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

Samsung Galaxy S II (unlocked)

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
8 min read


Samsung Galaxy S II (unlocked)

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy S II</b> 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.

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.

Unlike the standard Android music player, the Galaxy S II's player has more visual pizzazz and offers 5.1-channel surround sound.

The photo has a slightly coffee-colored cast in this studio shot, but most indoor photos were crisp and sharp, with natural colors.

High-megapixel cameras and actual photo quality don't always align, but in this case they do. The Galaxy S II took great photos that were sharp, clear, and natural-looking, even indoors and in less-than-ideal lighting. Outdoor photos, of course, remain the best. The standard Android camera software comes with the usual plethora of lighting, white-balance, and metering adjustments, as well as effects and a self-timer. An onscreen control lets you switch between the front-facing and rear-facing cameras and toggle video recording on and off. While most front-facing shooters produce grainy and imprecise images, the Galaxy S II brought out clear, sharp, and natural edges and hues on its lush screen. Photos looked pretty good when transferred to our computer and blown up, though professional photographers won't want to trade in their SLRs yet.

Video was equally sharp and smooth when capturing and playing back 1080p HD video. Quality was high in both filming and streaming video, with no breaks or jerks as long as Internet connectivity remained strong. The Galaxy S II has 1GB RAM and supports up to 32GB of external storage.

Motion gestures are a more unusual feature in the Galaxy S II. With the settings turned on, you can flip the phone to mute it. With two fingers 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 as responsive as we'd like. While most of the motion controls may not figure into your daily use, this type of gesture functionality adds welcome options in general.

We tested the unlocked, quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; UMTS 850/900/1900/2100) Samsung Galaxy S II in San Francisco using AT&T's network. Call quality was acceptable on our end, but not stellar. We didn't hear any background noise or crackles, and volume was good. However, voices did sound fuzzy and strained; we've heard clearer. On their end, callers said volume was a tad low. The line was also clear for them, but our sibilants sounded muffled.

Speakerphone was a different story. We heard our callers loudly, but definitely not clearly. Voices were hollow and echoey, and we heard a buzz whenever they spoke. Our callers also said we sounded echoey enough that they had to strain to hear us.

Samsung Galaxy S II call quality sample Listen now: "="">

Performance was very good overall. The dual-core processors made actions zippy and responsive. There was very little lag in performing tasks, like opening and closing apps and processing photos.

Samsung claims that its Galaxy S II is capable of HSPA+ download speeds up to 21Mbps and HSUPA upload speeds of 5.76Mbps. We didn't come close to that here in San Francisco, but then again, the unlocked Galaxy S II isn't optimized for a U.S. network. At times we were able to achieve exceptionally fast speeds, and at other times we toggled between 3G and HSPA+ and couldn't get a firm fix. However, we'll continue testing the Galaxy S II throughout the city. Based on our fastest speeds loading the graphically rich CNET Web site and streaming YouTube videos, we've got high expectations of the handset's capabilities when it's optimized with a U.S. carrier.

Mobile hot-spot functionality worked well as long as data speeds were stable. We were able to surf multiple sites, open Web mail, and stream videos on a tablet connected to our Galaxy S II test unit. Keep in mind that hot-spot tethering will more quickly drain the battery, and that performance may decline as your hot spot supports more devices.

At just 0.3 inch thick, the Galaxy S II is one slim smartphone.

The Galaxy S II has a 1,650mAh lithium ion battery. Battery life seemed on par for a smartphone. We were able to go a full day with moderate-to-heavy use before needing a recharge. Our tests showed a talk time of 6 hours and 24 minutes.

It's one thing for a smartphone to parade a list of impressive specs and another to actually achieve them. With the Samsung Galaxy S II, Sammy hit the nail on the head. It's a large but light handset that's easy to carry around and never seemed to feel too oversize, even for our smaller hands. It sports an absolutely brilliant screen that produces lush colors and clarity, and two sharp, reliable cameras that take quality photos even indoors. With Android 2.3 Gingerbread, you can't find a more current operating system.

Call quality wasn't always a hit, and data could reach impressive speeds but couldn't always stay there. However, again, our global review unit wasn't optimized for U.S. consumption and networks, so we can't hold that against the phone itself. We will, however, be keeping a sharp eye on the Galaxy S II when it reaches a U.S. carrier. Until then, the Galaxy S II will remain one of the top smartphones to beat. There's no U.S. pricing and release information yet, but we did see the unlocked unit advertised for $700 to $800 online. We expect the price to significantly drop with a carrier agreement. When it does, the Galaxy S II will be an excellent high-end Android smartphone to own.


Samsung Galaxy S II (unlocked)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8