Samsung Galaxy SII (GT-I9100) – Review

After about three weeks I feel ready to write this late review on the Samsung Galaxy SII, an Android best seller. I have been using it, switched back to my Acer Stream (2010 gen.), compared it to the Pre Plus and the old and dusty T-Mobile G1 to come to the conclusions I will share now. The Galaxy SII in question was running Android 2.3.3, build Gingerbread.XWKE2.


The first thing one notices when one gets the SGSII is: “Wow, that IS a small box.” The next is, after opening the box: “The box couldn´t be smaller.” One takes it out and thinks: “Hey, that is thin and light”. A second later one notices, that the battery isn´t inside the phone yet – I could go on like this, but who would read it like that.

HARDWARE


It´s thin (8.49mm), but huge – and light (119g). It´s fast, a 1.2GHz Dual Core ARM Cortex A9 chipset, accompanied by ARM Mali 400 MP graphics (developed and made by Samsung, called Exynos 4210) and 1GB of RAM  provide a stutter free Android experience on a WVGA (800×480) Super AMOLED Plus screen (12 subpixels. 16GB of onboard storage (microSD slot is there, too), an 8 Megapixel Camera with LED flash, a 2MP front camera and a HSPA+ capable 3G module make the spec sheet complete.

While the device feels good and solid in my rather large hands (at first I found it a little bit to light and was terribly afraid of breaking it), the hardware has its weaknesses – I don´t want to comment on the plastic skin of the device, which makes it so super light and feels sturdy, but on the button of the SGSII, which are.. well, not that great.

First of all, there is the missing camera button. Not that I would particularly like dedicated camera buttons, but with such a good and quickly starting camera like the one of the Samsung Galaxy SII, this IS annoying, as starting the camera becomes more interesting, as you know that you could do a quick shot if only there was a dedicated button (or maybe a lockscreen option, though that would be slightly inferior in my opinion) to start the camera. But there is none, and so you find yourself searching hecticly for that camera shortcut – I placed one on every homescreen, but that´s an ugly hack.

The three buttons the SGSII has on it the sides, volume up and down and power, are, to make this button game even worse, poorly placed, on opposite sides at the same height. This made me hating them, as I, while short pressing the power button to save power by switching the screen off, often accidentely raised the volume without noticing. Think of sitting in a business meeting (or a lecture at school or university, or in a play at the theatre) and your phone starts ringing loudly – it didn´t happen to me, but that was because I was lucky. I believe that Samsung should have placed both buttons on one side or moved the power button to where the iPhone has its – if engineerly feasible, they should do that for their next superphone, even if that means an extra milimeter of thickness.

These are the most annoying buttons, and I´ve got to say that the one physical, surrounded by two capacative ones, sitting right under the screen, aren´t that great, too. As Samsung seems to be trying to resemble the iPhone as good as possible, they didn´t watch usability here. While there is nothing to complain about the physical Home Button, the other two (you can configure their illumination in the settings, which is a nice touch) are so close to the bright and amazingly colorful screen (I didn´t miss qHD resolution, though more is always better ;) ), without anything that makes a haptic differentiator and at a low height of 14 milimeters, that it occurs that you touch them while trying to access the buttons of an application or the other way round – especially while you´re in a haste.

One more thing: There is no notification LED on the SGSII.

Nontheless, all these issues are neglectible, the Galaxy SII is a great hardware, that looks awesome (while sort of knock-offy), sometimes at expense of usability.

SOFTWARE

TouchWiz 4.0, slightly customized

The Android 2.3.3 software (as reviewed, I will update to 2.3.4 right after this review, unfortunately not OTA) doesn´t come stock but has a layer on top of it, that is custom to Samsung devices and has the name TouchWiz, iteration 4.0. With 4 buttons at the bottom it resembles a well known fruit phone. Besides that, Samsung has replaced many icons, and added in blue as an additional color.

While speed and responsibility aren´t harmed by TouchWiz (which is a notable thing, as other custom layers, like the ones of LG, Motorola (Motoblur), Sony Ericsson, and HTC (Sense) have been reported to slow the phones down – to there defense I have to add that the customizations of the latter two change a lot more),  my eyes and usability are.

It´s a personal thing, but I find these TouchWiz icons ugly in comparison to what Android 2.3.x (Gingerbread) delivers. While the colored buttons in the settings menu may help some, the changed battery icon definitely doesn´t – it´s always green, while the stock icon features different colors that help illustrating the battery status.

Samsung has added some applications in, as all manufacturers seem unable to resist to (this, btw, is a great pro of the Nexus series). Most prominently these are the 4 Hubs (Social Hub, Gaming Hub, Readers Hub and Music Hub), that offer you content for money – even the Social Hub, which just comes with a limited feature set. All of these hubs seem to be an attempt to build an ecosystem like the one Apple offers – but it´s no more than an attempt in my opinion. In addition to this, there is “Samsung Apps”, an application market which offers you a bunch of free Apps, among these many, that are in the Android Market anyway (which is still crowded and appears sort of unorganized). It has some special Samsung applications in the “Utilities” section, which are quite usable though (many of these come preinstalled, but not all), including Kies Air (which is great, you connect your Phone to your PC via WiFi and can access the phones data via your PCs browser), Samsung Remote, Samsung Mobile Print and a tool which you can use to update your phones camera firmware.
The most welcomed additions by Samsung to Android (they have added in a custom email app (somehow connected to that Social Hub crapware, customized dialer, contacts, calendar in a million small ways that don´t add value in my humble opinion) are 3 three pre installed apps: A Video editor, a picture editor and Polaris Office, which allows to view and edit Microsoft Office documents (+ view PDF). While all of these apps surely have a limited feature set (this is mobile!), they come in nice and handy and one is glad to have them. Swype is a nice addition that deserves to be mentioned, too.

A friend of mine just bought a SGSII (as his first real smartphone), and I want to share his first impression with Samsungs Software stuff (translated):

“I’ve now bought the SII 9100: D and I’m still happy ….. I wonder just how much garbage is already on the homescreens – mega lots of windows for gaming hub, movie hub, … etc – if you use them, does that cost money? Are these applications where one has to download stuff et cetera or where you are directed into a store?”

Sounds like fail, Samsung!

USABILITY/MULTITASKING (Software side)

Well, this is Android. Usability on Android has never been exactly award winning, and Samsung didn´t manage to really improve this with TouchWiz 4.0, which makes the whole TouchWiz story even more disappointing. Multitasking on Android means using a “Share” option (when you want to send something to another App) or using the Home Button with a short or a long press. While short press brings you back to the homescreen where you left of (another press then directs you to the first homescreen in TouchWiz (as opposed to the one in the middle on stock Android), a long press on the SGSII´s home button leads you to a Screen showing the “Recently used Applications”. This seems nice, but say you´ve got a notification (new email) and entered your eMail app using the Notification area (which Samsung enhanced nicely, though CM does this in a better way), you won´t find that eMail app among the recent apps that pop up after another long press after you´ve gone elsewhere (e.g. browser, to look things up). Google should really improve this in Ice Cream Sandwich, the next Android release which is going to unite smartphone (Gingerbread, 2.3.*) and tablet (Honeycomb 3.*) branches of Android again.
And then there´s this Menu Button, which, mostly because of bad usability decisions by App developers is a pain in the neck – comparable platforms like iOS or WP7 don´t have such a button, which shows that it isn´t necessary – in fact this button is a relict of the early days when Android was developed to become a Blackberry competitor using Googles services.
None of these things are genuinly Samsungs fault though, it´s a problem of Android itself.

PERFORMANCE

Nothing to complain here. It´s fast, it´s fluid – I experienced crashes using 3rd party applications, but that´s most likely not Samsungs fault. It´s on a speed experience level with the latest fruit phone. However, for those of you into gaming, you may consider to get a nVidia Tegra2 powered device (such as the LG P990 or the Motorola Atrix, which both have more flaws then the SGSII), as these feature the Tegra Zone with special games – what Samsung offers in their “Samsung Apps” can´t compete yet.

BATTERY LIFE
Well, it´s ok. It worked a day for me usually, and I am pretty hard on my phones – the SGSII did better than the Palm Pre Plus or the Acer Stream. I could critisize some of the Power Saving Mode stuff Samsung did (no revert to 2G, etc. pp.), but at least they tried to help users with power saving. What´s annoying: Once battery drops under 10%, you can´t take anymore pictures. Doesn´t make sense to me.
ACCESSORIES

Samsung doesn´t put much into the small box. Among a wallcharger and an USB cable and an everlasting Quick Manual, all you find is a surprisingly good in ear headset, which really sounds good. I am going to get myself one of these for my Palm Pre Plus as it just is a lot better (though not as good in the looks department – but, as you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder).

VERDICT


The Galaxy SII is a good phone, that offers great performance. Samsung really did a good job with the Exynos chipset – unfortunately the phone doesn´t deserve the title “great” due to aforementioned issues. Many of the issues, mostly those on the software side are fixable – if they aren´t fixed by Samsung, the community will attempt to do so.

+ / Pro

  • huge, great, responsive, colorful Super AMOLED + touchscreen
  • thin
  • Camera
  • fast. really fast!
  • battery life is really ok for such a beast
– / Contra
  • TouchWiz / Samsung Software additions don´t add much
  • no Camera button, overall button placement
  • WiFi isn´t that good
  • Multitasking isn´t always fun thanks to Androids UX

More:
Screenshot Gallery on picasa
More LINMOB content on the SGSII

Comment: Why HP should send a huge Thank You to S. Elop

Let´s face it: Many people like the Nokia MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan / Maemo 6 presented on the Nokia N9 – if you read the negative comments, these show concerns about buying a device which is abandoned on release, they dislike the last years Hardware platform or ask the “What about apps?” question – if Nokia hadn´t discontinued the MeeGo platform, one of these negative points wouldn´t be there, and the other two would be addressed by future devices over time (I think I read once that OMAP4 is pin compatible to OMAP3).

One of too many webOS 2.1.0 bugs (Device: Palm Pre Plus)

But let´s think about to whom the the Nokia MeeGo platform would have been a strong competitor. Many of you may think Android, and while this absolutely right in the long term, in short and mid term Nokias Meego platform would have been more of a competitor to the smaller smartphone operating systems / ecosystems, such as Windows Phone 7 or HP webOS, which are chosen by their loyals because of their usability, which is less flawed than Androids (menu button, multi tasking).

Nokias MeeGo platform is as it is (in its nearly abandoned state) already a strong competitor to what HP webOS is like – both systems are all about gesture powered multitasking. Let´s look deeper. HP webOS is – and I am sorry to say that – is flawed by the web technologies it´s using – JavaScript still is not running as fast as seasoned programming languages, and besides that, there will be some work necessary to speed up system services – just compare the HP TouchPads Sun Spider benchmark scores – the TouchPad is the most advanced version of webOS and surely requires some more polishing, as this is the first public release we are dealing with here (and no, it´s not the hardware´s fault, I´ve seen benchmarks were the Qualcomm platform smoked the Tegra2 used in most Android tablets out there).

MeeGo, as being a still rather new development on top of very seasoned technologies, performs a lot better (which has a huge impact, you have to consider that these devices are mobile, and less CPU usage is automatically connected with better battery life..), and as Nokia´s MeeGo UI is more than competitive, this platform with Nokia’s experience in the mobile sector (which while HP / Palm have some too should be superior) could have easily made it to the third position on the market, with a huge gap to Android and iOS still, but better than the rest. Nokia opted against a clear MeeGo push though, so this is all theory (most likely they would have stuck to the way inferior Symbian too much, anyway) – thanks to S. Elop,HP has another chance.

Success, however, is something that requires more than just good ideas, even more than astonishing products (that HP doesn´t have yet, the TouchPad, Veer and Pre³ are in many ways inferior). An alliance with Samsung (that build smartphones with Android, Windows Phone 7, Bada and LiMo already) could help with great hardware, but possibly killed HPs own margins and besides that, it´s the software which until now still isn´t more than a set of brilliant usability concepts that is sort of usable. HP has the chance to fix their issues, which are many – as Elop gave them some more time.

HP Touchpad – and webOS 3.0

The HP TouchPad is available in the US and a whole lot of reviews are out. Of course I don´t have a review unit, which is sad but normal for a small blog – so I can´t share any first hand impressions, just comment on what others have shared on the TouchPad.

Hardware:

The TouchPad is thicker than the iPad2 or modern Android Honeycomb Tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 – however, the main complaint is materials: The TouchPads back is made of glossy plastic, which, as you may know, feels rather cheap. Besides that, it isn´t the lightest tablet out there.

Software:

Everybody likes webOS usability. webOS 3.0 on the Touchpad starts with around 300 apps, of which 50 are great apps – this is more than the Android Honeycomb tablets started with, which is good, too. There are some complaints though, too: The Skype integration is not perfect yet, so is the overall speed of the device, hickups are said to occur from time to time (despite the fast Qualcomm chip inside). HP stated, that these issues are supposed to be fixed in about a month with an OTA update – there is only one first impression though, and this is as its always been with (HP) webOS: Great ideas, not polished yet (I was going to write: “Great ideas poorly carried out” but that sounded to harsh without a deep dive into the TouchPad (e.g. a long hands on (a few hours or days)).

Still, comments and ratings on the HP TouchPad have been overly positive. It´s said to feel very “natural” in use, that some parts of its usability are like “that tune you can´t get out of your head”, e.g. the swipe up to close an application. In fact, i have read more than once that while not yet on the iPad 2´s level, the TouchPad is already a serious contender to the Honeycomb tablets, which are believed to have an overly complecated user experience.
Whether this is enough to have TouchPad sales at the level where HP expects them, remains to be seen.

(Stay tuned for another article on HP webOS in general later today.)

Imerj / frog design 2 in 1 Smartpad

As you may have noticed, I prefer not to cover each and every device with a short article, I rather write about the few devices, that really seem to make a difference to me along with the devices that I actually buy.

One of these interesting devices I didn´t cover because it seemed far to unlikely to ever even get my hands on it was the Kyocera Echo, a very interesting 2 screen Android smartphone, made for the US operator sprint, build with two 3.5” inch displays, powered by a first gen CDMA/EVDO Snapdragon CPU (MSM8650). However, this first attempt at a dual screen smartphone seemed to have some caveats, including the fact that it was just on sale on one US network.

The guys over at Engadget (which while certainly having suffered from quite an exodus of editors and writers still is a great online publication on tech) now got their hands on a similar device, which is a lot more interesting, just because it will most likely be an AT&T device – AT&T has a WCDMA/GSM network and thus this device will, even if marketed only in the US, be usable (after an unlock) almost everywhere in the world.

Specs have been bumped up in comparison to the “Echo”. The screens on this still feature the same WVGA resolution, size is increased to 4” though, which ads up to one splitted screen of 6” (compared to 4,7” on the “Echo”, the device has a simpler folding mechanism, is thinner (folded: 14mm, as “tablet” 7mm ) and has the horsepower of a TI OMAP4 chip at yet undisclosed/unfinalized speed in it – which means it´s totally on par with similar superphone solutions and most likely even faster than those running on a nVidia Tegra 2 SoC.

How you use the device is simple and fascinating, yet hard to describe. That´s why I urge you to check out Imerj Designs website and the afore mentioned engadget article now to get an idea about the device.

While certainly not much more than a niche solution (at least as long there is this devider between the two screens), this proposal of a device certainly is a charming thing. It offers a lot more than a stardard (Android) superphone and isn´t that much bigger in terms of size – it will most likely be more expensive and battery life is something to be concerned about with such a thin, dual screen device, though.

N9, N950: Two Nokia MeeGo devices. Thoughts before going to bed.

The N9 was announced in Asia while I was sleeping here in Europe. Now I am about to go to bed again, but as I can´t do any serious blogging (videos, images) being online over an EDGE network which feels more like GPRS in terms of speed right now, I want to share some thoughts on the N9 and the N950.

The N950, which I didn´t really cover here yet on LINMOB, is the device that we saw on leaked images aeons ago (~ 1 year), a device much looking like the Nokia E7: An 4” HWVGA aluminum slab with a slide out, full 4 row QWERTY keyboard. Don´t get overly excited about this device if you aren´t a developer, as it will be tough to get one then. Read more on this over at thehandheldblog.com, and if you are interested in the actual differences between these two new Nokia Handsets, let me point to this post at meegonews.com

For the non Qt / Linux developing rest of us, there will be the keyboard less, polycarbonate N9, which looks different than the existing Nokia phones, it doesn´t resemble the N8 e.g. – I like it … I think I should stop repeating myself, so nothing on the specs here which I haven´t posted yet, they are decent, not breathtaking.

Pricing and availability. Not much info on that yet. There are, as I noticed earlier today, indicators that the N9 will only sell in a few countries. (->TheHandheldBlog) Considering the general excitement about this new Nokia product this would be a very sad thing, but Nokia has (from my view as a mobile linux lover) made tons of sad decisions since Steve Elop came aboard.

I already linked you to thehandheldblog.com twice, and I will do it a third time in this post, simply because I totally agree to their comment “With The N9, Nokia Shows The World Its Still Got It”.

Last but not least you should watch this video of the presentation (by netbooknews) – I can´t right now (EDGE):

Nokia N9 – Nokias last MeeGo device

Nokia unleashed what is believed to be their last MeeGo (1.2 “Harmattan”) device at CommunicAsia today – as rumored a very long time before, it will be called “N9” and appears to be aimed at everybody, not just developers. Accelerated by a TI OMAP 3630 SoC (as in the Motorola Milestone2 and the Palm Pre2) the N9 reminds us more of late last years phones, than of this years dual core packet giants of the competition. The device, which is packed with 1024MB of Ram, features a nice 854×480 AMOLED screen with a capacitive touch layer on top and an 8 megapixel Carl Zeiss camera capable of recording HD video, looks awesome and most likely wasn´t intended to be for developers only while designed – a beautiful, sleek mix of angles and curves, a piece of design, that can surely take on the iPhone in the “looks” department. Don´t believe me? Have a glimpse at Nokias promo clip for the N9:

If you can´t get enough of this buttonless beauty, make sure to check out what one can describe as a product page of the N9: swipe.nokia.com which has a name that really describes what how to use this device without buttons: Swiping. And what´s great about this: It´s a different type of swiping compared to HP webOS or other platforms that use swiping or gestures for UI use – yet it appears to be a pleasure to use.

Nokia also announced a set of accessoires to go with the NFC enabled N9, and you should check out the classic product page (which suggests that the N9 will only be sold in certain parts of Europe and Asia, excluding the US (which has never been Nokias turf) and Germany) and spec and UI informations too, if you are interested into this kind of information.

Last, but not least there seems to be another MeeGo device, only aimed at developers,packed with a QWERTY keyboard and thus immensly exiciting for me. Check out what MeeGoExperts.com have on this device.

I will be back for more thoughts on these announcements this evening (Berlin time).

HP TouchPad – A Comment

Ben (@benz145) of carrypad.com wrote an article on the TouchPad titled “Strengths and Weaknesses — A Look at HP’s TouchPad”, which I really recommend you to read, it´s a great article. In fact, you should head right over and read it now, because what follows is a slightly edited  lengthy comment I wrote on that article:

The Hardware: I absolutely agree with Ben here. It is a huge dissapointment, that HP didn´t opt for more connectivity options. No HDMI really kills some usage cases, especially if you consider that HP wants to sell many TouchPads to businesses. USB OTG / Host would have been nice too, but I don´t think it´s that crucial. I still don´t understand why no tablet manufaturer manages an SD card reader (not speaking of µSD here) into their tablet. Many of us still use SD Cards in our cameras, as they are still cheaper at large sizes / high speeds – especially with a 3G equipped tablet (BTW: Why no 3g on launch, HP?) this is really bad. The manufaturers could easily include such a slot in a manner that the upselling still worked (sticking out SD) – and still it would be appreciated.

The Price: I totally agree with HP, that a too aggressive pricing would have implied that the TouchPad was an inferior product. Setting the exact same price is a huge mistake though, as the TouchPad will be perceived by many as an inferior product. It is heavier (740g) and thicker (13.7mm) and we don´t know yet how fast and fluid it will feel: Many customers will notice that it is a first generation product. Add the lack of an video out option and the fewer apps and content deals to it (=> the inferior ecosystem), and you are going to find out that the TouchPad is actually an inferior product. Setting a high price point will not hide this. And we haven´t even added in the fact that Apples products are way more hyped than HPs will possibly ever be in the next three years.

Another note on the App situation: One has to keep in mind that webOS 3.0, which is launched with the TouchPad, breaks compatibility to the older apps, as the old Mojo apps will only run inside an emulator with a virtual gesture area (=> not quite a breathtaking experience). From what I read in my twitter timeline, the new development kit called Enyo is great, even though it´s not as close to web development as Mojo was. Almost all of the apps I use on my Pre Plus (which I love, btw) will be available in a native flavour on the TouchPads launch day.

Than there is one more thing I want to point out: From what I sneeked from all these videos about the TouchPad I´ve watched, the experience won´t be as great as on a webOS phone. While dumping the gesture area (all ways I can imagine to implement it on a tablet have flaws) is not necessarily a bad thing (as many first time users of the webOS phones didn´t understand the concept of it at first, anyway (i am talking about trying it in a shop without anyone telling you how to use it), there is something that I consider a mayor caveat. Apparently, there is no way to swipe from one way to another without going back to card mode, and even worse, to get to card mode, you have to press this one (I think it´s capacitive) button, which is always at one point. The Android guys did a better job at that, and the (in terms of user experience) webOS rip off TabletOS/QNX does a better job there, too.

—————

I have to add that I don´t see the HP Touchpad will be a definitive failure. It has certain features that will differentiate it from other devices, just think of the “touch to share” thing. However, the competition will implement these sooner or later (rather sooner), so HP must not rest on its laurels. They have to move forward, if they want to win a market share that makes the investment in webOS a profitable one. Competition is tough, now, and it will become even more fierce, as Google, Apple and Microsoft do not stand still – from what we´ve seen lately with iOS 5, Ice Cream Sandwhich and Windows 8 they do quite the opposite.