With the current spread of Android devices it has become increasingly difficult to choose the best one out there – each manufacturer has a seemingly better phone than the next. HTC has the Sensation, LG has the Optimus Black and Samsung has the super speedy Galaxy S2. And this will probably be different 60 days from now. That is just the nature of the Android phone business. Have to hand it to Android, at least users have choice. And if you are in the market now for a new smartphone, the Galaxy S2 makes a very compelling case. But is it the best smartphone out there right now?
Design and Build
Upon taking the device out of the box, I was taken aback that Samsung keeps on trotting along with the plastic build, even on their high end flagship device. I thought this was not a good start. But holding it in hand makes you realize that despite the casing, the phone is incredibly solid. No flex, no creaking. Just an very rigid thin body, with a glass front. It feels like a definite step up from the first Galaxy S. But still, for a phone that competes in the high end smartphone market, the more concerning buyer might look down on the plastic build. However, if you keep you phone anyway in a case, the lighter weight should be a good thing. Horses for courses.
The overall design of the S2 is very simple, with a great minimalistic design when viewed from the front. It is quite large, but not unwieldy. Its super thin – even thinner than the iPhone 4. But it is quite broad with a its large display. When off, it looks like a sleek black slab, and all shiny glass. The rear is dominated with a textured black back cover, and then the rest is typical shiny samsung plastic, which I am not crazy about.
Button layout is simple, with a single hardware button on the front, with two capacitative buttons on its sides. You will find the volume rocker on the left, and the power button on the right. On another review, one of our concerns with the Samsung Omnia 7 design was the placement if the power button which falls right under the index finger when you hold the phone with your left hand. With the Galaxy S2 Samsung continues that trend, but at least they firmed up the button a bit.
In terms of connectivity, Samsung keeps it simple on the S2. A micro USB charger port is found on the bottom, which is good. (Samsung, your proprietary dock connector on the Tab is stupid, take a note from your phone division. Who are you kidding?). On the top you will find the headphone adaptor, which gives very decent sound quality with a good set of headphones. Simple, yes. But that is how it should be.
This is the party piece of the Galaxy S2. If you want to win someone over on the S2, you just have to put on the phone. The screen lights up, and the capacitative buttons light up as well. The beautiful black design almost transforms with the super bright new OLED display. Sure, we love the Apple Retina display on the iPhone. But that is because of the resolution. But with the S2 it is all about the brilliant contrast. Blacks are just that – blacks. Not grays. This means that the Android UI looks stunning with all its blacks, and small things like animated wallpapers look incredible.
Photos and videos look brilliant with excellent refresh rate. Viewing angles are a big step up from previous OLED screens, and viewing the display in sunlight is actually pretty OK. And with this size screen you might actually use your phone to watch video. One of the great things about OLED is that once the display shows black, that portion does not consume battery power. That means that if you dabble with mostly dark screens, you actually save power. Nifty.
Innards, Battery Life
The other reason why people should opt for the S2 is down to the specs. This is a phone that was built for brute speed. It has a dual core 1.2 GHz processor. This might not seem like a big jump from the Galaxy S’s 1GHz, but that “dual core” part makes all the difference. There is just no slowdowns when using this phone. Web browsing is brisk, animations show no dropped frames, etc. The sad part is that every other Android phone feels slow after you have used the S2. Sure, this will change over time as the compeition heats up and the software stack becomes more complicated, but right now there is nothing close to the S2.
Storage wise the phone ships with 16GB internal memory, but you are free to expand that with the MicroSD slot. You get a 2GB MicroSD card in the box, but that can be replaced with up to 32GB. That should sort out your storage needs.
I have also mentioned how thin this phone is, and it becomes even more amazing how they fit all this processing power into the phone when you consider it still sports a removable battery. So despite other manufacturers refusing to create removable batteries (or is Apple the only one?), Samsung somehow managed to do it. Battery life was OK – it gave me about a day and a half of usage before it needed a charge, but I am quite a heavy user (I had syncing on all my accounts enabled all the time). I am pretty sure that if you are not using your phone all that much you can stretch it to two days. Or if you play around with the settings…
That thin but powerful chassis has one disadvantage however, with the phone becoming noticeably warm when just doing normal things like web browsing. Guess that dual core has to let go of some heat somehow. But it is not really an issue.
One small thing I liked was that the SIM slot can easily accommodate Micro SIMs as well, which is great for someone like me who have to switch from other phones time to time.
First off, I am not someone who goes on too much about a phone’s camera. Yet, I want a phone that can quickly take a picture in variety of lighting conditions, with fast shutter response, and low noise. The Galaxy S2 ticks all these boxes. Photos are crisp, and seriously detailed with good colour. And despite the 8MP sensor, the pictures do not carry too much noise. Flash performance is good as well.
Video performance is even better – Full HD 1080p resolution at 30fps. Videos look incredible, especially in decent lighting. But you must be warned – 1080p video chows storage faster than you would believe. If you plan to record a lot of video, get a nice big memory card… Yes there is a slot.
I tend to prefer Android installs that are not too covered with skins and extra apps. In fact, I prefer a stock Android install. Luckily the bundled apps on the Galaxy S2 are pretty good, and the TouchWiz interface is not bad at all. Yes, it still looks like a iOS copy with the square app buttons, but being Android, you have complete control whether you want that interface or not. TouchWiz has a few nice touches – like an app drawer on the home screen, very similar to iPhone, and very nice looking widgets. Goodness, you can really see why Apple is a little peeved with Samsung. “Patents” are one thing, but putting this skin next to iOS really makes you see the similarities. But that is a matter for another day. Or courtroom.
Samsung’s made a few great enhancements on the phone though. For example – to zoom into a webpage – put two thumbs on the page, and pull the phone closer to you. Yeah, it does not have to be your thumbs, but it works well enough. Battery monitoring which changes certain settings based on battery level is something that should ship with every phone. Brilliant.
The phone ships with Gingerbread (2.3.3) right out of the box, so you ought to be fine for now. But one of the disadvantages of Android is that you never are fully guaranteed to keep getting the latest version of Android in the future. Nice thing about Samsung is that they are pretty open about the fact that they are working with CyanogenMod, so if you are willing to hack a bit, you will be safe with the Galaxy S2, and can probably start getting custom ROMS soon enough.
Android fanboys might smirk at this, but most of all I was impressed by how much Android has improved in the last year. While I regularly review Android phones, this was the first phone where I felt the hardware caught up with the software. Small things – like installing and launching apps are much, much faster than in the past. Frame rates are incredible, and app and game speed is brilliant. And since Android development has grown so much, you can really pretty much count on most apps you need being available on the platform. And the apps actually look good these days. It is no longer a case of iPhone only have the good apps. Those days are gone.
I was very surprised by the Samsung Galaxy S2. Even though my smartphone platform of choice is not Android right now, I can fully agree that this is most probably the best smartphone on the market today. Android has taken significant strides in the last year, and it really is a great platform. If you are not yet fully vested in another platform, you can rest assured that this phone will serve you well. While not necessarily oozing quality with its all plastic build, it is very well put together, and a significant step up from most other Samsung plastic phones.
The performance is incredible, the software stack is fully customizable in future, and battery life and camera is pretty good as well. There is very little to fault with this phone – and the current offerings by the cellular providers seem to be very good with Galaxy S2.
Well done Samsung, you have a winner on your hands.