I’ve been using my Blackberry Torch for sometime now and although I am happy with it (most times) there were a few quirks that annoyed me on a regular basis. So with my mobile phone provider reminding me I had a chance to try out their 3G service (I’ve been on 2G for a good part of 12 years) I agreed to the change.
I had a choice of iPhone 4 or any other phone and opted for an Android phone. I looked at the specs of available phones from HTC since I have a couple of old HTC phones lying around and instead opted for a Samsung Galaxy S2 (SGS2). Why? If I use the simple basis of technical specification, at the time of shopping for a new phone – 26 June 2011, the SGS2 was the most advanced phone in the market – whereas everyone was a single CPU device, the SGS2 was dual core. I hear rumors of the upcoming Nexus S3 phone will carry quadcore but who knows if the phone will come out in December 2011 or 2012? And while I am at times called the master of the waiting game, in this instance, I thought I’ve waited too long already. So move on.
Firs thing first. The SGS2 in the box follows the minimalistic packaging of the iPhone (small box cramed with cable, charger, small manual and headset). Not surprisingly there was a tiny user’s guide with the bare essentials to powering up and using the phone. This is where the difference lies between an iPhone and everyone else in the smartphone market.
External Look and Feel
The SGS2 comes with everything standard to a 2011 smartphone: high-speed processor (1.2 GHz Dual Core Application Processor), decent in-built memory, long battery life, dual high resolution cameras with flash, touch screen, dual-purpose standard USB port. It can be argued that Samsung borrowed from the minimalistic design of generations of iPhone (although I’d say the current generation of iPhone (version 4) looks like it got its inspiration from the candy-bar phones of HTC. At115 grams, it is surprisingly light if you consider the size of this thing (125.3 x 66.1 x 8.5mm).
A friend of mine commented that the SGS2 feels plasticky. And while it is true that the back panel is a thin plastic, Samsung is not the only one doing this. HTC has a number of phones using concept. Should it bother you? How else do you keep the weight light. In my case it doesn’t although to protect against scratches, dent and shock (from dopping) I bought myelf a cheap plastic/rubber shell (HK$20) and a screen shield (HK$15). Now its protected and is still almost as slim as without the casing.
At 4.3 inch diagonal, this is one of the largest smartphones available as of writing. It may not have the pixel density that iPhone 4 carries (640×960-pixel screen), nonetheless, the choice of AMOLED lends credence to the user comments I’ve read elsewhere that the SGS2 has one of the best displays in the market today (even against the iPhone). Before I forget, the SGS2 comes with a 480×800-pixel screen. Again don’t be fooled by the numbers. Apple’s marketing of its 640×980-pixel screen as Retina display is just a creative play on the part of marketing.
If there is any concern I have for the screen is whether Samsung has solved the heat problem associated with backlighted AMOLED. I first encountered this on the Samsung i900. Back then when you are using the i900, the phone gets so hot in mintes that you can be forgiven to thinking it was radioactive (and heat is a form of radiation). Fast forward today, the SGS2 comes with a Samsung numerical designation: i9100. And true enough it still has a heat problem (though not as intense as the i900). Its not hot enough to cook an egg on the surface of the screen but if you happen to type a short message (or browse the Web for a couple of minutes), you will feel the heat from the screen easily.
Samsung – please solve this problem!
Bottons, holes and camera
The SGS2 comes with three physical buttons. Looking at it from the front, there is a rocker switch on the left which is for volume control. On the right is the power on/off/lock/unlock combo button. As the universal home buttom on the bottom middle part of the front panel. It comes with two mics (on the top right next to the 3.5 inch audio jack and on the bottom to the right of the micro USB port. It comes with two speakers – on the top front of the phone where you expect to press your ear when you are making a call; and on the bottom back panel. Speaking of back panel, there is an 8.0 megapixel camera next to an incredibly small but very bright flash). The front facing camera is a decent 2-megapixel camera (compared to the iPhone 4’s 0.3megapixel VGA standard).
The SGS2 comes with Android 2.3.3 (Gingerbread). Like all Android phones (except the Nexus), updates to the OS happen as and when the phone manufacturer decides to make the upgrade. This is by far (IMHO) the biggest let down. Doesn’t matter if you use Sony Ericsson, Samsung, HTC, etc. They are all the same – they won’t let users upgrade the phone OS until months or even a year or two has passed. I suspect part of the strategy is to force the customer to buy a new phone. Don’t you just love these people? For example I got this SGS2 on 26 June. Android 2.3.4 came out in May.
What does this dual core processor mean? For one thing, you can run several applications in the background experiencing any significant performance lags. On most other smartphones, the devices starts to choke after you power-up a couple of applications – say Web browsing, downloading, watching a movie and Facebook. The iPhone doesn’t suffer this because despite marketing claims it doesn’t really do multi-task1. Is this important?
Traditionally iPhones were the equivalent of a dummies phone for cool people. And I mean this with all due respect. What I mean is you don’t need to read the manual to learn to use the device. You touch your way to learning how to use the device. The learning curve is when you start using more esoteric features like equalizers, screensavers, wallpaper, and the essentials of iTune (for my money, the single piece of software that locks you into Apple (period).
For Android, you need to be a smart person to use devices built on this platform. Making the Android platform even more complex is the way device manufacturers create user interfaces and add-on apps they claim are designed to make the experience of using the device more pleasurable (ton of bull IMHO).
Like the HTC smartphones using Android, Samsung wasn’t content to leave users with the official Gingerbread UI. Samsung preloads the TouchWiz 4.0 skin onto each SGS2. I’ve used Nexus some months back and I can tell you there isn’t really much of an improvement so I don’t know why users can’t disable this skin without rooting (jailbreaking on iPhones) the SGS2.
The SGS2 also comes with a few Samsung-specific software preloaded. Perhaps the most important you should remember is he Task Manager, a software which allows you to kill apps you don’t want hogging precious CPU power, memory and battery (since high CPU usage means high battery consumption).
The other app worth looking into is Polaris Office. Developed by Infraware (of Korea), its not as powerful as the original Microsoft Office Suite but it does Word, Excel and PowerPoint. So why complain?
Samsung must have also picked something from Microsoft Zune with the use of Hubs (or bundling of applications/services that do similar things). For example there is the Game Hub which a small gaming apps. More importantly (IMHO) is the Social Hub (which allows you to bring pull together all your favorite instant messaging apps, social networking services including faceboo, linkedin, twitter and plurk), and of course email. There is also the Samsung Apps Hub but with the abundance of software on the Google Apps Market, why even nother with Samsung Apps Hub. The one Hub I couldn’t find was the Music Hub. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if this was something the local mobile operator (in my case Three) would change.
The most loathed application in the Apple arsenal of products is iTunes. It is a slow clunker that hogs memory. Unfortunately it is the only way to connect your Apple mobile device (laptop, iPod, iPad, iPhone) is via iTunes. Samsung saw that Apple used iTunes to lock consumers to the company. Enter Kies – an application which mimics iTunes (all the way down to how irritating it is) with one exception – you can still load photos, music, videos and ebooks on the SGS2 without using Kies (they are not as maniacally obsessive as Apple). Samsung put one up Apple by also creating an app called Kies Air
As if admitting Kies is rubbish on the desktop, Samsung’s preloaded the S 2 with an app called Kies Air. This lets you explore your phone’s contents over a Wi-Fi connection. 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.
The SGS2 comes with an outward facing 8 Megapixel auto focus digital camera that shoots great outdoor picture but starts to wear down your patience when medium- to poorly lit scenes. It also shoots p1080. The video shots are decent but don’t expect the SGS2 to replace a standalone digital camera. Then again, this applies to all other devices. Its a great feature to have but don’t quit your day job (as it were).
Yes loading a website is reasonably fast on the SGS2 but unless the website is designed for this formfactor, I’d stick to using a screen size of 7 inch or more for browsing websites.
I installed Amazon Kindle, Adobe Acrobat Reader and Moon+Reader (epubs and cbr). The Kindle worked as advertised as did the Acrobat Reader. My experience with Moon+Reader is a mix bag. It has all the features you’d expect from a decent ereader but some minor flaws not worth wasting my breathe on. I’d say ‘live with it until a better one comes.’
The bane of every portable device is battery life. So far Apple has done a decent job with living to its promise of longer battery life (of course it had to compromise on things like multi-tasking). I charge my SGS2 every day because I love watching videos on it and I keep my SNS accounts alive throughout most of the day and parts of the night. At least the battery is user replaceable so I don’t have to bring it to a service center to get a new battery.
The SGS2 I got comes with 16GB of memory. I was surprised that the box didn’t include a complimentary micro-SD card. So I got myself a 16GB HS Kingston card for HK$185. The SGS2 does support 32GB but the price is still over HK$400 so I’d pass for now.
What I liked
This is really one of the slimmest mobile phones I’ve had the pleasure of using. The screen is big making the phone too big for my hand to comfortably hold. But it doesn’t feel like its going to break in my hand or slip (for that matter).
What I don’t like
I started this review with a story about smart devices for dummies using the iPhone as the benchmark of how to make a complicated device so simple to use, you literally don’t need a manual to use it. I haven’t read the SGS2;s 164 page manual and I am scared because I think it will only tell me half of the story.
For example, I was stumped for a week trying to understand why I can’t adjust the volume of phone calls when using the headset. Only after Googling did I find out about a workaround on this. Its not difficult to implement but then again it shouldn’t require me entering an odd set of numbers and special characters. How many more of these hidden tweaks do I have to discover?
Do I regret getting the SGS2? I have this tendency to lament spending money on something expensive. I could have waited for the Nexus 3 but with so much uncertainty about who is going to build it (rumor is LG and if that is true, I’d be concerned). I could have also opted for an iPhone4 but given that I really loathe using iTunes I think I am happy with the choice of Samsung Galaxy S2.
Other people’s review of the SGS2
I don’t suggest relying on one person’s opinion to make a decision. So here are a couple of other people’s review of the SGS2 to help you make an educated decision of your own. Good luck.