Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy S III Jelly Bean review

If you're a Samsung Galaxy S III owner, then you will likely be aware that there is a new version of Android on the way. Jelly Bean brings the usual array of updates, optimisations and improvements, and as always, it's free and delivered either over the air or via Kies. Users in Poland have been the first to get the update, and so the download has leaked online, which has allowed us to install it, and get to grips with the new features.

 

Jelly Bean is a pretty major update for Android. Although it's only a "point" increase, from 4.0 to 4.1 there is some cool stuff being added to Google's operating system. Perhaps the most significant is Google Now, which takes the idea of a personal assistant, a la Siri, and adds a new dimension. Google has offered this voice search type function in Android for a while, and it gains abilities with each new version. But Now is the most impressive iteration yet. What it does is use the notifications system to keep you up to date. For example, once you tell Google where you live, and where you work, it is then able to keep you constantly updated about how far away you are from one or the other.

Google Now also keeps you up to date with weather, and can tell you if there's a bus on its way to your nearest stop. It's actually a brilliant, beautiful and rather cool system that you come to rely on very quickly. The content is delivered on what are called "cards" and there are several of them. The way it works is quite clever, but you won't like it if you're a privacy lover because Google basically keeps an eye on what you search, and uses it to tell you when your flight lands or where your local Starbucks is.

Of course, underpinning Now and cards is Google's amazing speech-to-text engine. This allows you to ask the phone questions, and get a decent answer. We tested it against Apple's Siri, and in our two attempts Google was much better. We asked when Virgin Atlantic flight VS045 was landing, and the phone gave us a beautiful level of information, both graphical and spoken. Apple was unable to give us this information at all, possibly because we're in the UK. We also asked both phones where Starbucks was, and the Google-powered SGS shot back an answer straight away, with a concise map, while Apple's floundered, and gave us a 'bucks 10k away!

Another, we're told, major improvement is "Project Butter" which is supposed to accelerate the user interface and make Android phones a lot slicker to use. In fact, the Galaxy S III is so powerful that we haven't found it needed much accelerating, and what's more, we haven't found that Butter has made much difference. There's nothing wrong, it's just that for a high-end phone, there's more power on tap than the OS can ever eat anyway, this is likely to make more of a difference in lower-powered, older, handsets - perhaps like the Nexus S.

Samsung has added some new changes too. There's a new "blocking mode" which sort of follows Apple's "do not disturb" function. Here you can filter out calls, notifications, alarms and even LED indications. The idea is, if you need to be disturbance free then you flick this mode on, and no one will bother you. There are, of course, ways to exclude certain people, so your wife, or boss, can always get hold of you.

There are also home screen mode changes now too. You can stick with the "basic" mode, which is the traditional TouchWiz style, or you can change to the confusingly named "easy mode" which just has fewer home screens, and is customised in a more "Samsung" way.

 

Folders have also been spruced up: they're now not just a boring folder icon, but  a vivid look at what's contained in them. We really like this, and folders are a brilliant way to keep your phone organised.

We have to say that the new Notifications area has cheered us up too. Now, this area is full of really rich information. Take a screenshot, and there's a large preview shown until you dismiss it.

The time and date are shown clearly at the top left, with a settings button on the right. There are more quick buttons too, although the fact that you have to scroll through these sort of detracts from how convenient they are!

The notifications for email are also much improved, now there's a massive preview when you get a Google-based email, which gives you loads more information about what's happening. We're becoming all the more reliant on the notifications area, so this change is a massive boost to productivity, and this is still one area where Android leads over iOS.

Your cards from Google Now will also appear here, when relevant. Cards are so great, you'll be constantly checking to see if a new one has appeared.

Verdict

So, that's the most obvious stuff for Jelly Bean. Overall, the Samsung update is a good one. We think our battery life is better now than it was before - it's still atrocious. The look is nice, and although it's very much a Samsung interface, it does still look great. So, we're excited for the arrival of this update, and so should you be. It adds loads, and everything feels so much slicker than Ice Cream Sandwich, and let's be honest, that wasn't too shabby either!