Easily AT&T's best Android smartphone

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.


The Good

Thin, light, fast. And the 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen is gorgeous. It's a Galaxy S II, after all.

The Bad

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.

Conclusion

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

More info

 

The video hands-on and comparison


Youtube link for mobile viewing

The AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II versus the Samsung Infuse and Samsung Galaxy S II Sprint Epic 4G Touch.

The hardware

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 Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S IIAT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S IIAT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

 

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S IIAs far as speed goes, the AT&T SGSII is just as fast as its Sprint counterpart -- that is to say it's as smooth as anything on the market today. Dual-core processor, lots of RAM -- you're good to go.

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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II speeds

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.

The software

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AAT&T Galaxy S IIThere'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.

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

The camera

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II

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.

AT&T Galaxy S II camera panoramic test
Click to open it in full resolution in a new window.

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

Samsung Galaxy S II camera testAT&T Samsung Galaxy S II camera test

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II camera testAT&T Samsung Galaxy S II camera test

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.


Youtube link for mobile viewing

 

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.

The wrap up

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.


Youtube link for mobile viewing

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.

 
There are 28 comments

patfactorx says:

They are going to discount this for Black Friday and it might just outsell the iPhone.

hermond says:

I thought that the SGII didn't have any security flaw AT ALL. I don't understand why it gets mentioned.
It is just a SMALL BUG, that's all.

Explanation:
- The phone has a FEATURE that allows you to keep it open (or alive without the need of an unlock) for 5 or 10 or 20 or 30 minutes, even if the screen turns itself off.
- When the screen goes off, and you wake your phone again inside the time you set up, you don't need to enter a password or unlock with a pattern. This function can be turned off if you want.
- The bug is just that the lock screen appears when it shouldn't. It is irrelevant, as you still don't need to enter the password or a patter (as long as you are under the 5 or 10 minutes you specified in your settings).

C'mon guys, you are Android Central, you should know this things!

Cheers,
Hermond.

ddominator says:

I agree. This isn't a bug. You can set it in Settings > Location and security > Timeout as "Immediately" and this thing BGR reported will never happen.

Jesse Potter says:

Personally, I wish Android allowed users to completely disable the lock screen altogether. I don't use a pin, password, or gesture unlock. Constantly having to unlock my phone every time I turn it on has been a thorn in my side since the G1. I'm testing out the gesture unlock, as that will buy me 30 minutes of lock-free bliss. But I really wish I could just disable it altogether.

rufflez says:

What phone doesn't have any kind of lock on it? Even my LG Dare had to have the lock touched to unlock the phone. Its so you aren't accidentally butt dialing people.

planoman says:

no lock in the market

alc2077 says:

just switched from the sammy infuse to the at&t S2 & coming from the infuse I'm loving this phone, top of the list is the size of the screen. phone is snappy & I think I and this baby are going to be together for a long time ;)

kurioskurion says:

Got this for my wife. She ditched the iPhone 4 for it. She's completely in love with this phone. She can't believe the speed of it, and the screen! The 4.3 paired with the thinness of this phone makes it feel wonderful in the hand.

Gotta say i'm jealous of it, and I love my Inspire.

Producer says:

"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."

I'd also like more clarification on this. If it doesn't have NFC, then its out.

ghostmau5 says:

And what phone has NFC? Not even the fabled Apple will include it in the iPhone 4S.

sep2006 says:

Most phones in Asia have it.

There's a couple in the US I think.

The Nexus Prime is supposed to have it.

Thanks for another great review AC,

For overall size, I think a 4.3" screen is what I want on my next phone. A little bigger to squeeze 720p in there is nice, too.

I can't wait to see what the Prime/Nexus will be like since I'm on Verizon.

planoman says:

Atlanta based Carrier? Who? What is that big building in downtown Dallas?

Johnston212 says:

They are referring to the fact that AT&T is corporately based in Atlanta, Georgia.

planoman says:

I know what he means but they are not. They are based in Dallas, TX. That is why Texas has 3 of the 5 LTE market right now. DFW, Houston, San Antonio.

cajunrph says:

Plano is right. AT&T came about when South Western Bell bought Bell south. SWB was based in San Antonio Bell south in Atlanta. They in turn bought AT&T and changed the name to AT&T because it was a more valuable name than SWB or Bell South. Then they set up in Dallas as the Corp office.
From Wikipedia
Headquarters Whitacre Tower, Downtown,
Dallas, Texas, United States

deaofly says:

So this is th best Android phone, and yet u can't use it for its main use..... A Phone. Maybe its Sprints version of the phone but the epic touch is garbage with its super poor signal. I don't understand how the hell people say this the best phone when it drops calls more then the iPhone 4. Yea I said it. Im always reading about its poor signal that it has made me decide Not to get this phone when my upgrade comes in a few weeks. Man another galaxy series with issues that Samsung will never fix.

j510 says:

it's not the phone, its the service provider. samsung cant fix sprints network, thats sprints job.

zooguitar says:

and it's excuses like that are why Samsung has the crappy reputation it does. They made the partnership with Sprint, they can make demands instead of just counting won.

Samsung, crappy reputation?

???

Samsung is the #1 cellphone manufacturer. I'm going to have to guess they don't sell heaps of phones due to their "crappy reputation" and "just counting won".

easyrun99 says:

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Apple is smart to protect its "cash cow" iTunes, but the question is will they become like RIM with BES? I think they are smart enough to avoid that pitfall, but only time will tell.

Cell phones are now simply commodities through which manufacturers and carriers make money. Much like PC's. Apple is far above the curve when it comes to capitalizing off their commodities. At this point, that is where Android-based products lags.

The next few years will lead to rapid innovation and we, the consumer, usually benefit with some great products.

Johnston212 says:

I like the depth that this review goes in to, but I'm honestly not seeing any reason for me to drop my Atrix and jump to the SGSII. Nothing stands out as incredibly remarkable.

Just wanted to put my two cents in.

planoman says:

Agree with you about the Atrix. If you have a upgrade, the SGSII is probably worth it. With 2.3.4, the Atrix is rock solid! To buy off contract, I would say no. I am still carrying my Atrix around in case I need to swap my sim card out due to battery. The Atrix battery without a doubt last longer than the SGSII.

Johnston212 says:

Oh, I think I still have access to an upgrade. I was able to get AT&T to replace my Captivate with an Atrix, but I still wouldn't upgrade to an SGSII. It doesn't have anything that is exceptionally worth buying to me.

In comparison to the Atrix - the SGSII is a superior phone in every fashion except screen resolution. However, if you already upgraded to an Atrix there isn't any immediate reason to jump ship. I haven't hit a single game in the market that took advantage of the CPU/GPU in the Captivate... let alone the Atrix or SGSII.

cajunrph says:

This is the first time I've heard about a signal problem with the Samy. I have a Sprint Epic 4G also and I have no problem with signal. It's not my primary phone but where I have problems it is due to a weak signal more than being due to the phone.

organix says:

Please tell me when he writes:

"2GB of program memory (to which you install apps), and 11GB or so of other internal storage for pictures, video, music and the like."

this doesn't mean I am actually limited to 2GB for programs... I am still haunted by "low memory" errors on my Evo and want a phone with complete freedom to use the memory as I please.

So can someone please confirm if I will or will not be limited to 2GB on this phone?

JustinKoenig says:

Just for kicks, before ordering the new iphone4s I wanted to try this phone out.(3 days) My main complaint was the battery usage. With a full charge I only got about 5 hours with my normal iphone usage. Sure, the screen is nice to look at, but to big in my hand. At the end of the day, I want to be able to use my phone, not worry about battery life.