Samsung Galaxy S II (U.S. Cellular) Review

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$179
Editors' rating:
The Pros

Brilliant display; Can upgrade to a new phone in as little as 11 months; Strong performance; Fun built-in camera effects

The Cons

Not 4G LTE compatible; Advertising offers appear as notifications; Below-average battery life

Verdict

The popular Samsung Galaxy S II makes its way to U.S. Cellular.

Now that the major carriers have had their turn with the Galaxy S II smartphone, regional carriers are finally getting a taste of Samsung's flagship Android device. Available for $179 through U.S. Cellular after a $100 mail-in rebate, the Galaxy S II is coupled with the carrier's customer-friendly perks, including a unique upgrade option that allows customers to get a new device in as little as 11 months. Is this version of the device the best deal around?

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Design

Like its siblings, the U.S. Cellular Galaxy S II's most prominent feature is its 4.52-inch Super AMOLED Plus display. The device is a ridiculously thin 0.38 inches and weighs 4.5 ounces. Despite its relatively light weight and thin design, those with smaller hands--such as ours--may feel slightly clumsy when trying to use the 5.11 x 2.74-inch phone with one hand, especially when taking pictures.

Thanks to its smaller 4-inch display, the LG Connect 4G from MetroPCS has a smaller footprint at 4.6 x 2.5-inches, but it's both thicker (0.5-inches) and heavier at a solid 5 ounces.

U.S. Cellular's Galaxy S II features a textured black plastic back. While it eschews fingerprints, we prefer the classier-looking brushed metal look on the back of AT&T's Galaxy S II Skyrocket. On both of these phones, the backside curves out ever so slightly at the bottom, presumably to accommodate the micro-USB port and speaker located there.

An 8-megapixel camera and flash are encased in a brushed chrome oval on the back, while the 2-megapixel front-facing camera resides in the top left corner on the flip side. Up top is the headphone jack. Along the left side is the volume control and along the right, the power button. We wish the volume buttons and power buttons weren't directly across from each other. We frequently found ourselves accidentally adjusting the volume when we went to turn off the screen.

Display & Audiosamsung Galaxy II screen and audio

Once again, the 4.52-inch 800 x 480 resolution Super AMOLED Plus screen on the Galaxy S II does not disappoint. The trailer for "The Avengers" looked crisp with dark blacks and vivid color saturation. The green muscles of the Hulk were sharp and clear as he slid down the side of a building.

The audio for the same trailer was equally good, though it distorted ever so slightly when we turned the volume all the way up. Likewise, when streamed over Google Music, the Galaxy S II gave Adele's "Someone Like You" a laryngitis-like sound at top volume, but sounded full and clear at lower volumes. The speaker itself is loud even when it's not turned all the way up, so avoiding distortion isn't hard.

Keyboard

The Galaxy S II includes Samsung's keyboard and Swype. While Samsung's was serviceable, we preferred Swype's prediction options. Samsung's keyboard options also include a handwriting box in portrait mode. Though we tried, the software couldn't accurately decipher more than three letters of our finger-tracing at a time.

Interfacesamsung Galaxy II interface

U.S. Cellular's Galaxy S II comes with Android 2.3.6, the latest version of the slightly stale Gingerbread, with Samsung's TouchWiz overlay. TouchWiz gives you seven home screens that seamlessly cycle, meaning you'll never reach a point where you can't scroll any further to the left or right.

There are widgets for quick information, including weather forecasts and frequently used settings, but what we really like is the instant availability of toggle settings in the notification menu for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, silent mode and auto rotation.

Appssamsung Galaxy II apps

We've come to expect a fair amount of pre-loaded apps -- many of them unremovable -- on Android phones, but U.S. Cellular takes it a step further, and not in a good way.

"U.S. Cellular Daily Perks" features Yahoo News headlines along with categories such as Entertainment that features "Health Tips Sponsored by Allstate." There are various sponsored deals within the app, too. By default, you're notified daily of a new deal in the notification drop-down. This should be opt-in.

We regularly received other notifications that encouraged us to "Meet 5 girls in 5 minutes" by downloading "BeNaughty App for Android." We could not locate the source of the notification or figure out how to disable them.

Others apps include Amazon, City ID, HD Games (a link disguised as an app that goes to Gameloft's site), U.S. Cellular Mobile TV, U.S. Cellular Tone Room Deluxe and Zappos.

On the plus side, there are many solid apps, including All Share, which enables sharing to other Samsung devices, Photo Editor, Video Maker, Polaris Office and a demo of "Let's Golf 2."

Performance

The U.S. Cellular Galaxy S II has the same 1.2-GHz dual-core Exynow C210 processor as the Epic 4G Touch and produced superior benchmark results. On the CPU portion of the Benchmark test, the U.S. Cellular Galaxy S II scored 3,485, well above the Android smartphone average of 2362. Though the LG Connect 4G is also equipped with a 1.2-GHz dual-core processor, it mustered 2,177 on the same test.

On An3DBench, U.S. Cellular's device delivered a score of 7,959, more than 1,000 points higher than the 6,916 category average, and 500 points higher than the Connect 4G (7,404).

In daily use, the Galaxy S II was snappy, allowing us to quickly switch between apps. A demo of "Let's Golf 2" ran smoothly without any jagged pixels and was instantly responsive to our swipes.

3G data & Web Browsingsamsung Galaxy II web browsing

While U.S. Cellular recently launched its 4G LTE network, the Galaxy S II won't be able to take advantage of that speed increase. In Chicago, the phone's 3G speeds weren't stellar, either. On the Speedtest.net app, we averaged a download speed of 1.1 Mbps and an upload speed of 390 Kbps.

Web surfing was serviceable, but far from speedy. On average, it took us 14 seconds to load the mobile version of NYTimes.com, 21 seconds to load ESPN mobile and 33 seconds to load the desktop version of Laptopmag.com.

Camerasamsung Galaxy II camera

Like the other Galaxy S II smartphones, the 8-megapixel camera on the U.S. Cellular version is excellent. A blue tablecloth looked true to life and outdoor plants on a sunny day were verdant with sharply detailed leaves. We especially liked the built-in camera tweaks and effects, as well as the option to create shortcuts by dragging them onto the bar on the left side of the camera app.

Capable of recording as high as 1080p, videos shot with the phone were also sharp with deep color saturation. We noticed that the tapered edges of the phone caused us to tighten our grip slightly, which resulted in a touch of shakiness in the video.

Battery Life

The U.S. Cellular Galaxy S II lasted 5 hours and 29 minutes on the LAPTOP battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over 3G at 40 percent brightness. That's 20 minutes below the category average, 19 minutes less than the Epic 4G Touch and 14 minutes less than the AT&T 4G LTE Skyrocket. Still, the LG Connect 4G lasted just 3 hours and 53 minutes on MetroPCS' 4G network.

Coverage

U.S. Cellular is available in much of the Midwest, Oregon and Atlantic states including Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Virginia and West Virginia. However, it has national roaming agreements that are available at no extra charge, so you'll be covered if you venture out of the carrier's territory.

The company just launched its 4G LTE network in select cities in Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin. In partnership with King Street Wireless, the carrier plans to make 4G LTE available to 54 percent of its customers by the end of 2012. However, the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator is currently the only phone in U.S. Cellular's stable that can take advantage of these higher speeds.

Data Plans

U.S. Cellular only offers a 5GB data plan, but has three options when it comes to voice and text.

The least expensive plan includes 450 minutes and unlimited texts for $79.99 a month, with a new phone upgrade after 14 months. The middle tier plan ($89.99 per month) ups the talk time to 1,200 minutes and a phone upgrade after 12 months. Finally, there's the unlimited voice plan ($109.99 per month) with a phone upgrade after 11 months and phone replacement (after $100 deductible).

All of these plans also include free incoming calls and texts, nights and weekends starting at 7 p.m., and the option to enroll in Overage Protection, which limits you from going more than $50 over your monthly bill.

After two years, U.S. Cellular's unlimited plan will run $2,639. However, after fulfilling your initial two-year contract, you'll never have to sign another contract with U.S. Cellular for as long and you're with them and you'll be eligible for a new phone after 11 months.

By comparison, the LG Connect 4G on MetroPCS is a prepaid phone that will set you back $299 when you purchase it, but you won't be tied to a contract. Over two years, the Connect 4G with the top-of-the-line $60 monthly plan will cost you $1,759.

U.S. Cellular offers its customers numerous perks that the national carriers don't, such as the option to upgrade after 11 to 17 months based on plan and a battery swap program. If you're out on the town and your battery's dead, simply stop by a U.S. Cellular store and they'll exchange your dead battery for a fully charged one.

Verdict

As with the Samsung Galaxy S II on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, there's a lot to like about U.S. Cellular's version. This $179 device has a gorgeous AMOLED display, speedy processor and a quality camera. However, its lack of 4G speeds makes us feel like we're forcing a race horse to give pony rides at the state fair. Those looking to take advantage of U.S. Cellular's LTE network as soon as it arrives should check out the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator, which has a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen, and costs just $20 more. But, coupled with the company's customer benefits and frequent upgrade program, the Galaxy S II is definitely one of the more powerful devices in U.S. Cellular's stable.

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Carrier U.S. Cellular
Form Factor Candybar Touchscreen
Operating System Android 2.3
Networks CDMA 800/1900MHz
Data EV-DO Rev. A
CPU 1.2-GHz Dual Core
RAM
Internal Memory 16GB
Memory Expansion Type microSD Card
Display (main) 4.52 inches/Super AMOLED Plus
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Front Camera Resolution 2MP
Camera Resolution 8 MP
Talk / Standby Time 8 hours/12.5 days
Size 5.11 x 2.74 x 0.38 inches
Weight 4.55 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website www.uscellular.com