Samsung Galaxy S III review
The anticipation for the Samsung Galaxy S III has been unprecedented. Never before have we seen so much rumour and speculation heaped on one device, except, of course, for the Apple iPhone.
Rumours of changed launch dates and falling out of sync with the typical launch cycle of handsets have given Samsung a clean stage on which to launch. Competitor HTC has played its cards, setting up what is likely to be one of the fiercest handset rivalries we've seen.
The question of iPhone killers now becomes almost redundant. When you have phones of the calibre of the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III on offer, who even has time to worry about Apple?
So what exactly makes the Samsung Galaxy S III tick and why is it so good? We've been living with the phone to find out.
Design and build
There is an elegance about the Samsung Galaxy S III that puts previous Samsung devices in the shade. The SGS2 looks pedestrian by comparison, the boxy design now looking rather dated.
We'll shelve the "designed for humans" statement that Samsung has slapped on the new phone - is any phone not designed for humans? Pigs perhaps? - but we have to say we like the look. There is a simplicity to the design that catches the eye, the flat face sandwiched into the curved band running around the sides.
Curved corners help give you a handset that doesn't seem to have any sharp edges, which is important for a device this size: no matter how large your hands, you'll be reaching across the display with your thumb on a regular basis and the last thing you'd want is an uncomfortable edge.
The phone itself measures 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.8mm so although large is still impressively slim. The dimensions leave it close to the HTC One X to which comparisons will always be inevitable. But at 133g it's impressively light.
When it comes to build quality, the Samsung Galaxy S III feels impressive. It doesn’t warp or creak as you manipulate it and that's important, because many, we're sure, will question Samsung's choice of materials.
We're not talking about premium unibody design or a fusion of alloys and glass. The thing that people will notice the most is the plastic back cover. The bitter irony here is that the SGS3 back cover is the same polycarbonate material as the HTC One X body.
But it's very different in terms of philosophy. The physical material might be the same, but in the case of the Samsung phone, it's very thin and flexible, rather than being a substantial block as used by HTC and Nokia for the Lumia 800 and 900).
The end result, however, doesn't really matter. Yes, we'd say the HTC phone has better build quality and feels more substantial, but we can't really fault Samsung's approach, because it doesn't really matter in daily use and, more significantly, allows you access to the internals more readily.
One thing you will notice, of course, is that the white version quickly attracts fingerprints across the glossy back, so you'll be forever wiping it clean. The blue version suffers less so and Samsung tell us that more colours will be appearing in the future, if you're looking for something else.
The Samsung Galaxy S III punches hard at the top of the Android specs tree. If you're looking for a checklist of hardware specs, it takes just about every point.
It comes with Samsung's own Exynos 4 quad core processor clocked at 1.4GHz, backed by 1GB RAM, so matches other flagship releases. Samsung's own hardware might not have the Nvidia or Qualcomm machines behind them, but in real terms phone performance feels slick, fast and assured.
There are various options for internal user memory (16, 32 and soon 64GB) as well as a slot for microSD expansion. The latter is likely to be hugely popular, as many phones have moved away from this.It means if you have a card full of content in your current device, you can simply move it over, or expand the memory by up to 64GB.
You also get Dropbox preinstalled, along with an agreement to add an extra 48GB of cloud storage space (for two years) to your account when you sign into your new device. You'll need to be online to access this content, but it's a useful resource.
All the normal connectivity is in place, including NFC, which Samsung has adapted with its S Beam feature, expanding what the native Android Beam will do. HSPA+ is on offer if your network supports it, along with 4G options where relevant.
As a phone the Samsung Galaxy S III works perfectly well. The ear speaker has plenty of volume and the design seems to work. Some devices have a restricted listening spot due to the design, but that didn't seem to be the case here. It's also comfortable to hold and large enough to sandwich with your shoulder for a bit of handsfree nattering if needs be.
There is also a range of indicator LEDs which can be customised (supporting coloured alert options from within apps) and backlighting on the touch controls beneath the display.
The duration of the backlighting on these touch controls can also be altered: the default second is too short, as it will mean the controls flash on and off at you constantly when scrolling through something like Twitter; six seconds seemed much better suited.
A massive 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display sits on the front with an impressive 1280 x 720 pixel resolution. This gives it a pixel density of 305ppi. It's a lovely looking display, but the choice of AMOLED rather than advanced LCD technology means it could be better.
AMOLED is characterised by deep blacks and nice vibrant colours, but things look over saturated - a common feature we associated with the technology. This doesn't matter too much, but set against the HTC One X, the latter phone exhibits better colour authenticity, with brighter, cleaner whites.
We suspect this is behind some of Samsung's UI decisions, as black backgrounds and simple bold icons suit this display better than the more detailed icons found in HTC Sense 4.
The colour fidelity isn't our greatest concern however: that goes to brightness. Auto brightness is in place, but at the top end it's not bright enough for us. Head outside on a sunny day and it doesn't cope quite as well as we'd like. It's not critical, because you can still do most things, but it was one of the most obvious and immediate things we noticed when using the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X together outdoors.
At least at the dimmest settings, the display doesn’t get as gravelly and mucky as the Galaxy Nexus.
To Samsung's credit, it has ensured that there is minimal wasted space between the actual surface of the display and the touch surface, so there is an obvious wow factor and impact when looking at it. This helps bring video and photos to life and both look excellent.
Placed around the body of the Samsung Galaxy S III you'll find all your typical controls, with a power/standby button on the right-hand side and the volume rocker on the left, as normal for the Samsung Galaxy S series. There is a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top and a Micro-USB on the bottom.
But in terms of the main device controls, Samsung has bucked convention and this is one of the biggest differentiators for the new superphone.
The retention of a physical home button doesn't concern us, but the use of a menu button in the bottom touch controls means it doesn't toe the Android 4 line. Google outlined what Android should do, how apps should behave and lead the way with the Galaxy Nexus, but Samsung has decided to take its own route.
That's fine in a world where you have the freedom to do that you want, but if this is to be the biggest-selling device of 2012, a lot of people will experience Android 4 and Android 4 apps that don't work exactly as Google had originally intended. But it could be a really astute move from Samsung.
Where some apps - Facebook for example - have a bottom banner in Android 4 that offers the in-app menu button, it's not needed on the SGS3. The result is that in some Android 4-compliant apps, Samsung is giving you back some of the space that the native OS would want to take away.
It also means that in the three-button arrangement there is no dedicated "recent apps" button. Recent apps is Ice Cream Sandwich's approach to multitasking and here it is accessed via a long press on the home button, which works well enough.
Despite initial concerns that Samsung's decision to do its own thing would somehow detract from the Android experience when it came to control, we can't say it does. Recent apps is visually the same as Ice Cream Sandwich, despite the different access method.
Software and user interface
The small departure from native Android 4 runs through the SGS3 as Samsung has layered its own UI over the top, instantly recognisable from TouchWiz versions of the past.
Those who have owned the Samsung Galaxy S II, and there are a lot of you, will find it familiar and the tweaks and visual modifications that Samsung has made help continue that feeling that this is a Samsung experience, rather than just another Android phone.
In some respects, the user interface is inoffensive, but in other regards, it doesn't look or feel as mature as HTC's Sense UI. We feel this is split down the middle. We prefer Samsung's menus, but we prefer HTC's home pages and apps tray. We'd happily live with either, but we feel there is still space to tweak and improve on both fronts.
The Samsung Galaxy S III offers you a run of customisable home screens, with a permanent launcher across the bottom. This has the apps tray button on the far right and you can't move it from this position. We'd rather it was central to better reflect the layout of native Android, but it's a minor point.
You can customise this launcher by dragging icons in and out to get the selection you want; you can't drag multiple icons on to each other in the launcher to create a folder, but you can create a folder of shortcuts on main area of the home screen and drag that into the launcher.
You get a wide range of lock screen options, including the ability to define unlock shortcut apps, as well as motion controls to instantly launch the camera, if you choose. All the normal security options are present as well as access to the drag down notifications bar.
We really like how Samsung has fleshed out notifications, now giving a huge run of hardware control shortcuts which let you get to the sorts of things you persistently need: Wi-Fi, GPS, mute, screen rotation lock, power saving mode toggle, notifications toggle, mobile data toggle, Bluetooth, driving mode and sync.
These shortcuts mean you can change everything on the fly with a swipe and a tap. Music controls also fall in here, along with the full goodness of Android 4's swipe away notifications.
We mentioned motion control in relation to the shortcut camera launcher and motion control is somewhere that Samsung has gone into overload. New features are piled in to motion or gesture control which seems to form the backbone of a lot of what the Korean company sees as "natural interaction".
You can have alerts when you pick up the phone, motion controls to let you move shortcuts around the home screens and so on, but we can't help feeling that these get in the way of what you're likely trying to do. Personal choice, definitely, but we found it faster to have direct touch control: after all, that's already very good, as is the notifications system in Android, so many of the added extras feel superfluous.
We also suspect that the constant desire to detect motion adds to the battery drain, so we switched the whole lot off.
The app selection out of the box isn't over to top. You get things like Dropbox and Flipboard, as well as Samsung's AllShare Play and various media hubs, which we will deal with later, but otherwise the phone is surprisingly free of clutter. Samsung has tweaked the browser, contacts and calendar as you'd expect with some great results.
The browser is fast, with precise zooming and slick dragging of pages. It comes with all the ICS bells and whistles, offering desktop browsing, Flash support and so on. Another feature of the browser is its own brightness level, as the SGS2 had, so you might find you arrive at the browser and immediately have to open up the settings in order to see the thing.
Multiple tabs are supported and easily accessed, with up to eight available at any one time. Incognito mode is offered too if you want to do something sneaky.
The latest keyboard is Samsung's tweaked version. The response is very good although the size of the keyboard in portrait might make it a struggle for some with smaller hands. We found it would accept a high rate of text entry, although the predictive system isn't as good as something like Swiftkey X, which we'd rather use.
Alternative characters are mostly hidden away, so it takes a little time to flit around and find everything you want.
Stability is always something we like to consider when examining a new phone and the Samsung Galaxy S III has been very reliable.
But there is one area of concern we found, which looks like a minor bug, and that's on device wake up: We regularly found that it wouldn't respond to our unlock requests, so we couldn't get into the device. This seemed always to happen when the notification icons showed there was some data event occurring at the same time. On one occasion the phone crashed on the lock screen, requiring a battery pull, but otherwise the performance was universally slick and fast, aside from the occasional app crash.
S Voice: Talk that talk
Samsung has moved to term everything with an "S". There's S Planner instead of calendar and S Suggest is the apps suggestion tool, which seems a little cumbersome, but fits with the naming for S Voice, Samsung's voice assistant.
It mirrors much of the functionality that Siri brought to the iPhone 4S and we suspect it will be used in much the same way: ignored by some, ridiculed by others and marginally useful elsewhere. S Voice is launched with a double press of the home button.
S Voice will return some useful information, but will need a data connection to do so. Accessing things like the calendar, sorry S Planner, is useful as it will read the appointments back to you. We also managed to dictate SMS messages without too many issues, but navigating contacts with multiple numbers does seem to confuse it.
But S Voice won't always recognise what you are saying, especially with background noise. Trying to find a restaurant had us composing a message to "Alice". With time and patience it will do what you want it to, including launching apps, but like all voice control devices you'll have to work on your diction and stock phrases.
By contrast, we found that Google's own voice searching returned some faster and more accurate results than S Voice, especially when it came to local searching, so that's always worth remembering.
Media and entertainment
Samsung has chosen to group media into hubs, so you have a music hub (which doesn't work yet) and a video hub, as well as standalone players for each. The hubs are geared towards selling you content (at least Video Hub is) and in this world of Netflix and Google's own service, it might find itself redundant.
But the music and video players themselves are pretty good. We like the thumbnails of the videos and the fact that you can easily access media servers, although we found it struggled to access our home media server. No matter, we turned to our perennial friend Skifta and had no problem finding and playing our video files.
Video playback looks fantastic and Samsung has introduced a clever new feature called Pop Up Play. This lets you play the video in a window so you can do something else - like read Twitter for example.
On the music front you get easy access to change the equaliser settings to tailor the sound to your preference. The external speaker is reasonable, but sounds better facing up – remember that if the screen is awake and you flip the phone screen down as it will silence the music. Instead hit the standby button before you flip it. Plug in some decent headphones though and the SGS3 sounds fantastic.
There are wider options too: the Galaxy S III offers to share your content with connected devices, or with other Samsung users by using AllShare Cast and AllShare Play.
Cameras: Say cheese
There is an 8-megapixel camera on the rear of the SGS3 and a 1.9-megapixel unit on the front. You can easily swap between the two from within the camera app, if you want to take pictures of yourself.
But most of the action will come from using the rear camera, which includes a high degree of customisation to the camera interface. Samsung hasn't gone as far as HTC, and we think the minimalist HTC Sense camera interface is better, with less clutter on the display.
But there are heaps of options available, with fast autofocus and touch focusing, HDR (high dynamic range), panorama and other settings like Buddy Photo Share, which will detect faces and give you the option to share the pictures with the person included.
The results are decent too, with great natural colours. Focusing is well controlled and easy enough to tap on to a subject if standard autofocus isn't playing ball, so images stay sharp in good light. Image noise is apparent in low light, as is overall softening of shots, but that's to be expected. In summary, this is a camera that's better than average and we don't have much to complain about, particularly from a phone.
On the video front you get Full HD capture. Continuous autofocus and touch focus are again offered and the results are again decent, with plenty of detail. Focusing is much faster than the SGS2, so you'll get better video results from the new device than you did from the old one when filming moving subjects.
As an aside, we found some strange audio artefacts in video playback on a Mac, which weren't exhibited when the video was played on the device or after upload to YouTube - if you do experience this, don't panic, it might just be your computer.
The battery in a phone like the Samsung Galaxy S III is always going to be a hotly contested issue. Under that back cover you have a 2100mAh cell. That's a reasonable capacity, but obviously there is a huge display and lots of hardware drawing from it.
At first we were concerned that this would be a big stumbling point for the SGSIII and our early charges certainly seemed to reflect this. This isn't helped by our perception that the top 10 per cent of the charge seems to fall out of the phone within the first hour.
However, we managed to get the phone to see us through a full day of use without too much of a problem. On a busy business day out it survived with a short top up mid afternoon, seeing us through from 7am to 2am. It was a long day and we used it a lot.
However, an average weekend day saw the Galaxy S III through a Saturday and battery warnings only started just after 10pm. So battery is always going to depend on weight and type of usage to some degree.
One of the key points here is the power-saving mode, which does seem to make a difference. This throttles the processor so you're not wasting power unnecessarily, as well as engaging a range of other features to make the device more efficient.
One is the dim power-saving view on the browser, which we're not huge fans of, but otherwise power saving doesn't detract from typical daily use. You might not want it on when playing a movie or when gaming, but for checking email and Twitter you won't lose out.
As mentioned, we also turned off a lot of the motion controls and things like Smart Stay, the latter which is supposed to detect eye movement to keep the screen on when you are reading - but we found it ineffective in our testing. Must be those crazy Pocket-Lint eyes.
Unfortunately, Samsung's battery info doesn't seem to want to detail those apps that are drawing power significantly, which most other devices do.
So far from being a point of concern, we found the battery life to be almost reassuring. Yes, on a busy day it won't last, and yes, the screen takes a huge amount out of it but the best is yet to come: you can always carry a spare and you can't do that with the HTC One X. Or the iPhone. Or the Sony Xperia S. Or...
There is a lot to love about the Samsung Galaxy S III. As a premium flagship smartphone it has plenty going for it. The huge display, the power, the smooth and fast operation are all to its credit. Add to this the ability to change battery and expand storage and you've a very good package indeed.
Of course there are always areas that we might want an improvement: the display could be brighter for example, which is our biggest real gripe. We found some bugs with screen unlock and the Smart Stay feature designed to keep the screen on when reading never really worked for us.
In some areas, Samsung's user interface looks a little cartoony, but at the same time, when set it against the biggest rival, the HTC One X, there are things on both sides we'd change. Some of these are easy, because the Android app space is now matured and third party options for things like media servers or keyboards are easy to come by.
The Samsung Galaxy S III will undoubtedly do well and it deserves to: it's a fantastic phone. Android users should be smug: you have choices and whichever way your personal preference leads you, you'll get an excellent handset at the end of it.