Samsung Galaxy S II – The Bad and the Good

Things Break

I have a long history of destroying mobile phones, often in unusual and amusing (although expensive) ways. It got to the point where I had to go to something physically robust, which is why, five years ago, I moved to the
Motorola RAZR. Sufficient to say, whilst this phone was indeed physically robust, it did not survive my wife putting it through the washing machine. My second RAZR, however, is still alive and well, and equipped with a Telstra pre-paid
SIM – for emergencies.

I can't recall exactly why I abandoned the RAZR in favour of a Nokia N900, but a
pocket-sized tablet computer running a variant of Debian Linux was something
an inveterate UNIX user like myself could not resist. Note, I refer to the N900 as a tablet, because this is how it was actually sold. A tablet computer that
could do telephony, rather than a phone that could do computing.

With my track record of destruction, I handled the N900 very carefully, although I did drop it a couple of times without damage. That was until three weeks ago today, when I dropped it face down, outside, onto a rock. I am still unsure of the exact damage, but I do know that the display was destroyed. Whilst I plan to resurrect this old friend, after scouring eBay and some deep soul-searching, I decided that it was time to move on – especially since I could
obtain a replacement phone from my carrier, Vodafone Australia, in a couple of days.

After a quick "what shall I do?" on Twitter, a couple of personal
recommendations for the Samsung Galaxy S II resulted in me reading a very
attractive technical specification. I was on the phone to Vodafone within the hour, and in possession of the new phone within two working days. (Would probably have been quicker, had I not dropped the N900 on a Friday.)

The Bad Stuff

Why am I listing the bad points first? Because I want to get them out of the way. Whilst there are annoyances, I can give a specific list. With the good points, I just keep finding them. So here's what I don't like:

  • It's too thin. Rather, it's too thin for large, middle-aged, and slightly stiff fingers. I was actually struggling to pick the phone up from a flat surface, as there is so little to get a grip on. This problem was overcome quickly though, as I put it in a temporary, cheap, silicone case. Now in a decent,
    Otter Box case, the thinness of the device itself is a non-issue.
  • Vodafone has kindly pre-installed a load of bloatware that I am unable to remove. Whilst I cannot blame this on Samsung, it is an issue that comes with the phone. Getting rid of this unwelcome software requires what is known as rooting the phone – replacing the provided Linux kernel with one that allows the user much more control over the device.
  • The camera appears to have two flash modes – overflashed and off. I will discuss the camera in more detail in the next section.
  • Changing the SD card necessitates removal of the rear cover and the battery and, of course, any after-market case. Compared with the hot-swap SD card on
    my Android tablet, this is something of a let-down.
  • I have saved the worst for last. When you plug the phone in to charge, it makes a loud beep. When the phone finishes charging, it also makes a loud beep. These noises cannot be turned off. Now, like many people, I charge my phone overnight, beside the bed. Being woken up in the middle of the night to be told that one's phone has finished charging is irksome, to say the least. The only solution to this "feature" is to root the phone. So I have to void
    warranty, just to stop damn stupid noises.

So, five problems, one already addressed, two require rooting to resolve, the camera flash issue might just go away with a suitable firmware upgrade, and the SD card? Well, I don't need to get at it that often.

The Good Stuff

  • It's fast. After the N900, oh boy, is it fast? Refreshing my IMAP mail
    takes a second or so – the N900 could easily take a minute. Web pages load faster, everything is just, well, fast.
  • I must stress again that the N900 is a tablet that does telephony – but using the Samsung as a phone is a breath of fresh air after very quirky
    telephone software of the Nokia.
  • Barring the flash, the camera is really excellent and takes much sharper pictures than I would anticipate from something without a "e;proper"e; (read: big) lens. With the flash set to off all the time, I have taken some
    good low-light pictures. Whilst these pictures have a heavy colour-cast,
    I am sure that some fiddling with the white balance can correct this. Or even
    correct it in post-production.
  • Large screen. I had been holding off moving to an Android smartphone until I saw one that had a screen the size of that of the HTC Desire HD, and had
    a physical keyboard. Being a touch-typist with large-ish fingers, I have
    always struggled with on-screen keyboards due both to the small size, and
    not being able to feel where my fingers are. However, on-screen keyboards
    became far more usable for me when I discovered
    SwiftKeyX, a replacement for the
    Android keyboard. Having used this with considerable success on my Android
    tablet, I figured that maybe I could use a phone with no physical keyboard,
    especially as I could always use a BlueTooth keyboard if I found myself
    struggling. I am delighted to say that, with the help of SwiftKeyX and about
    four and a quarter inches of screen diagonal, I have been able to operate the Samsung quite comfortably. The large screen also makes it less of a struggle
    to view web sites – at least the ones that are styled to be viewable on
    smaller screens.
  • Android. I am far from being an Android "fanboi", indeed having a
    deep suspicion of anything originating at Google. However, being a mainstream
    operating system – which the Nokia's Maemo never was – means that there
    is a profusion of good applications available (I will document my essential
    Android applications in another post) and a huge user-base, meaning that
    support should be easy to find.
  • Easy to root. I haven't rooted the phone yet, as the required tools
    either require a Windows computer (I run Linux on the desktop – the tool
    crashes my Windows virtual machine,) or Heimdal, which should run on Linux, won't talk to my specific device. These may be issues for me, but my research suggests that this device is actually one of the easiest onto which a rooted kernel may be loaded. The process certainly looks simple.
  • Stuff just works. My previous experience of Android devices is with
    tablets – devices that are not phones running a phone operating system. This
    can lead to a certain amount of quirkiness, and a requirement for
    considerably more technical knowledge than should be necessary to use
    a consumer device. I would also extend the latter observation to
    desktop operating systems. Stuff should just work, in an intuitive fashion.
    Mobile operating systems appear to be showing the way in consumer
    computing. Native applications (or 'apps,' if you insist,) are far more
    oriented to task completion which, at the end of the day, is what consumer
    interaction with computers should be about.

Conclusion

In my third week of working with the Galaxy S II, I would say that I am very happy with it. Once I have rooted it, I think things will get that much better. Especially if I can go back to charging it at night.