Samsung Galaxy S2 review


Guide to the review

This is an in-depth review, so here’s a list of the various sections, for those who are interested in a particular area of the S2:

Software

The Galaxy S2 is one of the most desirable phones running Google’s Android operating system. The fact that it’s Google-powered means this phone works best if you have a Google account — in fact, you must sign in with your Google account before you can even use some features, like the Android Market.

If you’ve got a few different Google accounts — one for work and one for home, for example — the phone can support all of them. But we’d suggest picking one main one, and logging into that first. That’s the account that will be linked with all the apps you buy, so you can restore them if you need to swap phones or reset your S2 to its factory settings.

Android includes the latest, greatest versions of Google apps, such as Maps (left) and Navigation (right).

Having Android on-board means the Galaxy S2 is packed with useful features, from Google Maps to free turn-by-turn navigation software. Google even gives its email program, Gmail, special treatment, keeping its own app separate from the app that supports other types of email, such as POP and Outlook mail.

Non-Google email has its own app (top), which looks very different from the Gmail app (bottom).

This separation of email apps can be annoying, but Google says it’s necessary because it has to support Gmail’s unique features, such as archiving mail instead of deleting it. It’s a valid point, and the bespoke Gmail app is better at reproducing the online experience than other email clients. But, if you’re used to being able to see all your accounts in a unified inbox, like on BlackBerry phones, you’ll be disappointed.

The Gmail app offers extra features, such as labelling and archiving.

Samsung Galaxy S2 vs iPhone 4

Having Android on-board also means that the Galaxy S2 tends to display Google’s rather pragmatic approach to user-interface design. Rather than the rounded corners and bright white and grey of the iPhone 4‘s interface, Android tends to be dark, wordy and packed with menus. Apps generally sport a mix of on-screen virtual buttons, and plenty more options that appear when you press the menu key beneath the screen.

Android’s usability improves with each update — and there have been plenty since the software arrived on the scene a couple of years ago. But we think Android still has a long way to go before it’s a genuine pleasure to use.

Android menus (left) tend to be dark and wordy compared to the rounded, bright iPhone menus (right).

Samsung hasn’t messed around much with the default Android look and feel. Despite our desire for more user-friendly Android software, we think that’s a good thing, because software isn’t Samsung’s strength.

Of the three sample Galaxy S2 handsets that we tested, one was almost useless due to software bugs, and all of them required us to perform over-the-air software updates right out of the box. The two working models that we tested were generally very stable, but we felt burned by that one bad apple. The original Samsung Galaxy S required several updates before it became really solid, so we were expecting software issues with the S2.

Don’t be afraid to insist on a replacement if your Galaxy S2 has bugs like ours did, such as continually resetting the wallpaper to the default option, or refusing to unlock. Also, be sure to check for software updates as soon as you tear your phone from its box.

It’s not all bad news concerning the Galaxy S2’s software. In fact, moving through the Galaxy S2’s screens feels wonderfully whizzy, thanks to the phone’s powerful, dual-core processor. Menus pop open without delay, and scrolling is satisfyingly smooth. All the apps we tested also opened with alacrity.

Not having to suffer lag, stutter or hang-ups when opening apps, rattling out text messages or downloading new software makes a world of difference to the overall user experience. Indeed, we struggled to slow the S2 down. Even when we had a bunch of apps running, with more downloading in the background and Flash video playing in the browser, it still felt very fast.

But, compared to the king of touchscreen scrolling smoothness, the iPhone 4, the Galaxy S2 does lack a certain creaminess. Scrolling through long text on Web pages is fast, but the phone doesn’t always do a good job of figuring out when you want to quickly flip down, and when you want to reposition the page. That makes it all too easy to move the side of the text off the screen when you merely meant to skip to the next paragraph. It’s not a terrible problem on the Galaxy S2, it’s just not a perfect situation.

The lock screen also takes just a fraction of a second too long to appear after you wake the phone up, even if you’re not using a password.

We were annoyed by the delay in the lock screen appearing, whether we used a security pattern (left) or not (right).

The phone fares better with the two-fingered multi-touch gesture that you use to zoom into photos and Web pages. The zooming is as smooth as silk. It’s too bad the Android browser displays a grey and white checked area where it’s struggling to render the page, as this looks less classy than the iPhone’s system, which manages to throw up what we think is a cached screenshot.

Samsung’s added some motion-control features to help you out too. While in the browser, touch the screen with two fingers, and then tilt the phone forwards and back to zoom in and out of Web pages. This feature is slightly too sensitive, and we’re not convinced it’s easier than just zooming in and out using a pinching gesture, but it’s easy to turn off.

In general, we prefer the Android browser on the Galaxy S2 over its Apple rival, for one big reason — Flash support. Flash videos, menus and games are all visible where they’d just be empty holes on the iPhone.

You can watch Flash video on the Galaxy S2 (right), whereas you’d only see a hole on the iPhone 4 (left).

Searching is easy — you type into the same address bar where you enter a site’s URL, and you also have the option to hit the microphone icon to say your search out loud.

Home screens and widgets

Like most of the latest Android-powered phones, the Galaxy S2 sports a healthy seven home screens, each of which you can stuff full of shortcuts and widgets. The default set-up for these screens, which appears when you first turn on the phone, isn’t the most intuitive if you’re not already an Android user — there’s just screen after screen of icons and boxes. This can be very confusing if it’s your first time entering the wonderful world of widgets, but don’t panic. You can set the screens up so that the phone is just as you want it, with a little know-how.

The amount of information on the various home screens can be confusing if you’re not accustomed to widgets.

If you’re not sure where to start, you may want to stick with the widgets that are already there until you get used to them. A few of them suggest that you tap them to get started — for example, the photo-gallery widget will show a slideshow of your favourite shots, but first you need to decide which photos you want to appear in the gallery.

We like to start with a blank slate, though. To remove items from the home screen, simply hold your finger on them for a second, and, when an icon of a bin appears at the bottom of the screen, drag them down into the bin. Many widgets can also be resized in the same way — hold them down with your finger, and then drag the yellow lines that illustrate how big the widget can be.

You can resize some widgets (left), and select more widgets from Samsung’s scrolling menu along the bottom of the screen (right).

Samsung has sorted out its own method for adding widgets and shortcuts to the home screen. When you hold your finger on a black area of a home screen, a menu pops up along the bottom from which you can select your choice of widgets, shortcuts and folders, and change the wallpaper. The selection of widgets is shown in a scrolling menu that looks very slick as you swipe through it.

The downside of this fun menu, though, is that you can only see four widgets at once. Once you’ve installed a lot of apps, which then automatically add their corresponding widgets to the menu, the list of widgets can become pretty long and difficult to move through quickly. We wish we could have more of an overview of what’s on offer.

Nevertheless, we like Samsung’s method of letting you add items to your home screens from a menu at the bottom, because you can still see the screen clearly enough to help you make up your mind what to add.

The motion-control feature is also employed for home-screen customisation — hold down an app for a moment, then tilt the phone from side to side to slide through the seven available home screens, and drop the app where you want.

Samsung’s changes to Android, such as its widgets (left), tend to be more basic than HTC’s (right).

Samsung’s own widgets improve with every phone it makes. But Samsung’s Android skin, TouchWiz, still doesn’t stack up to the best skin in the Android world — HTC Sense, seen on phones such as the HTC Sensation. HTC has whipped up a customised skin that’s more extensive than the ink on a Hells Angel, and its light, curvaceous widgets make Android appear more accessible. Samsung’s widgets tend to be more straightforward and squarish. Which you prefer depends on your own taste, but, overall, the Galaxy S2 sticks closer to the basic appearance of Android than its HTC competition.

A pinch gesture shows all your home screens as thumbnails so you can quickly jump to the one you want.

Moving between the Galaxy S2’s many home screens is made simple by two quick navigation tricks. You can jump to a specific screen by tapping one of the numbered dots along the bottom of the screen, or you can perform a two-fingered pinch to shrink them all down to thumbnail size, and then tap the one you want to see. We first saw this thumbnail view on HTC phones like the Desire, and it demonstrates how Samsung makes a habit of reproducing some of its rivals’ best ideas on its own phones.

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