Samsung Galaxy S II (unlocked) review: Samsung Galaxy S II (unlocked)

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MSRP: $799.99

The Good The Samsung Galaxy S II has a speedy dual-core processor, a large, gorgeous display, 4G capability, and excellent cameras. It's also up-to-date with Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

The Bad The Samsung Galaxy S II lacks a hardware camera button, and you need to remove to battery to access the microSD card slot. Call quality could be better.

The Bottom Line Despite a few complaints, the Samsung Galaxy S II hits all the high notes, making the unlocked handset Samsung's most advanced and successful smartphone to date.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

Since its first Galaxy iteration, Samsung has taken the line of slick black smartphones and run with it, straight down the production line, to produce one blockbuster after another. The cell phone maker wasted little time spinning off variations, from the premium to the pedestrian, and even the slightly odd. But of the more than a dozen global models, the unlocked Samsung Galaxy S II takes the cake; the svelte "jumbo phone" is as beautiful and premium as when we first laid eyes on it last February at Mobile World Congress.

The impressive specs start with a dual-core processor, a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. It runs on the latest Android OS, version 2.3 Gingerbread. Samsung's custom TouchWiz 4.0 interface adds some extra visual perks and three new hubs for gaming, e-reading, and music resources. It also has "4G" support in HSPA+, which makes an already top-shelf device even zippier. We had a few minor complaints, but overall, the Galaxy S II is a comprehensive piece of mobile machinery. The Galaxy S II is available in Europe and Asia, but there's still no word on a U.S. carrier agreement, although we expect that soon. In the meantime, you can acquire it unlocked. It's a GSM phone (no current plans for a CDMA version last time we checked,) so if you get it, you'll need a T-Mobile or AT&T SIM card for it to work.

Although slimmer and squarer than its antecedents, the Galaxy S II comes on strong with a glossy black surface and large touch screen. It's a big phone, at 4.9 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide, but also very lean, just 0.3 inch thick. Light for its size, the Galaxy S II weighs only 4 ounces. Ordinarily, a certain amount of solidity and heft make a phone feel higher-end. In this case, we quickly adapted and became glad we didn't have to lug around a heavy brick. Samsung tends to coat its Galaxy phones in enough gleaming plastic to make even choice handsets feel like toys. Thankfully, the Galaxy S II's sharper design and textured back cover help minimize this effect. The design still isn't as premium in look and feel as rival LG's T-Mobile G2x, but Samsung's getting closer.

The Samsung Galaxy S II has a gorgeous 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus display with rich, vibrant color.

The gorgeous display will wow you. 4.27 inches of Samsung's proprietary Super AMOLED Plus touch screen stare up at you with a WVGA 480x800-pixel resolution and support for 16 million colors. The Plus technology adds 50 percent more subpixels (each pixel is further broken into subpixels,) resulting in noticeably smoother, sharper, more vibrant, and more colorful text and images. It's blazingly bright even when in the lower-power automatic mode, and was very responsive to our taps. Web sites and photos looked crisp and videos played back beautifully, especially when we turned on the high-quality (HQ) setting on sites like YouTube. As with the Droid Charge, which also features the Plus version of the screen, the Galaxy S II's Super AMOLED Plus screen is less washed out in direct sunlight than other models. The Super AMOLED Plus is already proving to be one of the richest displays on the market, blowing away even the already-impressive Super AMOLED screen that came before.

The Gorilla Glass screen takes up most of the Galaxy S II's face, with a 2-megapixel camera above the display and a Home button below it. There are also two touch-sensitive buttons for Menu and Back. They light up when you activate the screen, but fade after a few seconds of disuse. As with most display items, you can adjust the duration of the touch key light to shine longer, all the time, or not at all. For additional keyboard inputs, the Galaxy S II ships with the Swype virtual keyboard.

The Galaxy S II's spines are sparsely populated. There's the volume rocker on the left and the power button on the right, the Micro-USB charger on the bottom, and the 3.5mm headset jack up top. Disappointingly, there's no hardware camera button. Instead, we moved the camera icon to the home screen for easier access. On the back are the 8-megapixel camera lens and flash, and beneath the back cover is where you'll find the microSD card slot. There are two problems here. The first is that we worried about breaking a nail while prying off the stiff back cover. The second is that you need to remove the battery to insert the microSD card, at best an inconvenience that first requires powering down the phone.

Kudos to Samsung for loading up the Galaxy S II with Android 2.3 Gingerbread (reviewed in CNET's Nexus S review.) We're often less enthusiastic about custom interfaces like the TouchWiz 4.0 UI found here--they sometimes add unwanted complexity and unremovable apps, and are usually slower to update to new OS versions. However, TouchWiz 4.0 has a few things going for it, some carryovers from previous versions of TouchWiz. There are seven home screens, for example, and the notification pull-down menu has icons for easily turning on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and rotation.

TouchWiz also gives the music player a little much-needed graphical sizzle. In the app tray, you scroll horizontally instead of vertically; icons receive a bold, colorful treatment. The latest TouchWiz version adds three new hubs that gather together content by themes. Games, Music, and Readers join the Social Hub of before. We'll have more on those in the Features section.

Samsung didn't hold back for its next-gen Galaxy showing. The Galaxy S II is a quad-band GSM world phone that caps communication and Google services with some entertainment and productivity extras. You'll find Android's usual text and multimedia messaging, and an address book that integrates contacts from multiple accounts, like Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, and Facebook.

A dual-core processor makes for a highly responsive handset.

There's the typical Android e-mail inbox, too, which you can configure to merge all your accounts into one, or filter to see one account at a time. You'll also find Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, speakerphone, conference calling, and voice dialing. The Galaxy S II can become a portable hot spot for up to eight devices. In some global markets, it will come equipped with NFC. Samsung has also attempted to make it more business-friendly, with VPN, on-device encryption, and support for Cisco's VoIP calling and virtual desktop.

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. There's also a to-do list and voice search.

Samsung preloaded a ton of apps on the phone, starting with its own Social Hub Premium, which groups all your social-networking feeds into one place, and lets you see your communications history and IM status, and reach your contacts via SMS, e-mail, and so on.

In addition, TouchWiz 4.0 adds three new hubs for buying and downloading more content for the phone. The Music Hub is powered by 7Digital, but can also access your phone's stored music. Gameloft drives the Game Hub, which is broken down into social games like We Rule and Touch Hockey and premium HD games such as GT Racing and Assassin's Creed - Altair's Chronicles. The Readers Hub is broken into three sections: News (powered by Press Display), which has a seven-issue trial, Books (powered by Kobo), and Magazines (powered by Zinio). According to Samsung, the Reader Hub provides access to 2.2 million books, 2,000 global and local newspapers, and 2,300 magazines.

Samsung went a little overboard with the other preinstalled apps. They include Samsung's AllShare DLNA media app, Kies Air (a Wi-Fi-based PC-to-phone sync manager), a voice recorder, a download manager, and a mini diary. There are a very helpful photo editor and video maker, plus an FM radio that you can use if you plug in headphones. You'll also notice a task manager, an IM app, the Ringdroid ringtone maker, the Polaris Office file manager, and the BBC iPlayer, which, due to licensing limitations, only works in the U.K. If that weren't enough to keep you busy, there are two Samsung-sponsored storefronts for additional apps.