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Samsung Galaxy S3 (S III) review

MobileReviews
by Rob Kerr
, 02 Jun 2012Reviews

Samsung unveiled its third Galaxy flagship phone at the start of May. The launch event itself was a huge, high-profile affair that rivalled the anticipation and expectation usually reserved for an Apple announcement. Despite the success and huge uptake of the previous Galaxy S II handset, the S III is hitting the streets only a year after the launch of its predecessor - again, aping Apple.

Samsung sold more than 10 million Galaxy S II phones in just five months, a figure that outmatched the original Galaxy S, which itself was a hugely popular handset. Even before its release, reports of nine million Galaxy S III pre-orders, from more than 100 network operators began to circulate.

Now that the Galaxy S III is finally available to purchase, it's time to see whether it can live up to all the hype and rumour of the past few months. With a new iPhone at least six months away, Samsung has the chance to make hay while the sun shines.

Design

The Galaxy S III has adopted a very different design language to its predecessor. The new form-factor is a something of a throwback to the very first Galaxy S, with a more organic, rounded look, as opposed to the squarer Galaxy S II. The rounded appearance doesn't stop at the edges of the phone either, it extends from the front of the case and envelops into the rear of the unit. The silver rim that accompanies the Galaxy S range has had a rework too, where it is now embedded more seamlessly into the phone's chassis. There is no longer a noticeable raised-edge that overlaps onto the screen - the whole fascia now has a smooth, flush feel to it. The volume controls and power button are located on the left and right of the chassis respectively, and are now implanted within the silver rim.

The Galaxy S III is a larger phone than its predecessor, but that seems to be the nature of things when it comes to high-end handsets. The 4.8in screen has necessitated a larger chassis, with dimensions of 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm.

There's no getting around the fact that the Galaxy S III is a large handset. As you can see from the photos, it's noticeably larger than the Galaxy S II, and significantly larger than the iPhone 4S. In terms of the Samsung range, the S III sits between its predecessor and the phone / tablet hybrid, that is the Galaxy Note. And even though the note is considered to be too large by many, its screen is only 0.5in larger than the S III's.

Samsung has retained the physical home button below the screen, although the shape has changed. The same touch sensitive Settings and Back buttons seen on the Galaxy S II nestle on either side of the Home button on the S III. It's interesting that Samsung has equipped the S III with dedicated buttons at all, since Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) supports soft buttons embedded into the capacitive screen.

The Galaxy S III launched with two colour options, Arctic White and Pebble Blue. The white, seen in these pictures, is slightly less intense than the super-bright white seen on the S II, and suits the rounded design of the new handset. Pebble Blue, on the other hand, has been delayed, so anyone who didn't opt for white when they pre-ordered, might be in for a wait. Several network operators have already adjusted their marketing and sales strategies to account for the delay, but hopefully customers won't be left waiting for long.

The Samsung Galaxy S III battery cover is made from polycarbonate, which gives it a far more solid, high-quality feel than the Galaxy S II before it. The flimsy, plastic battery cover on the Galaxy S II was widely regarded as one of the phone's weak points. With the new phone, however, the battery cover wraps around the whole chassis, making the phone feel like more of an integrated unit.

There have been some design shifts underneath the battery cover, too. The microSD card slot has been relocated to a more accessible position and doesn't require the removal of the battery for access. This is a great feature for those who like to hot-swap their memory cards. The other obvious hardware inclusion is the microSIM card slot. This is something that's becoming more and more prevalent in new handsets, and with a nanoSIM format close to ratification, we'll be going through the same process all over again soon.

I do understand why this is happening, as a large SIM card does take up a lot of precious space in a handset, but with a phone as large as this, is it entirely necessary? I also know that the majority of the phones with microSIM card slots do not have removable batteries, and are very compact in nature as a result. The Galaxy S III clearly isn't. There is an adequate amount of space for a normal sized SIM card, where even the slot itself is almost geared up for accommodating a larger SIM. I believe Samsung is just trying to keep up with the Joneses here, when it really didn't need to.           

Hardware

Samsung has used a Super AMOLED display in the Galaxy S III, just as it had before, in the S II and original S phone. The screen size has increased from 4.3in in the S II to 4.8in in the latest Galaxy. The new screen has an increased resolution of 1,280 x 720 compared to 800 x 480 seen in the S II, with an increased ppi of 306, over 217. The increased pixel density makes for improved clarity on text and icons, while colours also appear more vivid and rich.

The screen is made from second generation Gorilla Glass, which is 20 per cent thinner, while retaining the same levels of scratch and impact resistance. The screen is very responsive in use, although there is a slight lag when typing on the soft keyboard.   

Powering the Galaxy S III is the Samsung Exynos 4 Quad: a 32nm quad-core 1.4GHz processor based on the Arm Cortex A9 CPU. It has been noted that this has double the processing power of its predecessor - the 45nm dual-core Exynos 4 Dual, and draws 20 per cent less power. This older chipset was found in devices such as the Galaxy S II, Galaxy Note and Tab devices. The quad-core processor is said to allow video streaming on one core, while another handles applications, leaving lots of headroom for other processing.

Samsung's Exynos 4 Quad is coupled with the ARM Mali-400MP graphics processing unit: the same GPU found in the S II. Together, this allows for full 1080p HD video playback, in a 'Pop Up Play' window and in the background of any tasks performed on the Galaxy S III, whether that be text messaging, email, web browsing or even Angry birds.      

I found the processor to be fast, with no discernible lag no matter what application I threw at it. The back of the casing did get a little warm over the course of several hours, but not to an alarming level. The HTC One X, on the other hand, became too hot to touch while reading Google news during a 10 minute train journey.

The 1.9-megapxel, front facing camera can record 720p video. The forward-facing lens is also utilised for other aspects of the S III's operation. One particularly interesting feature is Smart Stay, which keeps the screen alive when it's being read, preventing it from dimming. This saves the user having to touch the screen, every now and then, just to keep it alive. Samsung says that the Galaxy S III can tell when the user is looking at the screen and will act accordingly.

I tried the Smart Stay feature - an eye icon appears in the notification bar, indicating that it's running. To be honest, this was a little hit and miss. Occasionally it worked, but most of the time it didn't. In activating Smart Stay on the phone, a disclaimer pops up, which contains the following information: "Smart Stay may not work in these situations, when the front camera fails to detect face, when using the device in the dark, when the front camera is used for the application".

Let's ignore the sentence structure of the warning for a second. First of all, this is a feature that Samsung is heavily promoting and is hoping will help sell the device - but it isn't enabled by default and is hidden away in a settings menu. Secondly, it just about worked in bright light, but only infrequently, plus, it doesn't operate at night. Surely, this would have been a great feature for the phone, to switch the display off when someone falls asleep reading an eBook, saving battery life. I believe this needs to be refined - both in its operation and also the text of the disclaimer - before it becomes the useful addition it could be.                  

Samsung claims that the rear-facing, LED flash-equipped 8-megapixel camera has zero shutter lag, with a start-up time of 990 milliseconds. Images are captured the moment you press the button - of course, that may mean that the AF system hasn't done its part yet, leaving you with a blurry picture. I can testify to the fact that it is fast and it works well, too. The camera captures still images up to 3,264 x 2,448 resolution and video up to 1,920 x 1,080.

Samsung has also included a number of enhancements to the camera's operation. These are: burst shot, best photo, HDR and the ability to capture a still image while recording video. Burst shot captures up to 20 pictures at the rate of 3.3 shots per second. With the best photo activated - the best eight images are saved, with an automatic 'best image' being selected. High Dynamic Range has been around for Apple devices since iOS version 4.1 - this allows three photos, with different exposures to be taken and combined, to improve the contrast ratio.

The phone also features Near Field Communications functionality, which has been incorporated into the new S Beam aspect of the phone - unfortunately this can only be used between two S IIIs. Samsung's Galaxy Nexus, which was the first phone to ship with Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0, came with an unseen part of the OS called Android Beam. This allowed the transfer of data such as contact information, between two similar NFC devices by simply tapping them together.

Samsung has extended this feature in the new Galaxy device, coupling it with Wi-Fi direct. The claims are that S Beam can transfer a 1GB file in three minutes and a 10MB file in two seconds, between S III devices. I wasn't able to try this out, but I have seen the Galaxy Nexus using the Android Beam feature and can confirm that it is a useful tool. What I'd really like to see is improved interoperability between different platforms. Samsung could have addressed NFC transfer between Windows Phone, Symbian and the BlackBerry platforms - this needs to be an open, platform-agnostic standard to be really useful. 

OS

The Galaxy S III runs the Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0.4 OS, with the first outing of the new TouchWiz Nature UX overlay. ICS debuted on the Galaxy Nexus, and the version on the Galaxy S III is only slightly tweaked.. This platform brought elements from the Honeycomb tablet Android version into one OS that is now used on both phones and tablets, instead of splitting Android development into two separate streams.

In essence, 4.0 offers better stability and app multitasking, richer notifications, resizable widgets, support for high resolution screens, 1080p video capture, Android Beam and Wi-Fi direct support, better use of the lock screen etc.      

These are all present in the Galaxy S III, with the new TouchWiz Nature UX, which is very similar to other iterations of that UI. The new version of TouchWiz does provide better fluid transitions and movements between home screens, with smoother widget and application loading times.

A noticeable change in the TouchWiz NX user interface is the addition of another quick-access icon. This set of icons runs along the bottom of the home screens. Although, where there were four icons, there are now five. The icons on the S II were phone, contacts, messaging and applications, but the S III has a new Internet widget, found between messaging and applications. These icons are no longer fixed on every screen, and are not present on, say, the applications screen.

With this new 4.8in screen size and loss of the fixed icons, there is now more room for applications to be displayed. With the S II, there was only room for four columns and four rows, or 16 apps. The final row, was always phone, contacts, messaging and then home. The removal of the persistent set of icons allows for, four columns and five rows, or 20 items, altogether. With five quick access icons viewable on the home screen, I would have thought this could have been carried across to the application screen. This should have allowed for 25 items or apps, to be displayed in total, with five columns.

The drop-down connection bar has been reworked from the older TouchWiz. The S II's order was Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, silent mode and auto rotation. In the new UI, the format is Wi-Fi, GPS, sound, screen rotation and power saving. There is a second screen, which carries notification, mobile data, Bluetooth, drive mode and sync - catering for the most common functions in the settings menu. This saves trawling through the phone, to access the settings you use regularly.

Samsung has bundled an application called S Voice - an Apple Siri like voice assistant. This too, was a little hit and miss in its operation. S Voice got the basics right: delivering search results upon being asked, or texting someone, adding an alarm or launching an application.

The more advanced operations that Samsung is touting on the S III didn't perform that successfully, most of the time, though. Saying "Hi Galaxy" to wake up the application, or working with other aspects of the phone, such as the camera, answering/rejecting calls or increasing the volume all proved problematic to greater or lesser degrees. S Voice can understand eight different languages: British and American English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Latin American Spanish, along with Korean This gives some indication as to which countries Samsung is targeting with the S III. 

The voice feature is dependent on an Internet connection, as the voice-to-action part is all performed within the cloud, and then delivered to the S III. In areas of low or little mobile broadband coverage, you can expect some quality issues with the app. Apple's Siri had its teething problems too, so I wasn't expecting S Voice to be perfect at launch.

Direct Call is another new feature on the Galaxy S III that can't be found on other handsets. If you need to call someone who has contacted you via text message, simply raise the Galaxy S III to your ear. The phone then automatically dials that number. This feature works in conjunction with the proximity and motion recognition/gyros in the handset. The only issues I discovered with Direct Call is that if you decide to not speak to that person after all, removing the phone from your ear, the Galaxy S III continues to dial the number.

One of the other new features that falls under the Motion category, is Smart Alert. When a phone is picked-up, after a missed call or a missed text message, it will vibrate, letting you know that you have missed a communication. Another good Motion-based feature is the ability to take a screen shot by simply swiping your palm across the screen.

Buddy phone share allows you to share a captured image with anyone tagged in the picture - you can share over MMS or email. The S III automatically recognises and tags a captured picture, then offers to send it to those tagged individuals. You do need a pre-tagged picture for this to work, but it does actually work well and saves a lot of time sending individual pictures after a night out, wedding, party or work function.

There are some hubs or services added to the phone by Samsung, such as games, video and music. These are Samsung's own take on Apple's iTunes, or Google's Play offering. The music hub appears to be the most interesting, as it only launched this week, but with 17 million tracks already available. Time will only tell if this will be popular, but it has been launched in six countries and is set to expand globally, so keep an eye on it.

The default UI has the phone's start-up music of 'Over the horizon' as the standard ring-tone. I'm mentioning this, as the first few bars are also used for notifications - but in whistle form. This is for events such as when a text or email message arrives. This is cute for the first few instances, but after the 10th email in as many minutes, it becomes a little wearing and actually sounds like a bird is trapped somewhere in your home. If you have cats, don't leave your phone anywhere near it for fear of feline attacks.  

Battery

The battery life of a top-tier smartphone is going to be a key issue, especially one with a quad-core processor. This is in addition to a much larger and higher quality screen. The Galaxy S III ships with a 2100mAH battery, a significant increase from the 1650mAh offering seen in the S II. 

Testing the phone's longevity took place over a regular working day, with all the default settings for screen brightness and non-power saving mode enabled. The phone ran a personal Gmail account and a work Google apps version - with over 100 emails received. This is all while Facebook and Twitter ran in the background, simultaneously pulling in status updates, from over 650 friends and 1,650 followers, respectively.

To drain the battery with all the above in action, I placed several two-hour calls to another handset, with the phone gaining an HSPA+ mobile phone network connection. The Samsung Galaxy S III managed nine hours, five minutes and thirty-three seconds of talk-time, before completely powering down. In my estimation, the S III would last a full day on heavy use; a little longer than a day and a half on mid to heavy-use and over two days, on mild-use.

Verdict

Samsung is using the tagline of 'designed for humans, inspired by nature' to promote the Galaxy S III. Just to hammer home Samsung's commitment to nature, it announced at the phone's launch event that $100 for each and every person in attendance, would be donated to the World Wildlife Foundation. Whether you have a soft spot for pandas or not, there's no denying that the S III is a good flagship device for Samsung and powerful phone.

There are some innovative new features built into the S III, and even though some of them don't work quite as well as they could, I have no doubt that Samsung will be addressing these problems and improving functionality over the coming weeks and months.

Owners of previous generations Galaxy S phones will undoubtedly be attracted to this new handset, as it's a natural evolution. The Galaxy S III isn't the complete design departure that we saw when Apple launched the iPhone 4 after the 3GS, this is a handset that looks better than its predecessor and is stuffed full of all the headline technology that you've been reading about for months - LTE excepted.

Is this the best smartphone on the market? If you judge it purely on feature set, it's hard to argue that it isn't. Some may find it too big, while it still lacks some of the polish and design panache of Apple's benchmark iPhone 4S. If however, you simply don't want an iPhone, the Galaxy S III should be at the top of your list, perhaps with the HTC One X along side it.

Pros: Fast processor; good looking phone; decent user interface; microSD card slot.

Cons: Not all the aspects of the OS work all that well; some features have a limited novelty factor.

Score: 9/10

Manufacturer: Samsung

Price: £500 SIM Free and Unlocked, or from £26 a month

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