Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket HD Review

AT&T killed it off, but does it mean Bell should have?

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When AT&T announced the Galaxy S II Skyrocket HD at CES during their Developer Summit in January, reactions varied from surprised to unimpressed. These feelings were certainly justified since the non-HD Skyrocket had launched just a couple of weeks earlier and the announced specs didn't make it seem any more advanced than the Galaxy Nexus. Fast forward to Spring 2012, AT&T canned their plans to release the Skyrocket HD but Bell in Canada labored on and launched the phone as the Galaxy S II HD LTE. This gives us a unique opportunity to see "what could have been" in my review of the Skyrocket HD.

Hardware

The Galaxy S II bloodlines are painfully obvious

While the Skyrocket HD isn't pushing the boundaries of of design compared today's handsets, there is something to be said about the clean lines and simplicity of the handset. This phone is unmistakably Galaxy S II, from the four capacitive Android buttons, to the very slight bump to the bottom portion of the back of the phone, we wouldn't blame anyone for thinking it's last year's flagship device.

The removable back cover is coated with a skin like rubberized coating, much like the Galaxy Nexus, which provided excellent grip for one handed use. For a phone sporting a 4.65 inch screen this has to be one of the most ergonomic. Even compared to the original Samsung Galaxy S II, the Skyrocket HD feels like a better build phone.

While I prefer the polycarbonate build of phones like the One X or Lumia 800/900, the Skyrocket HD does feel well built for a plastic device. Clocking in at 9.27 mm thick, we can't really agree with AT&T chief Ralph De La Vegas description of "razor-thin" for the Skyrocket HD. However, we found it surprisingly pocketable and ergonomic for a phone of its dimensions.

Display

Having to live up to the name "Skyrocket HD"

On paper there really isn't anything that sets the Skyrocket HD apart from the Skyrocket. So please excuse me if expectations were a bit higher for the the screen than other devices. Fortunately, the Skyrocket HD does deliver in a big way, as the 720p HD Super AMOLED HD screen is as good as we've seen from PenTile devices.

As with the Galaxy Nexus, which I suspect to have the same screen, colors were vibrant, contrast was good, text looked crisp, and black levels were phenomenal on the 4.65 inch screen. As with all AMOLED displays, if you look at the phone off center, colors start taking an a cyan hue.

Overall, like on the Galaxy Nexus, we found the display's 720p resolution to make the PenTile pixel arrangement a complete afterthought through sheer the brute force having of a high pixel density.

Camera

While newer phones are touting features such as; zero shutter lag, f2.0 lenses, burstshot modes and even slow motion video capture, the Skyrocket HD is unfortunately using last year's sensor and software. That doesn't mean that pictures or videos were bad by any means, in fact we would put it up with the One X and One S. It just means that the total camera experience isn't quite up to par with competing offerings.

However, the ends might be a redeeming point for the Skyrocket HD since, after all is said and done, most people just want high quality stills and videos and the Skyrocket certainly delivers. Photos were vibrant and crisp, details were abundant and video was smooth and artifact free.

The front facing camera is your usual 2MP shooter and really will be mostly relegated to the usual vanity shots, video chat and poor quality display picture.

Skyrocket HD Sample Shots

Performance

Just like the Galaxy S II variant found on T-Mobile as well as the original AT&T Skyrocket, the Skyrocket HD is sporting Qualcomm's last gen Snapdragon S3 chipset to gain LTE capabilities. It isn't the same all-in-one solution found on the S4 Snapdragon that powers the AT&T HTC One X and North American Samsung Galaxy S IIIs so we expected performance to be on par with last gen devices like the Sensation and EVO 3D.

Internal hardware

  • 1.5 GHz Dual-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 Processor
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 16GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card slot upgradable to up to 32GB
  • Adreno 220 Graphic processor
  • 75Mbps LTE/21Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
  • Wi-Fi b/g/n
  • 8MP auto-focus camera with LED flash and 1080p HD video capabilities

Synthetic benchmarks indicated that the Skyrocket HD does lag behind 2012 flagships like the One X and Galaxy S III, but in everyday use I found the phone to be very responsive and snappy. From browsing, to multitasking and gaming the Skyrocket was very speedy, even almost to the point, dare I say, where one wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a 2012 flagship phone and the Skyrocket HD.

One thing that did worry me as I looked through the spec sheet of this device is that before even being released, the Skyrocket HD effectively has one year "experience" under its belt and as we all know one calendar year in the tech world is an eternity. Now this doesn't mean it won't get Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, or will start lagging inexplicably after a year, it just means that perhaps, in the future, some games and other hardware accelerated applications may not perform as well compared to say, an HTC One X or a Samsung Galaxy S III.

That being said, I was pleased with the overall performance, with very few hiccups and was quite taken away by the older S3 chipset's ability to handle content rendering at 720p resolution.

Battery Life

The Skyrocket HD, was bumped up to a 1850mAh battery to compensate for the LTE radio and 720p display and really performed well for not only an LTE device but a device using an older LTE radio. Generally speaking a day's worth of texting, browsing, light gaming and social networking pushed the battery to 20-30% by the end of the day.

When throwing tethering into the mix however I found the phone entering the dangerous sub-10% range.

Reception / data speeds

Data Speeds

On the subject of LTE capabilities, the Skyrocket HD performed very well in speed testing, hitting 15mbps+ on LTE and 7mpbs+ on HSPA+. Of course this was done on the Bell network in Montreal, so it might not have been the same results in the US on AT&T.

Call quality

Samsung has had a knack when it comes to earpiece/microphones and the Skyrocket HD is no different. Callers came in loud and clear, while the microphone was able to send my voice loud and clear to the other end. This is augmented by the now ubiquitous secondary noise cancelling microphone.

Software

Most are already familiar with the Android 2.3 Gingerbread + TouchWiz 4.0 combination from other Galaxy S II variants so there really isn't much that is noteworthy, except for two things; one being the modified lock screen which I suspect to be a byproduct of the Samsung and Apple legal battles and the inclusion of Kies Air.

The lockscreen is more intuitive than the older version and looks more polished than older unlock method. What's somewhat odd is that this lockscreen come from the Android 4.0 update to the original Galaxy S II but is found on the Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

On the topic of Android 2.3, it is unacceptable at this point in time for an OEM, especially one of Samsung's size, to release a phone running Gingerbread. Six-plus month of access to the ICS source code is more than enough to have an ICS ROM ready for the launch of this phone and what makes things worse is Samsung had even more time than other OEMs given that it worked on the Galaxy Nexus.

The one great addition, out of the box, is that of Kies Air, which I found to be the easiest most seamless way to sync files and media to the Skyrocket HD.

Wrap-up

The two ultimate questions remain, why did AT&T kill off the Skyrocket HD and should Bell Canada have done the same? The first question was unequivocally answered by AT&T themselves stating that "[releasing the Skyrocket HD] simply didn't make sense in light of the Galaxy S III announcement" and we have to agree. Between the launch of the original Skyrocket and the Galaxy S III there was very little time for the Skyrocket HD to gain any traction with potential buyers.

To answer the second question, we don't believe that releasing the Galaxy S II HD LTE was that bad an idea for a few reasons. For one, Bell beat out all of North America launching the Original Galaxy S II around this time last year. It's competitor carriers Rogers and TELUS then nabbed the LTE and DC-HSPA+ variants. On AT&T the Skyrocket was too similar to the Skyrocket HD to make sense of launching the HD version while in Canada the Skyrocket ended up being Rogers' Galaxy S II LTE. The other factor is that Bell, perhaps in an effort to cut losses once the Galaxy S III launches tomorrow, has clearly priced this device as a midrange/mainstream offering at $50 on contract and $0 from third party vendors like Best Buy. In Bell's "Superphone" lineup, this clearly defines it in a separate category to the Galaxy S III and squarely places it up against the One S where one can make that claim that for a midrange device, the Skyrocket HD has killer specs.

In the end we do feel like it was a good decision by both carriers. Much like what HTC did with the Nexus One and original Desire, we believe Samsung wanted to take the Galaxy Nexus and make a "Samsung" branded version. Unfortunately for AT&T, this came far too late and encroached on the launch of the Galaxy S III.

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The Breakdown

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Thanks for reading!