Review of the Samsung Galaxy S II LTE


The Samsung Galaxy S II LTE (known as the Skyrocket on AT&T in the US) is essentially the same phone as the Samsung Galaxy S2, but with an LTE radio in addition to the standard HSPA+ radio. Another big difference is that the original S II has a Samsung Exynos dual-core processor clocked at 1.2 GHz, while the S2 LTE has a Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 APQ8060 dual-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz. More on that in the review.

Last Updated: 18-Jan-2012

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

I was in the market to replace my aging Samsung Galaxy S Captivate. Even though Iíd kept it going by the use of custom ROMS and speed tweaks, it had become apparent to me that it was just too slow for my liking. Iíd thought the Galaxy Nexus would be the obvious choice for a replacement, but after reviewing that model I came to the conclusion that (for me at least) it just wasnít up to the task. I also thought about waiting for the Galaxy S III, but there was no way to know how long it would be before I could get my hands on one that supports North American bands (specifically for LTE).

I could have settled with the regular Galaxy S II, but as Iíd noted in my review for that phone, it just wasnít a big enough step up for me. Iíd seen demonstrations of LTE and I felt that it was a must-have for my next phone and the S II LTE seemed like a perfect fit. However, I wasnít about to buy an S2 LTE without first testing one, and so Howard Chui (of HowardForums fame) was nice enough to get me one from his connections.

You can check out Howard's own review of this phone on HowardForums at:

http://www.howardforums.com/content.php/810-My-review-of-the-Samsung-Galaxy-S-II-LTE

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

RF Sensitivity: Sadly I canít comment on the RF performance of the LTE radio, simply because I have nothing to compare it to. Yes there are other LTE phones on the market, but as of yet Iíve been unable to test them. I can however compare its HSPA radio with the one in my Captivate.

I did notice that that the LTE "bars" at the top of the screen and deceptively low. The phone seems to spend most of its time at 1 bar, but this is apparently because the people responsible for programming the signal levels at which the meter changes from bar to the next did it completely out of sync with the typical signal levels found on LTE.

When I tested the phone I used the status screen available by dialing *#0011# and I watched the RSRP value, which is the signal strength is dBm. Typically LTE seems to have much lower values than HSPA and service doesn't disappear until around −118 dBm, whereas with HSPA it gets poor around −100 dBm. Clearly something is amiss in the code that determines signal strength and you'll only see 2 bars or higher when the signal is actually quite strong.

Everything else I have to say about LTE is covered in the section entitled "The LTE Experience" further down in this review.

I ran tests of my two phones on HSPA in extremely weak conditions and the S2 LTE edged out the Captivate BY A SLIM MARGIN. The difference was not enough to proclaim that the S2 LTE as superior to the Captivate. That said, the Captivate is hardly a top contender for RF prowess in the first place, and so when it comes to HSPA performance (which also includes all voice calls, because at this time there is no Voice-Over-LTE standard supported by any North American network) the S2 LTE is only average.

Audio Performance

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.

Tonal Balance: Compared to the Captivate, the S2 LTE sounds remarkably similar. If Iíd have to guess, Iíd say that Samsung probably used the same earpiece in both phones. Subsequently the S2 LTE has a nice balance of highs and lows with good clarity. That isnít to say itís the best earpiece Iíve ever heard, because it isnít. It could do with a little more low-end and slightly less harshness, but it sounds much better than most phones I've tested lately.

Sound Reproduction: I was happy to discover that the S2 LTE doesnít suffer from the same hiss problem I encountered on the Galaxy Nexus (also manufactured by Samsung). The S2 LTE has virtually NO background noise whatsoever and it sounds almost eerie. In fact, it has slightly less background hiss than the Captivate, and I was really impressed with that phoneís call audio.

Earpiece Volume: The earpiece volume is at least 2 or 3 dB louder on the S2 LTE than on the Captivate. I found the volume loud enough that even in a noisy environment I didnít have a need to use the maximum volume setting, unless the caller was unusually faint to begin with.

Outgoing Audio: To test the outgoing audio I made a few test recordings to my voicemail as I drove along the highway. As I made the recordings I opened the windows on the car and I drove by noisy trucks that made it almost impossible to hear my own voice. One thing was quite clear about this phone, its active noise cancellation worked like a charm and got rid of virtually all of the background noise (to the point that your callers won't even know you're in a car).

An active system use two microphones: one located at the bottom of the phone (which you speak into); and the other at the top to take samples of the background noise. This approach always works exceptionally well at blanking noise.

The menus include an option to activate or deactivate noise suppression, but it apparently has nothing to do with the activate noise cancellation system. In fact, I found that more noise got through when when I turned on the option than when I turned it off.

In either case (with noise suppression on or off) the sound quality is a a bit nasal. I took an 18-minute call from my wife on the S2 LTE (without her knowing that which phone I was using) and she later told me that I sounded like I was using an cheap cell phone. So while the noise cancellation is top-notch, the overall sound quality is disappointing.

Loudspeaker: Thereís no question that the S2 LTE has a much louder speaker than the Captivate, whereas the speaker in the standard S2 was judged to be no different from the one in my Captivate. This is one identifiable improvement in the S2 LTE over the standard S2. This is great news for those trying to watch multimedia content with low volume to begin with. However, I don't feel that the speaker sounds as good, even when adjusted to the same level as the Captivate. The difference is slight, but the S2 LTE speaker seems just a little bit tinnier.

Because the speaker on the S2 LTE is markedly louder for multimedia, itís also louder for ringtones. While the S2 LTE is certainly no iDEN phone, its ringtone volume is surprisingly loud.

Support Features

Display: Like the standard S2, the S2 LTE uses a 4.5-inch SuperAMOLED Plus display with a resolution of 800 x 480. I find that the larger screen size of the S2 vs the Captivate (4.5 vs 4.0 inches) finally begins to stretch the limits of this resolution (most new high-end phones will probably get 1280 x 720 going forward), but unless you are staring at the screen very closely (as I can do when I remove my glasses) you won't find much to complain about.

The SuperAMOLED Plus is a really great display technology. What it excels at is BLACK. When pixels are black on this screen, they are REALLY BLACK. This tends to prompt owners to opt for darker black-based display themes. This good for battery life, because unlike LCD displays, AMOLEDs only draw power when they light a pixel. The fewer pixels that are lit, the less power it consumes. In addition, a jet-black background creates the illusion that there is absolutely NO BEZEL around this screen.

Keypad: Like virtually all modern phones that do not include a slide-out physical keyboard, there are no keys on the face of the phone. What we get on the S2 LTE are 4 softkeys under the screen. In fact, the look of the S2 LTE is pretty much identical to the Captivate. Unlike the standard S2, the LTE model sold in North America does not have the physical center button (though versions sold elsewhere in the world do).

Icing on the Cake

Processor: As noted at the beginning of this review, the S2 LTE uses a different processor to the standard S2. This is most likely because the Samsung Exynos does not support LTE, though I'm really not sure of the exact reason. If you search the internet youíll find plenty of comparisons made between the two versions of the phone, but the important point here is not to assume that because the Snapdragon runs at 1.5 GHz that it is going to automatically be faster than the Exynos running at 1.2 GHz. Many of the comparisons come to the conclusion that in the real-world performance of the two processors is remarkably similar (often with the nod given to the Exynos in the standard S2).

The S2 LTE (like the standard S2) is a lightning-fast phone with no detectable lag (unlike the Captivate, despite many tweaks intended to overcome its lag issues). The dual-core processor ensures that the UI runs smoothly, even when there are processor-intensive background task taking place.

Memory: The phone features 1 GB of RAM, which is standard for most high-end phones these days. Anyone with less than this knows that RAM is at a premium during day-to-day use of Gingerbread. For long-term storage the phone come with 16 GB of flash memory standard and a MicroSD slot. You can add a further 32 GB of flash memory for a total of 48 GB.

Camera: The S2 LTE sports the same 8 megapixel rear-facing and 2 megapixel front-facing cameras found on the standard S2. The pictures taken by the camera are very good, but perhaps not quite as good as those you can take with the iPhone 4S.

In many of the other posted reviews I've read thus far, I have seen countless complaints about the low-light ability of the S2 LTEís camera, in which the common gripe is the pictures are dark and underexposed. However, I switched the phone into Night Mode and I could take shockingly bright photographs in extreme low-light conditions. It totally blew away the Captivateís camera under the same conditions.

Noise is ALWAYS an issue on digital cameras at low light levels, but the amount and type of noise produced by the S2 LTE camera (in Night Mode) is noteworthy. Most phones produce noise that looks like a rainbow of random colors when viewed at high magnification and this will often render dark areas in a tint (such as red or green). The noise on the S2 LTEís camera looks remarkably like GRAIN found on film photographs. This is a good thing, because grain is much easier on the eye (and on printing engines) than color noise.

When the light is good, the pictures are crisp, clean, and the colors are terrific. Outdoor photographs are exceptional.

But donít get me wrong, this camera isnít about to replace your DSLR, but the overall quality of the photographs you can take with the S2 LTE are certainly among the best youíll find on the current generation of camera phones.

Like the standard S2, the video capture capabilities of the S2 LTE are also terrific. The phone can shoot 1080p video at 30 fps with exceptional results. If you read many of Howard Chui's reviews you'll notice that one of his common gripes about phone video cameras is their use of the center pixels of the sensor, rather than the entire sensor, with the results scaled down to the selected video size.

Curiously the S2 LTE is guilty of this, but only at 1080p. When you shoot videos at 720p (or lower) the entire sensor is indeed used. You can tell this is the case, because the 1080p videos look "zoomed-in" compared to still photographs. On the other hand, 720p and below show the same amount of the scene as still photos. Because of this scheme you can use the digit zoom on videos shot at 720p or lower, but not on 1080p videos.

Audio Chipset: The S2 LTE, like the standard S2, uses a Yamaha audio chipset for multimedia audio. This chipset produces excellent audio when played through an amplifier and speakers, but it suffers from slight (though certainly noticeable) ticking and popping sounds as you do things with the phone while the chip is idle. This doesnít seem to apply when you are actually listening to music, but if you have earbuds on, or have the phone connected to an amplifier while you arenít playing music, youíll hear these sounds constantly as you do things with the phone. The Wolfson Microelectronics chipset used in the Captivate doesnít produce these noises at all.

I also noticed some other oddities with the audio chipset in the S2 LTE. For example, I had a bit of trouble with an old WAV file that I use as the ringtone for arriving email on the Gmail app. This WAV file sounds just fine on the Captivate and on any PC, but when played on the S2 LTE it has random noise at the very end. Just to be sure it wasnít a corrupted file on the phone I copied that file back to the PC and played it, but it sounded normal. I solved the problem by converting the WAV file into an MP3, which the phone played just fine.

The Wikipedia entry for the Samsung Galaxy S II asserts that the Yamaha chipset has inferior sound quality to the Wolfson chipset in the Galaxy S phones. I compared these phones side-by-side, and except for the ticking and popping issue, I couldnít honestly hear the difference. Now before anyone brings this up, I do consider myself an audiophile but Iím also willing to accept that some people may be much more so than I, in which case they might be right. Differences may also sound more pronounced on high-end headphones or earbuds. For the average user however, I doubt theyíll be the least bit disappointed with the Yamaha chipset (the ticks and pops notwithstanding).

The LTE Experience

The main reason for choosing the S2 LTE over the standard S2 is to get LTE (an acronym for Long Term Evolution). However, the LTE network is presently only available in a few major cities in North America. In Canada, Rogers offers LTE in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa at the time of this writing, though I suspect theyíll be launching new cities in the coming months. If you donít live in an area with LTE you wonít be able to take advantage of the capability and your phone will work only on the HSPA+ network like the standard S2. The S2 LTE supports 21-megabit HSPA+.

So whatís the big deal with LTE? In a word, SPEED. The LTE network is markedly faster than the HSPA+ network in virtually every use-case you can think of. But itís not just the raw data rate that is better on LTE, it's also the latency.

When surfing the web, latency (or ping time as it is commonly referred to) plays a major role in how fast we perceive the experience to be. Latency is stated in milliseconds and it refers to the time it takes to send a request to a server and get a response back. Web pages typically include hundreds of small images, each of which must be individually requested by the browser. Latency will slow down this process on each and every request.

If you have a good DSL or cable internet connection at home, youíll typically see ping times in the 10 to 40 millisecond range, but with HSPA this goes way up to 80 to 200 milliseconds. On LTE youíll typically see ping times in the range of 35 to 80 milliseconds. The difference between LTE and HSPA is often startling. Even if LTE had the same raw data rate as HSPA, it would still seem faster due to lower latency.

When it come to raw data rates, the maximum speed of an HSPA device varies depending upon which HSPA version it supports. Early HSPA devices could only achieve a maximum speed of 3.6 megabits per second and in reality they were lucky to reach 1.5 megabits. Next came devices capable of 7.2 megabits (such as the Captivate). Under ideal conditions users of these devices could see up to 6 megabits. After that we move into HSPA+, of which there are various versions, including 14 megabits, 21 megabits, and dual-channel 42 megabits.

The problem with HSPA+ however, is that in order to get anywhere near these theoretical maximum speeds (and you almost never get better than halfway there) you need a very strong signal and the device typically needs to be stationary. On the move, most HSPA+ devices switch to 7.2-megabit HSPA and deliver transfer rates that are typically around 3 megabits.

LTE on the other hand has a theoretical maximum speed of 75 megabits (at the present time) and Iíve personally seen speeds of 60 megabits down and 19 megabits up. During a drive along Highway 403 through Mississauga (at 100 km/h or slightly above) I ran countless speed test on the S2 LTE and I saw consistent results of 10 to 15 megabits down and 5 to 7 megabits up, with latency in the 35 to 50 millisecond range. I often ran those tests when I knew I was between sites.

Iíve found that signal penetration on the Rogers LTE network in Toronto is about equal to the 1900 MHz HSPA network. This isnít surprising since LTE in Canada presently operates on 1700 MHz. While that does mean that an 850 MHz HSPA signal can penetrate further into a building, by the time LTE drops out of the picture the speed on HSPA will have become almost unusable at less than 250 kilobits down and ping times of 200 to 300 milliseconds. When LTE is at its fringe limits it still provides fairly impressive latency and data speeds are often in excess of 2 megabits.

In my experience, the usability of LTE far exceeds that of HSPA, especially in fringe coverage situations. While raw speed does degrade on LTE as the signal gets weaker, the latency remains remarkably consistent. HSPA on the other hand sees a marked degradation in latency right along with a drop in raw speed, making it difficult to use HSPA in circumstances where LTE still feels like its flying along.

Iíve heard many people say that having such high data rates will cause users to BURN through their monthly bucket of data in less than an hour. Itís theoretically possible, but I find it hard not to laugh when I hear this, because having a fast connection wonít make you suddenly prone to downloading 10 GB files. Youíll most likely continue to use your phone much as you had been on HSPA, with the occasional extreme uses.

If you werenít using all of your monthly data before, itís highly unlikely youíll blow over it on LTE, unless of course you insist on doing countless speed tests to impress your friends. On LTE a single test using SpeedTest.net can consume as much as 25 MB. Just 40 such tests will therefore consume 1 GB. Beware of that. The only real danger comes when people try to replace their home internet connection with a tethered LTE phone or an LTE dongle. Check your monthly data consumption on your home connection before you make this potentially foolhardy decision.

The bottom line is that LTE is a terrific data network and it beats HSPA hands down in virtually every situation. It's faster and it's snappier for web browsing. In day-to-day use it provides exceptional performance under conditions that leave HSPA gasping for breath.

Conclusions

In the conclusions section of my review for the original Samsung Galaxy S II back in July of 2011 I stated that I didnít believe that S2 was a big enough step up from the original Galaxy S to warrant spending the money. Iíve gone and replaced my Captivate with a S2 LTE, and so does that mean the addition of LTE is really enough to push the S2 over the top? Iíd have to say yes it is, because LTE is a big deal. If you live in an area serviced by LTE, then you really should consider making the step up. The Samsung Galaxy S II LTE is certainly a very nice way to make the transition.

However, if you live in an area without LTE, is it worth upgrading to the S2 LTE now in hopes that the service will come to your neck of the woods in the next few months? Iím not so sure about that, because there is no way to know for sure how long it might take. Things change very quickly in the Android world and if you buy an S2 LTE today you might find there is another LTE phone on the market that you really want (like the expected Galaxy S III) long before LTE is available to you.

So, if you have access to LTE I believe that the S2 LTE is one of the best Android phone on the market at the time of this writing (mid-January of 2012). Itís only weaknesses are a less-than-cutting-edge screen resolution of only 800 x 480 and only so-so RF performance. We can also toss in the fact that Ice Cream Sandwich isnít YET available on it, but hopefully this will become a non-issue in the coming months. In every other respect this phone will fulfill your every Android wish.

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