When Bigger Isn't Better: Samsung Galaxy S II Preview

Last night we had the opportunity to get some hands on time with the new Samsung Galaxy S II for Sprint. To say that this phone is anticipated would be selling it a bit short considering the amount of talk that has surrounded the release of this device stateside. While this phone won't be available for purchase from Sprint until September 16 (AT&T & T-Mobile to follow) we were happy to get one in our hands to play with at the event.

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The Tech and Specs:
With a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, the Samsung Galaxy S II is undeniably fast. It responds to input quickly and has a snappy feel in everything it does. The phone comes equipped with Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system with a layer of Samsung TouchWiz frosting ontop; the Sprint and T-Mobile versions sport an even bigger and beautiful Super AMOLED Plus 4.52" touchscreen compared to AT&T's 4.3" version. It's still no Retina Display, but Samsung's Super AMOLED is a category leading display otherwise.

All three flavors of the Galaxy S II are 4G capable, an 8 megapixel autofocus camera in the rear and 2 megapixel camera up front (the smartphone version of a mullet: "business up front, party in the back"), 1080p HD video recording, and support of Google's video chat technology. An accelerometer and gyroscope can recognize movement along six-axis. If you're an avid Android user, on paper this is arguably one impressive phone from a technology standpoint. But it's also proved to be far from ideal from our hands-on trial.

Coming from iOS, navigating through the Galaxy S II's UI still feels just as convoluted as it always has felt using the Android OS. I was not sure when to swipe or tap, and in what direction in order to get to the content that I was looking for, but one could argue we'd become accustomed in due time. The Samsung TouchWiz interface does help give the phone a more uniform look, but from a design perspective, we still feel Android still struggles with visual continuity and details that iOS and Windows Phone 7 offer.

During one of the demos, the phone experienced a hiccup when pinning a widget to the home screen and the Samsung rep assured us that those sorts of things are only happening because the device had been handled by so many people with the settings changes six ways from Sunday. While we can appreciate that people may want to customize their phone through adding more and more items to the home screen, we found our design nerd selves dying a little with each new addition to an already busy UI. In a weird way it reminded us of viewing Myspace pages back in the day that were so littered with content from users expressing themselves that they became unreadable, reflecting an ongoing opinion Android devices would be best served without the extra UI layer and bloatware tacked on by carriers.

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How it Looks:
Now here's the most notable issue we had using the Galaxy S II: the screen is big, which means the whole phone is also big. This could be either a plus or minus, depending on your hands. I have small hands, and in the above photo you can see how my hands are dwarfed by the S II. It's practically a tablet, and it was difficult to hold the phone comfortably with just one hand.

The rep tried to show me ways in which I could hold the phone one handed, and while his assistance helped slightly, I was unable to get a good grip on this phone without using two hands. The fact that someone needs to show you how to hold the phone with one hand so you don't drop it and can type is ridiculous (but perhaps no more ridiculous than Apple telling us iOS users how to hold our phones while trying to make phone calls). While attempting to snap photos using the 8 megapixel camera I nearly dropped the phone more than once. Why in the world does the screen need to be this large? If I wanted a mobile device with a large screen that I could comfortably use with two hands I'd use a tablet.

Amazingly considering the large screen, the phone is freakishly light, as well as very thin. Compared to the iPhone 4, the construction feels plasticky-cheap and oddly light. While we're all for advances in technology, the lightness feels disconcerting considering the screen size, making it all the more awkward to hold and brings up concern about the durability. The buttons are equally ill-conceived, considering the device shoots 1080p video, one would think it would have a dedicated camera button, but no. What we thought was a dedicated camera button actually puts the phone to sleep which we found rather baffling considering the flagship status of the phone.

Closing Thoughts:
If we were just considering specs on paper and were in the market for an Android based phone, this would be a frontrunner. However, after our short demo with the Samsung Galaxy S II, we weren't wowed by the ergonomics, and to a lesser extent the material build, finding it best suited for those with larger hands and a blind eye to UI clutter.

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The Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch on Sprint will be available Sept 16 for $199 with a new two year service agreement or eligible upgrade. Pricing and availability information is not yet announced for AT&T and T-Mobile.

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Tech, Smartphones

Joelle loves technology and making things and is in an almost perpetual state of problem solving. She's quite fond of airplanes and coffee and is pretty sure she will eventually read all of the books in her library.