Samsung Galaxy S II: The Best Android Phone You Still Can't Have [REVIEW]

galaxy s ii

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

After months of delays, the Galaxy S II, Samsung’s next-gen Android beast, has caused a lot of buzz.Before you dive in, check out some huge photos of the Galaxy S II >

The Good Buzz: It’s selling like hotcakes. At least in South Korea and Europe, where it’s available. Samsung recently announced it sold 3 million units in just 55 days. Early reviews have been extremely positive too. Not bad for a phone that isn’t even available in the U.S. yet.

The Bad Buzz: It’s not available in the U.S. yet. The Galaxy S II was supposed to launch in the States in March. It’s now July, and there are few signs it’s coming soon. There’s also that whole legal matter where Apple is accusing Samsung of stealing its phone and tablet designs.

Thanks to a leak, we know that it will launch on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon under the names Attain, Within, and Function, respectively. Still, there’s no official announcement from Samsung or the carriers on when U.S. Android fans can finally buy one.

Samsung was nice enough to send me an international model of the Galaxy S II to try out. Aside from branding and whatever crapware carriers decide to add, my review model should be pretty much the same as what you’ll get when the phone finally launches. Keep reading to find out if all the hype is true.

The Phone
It’s true. For the most part.

The biggest downside is the phone’s construction. There’s a lot of plastic. I understand the importance of keeping a phone light, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of using quality materials. The Galaxy S II’s removable battery cover is just a flimsy piece of textured plastic. I can see it easily snapping in two due to the stress of opening it too many times. “Cheap” would be an accurate description.

(One reader points out this video that shows the cover is actually pretty tough.)

But as far as hardware goes, the plasticky shell is the only glaring flaw. The Galaxy S II is light enough to make the iPhone 4 feel like a brick in your pocket. It’s also just as thin as the iPhone 4. (Technically, the Galaxy S II is thinner: 8.49 mm versus the iPhone’s 9.3 mm, but the difference is so minute I didn’t even notice.)

samsung galaxy s II

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

The Galaxy S II is a delight to handle. And that large 4.3-inch screen is just as bright and crisp as its bigger cousin, the Infuse 4G. If you like taking a lot of movies with you on the go, you’ll love the Galaxy S II.

As far as speed goes, I definitely noticed an improvement in performance over my Nexus S. The Galaxy S II’s 1.2 GHz dual-core processor makes apps, video, and web pages load lickety-split and can even handle some of the more intense 3D games like N.O.V.A. without choking.

Instead of the Android-standard four control buttons at the bottom of the device, there’s an iPhone-like home button. The back button and the button for additional Android menu options now appear when you touch the screen or either side of the home button. They’re annoyingly invisible though, so you have to train yourself where each is or you’ll be tapping around blindly.

Assuming you still use your phone to make calls, you won’t be disappointed either. Quality was clear as a bell, and I didn’t have any problems with dropped calls. (My international review unit came with a T-Mobile SIM card.)

Finally, there’s the camera. An 8 MP camera is pretty standard on top-tier smartphones now, but the Galaxy S II is one of the few to offer full 1080p HD video recording. Photos and video look great, noticeably better than what I can do with my iPhone 4.

Finally, A Galaxy Phone With Gingerbread
Not counting the Google-branded Nexus S, the Galaxy S II is Samsung’s first phone to run Android 2.3 Gingerbread. 

But this won’t be the same Gingerbread you’re used to if you have any experience with the Nexus S. Samsung layered its TouchWiz skin on top of Google’s operating system. I’m not a huge fan of TouchWiz — it’s nowhere near as attractive as HTC’s Sense skin — and I think Samsung should’ve stuck to something that closer resembles stock Gingerbread.

The best way I can describe TouchWiz is a less attractive version of iOS. (In fact, TouchWiz is part of the reason Apple is suing Samsung.) There’s a dock that lets you store four apps, and the applications menu swipes left to right, just like the iPhone’s. I’ve used a lot of Samsung phones, and I was hoping for something a bit less stale. It’s not a dealbreaker, but TouchWiz could use an overhaul.

samsung galaxy s II

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

Samsung also included its own app store, music store, and store for purchasing books and periodicals. I found them all pretty unnecessary though. Samsung’s app store has a dismal selection in comparison to the Android Market. And while the bookstore is powered by Kobo, I still prefer Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s apps.

Other than that, it’s a pretty standard Android experience: Google apps, Google sync, Android Market…they’re all here.

Should You Buy It?
Well, you can’t. Even if you wanted to. Unless you don’t mind ordering the phone from another country at full price and paying some crazy shipping fees.

But once the Galaxy S II does launch in the U.S., it will easily be the new gold standard for Android phones, just like the original Galaxy S was.

Android lovers: Start lining up.

Everyone else: Hold out for the iPhone 5 in September.

The back feels cheap and plasticky

The Galaxy S II runs Android version 2.3.3. Not a huge fan of the TouchWiz skin though

Widgets are blocky and unattractive

Thin and light. All in an attractive package

The 8 MP camera shoots 1080p HD video.

Matches the iPhone 4 in thickness

The Galaxy S II is a lot like the Infuse 4G, but it's smaller and more powerful

The back and options buttons appear on either side of the home button when you touch the screen.

The display is bright and clear

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