Galaxy S2 Review

The Galaxy S2 is defined by Samsung and carriers with a two sentences: “ultra-powerful, ultra-thin, ultra brilliant” or “vidid, fast, slim”. It’s true that the Galaxy S2 is the best that Samsung has to offer today and benefits from improvements such as a dual-core application processor (also called system on a chip, or SoC), and large 4.3” Super AMOLED Plus display with a Gorilla glass. Additionally, everything has been integrated in a 8.49mm thin body that is very light (116g). The Samsung Galaxy S2 looks good, but does it live up to the legend in the real-world? Let’s find out.

Context

We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with my smartphone: I typically check my email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and I reply moderately because the virtual keyboard is slow, even on large displays. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks, but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.

Technical Highlights

Android 2.3.3
4.3″ AMOLED Plus display (800×480)
1.2GhzDual-Core application processor (SoC)
16GB of internal storage. Optional (32GB) microSD
8 Megapixel (back) + 2 Megapixel (front) cameras
WiFi A/B/G/N
Size: 125.3X66.1X8.49mm
Weight: 116g
Battery: 1650mAh

What’s new?

Samsung’s new Galaxy S2 line has many improvements, but the few that you should not miss are:

Dual-core system on a chip (SoC): The Galaxy S2 is powered by a dual-core system on a chip (or SoC) with a Samsung Exynos (GT-i9100) running at 1.2Ghz. Although Samsung doesn’t communicate about sub-components, the graphics processor is believed to be a Mali-400MP, which is a capable GPU, but it is not as fast as NVIDIA’s Tegra 2. This new hardware platform should lift the Galaxy S2 to the top of the performance charts, but we will get back to this later on.

HSPA+ (21Mbps): I really consider this to be 3.5G, but some carriers like T-Mobile USA may simply call it “4G”, so keep in mind that while it is better than 3G, it is not as fast as 4G LTE (as deployed by Verizon in the US). That said, HSPA+ phones don’t use nearly as much power as today’s LTE phones when transmitting data, although things are getting slowly better. For more information, read my post about the different 4G networks.

1080p video recording: the Galaxy S2 is the first smartphone that records in 1080p with very good results. It’s surprising because usually I dismiss even 720p recording in real-world usage, because many phones don’t do a good job with it. Strangely, I found 1080p to be the most usable video recording mode… I’ll get back to that later.

Low-light photography: Samsung didn’t make much noise about this, but they should.The Galaxy S2 has much better low-light photography capabilities than the original Galaxy S Series. It maybe a combination of sensor and software, but I like what I’m seeing, even if the S2 probably doesn’t beat the XPERIA Arc in that domain.

NFC: Near Field Communication (NFC) has been included to this phone. At the moment, it’s not really useful, but some users are really excited about this tech, so I thought that I would mention it.

Physical Design

Chassis: we had seen it during Mobile World Congress in February, and I’m glad to see that this phone came out as it was announced. The design is very clean (I prefer the unlocked version without any carrier markings…) and the display is big (4.3”). But the most noticeable thing is how light the handset is. Even with the battery inside, the phone weighs a mere 116g, which is noticeably lighter than the 137g of the smaller 3.5″ iPhone 4.

The USB port is conveniently located at the bottom of the device, which makes the phone easy to use while charging or during a computer sync.

Galaxy S2 Review

The phone can have a "plastic" feel to it, that's true

Of course, the light weight comes from using plastic instead of glass/metal in many places. This may sound bad, but I haven’t noticed any differences in rigidity while I was using it. I’m not sure how it would resist if you were to drop it on a solid surface, but I’m pretty sure that it is less likely to shatter than an iPhone 4. There is simply less glass to break (the iPhone 4 has glass on the front and the back). Of course, the front glass is still a sensitive part, but unlike the iPhone 4, if the phone lands on a corner, the glass is not in direct contact with the landing surface. The lighter weight should help too as there would be less force on impact.

Now, I really love the “feel” of touching glass and aluminum, and in an ideal world, I would surely want such a design in a lightweight and less fragile form. But in reality, that is not possible, at least today. Yes, it’s about making compromises (again). As a user, you will have to choose between a very light phone that may have a “plastic” feel, or a glass/metal phone that is much heavier for its size.

I have also heard from a number of people (especially HTC users) that the light weight makes them feel like the Galaxy S2 is not solid. I wish that we could crash-test the phones, but this sounds to me like a matter of personal preferences more than a matter of sturdiness. When in doubt, get one in your hands before you pull that credit card out of your pocket.

Display

Galaxy S2 Review

The colors contrast and saturation are amazing, but not accurate

The Galaxy S2 comes with a Super AMOLED Plus display which can be found on a number of Samsung on the market, like the Samsung Infuse 4G that we reviewed recently. Typically, AMOLED displays have extremely saturated colors, which always trigger a “wow” when you show them to someone.

However, the colors aren’t accurate and often don’t reflect the original colors that the content was designed with. That said, I have hardly heard anyone complain about over-saturation but it’s a good thing to know if you care about color accuracy. IPS LCD displays, or LCD displays would be better at this.

Indoors, the Super AMOLED Plus screen does very well, and watching movies or viewing photos are a real treat. Contrast and brightness are great. I can’t wait to see the 7.7″ version of the Galaxy Tab with an AMOLED display.

Outdoors, on a sunny day, it’s a different story. The screen can be very difficult to read in direct sunlight, especially if you are using a dark wall paper and lock screen. For optimum readability in direct sunlight, I always recommend using a light (if not white!) background on your home page or applications.

There’s a catch, however: AMOLED displays tend to use more power when displaying bright images, so a good chunk of the Android user interface and application interfaces on Samsung AMOLED devices are usually dark, and there is not always possible to change that.

In terms of sheer display resolution, the Galaxy S2 is still using a 800×480 resolution, which is inferior to today’s qHD 960×540 resolution that many high-end Android phones are using. Obviously, this won’t cripple the user experience, but the display does matter a lot, and it would have been nice to get a resolution upgrade.

Software

Android 2.3.4: this AT&T Galaxy S2 is powered by Android 2.3.4, which is the latest (and probably the ultimate) 2.x version in existence today. If you are really curious, you can go to the official Android developer website to look for all the changes from one version to the next:

Samsung software

As it is the case with virtually all the Android handset makers, there is a level of customization that comes with Samsung products, some for the sake of being different, some that turns out to be really useful. I’ll skip the pure “differentiation” part, but here are a few functionalities that you may be interested in:

Live panels: What Samsung calls “live panels” are really widgets. They are little applications that you can drop on your home screen, and they will show some sort of quick-access information, like email notification, battery life or weather information.

I personally don’t use them much because some tend to consume power to stay updated, but I really like the Task Manager Widget as it lets me know how many applications are currently running. If I feel like there are too many, I can quickly go into the task manager app and shut them all off (except the ones that Samsung deems as “part of the system”).

Galaxy S2 Review

Kies 2.0: To put it simply, Kies is Samsung’s equivalent of iTunes. It lets users synchronize with a PC over WIFI, sync contacts with Outlook, Yahoo and Google, manage songs and playlists, backup photos and files.

For Outlook users, the synchronization of over USB is undoubtedly the biggest value. This is an option that few Android phones have, as Android has been designed to be synchronized over the air.

Kies is also handy if you have a larger number of media files (music, movies) to manage. Kies can also take care of converting videos to make sure that they are compatible, or optimized for the Galaxy S2.

I bumped into connectivity problems with Kies, and the sync does not work. At the moment, I will assume that it is something related to my configuration, but if you have the same issue, leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

Basics

Galaxy S2 Review

Dialing: no problem there, dialing a number directly from the numeric pad, or doing so from one of the contact is easy. If there are a couple of numbers that you call on a regular basis, I recommend create a “direct shortcut” on the home screen. That makes it a one-tap call. You can’t be any faster than that.

Contacts (syncs with Outlook over USB): Contacts can be synchronized from many sources. Google of course, but also Facebook, Exchange and more. Those who use Outlook without using Microsoft Exchange will be happy as Samsung Kies utility can synchronize contacts, calendar, todo lists and memos from Outlook.

Galaxy S2 Review

The internal speaker does a good job, but the Nexus S has better sound quality

Call Audio Quality (Good): The audio quality is good, although I tend to think that the Nexus S is still has the best audio quality. I have had a number of phone conversations with the Galaxy S2, and it’s good enough that it doesn’t get in the way, there’s no complaint on that front.

Galaxy S2 Review

Virtual Keyboard (Android+Swype): A good keyboard is really important because most users are using apps that are text-based, like Email, Chat, Social Networks and more. In the AT&T Galaxy S2 users have the choice between the stock Android keyboard, the Samsung Keypad and Swype. Frankly, the Android and Samsung keyboard are so similar that I don’t really see the point of having a Samsung keyboard.

For standard virtual keyboards, the most important factor (other than size) is response time (the lag between a tap, and the phone’s action). I often find Android phones to be slower than the iPhone 4, but the fastest are still Windows Phone 7 (WP7) devices. It’s fundamentally a software thing because the WP7 aren’t particularly more powerful than their Android and iOS counterpart. The WP7 keyboard is amazingly responsive.

Galaxy S2 Review

Swype is a must-try!

However, Swype is truly different. Instead of “tapping” on virtual keys, you can swipe your finger from one letter to the next to form complete words. Instead of going into a long description, here’s a video that shows how Swype works.

Galaxy S2 Review

Web Browsing: web browsing is very good, although a number of devices actually have better displays, which implies better readability and/or more information visible at once on the web page. That said, The Galaxy S2 will handle web browsing without any problems.

Obviously Flash (10.3) is supported and it will let you access many websites from small business and restaurants. You can also play with select casual games, which opens a new realm of games to your android device. That said, don’t expect any miracles: only games that use light computing power can be played. Also, there is no decent “fullscreen” mode, which is annoying.

Work

Galaxy S2 Review

Email with Exchange (good): the overall email experience is good. Unlike many Samsung phones, the background is actually white, which makes the text much more readable in direct sunlight (phew). As I said in the “display” section, Samsung uses a lot of dark colors because AMOLED displays consume more power with bright images. The Email app does not support actions on multiple items, which is too bad because that makes the Motorola Android phones like the Photon 4G a bit better for email curation.

For those who work in a company that uses virtual private networks (VPN), Samsung supports Cisco AnyConnect. In terms of security, the Samsung Galaxy S2 has on-device encryption which would free up some CPU cycles. This phone also supports WebEx, but I have not tested it. For more information, you can go to their mobile business site.

Galaxy S2 Review

Microsoft Office Documents: The Samsung Galaxy S2 comes with QuickOffice, an app that can open and edit Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. It can also read PDF files too. Quick office can be handy to view and possibly edit documents, but honestly most people don’t edit Office documents on a phone, unless there is no other option. Still, it’s free, so it’s hard to complain.

Galaxy S2 Review

Google Docs requires a network connection

Google Docs: depending on your work habits, Google Docs can be an alternative to Office documents. It works too and Google has put a lot of efforts to make it phone-friendly. There are a few downsides. Google Docs is very weak when it comes to formatting. Also, many companies don’t actually use Google Docs for important documents. Finally, it requires a network connection.

GMail: As usual, GMail is very good and has features like “stars”, multi-items action and labels. It is the same on every Android phone, so there is no surprise here.

Email / Others: popular email services can be setup very quickly. Just enter your email address and the Email app will try to configure itself. If it does not know how to do that, you can always enter the address and port of your email server. It’s usually pretty easy.

Play


Video playback (excellent): The Samsung Galaxy S can play videos without any difficulty. I tried to play the 1080p Gran Turismo 5 trailer that I downloaded directly from the web, and it played without a hitch.

The video quality and the AMOLED contrast are exemplary. Even if the color saturation is a bit over the top, it’s clear that the image quality of the Galaxy S2 is awesome.

Games (very good): The Samsung Galaxy S has certainly enough muscles to play. I tried games like Raging Thunder 2 Lite, and the framerate was very good. It is clearly one of the fastest phones that I have tried to date. I wish that there were better gaming benchmarks because I would like to see how well it does against NVIDIA’s Tegra 2. In theory, the graphics processor (GPU) used in Samsung’s processor should be a bit slower.

NVIDIA was smart enough to secure many exclusive games, which is still the best way to “win”. Recent games like Sprinkles aren’t available on other devices. Maybe that’s why Samsung is using Tegra 2 in a number of upcoming phones. Check TegraZone.com to see the exclusive.

Galaxy S2 Review

The loudspeaker is located at the back

Speaker Quality (good, but not best): when in speaker mode, the sound comes from a tiny speakers in the back of the phone. Surprisingly, the sound is pretty decent and the speaker does its job in a relatively quiet environment. However, I was not blown away by the sound quality. The audio has some echo in it, and at maximum volume it starts getting distorted. The LG Optimus 2X, the iPhone 4 and select Motorola phones do have better speakers.

Photo and Video Capture (excellent)

Galaxy S2 Review

This photo was taken right before sunset

The Samsung Galaxy S is very good at digital imaging in general. In broad daylight, the photos are less noisy than on competing phones, especially the iPhone 4. I don’t say that often for smartphone photos, but daylight photos could be nicely printed on an 4×6. The Galaxy S2 definitely sits at the top of the food chain in terms of mobile photography.

In low-light situations, the Galaxy S2 also does a good job. In our tests, the colors were captured fairly well and it even bests the iPhone 4 which is a reference for low-light mobile photography (I don’t have an XPERIA Arc on hand, but I wish that I did).

The iPhone 4 still has a slight advantage when the light is extremely low, but overall, I have to give it to the Galaxy S2. Samsung is *finally* learning that mobile photography is about the trade-off between absolute quality and low-light abilities. It’s OK to add noise for the sake of seeing something… Hopefully, others will learn too. Low-light is the next frontier.

Galaxy S2 Review

This photo has been taken at night with far away street lamps as a light source

The Galaxy S2 has also a Panorama mode that is effective. Although it is quickly becoming a common feature, the Panorama was first introduced to us on Android by the LG Optimus 2X, and has seen a steady adoption since.

Galaxy S2 Review

A panorama shot with the Samsung Galaxy S2

The video capture on the Samsung Galaxy S is excellent. So far, this is the best HD 1080p (yes “p”) video capture that I have seen on a smartphone. It is actually better than the video recording on my Panasonic GF1 in terms of resolution and framerate (The GF1 still holds the advantage of having a superior lens). Here’s a 720p sample: I’ve uploaded the 1080p version to our Flickr account too.

In short, the Samsung Galaxy S2 is an excellent mobile camera if you take into account its performance in broad daylight, low-light and video recording (in low-light as well).

System Performance (very good)

When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.

On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important thing. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell?

Measured performance 

Galaxy S2 Review

Galaxy S2 Review

BrowserMark, SunSpider: BrowserMark and SunSpider are two tests that measure the speed of Javascript, a key component for interactivity in websites. To be clear, this does not measure “how fast” pages are loading. Instead this look at how fast scripting code can execute. Javascript is used in modern websites for user interface or even complete applications/games.

Although the Galaxy S2 is a fast phone, other leading phones are slightly faster at this particular benchmark. That said, the difference among the leaders is pretty small.

Galaxy S2 Review

GUIMark 2 Flash graph test: This test measures the Adobe Flash performance. Flash is a widely used multimedia platform and you can find it virtually everywhere as advertisement, video or other forms of interactive web page module.

In the Flash benchmark, the Samsung Galaxy S2 stands with the leading group at above 20 frames per second, but the Motorola Atrix still leads by a big margin.

Galaxy S2 Review

The CPU Benchmark also shows a relatively average score for a dual-core SoC. That explain why the Javascript benchmarks also showed average scores. It’s not the Javascript runtime, it’s the CPU. Note that we are still struggling to find a benchmark that provide a truly accurate performance profile, however, they are still good indicators.

Galaxy S2 Review

NeoCore graphics benchmark: as you can see, the Samsung Galaxy S2 is one of the fastest at this particular benchmark. However, the Optimus 2X, which is powered by Tegra 2 is clearly much faster. [link]

Update: I’ve abandoned Neocore for the graphics benchmark because it is simply too old, and some phones seem to cap the FPS to 60, while others don’t. I’ve replaced it with Nenamark 2, and you can see the results in my Epic 4G Touch Review: the Galaxy S2 platform wins hands-down against Tegra 2.

Perceived Performance

Perceptively, the Samsung Galaxy S2 is a very fast smartphone. Its user interface is responsive and I have not experienced any hiccups. Although it is not the fastest, Most users won’t feel any difference with what’s best out there – except possibly for gaming and Flash usage, so keep that in mind.

Battery Life (very good)

Galaxy S2 Review

The best way to improve battery life is... a bigger battery

With very moderate usage, I have seen this phone hold for 2.5 days. However, with the usage that I have described above, it’s more likely that I will need to recharge it every other day, which is very good by mobile phone standards. I have compiled numbers gathered from typical use cases. Keep in mind that while these will give you an indication, actual performance may vary quite a bit depending on your own configuration of applications and settings.

30mn of Gaming : 22%…. (it got hot around the camera module)
30mn of Youtube: 8%
30mn of Web browsing (WIFI): 10%

You can do your part in making the battery life better. For example, it’s easy to install the Power Control Android widget, and the Samsung Task Manager (very convenient!) to keep an eye on what’s running in the background. Also keep in mind that the display is one of the largest contributors to battery depletion.

What could be better

USB connectivity: The USB connectivity of the recent Samsung devices has been a bit strange. Both the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Galaxy S2 don’t naturally show up as USB mass storage (USB disks) devices. This is completely artificial since Android supports that feature out of the box. I don’t know if this is intentional so that users have to connect with Kies, but why not do both?

To connect via USB mass storage, one needs to go to Settings>Applications>Development>USB Debugging (check). From there, the Galaxy S2 can show up as a USB drive.

Samsung, please let us use the USB Mass Storage feature. Everyone else supports it properly.

Display: While I love the contrast and brightness, it would have been really nice to get a qHD or even 720p resolution. I’m not sure if the color accuracy can be improved, but it looks like LCD IPS if the way to go if you need colors to be accurate.

Conclusion (excellent)

Galaxy S2 Review

Samsung’s original break in smartphones was due to the Galaxy S hardware platform, and it is clear that Samsung took it to the next level with the Galaxy S2. The hardware has been improved on many points, including additional horsepower, faster graphics and faster HSPA+ “4G” access. The chassis has been improved too: it’s much thinner and lighter.

Detractors will be quick to point out that the manufacturing is “cheap” and “fragile”. It is true that there is a “plastic” feel, especially in the back, and I can understand where the criticism comes from. However, that’s also the price to pay to get an extremely light phone.

In the end, I found the Galaxy S2 to be an excellent phone. It is light, very fast, can capture great images and has a good battery life. These attributes are what most users would want in a modern Android smartphone. Wouldn’t you?

I hope that this review has given you a good overview of the Samsung Galaxy S2 (for AT&T). I tried to cover most of the areas that one may want to know, but if there is something else that you would like to ask, or if you simply want to provide some feedback, please leave a comment below. I’ll try to reply as soon as I can.

Update 10/21: our iPhone 4S Review is out. See how the Galaxy S2 stack up against Apple’s best

Links

Don’t miss those reviews:Atrix 2 Review, iPhone 4S Review, Epic Touch 4G Review,  Motorola Droid BionicHTC Wildfire S ReviewPhoton 4G ReviewHTC Sensation ReviewDroid Incredible 2 ReviewiPhone 4 ReviewSamsung Epic 4G ReviewSamsung Infuse 4G Review.

Official Samsung Galaxy S2 page,

Additional info

I found a very interesting list of codes that can be used to check on various states of the Galaxy S2. It may work with other Samsung phones as well, but I don’t know. So far, I have tested the unlock status of my phone and it is unlocked (I don’t expect the retail AT&T phone to work, though). Here are the codes, as seen from the whirlpool.net.au forums:

Samsung Galaxy S2 II secret codes (Not Network Unlock Code)

*#1234# (View SW Version PDA, CSC, MODEM)
*#12580*369# (SW & HW Info)
*#197328640# (Service Mode)[i had to put: #*#*#* at the end of the numbers before my service mode menu came up could be same with you if its not coming up after entering that]
*#0228# (ADC Reading)
*#32489# (Ciphering Info)
*#232337# (Bluetooth Address)
*#232331# (Bluetooth Test Mode)
*#232338# (WLAN MAC Address)
*#232339# (WLAN Test Mode)
*#0842# (Vibra Motor Test Mode)
*#0782# (Real Time Clock Test)
*#0673# (Audio Test Mode)
*#0*# (General Test Mode)
*#2263# (RF Band Selection)
*#9090# (Diagnostic ConfiguratioN)
*#7284# (USB I2C Mode Control)
*#872564# (USB Logging Control)
*#4238378# (GCF Configuration)
*#0283# (Audio Loopback Control)
*#1575# (GPS Control Menu)
*#3214789650# (LBS Test Mode)
*#745# (RIL Dump Menu)
*#746# (Debug Dump Menu)
*#9900# (System Dump Mode)
*#44336# (Sofware Version Info)
*#7780# (Factory Reset)
*2767*3855# (Full Factory Reset)
*#0289# (Melody Test Mode)
*#2663# (TSP / TSK firmware update)
*#03# (NAND Flash S/N)
*#0589# (Light Sensor Test Mode)
*#0588# (Proximity Sensor Test Mode)
*#273283*255*3282*# (Data Create Menu)
*#273283*255*663282*# (Data Create SD Card)
*#3282*727336*# (Data Usage Status)
*#7594# (Remap Shutdown to End Call TSK)
*#34971539# (Camera Firmware Update)
*#526# (WLAN Engineering Mode)
*#528# (WLAN Engineering Mode)
*#7412365# (Camera Firmware Menu)
*#80# (Unknown)
*#07# (Test History)
*#3214789# (GCF Mode Status)
*#272886# (Auto Answer Selection)
*#8736364# (OTA Update Menu)
*#301279# (HSDPA/HSUPA Control Menu)
*#7353# (Quick Test Menu)
*2767*4387264636# (Sellout SMS / PCODE view)
*#7465625# (View Phone Lock Status)
*7465625*638*# (Configure Network Lock MCC/MNC)
#7465625*638*# (Insert Network Lock Keycode)
*7465625*782*# (Configure Network Lock NSP)
#7465625*782*# (Insert Partitial Network Lock Keycode)
*7465625*77*# (Insert Network Lock Keycode SP)
#7465625*77*# (Insert Operator Lock Keycode)
*7465625*27*# (Insert Network Lock Keycode NSP/CP)
#7465625*27*# (Insert Content Provider Keycode)
*#272*imei#* (Product code)

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