T-Mobile is now the only American carrier without the iPhone, and it's betting the farm on Android — a platform where Samsung's devices have typically been the cream of the crop. The $229.99 Galaxy S II (with a two-year contract, of course) is a natural upgrade to its top-notch, huge-selling predecessor — it’s got a bigger screen, and beefier internals — but is it enough of a step up? We had high hopes for this phone, since we've already reviewed one Galaxy S II variant, the Epic 4G Touch for Sprint, and other than a few caveats found it an excellent handset. Can it live up to its namesake, and more importantly, can it keep up with the rest of the high-end phone market? Read on for our full review.
Hardware / design
One of the best things about the Galaxy S II is that with such a big, bright screen, the relatively small bezels disappear, making the GSII feel like the infinity pool of phones. Even though it's 5.11 x 2.71 inches large, it's only 0.37 inches (9.4mm) thick, and it doesn't feel big to hold. The one unsightly thing on the phone’s face is the Samsung logo, which is crammed between the bottom of the screen and the capacitive Android buttons. I don’t mind the logo, but it looks like it was slapped on at the last second in an odd place.
The phone has a textured matte back that’s nice to look at and easy to hold; it’s also not nearly as fingerprint-prone as the glossy back of the Nexus S. It’s plastic, and feels a bit cheap, but it’s surprisingly durable. The 3.5mm headphone jack is on top and the micro USB port on the bottom, which in my mind is where they both should be. The power button is on the right side of the phone, which I like because it’s easier to reach when using the phone in one hand, but I always have to show people where to find it the first time.
Samsung’s phones are always well-made, but rarely do they feel industrial or high-end. The Galaxy S II is certainly of better build quality than the original Galaxy S, and it in no way feels poorly put together, but it doesn’t feel quite as solid as, say, an iPhone or the aluminum HTC Amaze 4G, which might as well be bulletproof.
The Galaxy S II’s 4.52-inch monster of a Super AMOLED Plus display is bright, vivid, and has near-180-degree viewing angles — though there’s significant blue discoloration as soon as you get off-center. It does suffer in direct sunlight, but anyone who owns a big-screened phone has probably already perfected the art of the hand-sun-shield. The screen’s 800 x 480 resolution isn’t nearly enough to make what’s on the screen look its best. We expect qHD displays on high-end phones now, and we’re even getting to 1280 x 720 screens on the Galaxy Nexus — WVGA just doesn’t cut it anymore on a high-end phone, especially one with a screen this large. As I used the phone, I couldn’t help but think I’d enabled some zoom setting that made everything look just a little bit larger than it ought to, and text often looked slightly blurry. Next to phones like the Droid X2 or Amaze 4G, the GSII's display doesn’t hold up.
The screen gets very bright, which is a good thing, but most users probably want their phone on automatic brightness to save some battery and eye strain. On this phone, though, the automatic brightness mode is intensely schizophrenic; sitting in the same place, holding the phone at the same angle, the phone would brighten, and then dim, and then brighten and dim a few more times before settling on a brightness level, if it ever did. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore and I just manually set the brightness level.
The screen is big and bright, but 800 x 480 just doesn't cut it
The camera is a huge upgrade from the Galaxy S
Of the biggest and best upgrades from the Galaxy S to the GSII is the camera: it’s been bumped up from 5 to 8 megapixels, and it certainly shows in the pictures. The significant shutter lag means you can’t drop your point-and-shoot and use this exclusively, but as long as there’s not any fast-moving action, it takes clear, accurate photos, most of which are hard to believe came from a phone; if you zoom in to their full size, they’re soft, but at normal sizes they’re totally usable. The Camera app is simple and easy to navigate, much more so than any of the other Android camera apps I’ve used; everything is easy to find, but isn’t cluttering the screen when you’re trying to take photos. The tap-to-focus feature, which is in my mind the phone’s biggest advantage over a point-and-shoot, works well and works very quickly. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera is unsurprisingly unimpressive, but it’s certainly sufficient for video chat or, as the Verge team calls it, the "is my hair okay?" check.
I don't know why more digital cameras don't emulate the tap-to-focus feature
Similarly, video quality was solid. The Galaxy S II shoots video at 1080p, though it’s not the most impressive video I’ve seen. Anything moving quickly came out blurry, but the camera has surprisingly fast autofocus while recording video. It can also shoot at a variety of lower resolutions too, so you can get the optimal quality / file size ratio from your videos. I preferred shooting at 720p, which felt faster and a little smoother than 1080p.
Performance / battery life
The Galaxy S II is, in a word, fast
The biggest difference between the Galaxy S II’s AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint models is something you won’t see, and as it turns out probably won’t notice: the processor. For T-Mobile, Samsung opted to use a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor instead of the 1.2GHz Exynos CPU inside other variants, because the Snapdragon is able to support the network’s 42Mbps download capabilities. In using the phones, there’s no real difference between the options: while T-Mobile’s version isn’t blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fast, you certainly won’t find yourself waiting for your phone very often. Even the slightest delay will be obvious as you're typing or launching apps, and I almost never had an issue with either. The one place where there’s an occasional speed issue is going home when an app is open — once in a while I’d hit the home button, and it would take a half-second to close the app, by which time my impatient self had already hit the home button again and accidentally launched the Vlingo-powered voice control app. Overall, though, the device is pleasingly fast, and extremely responsive to taps and swipes. Some basic benchmark tests mirrored that experience, too, showing that the Snapdragon is very fast, but not always consistent; I got Quadrant scores as high as 3,802, but as low as 2,200.
T-Mobile’s super-fast HSPA+ 42 network is a selling point by itself (AT&T’s "4G" doesn’t even compare), and even though 42Mbps was but a pipe dream, I got impressive results. In midtown Manhattan, I consistently got speeds between 8 and 11Mbps down, and 1-2Mbps up using the Speedtest.net app; that’s certainly fast, and makes the included hotspot mode an excellent feature. (It costs $15 / month, though, and T-Mobile throttles your connection speeds after you hit your data cap, so use this feature sparingly.) Latency was alarmingly high, often at over 500ms, but I tested other T-Mobile phones as well and that issue seems to have more to do with the network than the phone.
4G speeds are pretty battery-crushing, too, and unlike on the Epic 4G Touch there’s no easy way to turn it off. I could get a full day of "regular" use out of the phone, making a few phone calls, browsing and sending emails on a mix of Wi-Fi and HSPA+, but it was always nearly dead at the end of the day. More troubling was that the phone seems to use a lot of power on standby: if I left the phone on overnight, it ran a huge amount of battery even if I didn’t do anything with it.
Call quality was pretty mixed in the time I spent with the phone. I sounded loud to the people on the other end of the phone, though they occasionally claimed I sounded tinny. The noise cancellation mic on top, which the Epic 4G Touch lacks, also made a big difference when I was on the street or in a room with others. On my end, things sounded quite good — loud, and clear, without a lot of distortion. The speakerphone, however, was a bit of a disaster: callers could pinpoint the second I put them on speaker, and told me it sounded as if I’d fallen in a well. The speakerphone was plenty loud on my end, but the sound quality was only average.
The TouchWiz Android 2.3 skin is pretty much a known quantity at this point — Samsung has changed every screen it could get its hands on, and while most of them fall into the "pointless change but I don’t really care" category (like paginating the app drawer rather than have it be a scrolling list), there are a few nice touches like a power manager in the notification window. I also like Samsung’s changes to the Android keyboard, and that it pre-installs Swype. (I don’t use Swype, but I know plenty of people who swear by it.) In general, I don’t care for the general TouchWiz aesthetic, which is heavy on the gray-on-black theme, but that’s a purely personal choice.
But the bloatware. Oh, the bloatware! This phone is positively loaded with applications you’d probably rather not have. There’s an app dedicated to 411 (which inexplicably isn’t just a link to Google), a "My Account" app and a "My Device" app, several T-Mobile branded apps like T-Mobile TV and T-Mobile Mall, plus third-party apps like Slacker, Zinio, Netflix, and Blio. More annoying still, some aren’t even apps — just links to download apps. A few can be uninstalled, but most of them are stuck on the phone for you to stare at and accidentally click on. One bit of bloatware I’d have liked to see would be an app that takes advantage of the NFC chip inside the phone, but no luck, at least until Google decides to open up Wallet compatibility. There are a couple of gems, like Vlingo voice control and a cool photo editing app, but I’d trade the good ones to get rid of the bad.
The Galaxy S II for T-Mobile is exactly what you’d expect from a sequel: it’s faster, bigger, and a bit better put together. However, it’s not the standard-setting Android phone the Galaxy S was a year ago, mostly because competing phones have caught up, and — in some critical areas, like the display — even surpassed what the Galaxy S II brings to the table. It’s clearly one of the three best phones available on T-Mobile, along with the HTC Amaze 4G and HTC Sensation. Choosing between the two is all about tradeoffs: the Amaze is $30 more, and is noticeably thicker and heavier, but its screen is far superior to the Galaxy S II and its camera more powerful. The Sensation, on the other hand, is a little less powerful but has the same great screen as the Amaze and an even lower price point.