SAMSUNG GALAXY S II – REAL USER REVIEW PART 3: MEDIA

So today we’re jumping straight to covering media the media prowess of the SGSII in terms of consumption (the camera review is still to follow). Usually reviews would cover things like device setup, user interface, and telephony here, but I’m going to take a little more time with those before gathering my thoughts to write about them. I’ve taken about a dozen calls on the phone so far, and also changed the launcher to LauncherPro Plus, so it would be an utter fabrication if I were to venture any opinions on those areas at this point.

Now in terms of evaluating the audio quality of the phone I have to set the appropriate context, that context being my own limitations as a listener. I think my ear is above average, nearly twenty years of playing guitar certainly helps there, but I am definitely no audiophile. While I’m in complete disclosure mode: I have some high frequency hearing loss from guitar and concert attendances over the years, and I don’t own a set of audiophile headphones. What does all that mean? Well, basically, audiophiles should move right along, my ear isn’t up to advising you about whether you’ll be happy with this phone. Ask Supercurio for information, and read this thread at XDA http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1053978 . Most everyone who isn’t an audiophile will be happy enough with the SGSII audio quality, and those same readers will likely find my take on the sound quality is pitched at the right level.

So…

AUDIO QUALITY

I should point out here that the SGSII does not use the fantastic Wolfson DAC that is found in its forebear, Samsung instead went with a Yamaha one this time. Is it as good as the Galaxy S with Voodoo Sound? Heck no. But then in the mobile phone world nothing is. I do think it’ll be fine for most people, even if their intent is to use the SGSII as their main music player.

The stock media player isn't exactly flush with cool visualisations, and Samsung - what happened to the eye candy disc view?

Judging from the mixed feedback at the thread I linked to above it seems some people with higher-end headsets will be extremely disappointed, whereas others will find it at least adequate for their needs. I can only suggest that audiophiles try one out with their headset of choice, rather than gambling on an SGSII without having had an ‘ears-on’ experience. If it isn’t up to your standards then you’ll have to hope that Supercurio can whip something up, although he seems somewhat pessimistic about the odds of this for the time being.

For non-audiophiles the main criticism seems to be levelled at the volume output through headphones, but that is far from a universal complaint. I have to wonder about whether these people have damaged their hearing previously with loud music through headphones, because at full volume I have no trouble with background noise, and it’s even a bit uncomfortably loud for my ears. But whatever the case, it’s something to be aware of.

There are a couple of worthwhile things you can do to tinker with its output that I’ll mention here, for people who have already taken the plunge and are finding it a bit lacklustre. The first is PowerAMP, Android’s best music player. It has a pre-amp that will boost the volume output a noticeable, if not massive, amount, and also a good customisable EQ. There is also a good guide for getting more granular control over audio output here: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1068660 .

List and Now Playing Screens, a selection of sound effects available

SPEAKER QUALITY

First of all, let me vent: if you listen to music in public from your mobile phone, you are probably very interested in this segment. You are also an idiot. Stop subjecting your fellow commuters to your (usually terrible) taste in music. Where on earth do you get your over-weaning sense of entitlement from? How about showing a little consideration, OK?

Right, now that’s said, let’s move on. While I do not advocate listening to music from your cellphone speaker in most scenarios, the speaker remains an important aspect of any handset. Will you hear your ringtone/notification sounds with the phone in your pocket, or in loud environments? Can you watch the occasional Youtube video, or use the speaker for voice navigation, and still hear the audio if there is some background noise?

The speaker directs the sound away from you when viewing the screen, not the ideal arrangement!

Hopefully you’ve got some realistic expectations (in editing I noted that this is not the most artful segue into criticism I’ve ever seen). It’s a mono speaker, and it’s housed within a very light phone, that also happens to be the slimmest Droid out there. Hope you weren’t expecting a lot of warmth and bass response from it – it’s not even remotely close to knocking the Nokia 5800 off its perch in the speaker-phone stakes.

That said, in the Android realm it stacks up pretty well, particularly versus HTCs extremely anaemic, tinny, and shrill sounding speakers. It’s louder than its predecessor, which was already one of the better Droids in this regard, if lacking a little in warmth and bass in comparison.

As I mentioned in the first part it’s recessed a little further into the body than the Galaxy S speaker, and it is situated in a part of the casing that is not removable. The recessing helps a little to prevent it being muffled when placed facing down on something like a cushion, but seems likely to collect dust that will be difficult to remove.

Bottom line, it’s good enough for what it should really be used for, but if you were hoping for a great loudspeaker to crank your tunes out of, save yourself a big wad of dough and go buy a 5800.

MEDIA PLAYBACK – AUDIO

The new Thumbnail view

So the stock player here is Samsung’s own one, the same one you’ll see iterated across their Android and Bada OS lines. It’s actually pretty good, coming with a customisable EQ, various sound effect environs to tweak its output sound, wide-codec support, music controls in the notifications tray and on the stock lockscreen, all packaged neatly in a visually appealing interface (although one that is missing the eye candy disc view from the Galaxy S version of the player). Last year it was widely lauded as one of the best to be found in the Android realm, but sadly time has moved on, and the Samsung music player hasn’t really.

There are a few improvements here and there, for example there is now a persistent link in the UI to either the List or Now Playing views, and some of the minor bugs have been dealt to.

The improvements are really just minor tweaks though, they haven’t really advanced the music player at all, and even worse, some of the most maddening bugs remain. It still can’t read genre tags properly, and unfortunately third party music apps take their cue from the inbuilt tag management, so there’s no relief to be had there either. There still isn’t a music widget available for your homescreens, which is utterly baffling. It isn’t really social network aware like others either, for example the Motorola player with its support for LastFM, amongst a host of other services.

In terms of features that could have advanced the player to lift above its manufacturer-stock contemporaries it could have done with things like crossfading, gapless playback, more options around automated actions on headset insertion/removal, folder playback, and a better music indexing system than what stock Android offers (I’d love to not have to wait for media scanning to complete before I’m able to listen to music, please Samsung?).

Lockscreen controls, Notification tray controls, customisable EQ, all present in the stock player

I had a lot of people asking about FLAC playback, and I can confirm that it will play FLAC files just fine (and so will all the third party players I’ve tried on the SGSII – PowerAMP, and the Fede’s Music alpha), but like the Galaxy S it seems to have trouble with reading tags correctly. After ripping to FLAC with Exact Audio Copy, and then embedding album art and checking tags with mp3tag, my SGSII just cannot read genre tags in FLAC files. I’ve not seen any regular FLAC listeners posting solutions to the problem in any of the usual online forums, so if you’re one of them be prepared to have some on-going niggle with your tags if you pick up the SGSII.

If you’ve not owned an Android phone before, you’re probably looking at everything I’ve just said and are wondering how I could possibly have said this would suit most people for their day-to-day music player further up the review. Good thing for Samsung here is that this is not some walled garden, where you’re stuck with using the manufacturer’s solutions. This is Android. Don’t like something? Change it.

Fede's Music

I’d recommend stumping up the cash for PowerAMP, I think it’s the best music player for Android, and it has lots of the things I’ve mentioned are missing or broken in the stock player. WinAMP is another good option that I’ve used, particularly for users of its desktop solution, although it lacks a lot of theoptions present in PowerAMP. There is also a newcomer that seems like a great addition to the world of Android music players – it’s currently in alpha with a working title of “Fede’s Music”. It comes from the developer of LauncherPro, and he’s pure class, so you can expect great on-going support for the app. It’s already very usable in its alpha form, and you may have seen it at Engadget already, in all its Zune-alike glory. For features it’s still quite limited, but then it’s alpha software, so that’s to be expected. If you want eye candy I’d have to rate this player very highly. Of course there are a myriad of other options, try them out and report back which ones suit you best!

MEDIA PLAYBACK – VIDEO

You’ve probably read a little on other reviews about the video playback, it’s uniformly been reported as excellent. It is. In fact I would go so far as to say its peerless in the mobile phone world, and by a large margin (its nearest competitor being original Galaxy S as it happens, followed closely by Nokia’s N8). There are several reasons it deserves accolades: the codec support is unmatched, for watching video on the phone screen it is unmatched, subtitle support, options for changing colour temperature, and it has DLNA and MHL HDMI out to cover connection to your HD television (and since it easily plays even 1080p content you’ll really value these options, more on that to come early next week!).

Now that I’ve thrown some deserved superlatives in the general direction of video playback in the SGSII, it’s time to temper it a little with a discussion of its limitations also. Its codec support is not universal, just light years better than anything competitors have yet brought to the market. There is some great discussion around this at XDA-developers – the thread with the most helpful information is here, http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1054962&highlight=mkv*, and test results for various formats are compiled into some nice tables here, http://www.auby.no/files/video_tests/ (thanks to Xero Xenith, DesktopMan, and Lobaba for providing some nice information). If you look at the table and feel disappointed, please be aware some of these were never expected to work – the tests were designed to really try and test the SGSII to the limits – some of those files are difficult for  desktops to playback!

1080p in a variety of codecs? Sorted. Colour tone settings are nice!

I should also point out here that there are a number of wide-codec video players available from the Android Market, so if your video doesn’t play its worth trying out a few of these apps. I currently have Rockplayer, mVideoplayer, and Moboplayer installed on my SGSII. They’re worth having as they can use software decoding to play video, and each tends to playback some things the stock player won’t. You may be aware that software decoding is generally a poor solution compared to using hardware accelerated video decoding, but with a gig of RAM and the dual-core CPU, it’s surprisingly good in the SGSII. A good example would be the VP6 and VP6 alpha files I was requested to test by a former – I can confirm that while they will not play in the stock player, they played at a solid 30fps in Rockplayer with software decoding.

BROWSER

Overall the browser for me is fantastic. I’d rate it the best mobile browsing experience you can currently have, and that’s even in spite of one very annoying flaw which I’ll come to later.

It’s the Android browser, already one of the best out there, on a 4.3 inch screen with excellent display characteristics, and it’s not afflicted with the pentile induced indistinct text of its predecessor. But it’s more than all of that too. On the SGSII browser you will find the best flash performance you’ve ever seen in a mobile. 1080p flash in your browser? No problem. Heck, it’s not even a problem to run several browser windows simultaneously playing 1080p flash content (users have posted videos to Youtube with as many as 20 windows open playing high definition flash

Sunspider browser benchmark

content). It outperforms my 2 year old laptop for high definition flash playback. If you missed that statement, or it didn’t fully register: it outperforms my 2 year old laptop for high definition flash playback. That’s a massive achievement, and one that puts a decided damper on my Android tablet browsing experience, with its decidedly patchy flash playback. Pinch zooming is brilliantly smooth, thanks in part to a trick borrowed from the iOS browser – not dynamically rendering the page until pinch zooming is complete. Zipping around the page is also lightning quick and very smooth. In fact it’s really hard to fault its general performance at all.

But there is that one flaw I mentioned… It doesn’t dynamically reflow text as you pinch zoom. Double tap to zoom and reflow is present, and with default zoom set to close in the browse settings it’s nearly always good enough, but there are those times when you just really want very precise control over the text size. In the Galaxy S you can enable it in settings by enabling auto-fit webpages, but alas that doesn’t work for me here. In fact I’ve not found a way to enable it at all, despite using every permutation of browser settings I can think of, including the extended browser settings you can enable by entering about:debug in the URL field in the browser. Some users report that they have managed it, but I’ve not been able to reproduce their results with their settings, and I don’t (yet) know whether there are any material differences between their firmware or kernels and my own that can account for that. All in all that’s not the worst failing out there. I tend to think it grates inordinately because everything else is so good.

One quick tip to users frustrated by the browser defaulting to the mobile user agent for websites – type about:useragent into the URL bar and hit enter. You’ll see a menu pop up asking you which user agent you want, there are several options, one of which is desktop. It’s not a bad idea to bookmark about:useragent, since whichever setting you chose won’t persist past a fresh boot.

If you’re not into the Android browser, there are of course many others. Consensus seems to be that the main front runners are Opera Mobile, and Dolphin HD. If you’re a dedicated Firefox desktop user you may even find Firefox Mobile worth a try. On my Galaxy S it just ran too slow and hogged too many resources, to be very usable. On the SGSII however, where we have resources to burn, I’ve found it very good. With the added speed on offer in the SGSII the full benefits of its superior tab management, Firefox sync, and extensions can be properly taken advantage of.

I’m not going to produce a video demonstrating the browser; there are literally hundreds on Youtube to be viewed. I have however taken the liberty of giving you a few to look at here.

SUMMARY

The SGSII is a media and browsing monster. Like any handset out there it has niggles and flaws, but the overall package here outdoes anything else on the market. Thats not to say its for everyone by any means, some of the compromises may exclude it from those with particular needs – I’m thinking mostly of audiophiles who don’t have another dedicated music player here – but for the vast majority of us this handset represents the current peak for browsing and media.

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About Murray

Otherwise known as NZtechfreak, Murray is our blogger from New Zealand. Devoted to technology there isn't much he does not know about rooting your phone or putting it through its paces.

Always wanting the very latest product Murrary writes reviews that put others to shame. His review of the media on the device will be as long as most peoples review of the device in full!

Comments

  1. As per usual if readers have questions please fire away!

    In particular, if there are any pet video codecs you want tested please let me know now, and supply me with an example clip to try out (a legal example clip please!). I will be putting together a video demonstrated playback of many codecs very soon!

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