Easily AT&T's best Android smartphone
AT&T has always seemed to have an odd relationship with Android. Conspiracy theorists like to believe it’s because of the iPhone, and there might be a little truth to that. But despite a slow start with Android -- and a few odd decisions along the way -- AT&T’s started to come into its own, sporting compelling smartphones from most of the leading manufacturers.
And it’s second out of the gate with the Samsung Galaxy S II. The Atlanta-based carrier’s doing us all a favor by not messing with the phone’s name at all -- the same can’t be said for others -- and AT&T’s also shaken up the U.S. GSII lineup with some physical tweaks to its Galaxy S II. Minor modifications to the software and user interface hardly are a surprise, too.
So how does the AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II fare against AT&T’s other offerings, the iPhone, and the recently released (and wildly overnamed) Samsung Galaxy S II Sprint Epic 4G Touch? Read on to find out.
Thin, light, fast. And the 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen is gorgeous. It's a Galaxy S II, after all.
Launched with a fairly major security flaw, may still be too big for some at 4.3 inches. AT&T's customization of the TouchWiz home screens is uninspired.
You can't get a better Android smartphone on AT&T. This is as fast and as light as anything available today. And AT&T (and other retailers) have priced it right, under $200.
Inside this review
The AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II versus the Samsung Infuse and Samsung Galaxy S II Sprint Epic 4G Touch.
The underlying theme of the Galaxy S II is thin, light and fast. And with three-fourths of the U.S. versions, we have to add “really freakin' big” to that list. The AT&T SGSII is the outlier, forgoing the monster 4.52-inch screen for a “smaller” 4.3-inch display. The change isn’t a huge surprise, as AT&T already has a 4.5-inch phone -- the Samsung Infuse 4G -- in its stable.
AT&T’s SGSII actually closely follows the design of the Infuse 4G. Or maybe it was the other way around. Regardless, if you’ve held one, you’ll quickly notice the similarities of the other.
You’ve got your basic black-slab design, with the phone’s Super AMOLED Plus display dominating the front of the phone (displays tend to do that), with the usual capacitive buttons at the bottom. They’re stenciled onto the front of the phone, and lighted from underneath. Here's the one thing you should keep an eye on: We've noticed some occasionally odd display color temperatures when on automatic brightness. That is, the display appears to darken, but then sort of gets a pink tint instead.
Here’s where you run into an odd disparity -- the backlight on the AT&T GSII’s buttons isn’t as white as on Sprint’s version, giving them a yellow look.
End of the world? Nope. But it stands out against the white of the time and date on the lock screen, and when you put it next to the Epic 4G Touch and just doesn’t look quite as clean.
Up top there’s a 2MP front-facing camera next to the earpiece and ambient light sensors. There is no notification light.
The rest of the phone’s outerwear is pretty standard, with a few cosmetic differences. The volume rocker is a single continuous bar, so there’s no split to help remind your brain which way is up and which is down. No worries there. The power button is in the usual place (for Samsung, that is) on the right-hand-bezel. Both the power button and volume rocker are a little farther down the side of the phone than you might be used to. Chances are you won’t notice (and you get used to it quickly enough); but it’s obvious if you’re used to handling Samsung phones all day.
Flip the phone over and you’ll see a few more differences when compared to the Epic 4G Touch. The 8MP camera’s in the usual place, but the flash is to the right of the lens, not beneath it. That means the lens isn’t quite centered in the device, but that’s not something that should affect your pictures.
The battery cover has the same crosshatch texture of the Infuse 4G, and they both differ from the Epic 4G Touch’s back. The battery cover design also is slightly different. Whereas the Epic 4T Touch’s wraps around the side of the phone ever so slightly, the AT&T SGS II (like the Infuse 4G) stops short of making the turn.
One final cosmetic difference: The rear speaker and pinhole mic are on opposite sides compared to the Epic 4G Touch. Again, not something you need to worry about.
The short version is this: You've got a smaller, faster Samsung Infuse 4G. Same design, same feel. Just a little smaller.
What's under the hood
For all intents and purposes, the internals of the AT&T SGSII are the same as the Sprint Epic 4G Touch. That is to say, the Exynos system on a chip with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM (you actually have 836MB use to run apps), 2GB of program memory (to which you install apps), and 11GB or so of other internal storage for pictures, video, music and the like. Again, there's no microSD card included.
The AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II has a slightly smaller battery than the Epic 4G Touch -- 1650 mAh versus 1800 mAh -- but the really intriguing thing is written on the battery itself. Clearly seen below the Samsung logo is "Near Field Communication." But nowhere on the phone will you find any NFC settings or preloaded apps, and apps that we've tested just crash and burn. Neither Samsung nor AT&T has returned requests for clarification.
Let's talk data speeds. The AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II technically is one of the carrier's "4G" devices. That's AT&T's brand of 4G, also known as HSPA+ with advanced backhaul. Which is to say it can be fast, but it's not as fast as Verizon's 4G LTE data. Think of it as really good 3G, and you'll be just fine.
As for battery life -- it's pretty excellent. That's not surprising, given that it was also above average in the Epic 4G Touch, but it's nice to have it confirmed. If you can't get through most of a day on a single charge with pretty heavy use, congratulations -- you're among the most powerful power users.
This one's pretty simple: The AT&T Galaxy S II, like its Sprint counterpart, is running Android 2.3.4, with the latest version of the TouchWiz user interface atop it. You've got the same look and feel as you do on the Sprint version, and largely the same as on the previous generation of Samsung phones.
AT&T's done a fairly lackluster job in customizing its homescreens. There's no real sense of purpose to the widgets that have been included. Weather would arguably be one of the more important widgets, but it's relegated to a second screen. Instead, you have the Google search widget (while important, the search button on the phone takes care of that), and that pretty useless tips widget. There's also a widget for AT&T's featured apps.
There's also a scary looking task manager widget (in the picture above, it's at the far right). This is the one that spurred our epic "RAM: What it is, how it's used, and why you shouldn't care" tutorial. We're pretty sure that widget's really only out there because it's a quick one touch to the task manager from there. That in and of itself is OK, as Samsung's got a useful task manager, which makes it easy to quit an app that's acting up. (Though we're willing to bet you won't need it much.
No, our problem is that the widget makes it look like the number of apps running is something you need to worry about. It even turns red if you have a lot of things going on at once. But as Jerry showed us, it's ridiculous. Let the phone do it's job. (And if need a shortcut to the task manager, just hold down the Home button.)
Yes, we feel that strongly about it.
Otherwise, you've got stub apps to the usual smattering of AT&T apps placed on the home screen (YPP, AT&T Code, AT&T FamilyMap, myAT&T), a nice Facebook widget and two contact shortcuts. Words with Friends managed to get a full app install out front.
Like the Sprint Epic 4G Touch, the AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II has Samsung's excellent Voiec Talk app. Unlike the E4GT, it has no home screen widget loaded by default (though you can add them easily enough) and is relegated to the app drawer.
Other apps of note (or not, depending on, well, if you care): AllShare (for media sharing), Amazon Kindle, AT&T Navigator, Photo Editor, Qik Lite, Quickoffice and Samsung's Social Hub.
The good news is that the UI is speedy. It's just fast and uninspired, is all.
Here you have the basic camera app that comes with the AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II. The rear camera, which you'll be using most of the time, can shoot up to a full 8 megapixels (that's a resolution of 3264 by 2448). It's got a ton of settings, but the one we probably use more than others is shooting mode.
And that brings us to this lovely panoramic image.
For normal images? The camera app is pretty quick and focuses decently enough.
Images below open in full resolution in a new window
The video recording function will record at up to 1920x1080. Unless you're going to be playing these videos on a high-def TV, there's really not much reason to do so. But here's what it looks like.
Other odds and ends
A few sundries:
- There's a pretty major bug with the lockscreen -- in that it doesn't work as a security function. We'd expect Samsung and AT&T to fix that post haste, but be aware if you're buying an AT&T Galaxy S II in the near future.
- There are three keyboards preinstalled -- the stock Android Gingerbread keyboard, Samsung's "keypad" and Swype.
- Phone calls were generally crisp and clear.
- The rear speaker is loud enough for our tastes.
- This being an AT&T phone, it has access to AT&T Wifi Hotspots, and you can tell it to automatically connect.
- Bluetooth, Wifi and GPS all worked without a hitch.
- There's no HDMI port on the Galaxy S II, but you can use an MHL adapter. That is, you plug it into the phone, then you plug a microUSB power cord into the MHL adapter. We don't need to stream video that badly.
- Want to root your AT&T Galaxy S II? Go for it.
It's a pretty easy call to make: The Galaxy S II easily is the best Android phone on AT&T at the moment. And comparing hardware to hardware, we'd put it up against the iPhone 4 any day of the week. And we did, in fact.
We'll just have to see how it stands up against the likes of the just-announced iPhone 4S -- and we have the next Nexus device on the horizon. But regardless, we have no reservations about recommending the AT&T Galaxy S II. You'll likely need to do a little bit of tweaking to the home screens, and don't forget about that lockscreen flaw (that we expect to be fixed). But on AT&T, there's none better.
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