Samsung Galaxy S III Mini review
With the top end of the market practically sewn up, Samsung is looking to push that success into the middle of the pack with the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini. It looks like the company's top phone, but the specs see it as more of a replacement for the Samsung Galaxy S Plus.
But can this type of phone now survive? Does the mid-range proposition still have any appeal when Google's own Nexus 4 undercuts it in price? And does this "mini" phone bring any of the luxury of its big brother, the Samsung Galaxy S III?
READ: Nexus 4 review
In the design department, there's lot that's positive to say about the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini. Finished in white, it looks like its bigger sibling at first glance, and that's no bad thing.
Chrome highlights pick out the details on the white body, encircling the physical home button beneath the display and the camera lens on the rear. The edges of the phone are finished in a brushed silver colour too. It's simple, yet elegant.
The curved back of the SGS3 Mini fits nicely in the hand and it's small enough to sit in the palm with enough grip to keep things secure. The compact size - measuring 121.55 x 63 x 9.85mm - means it's easy to use with one hand as you can easily get all over the display and to all the buttons
The back of the phone is plastic and removable, giving access to the battery and microSD card slot within. The memory slot lies under the battery, so isn't hot swappable, but in these days of high-capacity cards, that probably isn't a problem.
The back may be plastic and rather flimsy, but once clicked into place it feels solid. It doesn't bend or creak when you put pressure on it, so we have to say that the build quality feels good.
The layout of controls is rather conventional with a power/standby button on the right-hand side and the volume rocker on the left. There's a physical home button flanked by backlit menu and back buttons beneath the display. This means you don't get a dedicated recent apps button that's conventional to Android, instead a long press on the home button will access this feature.
From a looks point of view, this is very much a mini version of the SGS3. But when we turn to the internals, things take a step backwards.
Hardware and performance
Sitting at the core of the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini is a dual-core 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. There is 8GB of internal storage but. as we said, a microSD card slot to give you more space if you need it.
It's a typical hardware setup for this class of phone and it's reasonably capable, but moving around the device feels a little sluggish. That's to be expected stepping down from the sort of hardware you have in flagship devices, but it's just a touch too slow here.
It's difficult to judge whether this is down to hardware or software, but we suspect it's software related, because these specs where what we were calling flagship 18-months ago, but things never felt this slow.
If you use folders then they seem to take too long to open. Pressing the home button to return to the home screen is the same, it just seems to take slightly too long. On many occasions we though it hadn't clicked so pressed again, only to launch S Voice.
And this sluggishness is evident throughout the device. Press the side-mounted button to wake up the display and there's a noticeable pause; use pattern unlock and the transition to the homescreen seems too long too – longer than other devices of this spec.
Conversely the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini doesn't struggle with running apps. They might take a touch longer to open, which is acceptable, but once in we didn't have a problem. Games like Angry Birds Star Wars of Where's My Perry? played without issue. This type of device is never going to be a gaming powerhouse, but for much of the casual gaming that takes place on mobile devices it's well suited.
Fire up something like Netflix, or BBC iPlayer, and you'll find that everything works well enough, with nice smooth video playback. We also used Perfectly Clear and VidTrim Pro and both editing apps worked a treat. So although the immediate performance feels like it needs more snap, the phone will actually let you do what you'd expect it to.
When it comes to calling, the compact size makes this a comfortable phone for making calls. Callers came across loud and clear and we had no complaints from the other end. Again, we found it a little slow to end calls, seeming to delay on the in-call screen.
The 4-inch AMOLED display on the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini is pretty good, with an 800 x 480 pixel resolution. That gives you a pixel density of 233ppi. It's sharp enough and everything looks refined enough, if lacking the visual flourish of the latest displays with higher resolutions.
While we feel the LCD displays of recent devices are better than AMOLED, the display here acquits itself well. AMOLED brings a vibrancy and saturation to colours, which, while not entirely authentic, gives some punch to things. Images display bolder colours, but the whites are a touch on the yellow side.
The lower pixel density and limited size of the display means you'll be doing more zooming-in to read fine text on websites, for example, but that's an accepted shortcoming of this size of device.
There's no sign of autobrightness, however, so you'll have to manually crank the settings up and down to suit your environment. It's a minor inconvenience more than anything else, as Samsung has added a brightness slider to the notifications area, so it's only ever a swipe away.
There was a time that we'd say that Samsung was a lighter touch on Android. That's no longer the case, as the Korean company looks to enhance and personalise its devices as far as it can. With that comes a lot of additional features and options.
The Samsung Galaxy S III Mini gets several of the fancy features that debuted with the SGS3 back in May 2012. Visually the default theme of the SGS3 Mini looks remarkably similar and it's nice to find that Samsung has brought things like the pop-out video player to this mid-tier device.
There is also a full range of motion responses that can be set, for example, calling the contact you have on the display simply by lifting the phone to your ear, or shake to update. Motion controls of course use more power, so you can switch them all off, or deselect the ones you don't like to get the experience that you prefer.
Elsewhere you'll find the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean has been comprehensively skinned. From the home screens to the settings menu, everything has the Samsung TouchWiz look and feel to it. Icons change, the layout changes and even the control is different from many other Android devices.
The decision to have a menu button means software changes throughout Android and the apps you use. Gone is the regular Android three-dot menu button. Yes, Samsung has made a departure from the Google-outlined Android norm, but in reality this means you don't loose screen space to a bar that contains a single software button.
Hardware toggles are easy to access thanks to their addition to the notifications area, along with that brightness slider we mentioned, so it's easy to engage things like power saving mode or simply turn off Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
We prefer Samsung's Contacts app to the default Android Jelly Bean contacts, it looks more consistent and better presented, even if it doesn't collate information to the degree that HTC Sense does.
We're not sold on the calendar, however. Dumping the Android calendar for S Planner, the result is an app that feels a little cluttered and fussy compared to the stock Jelly Bean app. Everything is on offer, but on a display of this size, it is a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees. Fortunately the stock Android calendar is available in Google Play if you prefer something simpler.
Samsung also offers its own app store in Samsung Apps and has pre-integrated some of the apps into the SGS3 Mini, which we don't really like. The Gallery has an edit option for your photos, but there's no app to support this function. Instead you'll be redirected to Samsung Apps and prompted to open an account before you can access that app, which feels like a sneaky way of pushing you into an additional service.
We're not huge fans of Samsung's keyboard here either. There seems to be too much crammed in and it didn't seem to be accurate enough. It offers a range of smart features, such as trace entry and predictive text, as well as handwriting although we found the latter to be too fiddly. The predictions are mediocre and it doesn't match something like SwiftKey, which delivered us a much more satisfying experience.
Samsung has also bundled in its modified browser that comes with all the expected features. There's an offline reading mode for saving pages, support for plenty of tabs (we got to 15 before stopping) and Incognito mode for sneaky browsing. It has independent brightness control so your browser can be different from the global device settings.
We still prefer Chrome, which, once you've accepted a few preferences, can be your default browser so you'll never have to use Samsung's again. We think Chrome is faster, cleaner and less fussy.
But the attention to detail should be commended, because Samsung has made tweaks throughout all the apps that make it easy to do what you want, or find what you want through the menu button. Sharing, options, information is often only one click away and the out of the box experience is very complete.
When it comes to music and video, then Samsung has you covered. The music app is easy to navigate and you can even customise the tabs, so if you want genre instead of folders you can easily make that change. There's also an equaliser that will let you tailor the sound to your liking.
The Samsung Galaxy S III Mini is a great music player and we were more than happy with the sound quality through a decent pair of headphones. The external speaker is loud and offers respectable quality playback too.
Quick controls for the music player are accessible through the notifications area, but unfortunately don't seem to make it on to the lock screen. If you have no security in place you'll be able to swipe down the notifications bar, but if you have security you'll have to dive into the phone proper to skip tracks.
A nice touch is that when you connect headphones the notification area will then give you shortcuts to apps that you might want to use, like the music player or YouTube.
On the video front, as we mentioned, the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini is a nice device for watching video. The display means things look a little too saturated, but gives content plenty of punch. It's not the most powerful phone around, but it will play 720p content (as well as capture it), but to save space you're better off feeding it SD content that matches the screen's resolution.
There is a radio which we found to have good reception, although it doesn't seem to give you the benefits of the equaliser, so the sound quality isn't great.
There's a 5-megapixel camera on the rear of the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini and a 0.3-megapixel camera on the front. The front camera performance is typical of front-facing cameras, but as it's mostly designed for video calling, it's adequate.
The main camera gets access to a huge range of options through the user interface, but the display is a little cluttered compared to the lightweight approached offered by some - HTC for example. As with the music player, you can customise the shortcuts on offer to a degree.
There's plenty to tweak too, like ISO or metering, but some of this might go a little too far, when most just pull out their phone and snap off a shot in auto settings.The result are pretty good, despite not hitting the spec-sheet highs. Given good light the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini will give you passable shots, ideal for sharing. Focusing is a little on the slow side, however, more so in low light where shots show plenty of noise.
Video capture will give you HD or the 720p variety and it's fixed focus, so isn't good for macro video or anything that gets too close to the lens. It doesn't match the quality you'll find elsewhere, but again, it's passable.
The final word goes to the battery. This is where smaller devices outpace their larger brethren. The Samsung Galaxy S III Mini may only have a 1500mAh capacity battery in it, but it performs very well. We found it would last through an average day without any problem and on some light days we found ourselves with 60 per cent battery left at the end of the day.
Of course, battery performance depends on what you do with your phone and as you hit data, play games, use the camera and listen to music, you'll find the battery life drops off faster, but if you're looking for a phone that will see you through the day, then the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini may well be it.
There's a lot to like about the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini. The range of tweaks that Samsung has layered in is impressive, it looks good and it's a flexible phone with the option to expand the memory and swap the battery if you need to.
The software experience visually has plenty of refinement, although there are some things, like the S Planner that don't suit our tastes. But within that we hit the problem. Although there's plenty of enhancement on offer, it's not the additional features like pop-out video that you notice, it's the sluggishness of general navigation.
That's something of a problem, because throughout the time we’ve been using the SGS3 Mini, it has been the keyboard, or the lag in navigation, or unexpected delays, that we've really noticed.
We think it could be better, as we're sure this is down to software optimisation, as the hardware can do better. There's another sticking point too and that's price. Sitting at £299, this phone is at the top end of the mid-tier price range, costing more than the Nexus 4 which offers substantially better performance, accepting it's own shortcomings.
So is the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini for you? If you're not expecting your phone to fly around every button press then perhaps: it's well made, it looks nice and it offers plenty out of the box, but we think it could and should be a better performer.