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Samsung Galaxy S II 4G Review: Fast, But Is It Future-Proof?

Above all other phones, the Galaxy S II was the champion Android device of 2011. How well does it stack up in 2012 with the addition of 4G connectivity?

Why It Matters

When Telstra launched its 4G network late last year, it was only showing off one phone, which it didn’t name at the time; that ended up being the HTC Velocity 4G locally. The Galaxy S II 4G expands Telstra’s 4G offerings by giving consumers a choice within the 4G space; if HTC’s Sense doesn’t do it for you, then maybe TouchWiz will. It seems like a winner of an option, matching up last year’s top smartphone with the fastest mobile network available today.

What I Liked

The Galaxy S II 4G isn’t just a case of grabbing old Galaxy S II stock and soldering in some 4G chips; this is a slight evolution of the model that sold so well across all carriers. The processor’s been bumped up to 1.5GHz compared to the original phone’s 1.2GHz model. The display creeps up to 4.5 inches compared to the original model’s 4.3 inches, although the resolution is stuck at 800×480 pixels. The battery has been pumped up to accommodate 4G capability, up to 1850mAh from the original model’s 1650mAh.

All of this adds up to a phone that’s a little faster and a little slicker than the original, although it’s undoubtedly an evolution of the design, rather than something that’s a truly “new” phone. Battery life was fair without being great; it’s certainly possible to exhaust the Galaxy S II 4G with a day’s usage.

4G is the calling card of the Galaxy S II 4G, and clearly it’s the part of the phone that’ll attract the most attention at this stage. Given Telstra’s pricing for the Galaxy S II 4G, it’s going to need to, as most competing carriers will let you get a 3G Galaxy S II for $29 a month, quite a bit cheaper than Telstra’s entry level $59 Galaxy S II 4G pricing.

So in order to assess the Galaxy S II 4G’s speed chops, I sent out Lifehacker‘s editor Angus Kidman to test the phone through Sydney’s CBD 4G coverage zone. All the tests bar one were conducted as closely together as possible; two sets of the Town Hall testing were attempted, but the second set one hour after the first failed to get any kind of signal at all. That’s no signal, as in not even 3G signal, for those keeping score.

Location Average Ping (ms) Average Download (Mbps) Average Upload (Mbps)
Town Hall
33.66
32.8
11.47
Martin Place
47
17.13
6.65
Circular Quay
32.33
20.4
7.01

So when it can connect, the Galaxy S II 4G can be exceptionally fast for data usage. As yet, 1800MHz has nothing to do with your phone’s talk quality, so 4G is only about data.

What I Didn’t Like

This is still just a Gingerbread phone in an increasingly Ice Cream Sandwich world. Telstra’s promising that the Galaxy S II 4G should be upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich, but there’s no official timeframe for that as yet.

The one thing that’s been notably sacrificed in the name of 4G has been the Galaxy S II’s slender profile; the 4G is thicker and heavier than the original phone was.

It is 4G, and as noted in the test results, that means there are times when it’ll connect at great speed — and times when it won’t. LTE 4G is still just a data rather than voice technology, and with that in mind, I tested the Galaxy S II 4G as a portable hotspot.

Hot being the operative word; while I was somewhat concerned by the temperature of the 4G WiFi Hotspot, it had nothing on the Galaxy S II 4G, which quickly reached high temperatures. It’d be feasible to use it as a hotspot, but you might want to make sure it’s well ventilated when you do so.

Pricing is also problematic for the Galaxy S II 4G. It starts on a 24 month $59 cap, but the 3G Galaxy S II is considerably cheaper. The extra features do make the 4G version a little faster testing side by side, but not exceptionally so, which means you’re paying a premium mostly for the promise of 4G.

Should You Buy One?

It’s great that there’s some choice in the 4G smartphone world, and our tests to date seem to indicate that the 4G phones have a slight edge when it comes to getting reliable 4G signal over 4G hotspots and USB modems. The Galaxy S II remains an excellent bit of design, and that makes this an excellent phone, but equally not one without a few niggling issues.

I’m not just thinking of the hotspot heat problem, but also the fact that the S II is still an older phone, and when you’re outside the 4G zones, the benefits of its faster data melt away. At that point, a much cheaper Galaxy S II 3G would be much the same phone — but a lot cheaper. That’s even without the looming spectre of the Galaxy S III, which may well be announced only a few hours from the time of writing; while the odds are low that it’ll be natively 1800MHz LTE compatible, it’s always possible.

Specifications

OS: Android 2.3.6 (upgradable to Android 4.0)
Screen: 4.5 Inch (480×800) Super AMOLED Plus
Processor / RAM: 1.5GHz dual-core / 1GB
Storage: 16GB internal (up to 32GB microSD)
Camera: 8MP rear (1080p HD video), 1.3MP front
Weight: 132g
Battery: 1850mAh
Price: From $5 per month on $59 Freedom Connect Plan over 24 months

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