Reviews

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II review: Beautifully designed hardware, with surprisingly snappy software

October 4, 2011 | by Charles West

Android Phones and Devices, Reviews, Samsung

ATTGSII-2

I’m sure most of you who follow the crazy world of smartphones must have heard of this wildly popular phone in Europe called the Samsung Galaxy S II. The same phone that Samsung says sold 10 million devices globally. Well, after painstakingly waiting for months, it has finally landed in the U.S. on AT&T ($200 with a two-year contract). This version of the wafer thin-like phone is very similar to the ones for T-Mobile and Sprint – bright screens, fast processors, and all. But it has one big advantage over its brethren, the Epic Touch 4G on Sprint: AT&T’s Galaxy S II supports Near Field Communication (NFC).

Another advantage the AT&T version, depending on your local area, is network speed. I was really impressed with AT&T’s “4G” speeds delivered by HSPA+ network, which I was pleasantly surprised to see out-duel Sprint’s 4G by WiMax when it came to download and upload speeds (conducted by Speedtest.net). Besides these two differences, the handset is pretty identical to the other Galaxy S II phones – which is way better than the approach of last year’s Galaxy S devices. So is the AT&T Galaxy S II like the previous Galaxy S – strong but lacking features from other networks – or is it lightweight, powerful, and fast phone that most smartphone users have been waiting for?

SAMSUNG GALAXY S II HARDWARE

If you know anything about the Samsung Galaxy S phones, then you already know about its world-renowned reputation of amazing displays and ultra slim form factor. With that said, lets get to more specific details shall we. The phone packs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a 1.2 GHz Samsung Exynos processor, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal storage with the option to expand up to 32GB via SDCard. Also, featured is microSD support, a rear 8 megapixel camera with LED flash and a 2 MP front facing camera for video chatting or cheesy head-shot pics. All these features are neatly tucked inside of this slim and light piece of hardware.

The screen. What more can I say about the Galaxy S’ fascinating screen? Well, the Super AMOLED Plus on the 4.3-inch 400 x 800 resolution display is nothing short of spectacular – the colors truly “pop” in comparison to other formats offered on the market. Super AMOLED Plus obliterates the qHD screen that I recently played with on the Motorola Photon 4G — and that’s no knock on qHD as it’s pretty serviceable. Trust me, once you’ve actually tried both, you’ll see a day and night difference.

What I love most about the hardware is its simple and clean design. The buttons aren’t shiny, aluminum, or just weird looking — instead they are as black as the late Johnny Cash’s suit. As far as button placement is concerned, I really enjoy phones that keep the volume rocker on the left and power switch on the right. When I had the MyTouch 4G, the button arrangement was a pain. I hated having my power button at the top of the device, as it usually caused me to press one of the volume switches by accident when trying to power off the handset. All Samsung Galaxy S phones hit the sweet spot when it comes to proper button placement.

I’d be wrong if I didn’t mention the fact that the phone not having an notification light kind of annoys me. I really enjoy notification lights and most HTC handsets have them. Samsung not putting one on this phone to remind users when they have an important update was a mistake.

SAMSUNG GALAXY S II SOFTWARE & PERFORMANCE

Of course, we can’t talk about the Galaxy S II without first mentioning the company’s custom user interface called TouchWiz 4.0. Now this is a very similar version that Samsung released at its NYC event on August 29 that was for the Galaxy Tab 10.1. TouchWiz 4.0 is totally revamped, with a few aesthetic and functional enhancements here and there. For instance, the new lock screen displays missed calls and unread text messages; you can swipe these notifications rather than having to unlock your phone and then search through menus to find the missed messages. Other than that, TouchWiz is pretty much the same, but far more snappy — no lag in speed whatsoever.

Lucky for us, AT&T didn’t drown the phone with a ridiculous amount of bloatware (carrier dedicated apps). Instead, you get a pretty moderate dose of pre-installed apps like Amazon Kindle, Live TV, Memo Pad, My Files, Qik Lite, Quick Office, Words with Friends, and YP (Yellow Pages). And to round off the additions to Gingerbread, TouchWiz 4.0 delivers its usual email app, video player, file explorer, calendar, and diary applications.

As I mentioned before, the AT&T Galaxy S II supports Near Field Communication (NFC) so you can use select apps that support this budding technology. Sadly, Google Wallet for mobile payments is not yet an option, so users will have to wait for an update to unlock the magic that is Wallet. (Read our review of Google Wallet here.) NFC fans will have to rely on third-party development that supports tag reading and data exchange until a mobile payment option arrives.

One other noteworthy feature Samsung provides on the phone is the company’s own Kies Air. The app lets you view call logs, videos, photos, bookmarks, and IMs, and send SMS messages from PC. In order for the app to work, you’ll have to install it on your PC and connect it to the same Wi-Fi network as your phone.

Lastly, AT&T’s HSPA+ network, which it calls 4G, delivered surprisingly fast speeds. As I said earlier, I tested the network over the Speedtest.net app and clocked an amazing download speed of 9.24Mbps and upload speed of 1.10Mbps (pictured above). Call quality was very good overall. Voices on my end sounded clear, natural and undistorted. I didn’t experience any dropped calls while testing in Hartford. Performance may vary in your neck of the woods.

SAMSUNG GALAXY S II CAMERA

The camera has an 8 megapixel shooter and is best-in-class in terms of overall camera performance. I’ve snapped a few shots outside and in a store so you can see low light and standard lighting results. There may be other phones that currently offer an 8 MP camera (the DROID Bionic comes to mind), but the shutter speed and performance is below average at best. Checkout my phone photography skills in a few pictures taken with the AT&T SGSII down below.

I happened to also test the 1080p video capture. The video on the Galaxy S II is very smooth considering that it’s a phone, as time goes by these type of phones will only begin to improve. Below is a short video demo of some simple strolling around on my street, and oh, a flatbed truck goes by (how exciting). This will give you an idea of real world indoor video capture results. Enough talking, just press play.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Now there you have it folks. The AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II is clearly one of the fastest Android phones available. Truth is, this version has the same screen size and specs as the international version the only changes are a few to the UI, and the capacitive touch buttons below — and that’s about it.

What more can I say? With its snappy software, ultra-slim design, excellent camera, gorgeous display, and NFC support, the AT&T Galaxy S II phone is worth all of its hype. Now, if Samsung can send an update to address a pesky security blemish with the phone’s lock screen, then this phone would be pretty close to flawless.