Those of us who spend serious amounts of time reviewing tech gear have a great life. We get to see what’s new, and to know about what’s coming up before it is made public. We see the best, the brightest, the most capable of technologies and we get to use them in the real world on a day-to-day basis. Over the last eight years or so, I’ve used just about every cutting edge handset that has been released as my everyday phone.
Of course, we also get to see the middle-of-the-road and the also-ran devices. We can’t always live in the fast lane – we need to know our subject in the round. And that’s really why I’m writing about the Samsung Galaxy S3 now. This time last year, the smartphone set the standard for everyone else to live up to. Samsung was riding high and the Galaxy S3 cost a whopping £500 SIM-free.
Today, its position as Samsung’s leading phone has been usurped and the Galaxy S4 has taken its place - the newer handset will set you back at least £550 from a reputable retailer like Three. But you can still get the S3 - either an LTE capable model for around £400 (via MobiCity UK) or a 3G device for as little as £320 (on Amazon). On contract, it is also affordable: 4G tariffs on EE start from £31 a month (plus an upfront cost), while a 3G Galaxy S3 is available free from around £20 a month. It's at least £30 a month to get the S4 for free, by way of comparison.
I’ve noticed the S3 remaining really, really popular a year on and many of the people I know who have nabbed a new handset recently have, in fact, acquired the older Samsung mobile. Based on my experience, if you look around in any public place you’re likely to see one.
So what makes it such a strong product?
Well, there’s no doubt that the Samsung bandwagon plays its part. Samsung is riding high, and if you can’t afford this year’s model, then last year’s is quite likely to be in your sights. Samsung may have made a bad move by designing the S4 to look so much like the S3. Only an eagle eye (or an experienced IT journalist with the saddo’s ability to identify a handset from a hundred metres away) would be able to tell the two apart. Can you tell which is the S4 and which is the S3 in the photo below? (It's the one on the left).
There is a clue in the fact that the S4 has a slightly larger screen – 5in as opposed to the S3's 4.8in display – but that’s quite a subtle difference to spot - as are the other chassis tweaks.
If, however, you are doing a feature-by-feature comparison, then for sheer technical ability, the S4 blows the S3 out of the water. That 0.2in of additional viewing area is nothing compared to the resolution boost: the 1,280 x 720 pixel display of the S3 is knocked into a fug of mist by the Full HD, 1,920 x 1,080 resolution sported by the S4. It’s probably the best display I’ve ever used on a phone because of that combination of pixel density and size. Video is stunning. Web sites render beautifully. Heck, I was even reading eBooks on my review sample and not grumbling.
The faster processor you’ll find in the Samsung Galaxy S4 certainly makes the handset feel like a dream under the fingers - smooth as silk, in fact. But I never did notice much of a problem with the S3, and processor speed alone might not lure people to the S4. Of course, if you like to run the latest, most power hungry games, then you may feel differently and want every drop of processor speed you can get your hands on.
For now, Android 4.2.2 is a lure as well - the S4 ships with the latest version of Jelly Bean, while S3 owners will have to wait until (at least) June for an official firmware update.
One of the areas in which Samsung has really gone to town with the Galaxy S4 is its new TouchWiz interface - specifically, the ability to do stuff without actually touching the screen. Whether you want all that or not is going to be a personal matter, but some of it is quite useful. Having videos stop running when you look away from thee screen (Smart Pause) could be very handy – how often do you get interrupted when watching something and have to fiddle to find the pause button? Having web pages scroll if you move your eyes up and down (Smart Scroll)? I’m not so sure. It didn’t work for me, I’d probably prefer to thumb the screen for that one.
These features are evolutions of the ‘Smart Stay’ functionality found on the S3, where the handset uses the front camera to monitor what you are up to and keeps the screen nice and bright all the time you are looking at it.
Then there are the features that let you control the screen without even touching it, like Air View, which lets you see information in certain scenarios by holding a finger over the screen. I found this awkward and unresponsive at times and left it alone fairly quickly. Better was the ability to wave my hand across the screen to scroll though photos (Air Gestures), but I’m not sure this is actually any more efficient than sweeping the screen.
Delve into all the motion and gesture settings and you can have a field day - the ability to accept a call by waving your hand over the screen is rather neat. These feature are nice when they work, irritating when they don’t, and if you disable the majority of them, then what’s the point of having them? Or, put another way, if you don’t need the features don’t buy them – stick with the Galaxy S3. What's more, Samsung has hinted that many of the newer TouchWiz features will trickle down to the S3.
One thing that might draw you to the S4 is its potential for health. Health related computing is going to be huge in the coming years – gadgets like the Fitbit Flex are living proof that the ball is rolling, but I’m convinced that kind of thing is only the beginning of what we are going to see. There are already oodles of health related apps that use a handset’s GPS systems to map activities, and Sony was way ahead of the game here when it built pedometers into its handsets way back when it was conjoined with Ericsson.
Samsung has seen the potential of bringing handsets and health together, and S Health on the S4 gives you a pedometer and the potential to link with third-party gear. Oh, and for good measure Samsung has built a thermometer and humidity gauge into the S4. This is definitely an area to watch, though for many probably not one that’s going to make you really want this phone over any other right now. Just get the S3 and an app or two to enjoy similar functionality.
The same has to be said for infrared. No, it wasn’t in the S3, and yes, its integration into the S4 allows you to control your TV and other living room gadgetry. But it’s not enough to sell the S4 - more of a nice extra.
And in fact, ‘more of a nice extra’ might be a good way to describe just about every new feature the S4 offers, with the exception of that fantastic screen. Add them altogether and they do make something rather special. And if someone offered me an S4, I’d take it from them in a jiffy - Samsung, are you listening? But spending my own cash on a phone, I just might find it harder to justify the outlay.
So many of the gesture and non-touch features feel unnecessary – and some didn’t work for me in my testing. The health related features are, at present, inferior to some of the other fitness gadgets I have to hand. Infrared? Meh – I don’t really need that. The screen, now that’s the killer feature for me, which is odd for a phone that’s had so much thrown at it.
Still, having written all that, I bet the Galaxy S4 sells like hot cakes. And maybe this time next year, when we are all looking at Samsung’s latest flagship handset, called, oh, I don’t know, the S5 maybe, I’ll be writing that the S4 has become the phone you keep seeing everywhere. But for now, that's still the great value Galaxy S3 - a tempting option even a year on.
For more, be sure to check out our Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Galaxy S3 spec comparison.