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Samsung Galaxy S II Review

Jonathan Morris
June 30, 2011

Samsung’s Galaxy S II has remained faithful to the original, but despite the improvements under the hood, can such a simple design still ignite the same level of passion?

From zero to four in a matter of months, there are already some very tough choices to be made when choosing which one of the new dual-core smartphones to invest your hard-earned in.

Everything needs an edge, and just as Samsung was about to begin shipping the Galaxy S II, news surfaced of HTC’s Sensation with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor – outdoing the Samsung by 0.2GHz.

With Samsung’s ability to get products to market quickly, the manufacturer seemed unfazed by this news and simply decided to boost the Galaxy S II processor to match the HTC. Job done.

However, the models destined for the UK then lost NFC – although not necessarily because of the speed boost. We’re told there’s no NFC hardware inside the phone at all, so don’t expect a software update to magically enable it later on.

Given Samsung has launched an NFC-enabled handset for the new Orange ‘QuickTap’ service run in conjunction with Barclaycard, this does seem like a rather odd move and also means we can probably expect an updated model later in the year that restores this feature.

If you’re keen to be ready for mobile payments, you may have to hold on (or opt for the Samsung-built Google Nexus S) but we’re not sure whether NFC is really going to big enough in 2011 to warrant waiting for.

Of all the current dual-core smartphones, many have some unique stand-out features, like the Motorola ATRIX’s biometric fingerprint reader or the qHD-resolution display present on both the Motorola and HTC’s Sensation (the latter also having the excellent HTC Sense enhancements).

The Galaxy S II, especially without NFC, only wins out by being the slimmest dual-core model. The other feature is the incredibly bright AM-OLED screen, which Samsung calls ‘Super AM-OLED Plus’.

The phone isn’t heavy either, at just 116g, although this is as a result of being constructed from fairly cheap materials.

Missing the grade

While the Galaxy S II may be Samsung’s flagship smartphone, it just doesn’t come close to the premium feel of the HTC Sensation. However, anyone that liked the original Galaxy S and is ready to upgrade will feel comfortable that the next model hasn’t made any radical changes.

There’s still the centre ‘home’ key that probably helped attract all that unwanted attention from Apple, and two hidden touch-sensitive keys for menu and back.

These can be illuminated if you want, either permanently or for a limited time, but once you know which is which, it looks quite slick having the lighting disabled completely.

On the back of the phone, you have an 8-megapixel camera that can also record HD video at both 720 and 1080P resolutions. With the incredibly bright and somewhat over-saturated OLED display, your pictures and videos will look incredibly vivid when viewed back, but this will probably lead to some disappointment when viewed on a normal monitor, or TV via HDMI, where the colours are far more neutral.

The Samsung is the only dual-core phone to use an OLED screen, and while it is absolutely gorgeous to look at (and so bright that it can still be clearly viewed in the midday sun), it’s somewhat unnatural. If you’ve used a TV that has a range of picture presets, how often do you select ‘Vivid’? Probably not that often, unless you want everything you see and do to look like you’re watching a Pixar movie.

But what of the phone and its performance? This is where the Samsung begins to show off its power, as the phone is highly responsive (as you’d expect).

Navigating around the homescreen and menus is instantaneous and it’s only when scrolling quickly up and down through lists that you can begin to spot some jerkiness in the scrolling, but that’s probably only down to bad graphic drivers.

Samsung also has its own front-end UI setup that is similar to HTC Sense, but not quite as advanced,  even in its V4.0 incarnation. There are no fancy 3D transition effects and no downloadable themes and skins. You can, however, change the typeface which is, to date, a feature only available on LG and Samsung handsets.

There are also a number of power saving options, along with the ability to remotely lock, track and wipe the device if gets lost or stolen, which is where it shares some functionality with the HTC, or a Motorola running MotoBLUR.

Stop motion

Finally, the phone supports gesture, or ‘motion’, controls that can be performed by holding the phone in certain ways and tipping or tilting it. These feel somewhat gimmicky, but they are optional so you’re not obliged to start holding the phone with two hands while tipping it round as if you’re playing a game of labyrinth.

Gestures aside, the Galaxy S II is still an enticing proposition. There’s also a larger capacity battery than the Sensation (1,650mAh over 1,520mAh), but this is still nowhere near the 1,930mAh monster that fits inside the Motorola ATRIX.

Now you can see why it’s so hard to make a choice, although if you want something with all-out build quality then it’s the HTC every time.

Meanwhile, the Motorola ATRIX has its unique Webtop mode that allows the phone to connect to a laptop or HD multimedia dock and transform, albeit in a rather simplistic fashion, into a full-screen web browser.

Samsung hasn’t got much of its own extra elements to add to the phone. However it does offer a number of Hubs, which includes the main Social Hub, acting as a gateway to your email, messages and social networking content, followed by hubs for music, eBooks, games and, finally, a Samsung Hub that recommends apps, including those exclusively available for the phone.

In the case of the Galaxy S II, there was one single exclusive app; an official Take That app, as part of the company’s sponsorship deal. All things considered, you will probably be better off sticking with third-party apps and Android Market.

The jury is still out on whether it’s better to heavily customise an Android phone (like HTC) or keep things simple, as favoured by the likes of Motorola and Sony Ericsson. You then have the Nexus handsets, which are not modified at all.

Samsung sits somewhere inbetween, and relies more on the physical look of the phone to attract sales. You can’t deny that the Galaxy S II has an Apple-like feel, but when you get it in your hand you can clearly feel the differences. It’s a shame that Samsung opted to go for cheap plastics, and not spend a little more on premium materials.

However, the phone is slim and the Samsung made dual-core processor performs incredibly well. The screen may not portray colours very accurately, but it is extremely bright and the OLED technology also keeps the power consumption down (at least if you decide to turn the brightness down a little).

Left behind

It’s primarily due to the quality of the competition that I find myself having to say that the overall impression of the Galaxy S II isn’t as impressive, or exciting, as when the original Galaxy S was launched. Things have moved on.

The performance is sound, and the battery life is good, plus the phone has all the functionality you could need, but corners have been cut (and I don’t mean the corners that Apple got so uptight about) so the Galaxy S II ends up becoming a bit like the LG Optimus 2X: rather anonymous.

At the start, I said that each phone has to have an edge and nothing proves the point more than this handset. You just can’t churn out another black slab with a killer-spec these days.

Meanwhile the HTC Sensation has the best user experience and the same performance, plus a higher resolution screen, and Motorola’s ATRIX offers the extra benefits, should you choose to buy the extra accessories to go with it.

So, the conclusion? Well, it’s a tricky one to make. If Samsung didn’t have some tough competition, this would have been a no-brainer for anyone wanting a flagship phone. Instead, it comes out being decidedly average. Yet, if the price is right and you like bright colours, there’s little chance you’d be disappointed.

Verdict

Here’s Samsung’s top-end smartphone, with a blisteringly fast performance, a decent camera, good battery life, and yet it feels rather underwhelming. It’s actually a great phone, but let down by the cheap exterior that tries to play on the successful design of the iPhone, yet with cheap plastics and a screen that, despite being gorgeous and extremely bright, portrays pictures and video with somewhat unnatural colours. It’s not that we’d advise against buying this handset, but take some time to look at the other dual-core offerings before handing over the cash.

Ratings (out of 5)

Performance: 4
Features: 4
Usability: 4
OVERALL: 4

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