An (inter)stellar experience: The Samsung Galaxy SII

Posted on 12/14/2011

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This review is a continuation of something I started back in September, but I just felt that I couldn’t do the device I was looking at justice. You see even as we hit the end of 2011, the Samsung Galaxy SII is truly an extraordinary device. The era that mobile has entered into now is something of a mobile arms race as manufacturers look to differentiate from one another. It’s interesting that a few years back, it was alll about the hardware, convergence was key, typified by the iconic Nokia N95, a device that today still more than holds it own, at least when looking at the radios, the 5 megapixel camera (which astonishingly still has a bigger sensor than pretty much all camera phones out today barring the N8), the introuction GPS, the FM transmitter, and later an 8GB model, all in a pocketable form factor. These are things we take for granted today but in 2007 it was a new dawn. A mobile device was well on it’s way to become the ultimate unifier, replacing all the gadgets that clutter day to day living

But at roughly the same, a device that by all accounts had a single unique selling point was released and became a hit. This was a device that had a poor camera, lacked GPS, had little bluetooth support, no FM radio, no third party app support, rubbish signal, relied entirely on a desktop program to get data on and off, no over the air updating, no microSD support, I could go on. Yes the orginal iPhone 2G. Coming from a hardware centric view it was an abysmal device, yet looking at the mobile landscape in 2011, it is as influential in so many ways as the N95. The iPhone introduced a finger friendly user centric interaction model that for the most part required no learning curve. The focus was entirely on software, just making things work. And for so long hardware was forgotten as vendors look to emulate the user friendliness of Apple’s OS.

Yet today we are seeing more and more devices churned out, offering for the most part little improvements in the way of software, yet accelerating in hardware. Just for an example I was listening to the Verge Mobile Podcast where astonishingly the dispaly of the Motorola Atrix 2 was described as ‘just qHD’. This is in a year where WVGA was the norm and Apple’s Retina Display at 960X640 was the highest resolution display on the market. Now we have ‘just qHD’ as the expectation is that HD displays like those found on the HTC Rezound, Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy Note and the LG Nitro HD will become standard. We’ve also see the announcement of a quad core device, albiet a tablet, and 1GB RAM is pretty much becoming the norm for high end devices now.

The mighty Samsung Galaxy SII

Despite being being announced almost ten months ago, the SGSII is one of the most forefront devices today, still with mouth watering specifications and on paper is one of the most mind blowing packages available on any platform. In today’s landscape it is one the devices that very much defines the superphone.

A quick look at the hardware

They say first impressions count a lot, though this was my second ‘first impression’ of the SGSII it still remains an impressive beast. Handling it for the first time is interesting to say the least. Not in a bad way mind you but I just had the feeling that something with that much screen real estate and those gnarling innards should feel so flimsy in the hand. Coming from the N8, even though it cedes a lot in terms of screen real estate with it’s tiny-by-comparison 3.5” AMOLED display compared the SGSII’s monster 4.3” (actually 4.27”) SUPER AMOLED+ (the ‘super’ and ‘+’ in this instance are absolutely necessary to describing this wonder of creation), the N8 actually feels more ‘wholesome’ than the SGSII and fills the hand in a more gratifying manner. That is in part due to the weight differential. As is typical of Samsung’s latest creations (think the entire Galaxy range), thin is most definitely in and unfortunately so is the plastic. Plastic everywhere.

A little coy

The SGSII is just 8.5 mm thin and weighs in at a scarcely believable 116 grams while the N8 is a bit chubby at 12.9 mm (a whole 52% thicker) and 135 grams, and feels completely different  due to the cold hard feel of the anodised aluminium unibody shell save for a few necessary bits of plastic here and there. That 19 grams is very noticeable as is the thickness, made even more so by the N8’s very distinctive camera hump. An added problem I found with the combination of anorexia and plastic afflicting the SGSII is that it is a very slippery phone and I have had to take a lot of care when handling it. I have only dropped it twice, which by my clumsy standards (see what the N8 looks like after 11 months in my hands) is remarkable.

The SGSII though, with it’s deep black skin and the gigantic screen is still a sight to behold, and if you are partially to this sort of thing does draw attention. Turn it on and the luscious screen enhances that impression.

The stunning SGSII display

As I said, this thing is cutting edge. It’s powered by a Samsung’s custom Exynos chipset rated at 1.2Ghz with 1Gb RAM. Starting up the SGSII, you can imagine this thing sprinting off into the distance. And it flies. Giving the N8 a head start and with the added advantage of having no SIM card, the SGSII still speeds past, even with a break for me to input my PIN code. And it’s a full 20 seconds after the SGSII is ready to use that the N8 has all widgets loaded and is ready for action. The N8 feels a bit long in the tooth, when using raw speed as a matrix. In that regard the SGSII is simply astonishing, with those two cores and oodles of RAM running the show.

Moving on to the screen. I’ve mentioned it’s big, but have I mentioned how gorgeous it is. The blacks really are so black, the vibrancy is astonishing, and the viewing angles stunning. With the raging against the use pentile matrix displays in some newer displays, this is a true RGB display. The display is incredibly responsive to your touch, very rarely does it miss a touch. In combination, whether you’re browsing or watching movies, this a simply stunning display to gaze over.

To quickly go over the rest of the hardware, the display comes packed with all the usual array of radios we’ve come to expect, including a 21.1 Mbps rated quad band HSPA+ radio, bluetooth 3.0, Wifi, accelerometer, DLNA support, Wifi hotspot, Gyroscope, digital compass, GPS with A-GPS support and FM Radio support. There are also some bonuses like USB On the Go support. At the back of the device is the minute 8.0 megapixel camera with a single LED flash, and the rather good if somewhat tinny loudspeaker.

The SGSII from the back

Overall, depsite the plastic, depsite the extreme thinness, it is still a nice device to hold, and built better than one would expect. I would still like a bit more substance to the device but I think Samsung hit on a design style that will and has pleased a lot of people.

A touch of whizz?

Home sweet home

As expected, Samsung has differentiated by slapping their Touchwizz skin on top of Android…which I don’t like very much. This is very much a subjective area. I’ve heard many an argument in favour of and against skin X and Y, and you’ll often find something you love about a certain skin is loathed by another individual. For example while a few commentators love the social integration on Sense UI, one the first things I did on the Desire S was to delete the Friend Stream widget and thereafter declined every time the system requested I link contacts.

Touchwizz, like any other skin has its Pros and Cons. It has what some have suggested is an iOS-esque interaction paradigm. There is a permanent dock, omnipresent in homescreen and application drawer views, with by default four shortcuts for Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Applications. On the homescreen front, Touchwizz has support for seven homescreen, and thankfully unlike Sense UI, you can delete empty ones. Editing the homescreen is a breeze, long press on an empty area and you enter edit mode, or alternatively go through settings. You can swipe accross homescreens in edit mode too which is nice. The pinch gesture to get an overview of your homescreens is also supported.

I did find the widget selection a bit underwhelming. I don’t have many requirements for widget purposes, preferring to use the homescreens in a quick access, glance and go manner, I don’t like to be prodding and toggling switches, but I do like to have  a decent calendar widget, and a music player widget. Usually I would have a mail widget but the Android notifications renders that superfluous. The HTC had a nice music player widget but the SGSII does not. With calendar you are limited to two full screen widgets for month and agenda or a 4X1 widget that displays a single event. Opposite ends of the scale with nothing in between. A half screen widget with a toggle to switch between a scrollable agenda and month view would have been a welcome addition.

The app drawer is a side scrolling list of icons, but list view is also supported. While you can manually rearrange apps, add folders or add new pages (if you want to group your apps into categories), there seems to be no way to sort you apps. I like mine arranged in alphabet order in a vertical scrolling grid. Picky I know, but the side scrolling paradigm for lists actually makes no sense to me.

Loaded with apps

Touchwizz has a nice contacts app. Much better than the Sense version, as it actually obeys your choice of where to display your contacts from. Though the necessity of a four icon predefined dock means one of contacts and phone is superfluos since they essentially map to the same app just a different view. And since this app has  a tabbed arrangement switching between dialpad and the contacts list is trivial. The contacts list has some pleasent gesture support. Swipe left on a contact name to send a text message, swipe right to initiate a phone call, which seems to dial the number listed as ‘mobile’. Choosing a default is as easy as heading into the contact card and long pressing on the desired numbered to open up a contextual menu.

Touchwizz also features some rather interesting motion gestures. On the homescreen, long press on an icon or widget and tilt your device away from you and you can move the item left through to another homescreen, towards you it shifts right. In the gallery, hold two points on the screen and again tilt back and forth to zoom in or out in pages. All rather gimmicky and I tired of it very quickly but it would make for a good pub trick!

I was a bit stunned that the Desire S didn’t have a file manager out of the box and I’m glad to see that a My Files application was present on the SGSII. Where possible I prefer to use built in applications to perform core tasks, as these usually can’t be deleted anyway, and My Files has the functionality I look for in a file manager.

And oh boy, back to multitasking and that remarkably annoying back button. Thanfully Samsung, like with the file manager have come to the party here but at least giving us a way, even if roundabout of managing tasks. I really thought I would get used to the idea of giving myself up to the ‘system’ and letting it manage this for me, but I can’t, I really can’t. Anyway, a long press on the home button brings up the usual ineffectual view of the last six accessed apps (whether they are running or not), but lo and behold, Samsung has added a Task Manager button. Tap on this and at last you can see your running tasks. And here you can kill whatever tasks you want, individually or all. But sometimes I head to the task manager and right before my eyes, I see tasks getting killed. WHY?!?!?!? Especially when I have 400+ MB RAM free. I really think Google should give users the choice of having the system run the show or let the user manage tasks themselves.

I’m also still befuddled by the back button. When using the browser I understand that pushing back will take me to previous pages I have visited. That’s how a browser works though it will refresh a page if the last instance has changed. Now I use Get Glue a lot and the app on Android is nice. However checking in takes you through 5+ screens. Now when I get to the end I just push home to return to the Get Glue main screen. Sometimes I carry on, browse my stream, others I want to ‘exit’ the app. So naturally I use the back button, expecting it to spit me back out at the homescreen. Yes I know I can push the physical home button but I am explicitly done with Get Glue. I don’t want to background the app and leave it to the whims of the ‘system’. Pushing the back button now cycles me through every instance of every page I have been in the app, in the exact state I left it in. But I’ve already checked it, why would I want to go back to the check-in dialog for a process I have completed. and it’s like this with every single app. And it is so frustrating. Android has enhanced my mobile experience no doubt, but how can something so fundamental as task management be so broken?

Enough ranting and raving. Clearly that is a philosophy that Google believes works and will probably not change.

Overall though while I’m not bowled over by Touchwizz, particularly from a design aesthetic, it works and it is gimmicky in place, perhaps favouring form over function, but there are some nice touches like the file manager and task manager that make it a worthwhile skin. The core apps work very well in general, but more importantly how did it work on a day to day basis?

The Brightest Galaxy

As a complete package, the marriage between software and hardware, the SGSII is superlative. From a specification point of view the SGSII is still up there with the best of the best but it’s more than about how many cores and their clock speeds, RAM , camera resolutions and so forth. Once you get past the plasticky and dare I say the perception of cheapness of the device, the SGSII is a stunning and compelling package.

The performance of the device as I pluck up the confidence to push it more and more has been nothing short of impressive. It’s not the speed mind you. As I said when looking at the Desire S, I know the SGSII is faster but it’s not leaps ahead. What it is though is the incredible consistency in maintaining this speed. I managed on some rare occasions to induce a lag in the Desire S, but I don’t recall having obvious performance drops with the SGSII. Whether it’s browsing, apps, using the camera, or heavy duty multitasking.

I’ve also been impressed with the battery on the device. The device has a 1650 mAh which is a big battery but that is irrelevant as the whole device and a specific usage pattern  has to be taken into account. With my rather brutal usage, the SGSII has been taking me into a second day having to charge at around mornigng tea time with regular use. Of course like any device it will suffer when I have a lot of phone or use the GPS a lot which I use for my training and in that case it will still safely negotiate a whole day. One thing I can attribute this to also is Android’s superlative notification system. I was always told that my Symbian devices lasted long on a charge because the device is not enjoyable to use and I politely disagreed, it’s a different paradigm, one I’m still surprisingly keen on. However a lot of my use case with Symbian was preemptive, involving a lot of direct interaction. With Android I trust the notifications system enough such that for most of my core tasks, the interaction is predominantly passive with me polling the system less.

Like with the Desire S, residing in Google’s cloud, the experience on an Android device is exactly what I’ve been looking for. This time round, I didn’t have the niggly calendar issues where some events just didn’t show up. Gmail sync has been rock solid, contacts as well. As usual though once you step out of Google, things do get a little fuzzy and the default client was not pleasant to use. For the life of me I could not get it to link up to my Nokia Ovi Mail account, even when using manual settings. It managed once then never synced. I’ve had to download the Yahoo Mail client which works well enough, except it initially didn’t notify me of new mails. I’ve tried just backgrounding it but of course the Android system often decides the app needs to be closed…often. A later update to the app did fix this meaning that as long as I didn’t push back to leave the app and instead hit the home key, I would get notifications in the background.

Of course, one of the features that makes Android so impressive is that you can pretty much replacing any  built in app with a third party option from the well stocked Market. Indeed wit Mail I have experimented with third party apps, and I have also replaced the default gallery, messaging, music player, and the launcher. Moving into general apps, the Android Market has what, 350 ooo+ apps? So it’s safe to say that pretty much most apps and services, if they are cross platform and having API that allow third parties to develop apps unlike say *cough*Instgram*cough*, will most likely be stocked. I find the quality of apps to be a mixed bag. There are some superlative apps like Read it Later and Pulse and some that are not so good, but this is perhaps a product of the open nature of the platform. I find that to get the best out of the device with additional apps I have had to be very selective about what I install. The tendency is to go download crazy but a bit of curation is adviced.

One thing that really impressed me with the SGSII was the camera, with some caveats. I’ll start off by saying that in good conditions, the SGSII kept up with the Nokia N8, which  by all accounts is still the reference camera phone for still photography. And not just from a resolution perspective, it bests other 12 mega-pixel cameraphones like the Satio and Pixon12 for example. The N8 is the complete package boasting a humongous (by phone standards) sensor, great optics and intelligent software algorithms. Keeping that in mind, the first comparison picture I took with the devices surprised me. Usually even at standard viewing sizes the difference between the N8 is tangible and when you zoom the extent of the gulf in class is apparent. With the SGSII I really had to look hard to find obvious difference in quality.

   

Gues which is which?

The SGSII is equipped with a small sensor and does seem to have narrow dynamic range, evidenced by it’s tendency to get the the exposure wrong on a number of occasions. Sometime overexposure was severe with blown out highlights. This could be partialy corrected by tweaking exposure bias or simply locking exposure elsewhere and recomposing, but this was in contrast with the N8 where without any input, it got a lot of scenes spot on.

  

  

The photos above are an extreme example. The N8 struggled too but managed to get the shot almost right, the SGSII just could not manage.

In low light, the SGSII is even weaker, producing noisy images with an appreciable loss in detail. This photo for me illustrates this, taken at dusk using landscape mode. The effect is pleasing only once you suspend the reality that it was not that dark at the time. The N8 plucked out details that the SGSII lost completely with significantly lower noise.

   

Photos taken with flash are as one would expect for LED flash.

Overall though I have felt comfortable enough to use the SGSII as my daylight camera, but accepting that I’ll have to bring out the big gun for those testing shots.

  

  

   

I just want to come back to the rest of the hardware which from a specification point as I often said is spectacular but it’s on day to day tasks that you start to appreciate how premium this device is. Over and about the already spectacular performance I found for example the GPS to be exemplary. It gives my N8 a run for it’s money and gets a lock faster than the Desire S. I cannot exalt the virtues of the Super AMOLED screen enough. It is a match for the glorious South African sunshine remaining visible in pretty any situation. I’ve always wondered why manufactures bother putting cameras on devices if when you are out and about you can’t see anything in the viewfinder (yes HTC I’m looking at you). The speaker quality is also excellent. Nice volume, if a little bit more tinny than the N8, but better than the E7 for example.

One thing I really do not like is the usability of the ‘not visible until you touch them’ capacitive  buttons. On the HTC these are softly backlit so you know exactly where you’re aiming. I know that  left of home is options and right is back, but where exactly to aim for is a bit of guesswork, and while muscle memory can be achieved quickly I sometimes missed the target.

My final point is on ergonomics. For the bigger people amongst us this won’t be a problem but 4.3″ even with such a minimalist bezel as on the SGSII is still a big device, and in my view is on the borderline of usability. The idea of 4.65″ monsters actually frightens me. Part of it for me is that a mobile device should be optimized for one handed use, hence why I feel 3.7″ is probably the sweet spot. When typing I often find having to switch to two handed operation, and once that starts happening I believe you are deviating from a true mobile device. Like I said though it’s still usable one handed just slower than I’m used to, and it’s a small price to pay I guess for the gain in screen real estate.

Concluding Remarks

I’ve had an interesting last month or so having started out Novemeber using the N8, switching to an HTC Desire S, and now transitioned to the SGSII. Each of these devices represent such different philosphies. The N8 in particular is from what appears to be a bygone era, heavily focussed on hardware requirements (beyond RAM and processors) and pushing the envelope in that regard. The Desire S is more in tune with the connected world, software centric and it certainly shows in the choice of components and is an absolute joy to use, a stunning marriage of software and hardware, with the compromises strangley appropriate. The SGSII takes what the Desire S presents, guts it and sticks a roaring V12 under the hood, a true example of the specification driven era we are in down, more cores, more RAM, more sensors, bigger screens, higher resolutions.

But I have to say, that the SGSII, brilliant device that it is, just lacks a certain charm. It lacks the utility of the N8 or the subtle style of the Desire. This is a full on beast, with more grunt than you can shake a stick at! It is a difficult device to love, even once you understand how much power it packs. To put it mildly it’s a brute!

Bear with me while I offer up an analogy based on of my loves, fast cars. Porsche and Ferrari both produce blinding fast super cars but with an underlying difference in design philosophy. Ferrari’s are generally brutish affairs, driven by ridculously higher capacity engines that put out ludicrous amounts of power.  The design of the vehicles encapsulates this, hulking beasts. The Porsches on that other have always been dare I say, more graceful, sleek subtle things, with less obvious grunt, and to my eyes more beautiful. And yet put them on the road and the Porsches can more than hold the own against the crazy Ferrari’s.

And  that’s how I feel about the SGSII in the end. It’s brazen display of extreme power is dazzling at first sight. That stunning Super AMOLED screen, with seemingly impenetrable depths and delightful blacks. Very few devices make an impression like that, dizzyfying speeds as it whizzes through menu and chomps through websites. But after a while it just feels ostentatious. Very onstentatioys

It’s just  not charming.

It’s just so difficult to love but you really appreciate the power under the hood when you push the device.

And respect what Samsung have achieved here.

In that sense it’s still a super super smartphone. And one that I would still have no problems recommending to anyone looking for a high end smartphone.

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Posted in: Apps, Editorial, N8, Review, Samsung