt, the best Android smartphone out there yet and is a strong contender for the best smartphone in the world period. Its sheer range of features, unbeatable specifications and damn good looks leave other smartphones quivering in the shadows of its almightiness. You’re itching to find out why, aren’t you? Well, read on for my full, in-depth review.

Introduction and First Impressions

The S II has not yet been officially released in the US at the time of writing, so unfortunately there is no official price information from Samsung, however you can expect to get one for around $199 on a two year contract. In the UK and Europe, the S II can be had for around £415 (€475) SIM-free from places like Amazon UK.

They say that first impressions are the strongest, and Samsung clearly had this in mind when designing the S II. It is boxed up simply and beautifully (and, rather strangely, very similar to the iPhone with the phone sitting on top and everything else underneath – this is one of the reasons why Apple is suing Samsung!) and you feel slightly guilty taking it out of its pristine packaging!

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The S II and its box

Inside, you get the phone (obviously), a Micro-USB charger, a pair of Samsung’s standard headphones, a USB cable and that’s pretty much it. Given the enormous 4.3-inch screen, I would have liked to have seen a micro fibre cloth so you can clean it, however the screen is oleophobic meaning it is resistant to grubby pawprints.

The first thing that strikes you after you’ve finished drooling over it is simply how light and thin the S II is. It is the thinnest dual-core smartphone on the planet at the moment and weighs a mere 116 g (4 oz). To achieve this weight, though, Samsung have had to cut out any bulk in during the manufacturing process and to my great disappointment, the battery cover is simply a piece of cheap plastic which feels like it’s going to break when you’re peeling it off to put in your battery and SIM card.

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The S II's rear end

On top of the S II is a 2 MP camera for video calling (the S II supports video calling over 3G and third-party applications such as Skype) and on the bottom there is a large button which doubles up as the Home button, along with two touch buttons which function as Menu and Back respectively. Along the left-hand side of the S II you’ve got your volume rocker; on the top is a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack; along the right is the power/lock button; and on the bottom is a Micro-USB port, which also doubles up as a HDMI output port.

samsung_galaxy_s_ii_side_sm

The side-on view of the S II

The next thing that hits you square in the face when you turn the phone on is the display. Yes, its that WVGA Super-AMOLED plus one you’ve heard about before. Although it’s not quite as crisp as the Retina Display that Apple offers on its iPhone 4, it still takes some beating when compared to other similar phones. The text is crystal clear and you have to really squint to pick out the individual pixels. Colours are sharp and vibrant.

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The screen jumps out at you the moment you turn on the S II

When you start up the phone for the first time, the standard Android setup wizard pops up and helps you configure your phone for the first time, such as setting up your mobile internet and WiFi settings and syncing with your Google account. But, before we look at the S II in a bit more detail, let’s take a look at what is really lurking under that mighty screen…

Specifications

The S II’s specifications are enough to make other phones green with envy, as it really does pack a mighty punch when it comes to specifications. Here are some that are worth shouting about:

  • 1.2 GHz dual-core processor
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 16 GB of in-built storage that is expandable up to a total of 48 GB using a Micro-SD card
  • 480 x 800 pixel, 4.3-inch Gorilla Glass oleophobic Super AMOLED Plus scratch-resistant display
  • 8 MP camera capable of capturing 1080p HD video at 30 fps.

The battery life on the S II is also worth mentioning here. The phone comes with a 1650 mAh battery and Samsung claims 18 hours talk time on normal 2G networks (9 hours on 3G networks) with a stand-by time of 710 hours (30 days) on 2G networks; 620 hours on 3G networks. After a full charge, I found that with moderate usage on a 3G network (calling, texting and a bit of web surfing), the battery had diminished to around 75% after 12 hours usage, even on maximum screen brightness, which is impressive for a smartphone with such a monstrous screen.

Interface

The S II runs Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread with Samsung’s TouchWiz 4.0 interface cemented on top. The interface is surprisingly easy to use and has been noted for being a huge update to previous incarnations of TouchWiz. You won’t find any problems using TouchWiz if you are migrating from other phones to the S II, and it won’t pose any problems for people accustomed to using Android. You can add up to 7 home screens and on each home screen you can add icons, widgets, shortcuts and folders.

S II 1

The TouchWiz 4.0 interface on the S II

Along the bottom sit your shortcuts to your phone, contacts, SMS and MMS messages, and applications. The S II is multi-touch and to get a quick overview of your home screens (like in the right-hand screenshot above), you simply pinch your fingers together (much like on HTC Sense).

S II 2

The menu view on the S II and swiping through the home screens

When you get to the menu view, your applications are arranged in a grid; to flick through them, you simply swipe left and right. A line of dots on the bottom of the screen lets you know which home screen you are on. A nifty feature that I discovered is that if you touch the dots and hold them down, you can quickly swipe through home screens.

S II 3

Editing the application launcher and adding folders

You can arrange your applications in a list view (however this is pretty cumbersome if you’ve got loads of applications like I do) and you can add folders and pages to your menu. One of the most convenient features I found is that if you go into the Edit view, you can uninstall applications quickly by simply tapping on the little delete circle that appears next to each application icon (this doesn’t work for the default applications included with the phone, though). On my old phone, the Desire HD, I had to either go into the list of my applications on the Market or into the list of Applications in the phone’s Settings menu to delete applications, so this really is a nice, little touch.

Thanks to the S II’s mighty 1.2 GHz processor, TouchWiz’s built-in applications are buttery smooth and there is absolutely no evidence of stuttering or lag. The touchscreen display is a huge improvement on previous Samsung models and responds to even the tiniest movement – you need only to brush your finger over the screen for the phone to respond.

Calling and Contacts

The S II supports voice calling and, depending on the network operator and network coverage, video calling as well through the 2 MP front-facing camera. To answer an incoming call, you simply swipe right on the green block that appears on the left-hand side of the screen to answer the call (swipe left on the red block to reject the call). You can also reject calls with text messages and this option appears when a call arrives.

S II 4

An incoming call along with the option to reject a call with an SMS message

It is probably worth mentioning here that the S II also supports video calling through third-party programs such as Skype (as long as you have got the latest version).

S II 5

Your default contacts view, along with the nifty feature of swiping left or right to call or text some respectively

Your contacts are arranged alphabetically, and the S II can sync with all existing address books (such as your Google contacts and your Facebook contacts). If you sync your Facebook contacts, then their avatars appear in your address book as well as when they ring you. You can organise your contacts into groups and mark them down as favourite contacts as well. Another nice touch is when viewing your contacts, you can swipe left across their name to call them or right to message them straight from your address book.

Messaging and E-Mail

The S II ensures that you aren’t kept out of the loop about anything, by supporting a plethora of different messaging possibilities.

The phone comes with Gmail and Samsung’s own e-mail program as standard, which supports the POP, IMAP, SMTP and Exchange mail systems. I found that Samsung’s offering can be at times a little clunky and difficult to use, but seeing as I use Gmail for the bulk of my e-mail, I didn’t find this to be too much of a problem (although it could be, for other people).

S II 6

The Google Mail and e-mail programs on the S II

The S II supports SMS and MMS messaging, and your texts are displayed in a useful conversation view. You can add pictures, videos, audio and so on to MMS messages and when you receive an SMS or MMS message, you can access them directly from the lock screen by sliding the yellow block on the right.

S II 7

The default conversation view for SMS and MMS messages, along with the message notification on the lock screen

Camera and Video

The S II features an whopping 8 megapixel camera and is capable of taking up to 3264 x 2448 photos. The quality is so good you’ll probably think of ditching your digital camera in favour of it and the built-in flash ensures you can take photos regardless of the lighting conditions.

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A sample image taken out of my window with the S II (click on the image for the full-size version)

Unlike some other smartphones, the S II’s camera app features quite a range of customisation options, including for the shooting mode, exposure value, focus mode and so on. You can also shoot 1080p HD-quality video up to 30fps using the camera, and the in-built video editor allows you to do some (basic) editing on the move.

Internet

The S II comes with Android’s standard browser offering, which isn’t worth boasting about until you realise that the 1.2 GHz processor means that web pages are loaded blisteringly fast. Like most Android phones, the S II supports Flash and thanks to that monstrous processor, there is absolutely no stuttering when you are viewing Flash plug-ins, a real bonus (and since I’ve had the phone, I’ve experienced absolutely no force-closes with the browser).

S II 9

The S II's buil-in web browser

When I first got the phone, I was dismayed to find that web pages did not automatically resize when I zoomed in – until I found this option in the settings (More > Settings > Auto-fit pages). There is no tabbed browsing (which would be impractical on such a small screen), but you can bring up the Windows view, which gives you a view of all your open windows).

S II 8

The Windows view in the S II's browser

Thanks to the mighty display, the text on web pages is sharp and pictures are bright and colour-rich. The S II supports browsing speeds of up to 21 Mbps over HSDPA and possesses 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity, enabling a rapid, rich internet browsing experience.

Multimedia

It is fair to say that Android phones are often let down by their multimedia capacities (especially when compared to the iPhone), so I was interested to see how the S II fared against other smartphones on the market. Seeing as I use my phone as my MP3 player, I wanted a phone with plenty of media capability.

The S II has a built-in music player which supports MP3, AAC, AAC+ and eAAC. If you have got a PC, then you can use the Kies Air facility, which allows you to sync your music over the local Wi-Fi network (unfortunately this function is not yet available in the Mac version). The music player lists your beats by either playlists, albums or artists in either a list or thumbnail view.

S II 10

The default music player on the S II. Be warned that it can be a bit temperamental at times, though

Note that if your music is in AAC format (like mine was), the S II will not be able to read the ID3 data that is attached to the song (meaning that it is not able to read the artist and album info). A simple way to avoid this problem is to convert all your music into MP3 and sync again.

The built-in equaliser allows you to customise the sound of your music and even features an “auto” setting, which adjusts according to the music you are listening to. I was disappointed to find that the SRS WOW plug-in wasn’t available (this only seems to be present on HTC phones) seeing as I like my tunes quite bassy, but I soon discovered that tinkering around with the equaliser slightly produced a good sound. The S II comes with a pair of Samsung’s standard headphones which are surprisingly good to be honest, but you can of course connect your favourite pair using the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the phone.

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The equaliser and the built-in Kies Air application, allowing you to sync your media files via your local WiFi network

On my phone, however, the music player crashes quite frequently (for no apparent reason), so much so that I have been forced to use doubletwist, a third-party offering, however this may just be an isolated issue. If you’ve got a Mac, you can also sync over WiFi using doubletwist’s built-in AirSync feature. The S II also features a built-in FM radio, however this only works when Samsung’s earpiece is connected (which doubles up as the antenna).

When it comes to videos, the S II supports MPEG4, H.263, H.264 and DivX (AVI) videos, which can all be played using the default video player. You can also do some (basic) video editing on the move using Samsung’s own video maker program, which allows you to jazz up your videos with music and pictures. A YouTube app comes as standard as well, which lets you view, comment and share videos easily.

In-Built Apps

The S II comes with plenty of built-in apps that will help you get started the moment you get the phone out of the box, such as Google Maps, Polaris Office (which allows you to view and edit documents), Vlingo voice talk (see our full review), a file browser and manager, and a diary app (for typing up your daily thoughts).

S II 12

Two of the default built-in applications: Google Maps and Vlingo voice control

Aside the standard apps, Samsung has also felt the need to equip the S II with its own applications – or so-called hubs – which aren’t exactly things you’d write home about. You get the Game Hub, which offers a small selection of Samsung-selected games; Music Hub, which allows you to purchase songs from 7digital via your Samsung account; Readers Hub, which offers a small selection of books and magazines; Samsung Apps, a cut-down version of the Market; and Social Hub, which pools your e-mails and Facebook feeds into one application.

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The Samsung Games and Reader hubs

The problem is that these “hubs” are simply less-functional, cut-down versions of existing applications on the S II and are, unfortunately, nothing more than a waste of space (though at least they don’t hog much space). The best thing to do with them is turn off the updates and quietly ignore them.

PC/Mac Connectivity

For PC users, you can download Samsung’s Kies application (available here), which allows you to sync all your pictures, music and videos to your S II. It also enables the Kies Air feature, which means you don’t have to dig out that cable to sync your phone – everything is done over the local WiFi network.

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Samsung's Kies on a Windows PC

Unfortunately for Mac users, the Mac version of Kies is very cut down and only lets you synchronise pictures, music and videos to your S II. The program isn’t compatible with Lion either, so to get it working you will have to download an older version (available here) and manually upgrade once it is installed to the latest version.

Final Thoughts

Well, the burning question is: how do all these wonderful features add up? The answer is: absolutely perfectly.

The S II is a marvellous feat of engineering and design. It’s so light that you sometimes forget that it’s in your pocket, and the sheer range of features and top-notch specifications are enough to start other phone manufacturers sweating with worry.

So, to round up, let’s take a look at the arguments for and against the S II:

For

  • Crystal-clear and extremely responsive touchscreen
  • Blazingly-fast processor which seems to handle everything you throw at it
  • Slim, lightweight design
  • A wide range of in-built apps
  • Fantastic camera and 1080p HD video recording
  • Outstanding battery life

Against

  • A nasty, cheap, plastic battery cover
  • The default keyboard is too small to use properly
  • Samsung Apps are both useless and a waste of space
  • It’s just short of half a grand!

The S II is, without a shadow of doubt, the best Android smartphone out there on the market right now.


Summary

The latest Android smartphone from Samsung, boasting a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 8 MP camera and a whole lot more!

10
  • http://www.shafraz.com Shafraz

    Can anyone buy this for me as a gift? :D

  • http://www.gensanboy.com GensanBoy

    This is so far the best phone that I have ever owned. Great review!

    • Umar

      me too !

  • http://forrst.me/BlueHayes Mike Hayes

    Just been at the Three store yesterday, my girlfriend is now the proud owner of a white Galaxy S II :)

    I’m also due for renewal but I’m holding on for Google’s Android 4 device dubbed the Nexus Prime.

    • http://forrst.me/BlueHayes Mike Hayes

      “Any phone in the shop dear”

      “Make that any Android phone in the shop” ;)

  • Steven

    Yeah agree with everything you said there but there is one bit of false information, The battery if you use the phone is terrible your lucky if you last a day if your on the web or if your just talking on the go!

  • Tyler

    Just and FYI, S2 is already available in the US on Sprint and tomorrow on AT&T and coming to T-Mobile. So as of this writing it was already available on Sprint, just to clarify. Also much cheaper in the US.

  • Aaron Osteraas

    Pretty good review!

    Though there’s a one point I don’t totally agree with.

    “A nasty, cheap, plastic battery cover” – Well, it probably is cheap, but it’s a hell of a lot more accident proof than an iPhone. Not to mention that it feels nice in the hand.

    Otherwise, it’s the best phone I’ve ever had. It’s the only droid so far that seems to turn iPhone Acolytes this side.

    It’s lame, but I love it when people are go “so you don’t have to use iTunes? You just drag the music onto it!?”

    I wish there were more neat ROMs available for it though. Cyanogen is definitely the best that I’ve used so far. Lightning isn’t bad, but lacks some features, Villain is an absolute piece of mahogany, I would never use that or recommend it to anyone even if I didn’t like them. MIUI is alright, but if I wanted something that was trying to be an iPhone, I’d go to Hong Kong and get a knock off.

    • Leonick

      Yea, it’s nice, and it seem that at least when it comes to hardware an Android device could replace my iPhone…

      Unfortunately (for android at least, doesn’t really matter to me) the software isnt quite up to par in my eyes, for starters I’ve been unable to find any calendar or mail apps for my Galaxy Tab 7 that come even close to the native calendar and mail of iOS (either iPhone or iPad versions)…

  • Leonick

    It is indeed a nice device…
    Samsung should cut back some on all the hubs and other crap they put on there by default, the Allshare, Video and some other of their custom apps are pretty neat though.

    Then of course personally I think they should replace that stupid SAMLOED screen with a proper LCD screen able to display some proper colors something this device’s screen seems to be unable to when compared side to side with a Galaxy Tab 7 and an iPhone 4.
    But I know a lot of people like these display, personally I just can’t see why.

    • ACIDBURN

      For your information the iphone screen is made by samsung and not apple. Everything that make the iphone work is a samsung product.

  • Antidroid

    Such a shame that a decent piece of equipment will be under-utilized (again) by shoddy, incomplete software. Google is ruining the potential for these high-powered phones by developing an unattractive, inefficient platform that every manufacturer “tweaks” (read: screws up) to fit their own unrefined vision. Now that my Asus Transformer has been collecting dust for a few months, and given my awful shopping experience when looking for a decent smartphone (you want me to pay HOW much for that generic, uninspired OS?), I can only conclude that Samsung and their ilk need to find a better software provider.

    As much fun as it is to hold a spec sheet and highlight the big numbers, I’d much rather be able to get just a fraction of the promised functionality out of my phone. And it would be fantastic if that phone would have solid support for more than two months. Instead, I’ll probably end up with just another overpriced piece of junk that will be lost in the crowd of other Android clunkers, chirping about how my phone could totally outperform its competitors if anyone actually gave a darn. Isn’t that the very definition of a fanboy? I stick with this product line despite consistently underwhelming results…all because I don’t want to be labeled an “Apple fanboy.”

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  • Om

    Hey….

    ” Although it’s not quite as crisp as the Retina Display that Apple offers on its iPhone 4 ” ???

    SGS II Has the best possible Natural Display on Earth, on any handheld device
    - Engadget (& Me, & other lovers of AMOLED)

    “More Pixels packed into less area” is what is Retina Display
    It is Crispness’s one side

    Crisp should always be coupled with “Clear”

  • ano

    ****….
    This is a very **** big privacy issued phone and other using android
    i don’t aunderstand why people (like me) are using amdroid system
    they are stupied or they don’t understan that google and other company
    are spying in us and is illegally …taking all our privecy information
    to they server (I check that)…
    What a **** people and word…and no bodie do nothing..
    thank and i like you site

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