Samsung Galaxy S2 : Flagship from 2011, now with Jelly Bean, and still running strong


The first wave of droids mainly got the interest of the Apple haters, Symbian and Windows Mobile users and techie junkies.  The next wave of the droids lead by Samsung @ the forefront is what truly started the crossovers not just from the existing Symbian and Windows Mobile users but also Apple IPhone fans who were getting hampered by the limitations imposed by ITunes for synching content.

The  Samsun Galaxy S (now called the S1 by many) set the trend but it was the Galaxy S2 that stormed the market, and also got the Apple worried (and rather than compete on technology, took Samsung to the legal arena to slow their progress)

The SG2 was powered by what was definitely the most powerful and optimized mobile chipset and GPU (graphics core) combinations feature on a droid at that time, resulting in awesome gaming and browsing performance.

Backed up with a very thin profile and an stunning AMOLED+ display it made all other droids ancient, with the only complain being why Samsung had not opted for a 1280*720 display and gone with 800*480. While limited versions came out with the higher resolution, it was a bit too late as competition had already caught up and led by the SG2’s predecessor the s3!

However two years down the s2 still delivers great performance on day to day use, multimedia and gaming, a feat that none of the competing droids have been able to match.

Samsung has ensured it did not forget it’s breakthrough phone unlike what it did with the first generation Galaxy S, and continues to provide major updates that contains enhancements found on the newer Samsung phones. First Gingerbread was upgraded with Ice Cream Sandwich in 2012. A few months after the freshly launched Galaxy S3 got Jelly Bean, the GS2 (and its larger partner the Galaxy Note I) got its second major upgrade early 2013.

Strangely the updates continue to be snappy on the SG2, when newer Droids from rival firms are struggling mainly due to poor hardware combinations.

Hardware

The SG2 featured Samsung own mobile processor the dual-core 45nm Cortex-A9  Exynos 4210 clocked at 1.2ghz. While it may be “slower” on clock speeds compared to competing chipsets in the likes of Qualcom and Nvidia Tegra 2, it features far more optimized internals that it continued to be competitive not just again these dual-core units, but even against quad-core chipsets that followed.

In addition to the processing the SG2, multi-core Mali 400 graphics core was ground breaking at that time, knocking down all devices including the Apple IPhone 4 (which had Apple launching a quick update featuring the multi-core processor and beefed up GPU in the form of the 4S).  While the newer GPUs featured on the mid and high end phones of 2012/13 are now making the Mali 400 look a bit slow, its still able to provide solid 30fps+ rates for games.  The decision by Samsung to opt for a lower resolution screen that what most would have wanted, may have enabled the SG2 to remain competitive even in 2013 as the GPU does not have that many pixels to push.

Early 2012 featured phones with Tegra 2 and Adreno 220 based devices, but both these could not match the performance of the 2011 released multi-core Samsung optimized Mali GPU and Exynos dual-core performance.

Another very solid and important decision done by Samsung with the SG2 was to go with a 1GB memory configuration. This was a very rare spec for the 2011 phones, and even in 2012 this was only common among the high end phones.   The 1GB definitely made sure the SG2 was able to handle the memory hungry Google ICS (while Sony, HTC, Motorola all had problems as the 512MB memory impacted them in releasing ICS).  Now with the optimized Jelly Bean the SG2 is still flying 🙂

Design

Samsung’s quest to have the slimmest phone, lightest phone means the SG2 designers have given more priority to these than the design.  The end result is quite evident that the SG2 has very little in design innovation.

However the design is very practical in that its easy to hold, aided by the wider display form factory than the more cramped and narrow display form factory used by many including Apple 🙂 The phone works nicely even for single handed operations, and feels good to hold.

Sadly the super slim battery cover can be very nerve wrecking to open for many, and sadly our wish to have better quality and design would always be second to marking opportunity for vendors to say they have the lightest or thinnest phone 😦  The IPhone 5 saga of the peeling paint is also another such case study that will i am sure be repeated!

Display

The SG2 featured a cutting edge 4.3” AMOLED+ screen that challenged the industry benchmark set by apple’s IPhone 4 retina display. The screen also had a coating of Corning’s Gorilla glass to provide a layer of protection from scratches and small falls.

Superbly efficient with blacks it also helped the s2 post excellent video playback times on battery power.

The only sore point was that 800×480 (WVGA) seems to lacking the pixel density compared to the much high res IPhone4 and 4S that came in a small screen area, specially when HTC was already pushing a slight higher res 960×720 screens.  The launch of the Galaxy Note with a 1280×720 display was also a sign that Samsung could have easily put the SG2 with the higher density screen but seems to have held it back for the next version of the Galaxy 😦

However now two years down the line, one of the benefits of having a lower resolution is that the SG2 still has great gaming performance as the GPU has less pixels to push.

Camera and Video

Samsung may not have a great pedigree on camera though it’s fast becoming one now, but the engineers had done great here in understanding the mass consumer. Rather than going with a big aperture lens such as HTC or Sony they went with a smaller but still good F2.4 lens coupled with a 8MP backlight sensor. Samsung balanced the smaller aperture lens by including a powerful flash unit that ensured decent photos indoors.

Reviews by major phone reviewers all showed that this combination resulted in the SG2 taking far better quality stills than much more fancy spec’d camera units from Sony Ericsson, HTC, etc with only the Apple IPhone 4S and the Nokia N8 outdoing it (again in some areas).

The SG2 also features 1080p video recording in addition to what was the standard in 2011 of 720P.  The video however does not feature continuous auto focusing but still provides very good quality video clips for the mobile user.

The camera interface sadly has nothing much to brag about it, being rather conservative.  However focus is pretty quick and accurate, specially when it comes to macro stills and landscapes.

UPDATE: With Jelly Bean Samsung has tried to match HTC and Apple by including a few features into the camera app, however it still remains regimental.  I am still a bit hazy why phone companies don’t look at digital camera interfaces and try to learn from them, as they feature far more cooler interfaces that are optimized for photography.

The SG2 also feature a 2MP front camera, which provides decent performance even under low light for video calls (which the SG2 supports natively) and quick portraits if you are fine with VGA resolution:)

Multimedia

Video playback and sound

One of the criticisms with the SG2 over the first gen Galaxy S was what most considered a cost cutting measure of using a Yamaha audio chip compared to the highly regarded Wolfson chip in the Galaxy S.  For the hardcore audio fanatics this was raised as a major concern, but based on more everyday tests the Yamaha audio chip has fairs well even when hooked to a headphone or earphone.

Going back to everyday telephone the sound from the earpiece is clear, and the loud speaker performance average, where it it feels to be a bit insufficient in volume even in slightly noise environments such as when using it in a car being driven on a highway.

The SG2 typical to Samsung comes with codec’s for almost all popular multimedia formats, unlike Apple, Sony, HTC who expect you to buy or download third party apps to playback.  In addition the Samsung chipset provided hardware acceleration for many of these formats including 1080p H.264 ensuring smooth and high quality playback.

Storage

The SG2 comes in two flavors on the internal storage aspect, the more easily found 16GB and the slightly rare 32GB. The phone also has a microSD slot that can handle upto a 64GB microSDXC card providing the option for quick expansion and replacement of content.  However the design of the phone means you have to shut down and remove the battery to replace the microSD card, but strangely you can change the SIM without removing the battery.

The SG2 also support USB on the go, which allows you to connect a flash drive or externally powered portable hard disk to be connected using the USB/microUSB cable.  However this feature is now quite common among Android phones, but for an Apple user sadly this very flexible and easy transfer capability is only a dream!

Battery

The SG2 came with a crop where smart phones could only managed a day at most when properly used as a smart phone.  However for many who use the smart phone for lesser demanding use, the SG2 could easily handle 2 days of use.

Performance

The SG2 performance in 2011 is truly outstanding, and with the latest Software updates the browser performance has kept improving. Here are some comparative performances,

Android Version Antutu 2.9.x Antutu 3.0.x Nenamark 2.x GeekBench Vellamo 2.x Quadrant
Samsung S2 GT-9100 4.0.4 ICS

5663

10279

50.6

727

1133

3695

Samsung S2 GT-9100

4.1.2 Jelly Bean

9791

48

1017

1570

4336

Sony Arc S

2.3.4 Gingerbread

3638

15

1364

Samsung S2 LTE E110S (Qualcom) 4.0.4 ICS

8689

53.8

716

3531

Xperia S LT26i 4.0.4 ICS

8219

37.9

996

1393

3306

HTC One X 4.0.4 ICS

12465

54.1

1369

1519

5700

The results provides some “simulated” comparisons of the SG2 against the 2011 flagship from Sony (Arc S), and the 2012 flagship from Sony (Xperia S), and the HTC flagship of 2012 (HTC One X).

Nenamark shows how the lower resolution helps the phones post great fps, as the S2 LTE version with identical hardware to the Xperia S posts results surpassing even the SG2 with the Mali GPU, as both the Galaxy phones have the lower resolution compared to the Xperia S.

Compared against then competing Arc S the performance of the dual-core SG2 shows how much more capable the Samsung hardware was against what everybody considers a highly optimized Sony Gingerbread implementation on the Arc S. The SG2 also fares well with Sony’s 2012 flagship the Xperia S, which featured the Qualcom chipset paired to an Adreno 220 graphics.

Compared to the 2013 S3 challenger from HTC, the SG2 still does a fair job with software becoming more optimized for multi-core, Antutu and Quadrant indicates the performance the quad-core can provided when combined with optimized apps.

The Jelly Bean vs ICS battle of the SG2, provides mixed results.

  1. Vellamo clearly shows the HTML5 performance has been improved significantly on with the Jelly Bean firmware,
  2. Processing and graphics scores seems to have dropped a bit.
  3. Based on Quadrant, Geekbench and Antutu detailed scores, one are the Jelly Bean seems to do well is on IO and memory performance, which as improved.

Jelly Bean and the S2

I updated the firmware using Odin, since the CSC code for my phone still had not got the update.  The newer Nature UX from Samsung has a bit more modern look and shows some of the fluid movement that one is to expect from Project butter from Google.  However to me the interface still is a bit held back and lacking flair compared to other Droids specially HTC.

Samsung Wallpapers are horrid to say the least and why they can’t get some modern and wider variety is ridiculous. Which is why you will see the screen shots i have taken feature the Xperia 2013 wall paper and lock screen, than Samsung provided!

Features that caught my eye

  1. The ability to change the display font size, and also having a tiny size (with ICS the display fonts was elephant sized!, and you had to use a third party app to reduce it, took Samsung a while to add it)
  2. The new camera app has a few more features on adding effects to photos, etc
  3. New font that looks lot more modern and cooler
  4. Improved keyboard that also features SwiftKey like features in downloading language packs
  5. Improve music player UI (which also seems to have a bug if you select a folder, that you can’t seem to switch back!)
  6. Galaxy S3 features of calling the person when you bring the phone near to the face, or the screen staying on when you are looking at it, etc
  7. Improved image viewer
  8. New widgets such as Favorite apps, settings, and improved widgets for dual clock, alarm

Conclusion

I kept away from the highly popular SG2 simply because i favored a bit more design flare, but then got TI OMAP based Galaxy S2 (GT-9100G) and subsequently an normal GT-9100 Galaxy S2 (for my wife).  Still favoring the cooler HTC One designs and the Xperia line up from Sony, for me the S2 is what you call a mass market phone which ticks most of things people need and does a great job around it.

What has made the S2 really sell well is the aggressive marketing and the fact that Samsung has continued to support the 2011 flagship, even though the much more fancy S3 was released in 2012.  The Samsung S2 has got two major updates after the S3 was released, which is something not many can tell about competing droids.  Further the updates have been full updates which new features that were initially featured on the newer S3, and Samsung has to be given all credit for taking that brave decision.

To many normal smart phone users, the larger S3 remains a bit too large for daily use, and also expensive, and the S2 will remain a popular choice.  The launch of the face lifted S2 Plus and the slighter lower spec S2 Advance will serve this market well in the same line of how the IPhone 4S is doing for Apple.

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