Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Samsung Galaxy S II

Last year, the Android ecosystem grew exponentially, leap-frogging the dominant market share held by Apple and finally giving users a smartphone option to the iPhone. At the head of the Android charge was the HTC factory, but it was the Samsung's Galaxy S that came in from the outside to conquer the Android universe. Combining  the delicious Android functionality with some powerful hardware, it rightfully won our Gadget Guru Smartphone of the Year award. Now, enter the Galaxy S2, the heir to the throne. But the battle of the phones has only just begun with Apple's iPhone 4, LG's Optimus 2x and HTC Sensation hitting Indian shores. So can Samsung  improve upon their flagship smartphone?

Packaging and Content
Samsung has always been pretty good packaging wise and they have not disappointed this time round. The Galaxy S2 gets a very premium looking package that oozes class.  Content wise, the usual suspects are all there. There's the Galaxy S2 itself, along with a very plush looking felt-type case, standard charger, USB data cable, Samsung headphones and the 1650mAh battery. Unfortunately, there's no HDMI cable but we are guessingmost won't feel it's absence.
Sadly for Samsung, someone on the packaging chain was sleeping on the job as the slide-out cover of the package had 'SuperAMOLED+' misspelt all over it.
Hardware and Styling
At only 8.5mm thin, the Samsung Galaxy S2 is the sleekest smartphone available in the market. It even has a large 4.3" SuperAMOLED+ display that takes center stage.  Apart from the titanic SuperAmoled, there is the home button which is well backed up with touch-based menu and back buttons. Samsung has wisely used Gorilla Glass, which protects the large screen from all kinds of scratches and smudges. There's even a 2 mega-pixel snapper on the front. The rear end of the device is covered by a textured plastic, which has a matte finish. This, we believe, is a welcome change from the original Galaxy S, the glossy black plastic on which was a finger print magnet. There is an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash. The sides of the device are tapered with a metallic finish. The volume rocker is located on the left hand side and, weirdly, the power button is placed on the right hand side. The bottom end of the device houses the micro-USB port, which also doubles as an HDMI port through an adaptor. The top houses the standard 3.5 mm port.
At first glance, the Galaxy S2 does not feel like a premium device because of the plasticky nature of its construction. Next to the iPhone 4, it's like chalk and cheese. In spite of this the device is very well put together even though it might give the illusion of shoddy construction.
Stylistically too the device boasts of a very minimalistic bare-bones design. With the abundance of plastic prevalent in its construction, it is very light at only 116 grams.
The Galaxy S2 comes pre-loaded with Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Samsung has, as usual, added its TouchWiz skin over Android. TouchWiz - now in its 4.0 version - is a much-improved skin than its previous iterations. Many hate the inclusion of custom skins but, surprisingly, TouchWiz 4.0 is a boon to the user.
Interface wise, there is not a lot of difference except the fact we get custom widgets optimized for TouchWiz and dock bar, which can be customized according to users' whims and fancies.
Samsung has introduced a couple of neat touches in the contacts and call history menus. If one has to call or message a contact one just needs to swipe the contact towards the right for calling and towards the left for messaging. This reduces the steps involved in calling and messaging. Definitely a neat feature.
Icons, as usual, look like cheap iPhone rip-offs but even that is quite bearable thanks to the lovely SuperAMOLED plus display gracing the Samsung Galaxy S 2.
Also, TouchWiz allos users to scroll horizontally rather than vertically in the applications menu. It also allows users to change the font of the device. This change even  translates to webpages.
The onboard keyboard is a beauty. Thanks to the large display there's ample real estate to navigate your fingers on the virtual keyboard. Samsung has also managed to improve the auto spell correction abilities of the T9 dictionary. There's also SWYPE, though one needs to get used to SWYPing rather than typing. For now, we will stick to the virtual keyboard - its not too shabby, you know!
Samsung has added some specialty tricks to the Galaxy S2 as it utilizes its gyroscope more than any other device has to-date. On the web browser, with double finger tap we can engage the tilt zoom by moving the device. Similarly, we can move widgets on the home screen through these double taps. This very cool indeed and comes in handy.
In the age of the iPad which rules the world of media consumption, manufacturers are striving to create smartphones with the double whammy of large screens and  the horsepower of tablets. Essentially, the Samsung Galaxy S2 is the synthesis of this very ideology.
The star is the mouth-watering 4.27" SuperAMOLED plus display which is, to the naked-eye, the best smartphone screen available on the market.
While the iPhone 4 boasts of a 'Retina Display' with a resolution of 960x640 with 327 PPi (Pixels Per Inch), the Galaxy S2 responds with a somewhat middling 800x480 display. In spite of this disparity, we find the Galaxy S2 has a brighter and richer display with fantastic viewing angles. Why? According to Samsung, 'the secret sauce' is hidden in the sub-pixels. While the Galaxy S2 has fewer pixels than the iPhone 4, it has twice as many sub-pixels as the original Galaxy S, which in it-self was pretty sweet display wise. Add to this the fact that the Galaxy S2 eclipses the iPhone 4 display in size by almost an inch and it's a no brainer. Watching a video on the Galaxy S2 is truly a delightful experience - easily the best.  Though we would still say the iPhone has the sharpest display in town.
The phone features the stock Android MP3 player which also has Dolby 5.1 support. While the sound quality on its own is quite stellar, the activation of the Dolby 5.1 produces sound which detaches all the frequencies and one can hear every note or beat in its entirety. Obviously, the surround sound element is also there with channel sweeps happening all the time. The Dolby functionality will not appeal to the layman as it would produce an aurally weird experience but still is a very interesting feature to have on board, especially for audio junkies.
Samsung has jazzed up the MP3 player with various equalizers and sound modes, which enhance the customization options. Google really needs to provide users with better stock MP3 player; hopefully Ice Cream Sandwich may be the answer to the prayer.
There is the standard Android video player, which can handle most common video codecs such as .Avi, DivX and Xvid. All videos work smoothly sans the glitches and this is something new for an Android device.
Now, the 8-megapixel camera with LED flash in the rear and a 2-megapixel camera on the front for video chats. The rear camera is surprisingly clear providing detailed pictures, which stack up well against the imaging capabilities of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and the Nokia N8. We noticed minimal noise and graining in the images, which is rare for a mobile camera.  Even in low light conditions, the camera performed superbly thanks to the LED flash only to be pipped by the Xenon Flash of the Nokia N8.
As far as 1080p recording went, things were smooth and the video was crystal clear. In comparison to the LG Optimus 2x, these videos were slightly clearer with better contrast and they were jitter free. The built in image stabilization definitely was brilliant.
The Galaxy S2 provides HDMI mirroring facilities through a proprietary HDMI connector and also supports Samsung's AllShare technology for sharing content.
PC Sync and Market
Changing a device brings with it the mammoth task of data transfer - especially painful is the transfer of contacts. Thankfully, Android smartphones are amongst the easiest devices to sync data with thanks to a wonderful thing called Google Contacts. All you have to do is sync one's device with Google Contacts and you are ready to go. Make no mistake, Google Contacts is a vastly useful tool given the host Gmail users floating round the web, and this just increases the appeal of Android devices as Google users get the best possible experience of all Google applications on Android.
Samsung added their Social Hub functionality to TouchWiz. Social Hub is designed to be the single point of entry for users to enjoy their social content. Be it Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN, MySpace or even a basic Email or SMS, all these functions can be accessed from the Social Hub.  While it may not be as intuitive as the HTC's "Friends Stream" it gets the job done and that will be enough for most people. Those not satisfied can always download the Facebook and Twitter apps, which come for free.
With syncing on the Galaxy S2, Samsung has pushed the envelope further with the Kies Air app built in to the device. Kies Air adds Wi-Fi sync capabilities with the user being able to accesses each and every shard of information stored on the computer. All one has to do is enable the app on the phone which will pop an IP (Internet Protocol) address on the phone which one has to enter in the web browser. From the laptop's web browser we could see everything, even our SMS threads. We could also easily transfer data easily including music, videos and photos. This app goes long way in cutting the cord with USB.
Like the Apple App store, the Android Market is the largest haven for Android apps. Android Market at the moment in home to more than 290,000 apps and Google expects it to overtake the Apple app store by August.
As we know, Android is an open-source platform so app developers have more leeway in making apps they like. But this is also coupled with poor quality control on Google's part, which gives Android Market the unwholesome flavor of a flea market. For instance, Fruit Ninja has quite few clones running round - like Fruit Cutter. Some are very good but, unfortunately, many are just dreadful.
Essential Apps
Samsung has always been in a habit of loading its devices with a lot of bloatware but, luckily, this time round they have provided only the necessities, though we still do get a lot of stuff.
As expected on an Android device, we do get our share of standard Google Apps such as Gmail, Search, Gtalk, Maps and Latitude. All these work exactly like they work on other devices, obviously the experience is a tad smoother on the Galaxy S2 thanks the extra processing mojo.
Samsung has provided its FM app, which we have always loved. It has a very cool virtual dial through which we can modulate the frequency of the FM station. Sound quality is also pretty impressive considering we were able to get a decent signal in the basement.
We get Samsung's 'patented' Hubs, which include the Readers Hub, the Social hub discussed above, and the Gamers Hub.
The Readers Hub is designed to provide users a single of point of entry to the world of print. The Books section is powered by Kobo's E-Book service, the magazine service is powered by Zinio's popular service and the news service is powered by Press display.
We also get Polaris Office, which has become quite popular among OEMs as it provides impressive document editing capabilities handling all Microsoft Office formats natively. It also acts like a file manager and syncs with accounts what more one needs. Unfortunately Polaris Office does not always handle Microsoft Excel formulas properly, which can be quite problematic for power users.
Samsung has also provided apps for basic Photo and Video editing.
Most people who buy touch smartphones are looking for an iPhone like experience and too many Android devices fall short in this respect. Even the dual core Tegra 2 powered LG Optimus 2x never came close. Samsung believes the Galaxy S2 will. To ensure it does, they have given it a 1.2 GHz dual core processor based on the ARM architecture but made in-house. They have also added 1GB of RAM to boot. That's a lot of firepower; this would even put the USS Nimitz to shame!
We have some staggering statistics to prove this theory. In our Quadrant benchmark test, the Galaxy S 2 scored a blistering 3212. To add some perspective to this we compared it to the Nvidia Tegra 2 powered LG Optimus 2x which managed just 2436 in the same benchmark.
In the Linpack test again the Galaxy S2 came up trumps as it scored 47.257 MFLOPS in 1.77 seconds while the Optimus 2x only managed 35.389 MFLOPS in 1.57 seconds.
Even in the Benchmark Pi test, the Pi was calculated in 617 milliseconds while the Optimus 2x lagged behind at 700 milliseconds.
But the real kicker came in the Rightware Browsermark test in which the Samsung Galaxy S2 scored an unheard of 72879 which was even faster than the iPad 2 at 69760. The LG Optimus 2x lagged way behind at the 42300 mark.
Even the call quality was much improved from the original Galaxy S. However, it still cannot compete with the likes of Nokia and BlackBerry.
Thanks to the large 1650mAh battery we did not face the usual battery issues associated with smartphones with large displays. The battery easily lasted a day with constant 3G and Wi-Fi usage. Along side this we made our usual round of calls and also utilized the Wi-Fi tethering functionality.
It is clearly the most powerful smartphone money can buy at the moment.
On a disappointing note, our review unit suffered from over heating issues which resulted in the phone hanging. Often the touch based buttons would stop functioning and the touch display would not be able to differentiate between various gesture commands. We believe this is due to a fault in our particular unit, as no one else has faced this problem but if it's a defect troubling the entire production line then Samsung must get it rectified quickly. Some of these errors include unnatural heat generation in the SuperAmoled + display while others include improper color reproduction in displays. These are massive production oversights and, as far we can gather, almost limited to India. Samsung better tighten up its act as the HTC Sensation is a pretty polished device and not far behind as far as hardware artillery goes. So consumers, beware!
If there is a smartphone out there which manages to provide the sheer speed of the iPhone then it has to be the Samsung Galaxy S2. There are no two ways about it - it is currently the fastest phone in the market and quite reasonable priced at Rs 32890, given the amount tech crammed into it. It even manages to eclipse the iPhone's Retina display, which is a feat in itself. While all this is good we still don't like Samsung's TouchWiz in-spite of all the improvements.
Buy it if you need the sheer speed and the geekyness of Android. Don't buy it if you don't like the look of TouchWiz.
Sublime performance
Slim Design
Good Camera
Brilliant Screen
Good Battery Life
Motion controls
Over heating issues
Underwhelming Build quality


         Performance:  5
         Price:  4
         Ease of Setup: 4
         Ergonomics: 4
         Wow Factor: 4.5


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