A couple of weeks with Samsung’s widescreen smartphone introduced John Stokdyk to the world of Android.
As with the Nokia Lumia Windows phone we looked at last month, this review is based on a particular smartphone, Samsung’s Galaxy SII, but will end up being as much about the Android operating and online “ecosystem” that supports it.
The device itself is bigger and flatter than an iPhone or the Lumia by about 20-30%. The extra screen space is welcome, but as my colleague Dan Martin joked when he first tried it, “It’s a bit big for a phone”.
That’s the trouble with hybrid phone/tablet devices - it’s hard to define what should be the right size and for the moment Apple’s iPhone has set the expected template. The 4.3in Gorilla glass touchscreen is really, really impressive and great for on-screen typing, even if this makes it a bit unwieldy as a handset, as Dan suggested.
There’s no doubt the Galaxy SII is a multimedia thoroughbred, but it’s also a high maintenance device. Even without hammering the phone and media facilities, the battery started demanding attention after around three hours. The remarkable thinness lends a slight feel of flimsiness. No mobile is going to benefit from being bounced on the floor, but this baby gives the impression of needing to be handled with kid gloves.
The Google ecosystem
Having put the Windows phone through an online collaboration test, the natural next step is to compare it to the Android/Google experience.
I wasn’t so keen on the overall composition and structure of the Android interface. The Galaxy’s home screen (right) is cobbled together with bits and pieces of different widgets and not as consistent or logical as iOS.
Most of us already have a Google account of some form, and are familiar with its interface capabilities and navigation. Android pulls you seamlessly into this universe - but in that arrogant, “you will do as you are told” way that is so common in modern software. The phone happily accepted my normal Google ID and password, but as I was registering with Gmail I realised it was setting me up with a different user name and wouldn’t link to my existing Google resources (Docs, Google+ and Analytics).
When I did manage to sort it out, all of my Google accounts defaulted to a new, unwanted gmail address, with which I am now stuck for life, it appears.
But the Android app market was easy to access and use and before long I had downloaded the Google Docs app and was off and running.
Because it’s a web-based environment that places a lighter load on the client device, the Android Google Docs app trounces Microsoft Office on a Windows smartphone.
The interface is simple and clean, and takes you straight into your personal and shared Google files - including any that you may have collected using Google Notebook. That made me think again about how I might use that tool and made me realise how useful the Galaxy could be as a mobile research tool. With the free Google Goggles app, you can even take a photo of an article and convert it into text that you can then paste into another app on the phone.
Seeing the chaos of my Google file organisation in a new way made me realise that I needed to do some housekeeping, but this was something that I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) attempt on the phone - better to do that at more leisure with access to the full browser view of Google Docs.
Another disappointment was the spreadsheet implementation within the app. When I clicked a cell, there was no way to see its full contents, That’s just one of the many shortcomings apparent to Excel users, but at least the Google version gives you full access to the app and its capabilities from the phone or web.
It was even possible to switch between the two, or to take a document offline to work on when the phone was out of signal range. The concept is exemplary, even if I encountered some teething troubles. You need to anticipate ahead of time when you might need to switch the document to offline mode, and I encountered a couple of Google server errors switching back and forth as the train I was on passed through tunnels and signal blackspots south of London.
There are other irritations involved: why does the font size and line spacing keep changing in Google Docs files when you work on them on and offline? And a phone-based spell checker would be nice, too. In spite of the limitations, I ended up writing around half of this review on the Galaxy SII. It was very handy to take down notes, fire off emails, catch up with videos and music favourites (oops, I meant to say CPD podcasts) while on the move. I’m confident that with more time and attention to configuration issues, I could do around 80% of my job remotely with Android-powered Galaxy SII. That is not something I could say about my BlackBerry Curve 8900.
● Screen size and clarity - great for games/video, and typing
● High quality 8 megapixel camera
● Good integration with online files using Google Docs app
● Growing stable of Android apps.
What we didn’t like
● Needs frequent battery recharges
● Android interface isn’t as slick as iPhone’s
● Minor niggles and shortcomings in Google Apps
● Using Gmail from phone means Google takes over your online life.
For more info, visit Samsung UK
This review was conducted using a trial Vodafone UK Business package. The Samsung Galaxy SII is available free with Vodafone plans starting from £30 a month.