Samsung Galaxy S II review: An iPhone owner’s tale of betrayal

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A new iPhone still hasn’t been officially announced, and while my iPhone 4 still mostly satisfies my needs, I have to confess: For the past two weeks, I haven’t been exactly faithful. Samsung Canada let me test out a Samsung Galaxy S II, the latest smartphone from the hardware company that stands as the biggest challenger to Apple. Here’s how I feel about my decision to step out on iOS.

Hardware look and feel

The Samsung Galaxy S II, which is reported to be coming to the U.S. later this month, is a good-looking device. Measuring one-third of an inch thick, weighing a little over four ounces, and with a beautiful 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen, it’s a slender beast that won’t take up too much room in your pocket or weigh you down, despite being slightly broader and longer in shape than the iPhone 4.

But the weight and materials of the GS2 actually mean that the Samsung phone feels cheaper than its Apple rival, which is made of glass and stainless steel. The materials in the GS2, especially the flimsy plastic battery cover, may not meet the iPhone’s standards, but the patterned back does provide some appreciated extra grip when holding the phone.

Build and materials aren’t everything. The GS2 has done fine with being unceremoniously tossed in a backpack/pocket for two weeks, and the lightness and thinness of the hardware does make it pleasant to hold and to carry.

Basic functions

Calling, texting, emailing and otherwise going about your cell phone business are all handled well on the Galaxy S II. Calls I made using both Skype and regular cellular service over the Bell network here in Canada worked well, and some of the people I called even noticed a bit of improvement over call quality on my iPhone 4. That could come down to network differences, however, so I’m wary of ascribing it to the hardware.

Text messaging worked fine, but I still prefer the iPhone’s messaging interface, even above preferred third-party options for Android like Handcent SMS. The iOS version looks much cleaner, and features a user interface that’s more friendly to people who might be new or unused to texting. If you’re a Gmail user , the Android app is great, and the built-in Samsung email app also works very well, though again, I prefer the iOS variety, which is more polished and works more easily with a greater range of services, like Microsoft Exchange addresses and MobileMe.

Performance

This is where the Galaxy S II really shines. I’ve had the opportunity to use only a few Android devices in my time, but I have spent a lot of time with the Nexus S, 2010’s Android reference phone built by Samsung. The GS2 makes Android feel almost like a more advanced version of the Android operating system compared to the same version running on the older Nexus S. Animations are smooth, loading is snappier for apps and all elements, and there are just generally fewer hiccups and less choppiness when it comes to video and music playback.

This is the device that comes closest to creating a mobile experience as smooth as Apple’s. Still, it doesn’t quite match it. The bizarre throwaway lock screen element proved confusing, and the degree of choice and depth of settings, while an aspect that appeals to many Android fans, might not sit well with veteran iOS users. Likewise, navigating the web using any Android mobile browser (no matter which) isn’t quite as intuitive on the GS2 as it is on the iPhone. My girlfriend tends to avoid computers outside of work when at all possible, and she found the interface aggravating, eventually flat-out refusing to use the phone for tasks like browsing the web. Quirks like Skype dropping calls when you sleep the display using the power button added to the frustration.

For me, a more experienced user who grew up fiddling with DOS and then Windows computers, the phone provided an experience that I could easily see myself using on a daily basis, and there are some long-promised elements of Android that the GS2 finally delivers on. The most significant was the ability to play Flash video and audio streams without issue. I could watch full episodes of TV shows from my local networks on their general, non-mobile sites with the latest version of Flash installed from the Android Market, and video quality was excellent. There were no stutters, which is more than I can say for Flash playback on any mobile device I’ve yet used. And while the Galaxy S II’s speaker isn’t the greatest, it was more than adequate for watching media without headphones.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-C3LvRoTbPQ]

Having mobile access to full Flash streaming content after so many years of being barred from it on the iPhone is actually incredibly enjoyable. I’d convinced myself that it wasn’t a big deal, but the GS2 proved that, especially now that I’ve ditched the cable subscription, it is most definitely a big deal. Being able to watch Flash video on a device with such a gorgeous screen that’s also easily pocketable feels like something that’s long overdue.

Apps

Let’s face it: iOS still has a huge advantage in the number and quality of apps available over Android. But not everyone needs more apps. Android has the basics covered, thanks to the support of big companies like Facebook, Skype, Twitter and of course Google. There are also plenty of great apps from smaller developers that match their iOS counterparts in terms of features and function, like Plex, TuneIn Radio and Shazam.

Android does have a great advantage over iOS with apps: You can set virtually any task to be completed with virtually any app. I can set calls to be made with Skype, or music to play with doubleTwist, or Handcent SMS to handle text messaging. That’s a great deal of freedom for someone crossing over from iOS, and so long as you’re fine with getting your hands dirty and doing a little fiddling, plus dealing with pop-ups continually presenting you with these options instead of just having the OS make your decisions for you, it’s a big plus for the GS2.

Camera

The GS2 features an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera capable of shooting 1080p HD video, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for video calls. The camera is very capable, and should satisfy iPhone 4 owners looking to switch. Plus, the camera app on the GS2 offers more features and customizability than the iPhone version, including face and smile detection, various shooting modes and exposure choices. Plus, paired with Google+, you can instantly upload your GS2 photos to the web for storage and sharing. The iPhone will get a similar feature when iOS 5 is released this fall, but it’s not here yet.

Battery

The GS2 has pretty good battery life, especially when compared to the Nexus S, and generally lasts a full day on a single charge. But it still doesn’t match my iPhone 4, which can often last two days on one charge. That said, its battery is also accessible to users for replacement, unlike on the iPhone, and performs better than most other Android phones, for which battery life is a known flaw. So if you’re thinking about switching, this is the device that’s the best with battery life you can get outside of Apple’s playground.

Verdict

I’ve rarely had reason to look around at the competition since getting my first iPhone, but the Samsung Galaxy S II does a very good job of turning my head. It’s a phone I could easily see myself using on a daily basis without complaint, and in fact, with great pleasure. That said, I’ll probably wait until I see what Apple unveils this fall before making a drastic change like actually purchasing one.

The bottom line is that if you’re looking for a smartphone right now that brings top-of-the-line performance as well as access to web-based Flash content, and you also aren’t afraid to put up with some quirks in exchange for customizability, the Samsung Galaxy S II is a great choice, even for Apple lovers who just aren’t the patient type, and feel like October might be too long to wait.

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