T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S II review
What else is there to say? Whether in its original, exotic exterior, its lightly changed but rather more accessible AT&T-flavored model, or the decidedly Epic Sprint version, the Samsung Galaxy S II has never failed to impress us. In fact, we called that first release "the best Android smartphone yet" and still, nearly six months later, it sits mighty close to the top of the pile -- if not squarely at the peak, waving its flag proudly whilst taunting the others below.

Here today we're looking at the last of the Three Musketeers: the T-Mobile version. This marks the final US release of the Galaxy S II, unveiled in late-August. At that announcement event the device was curiously locked up in Lucite, but now it's right here in our hands. While we didn't really want to set down this 16GB, 1.5GHz, 42Mbps HSPA+ wunderphone, we gently laid it aside just long enough to write this very review. Join us as we see what sets this latest and final revision apart.

T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S II

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Samsung

T-Mobile Galaxy S II

Pros

  • Clean, good-looking design
  • Great performance, especially while surfing
  • Excellent screen
  • Solid camera

Cons

  • Offers shorter battery life than its siblings
  • WVGA resolution
Summary

T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy S II didn't fall far from the family tree. It's good looking, fast and an overall great phone.


Hardware


Each of the three GS II variants now subsidized at our domestic carriers have received some visual tweaking to differentiate themselves from the original, sliver-thin European model. Like the other two, the T-Mobile version has lost the physical front button, leaving with a set of four capacitive receptors along the bottom of the screen for handling the typical swath of Android tasks.

Beyond that, the differences here are decidedly subtle. Of the US models, this version has the roundest shoulders, though you really need to stack the three up in a pile to tell. (Naturally, we did just that.) A bigger differentiator is the removable battery cover. On the other versions the chin of the device is shiny chrome, but here the entire back of the device has a soft-touch feel. That whole, rubberized plate peels away to reveal the battery, SIM card and microSD slot (the latter of which is vacant out of the box, inviting you to expand the 16GB integrated here).

Samsung Galaxy S II US Family Album

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The eight megapixel shooter on the back is vertically aligned with the flash, as was the Sprint version -- rotated 90-degrees from the AT&T and international releases -- but other than a distinct lack of manufacturer branding on its backside (you'll have to turn it over if you forget who made it) this is much the same device.

It's on the front you'll find T-Mobile and Samsung logos, both in discreet chrome embossed above and below the 4.52-inch, WVGA Super AMOLED Plus display. That matches the Epic 4G Touch version on Sprint for size, a slight step up from the (already more-than-adequate) 4.3-inch version AT&T and the rest of the world got. So, if you need a bit more this is it, but that comes at the cost of reduced pixel density -- it's WVGA all the way, regardless of which flavor you choose.

But, we've said it before and we'll say it again: we're happy to give up resolution for the always catching contrast and colors produced by this slice of organic diodes. Viewing angles are as close to 180 degrees as you can get, and straight-on the picture is gorgeous. When cranked to its brightest it'll make you recoil, but as ever readability in direct sunlight is not this technology's forte. Yes, you can read it outside without much bother, but don't expect much in the way of contrast if you do.


The gunmetal chrome ring that makes up the outer extent of this device is punctuated on the upper-right for the power button. The micro-USB port is on the bottom, a volume-rocker on the upper-left, while the 3.5mm headphone jack is up on top. So it's the same basic layout of inputs and ports as the rest -- give or take a few millimeters here or there.

Dimensionally, there are no big surprises to be found. At its thinnest, this GS II measures 9.4mm (.37-inches), but chubs up to 11.5mm (.45-inches) at that chin. You're looking at 69mm (2.7-inches) across and 130mm (5.1-inches) tall. This again puts it within spitting distance of the Epic 4G Touch, which skipped dessert last night and so comes in at just a fraction of a mm thinner. You won't really notice the difference between those two, but you will spot the full millimeter gained over the original. You'll notice the extra heft, too -- 4.87 ounces (138g) according to our scale, which makes it the chunkiest of the bunch.

Perhaps that's to make room for that 1,850mAh battery (also the largest), or the bevy of antennas inside. Here we're looking at quadband GSM plus tri-band UMTS, most certainly including HSPA+ while also including Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11a/b/g/n. And, yes, there's NFC support baked in here as well, though none of the NFC apps we tried could actually read tags. Even worse, Google Wallet isn't even available for download yet.

Software


No surprise that this version of the GS II is running Gingerbread, but it's the highest numbered version of the three, coming out of the box offering 2.3.5. The extra few hundredths of a point don't make a lick of difference here compared to the others, and as ever it's TouchWiz that makes the most striking visual impact the first time you grace this thing with your own touch.

While TouchWiz is what it is, we find ourselves liking many of the customizations you'll find here. This includes a variety of gestures for navigating through the OS and gallery (as we detailed thoroughly in our original review) and a variety of helpful desktop widgets for things like power management and road traffic. There's also the customized applications list, which makes it easy to create folders and groups of applications within the full list. This is, of course, particularly useful for hiding some of the bloatware that this guy comes installed with.

Big Magenta has pre-installed some utility apps, like 411 & More for finding infos and Name ID for displaying information about who's ringing you -- if you're willing to pony up $3.99 a month to make it work. There's obviously a selection of media apps, like T-Mobile TV and Kies air, the latter of which helps you to sync media manually (if you've opted out of Google's own avenues for media syncing). There are a couple of games you likely won't care about, Qik Video Chat is handily pre-installed and then there's the T-Mobile Mall, which lets you buy ringtones for $2.99 a pop.

Remember when people happily paid three bucks for ringtones? Ahh, the days before Ringdroid.

Performance and battery life


A Galaxy S phone can't get by on looks alone, and the GS IIs have all been performers. With its 1.5GHz processor, a step up from the other phones' 1.2GHz chips, this should be the quickest of the bunch, right? Not so fast, dear reader. Those phones used Samsung's dual-core Exynos, while the T-Mobile flavor is instead using the dual-core Snapdragon APQ8060. While that isn't exactly like comparing apples to oranges, these two bits of silicon definitely wouldn't be found in the same section of the produce aisle.

There are many cases where this phone proves slower than its siblings, including a Quadrant score of 2,576 (the Epic 4G nabbed 3,244), Linpack single / multi scores of 42 / 70 MFLOPS, respectively (compared to 55.1 and 79.5) and Neocore hovering at around 57fps (compared to 59.8).

So, T-Mo got the gimped device, then? Oh no, it's never that simple. The SunSpider 0.9.1 JavaScript benchmark, which gives a good impression of how quickly a modern webpage will load and respond, delivered an astonishing 2,407ms. That's a full 1,000ms lower than the previous versions managed and a new Engadget world record.

Of course, none of this matters worth a damn in the real world; it's all about how the phone performs and feels in the hand, and when cradled thusly the GS II won't disappoint. It boots in a respectable 28 seconds and, once there, is very responsive to your every gesture. Webpages load quickly, apps launch promptly and suffice to say this isn't a device that will leave you wanting.

Battery life doesn't disappoint, even though this model doesn't match the heights of the AT&T model, which scored 9.5 hours on the battery rundown test. The Sprint version struggled to keep a video looping for 8.5 hours, while this model made it 7.7 hours. That is, again, despite having the biggest battery of the three. We're not sure whether to blame T-Mo's antennas or the new processor, but still we don't think you'll upset with the longevity here. We found a day of solid usage to be well within the realm of possibility, more if you keep things light.

In terms of network performance this is a 42.2Mbps HSPA+ device and, while we weren't able to test in an area that has that kind of bandwidth available, we've seen results showing 20 - 25Mbps down and 2 - 3Mbps up. Obviously your mileage here will vary considerably depending on network strength, and our own tests in an area T-Mo's coverage map lists as "4G Good" were admittedly less stellar, but still quite good: averaging 9.5Mbps down and 1.8 up. Pings of 700 - 800ms, however, mean you won't want to pipe your COD server through this connection.

Camera


The Galaxy S II has become world-renowned for the excellent camera assembly poking out the back, and this latest revision does nothing to detract from that halo-like status. It's the same eight megapixel sensor and other guts we've come to know and love elsewhere and here it performs admirably. The camera is responsive, focusing and shooting quickly, and the resulting pictures tend to look fantastic.

But, they're not always perfect. As we've noticed before, the narrow dynamic range of the sensor here can create some washed-out images when shooting particularly bright scenes, or very murky ones when the lighting sways too far the other way. You can see that in the motorcycle shot into the sun, where the glinting rays cause everything dark to get a bit pale. Stay aware of this limitation and you'll take some amazing shots on this phone, especially if you take the time to dive into the extensive customizations made possible through the camera app, including exposure compensation, white balance and ISO.


Video has the same, contrast-rich look and records great-looking footage at 1080p, which is plenty enough pixels to keep your new HDTV sated (unless you really went big). The camera is generally quick to adjust focus for subjects near or far, but we did notice a bit of focus-hunting, as we've seen in the past. Also, the dreaded CMOS jelly-vision effect is very noticeable here, so you'll want to keep a steady hand while filming any sunbathing pooches.

T-Mobile Galaxy S II sample pictures

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Wrap-up


If you'd been hoping this Galaxy S II with the higher clock speed would wipe the floor with the previous models, we're sorry to say that's not quite the case. It is indeed quicker in web browsing and some other situations, but when it comes to gaming and multimedia it's actually a bit slower. The result is basically a wash, so if you're buying this guy over the others it's going to have to be on its other merits.

There are naturally many merits to choose from here, but none of them vastly out-shine the AT&T or Sprint versions we've already spent a lot of time with. At the end of this proverbial day the T-Mobile Galaxy S II is very much the same its siblings -- and that is a very, very good thing. If you're on T-Mobile or were looking to get a little more magenta in your life this is an incredibly good choice. But, if you're already on Sprint or AT&T and are reasonably happy to stay there, pick up one of those versions instead. Whichever way you swing, you'll be getting a great phone.

Myriam Joire contributed to this review.

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T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S II review