Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Samsung Galaxy S II: First Impressions & Tweaks


I broke my Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant yesterday... the phone just completely locked up. I was not too heartbroken, though. The Vibrant was a great phone, but the limited global availability of the GT-I9000M  (Bell, Virgin and SaskTel) limited the hacking/rooting potential - something I'm very keen on. Not many users = not many hacks. (And to be honest - I was itching for a new toy. I think I can revive the Vibrant eventually and sell it)

I knew I was eligible for a hardware upgrade on October 29, so I called SaskTel and pleaded: Will you let me upgrade two weeks early? Yes, they said! Immediately after work I bought a Samsung Galaxy S II (GT-I9100M) from Battery Boys on 8th Street. Samsung has sold millions of these phones already and there is a large, enthusiastic community of hackers hacking away to make them better.

First Impressions

This phone is FAST. The user interface is incredibly fluid and smooth - much more so than on the Vibrant. Finding and installing the ~30 essential apps that I had on my Vibrant took me all of a few minutes on a WiFi connection.

If you are a Vibrant owner (or have any other Android phone) and you upgrade to the SGS2, you may not notice any mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting changes in how you use the Android OS on a daily basis, but everything is just smoother and better. If the SGS2 is your first smartphone, you won't realize just how awesome it is compared to other devices.

Tweaks

I am a tweaker; I tweak. Switching to the SGS2 was awesome because other people have eliminated most of the risks and have written out great instructions. With lots of documentation and careful reading, there is virtually* no risk in modifying the phone.

*some

About 20 minutes after I opened the box, I decided to root the phone. "Rooting" for Android is more-or-less the same as "Jailbreaking" for iOS; it lifts any restrictions that the carrier (SaskTel) or manufacturer (Samsung) have on the device. The process was remarkably simple and fast - I was done in two minutes. I encourage new rooters to read and comprehend the first few posts in these threads (this, this) before attempting root. If you are unwilling to read, rooting is not for you!

After rooting I installed Titanium Backup. This app allows rooted users to uninstall some of the lame "bloatware" apps that waste space on your phone: AccuWeather, AllShare, Buddies Now, Days, Game/Music/Readers/Social Hub(s), Kobo, Mini Diary, Mini Paper, Music Hub, Polaris Office, Press Reader, Yahoo Finance, Zinio Reader. Titanium Backup can also back up these apps before you uninstall them - just in case you remove something critical to your phone (but all of the apps I listed are trash). Here's another list of apps that are "safe" to remove. Remember, just because you can remove them, doesn't mean you should.

Next I installed AdFree Android. This is a deep adblocker for rooted Android users - it doesn't just hide ads, it nullifies ad requests before they leave your phone - saving bandwidth and improving loading times of apps that have ads.

I also carrier-unlocked my phone with the app Galaxy_S Unlock. Again, this requires root. Carriers like SaskTel and Bell "lock" phones to their networks so you can't use them with other providers, should you decide to switch. Sometimes you can pay your carrier a fee to unlock your phone for you. I'm not switching from SaskTel anytime soon, but why shouldn't my phone be carrier-unlocked, and why should I pay to do it? :-)

Finally, there is an annoying "play a notification when the battery is done charging, even if it is 3AM and your phone is muted" setting programmed deep into all Galaxy S phones. I found a helpful post on xda-developers with instructions on how to erase the sound entirely for rooted users. No more 3AM wake-up notifications, hooray!

I am not quite ready to install custom ROMs on my SGS2 since that's how I broke my Vibrant. But lots of people are happily running custom ROMs on SGS2s, so I will get there eventually.

EDIT: October 13/2011
I found two more bugs (well, found discussions about them) that affect SGS2 users.

The first is a persistent but unnecessary process that sucks up a lot of CPU time, and drains the battery. If you press Menu on your homescreen to go into Settings -> About Phone -> Battery Usage and you see "Wi-Fi Sharing" as an app that consumes a significant (>2%) amount of your battery, you're affected. There is a long discussion here, but to summarize, you can use Titanium Backup to "freeze" the processes named "Wi-Fi Sharing" and "Wi-Fi Sharing Manager" to prevent them from running. Yes, root is required. This will not affect your phone's ability to use Wi-Fi or tether via Wi-Fi. This is a dumb Samsung process run amok, wasting your phone's resources.

The second is another persistent but unsolvable bug, as of today. If you go back into your Battery Usage menu and see a process called "Android OS" that's using a significant (>2%) amount of your phone's resources, you're affected. There is a long and geekily-fascinating discussion here, and users of xda-developers have narrowed down the cause to a bug in the Linux kernel. There is no sure fix yet.