Samsung Galaxy S Plus review

4 out of 5
£399

For

Powerful, fast, light, extensive feature list, good still and video quality, latest Android version

Against

Still a little expensive, it looks like last year's phone

The first Samsung Galaxy S handset caused quite a fuss for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a remarkable device and one that people genuinely wanted to own. Secondly, though, was how much it looked like an iPhone, down to the home button and curved, stylish lines. But it also sold incredibly well, and could be one of the most important Android devices to launch yet.

It is still available, still capable of handling most of what Android offers and the fact that Samsung have decided to tweak the hardware speaks volumes. At launch, however, the phone wasn't perfect. Users who pushed the device hard soon found that lag could affect the performance. Flicking from home screen to home screen could result in stutter and poor performance and the phone often felt like it was being held back.

The Galaxy S Plus addresses a lot of these problems, whilst bringing it into line with many recent rivals. Improved hardware specs mean it has got more power and the progressive move to Android 2.3, along with more refined TouchWiz software, has dispatched many of the file system issues that caused that lag. This updated Galaxy S, then, could be the phone we should have got one year ago.

Design

On the surface, nothing has changed on the Samsung Galaxy S Plus. It's the same sleek case with a hardware button for home and two soft-keys for the context menu and the back button. The phone still has that curious kink on the back cover, something that has all but gone from the newer Galaxy S II.

There's still a daft cover on the USB socket, found at the top of the phone, next to the headphone jack. Volume controls are on the left of the phone, with the lock key on the right. We don't like this placement of the most often-used button on the phone, it makes far more sense for it to go on the top. We found that, on the side, it's much harder to push, which makes unlocking the phone that little bit harder and slower.

The Galaxy S Plus is still impossibly light though, and this has to be one of the most impressive things about this handset. Compare the Samsung to almost any other Android handset, and you'll be blown away by how the company has managed to keep this phone feather light. Of course, the extensive use of plastic is what gives it an advantage over, say, the iPhone and you could argue that it also makes it feel a little cheap. Samsung has, however, screwed this phone together well, which means despite its weight, it's still sturdy and nice to hold - and we still have the original model in use and not showing signs of wear.

More power and more power

If you used the original Galaxy S, there would have been times when you would resort to Jeremy Clarkson style mutterings about more power. This updated hardware, however, is incredibly snappy. The move from a 1GHz processor to a 1.4GHz single core alternative seems to have helped hugely. Efficiencies with Android and TouchWiz that came along with version 2.3 have also helped, you should see apps load a lot quicker now and far less stuttering when flicking around the phone at speed.

And it's not just the handset that feels faster, the Internet should too, with an increased download speed over HSDPA networks. As nice as that is though, it's worth remembering that most service providers can't give you anywhere near the maximum rated speed.

The second increase in power is from the newer, higher capacity battery included with the Galaxy S Plus. This has increased from a 1500mAh pack in the original, to a 1650mAh one in the newer phone. The good news is the battery life seems excellent. It's actually one of the better smartphones we've used for longevity. A full charge will easily get you through the day and if you switch the phone off overnight, it will probably get you through half the next day too. That's almost unheard of with Android phones, but it's wonderful to see in the Galaxy S Plus.

Our phone was connected to mobile networks all day, used for no less than 30 minutes of calls and moderate data use. However, we were on Wi-Fi for most of the day too, which is more power efficient than 3G data.

As with a lot of handsets, the auto backlight setting is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. While it's nice not to have to manually fiddle with the backlight, when you leave the phone in auto the phone seems to struggle sometimes. It's not dreadful, but we've caught the phone switching between two different brightnesses; it's not a deal-breaker by any means but it can be a little irritating.

TouchWiz frustrations

As with so many Android handset manufacturers, Samsung isn't content to stick with the standard Android look-and-feel. Instead, it customises the user interface with its own skin. This is most noticeable with the launcher or home screen, but is a much lighter touch than something like HTC Sense. There are some widgets that can be used to add information about weather, stocks and news to your home screens. These are all nice enough, although there are more stylish apps available on the Android Market - like Go Weather, which we recently featured as App of the Day.

Our main gripe, however, are the lock screen and the application tray. The lock screen is frustrating because it's harder than most to actually get into the phone. You have to sweep across almost the whole screen before the phone will let you in, which is far harder than on most handsets. It might sound like we're grumbling about nothing here, but when you've tried three times to unlock the phone, and failed, it will give you the hump too.

The app menu is more of a concern though. Rather than stick with the default menu, that you'd find on the Google Nexus S (also made by Samsung) the company has aped Apple's design. What works for Apple, however, doesn't work so well here. For a start, you can't make folders to help you organise your apps logically. From our testing, the Galaxy S Plus sorts the pre-installed applications alphabetically, but user-installed apps are ordered by the date they were installed. This is very confusing and on this phone, more than any other, we found ourselves hunting for the right app for far longer than we would on another phone.

Of course, our complaint here can be resolved. The Samsung launcher does allow you to re-order apps, but it's a tedious process that will take a long time. There is, of course, also the option to put your most-used apps on the home screens. Samsung provides seven of these for you to tweak as you see fit. If you really hate the interface though, there are dozens of great third-party launchers in the Android Market. These can be installed in moments and will give you a different visual interface. It's even possible to get a version of the stock Gingerbread launcher, for people looking for a pure Android experience.

To some extent, we also advise tweaking the Samsung keyboard. Indeed, Samsung ships the phone with two possible soft-keyboard options. The first is its own, basic input system. This looks, surprise surprise, like the iPhone keypad. The second is Swype. The Samsung keyboard is functional at best. It has no error checking and no predictive options. It works, but it's not going to try and help you out.

Swype on the other hand works well, and with a little bit of training, anyone can get the hang of it. We like Swype because it's not just a clever way to type, but it also comes with a much better regular keyboard too, which has all the options the Samsung version does not.

If you're happy to tweak, look for "Gingerbread keyboard" in the Android Market. It's the stock keyboard from Android 2.3, and it's simple and well-designed. It also does prediction, which makes messages and email a lot less prone to mistakes.

On the plus side, It's worth noting that, when you play music, miss a phone call or receive a text message, TouchWiz updates your lock screen with that information. You can also use these notifications to directly access your call log, or text messages, which is very handy.

For music, a CD appears at the top and dragging it down allows you to access the music and change tracks and pause playback. When you unlock the phone, the status notification dropdown also has music player controls. We find these extras really useful, and are pleased to see them included as it's an area that vanilla Android isn't strongest in.

Camera and video

As with the first Galaxy S, the Plus can record video at up to 720p and has a 5-megapixel camera for your still photos. Although 720p is a perfectly reasonable HD format for video, it is worth pointing out that in the Galaxy S II, the still camera is 8 megapixels and it's possible to record video at 1080p.

Photos from the phone are pretty good. Outdoors, in good light they look vibrant, but with plenty of detail too. Indoors, things are still impressive in slightly more sudued lighting. As with most cameras, low-light photos aren't so impressive, suffering from the normal noise and blur. There's no flash on the Galaxy S Plus (as with the original) making it a poor choice for photos of your trip to the local discotheque.

Video is pretty decent too. Although Samsung claims 720p, this is certainly not as good quality as a dedicated 720p camcorder. What it is, however, is convenient and a brilliant way to upload footage to YouTube. Indeed, all of the sharing options on this phone are likely to be useful, especially if you're a social person, keen to share your videos with Facebook and Twitter friends.

DLNA

For sharing media, the Samsung also offers DLNA. It's very sophisticated too. You can either use the phone to send media to a DLNA device, use the phone to watch media from a DLNA device or even from one device, to another, using the phone to manage everything. In practice, with our setup, AllShare (as Samsung calls it) didn't work at all well with our network. Much was promised, devices managed to find each other and the right things seemed to be happening, but video simply would not play on our WD TV Live Hub.

We were, however, able to get music to play from our Windows 7 PC to the phone with no real problem at all. It is worth remembering that Windows blocks most devices unless you tell it otherwise. Removing this block got us listening to music quite quickly. Video, however, was still a no-go area, and we couldn't get anything to play. The phone kept telling us that the format was unsupported, even though we know it is.

Playing music from the phone, on our Windows 7 machine also worked well, with Windows Media Player firing out our selected music. And we were able to send still images from the handset to the PC too, instantly with no hassle.

For everything but video then, AllShare does a grand job. If you're hoping to look at video either from your phone, on your PC, or from you PC, on your phone, you might be in for disappointment. As with all these network-based things though, it's always worth remembering that your network might be better set-up, more modern or just be simpler than ours, and with DLNA, that all makes a difference.

Sound quality

In case you haven't noticed, the stand-alone MP3 player is slowly dying out. These days, it's far easier to sling all your music on your phone and carry one device, not two, around. Often though, phones don't do music well with horrible sound quality all too common. Our listening proved that Samsung understands this well, and the audio quality of the Galaxy S Plus is very good indeed. Perhaps not quite up to iPod/iPhone standards, but certainly better than almost every other Android phone on the market. 

It's worth noting that music volumes are limited when you're using headphones (it's an EU rule) and there are times when the Galaxy S Plus just doesn't have enough power for our needs. We're not trying to deafen ourselves here, but get on a Tube train and you'll most likely not be able to hear the music at all well. Still, good, isolating earphones should help with that a little.

The built-in speakers on the Galaxys S Plus are pretty powerful too, which is good if you want to share music with friends. All we ask is that you don't "share" on the night bus back to Wimbledon.

Most crucially though, call quality is very good indeed. It's easy to forget that phones are sometimes used for phone calls in these times of data and apps, but it's a hugely important part of using the device. The earpiece is loud enough, even for people will less than perfect hearing, and given a reasonable signal strength you'll have no unexpected echos or muffled sound.

Screen

The Samsung's Super AMOLED screen is quite eye-catching. It's both bright and stuffed with vivid colours that make it one of the most impressive handsets on the market, at least at first glance. However, the screen on the Galaxy S and S Plus are nowhere near as detailed as the iPhone in terms of sheer resolution. And although we like the vivid colours for doing phone things, when it comes to looking at video and images, we find the AMOLED to be a little less than realistic.

In addition to that, the screen does have a very mild blue hue, which might annoy some people, but is really barely noticable when using the phone in the majority of situations.

Outdoor use is possible, even in bright sunlight with the Super AMOLED putting out more than enough light to be seen. We still did have problems sometimes, but all handsets with shiny glass screens present problems in very bright light.

One final word on the screen. We were unlucky enough to drop our review sample. It fell from waist height onto the pavement and that was enough to shatter the glass on the front of the phone. The screen is still working fine, but it now looks a little less impressive. We're not blaming Samsung for our butter fingers, but phones do get dropped from time-to-time, and it's interesting to note that this one broke when others would not. If you're buying, we'd suggest screen protectors or a proper case to protect your handset.

Verdict

Although we have some minor complaints with things like TouchWiz, we've loved our time with the Samsung Galaxy S Plus. This is a solid phone that has been improved greatly by the speed upgrade and the new version Android OS (Android 2.3.3, Gingerbread) and Samsung's continued refinement of their own software.

In many ways, this is the phone that the Galaxy S should have been when it launched last year. But if you're happy to have a slightly older design, then this phone offers most of the same functionality that the Galaxy S II does, in a slightly less cool case.

It's available on Vodafone, and if you are prepared to pay £30 per month, you won't have to pay up-front for the handset. Its SIM only price is around £400 or so, this seems expensive, even with the updated specification and perhaps potential customers will just end up going for the Galaxy S II instead?