Pick a screen size, a set of specs and a price point, and chances are Samsung has an Android smartphone that fits the bill. As the leading Android manufacturer, Samsung has a ridiculous number of phones on the market, and that’s particularly true around the mid-range price point. The latest of these is the Galaxy S Advance, which recently launched on Three UK. Best described as a shrunk-down Galaxy S II, the Advance incorporates many of the features of that phone at a more wallet-friendly price.
We often concentrate on the latest and greatest high-end smartphones here at AC, but there’s certainly a place for lean, mean smartphones with a fine balance between cost and performance. To that end we’ve spent the past couple of weeks getting to know the Galaxy S Advance, and you’ll find our thoughts in full after the break.
A powerful smartphone with good build quality, full-featured software and a surprisingly good camera. TouchWiz 4 holds up pretty well in the current Android ecosystem.
A little bloatware from Three. Running Gingerbread out of the box with no clue as to when ICS will arrive.
For those not interested in the super-high end of the smartphone spectrum, the Samsung Galaxy S Advance could represent a near-perfect balance. To the average user, there’s really not much to separate this thing from its big brother, the Galaxy S II. And that makes it a mid-range phone that’s definitely worth considering.
Inside this review
The Galaxy S Advance fits into Samsung’s smartphone lineup behind the venerable Galaxy S II, a phone with which it shares more than a few design cues. The rounded square design, reflective trim and large, square home button make the Advance an obvious member of the Samsung Galaxy family. But it’s more than just a miniature S II -- there’s clearly some Galaxy Nexus DNA in there too, as the Galaxy S Advance features a contoured glass screen, and if you look closely you’ll see the entire device is slightly curved.
The Galaxy S Advance’s build quality is of the same high standard as the S II and the Galaxy Note -- it’s constructed mostly of plastic, but the quality of materials used means it doesn’t feel at all cheap and flimsy. And the slightly riveted back cover helps it with grip, while providing textural contrast with the glossy front. Again, this is a familiar story when it comes to Samsung devices -- this is a manufacturer that knows how to make plastic smartphones.
At 4 inches diagonally, the Galaxy S Advance is a little smaller than many high-end smartphones, but Samsung hasn’t skimped on the display. The Advance packs a SuperAMOLED panel at WVGA (800x480) resolution. That’s the same resolution as the Galaxy S II, but with a different subpixel layout -- the S II has a superior SuperAMOLED Plus screen, which has a RGB subpixel layout compared to the Advance’s PenTile matrix. That means you get some slight jagginess around the edge of some on-screen elements, but it’s not terribly noticeable thanks to the smaller screen size.
Below the screen is the standard Samsung three-button setup -- capacitive back and menu keys, along with a big physical home button. And the other buttons can be found in the usual places for a Samsung phone -- power’s on the right side, while the volume rocker resides on the left. In terms of ports, you’ve got a 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB connector on the bottom edge of the device. Snap off the back cover and you’ll find a full-sized SIM card slot and microSD card port. No card is bundled with the phone, but there’s 8GB of flash storage on the phone itself, which is fairly generous for the kind of device we’re dealing with here. That's split into 2GB for apps and 4GB for USB storage, with the rest reserved for the OS. There’s also a 1500mAh battery, which is fully removeable.
Internally, the Advance is powered by a 1GHz dual-core Samsung Janus CPU, which seems to be a lower-powered Exynos variant, and that’s backed up by a fairly substantial 768MB of RAM. Camera-wise, the Advance rocks a 5MP rear shooter, along with a basic 1.3MP front-facer. On the network side, it supports 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wifi networks, as well as HSPA (not HSPA+) networks.
So as you can see from the spec list, the Advance offers hardware that’s almost up to Galaxy S II levels in many areas. Though we’ve already entered the era of quad-core smartphones, this kind of device is still nothing to sniff at. Despite being slower on paper, we found that there was little to set the Advance apart from the Galaxy S II in terms of real-world responsiveness. That said, the S II’s HSPA+ support, 8MP camera and SuperAMOLED Plus screen are both tangible advantages for Samsung’s 2011 flagship.
The Galaxy S Advance runs Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread, which is prettied up thanks to Samsung’s TouchWiz 4 UI. If you’ve played around with a Galaxy S II, you’ll be right at home here -- the software on the Advance is darn near identical. The only omission major we noticed was the S II’s excellent video editor, can perhaps be blamed on the different CPU used in the Advance.
As we mentioned earlier, there’s little to set the Galaxy S II apart from the Advance in terms of performance. Though it lacks animated rotation effects found on high-end Samsung phones, the rest of TouchWiz’s visual finery has survived intact. Considering the phone’s hardware, though, we were disappointed not to find Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy S Advance. It’s certainly capable of running ICS, but Samsung has yet to confirm any update plans, and it’s probably safe to assume that a phone like this won’t be at the top of the list for any future OS upgrades.
That said, you could do a lot worse than TouchWiz on Gingerbread, even if the latter is now more than 18 months old. The familiar list of TouchWiz gripes remains, though. Icons are haphazardly arranged in the app drawer, and the mix of primary colors, different fonts and visual styles gives the impression of a UI that’s thrown together rather than designed as a whole.
It’s difficult to fault the functionality offered by TouchWiz 4, however, as we’ve already discussed in our reviews of the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note. In addition to the usual Google apps, Samsung builds upon Android with DLNA capabilities, file management options, memo and task management, and more. There’s pretty full-featured photo-editing app too, which offers image manipulation features such as contrast and brightness tweaking, cut-outs and rotation, along with fancier effects like radial and lens blur.
And Three has pre-loaded a few apps of its own on the Galaxy S Advance, including a Music and Games hub and the official Amazon app. Unfortunately there are a few bundled apps that creep further into bloatware territory. Shortcuts for “premier scores” and “Orbital” appear to be full versions of the game, when in fact they’re little more than shortcuts to buy the full version of the app. That effectively makes them ads (and ads that you can’t remove, at that) on an expensive piece of hardware. And since we’re running Gingerbread and not ICS, there’s no easy way to disable or uninstall them, since they’re inexplicably classed as system apps
Crapware aside, however, you’ll find little to complain about when it comes to software on the Galaxy S Advance. We would’ve liked to see ICS out of the box, but Samsung is hardly alone in dragging its feet when it comes to delivering the latest version of Android to consumers.
With a 1500mAh battery in the back, the Galaxy S Advance has no trouble lasting through a full day of moderate-to-heavy usage. While earlier AMOLED panels were battery-guzzlers, the SuperAMOLED screen on the Advance wasn’t too rough on the device’s lifespan, even with extended spells outside at higher brightness levels.
Like any other Android smartphone, if you’re spending your time recording HD video or streaming video, you’re going to chew through the battery in no time at all. But aside from these stereotypically punishing tasks, we didn’t notice any serious battery drain issues on the Galaxy S Advance, and we were particularly impressed with the tiny amount of charge used by the phone when idling overnight.
As smartphone hardware becomes more and more ridiculous at the high-end, it can be tempting to turn your nose up at a 5-megapixel camera. However, despite its smaller sensor, the Galaxy S Advance actually performs pretty well in reasonably-lit conditions, and delivers impressive-looking macro shots, too. We were impressed, too, with the complete absence of noise or image distortion in well-lit scenes, though image quality was predictably diminished in darker conditions. That said, low-light shots looked better on the Advance than many competing non-BSI smartphone cameras, including the Galaxy Nexus.
The main thing we missed going from higher-end phones like the HTC One series was the lack of instant capture capabilities -- there was a delay of a second or more when focusing in most cases. However, this extra time taken focusing results in good-looking images, which in our eyes is a fair trade-off. A suite of basic camera effects is included too, along with the usual exposure, timing and white balance options.
On the video side, we were also pretty impressed with the footage produced by the Galaxy S Advance. The device shoots video at up to 1280x720 resolution, at 29 frames per second. This frame rate stays constant even in poorer lighting conditions, though unsurprisingly we noticed some loss of image clarity.
Galaxy S Advance on Three UK
The Galaxy S Advance supports regular HSPA data, rather than the faster variety of HSPA+ that Three’s deployed throughout most of its network. That means download and upload speeds are somewhat limited compared to high-end smartphones. Despite this, we still got respectable speeds of around 4Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up on the device. (Though on the HTC One S, an HSPA+ phone, we clocked speeds of 15Mbps down and 5Mbps up from Three in the same location.)
And in case you were wondering, the Galaxy S Advance makes for a perfectly serviceable telephone, too. Calls were consistently loud and clear, and reception was comparable to other smartphones.
Being a Samsung phone, the Galaxy S Advance is relatively developer-friendly. ODIN mode allows you to flash custom ROMs packaged up in Samsung’s approved format, and it’s possible to root the device relatively easily. However given the wealth of other mid-range Samsung phones, as well as the Advance’s unusual CPU, we’d be surprised to see much interest from developers. So your hacking exploits may be limited to running rooted apps, as opposed to flashing whole new ROMs.
At its current price point of £269.99 off-contract, the Galaxy S Advance represents a fine balance between price and functionality. With many such devices, there’s often some deal-breaking lack of functionality that sets it apart from higher-end products, and thankfully that’s not the case with the Advance.
Instead of crippling the phone in some way or another, it seems like Samsung’s taken the Galaxy S II and merely dialed back certain specifications across the board. And the result of this selective pruning of hardware is a device that, while lacking in the wow-factor of high-end Android phones, performs impressively enough in just about every area. The biggest omission is Android 4.0 -- Gingerbread is rapidly aging, and a mid-range handset like the Galaxy S Advance isn’t going to be a high-priority target for software updates.
Nevertheless, for those not interested in the super-high end of the smartphone spectrum, the Samsung Galaxy S Advance could represent a near-perfect balance. For the average user, there’s really not much to separate this thing from its big brother, the Galaxy S II. And that makes it a mid-range phone that’s definitely worth considering.