AT&T Samsung Skyrocket review: The 4G LTE phone to get

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The Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket is one of the first smartphones from AT&T that supports 4G LTE and in this review, we’ll determine if this smartphone is just trying to ride off its 4G branding or if it really can go against devices like the iPhone 4S. The AT&T 4G LTE network is quite limited right now, so Samsung had to produce a solid device that could excel even without that extra-speedy network. Did it succeed? Read on to find out.

[Note: We don't have 4G LTE coverage in our coverage areas but the review will be updated shortly with that data.]

The Good
  • The Skyrocket is a well-designed device with a lot of horsepower.
  • The 8-megapixel camera is good even if I had a few niggles.
  • It can use AT&T's 4G LTE network.
The Bad
  • AT&T's 4G LTE network is only available in a handful of markets. Its 3G capabilities are fine but not "4G."
  • Some may be turned off by the plastic and how light it is.
  • The Galaxy S II is kind of an older phone but still quite good.

Hardware

As you would expect, the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket is similar in look and feel to the other Galaxy S II devices with a few tweaks. Unlike the AT&T Galaxy S II, the Skyrocket has a 4.5-inch screen, a boosted processor and a reworked back cover but at this point, you should know that the Galaxy S II devices are well-built, packed with power, visually pleasing and feel good in the hand. I'll dive in deeper into the specifics but this one does have the plastic back cover and the light feel which some have dubbed "cheap." I don't quite agree, as it boils down to design philosophy and personal preference.

Mainly due to the Apple iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S, many users associated high-end design with not having plastic and having more heft than Samsung generally puts in its phone. Samsung deliberately chooses plastic because it makes the phone lighter and more durable, in its opinion. Samsung employees routinely gripe to me off the record about the accolades Apple gets for its amazing design yet you often see many people with cracked iPhones. To Samsung, great design is also about its durability and the Skyrocket's back cover can also be folded in half and then snap back in position while being no worse for wear.

As for the lightness, that's another deliberate design decision from Samsung and thankfully, the Skyrocket is light but has just enough heft to feel right in your hand. I can't say if Samsung's design decisions are right or wrong, as it's ultimately a subjective opinion but I do like the look, feel and weight of the Skyrocket.

 

Design

The Samsung Skyrocket has a 4.5-inch Super AMOLED display with a 800 x 480 resolution and it's big, bright, responsible and beautiful. While the resolution isn't as high as some of the 720p phones out there and it doesn't pack the pixels per inch of the iPhone 4S, the Skyrocket's display is really nice and because of the slim bezel and thin overall form factor, it's pretty easy to operate with one hand on the go. The screen is pretty difficult to read within direct sunlight though.

That large screen takes up the bulk of the face and there are the four standard Android capacitive buttons underneath it to go with the Samsung branding. On top of the screen, there's an AT&T branding, a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, a notification light and the ear piece. On the right spine, there's only the power/unlock button and the top only has the standard headphone jack. The left spine has a single-piece volume rocker that works well and the microUSB port is on the bottom. I kind of miss that sliding port for the microUSB but it's a very smooth and simple design.

Even though you have a large screen, the device is pretty darn thin. We're not talking Droid Razr thin but it will easily fit into even the skinniest of hipster pocket. The back cover is a smooth dark grey/black and it feels nice in your hand. The back only has the "Galaxy S II" branding to go with the 8-megapixel camera and the LED flash. The battery door comes off easily to reveal the battery, SIM slot and microSD slot.

The design of the Skyrocket doesn't differ that much from what you'd expect from a Galaxy S II and I'm fine with that. If it ain't broke ...

Guts And Glory

ATInside the Samsung Skyrocket, you'll find a dual-core 1.5 GHz processor that makes using apps, playing games and watching videos a smooth experience. This has support for 4G LTE inside to go along with HSPA+, GPS, Bluetooth, NFC and more. It performs admirably save for a few bugs I had with some third-party apps I was testing but the Skyrocket pretty much has everything you'd want in a smartphone.

It's essentially a slightly improved Galaxy S II and that's pretty darn good even if the phone was introduced officially in February of this year. There's nothing ground-breaking with the design but it is still a high-quality, ultra-premium device through and through.

Software

ATThe Samsung Skyrocket comes with Android 2.35 with TouchWiz and I've said it before but Android is a great platform for making calls, sending texts and e-mails, browsing the web and adding new applications from the growing Android Market. Some may say that it's not as polished as iOS but Android is far more flexible and the user can customize it more than iOS or Windows Phone.

On a personal note, I've switched to the iPhone full time so coming back to Android is like coming to your cozy, comfortable home. Pumping in my Google account automatically synced up my contacts, apps and settings and the integration with Google services is incredible. Google Mail is a great experience on the Skyrocket and the Google Maps app is still the best mapping experience I've seen on a phone yet.

The Skyrocket comes with the TouchWiz UI and really makes Android pop. If you think it kind of makes it look like iOS, I couldn't argue that much, as even Apple thinks Samsung ripped it off with some of the design elements. You have seven customizable home screens that you can throw new apps, widgets or shortcuts on and hitting the app try brings you to a glossy row of icons to launch other programs. As I mentioned in the review of the Stratosphere, there is a sense of cheeriness throughout the platform that I really take a shining to. If you're a die-hard Google experience Android fan, you probably won't like TouchWiz but I dig it.

The Samsung Skyrocket comes preloaded with a lot of software, as you can expect Amazon Kindle, QuickOffice, YP and a ton of AT&T apps when you boot up the phone. Some of the apps are very useful like the AT&T QR scanner (why isn't this built into the platform) but others I have no use for. Luckily, you can fully uninstall most AT&T apps without having to root it. Samsung also includes its own apps for Kies, Media Hub, Social Hub and more but I'm pretty set in how I use Android devices. That doesn't mean these are bad apps at all but they're not that useful for me.

Combined with the powerful hardware inside, the Skyrocket performed like a champ. Apps opened quickly, switching between apps was a breeze and I didn't really notice any significant lag. It was good times overall with the latest Galaxy S II. Yes, this doesn't have the latest version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich but we do know that it's coming soon. We just don't know how soon or how TouchWiz will evolve with Android 4.0.

Web Browser, Multimedia And Camera

Multimedia

ATThe Samsung Skyrocket is a solid multimedia machine but it's hurt by a few factors. First of all, I don't really like the speaker, as I found sounds became quite distorted when at a higher volume and the bass was weak. Secondly, Android is not quite as seamless of a multimedia experience as iOS due to the lack of an iTunes infrastructure but that should change as Google Music becomes more integrated into the platform itself. The Samsung Hub does offer you a place to buy and rent movies but it only works on Samsung devices.

Still, if you plug in headphones, the sound quality is quite nice and with apps like Stitcher, Spotify and Slacker, I get all the tunes and podcasts I need over the air. That big screen really pops with colors and videos and apps like Netflix really add to what you can do on the go. There's also the AllShare implementation of DLNA, so you can share content from your device to computers, TVs and other devices that support this. I don't find that to be extremely useful in my day-to-day media consumption but it is really neat to whip photos from your phone to your TV over WiFi - it's a cool feature to have.

Camera

ATThe Samsung Skyrocket has an 8-megapixel camera that performs admirably in most cases but I was a little underwhelmed with low-light shooting and shot-to-shot time. We've seen how well Galaxy S II devices stack up to other top phones with photos before and I still believe the iPhone 4S and Amaze 4G are slightly ahead of the Skyrocket but only by a hair. I found the Skyrocket produced clear shots that reproduced colors well and blew up nicely.

The Skyrocket has some nice camera software, as your on-screen controls are easy to access even if I do miss a dedicated camera button. There are multiple shooting modes, scenes, exposure controls and more and I'm more interested in the cartoon effects than I probably should be. The tap-to-focus feature is neat but I didn't notice much of a difference on where I focused - check out the pics below for a closer look. Low-light shooting was also a bit poor, as I found the flash overwhelmed details. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera is fine for some self-portraits and video chatting but don't expect great shots.

As always with Android, it's super simple to share photos via e-mail, Bluetooth, AllShare and a variety of third-party apps. If you're on Google+, download the Android app to get your photos automatically uploaded to the web.

Focus on the house in the rear

Focus on the leaves in the forefront

 

Close up, good lighting

 

Low lighting, flash on

 

Cartoon mode

 

The 8-megapixel camera and the dual-core processor in the Samsung Skyrocket produce some nice and crisp 1080p HD videos and I found playbook to be quite smooth. I thought the audio recording could have been a bit better but no real complaints overall.

 

Web Browser

ATThe Samsung Skyrocket comes with your standard Android Webkit browser with a few custom Samsung tweaks and it works well for browsing the Internet on the go. It can handle HTML5 and JavaScript easily and there are some interesting little features in it. For example, if you hit the menu button, you can adjust the brightness in the browser but this won't impact the brightness on other screens or apps. It's not amazingly useful but it's a neat feature to have.

Unfortunately, our East Coast team and West Coast teams aren't in the 4G LTE markets, so we weren't able to fully give it a go. I will be in AT&T 4G LTE markets in early December, so I'll update this post accordingly. Even without the 4G LTE in my market, there's still a little "4G" symbol at the top of the screen, as AT&T calls its HSPA+ network "4G." In the San Francisco Bay Area, I average between 2-4 Mbps download speeds and while that's not as good as we'd expect, it's still better than Verizon or Sprint 3G.

We'll update this accordingly, so come back friends.

Call Quality And Battery Life

The call quality on the Samsung Skyrocket is pretty good, although there was a little bit of echo on some of my calls in the San Francisco Bay Area. People told me I came through loud and clear but I still had some issues with the speaker phone on its higher volumes. I've used phones with a slightly better voice quality but I didn't find it detracted me from the overall experience.

I had really nice battery life with the Samsung Skyrocket, as I got through a full day on a single charge. I pulled it off an overnight charge around 8 a.m. and found it still had more than 30 percent at 10 p.m. with heavy web browsing, some streaming audio, a few calls, texting and more app usage. Of course, using 4G LTE will likely have an impact on this, so I'll update this when I use it in a 4G LTE territory. A really nice feature is that I found the Skyrocket charges really quickly, so even a few minutes in a charger will give you a substantial boost in power.

The Final Take

AT

The AT&T Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket is an excellent smartphone which has a nice design, powerful hardware and an above-average camera. The larger screen, boosted internals and 4G LTE support make it more attractive than the carrier's Samsung Galaxy S II and I found very little to complain about.

Apple's iPhone still has its appeal and I could see the argument that the iOS App Store is more polished and those wanting the latest and greatest in Android may look at the Galaxy Nexus. Even without Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and not living in a 4G LTE area, I can easily recommend the Samsung Skyrocket to AT&T users. It's the carrier's best Android phone and depending on what services you use and where you live, it could be AT&T's best smartphone period.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/mactoc1 mactoc

    wp7 has Failed.

    Sue Barnes and Noble

  • different

    Email (not Gmail) is slow. ActiveSync with Outlook is particularly slow. Most other apps work great. Swiching between apps is not organized the way the iPhones are. Is seven home screens too many?

  • Rffpeo

    This is not the LTE phone to get. Take it from an owner of the phone for a week. Mine would randomly reboot even when I was doing simple things as texting. Take it back for exchange and get a new phone the next day. The speeds are so fast in the LTE areas, I check my data usage and already 600 MB of 4 GB used in a single day! There is no way to turn off the LTE or use HSPA or 3G/2G speed in an LTE area. ALL of AT&T’s LTE phones are designed like this even the Vivid. And the app market still doesn’t have an LTE on/off switch for ATT LTE phones almost 2 weeks after release, only Verizon. So much for the “development community.” What a joke. Guess what? It goes back and I save major $ on overages.

  • Jf3rr3ll

    I bought this phone and loved it so much i sold my much beloved iPhone 4s :’-( BAD MISTAKE.
    The new Ice Cream Sandwich update made the phone laggy and unresponsive. No I am not rooted this is at&t version of ics. DO NOT BUY!

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