Wow. Even if you've used a dual-core smartphone before, it's difficult not to be blown away by the sheer speed of the Samsung Galaxy S II. Whatever we threw at it during our couple of weeks of testing, it just kept on going, stubbornly refusing to show even the slightest sign of slowdown. The combination of Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread and Samsung's dual-core Exynos processor makes the Galaxy S II one of the fastest Android phones we've tested. And the thin and light chassis means you don't have to sacrifice portability to get this level of performance. Couple that with a large SuperAMOLED+ display, and you've got yourself a seriously advanced smartphone.
We tested the Vodafone UK-branded version of the Galaxy S II, which the network is offering for free on contracts of £30 or more per month. Join us after the break to find out what impressed us so much about Samsung's latest and greatest, and also where there's some room for improvement in this flagship product.
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Physically, the Samsung Galaxy S II is a sleek, understated black slab. Like all Samsung smartphones, it's constructed of plastic, though thankfully it doesn't feel quite as plasticky (and, dare we say, cheap) as the original Galaxy S, or even the Nexus S. This is partly due to the textured back panel, which also makes the phone nice and easy to hold. The design reminds us of a cross between the Xperia Arc and iPhone 4, although the build quality definitely felt superior to the former, and unlike the latter, you needn't fear shattering anything if you drop it onto a hardwood floor (yes, we tried; no, it wasn't intentional).
It's also incredibly thin and light, almost unnaturally so for a device with a 4.3-inch display. It's 8.49mm thick, and weighs in at 116 grams. That's 2 grams lighter than the original HTC Wildfire, a phone with a 3.2-inch screen. So we're impressed, and rightly so -- Samsung has packed a heck of a lot of smartphone into an extremely portable package.
Being a Samsung phone, you get the latest in AMOLED display technology on the Galaxy S II. The phone's 4.3-inch screen is a SuperAMOLED+ panel running at 480x800 (WVGA) resolution, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. Colors are bright and vivid, viewing angles are excellent, as you'd expect, and daylight visibility is pretty good too. In very bright sunlight, a modern Super LCD display will serve you better, but AMOLED has still come a long way since we first saw it in phones like the Nexus One.
Under the screen there are two capacitive buttons -- back and menu -- alongside a larger, central home button of the old-fashioned, clicky variety. Honestly, we would've preferred either all capacitive or all physical buttons, but this is a minor complaint.
Hidden away in the top left corner of the phone is its 2-megapixel front-facing camera, which also records video at 640x480 resolution. The rear camera is a more substantial 8-megapixel sensor with LED flash which is almost flush with the back panel. Other buttons and ports can be found in the usual places -- the volume rocker and power button live on the left and right sides respectively, the headphone jack can be found up top, while the micro-USB port lies at the bottom of the device. The Galaxy S II can be connected to a HDTV using a MHD (micro-USB to HDMI) connector, but unfortunately the phone doesn't ship with one.
Moving onto the internals, the Galaxy S II boasts Samsung's new dual-core Exynos chip, which runs at 1.2GHz, and as we said in our flattering introduction, this thing is fast. The Galaxy S II is probably the first dual-core phone that actually feels an order of magnitude faster than earlier, single-core devices. We'll go into detail about precisely how fast in the "software" section, but suffice it to say we encountered no lag or slowdown at all during two weeks of using the Galaxy S II as our main smartphone. None whatsoever. Everything we did on the phone was buttery-smooth. We couldn't slow it down, and trust us, we tried.
The Galaxy S II's stupidly fast CPU is backed up by a generous 1GB of RAM, of which around 833MB is available for apps to use. In terms of physical storage, you've got 16GB built-in, which is split into 2GB for apps and 11.5GB for USB storage, with some reserved for the OS. On top of that there's a microSD card port, which allows you to add up to 32GB more. So it's fair to say you probably won't be short of space on the Galaxy S II.
The Galaxy S II includes version 4.0 of Samsung's TouchWiz UI, which runs on top of Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread. With Froyo now approaching its first birthday, we're glad manufacturers like Samsung are opting to ship their flagship devices with the latest version of Android for phones. Y'hear that, Motorola?
TouchWiz is still something of a bright, multi-colored hotch-potch, and this is accentuated by the vividness of the Galaxy S II's SuperAMOLED+ display. Icons and widgets alike are big, bold and bright, in contrast to the muted tones of vanilla Android. If primary colors aren't your thing, then the right combination of widgets and wallpaper will give your homescreens a less busy appearance. The included "Microbes" and "Nexus" live wallpapers from the Nexus S do a good job of calming things down a little.
Performance-wise, the whole UI glides along effortlessly. Even with the aforementioned Nexus S live wallpapers doing their thing in the background, and with seven home screens packed with widgets, there was no slowdown at all. And you get this level of silky-smooth performance across the whole user experience, making the phone a great showcase for Samsung's new Exynos chip.
We do have a couple of gripes to report with the Galaxy S II's launcher though, and this starts with the app drawer. Apps can be freely arranged on pages, however there's no way to auto-arrange based on install date or app name. The Galaxy S II comes pre-loaded with a fair few apps, and once you've added some of your own, you may struggle to find them in a grid that's not arranged in any particular order.
Next up, we noticed a strange delay when using the home button on our review unit. Many users have been reporting similar issues on their Galaxy S II's, so it doesn't seem to be an isolated problem. We suspect it's more likely to be a software bug than a hardware issue, but it still unnecessarily degrades the user experience on what is otherwise an extremely responsive phone.
Many areas of the Galaxy S II's social and multimedia functionality are based around "hub" apps. There's a Music Hub, a Readers Hub and a Games Hub, where all three can be purchased via separate online stores. The Social Hub brings together text messaging, email and IM messages into one single app, however we found social networking integration was a little basic compared to what's offered in HTC Sense 3.0.
Samsung has also provided photo and video-editing apps on the Galaxy S II, allowing users to touch up content without hooking the phone up to a PC and messing around with programs like Photoshop and Adobe Premiere. Of course, they're not intended to replace your desktop image and video manipulation apps, but regardless, the ability to crop images and videos and apply various effects right there on the phone remains a great addition.
Another notable app is Kies Air, which works just like the Kies desktop app, but over a wireless network through your browser. This is a great new feature which we'd like to see other manufacturers
steal take note of. It eliminates the need to dig out your micro-USB cable if you want to transfer a quick photo to your computer. You can use it to manage bookmarks and multimedia content too, and even view call logs and text messages.
The Galaxy S II's browser deserves a mention, too. We're not sure what kind of sorcery (or maybe hardware acceleration) Samsung has channelled to get it up to speed, but it renders pages faster than any device we've seen so far. Scrolling and zooming too, were both flawlessly smooth. And Flash video played without any lag, at near-PC speeds. So we can safely say that the Galaxy S II offers the best browsing experience on any Android smartphone. Check out our hands-on video above to see just how fast it is.
Swype is included as standard, which is great, as we're big fans of the trace-based keyboard. Swype isn't everyone's cup of tea, though, so you'll find a standard Samsung keyboard included too.
DLNA streaming functionality is becoming more and more common on Android devices, and this is present on the Galaxy S II in the form of the "AllShare" app, which lets you stream music, video or photo content to any DLNA-compliant device.
The notification dropdown has been tricked out with a quick settings panel, allowing you to control Wifi, Bluetooth and other features without switching apps. If you're listening to music, you'll also notice that music player controls pop up in the notification area too.
The Galaxy S II includes voice command technology based on Vlingo, which we found worked pretty well most of the time, although more complex requests seemed to get a little lost in translation. It's a great concept though, and one we hope will improve with time.
Being a Vodafone-branded device, our review unit came pre-loaded with "Vodafone 360" apps, including Vodafone Music and the 360 Shop for apps and games. We're in favor of giving users more choice in how they get content onto their phones, but one thing we don't like is intrusive carrier-mandated software. Fortunately the 360 apps don't fall into this category. If you don't want to use them, they're easily ignored, and many can even be uninstalled entirely from the Applications menu.
Galaxy S II on Vodafone UK
We're in something of a black spot for Vodafone coverage here, but taking a quick stroll further towards civilization, we found our Vodafone-branded Galaxy S II gave us pretty impressive 3G data speeds. We got up to 5 megabits per second downstream and up to 2.5 megabits per second upstream -- definitely towards the top end of real-world HSPA speeds. This evened out to around 2.5 down and 1.5 up in more crowded urban areas.
As far as call quality goes, it was smooth sailing on the Galaxy S II on Vodafone. Even in areas where data coverage was patchy, call quality was always clear, and we experienced nothing in the way of dropped calls or other cellular weirdness.
The Galaxy S II comes equipped with an ample 1650 mAh battery, and we found that with normal usage patterns we got around a day out of the phone without too many problems. With heavy, heavy use involving lots of 3G data, music playback, video streaming, browsing and photography, we managed to run down the battery in around 13 hours.
The biggest battery hog seems to be the (admittedly very pretty) SuperAMOLED+ display. When used outdoors, with automatic brightness enabled, these panels demand more juice than their Super LCD counterparts. As ever, the trade-off for having a great-looking AMOLED-based screen is slightly reduced battery life.
That's not to say the phone's battery life is poor -- under normal circumstances you won't need to worry about it dying on you before the end of the working day. On the whole, we consider Galaxy S II's battery performance to be typical for an Android smartphone, though we have been spoiled of late by more efficient devices like the Desire S and Sensation from HTC.
The Galaxy S II's rear camera takes stills at up to 8 megapixels and video at up to 1080p resolution, with 30 frames per second. Generally, we found that the phone produced excellent still photos and videos, and coped particularly well with transitioning between bright and dark areas compared to most other smartphone cameras.
The Samsung camera app offers a host of options for fiddling with the usual things like ISO settings, white balance and metering, along with more unique features like blink detection and a macro focus mode.
Video camera performance in daylight was excellent, resulting in high-quality, smooth footage at 1920x1080 resolution with 30 frames per second. In lower light, the frame rate dropped down to around 24 fps when recording at 1080p, though switching down to 720p, it remained stable at 30 fps. We found that the Galaxy S II's low light recordings weren't quite as smooth as the footage taken with Xperia Arc's Exmor R sensor. However, the Galaxy's camera retained more fine detail, whereas the Arc produced video that had a softer, filtered look.
As well as the main 8-megapixel sensor, there's also a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, which takes surprisingly good pictures, as you'll see in the final sample video below. If you're using it for video calling, you'll get great looking VGA video footage from the front-facing camera on the Galaxy S II.
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The Galaxy S II ships with an open bootloader, and has already spawned an active development and hacking community. Samsung has given a very public thumbs-up to the Android development community, even sending out a complimentary Galaxy S II to a leading CyanogenMod developer. It's always great to see manufacturers actively opening up their devices, as opposed to locking them down with ever more complex security measures.
So if you buy a Galaxy S II, you can do so knowing you'll have the option of running custom ROMs in the future, if you fancy a change from TouchWiz. Of course, doing so will probably void your warranty, meaning you could be on your own if anything goes wrong.
The Samsung Galaxy S II is a supremely impressive device, and almost certainly the fastest Android smartphone money can buy right now. With prices hovering between £400 and £500 in the UK, it isn't cheap, but Samsung justifies the cost by delivering a phone that excels in just about every area. Aside from the ridiculously high performance, you get an outstanding camera, a bright, vivid display, tons of storage space and an easy rooting path. And you get all this in a device that's still slim enough to be easily pocketable.
If you're a power user and have the cash to blow on an Android smartphone of this caliber, we can't really think of many reasons not to recommend the Galaxy S II. TouchWiz might be one, if you're among the crowd that just plain doesn't like Samsung's custom UI. The plastic chassis won't be to everyone's taste, but that's the price you pay for having such a light 4.3-inch device. Battery life may be a concern for some, but in exchange you get what's probably the best-looking display on any smartphone. There are always compromises to be made, even on a phone as good as this. But in our opinion, the choices Samsung has made with its new flagship phone are almost universally the right ones.
The Vodafone-branded Samsung Galaxy S II we tested is available for free from Vodafone UK on 24-month contracts of £30 or more per month.