While wireless carriers usually strike deals to gain exclusivity on certain smartphones, they've taken a different approach with the Samsung Galaxy S II. This super-fast dual-core device is now available on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. AT&T's version has a smaller screen than its brethren (4.3 vs. 4.5 inches), but it boasts the same blazing processor, sharp camera, and wafer-thin design. So how does it stack up to its kin and the iPhone 4S?
The AT&T Galaxy S II is the runt of the Galaxy S II litter. Its version has "just" a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED screen; the Sprint and T-Mobile counterparts each sport a mammoth 4.5-inch display. Of course, even the smallest Galaxy S II makes the iPhone screen seem like an iPod nano by comparison.
Since it has a slightly smaller screen than its siblings, the AT&T S II is also about an eighth of an inch shorter, measuring 5 x 2.6 x 0.4 inches, and, at 4.1 ounces, nearly a third of an ounce lighter. This makes the phone easier to use one-handed than the Sprint and T-Mobile versions. The AT&T SII is both taller and wider than the iPhone 4S, but the Samsung's textured back makes it easier to grip.
All the Galaxy S IIs have a distinctive bulge on the rear back and an on/off switch on the side. Annoyingly, the side power button on this AT&T device is located farther down the side than it is on the previous Galaxy S and on the Sprint version of the S II--exactly in the spot where you'd grab the phone most of the time. We often accidentally hit it while in the middle of casually handling the phone, necessitating us to hit it again to turn the handset back on.
The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top right; the volume toggle on the left spine is a single switch so you have to make sure you tap either end to raise or lower the volume, and the microUSB charging jack is located on the bottom. There is no external camera shutter key.
Frustratingly, the backlight for the four Android touch controls beneath the screen is not coordinated with the screen backlight. In other words, the backlight on the touch keys will only stay illuminated for 1.5 seconds. You can change this duration to 6 seconds, "always on," or "in the dark."
The 800 x 480 Super AMOLED display on the AT&T Galaxy S II is smaller than its siblings (4.3 inches compared to 4.5 inches), but it offered extra-wide viewing angles and eye-popping contrast when we watched the trailer for J. Edgar on YouTube. However, we noticed that the screen was dimmer on this S II than on the Sprint version. When we used our AEMC Lightmeter, it registered 213 lux for the AT&T S II and 286 lux for the Sprint model. The T-Mobile version registered 249 lux. Nevertheless, this is still one of the best displays you'll find on an AT&T smartphone.
Software and Interface
The Galaxy S II carries over the seven Android home screens from other Samsung Android phones. All have dots indicating which of the seven screens you're on, but Sprint's S II numbers these dots.
Samsung's TouchWiz overlay includes some neat Live Panel widgets, such as Picture Frame, which rotates through your photo albums; AP Mobile, which shows the latest news stories, and Accu-Weather.com (there's seven diferent clocks to choose from, too). Even better, they're resizable, so you can choose how much of a home screen a widget takes up.
Perhaps as a way to differentiate its multitouch interface from Apple and its vigorous patent defenses, Samsung has added an odd extra zoom/shrink option. Tapping and holding to two spots on a web page or photo than tilting the Galaxy forward or back zooms or shrinks the image. This method, however, is inexact, requiring a delicate tilting balance to get to the zoom point desired. But tilt too far forward to zoom, and the image angles out of LCD view. Plus, this double tap/hold requires you to grip the phone with two hands. All in all, this tilt-to-zoom method presents no advantage to the old pinch-to-zoom.
Sliding app icons from screen to screen also employs a similar accelerometer-based tilt-to-move action; this, too, requires a delicate balancing act.
Bundled on the Galaxy S II are several AT&T apps, including AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Code Scanner, LiveTV, and AT&T Navigator. Samsung-branded apps include Media Hub (for purchasing and renting movies); Social Hub, which aggregates your social network updates; AllShare, which lets you stream media from the phone to a DLNA-enabled TV; and Kies Air, which lets you access the phones files on a networked PC.
There are fewer entertainment options than on the T-Mobile Galaxy S II--no Netflix or Asphalt 6, for example--but AT&T's phone does include QuickOffice (for handling office documents) and Qik Lite (for video chat).
It's not even close to offering the intelligence of Apple's Siri, but Vlingo's voice-command app worked well. "Find pizza" initiated a search for pizza restaurants near us, and saying "Call Bob" pulled up that contact's phone number in the dialer. However, when we asked Vlingo "what time is it in Paris?" it merely opened up the web browser, and put our phrase in a Google search. And you can forget about asking if you need an umbrella.
Like the Sprint Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch, the AT&T Galaxy S II uses a 1.2-GHz Exynos C210 processor, so it's not surprising that the two devices returned similar scores in our tests. On the CPU section of the Benchmark test, the AT&T phone score 3,340, a bit better than Sprint's 3,165. That's also on a par with the T-Mobile Galaxy S II, whose 1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor turned in a score of 3,365.
On An3DBench, which measures 3D graphics performance, the AT&T Galaxy S II scored 7,754, which falls between the Epic 4G Touch (7,937) and the T-Mobile Galaxy S II (7,394). All are more than 1,000 points higher than the category average.
The AT&T Galaxy S II has 16GB of onboard storage, and users can add an additional 32GB via a microSD card, which unfortunately requires removing the battery to insert.
4G and Web Browsing
Even if AT&T's HSPA+21 is more like a souped-up 3G technology than a real 4G standard such as LTE and WiMAX, AT&T's Galaxy SII offered surprisingly fast data speeds. Using the Speedtest.net app, we averaged downloads of 4 Mbps and upload speeds of 1.5 Mbps in the north part of New York City but only 1.5 down and 250 Kbps up downtown.
By comparison, the Sprint Galaxy S II averaged 4.3 Mbps down and 950.4 Kbps up. However, T-Mobile's Galaxy S II blew both away; at an optimal location in a midtown deli, downloads averaged 16.2 Mbps and uploads at 1.7 Mbps, with max speeds of 17.8 Mbps down and 1.75 up.
Mobile-optimized web pages such as CNN, ESPN and The New York Times popped into full view in less than three seconds in our first location. But in downtown NYC it took 10 seconds or so.
The Galaxy S II also offers hotspot capability for up to five users. Mobile-optimized web pages on a tethered iPad loaded in around 10 seconds, and full websites, such as ESPN.com and NYTimes.com, took between 10-15 seconds to load on Internet Explorer on a notebook.
Considering we're still dealing with a plastic pinhole lens, the Galaxy S II takes shockingly colorful, bright and crisp 8-megapixel (3264 x 2448) photos with no discernible grain. Even photos shot at 4x zoom maintain a semblance of size and clarity. You also can choose 8.5-MP wide mode (3264 x 1968), 3.2 (2048 x 1536), 2.4 wide (2048 x 1232), 0.4-MP wide 800 x 480, or VGA.
Equally surprising are the multitude of shooting modes and features (metering, exposure, white balance, etc.), including 2- , 5- and 10-second self-timer, and a handy force flash (always on) mode along with the auto and flash off. But the Galaxy S II offers a spotlight-like, almost blinding LED flash that brightly illuminates even scenes in complete darkness.
The only negative on the S II is that we noticed a lag of about a second or two between pressing the button and the phone capturing a shot (similar to the Sprint model). The iPhone 4S captures photos with less shutter delay (full review coming soon).
Unless you turn on anti-shake mode, Galaxy S II 1080p videos are herky-jerky. The footage is fine for viewing on the phone itself, but the larger the screen you view them on, the more dizzying the shaking gets. We're not sure why anti-shake isn't the default setting.
There's also a 2-MP front camera. We downloaded Skype and conducted a call over 4G; the caller said we looked splotchy, but audio remained in sync with video for most of the conversation.
AT&T's Galaxy S II provided reliable voice connections. Even though there was a bit of thickness in the aural quality, both ends of the conversation were crisp and consistent. It was like being in the same room compared to the iPhone 4's often echo-filled voice connections.
There could be a bit more volume for speakerphone calls, but otherwise voices come through crisp and clear. Because the rear speaker mounted on the back bump, the clarity of sound for conversations, music, and video soundtracks depends heavily on the where you place the S II. In the palm of your hand, the sound bounces off your palm and creates a fuller sound; on a table top, aural tones thin out. In either case, however, the Galaxy S II delivers plenty of clarity, and it serves well as a standalone music player.
Samsung says the AT&T Galaxy S II will provide an impressive 8 hours of continuous talk time, three quarters of an hour less than the Sprint version's rated battery life but an hour longer than iPhone 4. While the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via 4G) didn't run to completion, the phone was down to 70 percent after 2 hours and 19 minutes. If we extrapolate that, we get an estimated runtime of 7:43, which is about the same as the T-Mobile Galaxy S II (7:38), and longer than the Epic 4G Touch (5:48), HTC Amaze 4G (5:40), and HTC Sensation 4G (7:12).
AT&T subscribers now have two stellar smartphones to choose from at $199: The Galaxy S II and the iPhone 4S. The S II has a bigger Super AMOLED Plus display packaged in a lighter design than Apple's handset. It also offers a great camera and one of the fastest processors inside a smartphone, plus a highly customizable interface. On the other hand, the iPhone 4S offers more apps, more advanced voice recognition, and a faster camera packaged inside a more premium (albeit older) design. The Samsung Galaxy S II is definitely the best Android phone on AT&T, but we prefer the Sprint and T-Mobile versions because the former offers a brighter screen and unlimited data, while the latter offers much faster 4G speeds.