Samsung Galaxy S2 review: Samsung Galaxy S2

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Android software

The Galaxy S2 is one of the most desirable phones running Google's Android operating system. The fact that it's Google-powered means this phone works best if you have a Google account -- in fact, you must sign in with your Google account before you can even use some features, like the Android Market.

If you've got a few different Google accounts -- one for work and one for home, for example -- the phone can support all of them. But we'd suggest picking one main one, and logging into that first. That's the account that will be linked with all the apps you buy, so you can restore them if you need to swap phones or reset your S2 to its factory settings.

Android Navigation
Android includes the latest, greatest versions of Google apps, such as Maps (left) and Navigation (right).

Having Android on-board means the Galaxy S2 is packed with useful features, from Google Maps to free turn-by-turn navigation software. Google even gives its email program, Gmail, special treatment, keeping its own app separate from the app that supports other types of email, such as POP and Outlook mail.

Email
Non-Google email has its own app (top), which looks very different from the Gmail app (bottom).

This separation of email apps can be annoying, but Google says it's necessary because it has to support Gmail's unique features, such as archiving mail instead of deleting it. It's a valid point, and the bespoke Gmail app is better at reproducing the online experience than other email clients. But, if you're used to being able to see all your accounts in a unified inbox, like on BlackBerry phones, you'll be disappointed.

Gmail app
The Gmail app offers extra features, such as labelling and archiving.

Next page: Samsung Galaxy S2 screen and battery life



Screen and battery life

The Galaxy S2's screen is its crowning glory. It's truly epic, nudging into tablet territory, at 4.3 inches. We still had no trouble packing the S2 into our pocket, though, since the bezel around the screen is narrow and the phone is so thin. We did, however, have nightmares about the phone snapping in two like an After Eight mint when we sat down.

Samsung calls the screen's technology Super AMOLED Plus, and it's apparently brighter than ever and more visible in direct sunlight. We can vouch for the fact that it's eye-searingly bright in dim environments, and it's possible to use it in very bright sunlight as long as it's turned up to maximum brightness. That makes it a big improvement over the first AMOLED screens, like the one on the Google Nexus One, which was beautiful but invisible outside.

The Galaxy S2's screen is its crowning glory, but its colours are slightly overcooked.

The brightness of the screen is also its undoing if you like realistic-looking images. Colours look stunning but they're far too oversaturated. Images and videos generally look brighter and more saturated than they would on a monitor or TV screen. 

Pixel count stands at 800x480, which equates to 217 pixels per inch. This pales next to the 330ppi on the iPhone 4S. Compared to an LED screen like the one on the iPhone, the Galaxy S2 seeks to blow your eyeballs away, rather than massage them with a realistic image. Still, we don't think the screen will annoy anyone except those who are obsessed with calibrating the colour temperature of their monitor.

As an added bonus, the S2's display floats spookily close to the top of the glass front of the phone, which lends it an extremely classy veneer. It's something we also appreciated on the oozing-with-class Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc. The viewing angle is very wide, so you'll be able to appreciate every colour and hue even if you're not looking at the screen dead on.

With a smart phone this light and with so much resource-guzzling tech inside, the battery life was a pleasant surprise. We'd wager you'll still want to top this bad boy up every night, but, based on our tests, a full day's use shouldn't be a problem.

With normal use, we got a full day out of the Galaxy S2's battery (left), aided by the handy power-saving mode (right).

There's an automatic battery-saving mode that comes in very handy, and it can be customised to kick in at whatever point suits you. For example, you can set it to turn off Wi-Fi and GPS when the battery hits 20 per cent. This feature is much more extensive than other battery-saving modes we've seen on phones like the HTC Desire HD, and it's a real help on a phone this powerful. There's also a home-screen widget that keeps its eye on your various apps and warns you when one is consuming more battery power than it should.

Watch out when the battery is completely discharged. Our S2 took forever to wake up after we plugged it in when the battery was totally flat. If you're frantically stuffing in more juice in the hope of not missing an important call or text, that's torture.

Speed and memory

The Galaxy S2 swaggered through our barrage of benchmark tests, coming out ahead of much of its dual-core competition.

In the Softweg CPU and Linpack tests, which measure computing power, the Galaxy S2 proved the Usain Bolt of phones, beating the crowd with ease. In the Neocore and Softweg graphics tests, it didn't quite have its own way, but it still put in a strong showing. In the overall Quadrant test, it was the clear winner among the phones we tested.

You have the choice of 16GB or 32GB of internal memory, which means there's loads of space for storing your photos, music and apps. There's also a microSD slot that comes with an 8GB card in it, so you can pump the storage space up even more. You'll have to take out the battery to swap the card, though.

We tested the slot with a 32GB card that worked in several other Android phones and the S2 struggled at first to scan it. But, once we'd reformatted the card in our computer, it worked without a hitch, so try that if you have problems.

Call quality

Unlike the original Galaxy S, which was inaudible when making calls unless you lined the speaker up with your lughole exactly, the Galaxy S2 is wonderfully loud. Even in windy environments, our caller's voice was as clear as clingfilm over a toilet seat.

The vibration intensity wasn't as bold, though, and we found that we often missed calls when the phone was on silent. As we mentioned earlier, we'd also suggest changing the ring tone to something less soothing that the default option.

Camera and video

The 8-megapixel camera on the back takes high-quality shots. We were impressed with both the quality of images and the camera software itself, which features a broad array of scene modes and options if you fancy delving into them.

Take a look at these sample shots to see if you agree -- click each one to see the full-sized original.

 



 

The camcorder mode shoots 1080p video, which plays back smoothly, and looks very crisp. The Galaxy S2's snapper isn't as capable as a decent compact digital camera, but, for capturing decent photos and videos quickly, it's a worthy substitute.

Kies and keyboard

Samsung is very keen that you use its syncing software, Kies, to transfer files between your phone and your computer. The software has been very buggy in the past, but there are plenty of ways to get around it.

Thankfully, Samsung doesn't require that you plug your phone into your computer to update your version of Android. Instead, head over to the 'about phone' section of the settings to perform an over-the-air update. Note that Samsung still doesn't like to make this too easy for you -- you have to register for a Samsung account before you can proceed to the download. We recommend that this is the first thing you do when you get the phone, since the brand-new samples that we tested all had software updates waiting for them straight out of the box.

To get photos and videos off your phone, you can send them straight from the phone to the email recipient, website or social network of your choice. But this can be confusing, since the options are split between two menus. When looking at a photo in the gallery, you can either tap the 'send via' button on the screen to use Gmail, MMS messaging or wireless transfer over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. If you're looking for non-Gmail email, Facebook, Twitter or wireless transfer over Allshare DLNA, you must tap the menu key and then choose 'share via'. This is the type of menu madness that can sometimes ruin the fun of the Galaxy S2.

Splitting the photo-sharing options over two menus was a bad choice.

If you fancy connecting the Galaxy S2 with a cable -- to transfer photos in bulk, for example -- it's possible to tiptoe through its folders just as if it were an external hard drive, without using Kies. If you just stick the USB cable in, Kies will launch automatically, so don't do that. Instead, browse to the 'wireless and network' settings and select 'USB utilities'. Tap the connection button before you plug in the cable, and then you're ready. Unfortunately, you have to do this every time, and there are a flurry of confirmation screens to get through, but, once you're up and running, you can see all the folders on your microSD card and the phone's internal memory. 

There's more -- you can also use Kies Air to trawl through your phone over Wi-Fi. It's very simple to use. When you open the app from the phone, you'll be given an IP address to visit. Type this out on your PC or Mac, and you'll see an exploded view of your phone in your browser, from which you can upload or download media, stream music saved on the phone and even send text messages.

It's a cool feature, radically more useful than the Kies desktop software, and, because it uses your Web browser, you can use it anywhere without having to download bulky programs.

Kies Air is a really useful tool. In the inset image, you can see how it runs on the phone.

The Galaxy S2's keyboard offers a smorgasbord of options. The default keyboard is a standard Qwerty affair with number shortcuts along the top row. 

If you hold your finger down in any text field, you can change the keyboard to the Swype option. With Swype, you don't tap at letters -- instead, you run your fingers over all the letters in the word in one motion. It's an unbelievably fast system, once you get used to it. In fact, it's been used to break texting records.

You can choose between the default Samsung keyboard (left) and the Swype keyboard (right).

Our favourite thing about Swype is that it gives you the ability to accurately type long, complicated words with a quick swoop over the keys. But another of its advantages is the fact that you're less likely to hit rogue buttons and insert unwanted full stops. That's because Swype uses an algorithm to guess what you're typing, and, even if it picks the wrong word, whatever it chooses is pristinely spelled. It's also easy to swap incorrect guesses with other words you might have meant to type.

Here's the Galaxy S2's default keyboard next to the iPhone 4 (left) and HTC Sensation (right).

You can also install alternative keyboards from the Android Market. By default, the Galaxy S2's keyboard makes a noise and vibrates with haptic feedback when you press a key, but both of these features can be turned off in the settings menu.

Vodafone apps

What is Vodafone thinking? The apps that it includes on the Galaxy S2 don't come close to improving this geek dream of a phone. In fact, we couldn't get this bloatware off our sample phone fast enough.

We can barely forgive the network for clogging up the beautiful browser on this phone by setting the home page to the useless Vodafone 360 Web page. We were even more livid after finding that Vodafone had also added comically bad bookmarks to Vodafone's own Facebook, Twitter and other portals, instead of the real things. To make matters worse, Vodafone's sites are 'under construction'.

Vodafone's apps (left) and pre-loaded browser bookmarks (right) are a disaster.

But the apps are even worse. The Vodafone 360 Shop, which we assume contains Android apps, failed to load, producing an incomprehensible error message. The Music Shop wouldn't work when we were connected to Wi-Fi. The 360 MyWeb app looked more like an old-fashioned WAP site. And the Updates app won't come in handy until the Shop works, and you choose to install something from it, which, in our case, will be never.

At least the Music Shop and 360 MyWeb apps can be deleted. You'll just have to pretend the other two don't exist.

Samsung apps

Then there are the Samsung Hubs. These are pre-loaded apps intended to deliver a little extra usefulness, and they come in social, music, gaming and ebook flavours.

The Social Hub collects together your email and social networks into one massive, friendly feed. It works without a hitch, but we'd be surprised if many users choose it over the standard email application or the plethora of social-networking apps available in the Android Market. It produces a simple stream of updates, and you can't sort it into Twitter lists or use similar filters. On the plus side, you can comment and 'Like' directly from the app, and update your status across all your networks at once. Compared to apps like TweetDeck and HootSuite, Samsung's effort does the bare minimum.

The Game Hub is much the same story, offering some free games to download. But there's little incentive to visit a secondary app store when the Android Market is so easily accessible, and crammed with many thousands of games.

Samsung's Social Hub (left) works fine but does the bare minimum. The Reader Hub (right) is full of good content, but not cheap.

The ebook and music apps are more promising. The Reader Hub lets you download books (powered by Kobo), digital newspapers (from PressDisplay) and magazines (powered by Zinio). We were initially sceptical, but there's enough content and variation here to make it worth looking into, even if you do ultimately plump for the excellent Kindle app from the Android store. Note that, like the Kindle Store, most of the content in the Reader Hub costs money.

The Music Hub is powered by 7digital, letting you shop for MP3s. It's functional, but we found the music selection to be slightly chaotic, with plenty of duplicate entries for popular songs. It's up against the Amazon MP3 app, which performs the same service, and we found the Music Hub's prices to be slightly more expensive.

Finally there's Samsung Apps, which is a secondary, largely redundant app store. We'd avoid the extra complication and bypass this entirely in favour of the Android Market.

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