The Samsung Galaxy S II is one of the most popular lines of Google Android phones. Released internationally in May 2011, the phone wowed tech enthusiasts with its gorgeous screen, powerful processor, and unique twist on the Android UI. Unfortunately for Americans, the phone wasn’t available on major carriers until Fall 2011.
I’ve been using the T-Mobile variant of the GSII for the last month. It differs from the stock model in that it has a slightly larger screen (4.5-inches vs. 4.3-inches), a faster Internet radio (HSPA+ 42), and a slightly less capable processor (Qualcomm APQ8060 vs. Samsung Exynos). Overall, I was extremely pleased with the phone’s performance, but there are a few areas where it loses out to the competition. Here are some assorted thoughts on my month with the Samsung Galaxy S II on T-Mobile.
Screen: The Galaxy S II’s Super AMOLED Plus screen is easily it’s most eye-catching feature. The 4.5-inch screen, with a 800 x 480 resolution, is big and beautiful. The black levels and viewing angles are some of the best out there. The colors are extremely vibrant and really pop. Most general consumers will love the screen, but tech enthusiasts that crave cutting-edge displays and those with a discerning eye might have some issues with it.
On the downside, the vibrant colors are over-pronounced compared to those produced by LCD screens. It’s not as bad as the previous Super AMOLED tech, but the screen has a tendency to make everything brighter than it ought to be. If you took a photo of an overcast day in London, the IPS LCD screen of the iPhone 4S would make it look appropriately dreary, while the Galaxy S II would make it seem like Kauai (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point). The phone’s whites have a grayish tint to them compared to LCD, no matter the brightness level. This is noticeable when viewing web sites with white backgrounds (you know, most of them). Both the overly bright colors and grayish whites will only bother those with a discerning eye or have spent a lot of time color correcting photos/video. Some consumers won’t notice, while others will be happy to trade off these characteristics for the deep blacks and power saving inherent with Super AMOLED Plus.
The 800 x 480 resolution was cutting edge when the phone was released globally in May. Unfortunately, the T-Mobile variant was released in October 2011. As of this writing, there are a handful of phones with 1,280 x 720 resolutions and several more 720p phones slated for release in the near future. The Galaxy S II’s screen is still great, but it pales in comparison to the 720p screens found on the HTC Droid Rezound and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. I’ve been using a Galaxy Nexus for the last two days and it’s hard going back to the GSII’s screen. Text, pictures, and video look better on a high-res 720p screen.
Form Factor: The trade-off to having a 4.5-inch screen is usability. I wrote a little bit about this in October. Playing games, watching videos, and looking at pictures is absolutely brilliant on a screen this big. One-handed operation, on the other, can be a chore for those with average-sized or small hands. My hands are average sized; I’m able to to comfortably use an LG G2x (4.0-inches) and HTC Evo 4G (4.3-inches) with one hand. The GSII’s screen is simply too big for me. There are times when my left thumb struggled to reach the upper-right corner of the screen. Sometimes I simply had to use it with two hands. Naturally, your comfort with this phone totally depends on your hand size.
The phone’s size is comfortable for making calls and its weight is super light. The weight was mostly a non-issue for me. I gladly would have taken an extra ounce for higher quality build materials, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s roll to the next section!
Build Quality: The build quality of the phone is typical Samsung, which is to say that it’s an all-plastic affair that features very good construction. On the plus side, going with all plastic makes the phone light and durable. However, it just feels cheap compared to phones like the iPhone 4S (mostly glass) or several HTC phones (lots of metal). The plastic frame feels budget and the battery cover feels downright flimsy. In most respects, the Galaxy S II is a high-quality product. One of its few mediocre features is its build materials.
Performance: In order to take advantage of T-Mobile’s fast HSPA+ 42 network, Samsung had to switch from its own 1.2 GHz Exynos processor to a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm APQ8060. For the most part, I don’t think people will notice the difference in performance. As far as day-to-day tasks go, performance is about the same. This reflects the comparable power between the two CPUs. GPU performance is another matter. When it comes to gaming, the Qualcomm chip is very good, but the Exynos is outstanding. Most users will be satisfied with the zippy performance this phone offers, unless they’re a hardcore mobile gamer.
Battery Life: Despite the big screen and fast performance, the GSII offers stellar battery life. I was actually kind of shocked by how good it was. I averaged 16.5 hours of use on a single charge of the 1,850 mAh battery. My typical daily use includes pulling from four Gmail accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, as well as heavy web browsing, some Foursquare check-ins, a few dozen messages, and a few minutes of phones calls. This was easily the best Android phone I’ve used when it comes to battery life. While the GSII was mostly inline with my expectations, its battery life was one of the few areas that surprised me.
User Interface: UI is a highly subjective area. Some people like Android skins and some don’t. In general, there’s only one Android skin I’ve liked: HTC Sense. The first three versions of Samsung TouchWiz have advanced from crap (1.0) to dreck (2.0) to meh (3.0). Given its spotty history, I was shocked by how good TouchWiz 4.0 was. It actually enhances Android 2.3 and adds a lot of clever functionality without drastically altering the feel of Android. I still like HTC Sense a little bit better, but TouchWiz 4.0 is the first Samsung skin that’s a great choice. Keep in mind that Android 4.0 is out and is drastically different from Android versions 2.0 through 2.3. It will be interesting to see how Samsung melds TouchWiz and Android 4.0. Imposing TouchWiz on Android 4.0 could be problematic and/or take a long time (especially with carrier involvement).
Call Quality: Voice calls on the GSII were very, very good. The people I spoke with all said I sounded very clear, while they sounded great on my earpiece (though a bit more volume would have been nice). This was the best voice phone (an odd concept, I know) I’ve used in 2011. Prior to this phone, the Motorola Droid X was my favorite as far as voice goes. The GSII’s call quality was only slightly behind it. I’m going to chalk that up to Verizon’s CDMA network proving better call clarity than T-Mobile’s GSM network, which has been my experience in general. I know that most of you RPad.tv regulars use more data than voice, but if you’re concerned about call quality then you’ll be happy with the GSII.
Internet Speeds: T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 42 speeds are very good. Click here to see how it compared to T-Mo’s HSPA+ 21 phones. Unlike LTE phones, HSPA+ 42 doesn’t have a huge impact on battery life. Download speeds are fantastic, though upload speeds and latency (ping) are mediocre or bad. For users looking for an optimum blend of Internet speeds and battery life, the T-Mobile GSII is worth a look. If pure speed is your priority then you’re better off with an LTE phone from AT&T or Verizon.
Closing Thoughts: T-Mobile’s Samsung Galaxy S II is a fantastic phone — easily one of the best Google Android handsets released in 2011. It offers a great blend of a beautiful display, fast performance, and great Internet speeds. There are some trade-offs when it comes to one-handed usability and color accuracy, and the build quality isn’t the best. However, some of those factors come down to personal preference and the phone’s strong points clearly outweigh its deficiencies.
Having said that, the GSII was released a tad too late thanks to American carriers and their propensity for customization. Remember, the original model was released in May 2011. If the American carriers released the GSII in Summer 2011, it would have ruled the roost. In Q4 2011, the market is much more competitive. The Galaxy S II is still a marvelous phone, but it’s tough not to consider newer models like the Droid RAZR, Droid Rezound, and Galaxy Nexus.