Friday, July 29, 2011

Samsung I9100 Galaxy S II review

The Samsung Galaxy S II (also known as the Galaxy S2) is Samsung's flagship mobile device, their fastest veer selling smartphone. This isn't surprising, the Galaxy S II improves over the original Galaxy S by a huge margin. When the Galaxy S II was announced, it was the thinnest smartphone in the world with a dual-core processor. Even today the specs of the S II is still considered market leading, rivalled only on paper by phones that aren't yet on the market.

Read on to find out what I think of the Galaxy S II.

  • Exynos SoC with 1.2 GHz dual-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU and Mali-400MP GPU
  • 1GB RAM and 16GB built-in flash storage
  • 4.3" Super AMOLED Plus capacitive touchscreen with 480 x 800 resolution
  • Quad band GSM and 3G
  • 21 Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA
  • 8 Megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash and 1080p30 video recording
  • 2 Megapixel front camera
  • Bluetooth 3.0 and WiFi 802.11b/g/n
  • GPS with A-GPS
  • Digital compass
Despite being made entirely of plastic, the Galaxy S II's built quality is great. It feels great in my palms, and at 116g, is very light. The plastic does make it feel cheaper than say the HTC Sensation. Regardless, the Galaxy S II is also very thin, measuring 8.49mm at its thinnest point. A solitary 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the top, while the microphone and microUSB port, which supports Mobile High Definition Link (MHL) and USB On-The-Go, are found on the bottom. Unfortunately the MHL adaptor, required for HDTV-out, is not bundled with the device. On either side of the devices you will find the power button and volume rocker.
I have had my doubts in the past, but after a month of using the S II, I have grown to love the large 4.3" Super AMOLED Plus touchscreen capacitive display. The display, which is covered by Gorilla Glass and has oleophobic coating, is absolutely gorgeous. This is the same screen as seen on the Galaxy II, except that the pixels are now made up of RGB stripes rather than the much maligned PenTile stripes. While the resolution is still 480 x 800, the screen remained sharp, with strong contrast and black levels and colours so over saturated I had to reduce the colour levels in the settings.

Below the display are three hardware buttons. One, the Home key, is physical and the two (Menu and Back) are touch sensitive. By pressing it down, the Menu key also doubles as a regular Android Search key. Not being a fan of touch sensitive buttons, I am glad that the buttons are not too sensitive. You will find the earspeaker, 2 Megapixel front camera, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor.
The Galaxy S II is thin
At the back of the Galaxy S II resides the 8 Megapixel camera with auto-focus and macro capability. The camera is capable of full HD (1080p) video recording. A single LED flash sits next to it. While some may prefer Xenon flash, I found the LED flash to be more useful as it you can use it as a video light. Near the bottom of the back you will find a small speaker grill. The single speaker itself gives out a loud, but unfortunately unfulfilled audio experience. Best to stick with headphones. Underneath the thin textured battery cover you will find the none hot-swappable microSDHC card slot, a full size SIM card slot and a removable 1650 mAh battery. See Apple, this is how it's done.

The design of the Galaxy S II is simple, almost understated. Overall I liked the design, though I do wish Samsung has put in a bit more effort in differentiating their products. The Galaxy S II reminds me greatly of a couple of phones from Samsung's own portfolio as well as this one popular phone from a competitor of theirs... ;) Overall I liked the design, though I still preferred Sony Ericsson's effort with the XPERIA Arc a little bit more.
Did I mention just how thin it is?
At its heart, the S2 features a 1.2 GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos 4210 SoC chip, Samsung's successor to their well received Hummingbird processor. The Exynos 4210 has two ARM Cortex A9 cores and ARM Mali-400 MP GPU. There is another version of the Galaxy S II with Nvidia's Tegra 2 SoC with GeForce GPU, but I have never seen it on the market. I doubt it matters much as both processors are sufficiently powerful, especially when paired with 1GB of dedicated RAM. Storage comes in the form of 16GB internal flash, and is expandable up to an additional 32GB via the aforementioned microSDHC card slot.

Connectivity wise the Galaxy S II is not slouch either. You can use it almost everywhere in the world thanks to the quad band GSM and 3G chipset. Data connection comes in the form of HSDPA (up to 21Mbps), EDGE, Wireless LAN and Bluetooth 3.0. You can even use the phone as a wireless modem (ala MiFi) if your service provider allows you. GPS including A-GPS completes the check-list. Even despite not having NFC, I found it very impressive that Samsung's engineers has managed to fit all this, and more in its incredibly slim body.
The Galaxy S II runs on Android Gingerbread 2.3.3 with TouchWiz UI 4.0. It is due to receive 2.3.4 in the next week or so via Samsung Kies. I have never been much of a fan of launchers made by manufacturers but TouchWiz UI 4.0 is actually a nice touch. Unlike HTC Sense and Motorola BLUR, TouchWiz remains speedy to use throughout. It reminds me of Sony Ericsson's unnamed launcher on the XPERIA Arc. Still power users may want to look elsewhere, especially if customisation is your cup of tea. You wouldn't have any trouble looking for one anyway as the Android Market is full of these.

TouchWiz 4.0 UI supports up to seven panels on the homescreen. A dock with shortcuts to Phone,Contacts, Messaging and Application is found below, and these shortcuts cannot be customised. Samsung has thoughtfully included a bunch of resizeable widgets that are not only useful, but actually pleasing on the eyes. In addition to that, folders can be added onto the homescreen. These includes folders for applications,contacts and even recent documents. Unlike the regular App Drawer, the one here is horizontal like the found on iOS. Here you can create new pages or move applications into folders. Overall I like the new TouchWiz as it is a massive improvement over previous versions of yore.
As this is an Android phone you will need a Google account to make the best use out of the device. Access to the Google Market, as well as backing up your PIM details onto one of Google's cloud servers is dependant on that. Contacts can be pulled down from various sources, including Facebook, and paired together in the phone book.

Samsung has outdone itself with Social Hub. This is an all-in-one application for all your messaging needs, but the real deal is the way it handles emails. Unsurprisingly for an Android device, the GMail app is an excellent client who will serve most user's needs. But it lacks some features and more importantly (to me), a battery-optimised black theme. Social Hub's email client handles conversation view better than GMail and even supports push notification. The only thing missing the priority email view, and I do not know anybody who actually uses it.
Social Hub also supports other accounts including Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo! Messenger and Windows Live Messeger IM accounts. Personally I would rather use a dedicated client for my social networks, but it's here.

The web browser supports multi-touch, has Flash support and multiple windows. Opening a new tab is as easy. The Webkit browser is very capable, fast ad renders most sites accurately. You can even switch the default search engine if you don't trust Google enough.The UI is clean with only the address bar and bookmark icon visible at all times. As Flash 10.3 is installed, Flash games and YouTube videos can be watched on the browser itself. It is a nice but very basic browser. For example it lacks the ability to change the user agent or turn on incognito mode (private browsing). If you require such features, I suggest installing the much praised Dolphin browser.
The Galaxy S II offers two types of keyboards: the Samsung keypad and Swype. The Samsung keypad consists of four types of portrait keyboards including a standard QWERTY keypad, 3x4 keypad (numerical keypad) and two handwriting boxes. XT9 predictive text is available. Swype is a great second choice, though I did find the Galaxy S II's screen to be too large to use Swype comfortably one handed. It works best when I am stationary so your miles may vary. You can always install any third party keyboard you find on the Android Market. I would recommend SwiftKey X as being one of the best, if not the only replacement keyboard on the platform.

I don't normally do benchmarks preferring instead to judge a device's performance based on everyday usage. Believe me, the Galaxy S II is fast. I had my doubts on whether Android is would be able to take advantage of a dual-core processor, and truthfully, I didn't feel like it was twice as quick as the last high-end single core Android device I had, the XPERIA Arc, at least in most applications (which I assume have not been updated yet). It does feel much quicker when browsing and opening apps. In any case here are the results of the synthetic benchmark.
As you can see the Galaxy S II wipes the floor with other Android devices including tablets with Nvidia Tegra 2 SoC. Obviously synthetic benchmark numbers alone not tell the entire story, so take these results with a pinch of salt.

Built-in GPS receivers are normal on mid and high-range smartphones, and is even becoming a standard feature on some low-end smartphones. Being Samsung's flagship device, the Galaxy S II comes A-GPS. It does not ship with any dedicated navigation software apart from the standard and free Google Maps. This is fine as Google Maps mobile is slowly evolving into a great mapping and voice navigation product. Google Maps now allows you to precache map tiles up to 10 miles radius allowing you to use the navigation feature offline. The latest version has better check-in support via Latitude and Places, featuring the ability to create new venues.
Notifications are displayed on the top of the screen where you will find the usual assortment of icons which indicates the sound level, wireless activities, network signal strength, battery signal, alarm clock notification and time. In addition to that, notifications from applications will appear on the left side of the notification bar which can get busy at times. Notifications that appear here will include missed calls, new Facebook and Google+ messages and Twitter mentions, Foursquare check-ins etc, all of these will appear on the top unless you specifically disable the applications from appearing on the notification display. You can pull down the notification screen by swiping down from the bar to have a more detail overview of the notifications or dismiss them.

The Galaxy S II has a 8 Megapixel autofocus camera on the back with LED flash. As I mentioned earlier, while some may prefer Xenon flash, I found the LED flash to be more useful as it you can use it as a video light. The camera is capable of full HD (1080p) video recording. File size can grow large quickly especially when recording in 1080p, so get a fast memory card or record directly to the in-built storage (which is quicker). Videos produced are recorded in MP4 format and is excellent in quality. Colours are well defined and (when focused) details are well preserved. Embedded below is a sample 720p video recording sample to demonstrate continuous autofocus:

In terms of still photography, the camera application offers plenty of features: auto focus, smile detection, image stabilisation, ISO, metering, exposure value compensation and geotagging. Picture quality is actually pretty good for a phone, though this is no Nokia N8. Don't expect it to replace your digital camera. While there are some manual controls I have mainly left it on auto, and the camera software seems capable of optimising the settings for me. The LED flash won't help much with low light photography, but it's useful for fill-in flash during day time. Just don't expect any miracles.

Here are a couple of unedited but resized samples (blame Blogger):
Standard no flash
Indoor with flash
Macro mode
Battery life is decent for an Android smartphone. I regularly last about half a day on the Galaxy S2 before having to reach for a spare battery. Note I am a power user who checks Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, GMail regularly, in addition to web browsing, watching videos and listening to music. It would be better if Samsung can somehow fit a larger battery, but it seems they had no desire to spoil the slim design. I can't blame them, as market conditions these days dictate that engineers design a device not with function in mind but form.

The Samsung GT-I9100 Galaxy S II, in its full name, is a monster. It is the pinnacle of the current high-end Android smartphone specs-war, equalled only by the HTC Sensation and EVO 3D. Having used it for a month, I find that there isn't a phone currently on the market I would trade for. It isn't perfect but what is? I do wish it had a slightly bigger battery even if it means putting on some weight, and I still dislike capacitive touch sensitive hardware buttons. Samsung could also have upped the resolution to something a bit more 2011. After all, the HTC Sensation and Motorola Atrix have screens with 540 x 960 resolution.

Still I have never had a more complete smartphone. It just works. And this coming from a person who disliked Android only a year ago due to its inefficiency at getting things done. You may just be looking at a contender for the best smartphone of 2011.

The Samsung Galaxy S II is available on the market now for around £470.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review. Does this have FM radio?

Jon said...

Cheers, and yes it does.

tv licence phone number said...

Fm radio is important, so it surely have it. Samsung doesn't stock on their technology like other phones, Samsung keeps moving. I like this l9100 Galaxy S II ;)