After shifting so many of its Galaxy S smartphones around the world, it's easy to see why Samsung decided to stick with a winning formula and launch an updated version of its flagship product. That's the story behind the new Galaxy S II, which Samsung is hoping will do even better—especially when it comes to the firm's scarcely-concealed ambitions to rival the iPhone.
The Galaxy S looked all the world like an iPhone 3G S and did almost exactly the same things, without going via iTunes. The Galaxy S II goes even further, with a fascia that looks just like the iPhone 4 and a mixture of Android 2.3 Gingerbread and Samsung's own TouchWiz interface. But the manufacturer has learnt its lesson, and has listened to the critics by giving the new phone a distinctive set of features. The self-proclaimed 'thinnest smartphone in the world' (just 8.49 mm compared to the 9 mm of the LG Optimus Black) has a 4.3'' Super AMOLED Plus screen and a dual-core 1.2 GHz Exynos 4210 'Orion' processor designed in-house. In some markets (including the US), the Galaxy S II will have a 1 GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 chip.
There's a micro USB port that's compatible with MHL, meaning you can use a special cable—which is available as an optional extra for around £20—to connect the phone to the HDMI port on a TV and watch 1080p Full HD content. There are 16 GB of storage, of which 12 GB are available to the user. There's also a microSD card slot in the case.
The main camera has 8 Megapixels and an LED flash, while the front-facing camera has just 2 Megapixels.
UPDATE 10/11/2011: the white version of the Galaxy S II has a slightly different outer casing. The grid-effect grip that features on the black handset we first tested has been replaced with a smooth glossy white casing. This makes the product look sleek, and keeps its design flowing and continuous with no breaks in style.
One thing that's a little disappointing about this white model, though, is that it makes the Galaxy S II look even more like a certain superstar smartphone from Cupertino.
Our first impressions of the Galaxy S II were rather strange. After getting over just how thin it is and just how dazzling the colours are, we found ourselves scared that we might snap it in two: at just 117 g and with such a slim profile, it feels very fragile indeed. It took us quite a while to realise how solid it is, and once we'd dropped it a few times without any adverse effects, we were somewhat reassured.
This compact form factor and the textured finish at the rear—which keeps greasy fingerprints off—make the new S II feel much less like a toy than than the original Galaxy S.
On the original Galaxy S, Samsung managed to situate the microSD card slot on the outside of the case so users could swap cards without having to remove the battery. Disappointingly, the manufacturer has now put it back undertneath the battery. The absence of an MHL cable to transform the micro USB port into a HDMI output is equally frustrating: Samsung's competitors have chosen micro HDMI outputs instead, but if you have a Galaxy S II, you'll need to purchase an extra adaptor cable for around £20.
The home button sits in splendid isolation under the screen, just like it does on the iPhone, and indeed, the whole front of the phone reminds us a lot of the iPhone 4. But if you look closely, there are two touch-sensitive buttons, one for accessing the menu and the other to go back: they only light up when you're actually using the phone though.
UPDATE 10/11/2011: with a Super AMOLED Plus display like the original handset, the white Galaxy S II boasts the same infinite contrast. However, we thought we'd double-check our colour fidelity readings, just in case. It's a good job we did too, as it seems that Samsung has been fine-tuning its display modes. As stated below, the S II has three display modes (like on a TV) with Standard, Video and Dynamic to choose from. In our initial tests, each mode displayed colours as inaccurately as the next, with sky-high deltaE readings all round.
The new handset really surprised us in Video mode, with a near-constant colour temperature of approximately 7527 kelvins and an average deltaE of 6.6, which is almost half that of the initial reading (and therefore twice as good!). Although in this mode, colours do look a bit duller compared with the blindingly bright colours of the default screen mode, everything actually looks much more natural.
Things are still a bit on the crazy side in Dynamic mode, with an average deltaE of 11.6 and colours that really push fidelity to its limits. In Standard mode, we measured an average deltaE of 8.3. In both modes, the colour temperature proved to be relatively stable, but values did reach over 8300 kelvins, giving the picture a blue overtone.
One really great thing we noticed in this new white model was that the screen brightness had been boosted. The brightness of 149 cd/m² to 255 cd/m² (Dynamic) on our original handset practically pales into insignificance compared with the 382 cd/m² to 395 cd/m² we measured on the updated version. That'll make it much easier to see what's onscreen when using the phone outdoors.
Samsung has decided to upgrade the screen used on the Galaxy S and has included a Super AMOLED Plus display in the S II, so we were hardly surprised to find some impressive results.
The Galaxy S II is one of the few phones whose displays can boast 'infinite' contrast thanks to its incredibly deep blacks, even though the maximum brightness is a mere 149 cd/m². That's a little disappointing, but Samsung tries to compensate by making extensive use of very bright colours in its interface.
Unfortunately for the Galaxy S II, it's not that great at reproducing colours accurately, with an average deltaE of 14.9(!) The closer a display's deltaE score is to 0, the more 'accurately' we say it reproduces colours; a reasonable average on mobile devices is between 5 and 7, while desktop monitors are usually below 3. The display has a very strong blue tinge, but it affects pretty much every other colour in the spectrum so it's only really noticeable, if at all, with white.
Primary colours pack a lot of punch and we're sure that some users will enjoy the visual fireworks on offer. The bright colours, coupled with a negative gamma (darker shades), help get around the very low white levels and make efficient use of the limited brightness available to produce what is ultimately a very useable display. It's also worth pointing out that AMOLED displays, like plasmas, completely remove all backlighting from black areas and transfer it to lighter areas, helping the brightness climb to 225 cd/m² in some parts of the screen.
The ghosting time, which measures how smooth moving objects look, is a respectable 17 ms. Samsung has managed that by applying a novel technique, smoothing out video as it's playing rather than trying to boost the framerate as high as possible. As a result, video looks fluid without much visible ghosting.
There are also various display modes, like on a TV, and users can choose between Standard (which we used for the tests mentioned above), Dynamic and Video. While in the former the average deltaE was a cataclysmic 19.6, in Video mode this fell to an average of 12.9. Despite the dazzling colours, the display is perfectly usable outside.
Interface and navigationIt might not be quite as intuitive and aesthetically pleasing as HTC Sense, but the TouchWiz 4 interface has got some big strengths. This latest version includes the usual widgets—with news, weather, Google search, a task manager, Android Market and more—and hubs—offering direct access to social networks, e-books and games. It also adds several new features and ways of accessing your content.
A double-click on the home button launches voice-activated control, which is useful both for drivers and the visually-impaired. If you want to see all of the desktops, you have to tap and pinch one together to see a preview of the seven homescreens.
If you tap and hold the screen, you can spin from one homescreen to the next. It looks nice, but it doesn't really do anything, other than encourage you to add yet more widgets. You can either spin from one screen to the next using your fingers, or rely on the phone's accelerometer and shake it to move around. Once again, it's a fun extra.
Samsung has kept the AllShare tool, which allows users to share multimedia content over a DLNA network with a compatible device (preferably one made by Samsung, of course ...) The Kies application, which syncs content with your computer, now has an 'Air' mode: just make sure the Samsung Galaxy S II is on the same WiFi network as the computer you want to sync with, pair the two up and you can then send files and content in both directions. It's nowhere near as much of a pain as the wired version.
MultimediaBrowsing the web on such a gorgeous 4.3'' screen is a real treat. There's no denying that the Samsung Galaxy S II has enough power to keep up with the latest examples of excellent performance in mobile web browsing like the Motorola Atrix and the LG Optimus 2X. Even pages that rely heavily on Flash load in a matter of seconds without any complaints. Pages displayed in portrait mode aren't always very easy to read, and sometimes this proves impossible.
But as one of our forum users pointed out, that's partly because Samsung has included anti-aliasing technology that makes text easier to read, but can be annoying against a dark background, making the text stand out so much that the letters almost look like they're dancing across the screen.
Things are quite simply perfect in landscape mode however. Every site we tried was perfectly legible and Samsung has added a new way of zooming into pages. You put both thumbs on the screen and move the phone backwards and forwards to zoom in and out. It feels odd at first but is very easy to use. Don't worry: a quick double tap will, as ever, zoom the text to a readable size.
The Galaxy S II takes mobile video playback to the next level. Like the original Galaxy S, it includes codecs capable of handling just about every video format right up to 1080p Full HD, and the majority of subtitles too, whether they're in the same file as the main video or separate. But remember that the mobile isn't, of course, formatted using NTFS, so all files will need to be smaller than 4 GB, which could be tricky for films in 1080p or even 720p.
This is the best experience we've ever had with mobile video. Even an SD DivX file with reasonable encoding looks great on the Galaxy S II's screen. If you add the cable allowing you to connect your smartphone to a HD TV, you've got a great pocket-sized media player.
Given that most of its competitors require users to download third-party apps to access at least some media formats, the Galaxy S II has a definite edge.
The Galaxy S II's camera is also great, and you'd hope so, given that it has 8 Megapixels to play with. Up against the LG Optimus 2X in the same conditions, Samsung is an obvious winner. In post-processing, photos are smoothed out a little and edges enhanced.
You can focus on any area of the frame and the flash doesn't lead to overexposure. There's not much electronic noise, and even if the sensor does occasionally take on a red tinge, it's generally very neutral, much like the Motorola Atrix, except with more detail.
Not only is taking photos great fun, you can also edit them directly on the phone with a handy retouching app. Video is recorded at a resolution of up to 1080p, as on the LG Optimus 2X or the HTC Sensation. Full HD video recorded on the Galaxy S II looked slightly stronger than on the LG handset, especially with moving objects.
Battery LifeWith a 1650 mAh battery, the Galaxy S II shouldn't have too much to boast about, on paper at least. Yet Samsung has managed to keep battery usage under control well enough to make sure you can go on using it all day without having to recharge, giving you about seven and a half hours of actual usage.
That puts the Galaxy S II amongst the better smartphones in that regard, like the Motorola Atrix and the iPhone 4. Even more impressively, the media player which handles even the most obscure formats at very high resolutions doesn't ruin the battery life.
The Samsung Galaxy S II was always going to be a flagship smartphone and it doesn't disappoint. It manages to fit an incredibly powerful device into a slimline frame which, despite being entirely plastic, avoids the rather clumsy looks of its older brother. Android fanboys can even dispense with TouchWiz 4 and get back to basics with Android 2.3 Gingerbread. It seems that Samsung is set, once again, to dominate the market for high-end Android smartphones.
- Dazzling screen but still very usable / Great camera
- Generally respsonive with very smooth navigation
- Fully-featured media player /Amazing mobile web experience
- TouchWiz 4 interface adds a lot to Android 2.3 / Improved display quality in updated model
- Thin, light and powerful / Kies Air app
- Screen not very bright and doesn't reproduce colours accurately (although things have improved in the updated model)
- MHL convertor for HDMI ports not included
- Still entirely plastic
- Yet another iPhone clone
- TouchWiz not for everybody
The Galaxy S already had a lot going for it, but Samsung's second generation of the smartphone is very much a product of its time. The Galaxy S II is incredibly powerful but surprisingly thin and light at the same time. Our biggest disappointment was the Super AMOLED Plus display's bizarre approach to reproducing colours and the fact that the HDMI connection requires a separate cable. But in every other department—including mobile web browsing, video recording, music, and even making phone calls(!)—the Galaxy S II is a very strong performer.