posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 19th Dec 2011 20:11 UTC

Hardware; Overall feel; Consistency; Polish

Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy SII is a beautiful device. It's thin, very minimalistic, not too heavy, and feels very sturdy and strong. Due to its thinness, it almost looks like an angular device, even though it still has rounded corners. As usual with devices like this, the white version looks better than the black version, and adds a little touch of exclusivity as well, since most people opt for the black versions.

Now, is this phone a copy of the iPhone 3GS? I have both, and the answer is an utterly clear and straight "no". If you believe it is a copy, even after holding the Galaxy SII in your hand, then you are provably wrong. This is not an opinion. It's fact. The two phones are entirely different in every way, and from every angle. Only one thing is similar, and that's the chrome rim - and even those two are different in shape.

There is no way in hell you're going to mix these two up. Don't trust 2D photographs where the sizes of the phones are manipulated (often with malintent). I have them on my desk, right here, right now. If, after holding the Galaxy SII in your hand and looking at them, you still claim the Galaxy SII "slavishly" copied the 3GS, you're lying. As simple and straightforward as that.

As far as specifications go, it's still one of the most powerful phones out there, and it comes with all the bells and whistles you may come to expect from a modern flagship Android device. Dual-cameras, all the wireless options, fast dual core processor, lots of RAM and internal storage, and a top-notch graphics chip.

The real looker here, though, is the display. The 4.3" SuperAMOLED+ display sports an 800×480 resolution, with beautifully vivid colours and deep blacks. There's no squinting of the eyes to read tiny letters as I often had to on small 3.5" displays - everything is razor sharp and easy to read. The screen is hands-down the best I've ever seen on a phone. The screen on an iPhone 4(S) may have a higher pixel density, but its small size makes it a pain to use for me. Despite the 4.3 inches, the SII is still easily pocketable, and you won't notice it's there, mostly because it's so light (116g vs. 137g for the iPhone 4) and thin.

I wasn't entirely sure where to put battery life (hardware or software), but I chose hardware in the end: for my usage, the battery in the SII lasts about 1.5 days (including one night's sleep), which is about the same as my iPhone 3GS - but it doesn't hold a candle to my HTC HD7, which easily lasted 3 days between charges. Of course, if battery life is what you're after, no modern smartphone is going to be to your liking, and you'd be better off with a "dumb"phone Nokia, whose battery times are measured in weeks, not hours.

All in all, it's the second most pleasurable piece of phone hardware I've ever owned (the Sharp TM100 holds that crown). It doesn't have that flimsy feel of the HTC HD7, nor the easily broken casing of the 3GS. I haven't owned an iPhone 4(S), but the few times I've played with one I found it slippery and heavy, although it did have a sturdier feel to it than the SII.


Overall feel

The Galaxy SII is my first Android device. When I decided to buy it, I didn't buy it because I needed a new phone; I bought it because I believe that if you are going to write about a topic, you should have experience with it. And with experience I don't mean "read on the interweb" or "held one in a store that one time" - but actually own it. Using something as complex as a smartphone a few days or even a week is simply not long enough to form a decent opinion about a device.

Let's start with the overall feel - comparisons with the competition are, of course, hard to avoid.

So, how has my first experience with Android been? In all honesty, I don't think anyone who is used to iOS would have any trouble picking up the Galaxy SII. Like iOS, Android uses UI ideas and conventions that are very similar to especially PalmOS, so these two definitely share a common conceptual heritage. Coming from iOS and Windows Phone 7, I had no issues getting around the operating system. There were instances where I had to dig around to find things, but that's to be expected when you're using an operating system for the first time (yes, even for someone like me, who has extensively used more operating systems than I can count).

As far as 'first use experience' goes, Windows Phone 7 takes the crown because everything is just so damn easy to find in Microsoft's mobile offering, and you can get started without ever hooking up the phone to a computer. First use on the device itself is a little better on iOS than on Android, since the latter has more options to potentially drown out just the thing you're looking for - however, iOS still has this stone around its neck called iTunes. iTunes is pure hell, and contrary to what Apple wants you to believe, it's far from intuitive or easy to use. I lost count how many times I've been called in by friends and family to fix iTunes. So, iOS and Android are pretty much on par here.

We already talked about Android's performance, so I can reiterate here that I see little difference in performance between iOS and Android (Windows Phone 7.5 is smoother than both, which is interesting, considering the slower hardware it runs on) when it comes to responsiveness or animations. Both are smooth and quick to respond, but there's no denying there's a lot of complaining going on on the web regarding Android's UI performance, and I'm sure there's a grain of truth to it. As usual, the sensible thing to do before buying a phone is to play with one in a store to see what performance is like.

One thing I do want to mention regarding performance is the horrible lock screen Samsung has implemented. This is the only place in the UI which was consistently laggy and slow, which made it remarkably unpleasant to use. It really stood out. The first thing you should do after unwrapping your shiny new Galaxy SII is to install a lock screen replacement. I settled for Widget Locker, which I proceeded to modify heavily. No lagginess here.


Consistency

In my iPad 2 review I already touched upon the total lack of any form of consistency in iOS. Sadly, Android does very little to address this issue, and here, too, every application has its own interface, icons, UI conventions, navigation paradigm, and so on. Me being a die-hard consistency freak, this bothers me on Android just as much as it does on iOS. I hate that I have to remember the locations of common functionality for each individual application. Of all the possible conventions to imitate, I never understood why both Android and iOS decided to go with the world wide web's inconsistent mess.

Android does have one thing over iOS in the area of consistency: the hardware buttons. While some despise them, I absolutely love them. No matter where I am, no matter what application I'm using, the menu button always brings up access to settings, and the back button always takes me back one screen. These two buttons have really become the cornerstones of my Android experience, and since they're hardware buttons, they remain out of reach of the grubby consistency-hating hands of developers - they're always in the same place. A lighthouse whenever I'm lost in yet another new kind of interface.

Whenever someone hands me an iPhone now, I find myself tapping right of the home button to go back.

However, if you're like me, and you value consistency in your user interface, Windows Phone 7 might be a better choice for you. Due to the more exotic user interface elements at work in WP7, developers seem less inclined to mess with them, creating a relatively consistent experience all around. However, Metro doesn't float everyone's boat, which is something I can understand. Of course, if you find Metro ugly you probably hate kittens too, but alas.

In any case, consistency is a mess on Android, just like it is on iOS. Android's hardware buttons make it all more bearable than on iOS, but not everyone is in love with these buttons. I'm afraid, though, that us consistency adepts have lost this battle already, since even desktop operating systems have thrown consistency out the window the past few years. The web with its free-for-all is the norm now, and whether we like it or not, we'll have to just accept the total lack of consistency in our user interfaces.


Polish

There's no denying that Android is not as polished as iOS, let alone Windows Phone 7.5. You'll encounter far more rough edges in Android than you'll encounter in iOS (Windows Phone 7.5 is even better than iOS), but I do suspect it really depends on your workflow and amount of customising just how many times you'll encounter this lack of polish. Let me give you a few examples of issues I would never expect to encounter on iOS or Windows Phone 7.5.

The notification tray also houses the music player controls when you're listening to music, so you can change songs straight from the lock screen (well, you do have to drag the tray down first). However, if you lock your phone while the music player application is still open, the controls won't show up in the notification tray. In other words, you must first go back to the home screen (or switch to another application) before locking the phone.

Then there's orientation switching. Unlike on iOS, this process is not animated on Android; it just flips. This may seem like a small thing, but without the subtle animation, it all feels quite jarring and often even disorienting. Since I switch orientation on my phone all the time, this can get quite annoying.

Sometimes, Android just doesn't know what to do with all the options it delivers, leading to scrollable tab bars. This hurts discoverability quite a bit, it's ugly, and very user unfriendly. This is simply inexcusable, and I'm hoping this is something Google has addressed in Ice Cream Sandwich.

The interfaces for copy/paste are also confusing, and the crux here is the fact that "interfaces" is a plural. Android comes with at least two different interfaces for copying and pasting, both of which take up far too much screen space. The fact Android has two interfaces to begin with is just... Inexcusable.

As a final example: some applications use proper bounce-back when scrolling, while others just come to a dead stop. I have no idea why some applications decide this is a good idea; heck, even several Google applications do not implement bounce-back! There's no excuse for not implementing bounce-back scrolling in your Android application when Android itself clearly supports it. The fact that Android even gives you the option is bad enough as it is.

This list is not exhaustive. They're all things I simply wouldn't expect to see in either iOS or Windows Phone 7.5, and there are indeed times when these issues break flow, like an unnecessary, comma. These issues are annoying and frustrating, and ICS better damn well address them.

Table of contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Hardware; Overall feel; Consistency; Polish
  3. Crapware; iTunes; Applications; Notifications
  4. Multitasking
  5. Flexibility; Google, get your #*$@ together
  6. TouchWiz; Misc.; Conclusion
  7. Screenshots of my device
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