The Samsung Galaxy series has become the shining star in the Android smartphone firmament. And while the Samsung Galaxy S4 may have stolen all the attention there are plenty of cheaper options in the series, too. The Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 costs around £240 without a contract, and sheds some of the budget burdens of its predecessor.
The Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 is aimed at the same sort of audience as the original Samsung Galaxy Ace - those not quite willing to pay top dollar but who want a phone that doesn't miss out any major features. However, its specs have been given a big bump-up since last year's model.
The screen is bigger, has been graced with more pixels, and the phone's engine room works a lot harder. With an 800MHz processor and a weeny 278MB of RAM, the first Ace was a bit of a wimp. But armed with 768MB of RAM and a dual-core 800MHz chip, this is something else.
The inoffensive black design is very familiar, though. It's not out to make a statement or get people drooling, but it won't attract derision either. The front of the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 is topped with toughened glass and its rear by a textured black plastic battery cover. Some of the hallmarks of a "lower cost" phone are clear here. There's no grace to the seams that run around its sides, it's not super-slim at 10.5mm and - the dead giveaway - the camera housing arrangement on the rear looks particularly perfunctory.
A lack of character may be no big problem at this price for many, but it is a little disappointing when the aluminium-bodied HTC One V made a better job of it recently. And the Sony Xperia U has a much more distinctive look, even if it too doesn't feel all that high-end in-hand.
Slightly drab and a little chunky, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 is no jaw-dropping beauty, but there are plenty of neat concessions to usability. The volume control and power buttons are placed on opposite sides, so you won't accidentally press the wrong one in blind use and the microSD is kept on the outside behind a plastic flap.
Memory card hot-swapping is supported, so there's zero need to turn the phone off when changing memory cards. There's 4GB of internal memory to get you started, but a microSD is a must as only about 2GB is user-accessible.
Just below the screen are touch sensitive soft keys and a clicky select key similar in design to those of its Ace series brothers. The soft keys light up with a cool blue hue, but are visible when unlit too. And, thankfully, the select button has been made a little more squat than before - a little sleeker-looking than the dumpy rectangle of the previous model. The new design is much more Samsung Galaxy S3-like.
The most obvious missing on-body bit is a dedicated video output, but with Samsung's MHL-to-HDMI adapter you can output video directly (we're awaiting the final word on compatibility). On the wireless front, NFC is the one bit we miss. Samsung does make versions of the Galaxy Ace 2 with the wireless payments standard, but it isn't present in our review sample. Just about everything else is, though.
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and HSPA mobile internet are all bog-standard in an Android phone, but Wi-Fi Direct and proper integrated DLNA support shouldn't be taken for granted quite so readily. Wi-Fi Direct lets the Galaxy Ace 2 transfer files to another compatible device without needing an actual internet access point.
For DLNA, Samsung provides AllShare. This is an app that lets you stream music, movies and photos to another Samsung AllShare device, such as a TV or Blu-ray player. It helps to soften the disappointment at not having a (now increasingly rare) HDMI video output.
The Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 has a 3.8in screen. Back in the old days of Android phones, this was a top-end spec and is by no means categorically worse than a 4.8in display like the Samsung Galaxy S3's, once slotted into a real-life situation.
It's large enough to make typing accurate, to make Android look good and to do justice to games - let's not forget it's a teeny bit larger than the iPhone 4S display. However, the screen resolution marks it out as a low-to-mid range screen.
Using 480 x 800 pixel resolution, the Galaxy Ace 2 has a pixel density of 245dpi. This is a way off the 300-plus figure top-end phones can claim, but the high-quality PLS panel makes pixels very hard to discern, providing a very sharp image.
PLS is Samsung's take on IPS, the screen technology used in the iPhone 4S and HTC One X. Viewing angles are excellent, with just some loss of brightness when tilted to extremes in particular directions. It doesn't have quite as great contrast as the best IPS panels, or any OLED-based screens, but in a middle-weight phone it holds its own.
What's less easy to forgive is that the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 uses a modified version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. This version of the OS has been doing the rounds since late 2010, and now that version 4.1 Jelly Bean is out and about, Gingerbread feels woefully out of date.
How so? It's not so much how the software looks, as this is defined more by Samsung's custom TouchWiz UI than anything else. It's more how it feels, with momentary pauses between transitions making the phone feel more sluggish than more up-to-date devices. The phone is due for an Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but when it will land is anyone's guess.
Not everyone will fall for TouchWiz's charms, either. The UI keeps a constant icon shortcut dock at the bottom of home screens and the apps menu, and applies a particular graphical style to its icons that's big on colour and has a slightly cartoony, friendly vibe. In practical terms it's perfectly fine, but doesn't make particularly effective use of screen space and - to our eyes at least - it doesn't look all that cool.
Leaning back in TouchWiz's favour, it also provides a fistful of apps that add bits and bobs you wouldn't get with a vanilla install of Android Gingerbread. Music Hub is an easy-to-navigate (if a little overpriced at times) music store, Social Hub aggregates social media updates (but isn't terribly pretty), Samsung Apps is Samsung's own app store (slightly pointless with Google Play on-board), Voice Command is a voice recognition tool, Ch@t On is a neat online webchat app, and AllShare is a media streaming client.
They're hardly smartphone essentials, and are likely to be ditched for alternatives, bar AllShare. But they make the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 a soft crash pad for smartphone - or Android - newcomers to land on.
Naturally, Google's own apps are also pre-installed too - these are the real smartphone essentials, such as Google Maps and Google Mail.
The Ace 2 also comes with Swype pre-installed. This is a custom keyboard that asks you to "join the dots" between keys in one smooth motion rather than tapping on them separately. It's a slightly acquired taste but is fast enough to make typing quicker - or at least just as speedy - as the standard style.
This keyboard can be used throughout the phone.
Unlike the first Galaxy Ace, the Galaxy Ace 2's games and app potential doesn't feel too limited by processor power. Behind its unassuming plastic rear lurks a dual-core 800MHz NovaThor U8500 processor with the Mali-400 GPU.
In the AnTuTu benchmark, this wins the Ace 2 4444 points. Although only a third of what the Samsung Galaxy S3 can muster, it's a much better score than what the HTC One V achieves, with its single-core 1GHz processor.
Most popular 3D games play without serious hiccups, although we did notice intermittent frame drops in Dungeon Defenders: Second Wave. And, as time passes the phone's processor is unlikely to get as much optimisation attention from developers as better-known chipsets. However, for a reasonably affordable phone performance is good at this point.
In common with many of Samsung's more powerful phones, the Galaxy Ace 2 has above average video playback skills. In addition to the Android basics of MP4 and H.264, the phone can handle DivX and Xvid files natively, although it refuses to play MKVs. Playback was smooth with SD-quality vids, and although we think the 3.8in screen is a little too small to comfortably watch anything longer than a few minutes on, we're sure some will disagree.
The video player app is simple, comprised of a black 'n' white list of available files, with a small thumbnail image to accompany each. Given the lack of MKV support, you're better off adopting one of the better third-party media players as your go-to video buddy.
The integrated music player is the Samsung staple version, again offering a fairly unembellished but quick way to search through your music library. It's not particularly flash, but is just what's needed in a day-to-day music player.
There are just a few notable additions. Samsung offers a "pseudo 5.1" mode for use with headphones and FLAC is supported on top of the more common formats like MP3.
A small internal speaker sits just to the right of the rear camera lens. It offers a decent maximum volume level with minimal distortion, although doesn't have quite the low-end oomph to make it particularly notable.
Its placement is perfectly fine when the phone's held upright, but when held horizontally - when playing a game for example - your finger tends to slip over the grille, muffling the sound.
As this is a Gingerbread-based phone, rather than the newer Jelly Bean type, the Ace 2 uses the stock Android web browser as standard rather than Chrome. It's not a superb browser by the latest standards, with pretty rudimentary use of tabs and so-so speed, but it'll do the job for most. And, of course, it's easy enough to replace it with another from the Google Play app store.
Using out of date software works in its favour in another way too. The Galaxy Ace 2 supports Adobe Flash, where Jelly Bean phones will not. Adobe is reportedly going to remove the Flash app from Google Play some time in the future, so if you have an Ace 2 already, you'd better download it now.
The rear camera of the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 is a pleasant surprise. Its specs are nothing special, rocking a 5MP sensor, autofocus and a no-frills single-LED flash.
In terms of pure detail rendering, it won't trouble the big boys either, but macro performance is great at the price. The phone can focus on objects much closer than the vast majority of phones. Admittedly, the autofocus gets very slow when put under pressure with close-up, detail-filled subjects. But it'll get there in the end can reap impressive results. You simply don't normally get this level of macro performance in a mid-range Android handset - even if it is a bit slow.
The camera app itself isn't anything too impressive, though. Touch focusing is responsive, but the shutter button is a little small, and with a large thumb the phone will often think you're trying to focus on the edge of the screen rather than attempting to snag a snap.
There aren't any of the fun real-time camera effects found in some of the latest Android phones either - here you're limited to basics like greyscale and sepia filters. Video capture abilities top out at 720p resolution, 30fps, missing out on 1080p goodness.
The user-facing camera is a basic VGA-resolution model, which is only really of use for video chat - although the camera app offers a "self portrait" mode if that's your bag.
With a 1500mAh battery on-board, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 doesn't offer particularly noteworthy stamina. It'll last for a full day with 3G on and regular email checks, but - as usual - you'll need to recharge once a day unless you switch connectivity off. The battery is rated for 7 and a half hours of talk time with 3G enabled.
With all the other things this phone can do, you still want to make calls, you say? The Ace 2 is an average performer. There's no active noise cancellation to make your voice clearer in noisy environments, the top volume is not remarkable and while the output has reasonably body, top-end clarity could be improved.
If we're to stick with the big names, the closest rivals to the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 are the HTC One V and Sony Xperia U. Here the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 can hold its own reasonably well. It's not as powerful as the Sony, and the HTC One V has a more impressive design, but otherwise their specs and abilities are fairly comparable.
Put into the firing line of the more aggressively-priced budget buys, such as the ZTE Grand X and Huawei Ascend G300, the Ace 2 starts getting into trouble. The Huawei costs half the price and, aside from having a lesser single-core processor, matches it in many respects. Samsung has earned valuable credibility points for its Galaxy brand, but don't go thinking you're not paying a little bit extra for it.
The Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 offers significant spec upgrades over its predecessor, including a bigger screen and more powerful dual-core processor. It makes for a friendly and fairly feature-complete intro to Android. However, its OS is out of date, resulting in less-than-lightning-fast operation and its pricing could be more competitive.