Adding to its expansive collection of Galaxy-branded, Android-filled smartphones, Samsung has reignited its Galaxy Ace sub-franchise with the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 tackling the space between the collection of dedicated entry-level and mid-market handsets.
With a price point that is neither overtly friendly on the wallet or aspirationally expensive, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 bridges the defined boundaries of the smartphone market, featuring a number of notable improvements over its predecessor whilst failing to match the collection of ground-breaking and genre defining specs as its Galaxy S3 branded sibling.
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Joining the likes of the Orange San Diego, HTC One V and Nokia Lumia 710 in this no-mans-land of the mobile market, the Galaxy Ace 2 has got a lot to do if it's to stand out from the crowd. It's now available for £160 on a number of PAYG deals, making it an attractive proposition for many.
However, it's still facing competition from its ultra-cheap predecessor, so is there enough technology on offer here?
A well rounded, impressive little handset, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 plays host to a largely appealing 3.8-inch WVGA TFT capacitive touchscreen display with an 800 x 480 image resolution that is pleasant on the eye despite failing to set the device apart from a number of its upper-end competitors.
Slotting this display into an aesthetically pleasing, albeit largely plastic, design, the second-generation Galaxy Ace has slimmed down with a strong construction that makes the device as impressive in the hand as it is on the eye.
Disappointingly, despite being unveiled and coming to market long after the arrival of Android 4.0, Samsung has opted to omit the use of Google's Ice Cream Sandwich OS in favour of the heavily tried and repeatedly tested Android 2.3 Gingerbread offering that featured on the handset's now dated prelude, the original Samsung Galaxy Ace.
Whilst the use of a repeatedly replaced operating system shows that the Galaxy Ace 2 is far from the perfect smartphone offering, the compact device plays host to a number of spec updates that help it on the road to redemption and which give it an edge over a number of devices that sport far loftier price tags.
And here's some even better news: the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 is going to be one of the range of phones that the Korean brand is going to be updating to Android 4.1.2, or Android Jelly Bean to you and me.
This means an improved camera, faster innards and an improved user interface are all on the way, and will placate those hoards of users that took umbrage at being told they were never going to get their hands on the Ice Cream Sandwich update.
The new version of Android won't be launching until at least Q1 2013, and we'll fully update this review when we get our hands on the new version of the software... but at least you can buy it confident in the knowledge it's not going to be left out in the cold.
Coming for a general all-round overhaul, the Galaxy Ace 2 has been bumped to an 800MHz dual-core processor from a similar speed single-core offering whilst the handset's RAM offering has made the jump from 278MB to a far more respectable 768MB.
As fun as it is functional, the Ace 2 is far from bereft of redeeming qualities on an entertainment front as the handset sees Samsung pair a 5-megapixel rear-mounted camera with autofocus capabilities and integrated LED flash features.
On top of this, the device plays host to improved, 720p HD video recording capabilities that see the handset settled firmly in the mid-market sector. A second, VGA, snapper also feature's on the device's fore.
Lining up at a comfortable 122g in weight and just 10.5mm thick, the latest addition to the Galaxy range of Samsung smartphones sees 4GB of internal storage expanded via microSD compatibility, whilst the standard collection of 3G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity options are further bolstered by GPS and HSDPA offerings.
As impressive in reality as it is on paper, those looking to make use of the Ace 2 will be further pleased by the device's appealing price tag with the handset available now for free on a selection of pay monthly contracts.
Those looking to pick the handset up on a SIM-free pay-as-you-go basis will be able to do so for a now-fair-whack-under the £200 marker, a price that sees the Ace 2 easy trump a number of its rivals on the cost front.
Despite the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 increasing in screen size over the first-generation model, making the jump from 3.5-inches to 3.8-inches, the Ace 2 is impressively 1mm slimmer than its counterpart, dropping down to a relatively svelte 10.5mm at its thickest point.
Although the handset features a largely plastic construct, the Galaxy Ace 2 is a surprising sturdy and well put together device, offering little unwanted flex or creaking when placed under considerable amounts of stress.
As pleasing as the Ace 2's design is, it is far from unique, sharing a number of characteristics with many of Samsung's most recent Android powered devices with a large, rectangular home button dominating the device's face.
These familiarities aren't necessarily a bad thing; however, with the Ace 2's smoothly curved edges and slim form factor creating a device that is extremely comfortable in the hand as well as remaining of an eye-catching nature.
One design feature that has unfortunately made the jump to the Ace 2 is the Samsung Galaxy standard flimsy and fragile back panel. Offering little reassurance when being removed, the scarily thin component leaves you nervous of snapping when being removed to access the SIM, microSD and battery.
As well as increasing in size, the Galaxy Ace 2 has added weight when compared to its predecessor, although only marginally. Despite adding 9g of weight compared with the original Galaxy Ace model, the Ace 2, which weighs a reasonable 122g, is a reassuring device to hold, not so heavy as to feel uncomfortable but sturdy enough to act as a confidence boosting weight in the hand.
With a rounded-edged finish, the Ace 2 is ergonomically designed to fit comfortably in the hand with the slightly textured back panel offering a small, but hugely reassuring amount of additional grip that will stave off accidental drops and slips.
With little to take away from the handset's seamless and curvaceous form factor, the near mid-market device features just three physical controls with the standard sleep turn power button lining up alongside the equally familiar volume up and volume down options.
Although the volume controls are located in an area prone to accidental presses from errant fingers and thumbs when held in either a standard right and left handed manner, the buttons are reassuringly stiff enough so as not to cause concern.
Further maintaining the handset's untarnished form, the essential microUSB charging dock connector and 3.5mm audio jack port are the only blemishes on an otherwise impeccable finish.
Far from anything ground-breaking, the Galaxy Ace 2 features Samsung's now standard combination of Google's Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS and the Korean company's own TouchWiz 4.0 UI.
The same combination of software that has featured on many past Samsung Galaxy devices, the Android, TouchWiz pairing is intuitive to use and offers a number of features, shortcuts and characteristics that will appeal to first time smartphone users and hardened handset fans alike.
As we mentioned above, this will be getting an Android Jelly Bean update in 2013, and we'll update the review when we get our hands on a new phone running the platform.
Offering quick-fire instant access to the most frequently required settings options, a widget-based settings menu lines up on one of the handset's seven available homescreens allowing users to quickly alter a bevy of options from Wi-Fi network settings and Bluetooth connectivity options to the screen's brightness and timeout periods.
Although not the most unique software setup, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2's pairing of Google's 2.3 Gingerbread OS and the Samsung TouchWiz 4.0 user interface is one that will appeal to accustomed smartphone owners and first-time smartphone users alike, creating a device that is completely intuitive to use with a centralised menu offering instant one-click access to the full arrange of preinstalled and downloaded applications and services.
Thanks to the handset's 800MHz dual-core processor, the Ace 2's user interface is a nippy affair with the CPU combining well with a highly responsive 3.8-inch WVGA multitouch display for screen transitions that are smooth and zippy with little infuriating lag or performance depleting stuttering.
Allowing for quicker access to key handset details and messaging alerts, the Android standard pull-down notification menu offers speedy shortcuts to the most vital data, helping to keep the Ace follow-on running along smoothly.
Although this feature is available on all of the handset's Android filler rivals, it is a service that doesn't fail to disappoint.
Contacts and calling
With the intuitive yet uninspiring combination of Google's Android 2.3 OS and Sammy's TouchWiz 4.0 UI running the show, the Ace 2's contacts features are much of the same with the generic Android fair offering a simple, intuitive collection of features that allow for ease of use but fail to set the device apart from an of its rivals.
With the handset's contact options accessible via a dedicated application shortcut that can be found in the centralised apps menu or pinned to one of the device's seven available homescreens, the Ace 2 sees the standard alphabetical sorting system list all stored contacts in a simple to navigate, well laid out manner.
Further enhancing the usability of the device, users can view communications histories for individual contacts.
Although it is possible to port contacts from social streams such as Facebook to create a centralised port of communication between all friends, colleagues, family and general acquaintances, doing so annoyingly creates duplicates of contacts brought across from the SIM card and the assigned Google account meaning a time-consuming period of joining contacts is necessary to ensure a clean, efficient and user friendly contacts store is available.
Whilst it is simple to pair these duplicated contents, it is an annoyance that should be avoided and which will see a selection of replicated content and communication options remain despite a lengthy period of amends.
Somewhat easier is the process required to add a new contact with a simplistic, easy to follow entry form offering a fool proof method of input for intuitive use.
Despite a number of recent entry-level and mid-range smartphone offerings overlooking the basic calling aspects of the handset in favour of more advanced bells and whistles, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 partners a broad collection of impressive hardware features with an impressive base function.
Featuring strong signal and clear audio during calls, the Ace 2's calling features are let down only by the handset's lack of noise isolation characteristics that can result in background noises on occasion leaking through to calls and become overwhelming.
This was especially noticeable when the person on the other end of the line is in an area of busy, fast moving traffic or where it is windy. The basic Android dial features for call making away from the dedicated contacts list.
Yet another example of the handset benefitting from its simple to follow, easy to master Android innards, the latest addition to the Samsung Galaxy line of smartphones plays host to the standard collection of messaging options with SMS and email options proving easy to setup and even easier to use to craft and send communications.
Unlike many touchscreen based handsets on the market, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2's digitally rendered full QWERTY keyboard is surprisingly strong and easy to use with well sized keys reducing the risk of accidental presses and unwanted typos.
Switch the handset from the standard portrait stance to a widescreen landscape form and an even more pleasing QWERTY offering is available with individual keys increasing in size and spaces between buttons becoming more defined.
For those not appeased by the impressive standard tap-to-enter method of input, thanks to the handset's Samsung flavoured TouchWiz 4.0 user interface the Ace 2 plays host to Swype technologies allowing you to seamlessly swipe your finger between keys to spell out desired words.
Fast and functional, Swype methods of input further enhance the handset's messaging abilities with text based communications, in all their forms, benefitting from the speedy input option.
Whilst it is quick and simple to select desired recipients for text and emails based messages, accessing friend's communications details via the contacts book opens a broad selection of new messaging abilities with users able to send the likes of Facebook messages direct from the contact storage system.
For those looking to spice up their standard stoic SMS text messages with a bit of added content, be it picture, video or audio based, users can utilise the Samsung device's MMS features simply by clicking the paper clip shaped icon that accompanies all text input screens to select the desired content to be attached to the message.
Whilst on most fronts running tried and tested Android fare means strong, well-rounded results, when it comes to smartphones' browsers, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 gets little in terms of benefits from the standard, pre-installed generic Android and TouchWiz UI browser.
Far from spectacular, and with a limited collection of features, none of which set the device apart from its closest rivals that feature largely similar offerings, those not taken with the basic Android browser can download one of many improvements from the Google Play Store with the likes of Mozilla Firefox lining up for potential inclusion.
Whilst web pages are loaded in the blink of an eye when accessed over Wi-Fi means, using the handset's 3G capabilities to browse the web offers a slightly more jilted, albeit still impressive experience with pages loading in fits and bursts as opposed to in a single, smooth flowing motion.
Although the handset's pre-installed browser has omitted user friendly text reflow functionality, in its place the Ace 2 renders text and images in double quick time when zooming in meaning you won't be stuck waiting for grainy content to clarify itself.
A slight problem when zoomed in on a large section of text, however, is that scrolling through a web page or online article can prove slightly troublesome with the Ace 2's interface zipping through a page at such a rate of knots that it is all too easy to miss desired sections of content.
Making the browser a little more manageable and user friendly, users can access eight individually tabbed webpages simultaneously whilst the bookmarking system, available via a simple tap of the dedicated onscreen button next to the URL input bar, is efficient and easy to use.
As well as allowing you to bookmark your favourite pages, instant access to your most frequently visited sites and browser history is also available from the tabbed option.
Swype input features further assist in the appeasing user experience allowing you to enter URLs and search terms in a speedy, error free manner.
Exceeding the expectations laid out by its on-paper specs, the 5-megapixel rear-mounted camera found on Galaxy Ace 2 offers hugely impressive results with the integrated autofocus features, inbuilt LED flash and smile detection shooting further bolstering the handset's impressive bag of tricks and allowing for simple image capturing in all conditions.
With a shutter speed that can live up to more static panoramic shots, an attribute that is errant from a number of smartphone integrated cameras, users can also opt to activate the camera's autofocusing abilities simply by tapping on a desired area of the screen, a handy feature that works well to ensure your desired content is always in focus.
Although the handset struggles with Macro shooting, not liking exceedingly close focal lengths, a strong collection of shooting modes counteract this niggle as the standard collection of scene modes (portrait, landscape, night, sports, fireworks, etc) are joined by the more advanced, an entry-level market breeching shooting modes.
Whilst the 'cartoon' option offers little in terms of impressive results, the Ace 2's 'panorama' features are some of the best on the market despite not functioning well off a steep incline, stitching images together perfectly to form impressive, expansive shots.
For those wanting even more control over their handset's photographic capabilities, simplistic alterations can be made to the device's white balance, exposure value and ISO settings. Although only small customising changes can be made, it is easy to do and requires little faff or fuss.
Whilst shooting from dark into light can have mixed results, the Ace 2's integrated 5-megapixel camera is largely impressive with its light management skills with indoor use of the integrated LED flash not proving over powerful and simple whiting out snaps.
Surprising for a handset with such an appealing price point and less than revolutionary collection of specs, the video recording capabilities of the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 are nothing to be sniffed at with strong recording rates, colour management and customisable features on offer.
Capable of shooting 720p HD video recording content at an impressive 30-frames-per-second, the Galaxy Ace 2's integrated video recorder produces strong video content with concerns of heavy pixelisation, motion blur and weak audio all forgotten following the first use that see's the middle of the road Samsung handset gain a foothold on a number of its competitors.
Further bolstering the handset's video abilities, the device's inbuilt LED flash can be used to illuminate dark shooting areas whilst a selection of effects allow you to adopt the classic array of grayscale, sepia and negative shooting stances.
Despite the handset's strengths, the video capabilities of the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 are not without fault. Lacking the contrast ratios and depth of colours of a selection of its high-end rivals, the Ace 2's video recorder produces results that are of largely block colours with content occasionally coming across more segmented than in real life.
On the plus side, however, the Ace 2's inbuilt microphone is surprisingly strong and capable of picking up a selection of background noises that add depth and atmosphere to videos whilst not detracting from the main subject matter.
As with virtually all smartphone-based video recorders, however, in areas of high winds, distortion to the captured content's audio can become a nuisance with no noise isolation to block it out.
Although the Galaxy Ace follow-on plays host to its own MP3 loving music player and integrated video player, this is by no means a handset that has been designed and crafted with the media savvy in mind, more attuned to occasional, casual plays than heavy use and acting as a fulltime PMP replacement.
With the Galaxy Ace 2 playing host to just 4GB of internal storage, up considerably on the meagre 158MB of integrated storage found on its predecessor, those looking to use the device to store large amounts of media content can benefit from the optional microSD expansion that sees the handset capable of hosting up to 32GB of data.
With the pre-installed MP3 music player located in the centralised apps menu, or via a shortcut icon placed on one of the handset's seven homescreens, disappointingly, unlike many of its rivals, the Android filled device does not feature an MP3 loving widget allowing for advanced, quick access to the device's musical abilities. The same limited access applies to the handset's video features.
Playing host to the usual collection of MP3, MP4 and WAV media file types, the Ace 2's multimedia abilities, although slightly limited of largely impressive with the 3.8-inch WVGA 800 x 480p offering strong, vibrant playback whilst the inbuilt speaker exceeds expectations.
Outstripping the audio abilities of those offered by a number of the handset's closet rivals, the inbuilt speaker found on the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 is capable of producing strong results with well-rounded, intricate tones being pumped out by the device.
Not quite the perfect inclusion, the handset's speaker isn't without its faults, however, distorting slightly at the top of its volume scale and coming unstuck when placing the handset down as its rear-mounted positioning causes it to become instantly muffled with output ability heavily diminished.
Thanks to the Galaxy Ace 2's Google branded innards, users can benefit from expansive YouTube integration with the standard video sourcing app paired with an optional homepage widget to allow you to get your daily fill of entertaining cats and epic fails in simpler fashion.
There's some more good news for UK dwellers too: Sky Go will be supported on the phone when it gets the update to Jelly Bean, meaning the chance to watch sports or films when your partner isn't looking.
Battery life, connectivity and apps
Surpassing the tumultuous one day hump that plagues a number of smartphones with ease, the 1,500mAh lithium-ion battery incorporated within the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 will keep your mind at ease ahead of a heavy day's use or less taxing weekend away with the 7.5 hour estimated talk time and 640 hour stand-by time both running near enough true to the mark.
Whilst the dual-core innards of the Ace 2 provide a more taxing, power-hungry environment for the battery, increasing the life source from the 1,350mAh offering found in the original Ace, Samsung has counteracted the increased drain with a bit to spare. On a negative front, the Ace 2 takes a considerable amount of time to charge.
We're expecting both of these points to improve significantly when the Jelly Bean update turns up, so check back in a few weeks if battery life is one of your concerns pre-purchase.
Moving across to the handset's connectivity options and the Ace 2 is again a classic example of the uniformity of Samsung's, and the wider industry's, collection of similarly specced Android devices, with no surprising inclusions or omissions standing out on the device.
Playing host to the usual selection of options, the Ace 2's reasonable 3G options and impressive Wi-Fi offerings line up alongside 14.4Mbps HSDPA connectivity.
Elsewhere, Bluetooth 3.0 and a microUSB port offer alternative methods of transferring data to and from the handset.
This microUSB connector also offers simple means of syncing the handset with a PC with users offered the option of using the computer to simple charge the device or alternatively set up file transfers. The Ace 2 can also act as a wireless hotspot for other Wi-Fi enabled devices.
As with all of its Android filled rivals, the Galaxy Ace 2 plays host to Google's iconic and hugely popular Google Maps software allowing you to track your location and find your way using handy point-by-point directions whether travelling by car, foot or public transport.
Fast to lock on to a GPS signal, the Ace 2's mapping abilities are impressive with accurate, quick to update location data available through the app menu located Google Maps service.
Again benefiting from its Android innards, access to the Google Play store ensures Ace 2 users have access to the more than 600,000 Android applications in one centralised, easy to navigate and search location.
One of the first Android handsets to launch following the rebranding of Google's application outlet, the former Android Market appears as the Google Play Store direct from the box without the need to enter and update the service to receive the latest app-based shopping experience.
For those not taken with the Google Play Store, Samsung offers its own alternative to the standard Android outlet in the form of Samsung Apps, a retail service that piggybacks off the Google service to provide a selection of Android apps at prices that can vary greatly from those on the Play Store.
A prime example of the random, and often higher pricing structure of the Samsung Apps outlet is made apparent on all too frequent a basis with even the likes of the London underground TubeMap app from MX Data lining up pricier from the manufacturer's software store compared to on the user friendly Android market.
Hands on gallery
A notable improvement on its predecessor on all fronts, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 is an impressive device that challenges a number of its more illustrious rivals and pushes the expectations of a sub £200 handset.
It is, however, not without flaws; most notably its lack of Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. As we've noted, this is being skipped in favour of Android Jelly Bean soon, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't consider the fact you'll need to spend at least a short amount of time on an outdated OS.
With a sleek, stylish design that is closer to the build quality and appealing feel of the former market leading Samsung Galaxy S2 than the budget likes of the Galaxy Y, the Ace 2 impresses from the off with a curvaceous finish that leads the way to an impressive collection of features.
As the 800MHz dual-core processor runs the show with reality ease, the handset's inbuilt 5-megapixel camera is a surprising hit equally capable of producing high-end stills as it is impressive 720p HD video content. On top of this, the device is easy to use and intuitive to master.
Although this ease of use is appealing, it is hard not to be disappointed in Samsung's decision to fill the Ace 2 with the now dated Android 2.3 OS. Although not a bad setup, the lack of ICS innards makes the device feel dated before it is in full flow, and you'll have to wait for Jelly Bean.
A largely impressive handset for the price, the Ace 2 could benefit from slightly speedier charge times and although microSD expansion is available, the internal storage capacity could be higher.
A warning signal to its handset competitors, Samsung's reign of power is quickly moving away from the one-off flagship Galaxy S devices, with the Ace 2 firmly rooting itself as a mid-market challenger with a near budget price point that will appeal to many, and that price has become even more palatable with recent drops bringing it close to £150.
Not the most media savvy of devices on the market, the Ace 2 makes up for small niggles and limited features by mastering what it offers. Exceeding expectation on multiple fronts, the second-generation would be a wise buy for any first time or returning smartphone owner.
A big thanks to Three UK for sending us our review unit