The Galaxy S was a runaway success for Samsung, infact they couldn’t make enough of them. It went off the shelves for a little while and only returned with a Super LCD display, Samsung clearly wanted to concentrate somewhere else and the only thing that would make a company divert its attention from its most successful smartphone ever, would be its successor.
That’s exactly what the Samsung Galaxy S2 is, Sammy’s new superphone that aims to rule them all, if the original Galaxy S sold 10 million units, they want to sell even more of these. So does the Galaxy S2 live up all the expectations? We find out in our review.
Lets start with a quick unboxing and overview to give you an idea of the box contents of the S2, it comes with a pretty nice leather case that doesn’t add to the bulk too much, check it out in the video below. The device also comes with a microUSB cable and stereo in-ear headphones which will suffice for casual playback.
The Galaxy S2 is Samsung’s premium smartphone, their most expensive and most powerful, so you would expect they would want to cram in everything under the sun. A 4.3” Super AMOLED Plus display, a dual core Exynos 1.2 Ghz processor, 1 GB RAM, 16 GB of inbuilt storage with a microSD card slot, an 8 Megapixel Camera with an LED flash along with the usual set of connectivity options like WIFI, GPS, Bluetooth and so on. When announced, the Galaxy S2 was supposed to have NFC chips as well, but that’s been left out from the current batch of Galaxy S2 i9100 models that have hit shelves the world over.
Building on such great hardware means that Samsung could add a bunch of features most other Android manufacturers haven’t incorporated. Things like 1080p HD video recording at 30 frames per second, WIFI Direct, support for USB on the go, Bluetooth peripherals like mice, and DLNA support that’s continued from the original model. To keep all the above humming along nicely, Samsung’s put in a 1650 mAh battery.
The Galaxy S line of phones from Samsung is focused on making fast, elegant and slim smartphones and the S2 has started from where the original left off. The device is slightly larger on account of the bigger 4.3” screen as compared to the 4” on the original, but is surprisingly even slimmer at just 8.5mm, compared to the 9.9mm on the S1, making it the thinnest and most powerful smartphone on the market today.
The design language is still very similar, a front occupied mostly by the screen with a physical home button at the bottom, flanked by the menu and back keys. No place for the search key means that the menu key doubles up to perform those functions as well, a long press on the menu touch sensitive key and it begins to work like the search button, working across all applications. Personally I like this setup as that makes for a cleaner design, and you won’t accidentally press any keys as the touch sensitive keys are separated by the physical home button.
The sides have minimalist buttons with the left packing the volume rocker and the right holding power/lock key, there is no camera key. The positioning of the power button is perfect, it is much easier to hit, immaterial of whether you are left handed or right, compared to a position on the top of the device where you’d generally find the power button. Reaching across a 4.3” display won’t have been a joy if it had been placed on top. Speaking of the top, all that it carries is a 3.5mm jack for plugging in your favourite headphones, while the bottom of the device holds a solitary microUSB port, which can also be used with the HDMI connector to connect to an HDTV.
The back of the device holds an ever so slightly protruding 8 Megapixel camera with an LED flash. The bottom of the device bulges out towards the back and holds a mono loudspeaker. As you can imagine, keeping the device faceup blocks the loudspeaker and can cause you to miss calls, this problem is however mostly evident on soft surfaces.
The S2 runs the Gingerbread 2.3.3 release out of the box, with Samsung’s proprietary TouchWiz 4 overlay. The latest version of Gingerbread is 2.3.4, and the Galaxy S2 is expected to receive the update in the coming weeks, even otherwise 2.3.4 isn’t something you would miss dearly.
TouchWiz 4: What deserves special mention is the TouchWiz 4 interface that adds a lot of value to stock Android. A lot of people prefer a stock UI, but TouchWiz 4 really makes you reconsider that stand. It brings quick WIFI, GPS, Rotation and Bluetooth toggles to the pull down notification bar. Also present there are forward, back and pause buttons while the music is playing, you can even control music from the lockscreen without having to unlock the device.
Next, it gives you upto 7 homescreens and plenty of widgets to play around with including agenda widgets with month and today views along with a bunch of clocks etc. Some widgets are resizable, so you can decide how much of the screen should say the weather widget occupy, or if you want to make the today view larger. You can quickly jump between homescreens by pinching out or dragging your finger across the dots on the bottom to glide between homescreens.
The apps are presented in a page based format, much like iOS and I am personally a huge fan of this approach. No need to keep scrolling up and down, and you can organize your apps by moving them across pages or within folders. You can glide between pages in the same way as homescreens. TouchWiz also has bunch of other tricks up its sleeve with a brightness control that can be activated to holding the pull down notification bar for a second and then dragging right to increase and left to decrease.
TouchWiz 4 also introduces motion based gestures, for example you can move widgets between pages by holding them and then moving the phone left or right to jump pages, or holding down two points on the screen to zoom in and out of the browser, pictures and so on. These things are more for fun than actually helping you save time, but nevertheless make for a great way to show off your new device to friends.
All in all, I’m a huge fan of the TouchWiz 4 interface and as surprising as it may sound to some of the Android purists, it adds a lot of value to the device. If you don’t like it, you always have the option to choosing a new launcher from the Android Market and forget about TouchWiz completely. Here is a video that takes you though some of the lesser know tips & tricks that are available of the Galaxy S2.
The one things that I don’t like about Samsung’s software is that they want to control how I use my battery once it is running low. Beyond a certain point, the camera kicks you out because the phone is running low on battery, or the music player shuts down and so on. Samsung does it to protect the basic function of the phone i.e. make and receive calls, but if I want to take a picture, the phone can simply warm me and then let me take the shot instead of blocking me completely. Fortunately, there are workarounds to this problem. A camera app from the Market solves the purpose, so does a third party music player.
Flashing: But if that’s not enough, you will be pleased to know that the SGS2 comes with an unlocked bootloader and is one of the most mod friendly Android devices on the market. There are already custom ROMS and hacks available, so if you ever feel something is amiss or you that would like to try something new, the modding community will keep you satisfied.
Some custom ROMs and hacks also let you get rid of the battery limitations I described earlier.
On the software front, as I mentioned earlier, the S2 brings new functionality such as USB on-the-go, so that you can plus in flash drives, portable hard disks etc to copy data across without needing a PC. There is also support for WIFI Direct, a technology that lets you copy data wirelessly, much like Bluetooth but at much faster speeds using an adhoc WIFI connection. Find a detailed write up here, and following is a video showing it in action:
Considering it runs on a dual core processor and a gig of RAM, you would expect this thing to fly, and fly it does. Despite the days of rigorous tests, app installs and non-stop use, the SGS 2 has performed with flying colours. Everything is fast, there are no lags whatsoever, and even after days of use you do not need to reboot. The booting time for SGS 2 is a breath of fresh air and it takes about 10 seconds to get upto speed from a cold boot. The annoying Android file keeping on boot is also a matter of seconds.
The device has about 833 MB of RAM available and on a fresh boot you will generally find that around 650MB is free, more than enough for anything you might want to throw at the phone.
If you had worries about TouchWiz slowing things down, you can get rid of them. The browser is fast, most apps load almost instantly, the camera takes 2 seconds to get ready to shoot, the scrolling is smooth and you don’t see jerks.
The browser despite being blazing fast to load pages, does manage to show a few check boxes while scrolling, this is a software bug and I would think that Samsung would be working to get it fixed with subsequent firmwares. Otherwise it handles flash just fine and that doesn’t really affect the overall smoothness of the phone. The Gallery app sometimes take a second to load, but once inside, flicking though pictures is instant.
But if you really cut to the chase, I’m yet to come across a single app that actually needs a dual core processor to show its true potential, the dual core chip is more for about being future proof than being a requirement for today. Still you feel good knowing its there.
The auto focus camera on the S2 is an improvement from the 5MP shooter on the original, and possibly one of the better ones across all Android devices. The S2 does not have a physical camera button, so all the controls are on the screen itself. You can touch a particular area to focus or use the camera key and let the phone take that into its own hands.
With stills, there are a lot of options available, right from taking panoramas, to an action mode for fast shutter speeds and even a cartoon mode. Also present is a macro (close-up) mode, a Face Detention mode and the usual auto mode. For most documents scans and closeups, the auto focus mode is enough and you are saved from the bother of having to switch to macro each time. When you exit, the camera remembers your settings.
The UI of the camera app is clean and simple, you can select which controls to show on the left hand side while the right holds the toggle for switching to video, taking a picture and jumping into the Gallery.
The S2 also has a 2 Megapixel front facing camera that is a very welcome improvement from the VGA shooters that we see on most smartphones. It is passable for portrait shots and will help improve video call quality if our networks and apps are upto it.
When the Galaxy S2 launched there were quite a few rumors surrounding the screen, heating and WIFI performance, so its best to put those to rest as well.
First the screen, the alleged problem being that there is a slight yellow effect on the left hand side of the display. I have played with two Galaxy S2 devices and on both occasions I had a very hard time locating the yellow batch, sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t. It is allegedly visible in low brightness with a solid grey colour in the background. But for me it is not a problem, the screen looks great, even better than the original Super AMOLED display on the S1 and I am yet to see any the issue in any real world scenario.
Next is talk that the Galaxy S2 gets excessively hot. In peak of the Indian summer, my device has held up well, it does get a little warm at times, specially when you are charging it and using it at the same time, but this is no deal breaker and expected to an extent. Bottomline, don’t worry about it.
Next, some people are having problems with WIFI reception. In my tests using the default India firmware, the SGS2 performed well enough. My N8 and the the iPad 2 had better reception at the edge of my router’s range, but the SGS2’s performance is still passable. You’ll only have problems if you try and leech off your neighbour’s WIFI.
Last, the original Galaxy S had problems with GPS performance and it looks as if Samsung has gone to great lengths to make sure that the GPS performance on the S2 is stellar. Infact after the using the device as my primary smartphone for the last 4 weeks, I am yet to see a show stopping bug, or even something that is a minor annoyance.
Battery Life: Finally lets talk battery life. After a few recharge cycles, the Galaxy S2 possibly has the best battery life of any similar device in its class. With 4 email accounts, WhatsApp, Gtalk and Tweetdeck running continuously in addition to a few calls, a bunch of texts, moderate browsing and 20 minutes of light games I still get a day’s usage from the device.
So if you leave the house at 8am with a full battery, you should still have some juice left over when you get back at 8 in the evening, it might even get you through the after work parties unless you really hammer it. Considering the S2 has a 4.3” display, it manages to last for an impressive amount of time.
GALAXY S v GALAXY S2
At this point a lot of original Galaxy S owners are wondering if it is worth it to update to the successor, here is what I think:
The good: While the S2 excels in most aspects, the following stand out:
- Screen, the colours really pop out and the blacks are seriously impressive.
- Size, super thin and very light.
- Blazing fast, with a useful TouchWiz overlay.
- Great call quality, one of the loudest in, in-call volume.
The bad: There’s hardly anything bad, but the following things would have been better:
- The camera while being one of the best ones on an Android device, still doesn’t match up to the likes of Nokia’s N8. The single LED flash could have been brighter as well.
- Some people would have preferred a more metallic finish, but Samsung’s compromised on that front to keep the weight and antenna performance better.
- A loud enough mono speaker, let down by the placement on the bottom where it gets muted easily. The same plastic bottom is also prone to scratches if you aren’t careful.
- The TouchWiz overlay will mean that updates come to the SGS2 a little later than the Nexus series of smartphones, but Samsung’s been stepping up its game recently with their speed of updates and judging by how popular the S2 will be, you can rest assured about getting the updates sooner, than later.
One the whole the Samsung Galaxy S2 is a superphone, to call it a mere smartphone would be an understatement. It has its niggles, but they are far outnumbered by the overwhelming positives in its favour. It is without a doubt the best Android smartphone on the market and depending on how you feel about Android, perhaps even the best smartphone today, certainly the most powerful.
So if you were in the market for a high-end smartphone, would I recommend the Galaxy S2? Definitely.