DESIGN, HARDWARE AND SPEC
Lets get the Spec out of the way first as Samsung has a huge list for the Galaxy S3. The device is powered by a 1.4 Ghz Quad Core Exynos processor (1.4 Dual Core Snapdragon S4 processor for the North American LTE version) combined with 1GB RAM, a 4.8 inch Super AMOLED HD 720p display, 8 Megapixel camera with 1080p video recording, 1.9 inch front facing camera and comes with either 16GB, 32GB or 64GB built in storage along with a Micro SD card slot.
The device comes in two colors, pebble blue, and marble white, both of which have a brushed aluminium effect but have been coated over with shiny plastic which Samsung calls ‘Hyper glaze’ coating, no seriously, they even have a name for the shiny coating. Taking a closer look at the phone, on the left side of the device you have just the volume rocker, on the right side you have the power/standby key and microphone, on the bottom you have the micro USB charge port and at the top, the 3.5mm headphone jack and noise canceling mic. At the front you have the 4.8 inch display, with a earpiece grill, sensors and front facing camera above and the physical home key and two capacitive Android keys sitting below. The back has the camera in the middle with a LED Flash on the left and the loudspeaker on the right. The back cover does come off and hides a huge 2100MH battery and space for a micro SIM and Micro SD card slot.
The back battery cover follows the bendy nature of the earlier Galaxy devices and the Galaxy Nexus but this back cover is even thinner and even flimsier than the others. It has a very glossy finish to it that fits in with the rest of the phones aesthetics but its just very poor quality for a flagship device. The layout of buttons is good and most of them with the exception of the home button work very well and feel solid. The aim has been to keep buttons to a minimum resulting in a streamlined look and less clutter, although this still doesn’t completely redeem the rest of the very boring design. The home button has been slightly elongated and stretched compared to the rectangle of the Galaxy S2 which has resulted in the home button being difficult to find without looking at it and with far less travel meaning you really have to press it hard to get back to the home screen or to open up the recent apps list. The device has a silver trim on surrounding the edges of the phone.
This silver trim is matte rather than glossy but has also had the brush aluminum effect given to it. Unfortunately, this effect just looks like a very bad paint job and even cheap budget Android phones have done better quality jobs with faux textures. The loudspeaker on the back is square shaped, laser dotted, and is glossy silver and slightly protrudes from the casing. This makes it look cheap and like its been glued on next to the camera. However the earpiece grill at the front of the device doesn’t look that bad despite having the same treatment given to it. The etching of the Samsung logo and the hole cut out for the micro USB port at the bottom just seems very unfinished and feels like a rushed job. Most people wont notice these details but after using a HTC One X which has great design and build quality down to the tiniest detail, the Galaxy S3 just looks like lazy craftsmanship in comparison. Now the greatest achievement of this device is despite its poor build quality and questionable design, it feels solid and comfortable in the hand. Its about the same weight as the HTC One X and doesn’t feel like it’ll be a strain to watch a whole movie on it whilst holding it. Most people will be wanting it to be comfortable and will forgive all the little nuances I have pointed out and this is exactly what Samsung are hoping for.
Nowadays the touch screens are getting bigger and bigger as is the pixel per inch resolution on the devices. This is a hit and miss affair as bigger touch screens mostly result in less ergonomic design but Samsung have avoided that with the S3. The display itself is fused to the casing which makes the handset feel solid when using the touchscreen but also means that if you crack the screen on the S3, it wont just be a matter of replacing the glass, the whole front fascia would have to be replaced which could be very costly.
Samsung’s long been a leader in the display area with its Super AMOLED displays, particularly the latest generation of Super AMOLED Plus panels. Regrettably, the Galaxy S III is a step behind the cutting edge of Samsung’s research — most likely because a S-AMOLED Plus display of this size and resolution is not yet feasible — leaving it with a 4.8-inch 1280 x 720 Pentile AMOLED display.
Now for us tech folk, Pentile displays are one of those things that once seen, cannot be unseen and as I feel that the display is the most important part of a smartphone, I cant stand below par Pentile displays.
That being said, I actually cannot knock the Galaxy S3 display too much as it is very impressive and can easily hold its own against the its competitors.
Sadly, while that may have been a great compliment a year or two ago, the quality and viewing angles of AMOLED have recently been bypassed by refinements in LCD technology. HTC’s One X is the standout demonstration of that — offering unrivalled clarity, color balance, and viewing angles. In all of those respects, the Galaxy S III is one or two tiers below the One X: its display has the usual blue tinge characteristic of AMOLED displays, which gets worse as you begin to look at it off-center.
Touch responsiveness from the Galaxy S III’s screen and the two capacitive buttons underneath it (framing the physical home key) is perfectly reliable and gives no cause for complaint. On the whole, I’d say this is a display that will serve the vast majority of people extremely well, provided they’re never unfortunate enough to see it side by side with a One X.
The Galaxy S II set a high bar for smartphone camera performance, but put bluntly, the Galaxy S III has beaten it. Image quality on this phone is simply excellent. Full-resolution pictures look sharp and detailed, allowing you to zoom in on areas of interest, unlike the HTC One X, which can furnish you with some neat results, but never at the full 8-megapixel resolution. The fact the Galaxy S III can achieve that feat means it has a higher usable resolution than the One X — and pretty much any other smartphone on the market.
In recognition of this relatively common weakness to its sensor, Samsung has also added an HDR mode to the Galaxy S III, taking multiple shots at different exposures and combining them into a composite image. That option works well, salvaging detail from areas that would otherwise be over- or under-exposed, however the resulting images can never look as natural as ones taken in the regular fashion.
The Galaxy S III’s camera software is in keeping with what you’ll be familiar with from the Galaxy S II — customizable shortcuts sit on the left side of the display (when held in landscape), while the capture key and a video / stills toggle reside on the right. In spite of also having HDR and a new Burst Mode, it’s not as refined or intuitive an experience as you’d get from HTC’s ImageSense, which still remains the standard bearer for camera software, irrespective of OS.
Samsung has included a face detection feature in its gallery app, however its performance is hilariously inconsistent. In two practically identical self-portraits, it recognized my face correctly once and ignored it the second time. Was that too much to handle? In another photo, the phone identified a person’s face accurately, but also put a potential face tag on an area of fencing. A very small, but appreciated, addition from Samsung is a direct link to delete an image while looking at one in portrait mode — for some reason that shortcut has been missing from the stock Android 4.0 interface and its absence has annoyed me. Until now.
The 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera supports the rear-facing shooter admirably, producing better than average image quality for its class. That doesn’t mean the pictures you get from it will be good, just passable — but more so than what you usually get from these afterthought cameras.
There’s one major flaw to image recording with the Galaxy S III and that’s autofocus during video. It jumps back and forth in an irritating fashion even when there’s not much in the way of challenging motion in the frame. That really precludes the GS III from being used for semi-professional or otherwise important video. If you can’t rely on the camera to keep a steady focus, how can you be certain of the eventual output? This is a terrible shame since the high level of detail obtained in stills shot with the Galaxy S III is also present in its video recordings.
SOFTWARE AND PERFORMANCE
Samsung has changed the usual Touchwiz interface that has adorned all of their previous Android devices. Normally when OEMs change a skin for an Android device, its usually to the detriment of the actual Android software but Samsung really have lightened the load on Ice Cream Sandwich and tried to mould Touchwiz around the nuances of the device. The new Touchwiz is called Touchwiz Nature UX. The reason behind that ridiculous name is that Samsung have added nature related sounds and effects into the software.
Audio quality is mediocre on the loudspeaker and can easily be muffled by covering the metal grill at the back of the device. Audio quality of phone calls on the other hand is fantastic and probably the best I have heard in the smartphone market so far. The Galaxy S3 sports a 2100aMH battery which is one of the biggest on the current smartphone market. Regardless of the size, I wouldn’t expect it to be too far ahead of the competition as the huge screen and quad core processor will be a considerable burden on the battery life. Predictably, battery drain was at its fastest when the self-illuminating AMOLED display was turned on, with a period of nearly three hours around lunchtime knocking only a few percentage points off my energy reserves. With judicious use, you could probably go a full 24 hours between recharging this phone — not terribly impressive to someone coming from a feature phone, but very reasonable given the size of the display and the amount of power the Galaxy S III offers.
During the launch event, Samsung spewed out so many names for each of the new features on the Galaxy S3, it was kind of hard to keep up. Two of those features include the ability to call someone you’re texting by simply lifting the phone to your ear whilst texting them which is called Direct Call. The other is Smart Alert which alerts you with a vibration if you pick up the phone and haven’t seen any unread notifications.
The features aren’t anything amazing but Samsung have still branded the hell out of them. The following are perhaps the biggest new software features included but just how useful are they?
Say hello to Siri for Android, as produced by Samsung. If you harbored any doubt as to whether or not Samsung ripped off Apple’s voice assistant, let it go now. That’s not to suggest that Apple invented voice commands on mobile phones — Samsung had the Vlingo-powered Voice Talk on the Galaxy S II — but the look and feel of this application takes so much inspiration from Apple’s effort on the iPhone 4S as to deserve being labelled a clone. Not that any of this matters a great deal — neither Siri nor S Voice is good enough in its present incarnation.
If you have to repeat or correct yourself, you might as well use more conventional means to achieve your goal as S Voice will consistently chew up your words when you try asking it questions, although it works better when instructed to schedule an appointment or set an alarm. It can also be used as an unlocking mechanism once you pre-record a pass phrase. That adds to the face unlocking option that’s native to Android 4.0 in being frustratingly unwieldy and planted firmly within gimmick territory — more than once I was stuck repeating “hello” without any recognition from the phone.
Smart Stay is yet another software feature to be granted its own marketing name. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary — the front-facing camera tracks your eyes and if it identifies that you’re still looking at the handset when not interacting with it, it won’t switch the display off at the usual screen timeout time. Put the phone down on a desk so that it can’t see your eyes directly or try using it in the dark and Smart Stay becomes decidedly dumb. Also I found that all the front camera does is wait for you to blink meaning if you like playing staring games, the feature wont work. Its basically just a motion sensor waiting for your eyes to blink which will keep the screen illuminated as it assumes you are looking at it. I’m not begrudging the inclusion of this feature, it’s reliable most of the time and has its uses, but Samsung didn’t need to overstate its intelligence the way it did during that dizzying press event earlier this month.
POP UP PLAY
The Galaxy S3 represented an Android device that created the same buzz as a new iPhone and put Android on the map in terms of gadget celeb status. This still happened but Samsungs mess of a launch event left people confused and underwhelmed. Yes, the materials used for the Galaxy S3 are disappointing and could be a lot better. The same goes for the design. The fact that Samsung have plastered gimmicky names on all of their new software features detracted from the fact that this is a major improvement over the Galaxy S2 in terms of software. The camera is fantastic and the speed in which the phone performs tasks is crazy fast and buttery smooth. For me, I could have forgiven the design and poor plastic materials if the display was better than it is, so I will still stick with the HTC One X as the best Android device available right now but despite the negatives, the overall improvements mean the Samsung Galaxy S3 really isn’t that far behind.