Samsung Galaxy S II: More diamond, less rough

This is a tough break. Just a day after Motorola unveiled the revival of its iconic RAZR brand, and just hours after Samsung and Google took the wraps off Android 4.0 and the Galaxy Nexus, I decided to finally put my thoughts together on the Galaxy S II review unit Samsung sent me a few weeks ago. Samsung’s Galaxy S II might be the fastest-selling smartphone the vendor has ever released, but it doesn’t have a 7.1-millimeter-thin Kevlar case or a sleek curved glass screen. It doesn’t have 4G LTE speed or a qHD display, and it probably won’t be updated with Google’s Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS in the immediate future. But does that mean the millions of consumers who have purchased the device over the past few months should feel that their smartphone of choice has just been outclassed? My thoughts follow below.

It’s a scenario that has become all too familiar: Android smartphone X is unveiled and it has a gorgeous case, specs to die for, a brand new multi-core processor and an ultra-slim case that makes its predecessors look like a DynaTAC. Smartphone fans drool and rush out to buy the new device as soon as it hits store shelves. A few months or even weeks later, Android smartphone Y is unveiled, rendering Android phone X nearly obsolete in enthusiasts’ eyes.

Apropos, recent Galaxy S II buyers around the world were undoubtedly sweating on Tuesday morning as we prepared to see Motorola’s latest and greatest followed by the next-generation Google flagship phone, Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus. Here in the U.S., the Galaxy S II launched just last month so Americans in particular were surely feeling the heat.

When the dust finally settled after the DROID RAZR and Galaxy Nexus had been announced, we were left with two amazing smartphones. They were slim, they were sleek and they left Android fans ready to bite. Unlike product cycles in the past, however, these new flagship phones were hardly a quantum leap past the current crop of Android-powered smartphones. In fact, the cycle of buyer’s remorse may very well have just been broken.

I’m a huge fan of HTC’s Sense UI and I typically gravitate toward the Taiwan-based vendor’s impressive lineup of Android phones as a result. Until recently, my weapon of choice was the Sensation 4G and I’m still a big fan of the device. The build is phenomenal, the display is big and bright but not too big for one-handed use, and the latest version of Sense is flat out beautiful. Then, several weeks ago, I reluctantly put my trusty Sensation in a drawer to begin testing T-Mobile’s Galaxy S II. I haven’t touched it since.

I’ll just come right out with it: the Galaxy S II is my favorite Android phone to date.

When it comes to Samsung’s smartphones, I hold a similar opinion of most devices the vendor has launched in recent years. I call them diamonds in the rough.

To put it bluntly, mounting Samsung displays in the cases that often surround them is akin to mounting a flawless 4-carat diamond on the base of a ring pop. Owners of a Galaxy S, a Focus or any number of other Samsung smartphones will know exactly what I mean. The AMOLED displays on these smartphones are some of the best screens I have ever seen on mobile devices. The vibrant colors put competitors’ smartphone displays to shame, the brightness is beyond impressive and the clarity is phenomenal.

The cheap plastics Samsung uses to encase these gorgeous displays, however, might even make Hasbro’s Playskool division blush.

With the Galaxy S II, Samsung has improved the hardware side of the equation dramatically. Granted, there was so much room for improvement that this dramatic change still leaves the device lagging behind some competitive offerings, but the hardware is finally at a point where it is solid enough to pass as a high-end device. In other words, it no longer draws attention away from Samsung’s beautiful Super AMOLED Plus displays.

The face of the Galaxy S II is flat glass, and I might add that it resists oil from the hands quite well. The back of the phone, at least where T-Mobile’s version is concerned, is a nice textured plastic with a slight rubbery feel. It’s not ultra high-end but it is infinitely better than the cheap plastic back on the Nexus S, for example. The bezel around the edges of the phone is still a bit cheap feeling compared to materials you might find on an HTC device, however, and the Galaxy S II does feel a tad light for its size. All things considered though, 99 out of 100 consumers will be beyond happy with this hardware — and as soon as that magnificent display is lit up, the remaining 1% will likely forget all about any inadequacies where the case is concerned.

BGR has already reviewed the Galaxy S II, twice, so I won’t bother pick the phone apart again. Instead, a few observations beyond the build as noted above:

Samsung’s TouchWiz UI layer is much improved on the Galaxy S II. It is a touch more refined and less cartoon-like, and there are some new widgets as well. Samsung’s widgets can’t even come close to touching HTC’s Sense widgets, but they get the job done and there are plenty of third-party options to fill in the blanks.

This phone is fast. Forget the specs — which are very impressive, mind you — what matters is a device’s performance and the Galaxy S II performs quite well. Moving around the OS still isn’t as smooth as it is with Windows Phone or iOS, but this is an Android issue that not even Qualcomm’s 1.5GHz dual-core chipset can resolve. Among its peers, however, the S II is much more responsive than other high-end Android phones I’ve tested. Apps open and close instantly, bogging is extremely rare, animations are nice and smooth, and data moves over T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 42 very quickly. In and around New York City, I typically saw download speeds between 2 and 4Mbps and upload speeds around 1Mbps.

My only real complaint regarding this phone is the fact that it’s gigantic. T-Mobile’s Galaxy S II is equipped with a 4.52-inch Super AMOLED Plus display and while it is smaller than the screen on some other devices like the Galaxy Nexus or HTC Titan, it’s still too big for my taste. Smartphones are becoming caricatures of themselves, but smartphone buyers seem to love these mega-screens so onward and upward we go. For me personally, 4-inches is the sweet spot. The entire display can be reached with one-handed use and it’s still big enough to provide a spacious canvass.

With displays bigger than 4 inches, one-handed use is no longer comfortable for me. Holding the Galaxy S II in one hand, for example, I cannot tap the menu button without releasing the phone almost entirely from my grip, balancing it on my pinky and hoping it doesn’t drop as I extend my thumb across the device. It’s ridiculous. But luckily for me, I have two hands.

I am most certainly looking forward to spending some time with both the Motorola DROID RAZR and Google’s new Galaxy Nexus because they really do look like gorgeous smartphones. The RAZR is slim and sleek, truly deserving of its iconic moniker. The Galaxy Nexus is a beast and it will be the first smartphone to launch with Android 4.0. If I was to be denied the opportunity to handle either of these phones, however, I have to be honest — I wouldn’t be the least bit upset. They look incredible, that much is certain, but neither phone brings with it a unique feature set that is compelling enough to draw me away from the Galaxy S II.

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