In the crowded and sometimes confusing market for smartphones based on Google’s Android operating system, Samsung’s Galaxy models have been among the best and most popular. Launched last year on multiple carriers, the Galaxy S models made the Korean electronics giant a serious rival to Apple’s iPhone as well as to Android competitors like Motorola and HTC.
Now, Samsung has introduced the second generation of the Galaxy S in the U.S., after the company reported selling five million of the new devices in Europe and Korea in 85 days. (For context, Apple sold about 20 million iPhones world-wide in its last reported quarter.) The new models are dubbed Galaxy S II, and will be carried by Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile in slightly different variations.
I’ve been testing the first of these new phones, which made its debut on the Sprint network last week. It goes by the lengthy, ungainly name of “Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch” and costs $200 with a two-year contract. But its name isn’t the only thing about this phone that’s super-sized. It also has a gargantuan 4.52-inch screen, which swells its overall dimensions to a size that dwarfs many other smartphones. For instance, its footprint is about a third larger than the iPhone 4’s.
Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch
The huge screen is something of a gamble for Samsung and its carrier partners. It makes the phone more attractive for some functions, like watching videos, playing games and viewing photos. But it also makes the Epic 4G harder to fit in a pocket or small purse, or to hold comfortably in smaller hands. And it looks really big when held up to the ear.
To its credit, Samsung has managed to offset the greater length and width by keeping the phone thin and light. It’s only slightly thicker than the iPhone 4 and actually weighs less. But the company pulled off this feat by using a plastic housing that feels insubstantial and fragile. For instance, the removable rear cover is a bendable, paper-thin plastic sheet that I found hard to snap on firmly.
Overall, I consider the Epic 4G Touch to be a capable, versatile smartphone with good battery life and a sharp, rich display. It worked well in my tests for voice and data, and it benefits from Sprint’s unlimited data plans, which compare favorably with the metered data plans of AT&T and Verizon. Like other Android phones, it also offers a rich catalog of 250,000 third-party apps—smaller than the iPhone’s total of 425,000, but still quite large.
However, whether the new Epic is the right phone for you depends on how you feel about its large size and general feel. You’ll also have to be comfortable with Android itself, which is still more complicated than the iPhone’s operating system. And you’ll want to make sure you have good reception for Sprint’s 4G network, which I found varied widely in speed.
The Epic’s hardware performed generally well in my tests. That huge display looked sharp and vivid, even though it actually has a lower resolution than the iPhone 4’s much smaller 3.5-inch screen. One reason may be that the Galaxy S II uses a different display technology than that on most other phones, something called Super AMOLED Plus, which Samsung claims has better blacks and sharper images.
The 8-megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel front camera took very good still photos and high-definition videos. The speakers were clear for both phone calls and music in my tests. The phone comes with 16 gigabytes of internal memory and has a slot for an optional added memory card.
I didn’t do a formal battery test, but, in my experience, the Epic easily lasted all day between charges, even when I had played several TV shows.
Sprint’s 4G network was less consistent. It’s supposed to deliver download speeds of between 3 megabits per second and 6 mbps, with peaks of up to 10 mbps. But, in my home outside Washington, D.C., the Epic never came close, struggling to reach even 2 mbps in most of my tests. By contrast, in tests I ran in Palo Alto, Calif., the Epic on 4G was blazing, racking up speeds of between 6.5 and 11 mbps in test after test.
Also less impressive was the software. Android itself is getting smoother and simpler, but still has a geekier feel than Apple’s iOS operating system. For instance, to do such common things as composing a new message or searching through your mail in Google’s own Gmail app, you have to first open a menu rather than just directly tapping icons from the main screen. And Samsung actually boasts that the Galaxy S II has an improved “Task Manager,” a utility for managing running apps that average users will never want to consult.
Samsung, like most Android phone makers, adds its own software overlay to Android. The company calls this TouchWiz, and in the new Galaxy S II it includes several motion-based features, like tilting the device to reduce or enlarge the screen contents, or moving the device left or right while holding an icon to reposition the icon. I found the former clumsy but liked the latter, once I got the hang of it.
I also tried Samsung’s built-in video store, called Media Hub, with mixed results. Before boarding a plane, I purchased two TV shows and rented a movie. The TV shows played fine, but to my surprise and irritation, the movie refused to play without an Internet connection, even though it had been paid for and downloaded to the phone, because the program needed to go online to “acquire a license.”
Samsung also includes optional “live panels,” rectangular widgets on the screen that update constantly to show things like the weather, or news headlines with photos. These looked good when they worked. But in my tests, the weather one often failed to update and once crashed the phone. The news panel was usually slow to display photos.
Bottom line: The Sprint version of the Galaxy S II isn’t for everyone. But if you crave a big screen and don’t mind the bigger size, you might like it.
Write to Walt at email@example.com.