There are good phones and there are great phones. It’s rare to get one that’s just an absolute joy. That’s exactly what the Galaxy S II is.

Samsung’s Galaxy S II is actually one of three devices; like last year, Samsung built multiple models some slight differences. On AT&T (tested), the Galaxy S II has a 4.3” display and runs on an HSPA+ (standard 4G, not LTE) network. Sprint’s model (named the Epic 4G Touch, to be reviewed soon) has a 4.5” display and has access to Sprint’s 4G network. T-Mobile’s Galaxy S II is a mix of both, with a 4.5” screen and an HSPA+ antenna.

Like last year’s Galaxy S phones, Samsung has seriously improved on last year’s design with sharper screens, better and faster components, and overall better performance and feel. The improvements are across every aspect of the phone, and I am convinced that the Galaxy S II, specifically the AT&T model, is the best phone design available with Android. It’s not as stylistically or artistically built as the iPhone, but it feels great in the hand, it’s very lightweight and very comfortable and slim, and it just looks slick.

Hardware

 

The Galaxy S II is thin and light. It’s just 4.3 ounces and 0.33” thick, 0.6 ounces lighter and 0.04” thinner than the iPhone 4S. It’s one of the lightest and thinnest phones available, while still being one of the most powerful handsets.

From left to right: Motorola Droid Bionic, Galaxy S II, HTC Rezound

The 4.3” display uses stunning SuperAMOLED+, which is supposed to be an improvement over last year’s SuperAMOLED, but that difference is generally hard to see. Like OLED displays, the Galaxy S II provides excellent color and light contrast, far better than the LCD display on the iPhone 4/4S. OLED displays also lack brightness, and typically are unusable in direct sunlight. That’s where the + in SuperAMOLED+ comes in: the display is clearly visible in direct sunlight. Contrast drops to nil, but the screen is easy to see, text is still easy to read, and you can clearly take pictures even in blistering-bright conditions.

It’s a small point to include, but the screen also appears to have some sort of oleophobic coating. Fewer fingerprints and smudges stick to the screen, and those that do are easier to clean than on other Android phones.

Like all Samsung Galaxy devices, the power button is on the right of the device, a comfortable place to activate or put the phone to sleep instantly. On the left is the volume rocker. Both sets of physical buttons feel good to press, and don’t accidentally get pressed in the pocket. The MicroUSB port is on the bottom of the phone, which is exactly where it should be to accommodate docks, and the 3.5mm audio port is on the top right. The front-facing camera is a 2MP shooter.

On the back is the 8MP camera and single LED flash. The rear cover looks good but is actually a cheap plastic cover, which is easy to put on and take off. Under that is the SIM slot, MicroSD card slot and battery. For some reason the battery covers the MicroSD card slot.

The overall design of the Galaxy S II is spectacular. The cheap plastic cover and blocked MicroSD port and slight missteps, something Samsung has done properly on other devices in the past and shouldn’t have failed to fix this time around. For this phone though, they are almost inconsequential.

Internally, the Galaxy S II sports a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal NAND memory. With expandable memory the Galaxy S II can reach 48GB total (using a 32GB card). The Galaxy S II also runs on an ARM Mali-400 GPU, which is important (we’ll get to that later) and powers the 800×480 display.

The Galaxy S II is also one of the first phones to feature NFC (near-field communication), which can be used in tandem with Google Wallet and certain phone-payment applications and services. Unfortunately, unless you live in a big, modern city like New York or San Francisco, chances are you won’t run across shops or restaurants that use NFC. I haven’t in Los Angeles.

What has been problematic is Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi antenna does not reach very far, and compared to every other phone I’ve tested over the past two years, the Galaxy S II just stinks at reaching Wi-Fi radios. Signals that, on the iPhone 3GS, HTC Rezound and Droid Bionic averaged -86, the Galaxy S II showed one bar signal but would bounce in and out of range and not have any ability to upload or download data. Even when plugged into a dock and stationary it had trouble just streaming music. Thankfully the cellular antenna worked, and HSPA+ is fast enough to make up for the poor Wi-Fi reception. Of course, that will cost a lot more with no unlimited plans.

Software & Battery Life

Android 2.3.4 runs very well on the Galaxy S II. Applications open and close smoothly, games run quickly, load times are minimal; the phone as a whole is fast and snappy. Few things are slow in any way, with a notable exception to the camera, which takes pictures quickly but immediately after stalls for 2-3 seconds.

As you can see in the benchmarks below, the Galaxy S II doesn’t only run everyday applications well. The ARM Mali-400 kills in benchmark tests, and is the fastest GPU available on smartphones today, period. Whether all that graphical power is useful on an Android device with limited games and graphics-intensive applications is questionable, but the point stands: the Galaxy S II isn’t playing around. It’s a legitimately powerful handset.

Battery life on the S II isn’t great. The new benchmark I’m implementing for Android reviews doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but bare in mind the phones listed aren’t all high-end models like the Galaxy S II. The only high-end model that scored better, thus far, is HTC’s Evo 3D (and the Epic 4G Touch, another Galaxy S II phone). As more phones come in for testing, the scores will average out more appropriately.

Still, it’s what I’ve come to accept from smartphones today, about a full day of use under any condition. What’s interesting is that it will last almost as long under heavy use as it does under moderate use. That’s probably due to the GPU’s lack of optimization in Android 2.3.4, which means the phone’s graphics processing is always fast but the battery life will suffer, even under light use. In a 9am-10pm day, the phone will be at 10-20% battery life under most conditions.

Benchmarks

The Galaxy S II is one of the fastest phones available. The 1.2GHz CPU doesn’t match today’s top speed, but the combination of a fast CPU, lots of RAM and the best GPU available on an Android device make the Galaxy S II a speed demon. Take a look at these scores.

In tests like Quadrant Standard, the Galaxy S II doesn’t just beat the competition, it destroys it. I don’t doubt that there won’t be an Android phone to beat the Galaxy S II for a few months, which nowadays is a big deal. And not only can it handle native applications well, the Galaxy S II processes Javascript and web browsing almost as fast as high-end tablets. The only faster phones, at least in the Browsermark test, ran 320×480 displays, so they processed less than half of the screens the Galaxy S II did.

Furthermore, some of the graphics-intense benchmarks were completely blown away by Samsung’s latest. The Galaxy S II can handle 720p graphics processing on a separate display at over 30FPS, something literally no other phone tested could do.

Camera

The camera on the Galaxy S II is highly capable. It’s an 8MP shooter capable of 1080p video, and it’s one of the best cameras I’ve tested on any phone this year. Take a look at some of the pictures taken.

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Photos are very detailed, and look great. Stills taken in daylight, in good conditions, are as good as you find on mid-range point and shoot cameras. So if you go for a day trip, no need to pack a camera. The Galaxy S II is all you need.

The bigger problem is with how slow the camera is, or rather, with how long it takes for the camera to process the shot and move on to the next one. The pause between each photo is anywhere from 3-5 seconds long, which if you’re trying to capture a lot of action quickly, is a big problem. Lowering the resolution, even to just 640×480, doesn’t speed up shot-to-shot time significantly.

Night photos and low-light situations also tend to have noisy pictures, though if there is a lot of light contrast present, pictures can come out fairly clear. However, even with good lighting under standard incandescent bulbs photos can be very pixelated. The flash is powerful and works well, as you can see in the flash-images above. With decent lighting, the Galaxy S II takes some great night shots.

1080p video recording has good quality. Colors are accurate, picture quality is good, though sounds are muted and hard to hear. The front facing 2MP camera also takes adequate shots.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S II is one of the fastest phones available today. It’s one of the lightest and thinnest too. It’s got an excellent display, a solid camera, and has access to HSPA+. It feels good in the hand and in the pocket. These are the qualities we all want in a phone, and Samsung has done a tremendous job getting that all in a tidy package.

It isn’t perfect, however. Battery life, while decent, lasts a day only. So if you’re off and forget a charger, turn the phone off until you need it. Battery drain is strangely consistent under both regular and heavy use. A weak Wi-Fi antenna is also a huge problem, though based on my research it isn’t clear whether this is widespread on all Galaxy S II phones (I haven’t experienced the problem with the Sprint model), but it is a serious issue. Besides for some minor gripes, everything else about the Galaxy S II is just great. It’s one of the few phones I’ve tested that has just been an absolute pleasure to use, one of the few that I would happily replace with my personal phone.

There’s only one conclusion: the Galaxy S II is one of the best Android phones available. I highly recommend it for anyone.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★½

Excellent

Bottom Line: It’s one of the best Android phones, period. The Galaxy S II can take on the iPhone, take on newer phones like the HTC Rezound and Motorola Droid Bionic, while still lighter, thinner, and less expensive than all of the above.

Pros:

  • It’s the fastest Android phone, period.
  • Well designed; feels great in the hand, in the pocket
  • Great picture and video quality

Cons:

  • A weak Wi-Fi antenna that has serious trouble connecting to Wi-Fi signals
  • Battery life is a day, which is generally enough, but even under minimal use requires a recharge nightly
  • The camera takes quick pictures, but slow shot-to-shot time



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.