Review of the Samsung Galaxy S II


The Samsung Galaxy S II is the successor to the wildly popular Galaxy S line of Android smartphones. Because I already own a Samsung Galaxy S Captivate (running the Firefly custom ROM) I felt that it was the perfect phone to compare the new one to. From what Iíd already heard, I expected the S2 to be a vastly better phone, but as youíll discover, itís only an incremental improvement over the older model.

Last Updated: 27-Jul-2011

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

RF Performance

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To test RF sensitivity I went with Howard Chu to the IKEA store in Etobicoke on The Queensway. That had previous been a terrific place to test RF capabilities of phones because no network could penetrate the lower level of the building. Sadly (well okay, itís really good news) Rogers, Bell, and Telus now have a site inside the store and their coverage is great. As for testing, we were able to use the underground level of the parking structure on the south side of IKEA. There we could fade out the signal from Rogers and thus provide a way to compare two phones in a fringe signal area.

Rather than test the phones using a voice call, as Iíve done on all previous tests to date, I concentrated instead on data connections. HSPA data is far more demanding than voice and it provides a wonderful window into the quality of the service both on the uplink and the downlink. The better the signal, the faster the data rate. The Captivate and the S2 were both tested on Rogers and the results were astonishingly close. If there was any difference at all between the two phones, it was barely detectable.

The Captivate is hardly a strong contender in the RF sweepstakes, and so the S2 falls pretty much in the same mediocre camp. I was rather disappointed by the results, because Samsung had apparently done some work on the antenna design in the new phone and moved it from the bottom to the top. In the real world then, it seems the modifications had very little impact.

Audio Performance

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Sound Quality: The S2 sounds almost identical to the Captivate in every way, and so Iíll just cut-and-paste my comments concerning the audio from the review of the Captivate:

Compared to the Nokia N95 (my previous day-to-day phone) some voices sound a tiny bit harsh, but others sound positively astounding, and so this one is a bit difficult to call. The N95 sounded good, but if you read my original review of it youíll see that I was a bit leery of giving its tonal balance unreserved praise. The same can be said of the Galaxy S, but for slightly different reasons. Iíve been impressed with the tonal balance of the Galaxy S far more often than Iíve been disappointed, but I wish it had a bit more low-end.

While the tonal balance was a tough call, the sound reproduction was not. The Galaxy S is exceptional in this respect, beginning with its startlingly natural reproduction of all nuances of speech. This is backed up by the most eerie lack of hiss and background noise Iíve heard in quite some time (a trait it shares with the Samsung Focus). When I talk to people on the Galaxy S the only thing I hear is their voice. No hiss, no crackling, no distortion. If there is no background noise at your callers end and they arenít speaking, itís almost like the phone is turned off.

Earpiece Volume: The Captivate already had fairly good earpiece volume, but the new S2 improves on that SLIGHTLY. The big difference is a less pronounced sweet spot, and so you donít have to struggle as much to find just the right spot against your ear to get maximum volume.

Outgoing Audio: Outgoing sound quality is very good in a quite environment, but as background noise increases the phone attempts to blot out that noise. In the process it does enormous damage to your voice. This seems to be a flaw common with many Samsung models, though surprisingly the stock Captivate ROM offered a way to turn off the noise suppression, but it doesnít seem to be in the S2 (nor is it in the Firefly ROM).

Speakerphone: The speaker in the S2 is virtually identical to the one in the Captivate. It isnít any louder and it doesnít sound any cleaner. The only real difference is that it has been moved from near the top of the back side of the phone to the bottom of the backside. I didnít find that this helped in any meaningful way. Like the Captivate it provides relatively mediocre volume and sound quality during speakerphone operation, but it does provide surprisingly good audio for listening to music or the soundtrack of videos.

Support Features

Ringer Volume: Again, because the speaker doesnít differ from the Captivate, the ringer provides identical performance. As I said about the Captivate, the performance of the ringer is tied directly to the quality of speaker in multimedia situations. In that respect the S2 does well, but not nearly as well as the Nokia N95ís much-louder stereo speakers. I put my loud ringer.mp3 file onto the phone and it does a much better job of cutting through the background noise than the silly musical ringtones provided natively, but it still isnít anywhere near as loud as the same ringtone on the N95. Fortunately, putting custom ringtones on an Android phone is dirt simple.

Display: The S2 comes with a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen with a resolution of 800 x 480. This is the same resolution as the Captivate, but on a screen thatís slightly larger (the Captivate has a 4-inch display). The big claim-to-fame in the new Super AMOLED Plus, over that of the Super AMOLED used on the Captivate, is that it no longer uses the PenTile sub-pixel arrangement.

While all of the reasons given as to why the traditional sub-pixel layout of the Plus display is superior to the PenTile layout of the previous-generation display, the results are virtually undetectable in the real world. Text DOES NOT look sharper and you can read ultra-tiny text on the Captivate just as well as you can on the S2. To be fair however, my custom ROM does include a tweak that claims to alter the anti-aliasing used. While I couldnít say for sure I noticed an improvement when I installed the custom ROM, it might have had an impact on my assessment in this case. At the same time it does demonstrate that the PenTile sub-pixel layout of the Captivate is not the cause of less-readable or blurrier text.

I also noticed that Samsung greatly increased the contrast of the display, which results in a loss of visible detail in dark areas of photographs. While the extreme contrast works well in icons and text, it just doesnít cut it in photographs and videos. They also jacked up the color saturation, which seems odd given that a commonly-heard complaint about the previous-generation Galaxy S phones was that they seemed a little too over-saturated. Fortunately there is a way to adjust the color saturation on the S2 and you CAN turn it down so that it at least matches on the older phone.

At maximum brightness, the S2 display is no brighter than the Captivateís display. This means that itís no easier to see in directly sunlight than it predecessor.

So the new screen doesnít really seem to offer anything substantial over that of the old one. It is slightly larger, which for some is a plus, but otherwise it offers no real-world advantages, no matter what fans may try to argue should theoretically be the case.

Icing on the Cake

Camera: The S2 now sports an 8-megapixel camera that takes the place of the 5-megapixel unit on the old Galaxy S phones. I took numerous photographs with S2 and my Captivate and the truth is that the extra 3 megapixels donít amount to a hill of beans. The real advantage to the S2 comes in the form of better camera software, which provides a much more user-friendly interface and improved exposure calculations. So overall, your pictures are better exposed and better color-balanced, but the sharpness and overall clarity are not much different.

On the video side of the equation however, the S2 really shines. It provides 1080p HD video vs 720p on the old models. Not only does it provide greater resolution, it also does so with smoothness that is nothing short of terrific. Whereas the old Galaxy S phones would skip slightly on fast pans, the S2 can handles pans with the aplomb of a dedicated camera. The sensor is also a bit more sensitive, meaning you can shoot video in lower light than was previously possible.

Processor: As with the Motorola Atrix I reviewed a few months ago, the S2 has a dual-core processor. That doesnít mean your apps will run faster, but it does provide a markedly smoother user interface. One especially astounding improvement is in the performance of Flash. Embedded videos on web pages run as smooth as silk, and the existence of flash video within a page seems to have no impact on the smooth scrolling of the screen. How much of this can be attributed to the dual-core processor and how much can be attributed to 1 GB of RAM (vs 512 MB in the older Galaxy S phones) is difficult to say, but the results are hard to ignore. The same is true of Google Maps, which scrolls with astounding smoothness, even in satellite mode. Generally speaking the U/I is noticeably snappier and the overall the graphics are rendered more smoothly.

There is no longer an issue with LAG because Samsung wised up and dumped the RFS file system in favor of Ext 4. Most of the ďLag FixĒ mods for the old Galaxy S models entailed replacing RFS with Ext 2 or Ext 4. Without getting into a long discussion on how Flash memory differs from hard drive storage, suffice it say that writing to Flash is far more complex than writing to a hard drive. How you do it can have a huge impact on performance.

Odds and Ends: A number of small changes were made to the phoneís design that some may find welcome, while other may find a pain. For example, the USB/charge port was moved from the top of the phone to the bottom, but the 3.5 mm headset jack stayed on the top. For those of us who use the phone as a source of music in our cars, this is a perplexing design decision that has cables coming out of the top and the bottom that makes putting the phone down in the car a huge problem. I find that having both on top (as is the case on my Captivate) is a perfect solution. Whether they put the jacks on the top or the bottom, it would have been nice if theyíd put on the same ends.

Conclusions

The new Samsung Galaxy S II is a mixed bag. It provides clearly better performance, especially in rending Flash content, and the 1 GB of RAM should mean that the phone virtually never has to dump anything to free up space (which occurs commonly on phones with 512 MB or less). On the other hand, it offers very little improvement in other areas and it adds new annoyances such as the top-and-bottom connectors.

If you already own a Samsung Galaxy S (Captivate, Fascinate, or Vibrant) you may not find much reason to trade-in your existing phone. The new S2 is an incremental improvement over the old phones to be sure, but you donít gain all that much and if you wait another 6 months youíll probably be able to buy a phone that puts the S2 to shame.

However, if you currently donít own an Android phone, or you have something thatís a few generations old and you just have to get something new, then you canít really go wrong with the S2. It is without a doubt one of the most powerful Android phones on the market at this time.

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