The Samsung Galaxy S II could spoil the party for many recent phone launches - the HTC Sensation, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc or the LG Optimus 2X. We saw the SGS2 (as it’s colloquially known) at launch, but we’ve subsequently had the chance to spend a lot more time with it (the interested results of which we’ll be seeing soon) but until then, we thought it only fair to bring you some more detailed first impressions of the phone.

Samsung has an unfortunate knack of making smartphones that look and feel less premium than they actually are. The Samsung Galaxy S II is a serious device. It has everything. And we mean everything. It’s not often that we get a spec sheet through at Pocket-lint and have nothing to complain about. So, perhaps given that this phone has a dual core processor, NFC, high res 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus display and a back and front camera megapixel total of 10, it would have taken a slice of solid silver to match up match up on the outside.

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As it turns out, the ergonomics and aesthetics are by no means bad but it’s far from the sexiest phone you’ve ever held. It’s seriously thin - the thinnest, in fact, at 8.49mm - and so light and unobtrusive, both in your fingers and your pocket, that it’s easy to forget quite how big that screen is. And that’s very much to this device’s credit, but the fact remains that it’s not a work of art; not a stunner, and when you’re set to meet the most sought after phone of the year, it’s a pity when it looks like the rest of the crowd.

What’s more, it has an obvious plasticy kind of feel. Not only is there no nice, solid metal for that luxury touch but it also sports that flimsy back cover which you need to dig you nails under from all angles to open up which seems all the rage these days - and the most common complaint of the original Samsung Galaxy S. On the plus side, once you get it off, there’s a small bonus that you can switch SIMs without having to take the battery out. We did say “small”.

Thankfully, Samsung has been more careful about what it has put on the surface of the device and the watchword here is “minimal”. In the ports department, there are just the two. You’d be forgiven for wondering where the HDMI-out was located when faced with just a 3.5mm jack on one end of the phone and what looks like a standard Micro-USB on the other. However, the latter of those also has MHL technology (mobile high-definition link) behind it as well.

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What this means is that it can be used as a standard USB to transfer data and charge but also connected to your TV where it will send HD video and audio too. Currently that needs to be done with an adaptor but MHL cables with a Micro-USB plug at one end and an HDMI at the other are hitting the market very soon. Interestingly, TVs are also arriving that will pass back power so that you can charge up your mobile phone while it’s plugged in as well. Of course, if you’d rather not mess around with any of that, there’s the excellent Samsung All Share DLNA functionality tucked in along with a handful of other pre-installed apps. 

The upshot of all this is that the Samsung Galaxy S II has fewer holes in it which both looks better and is also, ultimately, slightly less confusing. Our only gripe would be that having the 3.5mm jack on the top edge of the device is slightly more awkward for headphone cables than if it plugged into the bottom but Samsung is not alone on this choice. That aside, all you get is a very small power button located on the side of the device and a volume rocker on the other. We could take issue with the fact that the on/off is a bit titchy, a bit easy to accidentally press and that a mechanical shutter release might have been nice but we seriously doubt that any of that is going to hamper your experience of the phone.

What might get in the way though is that TouchWiz 4.0 custom UI from Samsung that sits between the user and pure Android 2.3 Gingerbread. It would be unfair to pass judgement on the exact impact here given our relatively short time with the phone. A custom UI with all of its widgets and skins is something you need to live with for a few days to decide whether it adds or detracts from what is already a good mobile phone OS. 

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The quick impression is of Android but not quite. If you’re used to the vanilla experience, you can find your way around most of the time but not all the settings and menus are quite where or how you expect them to be. The app grid rolls left to right instead of up and down, there’s a different permanent set of short cuts at the bottom of the screen and it also features hubs - a music hub, books hub, games hub and social hub. Now this is no bad thing on principle but it’s an idea that’s somewhat hamstrung by the fact that you need a data connection to access them. So, that means no gaming, no music, no reading and no social networking unless you’re online - at least through the hubs anyway. And if you end up accessing these four media via another method half the time, then it really undermines the point of having the hubs in the first place. Like we say though, we’ll leave it for the full review before making our decision on TouchWiz.

What we did have plenty of time to play with was the camera and we’re pleased to say that the on-phone experience of both video shooting and stills capture was a very good one. The first thing that hits you is that there is plenty of options. More than just the odd bit of exposure adjustment, there’s a hat-full of shooting modes - Beauty Shot, Panorama Shot, Smile Shot, Action Shot - plus a bunch of filters, but what’s great to see is the more in-depth tinkering you can do with choosing how the phone focuses in terms of whether it’s spot, centre or whole frame weighted plus a decent face recognition system as well.

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Most pleasing of all though was the simple inclusion of a sunlight mode which means that you can jack the screen brightness up to maximum at the touch of an in-camera button to give you at least a chance of seeing what it is you’re trying to shoot. While we’re on the subject of the screen, the 800 x 480 pixel Super AMOLED Plus display was definitely promising but with our First Look time set outside in direct sunlight on beautiful, cloudless day, we’ll have to save the details of the blacks, whites and the depth and realism of the colour production for another time. Similarly, it’ll be the full review which will properly reveal the imaging results but we’ve certainly been impressed so far and we don’t expect the Full HD 1080p video at 30fps to let us down either.

As one of a new breed of smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S II comes with a dual core 1.2GHz processor as well as an impressive enough GPU (once Samsung has actually confirmed whether it’s the Tegra 2 system or not that we’ll be getting) and a whole 1GB of RAM to back it all up. We have to say that it really didn’t feel a lot different to what you get under the hood of, say, the HTC Desire HD from our time. Now that doesn’t mean that it’s not there or that it won’t kick in under stress but flicking through the apps or from one homescreen to another is just as ordinary as any other Android device. In fact, if we had to call it, it actually felt a little more sluggish than the Nexus One but that’s very possibly down to the UI, live wallpaper, the sheer number of shortcuts and widgets on the desktop or that fact that it was a pre-release model. Rest assured we’ll be stripping it down to the raw experience, doing some heavy gaming and trying to multitask as many apps as we can when we get the device in for full review.

Price when reviewed:
Dependent on contract

There’s a lot that needn’t be wrong with the Samsung Galaxy S II that appears to be once you pick it up. While the aesthetics and ergonomics are just something that you’ll have to live with the pay off is the knowledge that you’ve got something of supreme power cradled in your palms. There might be a few obstacles before you can unleash all of that grunt but between the camera, the chipset, connectivity options, the vast 32GB internal phone memory and the top end screen, it’s most definitely there. The beauty, of course, about Android is that you can set this phone up exactly as you want it and so dispense with just about all the experience annoyances that you might find. We’re looking forward to doing just that.

Photos by Rik Henderson, from the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S II at Mobile World Congress.