Hardware review: Samsung Galaxy S2

I was terribly excited by the pre-release information about the Samsung Galaxy S2.  The photos and specs released showed it to be attractive, well featured and light.  Certainly everything I read suggested it would give the iPhone 4 a run for its money and might even give the upcoming iPhone 5 some competition.  I ordered the new handset on an upgrade deal from Orange and breathlessly awaited delivery.

The phone arrives in a box not at all dissimilar to that of an iPhone.  You get the handset, battery, data cable, charger cable and some leaflets.  Extracting the handset from the plastic wrap I immediately noticed the lightness and admired the shape of the phone.  It’s flatter than my iPhone 3GS but a tiny bit wider and longer. I flipped the phone to open the cover and install the battery and, sadly, here’s where the love affair starts to go wrong.

The rear cover is both large and flimsy, and certainly not splash proof.  Removing it had me gritting my teeth fearing I might snap it.  It came off much more easily than I expected due to it being held in by tiny sub-millimetre plastic flanges.  Examining them screamed “FRAGILE!” at me and I mentally added “Substantial case” to my shopping list. Installing the SIM and battery was as easy as you would expect. I crunched the panel back on, no proper insertion angle, just poke two corners in as best you can then press all the way round.

Powering the phone on for the first time put the love affair back on track.  The display is gorgeous.  It’s larger than the iPhone 3GS, nicer looking than iPhone 4, but proportionally takes up about the same percentage of the front of the handset.  The material is called Gorilla Glass and it’s beautifully smooth and slightly cooler than you would expect to the touch.  The surface does seem to take and hold fingerprints more than the iPhone’s, but this was a very hot and sticky day so maybe it was literally just me.

I have not used an Android-based phone before, for the past 2 years I have had an iPhone and before that I had a Blackberry.  I have possibly simply got used to the “Apple” way of doing things.  I am very willing and able to mock Apple products when I feel it’s needed, but one thing Apple usually get right is their user interface.  The S2’s interface is literally the worst I have experienced, a few of the gripes are:

  • No way to group icons.  On the iPhone I drop one icon on top of another, they become a group.
  • No easily accessible app switcher, you have to go menu hunting.
  • All the fonts are way too big, the smallest size is 12pt.
  • Text auto completion is both awful and broken (see below).
  • Pinch-zoom works in some places but not in others.
  • The supplied SMS and email apps are just plain ugly.
  • The email app subscribes me to all my IMAP folders, all 70 or 80, when I would normally want about 6. No unsubscribe option.
  • No strike-out-to-delete-motion facility for emails and text messages.
  • No equivalent to the double-tap-the-title-bar to scroll to the top function.

Some of the stuff mentioned above can be fixed by buying better pieces of software.  However for a £500 piece of kit, i would expect it to perform all the basic functions well and then have pieces of software I can then opt to buy to make things better.  I don’t expect to have to pay to make things work at the bare minimum standard I would expect for £500.

The text auto completion function deserves an entire paragraph of scorn.  Many of you will have used the official Twitter application for your iPhone.  You start a new tweet and you get your onscreen keyboard and an empty text box.  You start typing.  On the iPhone, when it wants to suggest a word you get a balloon come up near the word and you can tap to complete, or tap the X on the corner of the balloon to get rid of the suggestion. On the S2 you start typing and, when a word is suggested, suddenly the text box jumps up the screen and a set of words appear underneath in a really big font.  You type some more, maybe the words disappear and the box jumps back, you type another letter and it jumps again.  I started typing a word, “street’s” I think it was and promptly got into a fight with the predictive text as it doesn’t really seem to understand apostrophes.  We ended up in a bizarre state where it was suggesting “streetsunamis” [sic] and every attempt I made to delete and retype resulted in it not letting me type the word “street’s”.  Arrrrgh.  Let’s turn that off then.

I figured that maybe all the crap littering the phone (like the games that let you play once for free, then want money) might be an Orange branding thing.  So I figured I would wipe the phone and reinstall the OS, thus expunging any Orangey nonsense and letting me see the phone as its manufacturer intended.  Samsung has a piece of software called “Kies” which is kind of like iTunes but more Samsungy.  I went to the Samsung website, downloaded the 77MB installer and installed it.  I then ran it for the first time, without the phone plugged in, and it said “this isn’t the latest version of Kies” and would I like to update.  Blink.  Okay. More stuff is downloaded and installed.

I run the app, it seems to be happy and then I connect the phone.  Except I don’t, because it’s at this point that it’s not a mini USB connector as I had thought and I don’t have the right cable.  Determined not to be dismayed I go and buy the right sodding cable at PC World comedy prices.  I plug the phone in.  “MTP USB device failed to install”, or words to that effect.  I hadn’t rebooted since installing Kies so I do so.  I start Kies, plug the phone in and… same problem.  Googling the error makes me very sad indeed.  At this point I give up.  I simply want a phone that works and syncs stuff to my PC, I don’t want to dick around running a utility to locate files that might have names somehow incompatible with my running OS, or mess around with registry settings because I’m running a 64 bit operating system in the year 2011.  If I can’t run Kies, I can’t wipe the phone and reinstall it.

I’ve called Orange and arranged to return the handset.  It’s a lovely piece of hardware let down by awful third-rate software.