Sunday, June 24, 2012

Samsung Galaxy S II HD LTE Review

Almost a year ago, Bell gave Canadians their first taste of the now venerable Samsung Galaxy S II. Not only did Bell beat out other Canadian carriers in getting the Galaxy S II, it beat out the rest of North America. So it's only fitting that they release what is most probably the last notable Galaxy S II variant before the launch of the much anticipated Galaxy S III. This variant is the Samsung Galaxy S II HD LTE, we will see how this version stacks up to today's other Android offerings and whether or not it should garner any attention with the Galaxy S III launch looming just around the corner.

Overall Construction
When we first got our hands on the Galaxy S II during the summer of 2011 we were absolutely shocked at how light the device was for a phone that size. Fast forward to 2012 this Galaxy S II variant, which we will call the HD LTE for simplicity's sake, and the same feelings come rushing back. While the HD LTE has a significantly larger footprint the phone felt quite nice in the hand and really didn't feel like a 4.65 inch device.

If there was one thing that irked us about the original Galaxy S II is that it felt slightly cheaper because of the plastics used in its construction. While the HD LTE doesn't really move away from that mold, as it's still made of plastic, Samsung employs an almost skin like texture (similar to the Galaxy Nexus backing) to the battery cover which makes the phone feel much less cheaper than the glossy plastic of old. This different backing also provides good amount of grip, making it feel very safe for one handed use. We find this pretty important for the new 4.5+ inch jumbo phones of 2012.

In terms of overall ergonomics, the HD LTE feels fantastic in the hand as the phone does not strike us as too large like "hummer" phones of the past. We found it surprisingly comfortable during one handed use. That being said we must remind you that 4.65 inches is not a form factor for everyone and must implore you to try the phone yourself in stores.

Overall the HD LTE is not going to win any awards for innovative new materials or design but it is unmistakably a Galaxy S II, sharing traits of the original as well as it's variants. We appreciate the slight design and material improvements and feel like they are quite a step above the original Galaxy S II.

Samsung Galaxy S II HD LTE

If there is anything that sets this phone apart from not only competitor phones but the other Galaxy S II variants it is the screen. I mean with a name like Galaxy S II HD LTE it's only expected right? To be quite frank, it's a huge difference.

We highly suspect that at the end of the day this is the same exact display found in the Galaxy Nexus. From the 720p HD resolution to the 4.65 inch form factor, to the PenTile pixel arrangement, all these traits seem to point towards this being the very same display. While we wish it had a traditional RGB pixel arrangement instead of PenTile, like the Galaxy S II and more recently HTC One X, the 316DPI pixel density almost makes the PenTile arrangement an afterthought.

Just like every other AMOLED screen clad phone we've reviewed, the HD LTE's screen performs impeccably when it comes to color, contrast and of course as expected, black levels were phenomenal. While this is one of Samsung's newer AMOLED displays, the same blue hue seen on predominantly white screens is once again present and brightness isn't quite up to the level of competing LCD offerings at max brightness.

In essence, the HD LTE, basically took our chief complaint about the Galaxy S II and pretty much nullified it. The WVGA 800x480 resolution would simply be too small for the 4.65 inch form factor and we're glad it is upped to 720p even at the cost of reverting to PenTile.

There really isn't much to mention here as it's the business as usual for a North American Galaxy S device having the usual 4 button arrangement. We found the buttons to be responsive as with most high end Android. The volume rocker was tactile, decently sized and are raised enough to feel out without looking at the phone.

One notable difference is the position of the power button. While it is still on the side, it has been moved up to the upper right corner of the handset. We find this to be quite comfortable for right-handed use and even feel like it is a better position that the traditional top position. Although, it might be a bit cumbersome for left-handed people but isn't a deal breaker by any means.

Battery Life
The original Galaxy S II was equipped with a 1650mAh battery and got through a day's worth of moderate use without as much as a hitch. However with the HD LTE, a bigger battery was necessary for the LTE 4G radio so Samsung included a 1850mAh battery instead. As with the original SGSII, we managed a full day's worth of moderate usage on the HD LTE.

The main difference we noticed is that tasks that required a data connection took a major toll on the battery when LTE was used. This is mainly because the HD LTE isn't using the same all-on-die approach used on the S4 processor on the One X for example. This means the LTE radio isn't embedded into the processor like newer LTE devices meaning it isn't as power efficient.

Also worth noting if you live in a fringe LTE area with fringe LTE coverage we highly suggest you switch off the LTE radio as we experienced significant battery drain with the phone completely idle. Of course this is a problem that anyone could have on any other network with any other device, be it 3G or 4G, but still something worth noting.

Overall battery life was as good as most Samsung Android devices we've tested.

Internal Hardware
While the HD LTE is a relatively recent phone it is unfortunately packing a lot of last year's tech. This of course doesn't mean it's a bad phone by any stretch of the imagination, but it does mean that some phones that were released in the same timeframe will probably outperform it in synthetic benchmarks. But as we know benchmarks aren't everything.

- 1.5 GHz Dual-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 Processor
- 1GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card slot upgradable to up to 32GB
- Adreno 220 Graphic processor
- 75Mbps LTE/21Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
- Wi-Fi b/g/n
- 8MP auto-focus camera with LED flash and 1080p HD video capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)

While it is undoubtedly last year's hardware, the HD LTE was no slouch. It felt fast, fluid and snappy at everyday tasks, such as browsing and gaming, and we only expect it to be maintained and improved upon as it is upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich in July.

We must note that the Adreno 220 isn't a barn burner of a GPU, so some games might make the phone sputter along a couple of years down the road. But by then one would probably be ready for an upgrade anyways so it isn't too big of an issue, especially if you're not a heavy gamer.

In the end, we were a bit apprehensive about the HD LTE's performance on an older chipset with a much higher resolution than the other Galaxy S II, but we realized this is the same chipset powering the Galaxy Note and Jetstream which both have slightly higher resolutions than even the HD LTE. So overall, we were pleased and really pleasantly surprised by the performance of the HD LTE.

LTE 4G Capabilities
LTE has been a major selling point for many phone since the end of 2011 and honestly we feel like it's almost a must have at this point on. Many people look to future proof their investments when they pick up a new Android device hoping it will be serviceable for the entire length of your contract. We believe, at this point, the most important aspect is 4G LTE connectivity.

For what it's worth, going from Dual core to Quad core probably isn't something that is noticeable to the average consumer, but from HSPA+ to LTE there is a BIG difference. So to that end, LTE is still a major differentiator between a mid range and high end device, it's just odd on the HD LTE given that, at this point, it can't be regarded as a high end device.

Overall speeds were quite good staying above 15mbps down and often 10mbps up. Although sometimes we would be in areas where the upload speed was dramatically slower at around 3mbps. We're not sure what the reason for the slowdown in upload speed but it still we like what we saw in terms of speed.

HSPA+ speeds were even more surprising as they hovered around the 7Mpbs range making it one of the fastest non-LTE phones we've tested. So if you're considering the HD LTE but haven't gotten LTE 4G in your area yet, this might still make it a viable choice.

As always in every review, this is only a small sample of the LTE/HSPA+ coverage speeds in various places in Montreal so your mileage will vary on the coverage in your particular area.

Speaker and microphone
As with most of the Samsung devices we've reviewed, everything has pretty much stayed status quo as sound quality from the ear piece was good and the microphone was also good.

The external speaker was decent in volume and sound quality. Unfortunately, it fell noticeably short compared to newer phones like the One X for example which has an exceptional external speaker. In the end, it's still adequate enough for the odd conference call.

We suspect that Samsung used the very same sensor found on the original Galaxy S II on the HD LTE, as picture were sharp and colors were both vibrant and accurate. What we do however find lacking is in the camera software. While this doesn't take away from the quality of stills themselves the camera software certainly wasn't up to par with today's offering. We sorely missed the simplified yet powerful interface of other phones like the One X and would have liked to see the features touted by the upcoming Galaxy S III. Still, we found the HD LTE was a solid performer in the camera department.

Sample Pictures


Samsung TouchWiz 4.0 with Android 2.3 Gingerbread
While we usually write up a significant part of the review on the software on a phone. Usually this means diving in to the differences between stock Android and the skinned version or between this device and a comparable from the same manufacturer.

This time around though, there isn't really much to write about as the software on the HD LTE is just about identical to the software found on the original Galaxy S II. While this isn't a bad thing as we found TW4.0 on the GSII to be pretty good, this might make people feel like it's a bit stale. The only thing to us that was noticeably different was the lock screen unlock method. Before, the entire lockscreen would move with the swipe. Instead a lock "circle" appears under the user's finger guiding them to swipe in any direction to unlock the device. We suspect this has to do with the "swipe to unlock" patents held by Apple and their legal battle with Samsung.

What we don't like however is seeing a device launch with Android 2.3 Gingerbread in 2012. Manufacturers have had half a year to tinker with the Android 4.0 source code and we feel that it is more than enough time to have a version ready for a phone like the HD LTE. That being said, we understand it will get upgraded, but we would have much preferred it launch with it rather than be at the mercy of Samsung and Bell.

Overall if you've used a Galaxy S series device in the past, say possibly upgrading from the original Galaxy S, you will feel very familiar with this version of TouchWiz and Android. For a more in depth look at TouchWiz 4.0 with Android 2.3 check out our review of the Galaxy S II.

Kies Air [Update]: We have to admit, we overlooked a HUGE feature of the HD LTE and that is Kies Air. Part of it was because of the name Kies, which we assumed would be part of their syncing software that we have never found use for, the other was because we've never heard Samsung mention it or even show it on video during product showcases. We have to say, hands down this is one of the best software improvements we've seen in terms of data syncing in a long time. Sure apps like doubleTwist can do similar tasks but not with the ease we had with Kies Air.

If we we're to guess, it looks like Kies Air is an app that makes your phone act as a web server locally on your home WiFi or WiFi hotspot made with the HD LTE. Once it is on you can simply connect to the phone via the phone's IP address. This allowed us to upload music to the phone, listen to the songs already on the phone, set them ringtones, download images from storage, check call logs and even read and send out text messages. By FAR, this is the easier most seamless way we've ever seen to sync your phone's multimedia to any computer in your house.


The Galaxy S II HD LTE is one of those phones that falls into customer's hands at an odd time. It's clearly a step above last year's crop of high end Bell Superphones, but isn't quite there when comparing it to the upcoming Galaxy S III. I don't believe it should be pushed as a flagship phone and I believe Bell isn't pushing it as a flagship either. At $49.95 on 3-year contract (or $0 at third party vendors like BestBuy), the Galaxy S II HD LTE is being pushed as a midrange device and we find it to be an excellent choice in that price segment.

We can see why AT&T in the US decided to scrap their plans to launch the Skyrocket HD (their version of the HD LTE) as it comes awfully close to the Galaxy S III launch, but if offered as a midrange offering, like Bell is pricing it at, makes perfect sense to us.

It almost seems to us that the HD LTE was to be to the Galaxy Nexus what the HTC Desire was to the Nexus One, a manufacturer branded version of a Nexus phone.

In the end, the Galaxy S II HD LTE is a phone that we can really recommend to those who don't necessarily want the latest and greatest but to want a solid performing phone at a decent price. With good hardware, LTE connectivity and a beautiful 720p screen, prospective buyers will be getting quite a deal in the Galaxy S II HD LTE. But if you're looking for cutting edge, we recommend biding your time for the Galaxy S III.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 8/10
- Much improved build quality over the other Galaxy S II version, but sadly falls short of newer devices using better materials. Is bulkier than original Galaxy S II, still very ergonomic.

Screen: 9.5/10
- Basically the saving grace of the HD LTE, the 720p screen is just about perfect. We do however still wish it wasn't PenTile.

Buttons: 9/10
- Status quo in terms of buttons. We do like the new position of the power button, as it feels very natural (if you are right handed).

Internal Hardware: 8/10
- While everything was snappy and fluid, we are slightly put off by the potential longevity of the hardware given that technically it's already got a year under its belt before even coming out of the gate. Great LTE speeds and surprisingly good HSPA+ speeds.

Battery Life: 7.5/10
- We found battery life to be pretty adequate, especially for an LTE device. The 1850mAh battery will serve most people well enough to get through a day of moderate use. The last generation LTE radio is the likely candidate for the middle of the road battery performance.

Speaker and Microphone: 7.5/10
- Earpiece and microphone were as good as we've seen on most Android smartphones.

Camera: 9/10
- Great still and video as expected from a Galaxy S II device, but a notch down for software not being improved.

UI Changes: 7/10
- While we liked TW4 when it was first shown on the Galaxy S II, it's gotten a bit long in the tooth, especially for a device released in 2012 and one that is so close to the launch of successor to the Galaxy S line of phones. Did not like the fact it launched with Gingerbread when the Original Galaxy S II is already on Ice Cream Sandwich.

Addition Enhancements: [UPDATE] 10/10 - We didn't see any addition enhancements over the previous Galaxy S IIs so we can't give a mark here. We have to give Samsung a BIG 10/10 bonus here for Kies Air. Impossibly easy syncing capabilities.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 7/10
- The usual bevy of pre-installed programs. None of which could be uninstalled of course. Hopefully they can be hidden in the ICS update.

Final Score: 8.3/10

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