There’s been such hype surrounding the Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone since we first spied it earlier this year, we were worried we might have expected too much of it. The specifications were tantalising, our first hands-on was all-too brief; would it be all we were hoping it to be, or a huge letdown?
In the end, we needn’t have worried. The Samsung Galaxy S II is a stonking smartphone, and it all starts with its most obvious asset: that huge 4.3in Super AMOLED Plus screen.
Samsung Galaxy S II 2 Review
We loved the 4in screen on the original Galaxy S but this truly takes it to the next level. It’s bright – we measured a full white screen at 300cd/m2 at maximum brightness, and as OLED has no pervasive backlight (each pixel has its own light source), contrast is nigh-on perfect. A black screen registered as 0cd/m2 on our colorimeter, which means it’s pure, deep, unsullied jet.
Photos and videos look incredible. Colours leap from the screen with such fury that you almost have to look away. Even the traditional complaint over OLED screens, that they’re “grainier” than their TFT equivalents, can’t be levelled at the S II’s display and the reason for this is its red, green and blue subpixels are arranged in the traditional RGB grid, as they are in standard TFT displays.
Previous smartphone OLED panels have used what’s known as the PenTile grid, which gives you two green pixels for every blue and red pair and a rather grainy effect as a result. Look closely at a PenTile AMOLED display, such as the one found on the original HTC Desire, and you’ll find you can see the individual pixels; you can’t with the Galaxy S II.
The only significant complaint we’d have is over the pixel count. It’s still “only” 480 x 800, which means small text on zoomed-out web pages is more difficult to make out than it is on the iPhone 4’s 3.5in 960 x 640 display.
If we were being really picky we’d also highlight the fact that the brightness of the S II’s display can’t match that of the iPhone 4, which tops out at a ludicrous 475cd/m2.
We didn’t like the fact that the S II comes with its dynamic brightness setting turned on either. This dims the brightness depending on what’s onscreen, and when mostly white web pages load up, the brightness halves. Taken as a whole, however, these are relatively small considerations; the screen is at least as good as the iPhone’s, but in different ways.
If the screen is impressive, the physical make-up of the Samsung Galaxy S II is almost as noteworthy. At its thinnest point, it claims to be the slimmest smartphone yet, and we were able to confirm this: using a set of vernier calipers, we measured it at 8.7mm. A bulge at the bottom and around the camera means it isn’t this slim along its entire length, but it’s nonetheless a mighty feat of engineering, and coupled with its light weight of 116g, the Galaxy S II is as pocket-friendly as any 4.3in-screened smartphone has any right to be.
Samsung has retained its iPhone-alike front-panel design, so the single physical button is retained below the screen (flanked by a touch-sensitive menu and back controls), as is the all Gorilla Glass front. The latter is finished with an oleophobic coating and resists smudges from greasy digits remarkably well.
What Samsung hasn’t done is improve the build quality much, or at least the impression of it. The previous Galaxy S felt a little too cheap for a flagship phone, and our opinion hasn’t changed this time around. The Galaxy S II’s textured rear panel is made of wafer thin, flimsy plastic and the chassis, aside from the glass front, is plastic too. If you want a phone that feels a million dollars, as well as looking it, the Galaxy S II isn’t for you.
Performance and Galaxy S II Battery life
That may soon be forgotten once you start using the S II, however, because this is one powerhouse of a smartphone. Under its gossamer-thin shell, the new Galaxy sports a dual-core processor, based on the ARM Cortex A9 design. Most dual-core smartphones and tablets are doing the same, but the difference with the S II is the speed is up from 1GHz to 1.2GHz.
In terms of benchmark tests, the S II blows the competition out of the water. It loaded the full BBC homepage in four seconds dead, completed the SunSpider test in three seconds, and most impressive of all, gained a score of 3,460 points in the Android-specific Quadrant test. To put that last test into context, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc scored 1,378 (one of the fastest Android smartphones we’ve tested), a full 2,182 points behind.
It couples the processor with a staggering 1GB of RAM, and nothing that we could throw at the Mali-400MP graphics chip caused it to come close to breaking sweat. Everything from Angry Birds to Reckless Racing Play was dispatched with a slippery smooth frame rate that makes this as good a phone for gaming as any on the market.
As ever, there’s a caveat, and that concerns battery life. In our standard tests over 24 hours the Galaxy S II chewed up around 50% of its capacity – about the same result achieved by the Galaxy S, and a notch behind the iPhone 4. That’s despite having a bigger 1,650mAh battery.
The battery management options in the settings ameliorate this somewhat, however: switch on the dynamic-brightness tool and the ambient light monitor, and two days of moderate use is easily within reach. Just don’t expect Nokia-beating levels of stamina from the Samsung Galaxy S II battery life.
GPS and Camera
A critical failing of the first Galaxy was appalling GPS performance, and we’re happy to report that this has been addressed in the S II. Google Maps Navigation had no problem at all getting a quick satellite lock, and throughout our driving and walking tests it maintained a rock-steady position.
More notable is the huge improvement in the camera over the iffy effort of its predecessor. It’s absolutely stuffed with features, with image stabilisation, blink detection, ISO and metering adjustments, a macro mode and more. And it shoots at a decent resolution too: 8-megapixel stills and 1080p video at 30fps.
Quality is great. We took a series of shots with the iPhone 4’s camera and the Samsung Galaxy S II – indoors with a flash and without, outdoors in good light, scenes with high contrast and close-ups – and in every shot the S II’s camera won.
The automatic white balance worked flawlessly throughout our tests; where the iPhone tended to give shots under fluorescent light a slightly blue tinge, the S II’s shots looked natural. The macro mode is seriously impressive too.
Even 1080p footage in low light wasn’t dreadful. Noise was obvious, but footage didn’t look quite as muddy as the iPhone 4 in the same test, although we did notice one flaw. In low light, autofocus in video tended to hunt around, with our test footage swinging gently in and out of focus; annoying, but hardly a disaster.
Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that call qualityis excellent, with conversations coming through loud and clear on the earpiece, and even sounding pretty good on the single speaker at the rear.
So the hardware is pretty good, but what about the software? Not surprisingly, the Galaxy S II runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), which among other things means the phone is fully Flash capable. But this isn’t Android in its purest form: Samsung has added its own UI tweaks (dubbed TouchWiz 4), and there’s plenty to like.
There’s the usual selection of flat, sideways scrolling multiple desktops we saw on the Galaxy S, with a persistent, customisable toolbar running along the bottom of the screen. And when you pull down on the notifications bar at the top, you’ll see switches for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and Sound, plus a button for auto-rotate lock.
A rather pointless tilt-to-zoom feature lets you place two fingers on the screen, then tip the phone back and forth to zoom web pages and photos. More useful is the inclusion of Motorola-like resizable widgets, and you can pinch to zoom out on the main app launch grid in addition to the desktop.
However, topping our list of favourites is the addition of wireless synchronisation via the Kies Air app. This allows you to access and manage the contents of your phone using a browser without having to connect it to a PC.
Switch it on, type the IP address of the phone into your browser, and up pops a web page of small square content panels, with navigation links down the left-hand side. Using these panels you can edit and delete contacts, download and upload files, photos and videos, and even access the phone’s call and text logs. It’s a great system, and you can connect via your wireless network, or directly using the S II’s personal hotspot mode.
There’s plenty more in terms of software we could go into, from the excellent contact linking to the integrated task killer and the dead-easy DLNA sharing software, AllShare, but what you really want to read is our final verdict on the Samsung Galaxy S II. If you hadn’t guessed from the tone of the review, we absolutely love it.
Its power is unrivalled, its 4.3in is wonderfully bright and colourful, call quality is great and the camera is simply superb. The only concern we have is over battery life, but with everything else so good, a small hit in terms of stamina is the least of our worries. Even the price is reasonable: you can get one free on a £29 per month contract, a price that undercuts the best you can currently swing an iPhone 4 for – £69 and then £30 per month.
In short, the Samsung Galaxy S II is good enough to elbow the iPhone 4 roughly aside and grab the crown of the best smartphone on the planet. We’d encourage anyone who’s currently upgrading to push it straight to the top of their shortlist.