Samsung Galaxy S II real user review–Part Two–GPS

imageYes, this is part two of the review (part one HERE), and yes, it only covers GPS.

Why cover one narrow feature so early in the review, and why give it such a large focus? If you’re asking those questions, you’ve never been a Galaxy S owner. When I canvassed the tech forums finding out what people wanted to know about the SGSII, the question in the forefront of nearly everyone’s mind was “Is the GPS fixed?”

You see, the first Galaxy S had problems with its GPS, rather large problems as it happens. While it could get a lock in an adequate timeframe, albeit slower than nearly every GPS-enabled handset I’ve owned since the N95, it just couldn’t hold it well enough to be relied upon. As a consequence, navigation was a rather painful experience at times. This was particularly evident in areas with densely packed and winding streets – your position would jump from street to neighbouring street continuously, triggering route recalculations each time. The result? Garbage voice guidance, confusion, frustration. Trying to do GPS-based tasks like sports-tracking, or geocaching that require even more accuracy? Forget about it.

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p>So onto the big question, does GPS work properly in the SGSII? For my part I’m going to say yes, although I see reports in various forums that not everyone is having a happy experience. It is extremely difficult to advise prospective buyers about the GPS performance given the presence of conflicting opinions, even though those reporting problems are in a relative minority. So, what I’m going to do here is talk about my experience, and also provide as much raw data as possible, and let you decide whether the SGSII GPS will suffice.

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p>Example track

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p>NOTES ON GPS

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p>Firstly, let’s have a quick education session on GPS tracking. You need to know that civilian GPS units are restricted compared to their military counterparts. While a military GPS can place itself within a foot, a civilian unit’s maximum accuracy is around 3 metres. There are a few other things that have a bearing on GPS performance that you need to be aware of too – needing a clear view to the sky, atmospheric conditions, and the presence of tall buildings or trees near the unit. Indoors, on overcast days, or when surrounded by tall buildings or trees, GPS performance is degraded.

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p>As you might have gathered from the background on the Galaxy S GPS woes, there is more to a good GPS lock than just initial lock speed – maintaining a good lock over time is also important. If anything, it’s much more important. That’s why most of the coverage around GPS so far has been woefully lacking (Engadget, I’m looking at you!). You can tell the reviewers don’t really get the concerns with the Galaxy S GPS, and you have to wonder whether they really used the GPS functions much at all in their test period. I’ve been using the GPS continuously for a week now, and while I’ll grant you this doesn’t represent a massive sample size, there hasn’t really been much variability within this period, so I feel comfortable that I have enough of a handle to make some reasonably informed commentary.

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p>INITIAL LOCKSPEED

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p>In terms of lock speed (bearing in mind that I always have A-GPS enabled, which uses cell tower position data to speed lock times, and uses a small amount of cellular data to do so), I can happily report that my first lock took only around 25 seconds. Subsequent locks have consistently clustered around the 7 second mark, sometimes a few seconds quicker if the GPS has been recently used, and only rarely a few seconds slower in adverse conditions.

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p>LOCK STRENGTH

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p>Ok, so this one is for all the marbles – how well does the SGSII maintain a lock? In my experience: very well. Using GPS Test the lock accuracy tends to fluctuate a bit initially, but then settles quickly. In the video attached to the review you’ll see that accuracy tends to lie in the 4-10m range, with the line of best fit showing good accuracy, however in less GPS-adverse conditions it sits very solidly around the 4-6m mark (see here http://db.tt/Yimn0Yu, here , and here , for some more GPS test videos – their accuracy is better than the main video, and fluctuations relate to overhead bridges and trees etc). For navigation purposes this is perfectly fine, however those with specific requirements requiring accuracy consistently around the 4m mark may need to look elsewhere. To back all this up I’ve got some illustrative screenshots taken from Google’s free ‘My Tracks’ software. Furthermore, I have many full tracks available for you to peruse at your leisure. In order to view them, you need to copy the following links into Google Maps in your browser and search for them there.

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-16%201617.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-16%201236.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-16%200723.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-13%200732.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-12%201637.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-12%201616.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-11%202111.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-11%201736.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-11%201503.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-11%200742.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-10%202028.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-10%201843.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-10%201622.kml

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p>http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21839423/2011-05-17%201241.kml

<

p>(this last one is the My Tracks route from the video, taken on the same trip as the GPS Test data)

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p>In terms of context, it’s worth noting a few things about the tracks. The phone is sitting under the windshield in its car mount, it has a good clear view to the sky in that position (you can see exactly where in the video below). Also, in their favour, is the relative lack of tall structures surrounding the routes shown. The tracks were mostly taken with an overcast sky – that just happens to be what May has served me up over here so far. There are other things you can’t know unless you were in the car with me – that corner I swung wide on because a car was parked close, that corner where I cut the apex because I’m a bad man and didn’t slow down for the corner, and so forth.

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p>If you look at them in Google Maps in the map view, and then in satellite view, you will often notice slight discrepancy between the positions of roads. I have no idea if one of them is more accurate than the other. Furthermore, the satellite imagery is quite old. For example, those bits where it looks like I’m driving in water beside the bridge, I’m actually on the bridge extension that was completed around nine months ago, and the tracking is just fine. Newsflash: Google Maps is not perfect.

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p>image

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p>VIDEO

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p>Up next is a short video taken in the car, recorded with a Galaxy S cunningly positioned besides the drivers’ headrest with a gorillapod to capture the action. I drove the route twice, and what you will see is the first trip in the main window of the video, two smaller windows, one with video of Google Navigation running during that same trip, and another showing GPS Test data over the same route on a second trip. The onscreen videos, or screencasts, were captured using the Root application ShootMe. If you’re worried that I used Root privileges to use apps like FasterFix to cheat the GPS test, let me put your mind at ease – besides having an insecure kernel to allow Rooting, my SGSII is completely stock. All I’ve done with Root privileges is restore apps with Titanium Backup (seriously, no way was I grinding through Gun Bros again to get a half decent weapon), and install ShootMe to facilitate screencasting. There is no trickery or sleight of hand going on here: I’ve not done anything to improve GPS performance.

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p>CONCLUSION

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p>So far my experience of the GPS has been peachy. For navigation, I feel confident to say that the SGSII is just fine. Those of you with special GPS-related interests, such as sports tracking, or geocaching, will need to take stock of everything I’ve shown and draw your own conclusions.

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p>I’ll be interested to hear your feedback on your own SGSII GPS experience, your criticisms of my methodology, suggestions for other tests to conduct, and, well, whatever else you have to say. I’m under no illusions that my methods are perfect, or that there isn’t some other really good way to illustrate the GPS function that I’ve neglected, so don’t fume at me in silence – have your say! If people have great suggestions for additional tests I will try and do them, providing they are not unreasonably onerous, and I will take criticisms onboard for future reviews. At the very least I promise to put in more effort than this.

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p>See you next time for a run down on media and browsing!

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p>PS: There are two text-to-speech engines in the SGSII – Samsung TTS and Pico TTS. The Samsung TTS has a much more pleasant, less robotic, voice, but if you enable it you will lose the reading of street names in Google Navigation!

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Comments

  1. Iain Buckley (buxz777) says:

    brilliant round up on gps there mate one of the best i have seen …… ever . Very detailed and for people who rely on gps on phones this review is pure class and extremley handy :-) i already have the handset but i am sure 1000s will find this very very usefull mate :-)

  2. you do know that the sammy S2 has screencapture built in?

    • Of course, but it doesn’t have screencasting, which is what ShootMe was used for. For straight screenshots I use the inbuilt functionality…

  3. Easily the best phone GPS review I’ve seen. Someone who actually understands the vagaries of phone GPS, how it’s used, and what’s required to verify accurate, consistent results. And then making the considerable effort to compile and post these results. Very much appreciated.

  4. John Meikle says:

    After a delay in delivery and a couple minor glitches with Internet/Wi-Fi connections I’m up and running. Pleased with the GS2 performance and looks. A special thanks to the Clove team with instant positive help to an old coddger.

  5. Ben (Scooby) says:

    Hi NZ,
    The BEST GPS roundup for a phone – bar none !
    Anyone holding off the upgrade path from SGS to SGS2 due to GPS concerns, needs to be directed here – end of ;)
    Totally agree that other sites do not always seem to be in sync and cover what their readership really want to know.
    Already have the handset, but good job, and looking forward to reading more.

  6. SteveJobsPoo says:

    Please get rid of that giant cable jack on the top? F-style jacks are very cheap.

  7. Could you test the TTFF without A-GPS, i.e. the time to first fix in autonomous GPS mode, when there are no known cell towers and wifi access points in range? The easiest way to test this is by enabling airplane mode (and clearing any cached location data). But you could also test it by going to one of the many beautiful, remote NZ valleys :-)

  8. Excellent GPS review! Lots of evidence to back up your opinions, which I really like.

    I’m interested in seeing how well this device does around tall buildings (at least 10 stories tall). I couldn’t find any in your tracks, but you did mention that there aren’t many tall building in the area. Oh well, I guess I’ll find out after I get this device. Hopefully us Canucks won’t have to wait too much longer. :)

    Can’t wait for the rest of your SGSII reviews!

    • Hopefully I can update with some information on performance around tall buildings, it’ll degrade performance, but can’t say how much. I think next Wednesday I’m in the CBD, and while still not that many tall buildings compared to lots of overseas cities will probably give a bit on an idea.

  9. Looks like the recent KE7 update includes some nice fixes, including better GPS accuracy. Any plans on running a few more tests with the new firmware?

  10. Thanks for this great review.
    I am most interested in hearing more about battery life (I know you are planning to elaborate on that) and sunlight legibility. You posted a very short comment in the first part, so if it is possible, please elaborate on that. Comparison to iphone4, real life gps navigation (for example, is it possible to fix the Galaxy s2 to the handle of your bicycle on a really sunny day, and still comfortably view google maps while doing so?)

  11. Will definitely be elaborating on battery life and more on sunlight legibility (which I’m finding good, but I’m not sure about bike mounting – I don’t have a bike mount for it to test that out…

  12. Beowulf says:

    Good one. I owned the Galaxy S 16GB and returned it after almost a month due to the pathetic GPS. It was useless and no fixes or ROMs ever solved the problem. A mix of firmware and hardware mess.

    I recovered 599€ but am now very doubtful about spending my money or another Samsung product again, especially this close to the first Galaxy generation.

    But from your review it seems they seem to have fixed the GPS issues. Perhaps I’ll risk getting one.

  13. Very good review. What security features does SG2 come with, how does it compare to those available on a blackberry?

  14. Great GPS review! I am a bushwalker, and eager to hear more about time to first fix — and overall functionality in autonomous GPS mode (when out of range of cell phone towers and WiFi). Is autonomous mode even enabled on the Galaxy S2?

  15. Superstar says:

    Hi there, friends!

    I own a Samsung Galaxy S II and I am having problem with the VOICE COMMAND app. It just does not take any command! How to start that app? When I say “Hey Galaxy” nothing happens! Also, I’m confused about the Voice Input & Output Settings. When you open this Setting, under the heading, “Voice recognition”, there are two options, Samsung powered by Vlingo and Google. Which one to choose out of these two?

    Next, under the heading, “Text To Speech settings” you have an option to choose the Default Engine. There is a choice between Samsung TTS and Pico TTS. Which one to choose? And does the choice depend on which Voice Input method I have chosen earlier between Samsung powered by Vlingo and Google?

    I also have problem with the Voice Recorder app. When the record button is pressed, it fails to detect sound and does not record, the app closes with an error. But sometimes it works perfectly fine. Have the same problem with Voice Tagging of my Contacts. So the problem with the phone is that it sometimes detects Voice Inputs and sometimes it doesn’t. What exactly is the problem? Pls help!!

  16. Superstar says:

    Another problem is that the phone does not ring some times when an incoming call comes. Sometimes it rings, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s totally random. Could it be because of some app? I have around 150 apps installed on my phone. Pls Help!!!

  17. Hey guys i need a help.My galaxy s2 finds satelites but cant lock any of them so i dont know what to do.i tried loads of applications .. any idea ? ?

    • Same with me, it randomly picks up and drops multiple satellites without ever getting a lock!
      I feel like picking up my Nokia N8 again because of this and multiple other reasons which I wont go into….

  18. I have a question, would the GPS in SGSII still work, even if you dont have a simcard on it? And would it also work even if your in Asia?

    • The GPS chip will work without a SIM card and in ASIA no problem. The issue is navigation. Google maps requires a data connection so without a SIM it can not get this. If you used an app like co-pilot you would not need data or a SIM card for the device.

  19. My S2 GPS won’t work at aircraft speeds, which is disappointing. My Nokia N95 was excellent in aircraft.

  20. One of the best GPS reviews that I have read.

  21. Yeah Rowan you are right! My co-pilot has the S2 and as soon as we are climbing through about 10000feet, he looses gps lock and renders the gps useless!!! I think it is to do with loosing cell signal than the aircraft speed… My HTC is always up and running! A million times better phone IMHO… Cant believe the gps in S2 wont work in plane… pathetic!

  22. I have just brought a SSS2 for my wife and one for me. We both use the GPS function with googlemaps and hers works perfectly. Mine on the otherhand is almost always showing my position as being about 3km from where I am (nearly always the same wrong place). It occassionally gets it right but has at times been 20km out. Is there something that I might have wrong in my settings, or maybe a conflicting app, that makes it so bad?

  23. I bought this phone 2 months ago – GPS achieved just a lock, twice, and failed close to 50 times in that time. It is useless – completely. Had I known I would have stayed with the HTC Evo.

  24. My SS2 navigates fine, but I do not get voice commands. Is this something AT&T is blocking or do I have wrong settings. I always got voice commands with my Vz “droid eris”.
    Great website and nav review

    • Chris Ward says:

      Hi Richard. What software are you using for navigation? If it is Google Maps, it may be that you need to open the navigation app rather than the google maps app.

  25. I also have issues with the voice GPS instruction on my new Samasung Galaxy S2…I have tried both ways..Maps and then GPS but each time the voice instruction starts..e g..take certain road and then turn into certain road…then the voice instruction stops altogether…maps continue fine..but no sound at all

  26. sg2 . i like latitude but i dose not always work. i had to install smaartfriendfinder in order for it to work . i do not know why but it works fine now. it almost look like google maps and latitude do not work in the backround. but this program keeps my gps open and latitude works fine. latitude is a big problem fir all android users.. we all like it but it dose not always work. is there a way to keep the gps on always without it going to sleep i dont care about batter i have the extended pack so i have plenty of batter. it looks like when the gps is on it works in seconds. thank you if u can help

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