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Editors' note: Portions of this review were taken from our evaluation of the Samsung Epic 4G Touch, since that device and the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G for Boost Mobile are almost identical.
Older smartphones, especially ones sporting legendary brands or from very successful product lines often find new life on prepaid, budget, and regional wireless carriers. The $369.99 Samsung Galaxy II 4G is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Similar to action-movie characters who have lived through countless sequels, the Galaxy S II doesn’t move quite as fast as it once did. Even so, armed with all the tools that made the phone great in its heyday, such as fast dual-core processing, a lovely high-contrast AMOLED screen, and 4G data, the Galaxy S II 4G can still throw a mean punch. That’s especially true now that the gadget runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It may be pricey and a year old, but it's a well-appointed package and money well spent on Boost Mobile.
If you’re familiar with the original Samsung Galaxy S II and its many flavors available on multiple carriers, this new Boost Mobile may strike you as a rerun. That’s because it’s essentially the Epic 4G Touch, Sprint’s branded version of the Galaxy S II. This model also sports an identical physical footprint, measuring 5.1 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.38 inch thick.
Sure, these dimensions mean the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G isn't small, but back when it first launched last year it looked positively humungous. Now its size seems average compared with the company’s new and even bigger products such as the Galaxy Note, Galaxy Note II, and Galaxy S3. Still, the Galaxy S II 4G’s width makes it tough to grip the phone one-handed, especially if you have smaller hands, and it's not a device that easily fits into tight pants pockets. At a light 4.6 ounces, however, the smartphone won’t weigh you down unduly.
The 4.52-inch, WVGA (800x480) Super AMOLED Plus touch screen you’ll find on the Galaxy S II 4G is certainly spacious. Its vibrant colors also make it an enjoyable way to view Web pages and multimedia. That said, the world has changed since this phone first hit the market, and there are certainly much sharper screens out there these days.
Samsung’s own Galaxy S3 boasts an HD Super AMOLED screen with a finer 1,280x720-pixel resolution, which renders images and text more crisply. The same goes for the HTC Design 4G, that’s outfitted with a 4-inch qHD (960x540-pixel) resolution screen. Additionally, when placed side by side, the Galaxy S II’s display was dark compared with the brighter Design 4G and Galaxy S3 screens. Even so, I still found the Galaxy S II 4G’s high-contrast display very easy to read with deep blacks and very wide viewing angles.
For banging out messages, the smartphone offers both Swype and Samsung's virtual keyboards. With plenty of space between keys, I found that Samsung’s keyboard makes for quick typing but is pretty generic, doesn’t deviate much from the stock Android layout, and lacks many shortcuts for frequently used symbols.
Below the display are touch-sensitive buttons for the menu, home, back, and search functions. The left side features a volume rocker, while the right spine has a power/lock button. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the device and a Micro-USB port on the bottom. In the right-hand corner just above the display sits an LED notification light, while in the left-hand corner is a 2-megapixel camera for video calls. The back of the phone houses an 8-megapixel camera and an LED flash.
There is a microSD expansion slot behind the battery door. The latter has a textured surface, which provides a better grip, but like many Samsung smartphones (including the premium Galaxy S3), the Galaxy S II 4G has a plastic build that screams mass production. I personally appreciate the metallic unibody construction of HTC or even Apple handsets. I also like the quality polycarbonate designs showcased on Nokia and HTC’s new Windows Phone 8 devices.
Software and UI
While the original Samsung Epic 4G Touch on Sprint ran Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread, this new device ported to Boost Mobile boasts the more modern Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. It may not be Google’s most recent Android 4.1, aka Jelly Bean, but the software is recent and breathes new life into an otherwise aging handset.
Samsung has also plastered its TouchWiz 4.0 user interface on top of Android too which I’m sure ‘droid devotees dedicated to a pure Google experience won’t appreciate. I’m not a fan of custom interfaces, though HTC’s Sense 4 and Motorola’s latest Android tweaks have their moments. That’s because they often add unwanted complexity and unremovable bloatware, plus are usually slower to update to new OS versions.
TouchWiz does have some useful elements, such as the notification pull-down menu that has icons for easily toggling Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, 4G, and sound settings. Unlike the Galaxy S3, however, the Galaxy S II 4G offers five home screens to customize instead of seven.
Adapting the home screens is easy, with a carousel-like setup that lets you move through the various panels to add and remove shortcuts and widgets at the same time. Previously, you had to do a long-press on one screen to change it and then repeat the process if you wanted to change another page. There are also some other useful additions as well, such as an integrated task manager that displays all your active applications, downloaded apps with the option to uninstall, RAM status, and system storage details.
In addition to using the standard touch interface, you can also use the same motion gestures found on the Epic 4G Touch. With the settings turned on, you can flip the phone to mute it. Using two fingers placed on the screen, you can tilt to zoom in and out in the Gallery and browser. Flicking your wrist left or right (panning) can move a home screen icon when you're holding it. Double-tapping the top of the phone prepares the Vlingo-powered Voice Talk app for voice commands while you're driving. However, panning and zooming weren't very responsive, and double-tap failed to work entirely. Aside from perhaps an initial gee-whiz reaction, I seriously doubt many will use these motion controls in daily life.
Features and apps
The Samsung Galaxy S II 4G offers all the smartphone staples, including a speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, video calling, plus text and multimedia messaging. In addition to Bluetooth connectivity, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n/a), and GPS, the Galaxy S II 4G is (as you may have guessed) 4G-capable and connects to Sprint’s old WiMax network.
As we noted earlier, the phone runs Android Ice Cream Sandwich, and all of Google's services are accounted for: e-mail, Maps, voice navigation, search, chat, Places, Latitude, and YouTube, plus basic tools like a calendar, a calculator, an alarm clock, a world clock, a stopwatch, and a timer. In addition, Samsung and Boost Mobile have preloaded the phone with a number of extras, including Polaris Office, and Kies Air (a Wi-Fi-based PC-to-phone sync manager). A voice mail app stands ready to sign you up for access Boost's paid visual voice mail service, and BoostZone is designed to provide account information and the location of the closest retail store. Targeting Boost Mobile's younger demographic, the Galaxy S II 4G also has shortcuts to mobile sites for MTV.com, E!, and BET. Unlike other versions of the Galaxy S II, Samsung’s Media Hub digital entertainment storefront for downloading movies and TV shows is absent.
One of the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G’s strong suits back when it first launched was its excellent 8-megapixel camera. I’m happy to say that despite being a last-generation device, the phone’s camera still holds its own. It's nimble, capturing pictures in a second or less, and the camera app has plenty of tools, such as effects, white-balance controls, ISO settings, and more. Samsung also throws in a photo and video editor, too, which I do appreciate. The video editor is particularly great, since it makes it easy to piece together clips with different effects and music, all from right on your phone.
The quality of images I shot was excellent. Indoor shots, including those of my still-life, were sharp with bright, vivid colors and lots of detail, even under low-light conditions. It's able to capture 1080p movies; video quality was also pleasing. Overall, clips looked clear and without any artifacts or color noise. Of course the image can stutter a bit if you're panning from one point to another.
I tested the dual-band Samsung Galaxy S II 4G in New York using Boost Mobile service, which links to Sprint’s CDMA network; call quality was acceptable but not outstanding. Voices on my end came through the earpiece loud and clear, but callers reported that I sounded muffled and tinny. Even so, they didn’t detect any background distortions such as hiss or static.
Speakerphone quality was typical of the smartphones I’ve used with voices on both sides of the call sounding far away and a bit muted. The handset’s speaker had enough volume for me to hear callers in a quiet conference room without straining. Don’t expect to rattle any windows, though, since even with the volume turned all the way up, the speakerphone lacked much punch or loudness.
The Samsung Galaxy S II 4G is the latest repurposed handset that can connect to Boost Mobile’s WiMax data network. Though billed as 4G, WiMax technology is really outdated cellular infrastructure that Sprint offloaded to Boost in favor of more advanced LTE hardware. As a result, the Galaxy S II’s data throughput won’t break any speed records. Using Ookla's Speedtest.net app, I logged low average download speeds of 5Mbps and pokey upload speeds of 0.28Mbps.
Powering the Galaxy S II 4G is Samsung's 1.2GHz Exynos dual-core processor, which until the new Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chips came out, were cutting-edge silicon. Its Linpack score of 64 MFLOPs (multithread) is low. For example, HTC’s superphone, the Evo 4G LTE (Sprint) managed a high 198.4 MFLOPs on the same test. That said, apps launched without delay, and the phone didn’t falter or stutter whether it was playing games, streaming video, or viewing Web sites.
The Samsung Galaxy S II 4G relies on a 1,800mAh lithium ion battery that Samsung says will power the device for a rated talk time of 9 hours and for up to 9 days in standby mode. During anecdotal testing, the Galaxy S II hit this promised longevity right on the mark. It played an HD video continuously for a full 9 hours and 6 minutes before shutting down.
You might think the $369.99 Samsung Galaxy S II 4G is merely a repackaged relic offloaded to Boost Mobile by its Sprint overlords. And you’d be right, at least in part, but that’s not the whole story. Sure, the Galaxy S II is by no means a spring chicken, but this gray-haired device still boasts the enviable abilities that helped it achieve legendary status among Android phones. Of course you can opt for the $299.99 HTC Evo Design 4G, which offers Android 4.0 and 4G data for less. I wouldn’t recommend doing so, though, since the Galaxy S II 4G features the same Android software, 4G, a much better camera and display, plus faster performance for $60 more. Despite its age, there are plenty of reasons why it’s Boost Mobile’s flagship smartphone and currently the most capable phone the carrier sells.