It’s no secret that Samsung have been on a roll recently in the smartphone arena. Their devices are selling remarkably well and they are now not only the largest cell phone producer in the world, but also the largest smartphone producer. Last year, the Samsung Galaxy Note was a surprise hit with consumers, no thanks to Samsung’s aggressive marketing campaigns. But 2011 also saw the rise of a giant among smartphones, the Galaxy SII. Close to 30 million have been sold, and I suspect many more will be. But the phone is losing steam, and naturally, along came its successor.
The Samsung Galaxy SIII is undoubtedly one of the most talked about smartphones the industry has ever seen, and no effort was spared in order for the device to live up to expectations. The Korean company gave its predecessor more than a year at the helm. Looking at the spec sheet, we can see why they decided to take their time.
Here is a summary of some of the key features:
- Quad-band GSM and quad-band 3G support
- HSDPA 21 Mbps, 5.76 Mbps HSUPA support
- Android OS v4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with TouchWiz
- 4.8″ 16M-colour Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen of HD (720 x 1280 pixel) resolution; Corning Gorilla Glass 2
- 1.4 GHz quad-core CPU, Exynos 4 Quad chipset, 1GB of RAM, Mali-400MP GPU
- 8 MP wide-angle lens autofocus camera with LED flash
- 1080p HD video recording
- GPS with A-GPS connectivity; GLONASS support, Digital compass
- 16/32/64GB internal storage, microSD slot
- Accelerometer, gyroscope and proximity sensor
- microUSB port with USB host and TV-out (1080p) support, MHL, charging
- 1.9MP secondary video-call camera
- Flash for web browsing
- NFC support
- 2100 mAh battery
This device also sees the launch of S-Voice, Samsung’s own attempt at a voice recognition command system. Packed with an impressive list of other features as well, was the goal simply to refine the winning formula of the SII, or did they start from scratch to provide a refreshing, intuitive device unlike any the world has seen before? Samsung has a lot to live up to with this device, since the Samsung Galaxy Nexus was the king of smartphones, until recently. Have Samsung learnt from the collaboration with Google building the Nexus, and have they improved Touchwiz (which was, lets face it, a very limiting overlay on the SII), or have they tried to do too much and not delivered a complete package?
Design and Build
Let’s not beat around the bush. This is a pretty piece of hardware, extremely pretty. It’s the first time I have used a white phone for an extensive period of time and I must say, I’m impressed. The white and black contrast goes brilliantly together with the aluminium strip around the edge. These photos really can’t do it justice. I recommend going to a store and holding it in your hand yourself, you won’t regret the trip.
It is a very large phone, yes, but it doesn’t feel so large. The ergonomics have made the dimensions of 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm seem smaller somehow, and it works perfectly in one hand, even if you have small hands. The design was well thought out with the buttons in easy to reach places; you never have to use another hand for any actions.
It is clear that Samsung borrowed some design ideas from the Nexus model, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The materials do look good in person and it is very sturdy. The very thin design further adds to the appeal, from the outside it does look like a well-rounded device. The Hyperglaze (which is a see-through layer of plastic on top of the back panel) that Samsung coated it with gives it a glossy finish, which might not be to everyone’s taste. Some may argue it makes it feel less ‘premium’.
The phone’s corners are a lot more rounded than the SII, which is a much better fit. Overall, the device feels much better than an SII, but we feel it still falls short of the Nexus’ curved design and ‘grippy’ back panel.
The 4.8″ Super AMOLED of HD resolution is where the Samsung Galaxy SIII starts to shine. The image quality is every bit as impressive as we had hoped, even better. As with most AMOLED screens it has perfectly deep blacks and is probably the best you can find on the market.
The colours are nicely saturated by default, but the display settings menu offers a choice between four different modes, so you can opt for more natural colours as well. That being said, 99% of users will keep it on the default mode, because it is truly beautiful.
For those who were worried about the PenTile matrix that the Galaxy SIII employs – well, don’t be. It doesn’t have the sharp ‘whites’ that you would get from the SLCD2 display on the HTC One X, but the contrast ratio more than makes up for it. You would certainly have to be using near microscope levels of zoom to truly tell them apart. It’s plain to see that the HD PenTile screen of the SIII is sharper than the RGB WVGA unit on the Galaxy S II, despite the increased screen size. At these ppi levels the differences are extremely hard to spot, so PenTile is nothing to be worried about.
Other than the screen, you will notice the Home button on the front of the device. The design has been changed slightly from the SII, and fits perfectly with the overall design of the device. That being said, we would have preferred not to have any hardware buttons on the front of the screen, as Ice Cream Sandwich is optimized for devices without these buttons (case in point, the Nexus). Next to the home button are the menu button and the back button, which is only illuminated while the phone is active, which is a classy touch. You will also find the front facing camera and sensors to the right of the earpiece and the notification light to the left of it.
On the left you have the volume rocker and on the right the lock button. A nice change is the earphone jack moved to the top and as expected, you will find the mini-USB connector at the bottom. On the back is a bizarre arrangement of the camera, flash to the left and simply for the case of symmetry, the speaker on the right. It makes much more sense to have the speaker on the bottom or side somewhere, as you have to hold your cupped hand at the back to direct the sound towards the front.
The large 2100 mAh battery’s performance does come to the fore when using the phone a lot. It’s immediately evident that the battery lasts longer than previous Samsung phones, especially when watching HD videos and playing games with high-end graphics.
With mild use, you can almost go two days without needing a charge. It achieves about ten hours of HD video playback, which is very impressive. Talk time is also more than enough, around 12 hours. Even if you are a heavy smartphone user, you should never struggle to get through the day with a full charge. It is a welcomed improvement, as battery life is a big criticism of smartphones these days.
The Galaxy SIII, with its four 1.4 GHz cores screaming on the inside, is a beast. The newest Exynos chip makes using the phone enjoyable, as you will never get frustrated at the lack of speed or fluidity. It is certainly needed, as all the features of the phone do amount to quite a lot of thinking to do on the phone’s part.
Even opening and running a plethora of apps simultaneously will not dent the snappy performance. I did my best to run the processors into the ground, but it just didn’t happen. At one stage, I opened the stock browser and loaded a website with a lot of detail, downloaded a video via the Chrome browser, updated apps via the Play Store, played a video from the gallery via pop-up play (more on that feature later) and then booted up the graphically intensive game ShadowGun, and it ran like a dream.
Another reason for the brilliant performance of course, is Ice Cream Sandwich. Even though it has been around for about 6 months, it still feels fresh and new. The OS takes the well-built processor and transforms it into an impressively fast heart to the machine. To compare, the recently launched HTC One X runs an nVidia Tegra 3 quad core processor, and here is how it stacks up in a quadrant performance benchmark test.
As you can see, the SIII is king. You will simply not find a better performing phone around, with the SIII even outperforming some tablet heavyweights.
Smart Samsung Features
The whole phone is meant to be “Inspired by Humans” and it is easy to see the way Samsung implemented this idea throughout. It is certainly unique and a very interesting marketing angle and the features reflect their intent to make a device that is part of who you are and what you do.
Ever since the list of features was announced for the newest Galaxy S smartphone, we have wanted to try them out and see what all the fuss was about. It seems that Samsung has put in a huge amount of effort into making the SIII all that it can be. Instead of just improving the hardware, they have overhauled the software to help it stand out from the crowd. I think usage of these features will differ immensely from person to person, as they range from very useful to absolutely unnecessary.
Smart Stay is the feature referred to when Samsung says “It sleeps when you sleep.” This is a handy feature, as we know that the screen of modern smartphones (especially one this large) is what drains most of the battery life. Also, I sometimes like to read long articles on a phone. This works very well, as it uses the front facing camera and blink detect to see when your eyes are open, and will not allow the screen to lock when you are looking at it, even if you haven’t touched the screen in a long time. If you do happen to fall asleep or divert your eyes away from the screen for a while, it will lock the screen, saving valuable minutes in battery life. Something to note, is that it only works reliably in good light situations. Don’t get fooled by the televised advert where the father and his son fall asleep in a dark room and it switches off the screen. That will definitely not work.
Pop-up Play is another feature highly touted by Samsung. It is an interesting multi-tasking feature, where you can quickly minimise a video that you are watching to reply to a message, check something on the web or whatever task you would like to perform. I assume this feature is meant for our female counterparts, as my attention is immediately deviated to the message or other task I am performing, and I no longer follow the video. To me, this feature is more of a marketing gimmick, trying to show the multi-tasking capability of the SIII, albeit very successfully.
Facial recognition and Buddy Share go hand in hand to make sharing anything very simple. It uses Facebook style recognition in order for you to tag friends in a photo. When you tap on the tagged name it brings up a contact card, where you can then quickly call the contact, message or email them. Apparently, the facial recognition system also has some kind of learning mechanism that it uses to help automatically suggest people in your untagged photos. I have not spent too much time with this feature, and it wasn’t getting any better at tagging the correct people.
You also have Direct Call, which is quite useful. If you receive an SMS, message or email from a contact you can simply lift the phone to your ear while still on that message and the phone will automatically dial this contact.
Other lesser features (in our experience) are Best Photo, S Beam and Swipe to Capture. They all have their place in the SIII, although it doesn’t do much to add to the overall experience of the device.
S-Voice is Samsung’s attempt at competing with Apple’s Siri. I’m not going to talk much about this; I think enough was said about it in the preview. After using it a bit further, my impression of it has not changed. It is still too slow, and cannot answer all the questions that Siri can. It wants to go to the browser too often. I think the real voice command competitor has only arrived with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and Google Now. Nice try Samsung, it’s close, but no cigar.
The SIII runs on the latest version of Android available, 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. Having upgraded the Galaxy Nexus recently to the same version, we can see that there are some big differences. There is only one reason for this, Touchwiz. It is Samsung’s own attempt to overlay the Google software so that it has its own feel and stands out from the hordes of Android devices available today.
The way a smartphone works (or doesn’t) is most of the time what makes or breaks it. The way that a user interacts with a smartphone and how easily it does what you want it to do is what differentiates a good phone from a great one. That is why I have never had much love for Touchwiz. It has always been a hindrance rather than a welcome addition to the software. I know the Galaxy SII sold immensely well, but I thought Touchwiz on Android 2.3 Gingerbread was horrid. It was a million times better when the ICS update came for the SII, so it led to some hope that it would be better on the SIII. I can go on about this for hours, so let’s just see the influence Touchwiz has on the user experience of the SIII.
Right off the bat it seems we are heading in the right direction, with the lock screen a joy to use. There is no dedicated spot to unlock the phone; you simply drag from left to right or vice versa anywhere on the screen. Needless to say, you will do it a lot in the beginning just to see the cool water ripples animation. You also have four customizable shortcuts at the bottom of the lock screen, and you open that app by simply dragging on upwards. A cool but not so useful trick (why does it seem that the phone has many of them?) is to open the camera app by pressing and holding the screen and rotating the phone horizontally. It unlocks the phone and you will have the right orientation to snap photos, but it’s just quicker to use a camera shortcut on the lock screen.
Once unlocked, you have a tray docked at the bottom for four custom shortcuts (or folders) together with the app drawer. It is great that you can put entire folders in the bottom tray, but this is where my first gripe comes with Touchwiz. The Galaxy Nexus, which runs stock ICS (in other words, no overlay like Touchwiz), makes it so much easier to do this. To create a folder in stock ICS, you simply drop one app shortcut onto another and it automatically creates an unnamed folder in a neat, dark circle, with the icons of the apps in the folder neatly arranged behind each other (see below).
In Touchwiz you have to click the menu button, select ‘create folder’ and can only then start dumping apps into the folder. It might seem like I’m nit-picking, but in fact it makes a huge difference for someone who likes to customize very often and into different categories. It might just be my taste, but I also don’t like the look of the folder icon. You can always download an icon pack add-on, but that shouldn’t be necessary.
Moving on, the notification bar and dropdown should look extremely familiar to someone who has used the SII. The Android notification bar has always been great, and nothing has changed here. However, another huge annoyance of Touchwiz comes to the fore. You cannot open the notification bar from the lock screen, which is so convenient on stock ICS. You have to unlock the phone first. UPDATE: I have subsequently figured out that the notification bar drop down from the lock screen depends on your security settings. If you have Face Unlock or a PIN set, it will not work. Disabling all security on the lock screen will allow the drop down to work. It also doesn’t work for all lock screen wallpapers, regardless of security settings.
Similar to all incarnations of ICS, the app drawer has two tabs, one for apps and one for widgets. Unlike stock ICS though, you cannot move between tabs by swiping through the pages – you have to explicitly hit the tab.
Something very nice, though, is that the app drawer has three view modes. Customizable grid (where you can rearrange icons freely), Alphabetical grid and Alphabetical list (not very space efficient). You can also just view the downloaded apps.
Sometimes we tend to open a lot of applications. It’s very simple to switch between apps. You can use the task switcher to go back and forth between them. It’s an ICS-style vertical list with a screenshot and a name for each application. Swiping an app sideways removes it from the list.
An improvement in Touchwiz, though, is that at the bottom of the list you have Samsung’s own task manager and a new button – Remove all. This is a quick and simple way to close all apps and free up some RAM (not that you will ever have a shortage of RAM with this behemoth).
Now, onto that Android favourite, widgets. To resize, you tap and hold it as if you want to move it, but once the phone vibrates, lift your finger. Four handles appear that let you resize the widget in every direction. The widget will glow red if you’ve moved beyond the supported size, or over other shortcuts. This is something set to change in Jelly Bean, though, as the other icons will simply shift out of the way so you can resize as you please.
All in all, it’s a huge improvement on previous versions of Touchwiz. However, Samsung have still made the OS more busy and in effect, less effective. Most people have never used stock Ice Cream Sandwich, so they might think that these shortcomings are an attempt at grasping at straws. But, ask anyone who has and they’ll most likely agree that these differences do amount to quite a lot; it makes the whole user experience less streamlined, less intuitive, less ICS. Be that as it may, it still is a solid package, and most people will love it, which is great news for Samsung. For the Android purist, though, it will be a bit of a let-down.
The camera shipped with this device is an 8MP that takes photos with a maximum resolution of 3264 x 2448 pixels and 1.9 MP photos with the front-facing camera.
Once again due to the processing power of the device, it is possible to simultaneously record HD video, at either 1080p or 720p, and at the same time take near full resolution photos. This is a great feature and overall the camera performs brilliantly.
The interface is typically ICS, and actually quite similar to the Galaxy SII. As usual, the settings and other shortcuts are present on the left while the camera button is on the right. Two features worth mentioning about the camera are HDR Mode and Best Photo.
HDR or High Dynamic Range is a great added feature. It takes multiple photos at once with different exposure settings. It then merges them into an optimal photo, or ‘super-photo’, if you will. It is rich in colour, taking the best from the different exposures to give you the best possible outcome. It does a great job in low light conditions, but with very low light, it sometimes overcompensates.
Best Photo is basically a spruced up burst mode. It takes the multiple photos in quick succession, and then suggests the best photo in terms of composition. It uses the facial recognition to do this but I was unable to get the same results when not capturing people or faces.
The image quality of the camera is very good, as is the HD video recording. Here are some examples of the type of photos it takes.
After using the device for some time, I can honestly say Samsung spared no expense to make this the best smartphone in the world. Did they succeed? Well, yes and no.
It is and probably will be for most of the year the best performing smartphone in terms of hardware specifications. The in-house Exynos chips are super powerful, especially for their size. The hardware makes everything you do on the phone smooth and quick. The problem is that the software doesn’t allow you to do everything you might want to.
It is the only fault of an otherwise near perfect package in my humble opinion – Touchwiz. They would have been better off taking the same route as HTC with the One X, only slightly augmenting Ice Cream Sandwich with slight improvements here and there. Samsung has decided to go with the bigger is better approach, and the SIII suffers for it. Some of the features have the potential to be trend setters, like Direct Call and Smart Stay. Others are marketing gimmicks, features with a pretty appearance but no substance. Some even need quite a bit of work just to be useful. S-Voice springs to mind, unfortunately.
That aside, the SIII will leave anyone who uses it for an extended period of time, even die-hard Apple fans, no option other than to be impressed. The show stopper is the screen, and the slim, light body is very beautiful, though probably not to everyone’s taste. Even with the flaws, all other smartphones of 2012 will have to measure up to the Galaxy SIII if they want some slice of market share.
So, does the best Android smartphone in the world have Samsung’s name on it? Yes, for sure. The problem is it isn’t the Samsung Galaxy SIII, it is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (read the review here) and that’s the biggest problem I have with the SIII. When recently the Nexus updated to the same version 4.0.4 it felt new again, even quicker than it was before. More importantly, it’s a Nexus device, meaning software updates come directly from Google, and Nexus users get the updates first, way before Samsung is able to roll them out. The Nexus will receive Android 4.1 Jelly Bean at the end of July, when performance on the Nexus will be even crisper, and will come with a lot more useful features and updates than is currently found on the SIII.
If you are not an Android purest looking for the slickest possible experience, the Samsung Galaxy SIII is a brilliant phone. If you know what Android can truly offer, you might have a slightly bitter taste in your mouth. Don’t get me wrong, however, the SIII is a very good smartphone.