REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy S II for T-Mobile

Tuesday, the T3 Gadget Awards 2011 named the Galaxy S II “Phone of the Year” —  the first time in 3 years the award hasn’t gone to Apple or HTC.  Today, T-Mobile is releasing their version of the GSII, which is already available on Sprint and AT&T.

The T-Mobile GSII is the final version to launch in the US, and though it’s similar in most ways to the two others mentioned above, there are several minor but interesting variations in this device from the others. The first and most-discussed is the processor switch-up; while Sprint and AT&T shipped their devices with 1.2Ghz dual-core Exynos hardware, the T-Mobile device is running a 1.5Ghz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3. I’m going to take a shortcut here and direct you to Tim Stevens of Engadget, whose excellent breakdown of the differences between the three, hardware-wise, is as exhaustive as I’ve seen yet and certainly more than I’m able to do here without getting a hands-on with the other two phones.

Briefly, the T-Mobile GSII specs:

  • Height: 5.11 inches (129.8 mm)
  • Width: 2.71 inches (68.8 mm)
  • Depth: 0.37 inches (9.4 mm)
  • Weight: 4.77 ounces (135 grams)
  • Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ S3 Processor with 1.5 GHz dual-core CPUs
  • Android™ 2.3.5 Gingerbread
  • Rechargeable 1850 mAh lithium-ion battery
  • Internal phone storage: 16 GB
  • Micro SD Memory card slot (up to 32 GB)
  • RAM: 1 GB
  • 4G: Up to 42 Mbps download speed
  • Wi-Fi: IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth® 3.0
  • 1080p HD video capture and sharing
  • 8 MP camera with flash
  • 2 MP front-facing camera
  • 4.52″ Super AMOLED Plus WVGA touch screen
  • 800-by-480-pixel resolution

Awesome, right? What I really want to get into, because I’m by no means qualified to debate the finer points of cell phone technology, is how the phone has worked for me as an everyday device over the last few days. I’ll try to touch on all of the important potential-buyer points, since the phone is out now and some of you may be making decisions about this.

The first and most important factor when deciding to buy a phone (which you’ll have for at least a year, probably) is standard usability–text, camera, contacts and social media management, browser performance and perhaps even some phone calls. Coming in a very close second–though it’ll probably be the thing that sells the phone regardless–is the overall aesthetic and comfort of the device. So let’s do this.

The Samsung Galaxy S II for T-Mobile is gorgeous. The 4.5″ Super AMOLED display is an enormous glassy expanse that spans nearly the full length of my hand, though I’ll admit my hands are rather smallish. Contrast, clarity, color: Beautiful. There are no physical buttons on the screen, which frees up the full plane for display and four capacitive home keys.

It’s thin, light for its size, and the back is a textured soft-touch cover that should reduce the chances of dropping your gigantic new phone into the sink while you take your next Facebook profile pic with the ridiculously awesome 8-megapixel rear-facing camera. The front-facing 2-megapixel camera is more than adequate for video calls, which I tested using Skype and a willing guinea pig. The interesting item of note here: the color saturation of the video received is much, much higher than you’d expect. What I know to be a neutral-colored wall was rendered in springish grass green. Interesting, as I said, but not a real problem unless you’re doing interior design via video conference. The cameras do offer plenty of customization, though, with three full screens of settings to tweak and enable to your heart’s content.

Video plays smoothly and looks pretty great (this is a screenshot I took while watching the new Avengers trailer, which is also awesome) and the battery life is good enough to get you through a movie, a call from your mom, an hour of video call, 467 rounds of Words with Friends, approximately 500 texts and half as all the email ever. That’s a small exaggeration, but not much: I didn’t put the GSII down for a solid 5 hours, and when I plugged it in I still had around 25%. Not bad for a rugged hands-on and near-constant download, camera and browsing. Under normal use conditions (that is, once the new-phone freak-out subsides) I’d expect it to last much longer. Reports of 7.7 – 8.3 hours are floating about, and I’d venture to say that’s an accurate estimate of talk-and-play time.

Because the GSII is an Android device, you get the full suite of awesomeness you’ve come to know and love. Google accounts management keep your contacts and social media in line and available, which is lovely, and TouchWiz — after adjusting everything to fit your needs and preferences — is pretty awesome. Motion commands allow intuitive pan/zoom, widget and app arrangement and the new social and media hubs keep all of your favorite things grouped conveniently together.

T-Mobile’s claim that their 4G is faster than your typical home wi-fi checks out in my location, which was a bit of a surprise but not an unwelcome one. When a device runs as fast as this one does, it’s probably best not to slow it down with crappy connectivity. So, way to go, T-Mo.

Phone-to-TV streaming, voice to text, and lots of options for reading ebooks, sharing media and web browsing makes it hard to decide whether the GSII, as big as it is, is a phone or a small tablet with call capabilities. Granted, the AT&T edition is a tiny bit smaller, but when it comes down to it, the Galaxy S II will do anything you’d ask of a tablet, and do it quickly, and then it will call and order pizza or something. Here, have a few screenshots. (Commentary in the embiggen, so click to get the explanatory text.)

So that’s the good stuff. Lots, right? The best thing about this phone is that I have exactly two complaints, of which one is a personal quirk and the other is the result of a genetic lottery:

One–When using the social hub–which aggregates media feeds like Twitter and Facebook alongside your email, text and IM–there’s no way to disable notifications on your unmovable Messaging icon on the home page. This means that for texts, you get one message and two notifications. This bothers me, and I’ll continue looking for a way to resolve this without turning off the Media Hub notifications. (Anyone who figures this out gets my undying gratitude.)

Two–My hands are just barely big enough to operate the GSII comfortably. This can’t be helped and your mileage may vary. The first few hours were filled with moments of sheer terror as I fumbled to keep hold of the phone while testing out things like the cameras, landscape typing, motion controls and pretty much any activity that didn’t include putting the phone down. Two days in, I feel comfortable with it, and I think that most people will adapt a bit more quickly than I did. (For comparison: my previous phone was an HTC Aria, which is delightfully tiny. You see the learning curve I worked through, here.)

If you’re thinking of getting the GSII, I can’t think of any reason why I’d advise against it except if you have trouble swiping with one hand when you go to check it out. If you can’t pass the lockscreen with one hand, you can expect to use the device two-handed forever or until upgrade do you part.

So that’s about it. I love the phone, I love the functionality, and overall I find it consistently impressive. If you’ve got questions about it that I haven’t covered here or the answers to which you don’t find in the Engadget video, then drop them in the comments and I’ll pop in to answer them throughout the day. :)

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