It was a long wait between the release of the international version of the Samsung Galaxy S II and a version for AT&T, but the U.S. carrier has now ended up with two of them. One version is pretty faithful to the original (check out our review here), and the second version, the Samsung Skyrocket, is what were looking at today. There's a good bit of difference, both the obvious (a larger 4.5-inch screen and an LTE modem) and the not so visible (different chipsets), but the user experience is the same for the most part. Hit the break where we dive in and have a look at what the Skyrocket has to offer, besides having one of the best device names since the OG Droid.
The beautiful screen looks even better at 4.5-inches. Handoff times from LTE to a GSM/HSPA network are quick. HSPA+ fallback when not in an LTE area offers a better experience to the user. Overall the phone is very smooth, like we're used to from the GSII line.
LTE is hard on battery life. A 4.5-inch screen may be too big for some. AT&T's LTE network is in its infancy and still full of holes. The different internals may mean longer wait times for updates from Samsung and AT&T. NFC is once again notoriously absent from the software.
The Skyrocket stays faithful to the Galaxy S II line, offering the same (or better) performance and an identical user experience. AT&T still needs to work on its LTE network, but with a fast handoff and fast HSPA network speeds to fall back on, the casual user will be pleased with its speed on the Internet. The big, beautiful screen and LTE radio are hard on the battery (especially when compared to using it in a non-LTE enabled area) but that can be solved by carrying a spare battery or plugging it in when possible.
A refresher -- a look at our hands-on when the Skyrocket first arrived and an overview of the phone.
The Skyrocket starts by showing you how big it is. It's something we're getting used to, as the trend in Android is towards bigger and brighter displays. But if you're coming from something smaller, it's a change for sure. That's not a bad thing, and even naysayers like yours truly are getting more used to giant smartphones -- and liking the real estate they offer. The phone is thin, exceptionally thin considering what we're used to seeing an LTE phone look like, which makes it more manageable in the hand. Once you get past your thumb not being able to easily reach everything on the screen, you'll adjust and I think you'll like the 4.5-inches of Super AMOLED Plus the Skyrocket offers.
The controls and various ports are laid out exactly the same as the other Galaxy S II devices. On the right side of the phone you have the power switch, and on the left you have the volume controls. Both are placed slightly lower (compared to the original Galaxy S II) for easier operation in one hand, and they seemed to be exactly where my fingers expected them to be. Up top, you have a 3.5mm headphone jack and a secondary noise-canceling microphone, and on the bottom you have the microUSB port and the main mic.
The front of the phone has the four capacitive buttons we're used to (and soon will be a thing of the past) silk-screened on the bottom, and at the top you have the earpiece, the front facing camera and the usual array of sensors. Like the T-Mobile Galaxy S II (which the Skyrocket very much resembles), you have a thin bezel and very little wasted space on the front of the phone. It looks, and feels, great.
The rear of the phone holds the excellent 8MP camera and LED flash, and has a smooth glossy battery door that gets a bit slippery. Cut out near the bottom is the external speaker, which is loud and very clear. Pop the battery cover off and you'll see a battery (surprise!), a slot for the SIM card, and one for a microSD card. You can get to both without removing the battery, but resist the temptation to remove or insert the SIM card while the phone is powered on. The battery is branded with NFC capabilities, which once again is absent from the software itself. A deeper look at the running processes shows NFC is up and active, but with no front end we're not sure how usable it will be. Hackers will get it working, and hopefully Ice Cream Sandwich's Beam feature will work when the Skyrocket sees an update.
Operation and usage
The Skyrocket performed flawlessly (except for some network errors in Washington, D.C. -- see the LTE section below). Calls were clear, crisp, and plenty loud on both ends -- normally, via speakerphone and Bluetooth. GPS initially locked in seconds, and got very accurate (5-10 feet) after 15-20 seconds of use, and navigation had no issues. Wifi signal was strong, and there were no unexpected glitches of any sort. I have to say every aspect of the phones operation was better than expected, and there were no weak areas as far as the use of phone features and function. Nicely done Samsung and AT&T.
More detail below
- 4.5-inch Super AMOLED Plus Display (800 x 480)
- Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread)
- 1.5GHz Qualcomm dual-core processor
- 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash
- 2-megapixel front-facing camera
- 1080p HD video recording
- 16GB of onboard memory
- 1GB RAM
- MicroSD expandable up to 32GB
- AT&T 3G/HSPA/LTE radios
- 129.8 x 68.8 x 9.5 mm
- Weight 130.5 g
Like the vast majority of the country, I don't have AT&T LTE where I live, work, or play. Luckily, I'm only about 40 miles from a place that does -- Washington, D.C. -- so we
loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly took a day trip to play with the LTE network. First impressions were very good. I went into it knowing that the network was new, and also knowing how Verizon's LTE network operates, so i knew what to expect from a freshly rolled-out cell data network. It was basically what I had expected. LTE coverage doesn't mesh well with the coverage maps (I couldn't get an LTE signal at Dulles Airport at all), and it's a bit spotty. Driving around town you'll see your phone move in and out of LTE coverage, and finding a spot to sit and play turned out to be difficult. My old haunts around Foggy Bottom and Georgetown didn't have the coverage, and places where I saw a good strong signal (surprise -- the LTE signal around the White house is excellent) just weren't as close together as i would have liked. Anyone familiar with DC knows what a mess the metro area is, and regulation on radio signals and towers can't be very helpful. We did see some decent signal in many places, but not the blazing speeds others have reported. Nowhere did I see speeds over 20 Mbps download, but what I did see made me very happy.
HSPA "4G" speeds
The average LTE data speeds in Washington, D.C., were around 15 Mbps on LTE. The whole city is blanketed with HSPA+ signal, which AT&T confusingly also calls 4G, and these speeds averaged around 6 M/sec. I have a nice rant all ready to publish here on the blog about how AT&T is trying to trick and fool customers by not differentiating between LTE and HSPA+ 4G, but I'll need to revisit and re-write it. A day spent running the gamut of EDGE, 3G, 4G HSPA+, and 4G LTE made me rethink my position. There is a clear difference between EDGE or UMTS 3G networks and the HSPA+ 4G network, just as there is between the HSPA+ network and the LTE network. One thing I really appreciated was the fallback from LTE to HSPA+ -- it's not a drastic shock like moving from LTE to a painfully slow (in modern mindset) 3G signal like you see on the Verizon network. You would certainly see the difference if you were tethering your phone to a computer, but for data consumed on the phone itself, the quick handoff between networks and relatively fast HSPA+ speeds to fall back on made for a very nice user experience. I never once left an LTE area, and had to wait 45 seconds to switch to a 700 K/sec 3G network, and I appreciated it. I'm not sure where other reviewers and users are seeing ultra-fast (Verizon like, if you will) LTE speeds, but to me this is better. Anyone who moves around a lot during the day and drops in and out of LTE coverage on Verizon can relate, I'm sure. We give AT&T a hard time about their network coverage, but they've done well here.
Now that I've praised AT&T, it's time to knock them down a bit. I saw a good many network errors throughout the day, especially in areas with LTE coverage. The SpeedTest app from the Market was absolutely useless, as a test was never able to complete. I also saw errors while browsing the web and while getting my mail. Enough errors, that I decided I had to investigate a bit further. It seems like there are known issues in the Washington, D.C., area with either the Skyrocket, or the LTE network. According to some speculation on the AT&T support forums, there may be an "HLR" issue with the LTE network in Washington and Boston. Hopefully, whatever the problem is gets rectified soon.
Yes, AT&T LTE kills your battery. Not as bad as some other LTE phones (cough, Thunderbolt), but there's a vast difference when you're in an LTE area. At home, tooling around in areas where EDGE and HSPA are the norm, I don't have to charge the Skyrocket every day. Get somewhere with an LTE signal, and that changes. You'll have to be careful else you'll run out of juice before you run out of daylight. buy a spare battery, and a spare charging cable. In the words of our fearless leader, "Just plug it in".
Grab any phone running TouchWiz 4.0 and pick it up. that's the user experience you'll have from the Skyrocket. Samsung has spent a great deal of time and money to ensure that users recognize, and are comfortable with, their version of Android regardless of the device name. It worked -- there are subtle changes (mostly carrier related widgets or options), but the UX from one Galaxy S II to another is seamless.
TouchWiz 4 is also a large leap from TouchWiz of the past. It offers a ton of customization for the end user, and now does it with a bit more elegance and class -- gone are the garish blue icons in the status bar and in-your-face explosion of overdone colors. Things are more subtle, and in my opinion, cleaner and more pleasant.
When you open the app drawer, you'll see AT&T had their way with the installed apps. this no longer surprises us, and many of the bundled applications are quite useful. We'd rather they all be an optional download from the market, but we're not the ones manufacturing or selling the phones. The list of AT&T bloatware is as follows:
- AT&T Code Scanner -- A barcode scanner (something you would likely install anyway)
- AT&T FamilyMap -- A stub to download the AT&T FamilyMap application, which lets you track the location of other phones on your family plan -- for $10 a month.
- AT&T Navigator -- AT&T's version of Telenav, a turn-by-turn navigation application.
- AT&T Ready2Go -- An app that will set up and provision your phone via the
- Featured Apps -- A spotlight of AT&T's favorite apps from the Market
- Live TV -- A stub to download the AT&T U-verse app from the Market
- MOG Music -- Yet another streaming music service
- myAT&T -- A stub to download the myAT&T application from the Market. Useful for account management
- Visual Voicemail -- Voicemail, visualized
- YP -- A stub to download the Yellowpages.com app from the Market
Some of these apps are useful, some not so much. My biggest gripe is with the stub apps -- rather than place an icon that's essentially a shortcut to download an app (and can't be hidden), just give me the damn app. You've also got the full gamut of Samsung applications built-in to TouchWiz, which offer social networking and other mundane things, as well as neat tricks like motion based device navigation and settings. You see these on every Galaxy S II, and Samsung has done a fine job with them.
The Skyrocket also has the same quality camera (both hardware and software) we're used to from other Galaxy S II phones. It's plenty capable, takes great pictures, and is almost at a place where you can replace a point and shoot camera with it. Here's a few examples from a total amateur behind the lens, others with more skill will probably have excellent results. Each opens full size in a pop-up -- be warned if you're viewing this on mobile.
The Skyrocket is one hell of a phone. For the same price as the standard Galaxy S II, you get a bigger screen, access to the AT&T LTE network, and the same great user experience. At this point, I honestly think the only reason to even consider the "normal" Galaxy S II on AT&T is if you prefer a bit smaller phone. AT&T's LTE network is young, spotty, and has some connectivity issues, but it's full of promise and has a very nice 3G/4G network to fall back on when not in coverage. My experience didn't find the blazing fast Verizon style network speeds, but the overall experience to me was better because I didn't have the shock of going from insanely fast to dreadfully slow from one area to the next. While I wouldn't recommend switching from a carrier that already works well for you, if you're a current AT&T customer the future looks bright, and the Skyrocket is the phone to get.