Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy S II Ice Cream Sandwich review

Seemingly years in the coming, the Ice Cream Sandwich update for the Samsung Galaxy S II has arrived for just about everyone. You can check here to see if it’s possible for you yet.

The big question, of course, is what should the upgrade to Android 4 actually do for your smartphone? We compared a Gingerbread version of the SGS2 to a new and improved ICS model to see if we could spot the major differences. So, if you haven’t managed to update yet, then this is what you can look forward to. If you have, then do add anything you've noticed in the comments below. We’re still exploring it for ourselves.

Update and restore

The update itself did not take an eon to download and install, although we do urge you to do it over Wi-Fi rather than mobile broadband. If you choose to wipe the phone first, you get all the excitement of setting up mobile again and taking a look at the very front face of the latest Google mobile OS. What’s particularly nice about Android is that, as soon as you associate your Google account with the phone, you’ll find that all of your apps and settings pop up exactly where you left them. Well, almost.

We did find a couple of odd quirks, such as a whole load of widgets and shortcuts to apps on the desktop which we didn’t have before but it was a minor job to fix. What’s more, there’s been nothing missing at all.

So, on with the show.

TouchWiz but not as we know it

It’s not always easy to tell where TouchWiz ends and Android begins but there’s some definite differences to the UI now that the SGS2 has had a bite of the Ice Cream Sandwich. The most obvious ones are in the iconography. The pictures for the Gmail, Phone and Messaging apps have all evolved. The former has a thicker red M and a simplified evelope, the Phone background is now chequered and Messaging has gone from a speech bubble to something more like the standard email app. Other than that, it’s just the Google Talk icon that’s had a facelift with the speech bubble changing from a circle to a square.

And it’s not just the icons that have been updated. The widgets are different too. Again, it’s the Google ones that you’ll notice. The most dramatic is the Google Search widget which has gone from white to black with the field box itself now opened up into a more borderless design. Tap through and you’ll find that the instant results follow the same scheme and still include contacts and apps on your handset as well as the possible search terms too.

The other widget of note to have upped its game is the ever-popular Power Saving widget. What used to be a rather clunkily set of eight buttons on a single line of four slots that you had to click to reach the rest of, has now been revamped to take up two rows, thus meaning that all opitons are available on the screen at the same time.

Android advances

As one would expect, the core parts of the Android OS have had a bit of a makeover too. The Wi-Fi, battery and signal strength icons at the top of the screen have been redesigned with a more angular and less outlined look to them, and the clock in the top right is of a new typeface. The graphic of the volume slider has had a nip and a tuck too, as have the back-end menus which feature both that new font and a slightly different layout. There are a few new choices, such as the Data Usage graph and a couple of other extras as announced when the ICS launch was made official.

Oddly, what we liked most on the Samsung Galaxy S II is that the home screens now cycle all the way round rather than getting stuck at either end as they did with the Gingerbread version of the software. There's also the addition of the Restart option in the power menu when you press and hold the lock button.

Recent apps & pop-up menus

One of the highlights of Android 4 is the move away from the old and tired approach to multitasking. A long press of the home button will pop-up the recent apps list for you to scroll up and down and swipe away to kill that particular app where’s before you’d get only a grid of the six plus a link to the task manager. It’s also rotatable for a better look at exactly what’s going on in each of your open apps.

Interestingly enough, the pop-up menus elsewhere on the UI have dropped their pictorial element and gone for a standard list approach. Whether you’re looking at the desktop or the apps tray, press the Menu key and you’ll still get the same options - just no icons to go with them.

Browser

The browser looks similar to before but it’s definitely not the same. The application itself is a far more self-contained unit this time around with a lot more to play with in the settings. What’s better are the accessibility options which allow the user to change the size of the text. You can limit the size of the smallest writing and the biggest writing on the screen meaning that nothing is either lost or just too huge when rendered on a mobile phone.

There’s also better management of the settings menus in general. Rather than all being presented in one long list marked More, there are now six distinct areas to explore depending upon what you’re looking to investigate. Best of all is probably the Labs section where you can turn on and off the different features that Google is currently trying out on the Android browser and we particularly like the Save for of offline reading choice being on the very first list when you hit the Menu button.

While the tab manager on both browsers is good, where the ICS version does a little better is offering the option to get there with an icon next to the address bar which itself also now behaves a little more intelligently by getting out the way when not needed.

The treat is that the Android 4 browser allows you to force a desktop mode. That means that you can avoid those irritating mobile sites that get automatically pushed at you when you browse, or those that refer you to an app, like ITV Player. We fired up The Only Way Is Essex to prove it worked, which it did. Of course, we watched TOWIE using Incognito mode, another useful feature.

Core Google services

In real terms, the apps that have been hit with the biggest dollop of Ice Cream are those from Google itself. Many, in fact most, third-party apps are pretty similar on Gingerbread or ICS, but things like Google Maps or Gmail do look different.

The biggest change is in the layout of actions. Where you used to have to open a menu to get to some options, you'll now find some of them across the bottom of the app or in a dropdown list. This makes use a little faster in some cases, like using forward or "reply all" in Gmail, which is cleaner than in Gingerbread. The use of people tags, instead of straight names is also convenient.

The apps are also, like the browser, more self-contained and follow the same design and colour scheme all the way through the options rather than switching to the standard black Android look.

Lock screen

The lock screen remains the familiar customisable affair, only now more customisable than ever. ICS adds the face recognition unlock screen for a bit of fun rather than any kind of high security and, if you’re used to the pattern unlock, well, that’s had a little freshen up on the looks front too.

What’s actually useful is that you get access to notifications on the lock screen. You get an icon in the middle of the screen if you’ve missed a call or received a text which the phone will then unlock straight to once you press and slide your finger.

Thoughts

These are just a few of the changes you’ll find when you update your SGS2 to Android 4 and you’ll notice all sorts of graphical alterations and the odd new menu option in your day-to-day use for the first two weeks after. All the same, the truly important features of the upgrade hit home very quickly.

The first is that, when you examine it, there’s not that much more functionality that you get that you didn’t have before. In fact, Froyo was really the last time where there were big changes in that department. What ICS is more than anything else is modernisation and tidying up. The graphical changes are welcome. We spend a lot of time looking at our mobiles and the reinvented typeface and all the iconography make things a lot more pleasing to the eye. The tidying up, though, is probably where the update does its job best.

“The difference between iPhone and Android is that everything you and do with one touch on iPhone takes two or three on an Android phone,” is a comment we once overheard.

While we didn’t necessarily agree, that member of the public definitely had a point and what ICS does is narrow that gap considerably. Android 4 is not iOS and it doesn’t want to be, but it has made Google smartphones perhaps a little easier to work your way through.



>