AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II review

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Here comes the second episode of a thrilling three-part saga. Not content with simply selling ten million units of the GT-I9100 -- its flagship device -- in the course of the last five months, Samsung's ready to flood the good ol' US of A with a healthy dose of the Galaxy S II, and it has three carriers -- Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile -- already signed up on the dotted line. The Epic 4G Touch has already made its way into stores (not to mention the hearts of customers), and Ma Bell's next in line to appease the masses.

This time, things are a smidge different. Whereas Sprint opted to enlarge the screen and add in a few other select design tweaks, it appears that AT&T wanted to keep its variant -- appropriately named the Galaxy S II -- as close to the international smash hit as possible, opting for the same display size, squared corners and battery (albeit, with a twist). As it turns out, the tweaks are much more subtle than they were on last year's Samsung Captivate, which arguably looked almost nothing like the original Galaxy S. So does AT&T's model fit in with its two close compadres? Was its design choice the right decision for this go-round? Follow us below to get the full scoop.


The Galaxy S II lineup is launching in a much similar fashion (and with seemingly higher expectations) as its predecessor: the US models are reaching the market several months after the phone's global release, and carriers have made a few design tweaks along the way. What's so different this time around is the selection of devices. Last summer, each mobile operator took the concept of "carrier customization" to extremes, tweaking the S to their every whim -- in some cases changing the chassis altogether. For instance, the Epic 4G added a full QWERTY keyboard, the Captivate had a metal battery cover along with sharp edges and the Fascinate sprinkled Bing throughout the device's firmware. The three US variants of the sequel, however, have been a deal more subtle, making only slight adjustments in the design where the carriers see fit, and each one has even retained the Galaxy S II name in at least some way (the full title of Sprint's darling, for example, is "Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch.").

At first glance, it's apparent that the carrier didn't attempt to take much of a departure from the master copy. We'd like to think that it's adopted the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality, but we're not entirely sure what the reasoning is. We won't complain, though -- we gave high praises to the global model's design, and continue to do so here, since it's practically a spitting image. The only significant tweak we could find is the inclusion of four capacitive-touch navigation buttons at the bottom, as opposed to the three found on the I9100. 'Course, a set of four keys here is nothing new for the US; dedicated search buttons come standard around these parts, while it doesn't have a presence on the global version.

Anyone searching for the thinnest smartphone on the market won't find it here, though most casual observers will be perfectly content. Coming in at 8.89mm (0.35 inches) at its thinnest point, the Galaxy S II on AT&T is marginally thicker than the I9100, which measures at 8.49mm (0.33 inches). Unless you're viewing the two side by side, this slight difference won't be noticeable. With that said, it's still the thinnest of the US trio: the Epic 4G Touch is 9.65mm (0.38 inches) and T-Mobile's GS II comes in at 9.4mm (0.37 inches). At 4.3 ounces (122g), it's also the lightest of the three, though it's a full 0.2 ounces heavier than the global ditty.

As with the others, we can enjoy the GSII's 1.2GHz dual-core Exynos CPU, a full gigabyte of RAM, an 8MP camera with 1080p HD video capture, a 2MP front-facing cam, 16GB of internal storage and quadband GSM and tri-band UMTS / HSPA (850 / 1900 / 2100) to make for smooth international travelling. A slot for a microSD card is included, but that'll be a separate accessory you need to purchase on your own if you require more space.

AT&T opted to include a 1,650mAh battery, which is the same size as the I9100's, but there's one intriguing twist -- a Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip. Or, at least, the words "Near Field Communications" are inscribed on the battery itself -- lending credence to the presence of an embedded chip. We've previously reported that instances of NFC are littered throughout the device's firmware, and after some digging through the task manager we found a NFC Service app which proffers little details and can't be opened. In reaching out to Samsung, we were told that the AT&T Galaxy S II is not NFC-enabled, but the company didn't volunteer any details about chip placement or if it will be enabled at a later date. Our theory is that the NFC functionality is laying dormant for now, perhaps until the carrier is ready to unleash the fruits of its partnership with ISIS. We'll update if we get any more clarification.

We'll try not to be too much of a bore by talking about what comes included in the box, but in addition to the standard charger and user manuals, AT&T sought fit to throw in an HDTV adaptor as well -- an accessory that was missing with the Epic 4G Touch. Granted, the Samsung Galaxy S II lineup has MHL enabled, which gives the phone the opportunity to use a single cable to pump out uncompressed 1080p HDMI while charging up at the same time. It's easy enough to find an MHL or HDMI cable to fit your needs, but it's a nice gesture on AT&T's part to at least include the adaptor for anyone who prefers to connect that way.

This particular model of the Samsung Galaxy S II uses an identical display to that of the international version, with a stunning 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus with WVGA (800 x 480) resolution. It's been said with the other two phones, but it's worth repeating: regardless of how many pixels it packs in, it's still one of the most gorgeous and color-saturated displays we've had the pleasure to cast our eyes upon. The colors are brighter, more vivid and saturated than most displays you'll see on the market today, and just like the others, it's easy to view in direct sunlight. It's in close competition with the Retina Display found on the iPhone 4 -- we'll see if there's any change to that statement next week, of course -- but has the larger screen size to give Sammy a major plus (pun not intended, but greatly welcomed).

It's true that Sprint and T-Mobile decided to go with a larger display, which may be a bit intimidating for anyone with smaller hands. For what it's worth, our average-sized hands didn't have any more difficulty holding the Epic 4G Touch than we did the AT&T version, mainly because of the small difference in width (4mm) between the two devices.

One aspect we loved in the Epic 4G Touch and wished we could've seen here was the LED notification light. Unfortunately AT&T stayed so true to the original I9100's design, it seems, that the little blinking alert was left out.


The Galaxy S II runs on Android 2.3.4 out of the box, but you're mostly seeing the TouchWiz user interface that Sammy's elected to add to every phone in the series (not to mention most of its non-Nexus devices, for that matter). The version we see running here is 4.0, which is the best iteration of TouchWiz that we've used so far. It's no secret that we typically prefer vanilla Android over a UI overlay, but we appreciate user interfaces that least try not to interfere with our full experience on the phone. More specifically, TouchWiz is a nice skin that allows us a schload of customization, which is a nice gesture for most users.

Speaking of gestures, this is an area where TouchWiz excels. Several motion sensor-assisted gestures are available, offering a unique twist on how we pinch-to-zoom, move icons, and silence our media. When moving an icon on the home panels, you can simply tilt your phone left or right to shift that icon to other front screens. Pinch-to-zoom can be replicated by pressing two fingers simultaneously on the screen and tilting the phone up or down, which admittedly was more cumbersome to use because it doesn't feel as natural to us as its alternative. Double-tapping the top of the device when you're in voice control mode will prompt you to begin dictating. Finally, you're also given the option to flip the phone onto its front to pause media playback or silence incoming phone calls -- this particular feature has been done on HTC devices before, but we appreciate the fact that it's starting to reach out to other manufacturers.

The lock screen isn't nearly as crafty as what you'd find on HTC Sense 3.0, where you can drag a pre-determined shortcut into the ring and have it take you directly there, but it has a few nifty additions. For one, you can access missed calls and messages directly from little tabs on the left and right sides of the screen, and when a phone call comes in, you're treated to an added option to reject the phone call with a text message response -- and lets you slide the screen up to view the different messages you can send the caller.

The app menu is also heavily customizable, which is one of our favorite features of the TouchWiz skin. The menu still uses panels in a left-right orientation (compared to vanilla Android, which uses one scrollable up-down panel), and not only lets you choose the way you want to organize your apps -- an option that more and more skins now allow -- it also lets you put folders directly into the app menu itself. In other words, all of the pre-installed apps that we will never use and can't uninstall can now be tucked away in a folder, hidden in plain sight. So if you're the kind that prefers to organize apps and not leave dozens of them sprawled across several screens, you're in for a treat.

Bloatware is a subject of constant consideration with carrier-subsidized devices. Some pre-installed apps just cannot be uninstalled without going through the extra effort of rooting your device, which is frankly an option that roughly 95 percent of the average user base probably won't think of or even care about. On the AT&T version you'll find: Kindle, Yellow Pages, YouTube, Qik Lite, Quickoffice, Live TV, Featured App (a hub that shows -- brace yourself-- some of AT&T's featured apps) myAT&T, AT&T code, AT&T Family Map and AT&T Navigator, in addition to the apps that come standard with Android and / or TouchWiz. On a good note, however, we're happy to report that a healthy chunk of the AT&T apps can be uninstalled. This hasn't always been the case, and we'll root for more of this in the future.

The AT&T Galaxy S II comes with two Samsung Hubs, a stark contrast to the four found on the I9100. We felt that the Epic 4G Touch did the right thing by only including a Media Hub and Social Hub, and this model appears to have followed the same wisdom. The Social Hub has space for feeds, which gives you the option to integrate Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as you please, and messages, an option that doesn't seem to have much of a point aside from offering a universal inbox for Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo and Exchange accounts. Interestingly enough, there are several more quick email setup options available here than on the Epic, which only offers support for Exchange and "others."

Not a fan of the default Swype keyboard on the Galaxy S II? True, it's not for everyone -- we find ourselves torn in an epic love / hate battle with it all the time. The phone comes with not one, not two, but three options for virtual keyboards; in addition to Swype, you can choose between the standard Android and Samsung 'boards.

Update: A big tip of the hat goes to BGR for discovering a crucial security flaw in AT&T's version of the Galaxy S II. As it turns out, you can completely bypass any security lock you place on the phone -- no matter whether it's a password, PIN or pattern lock. All you have to do is wake the device using the lock key, let the screen time out and then press the lock key again. Presto. We were able to reproduce the flaw on our test unit, while the Epic 4G Touch remains secure. This may be a crucial deal breaker for anyone who keeps sensitive information on their device.

Update 2: AT&T has offered an official response, acknowledging that both it and Samsung are aware of the issue and working to resolve it as quickly as possible. Here is their statement:

"Currently, when using a security screen lock on the device, the default setting is for a screen timeout. If a user presses the power button on the device after the timeout period it will always require a password. If a user presses the power button on the phone before the timeout period, the device requests a password – but the password is not actually necessary to unlock it. Samsung and AT&T are investigating a permanent solution. In the meantime, owners of the Galaxy S II can remedy the situation by re-setting their time-out screen to the "immediately" setting. This is done by going to the Settings->Location and Security->Screen unlock settings->Timeout->Immediately. "


The praiseworthy experience we had using the camera in the I9100 and Epic 4G Touch was, to no surprise of ours, exactly matched on the AT&T Galaxy S II. Using the same 8 megapixel rear camera sensor and 2MP front-facing cam, it continues to leave us in awe no matter how many times we use it. As of this writing, the only phone available in the US with a better camera is the 12 megapixel Nokia N8, which is easy enough to find -- at a significantly higher cost upfront. In other words, the Epic 4G Touch and Galaxy S II for AT&T (and, presumably, the T-Mobile variant) are the absolute top of the line on their respective carriers. Simply put, Samsung continues to produce phones with camera sensors that have a seemingly higher quality than their megapixel count implies, which unfortunately is something that can't be said about many other OEMs.

We're impressed by the buffet-style spread of various camera settings that give the phone even more of a point-and-shoot feel: ISO, metering, focus modes, scene modes, anti-shake and exposure adjustments aplenty are found embedded within the UI itself. The left side of the camera app has slots for five icons; the fifth slot is always reserved for the settings menu, but the other four squares are completely customizable shortcuts that let you choose which settings you'd like to quick-jump into.

Our images turned out as beautiful as they did on the other two phones. The colors seem to pop out in all the right places, the macro focus mode did well capturing close-ups in wondrous depth and we were able to capture important moments instantaneously, thanks to the camera's ability to first lock in focus and exposure before we're ready to actually take the picture. In essence, it functions the same way a double-detent button normally would on a standard digital cam, and is the next best thing to actually having a dedicated button on the right side of the phone -- a feature left out of every Galaxy S II so far.

The LED flash, while not a subject of great emphasis on any handset, is worth a mention here because it's bright -- really bright. When taking pictures around our backyard in the dark, the flash captured far more depth and color than we've previously seen on a phone. But where most devices use the flash like it's going out of style, the Galaxy S II is wise enough to know how and when it should be employed; it was smart enough to tell when flash was needed for actually taking the picture and when it was only necessary to help focus on an object.

Again, as we expected, the Galaxy S II for AT&T has the same concern with the narrow dynamic range. In short, this causes a sharp contrast between dark and well-lit areas, which can create deeper shadows and blown-out highlights, depending on where you're attempting to focus. But this was the only nitpick we had with any element of the camera's performance on the Galaxy S II, and otherwise was an absolutely thrilling contribution to the phone's appeal.

Samsung offers 1080p HD for video capture, but just make sure you have the camcorder turned to the correct setting if you want to bump it up to the max, since it keeps the default at 720p. If you want to zoom in, the higher resolution isn't going to do it for you -- every lower-res setting will give you the chance to zoom up to 4x, if it so fits your fancy. In general, the vids turned out great and were able to capture motion without trying to refocus on moving objects. The only shaky movements that could be seen in the videos were due to our admittedly shaky hands.

And much like its counterparts, the AT&T version of the Galaxy S II also comes with a homegrown Photo Editor, which takes the images you've so carefully taken with your camera and gives you the chance to screw around with them. It's not as elaborate as you'd see in any professional photo editing software, of course, but it still gives options to touch up your pics by adjusting brightness and saturation, adding blurs, cropping, resizing and more.

Performance and battery life

We're pretty hefty multitaskers on our phones. We normally have our email and social networking syncing 24 hours a day, and we're constantly texting, checking news sites, playing games, and trying to keep our lives organized in the process (emphasis on "trying"). As a result, we're consistently pushing our phones to the limit, demanding more out of them than anyone should. We still couldn't get a flutter, flicker, or any other sign of weakness to come out of the Galaxy S II. It's tough to beat Samsung's proprietary Exynos CPU, a 1.2GHz dual-core darling that translates into top-tier phone performance in almost every area of the device. We witnessed very little lag -- and when we did, it was negligible -- and the device didn't crash once. Not to say it won't ever crash, but we could definitely tell that the Galaxy S II doesn't skip a beat.

In our standard benchmarks, Quadrant performed as expected, typically hovering between 3,200 and 3,300. Neocore and Nenamark nearly hit the max framerate by scoring 59.8, and we saw Linpack give results that were much the same as the Epic 4G Touch, typically producing 55 MFLOPS for single threads and 81 MFLOPS for multi. AT&T's browser performance also matched wits with Sprint's version, notching a top score of 3,369ms.

When it comes to the call quality and speaker volume, we'd be happy campers if every single phone could perform as well as the Galaxy S II. We found ourselves having to turn the volume down in order to converse with friends and family comfortably, and the speakerphone was no weakling either. The reception was also on par with other AT&T devices we've reviewed.

Without a doubt, the Galaxy S II series has made a name for itself by providing some of the best battery life we've seen from any Android device; even the multitaskers should be getting at least a full day of use out of it, and resigning yourself to moderate usage will likely extend the life of your phone an extra half-day. What we were curious about was the difference between the AT&T model, packing a 1,650mAh juice pack like the global version, and Sprint's, which comes in at a healthy 1,800. Surprisingly, AT&T lasted longer in a direct side-by-side video test, which consists of playing a full-length movie on an endless cycle until the phone keels over and begs to be recharged. Here's the big surprise: while the Epic 4G Touch lasted 8.5 hours this time around (which was interesting by itself, because it lasted 5 hours when we initially did the review), the AT&T Galaxy S II kept cranking out the moving pictures for 9.5 hours before giving up the electronic ghost. Needless to say, we were quite stunned by the revelation.


We'd like to think that selling ten million units in the space of nearly five months means the Galaxy S II is a top-notch device, and being available on three of the four major US players won't hurt its numbers one iota, either. The AT&T version of Sammy's flagship is no less praiseworthy than any of the others that came under our microscope before it. Anyone who gave the international version a second look, which normally sells for $600-700 in the US as an unlocked and unsubsidized device, should give even more consideration to this one now that it's available for $200 -- provided you don't mind getting locked into a two-year commitment, that is.

Once T-Mobile launches its variant of the Galaxy S II, we'll have four different tantalizing options to choose from, each with their own set of pros and cons. Is there a clear winner between the Epic 4G Touch and the AT&T version? Not really -- it all comes down to personal preference. The AT&T version is ideal for anyone who likes the features of the I9100 but doesn't want to take out a second mortgage to get one; when factoring in support for international roaming, an HSPA+ radio and a 4.3-inch display that's slightly smaller than Sprint and T-Mobile's namesakes, this unit inherited a heavy amount of charm from its mobile precursor.