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Samsung Galaxy S II

An incomplete review

(Let’s just call it the S2 from here on in, ‘kay?) The Galaxy S2 is a smartphone running Android 2.3 “Gingerbread”, whose main selling point appears to be the 4.3” Super AMOLED display that therefore makes it better than the iPhone 4. In fact, any device that does not require iTunes is better than an iPhone. My model is a 16GB S2 provided under an O2 monthly contract.

The display is very nice, admittedly, although not so remarkable that it means you couldn’t live with most other smartphone displays afterwards. Note that the display is also the largest consumer of battery power, even when it spends most of its time off due to the aggressive default timeout.

Battery life is unimpressive. While individual use may vary widely, most users report an average of 8-10 hours per charge, which accords with my experience. For smooth running, you should look to top it up where possible during the day (e.g. from a USB port) and consider carefully how to keep it charged if venturing far from a domestic electric supply for more than a day. Note that charging times are not rapid, taking at least an hour to cause an appreciable increase in capacity. Later firmware updates are rumoured to attempt to address these issues, but none have so far been made available by O2.

The other issue allegedly addressed by later updates is wifi signal handling. The S2 shows lower signal strength in comparable areas than my previous iPod Touch 2G, but this may be due to differences in metering. However, the wifi receiver will sometimes hold on to a weak signal that is too low for practical use. In these cases, it is easier to pull down the status bar and quickly toggle wifi off to switch to 3G data.

The Galaxy interface consists of the screen, the home button centered underneath, two “virtual” touch-sensitive buttons either side that only light when pressed, and the power and volume controls either side of the case. These last two are poorly placed; pressing either requires you to adjust your hold of the device to avoid the natural tendency to brace it with your fingers against the opposing button. This smacks of limited testing at the design stage.

Android itself is comparatively smooth in use, although not quite as intuitive and elegant as iOS. For example, it may sometimes take several attempts and a few minutes to figure out how to perform a task in Android that would be comparatively obvious in iOS. If you absolutely insist on a device that is straightforward to use and rarely obstructs you, you should pay the Apple premium for an iPhone. However, most users will probably find Android an acceptable alternative for the price differential. Note that the S2 is a poor gaming distraction for young children, as the sensitivity of the front panel and various buttons tends to cause them to pause, exit or click-through adverts mid-session. (That said, the Monkey’s Lunchbox app at least is sensible enough to disable the menu and back buttons while playing.)

As I already had my contacts and calendar in Google, initial setup and migration from iOS was easy. The default Android email client (for IMAP) appears rather limited and does not seem to sync new mails particularly quickly; I recently switched to K-9 Mail (in truth, partly for the name and the icon). Other significant app choices:

  • RSS: Google Reader - basic but reliable.
  • Twitter: Seesmic - closest in feel to Echofon, although not quite as smart (e.g. you can’t select links directly from your timeline).
  • Facebook: Friendster - much better than FB’s own app.
  • To do list: Ultimate To Do List - not pretty but syncs with Toodledo, which was my main requirement.
  • Music player: Winamp - free, and the paid apps don’t offer much more. Combine with Equaliser.
  • Password manager: Tiny Password - limited but it was the only one that would import data from 1Password (after hacking the CSV format a little).
  • Other useful apps: SwiftKey X; Barcode Scanner; ConvertPad; Amazon MP3; 3G Watchdog; Cover Art Downloader.
  • Also on iOS: Fruit Ninja; TV Guide; Flixster; Monkey Preschool; Make Me A Princess; BBC News; Accuweather; Amazon UK; eBay.

The S2’s dual core processor ensures that Android performance is more than adequate, although you can probably forego the additional apps that Samsung bundles on the phone.