GADGET REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy S III
When Samsung Galaxy S III was officially announced, it was received with mixed reactions, with a lot of fans claiming to have been disappointed with what Samsung had brought to the table. But is it really a bad phone? And how well does it stack up against its rivals? Read on to find out.
The Samsung Galaxy brand is one of the most popular in the world of smartphones. This is Samsung's brand name for its Android based devices and was first brought to limelight by the highly popular Galaxy S smartphone back in 2010. A year later, Samsung announced a successor in the form of the Galaxy S II, which raised the bar further and even a year later remains one of the best smartphones available on the market.
With such prodigious ancestors, naturally people have had very high expectations from the third iteration in the series, the Galaxy S III. When the phone was officially announced back in May, it was received with mixed reactions, with a lot of fans claiming to have been disappointed with what Samsung had brought to the table. Apparently, this was not the droid that some people were looking for.
But is it really a bad phone? And how well does it stack up against its rivals? Read on to find out.
Design and Build
The design of the Galaxy S III is a departure from the squarish shape of the international Galaxy S II. Instead, it resembles the design of the T-Mobile variant of the Galaxy S II sold in the US. Samsung says that the design is inspired by nature and that it has been designed for humans. Of course, all of this is just marketing speak but what they are trying to say is that the phone has been designed in a way that is ergonomic to hold and use.
In that aspect, I must commend Samsung because they have done a very good job, indeed. Usually, phones with such large displays are cumbersome to use. If you read our HTC One X review, you will know that I mentioned how uncomfortable the phone is to use due to its size, shape and the location of all the buttons. Fortunately, the Galaxy S III has no such issues.
Even though the two phones are roughly the same size and shape, the Galaxy S III feels a lot better. The exaggerated curves around the corners makes the phone easier to hold and move your thumb across without the corner digging into the base of your thumb. I also love the location of the keys on this phone, especially the power/lock key, which falls perfectly under your thumb, unlike the button on the One X, which is completely out of reach of your fingers.
On the front of the phone we see the earpiece at the top flanked by the proximity sensor and the ambient light sensor, which are clearly visible as two black circles on the white model. Next to it is the sensor for the front facing camera. On the left of the earpiece is a hidden notification LED that becomes visible once it starts glowing.
Below the display, Samsung has gone for the usual key layout that they have used since the Galaxy S. In the middle is a physical home button and on either side of it are the menu and back key. Both these keys are hidden just like the notification LED and become visible when you touch them or the display.
There are a couple of major issues with the design of these keys on the Galaxy S III. First of all, they are way too close to the bottom of the phone and it's incredibly easy to press either of them when you are just holding the phone near the bottom edge. It especially happens a lot when you are holding the phone in landscape mode while playing a game, watching a video or using the camera. The menu button is mostly harmless but the back button can have frustrating results if pressed unintentionally at the wrong time.
The second issue is that when you are scrolling on the screen and if your finger manages to fall out of the bottom edge of the display and touch either of these keys their function is activated. This can be just as irritating as you will often find yourself pressing the back key while scrolling down with your thumb.
Now usually, Android phones have a mechanism where while scrolling if your finger falls out of the limits of the display, the UI continues to behave as if you are still scrolling over the display as long as you don't lift your thumb. It is even smart enough to disregard the input from the capacitive keys below. Basically the entire area below the display acts as part of the display as long as you don't lift your thumb. This same behavior is seen on Samsung's own Nexus S. But on the Galaxy S III, the scrolling stops as soon as you exit the boundary of the display, and moreover, it also activates the keys below. Hopefully, this is something that can be fixed in future with a software update.
Moving on to other aspects of the design, on the right side of the phone we find the power button and on the left are the volume control keys. The sides have a fake brushed metal finish with silver colored plastic, which is consistent across both color options of the phone. The silver finish goes around the edge of the phone and expands around the left and right sides.
On top of the phone is the headphone jack and the secondary microphone and on the bottom is the micro USB port and the primary microphone.
On the back we see the camera lens in the middle near the top, with the LED flash on the left and the loudspeaker on the right. The camera sensor is slightly raised due to which the loudspeaker does not get completely muffled when you place the phone on its back. Unlike the previous Galaxy phones, the Galaxy S III does not have a bulge near the bottom and save for the camera lens the back is completely flat.
The entire rear portion is actually the battery cover, which can be opened by pulling it from the top. The battery cover is typical Samsung affair, thin and plasticky, but it gets the job done. Underneath is the battery, blocking the micro SIM slot. The microSD slot, however, is accessible without removing the battery.
Now looks are subjective but personally I was disappointed when I saw the Galaxy S III for the first time in pictures. Turns out it is not as bad looking in real life as it does in the pictures and Samsung just needs to get better photographers. But even though I've learned to not be repulsed by the design, I'm still far away from being in love with it. For a flagship phone, the Galaxy S III's design is very uninspiring and forgettable. The design lacks the creativity and visual appeal of the One X or the Lumia 800's design. Even the two year old iPhone looks great in comparison. The Pebble Blue model redeems itself slightly with its fake brushed metal finish, which adds some visual appeal but overall this is a very safe and boring design, not unlike many other Samsung phones out there.
Speaking of build quality, a lot of people complain about Samsung using an all-plastic design on their phones. It must be said that the glossy plastic on the Galaxy S III doesn't feel nearly as good as the matte plastic polycarbonate shell of the One X and on top of that it is also very slippery. Leaving aside the feel of the phone, though, the Galaxy S III is solidly built and even though it is made from plastic it should be able to take a few falls on the floor without shattering. Just make sure you keep the phone on a soft surface as the back cover has a tendency to get scratched.
The Galaxy S III has a 4.8-inch, Super AMOLED display. As you can probably tell from the name, the display uses the infamous PenTile matrix layout for the subpixels, which means instead of the usual RGB layout, each pixel has either RG or BG sub pixels. This was once again a cause for major disappointment as everyone associates PenTile displays with bad picture quality. But is it really bad on the Galaxy S III? Not at all.
The thing with PenTile displays is that the ill-effects of this technology are only noticeable on displays with low pixel densities. But the pixel density of the Galaxy S III's display is high enough to make up for any loss in sharpness that might occur with the PenTile matrix layout. Unless you stare at the display with a magnifying glass, the display on the Galaxy S III is just as good as any old AMOLED display with RGB sub-pixel layout.
Now speaking of the picture quality of the display, the first thing I noticed is how different this display is compared to older Samsung displays, or at least the tuning of it is. The older Samsung AMOLED displays were set to show very rich colors with high saturation but the colors on the Galaxy S III's display are very restrained, almost LCD like. They are still slightly more saturated than they should be, but this time it is just enough to make the colors look great without being gaudy. It also helps that Samsung no longer uses outrageously colorful wallpapers and icons in the UI.
Another trait uncommon to AMOLED displays is that the blacks are not truly black. Compared to LCDs, AMOLED displays can turn off their pixels completely when displaying black colors, which due to the lack of a backlight makes the blacks look perfectly black. If you look at an AMOLED display showing a black image in the dark, you wouldn't see anything. The Galaxy S III's display does, however, emit a faint amount of light when displaying blacks. The blacks are still deeper than what you'd find on an LCD and the aforementioned issue can only be seen when you are looking at an image that is prominently black and in a dark environment. Still, it's not the perfectly inky blacks that you'd expect from an AMOLED display.
The overall picture quality of the Galaxy S III's display is good. This display would have blown me away had I not seen the display on the One X but that is not the case. As it stands now, HTC has truly beaten Samsung at its own game and although the display on the One X is not perfect it's definitely the better display of the two. Still, the display on the Galaxy S III is no slouch and if you've never seen the display on the One X you will be very happy with it.
Hardware and Software
The Galaxy S III is currently the most powerful Android smartphone available on the market. It runs on Samsung's new Exynos 4 Quad processor, which as the name suggests has a quad-core CPU clocked at 1.4GHz. On the GPU side, the Galaxy S III uses a Mali 400MP. Both the CPU and GPU are basically similar to the ones on the Galaxy S II, but both have two extra cores, which makes quite a lot of difference in the overall performance.
In terms of memory, the Galaxy S III has 1GB of RAM and 16 or 32GB of internal memory. The Galaxy S III uses a single internal memory, instead of two separate memories, which means when connected to the PC the memory cannot be mounted on the PC as it is already mounted on the phone. Due to this, the Galaxy S III does not support mass storage protocol and instead you have to use media transfer protocol like on the Galaxy Nexus. There is also a microSD card slot on the phone but even that has to be accessed through MTP. The internal memory on the Galaxy S III is very fast, with write speeds of around 16MB/s. It also allows you to transfer files over 4GB in size. The 16GB model (the one we reviewed) actually has only 11.2GB of storage space.
Now let's talk about the software on the phone. Usually with Android phones, it's the hardware specifications that get all the attention, but with the Galaxy S III, Samsung has mainly concentrated on advertising the software features of the phone with a lot less focus on the hardware specifications.
The most noticeable change is the presence of a new skin on top of Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. Samsung has ditched the old TouchWiz interface in favor of something they call the Nature UX, which continues the whole 'Inspired by Nature' theme of the phone. The first thing you'll notice is the new lock screen, which has a ripple effect when you move your finger across the screen. It's a nice looking effect and as with TouchWiz before, I appreciate being able to unlock the display by touching at any point, instead of dragging a button from a fixed position every time. There are also four shortcut icons at the bottom and you can launch their respective apps directly by touching and swiping them, similar to the lockscreen on Sense UI.
The homescreens have a new sliding animation as you move through them. You get seven of them by default and you can remove or rearrange them. There are four fixed icons at the bottom of every screen and the application launcher button, which has now been moved to the extreme right. Each homescreen allows having sixteen icons with lots of spacing between them, so the homescreens don't look cluttered even when full.
Samsung has also modified the already excellent Android notification drawer with a row of shortcuts on the top. You have the option to toggle the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, sound, screen rotation, power saving mode, notifications (disables all notifications from appearing), mobile data, Bluetooth, driving mode app and syncing with all your configured accounts. The display can only show five icons at one on the top so when you open the notifications drawer the phone shows the last five icons and then slides to show the first five to let you know that there are other icons there that you can access. This is useful initially but after the nine hundredth time you wish it would stop doing that as you already know about the other icons.
There are also other nice touches, such as when you plug in your headphones, the phone shows all the music related apps in the notifications drawer so you can quickly access them. You also have the brightness adjustment bar in there, which is extremely convenient for quickly adjusting the brightness without having to go into the settings.
One cool thing that Samsung has done with the notification drawer on the Galaxy S III is that you can access it even in fullscreen apps, just like on iOS. You don't see the bar at the top but when you drag your finger down from the top edge, you will see the bar at the top and dragging down once again drops down the tray. Once again, this is extremely convenient.
The application drawer also sees some changes from stock ICS. When you scroll through the grid, you'll notice you don't switch to the widgets tab when you reach the last page of the app list. Samsung has separated the two lists, which is a smart move, which keeps you scrolling within the apps grid instead of unnecessarily wandering into the widgets tab, which can be accessed separately from the top.
If you drop by the Settings app, you will notice a whole bunch of new stuff that Samsung has added in the Galaxy S III. The NFC functionality has been updated with S Beam. In Android, file transfers initiated by NFC happen over Bluetooth but with S Beam, the Galaxy S III can transfer files over Wi-Fi, making them a lot faster. Unfortunately, this feature currently only works with another Galaxy S III. Also, when we tried transferring files to a Nexus S running Android 4.1, both phones refused to transfer content even using Bluetooth. This has been a common issue with NFC on Android where devices from different brands often fail to transfer files to each other.
There is also something called Smart Stay, which uses the front facing camera to see if you are looking at the screen and keeps the display on even when the display timer runs out. If it does not detect a face in front of the screen, it lets the display switch off when the timer runs out. Since this feature uses the front camera, it does not work terribly well when used in the dark but otherwise is quite useful.
AllShare Cast works like Apple's AirPlay, by streaming content to a device that is connected to the TV. There are some other features as well, but none of them are particularly worth talking about.
Apart from all these features, there are a ton of accelerometer-based gestures that you can use as well. Direct call lets you call a contact that is displayed on the screen simply by picking up the phone and putting it up against your ear. Smart alert vibrates the phone when you pick it up if there is a missed call or message, so you know even without turning the screen on. Double tap to top lets you tap on the top of the phone, which then takes you to the top of the list. This had the potential to work great but in my usage it only seemed to work in the contacts app and even then it was very difficult to get it to work. You had to physically hit the top of the phone with your finger several times for it to work.
Other gestures include holding on to an image in the gallery and then moving the phone to zoom and pan through the image. This also works for moving icons across multiple homescreens. You can shake the phone to search for nearby Bluetooth devices, turn it over mute calls and other sounds. You can swipe your palm across the display to take a screenshot (or alternatively press and hold power and home keys) or put your palm on the screen to pause the media you are playing.
While it's nice that Samsung has put in all these features into the phone, some of them feel half-baked or just plain useless. Most people will either never know they exist (and not miss much) or just keep them disabled like I did.
One last software feature to talk about in the Galaxy S III is perhaps the most popular (and controversial). I'm talking about S Voice, which received a lot of flak for being a rip-off of Siri found in the iPhone 4S (and now the new iPad). Leaving aside the obvious similarities in the design and functionalities, S Voice seems to work fairly well, even with my Indian accent. In terms of accuracy, it is on par with Siri, which means a lot of the time it does not understand what I'm saying. In terms of functionality, however, it seems to be a lot slower than Siri for some reason, taking several seconds to show a result. Neither, however, can match Google Now in Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, which does a much better job overall. It remains to be seen whether Samsung will adopt Google Now with the Android 4.1 update for the Galaxy S III or stick with the S Voice.
One thing I mentioned previously is the layout of the keys below the display. Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, which uses keys that are part of the display, Samsung went with separate keys at the bottom of the display. Now there are advantages of both methods. By having buttons as part of the display, their functionality can change depending upon the functionality requested by the app. They also fit nicely with the new Android design guidelines by Google. But by having the keys permanently part of the display, a sizable portion of the display is permanently wasted to display the keys, which could have otherwise been used by the app. This is where separate keys have an advantage, as the applications can then access the entire 1280 x 720 panel with no pesky keys at the bottom. And by having a proper menu button, Samsung has also avoided the strange problem of the lonely menu button that pops up on the One X's display in applications that don't follow the new design guidelines.
I mentioned before that the Galaxy S III is the most powerful Android smartphone available on the market today. This is something that can be seen most easily by running synthetic benchmarks on the phone, something which the Galaxy S III aces easily, even when put against powerful phones like the One X.
Actual phone performance, however, is a different thing altogether. We see a lot of phones where the specs on the box claim one thing and the actual performance is something else entirely and this is especially true for Android phones. In case of the Galaxy S III, I found the performance of the phone to be short of completely satisfactory. Even with all that horsepower under the hood, the phone does not feel as smooth as the iPhone or even the significantly weaker Windows Phone 7 devices. This is one aspect of the performance that Samsung should have concentrated on even further. I'm not saying that the phone is not smooth or fast; it is. What I'm saying is that the Galaxy S III does not reach that absolute perfection of UI smoothness that some of the other devices have achieved on other platforms with much weaker hardware.
If you are someone who is currently using an Android phone then the performance of the Galaxy S III will definitely seem satisfactory. The only major slow down I experienced on the phone was on the lockscreen, which took a considerable time to appear every time the power button was pressed. Considering how often you do this in the course of the day, you notice this very easily and it then becomes the bane of the phone's user experience. Hopefully future firmware upgrades will fix this issue.
One area where the Galaxy S III absolutely demolishes other Android phones is in gaming. You can throw any and every game on the Play Store at it and it will chew and spit it out at you. With all that power under the hood, the phone has no issues making mincemeat of even the most demanding games out there.
I did notice some heating issues on the Galaxy S III during gaming. The phone tends to get very hot near the bottom on the back during some games. Surprisingly, we noticed this while playing 2D games, which would barely tax the hardware. It may have something to do with the way the application was coded. Having said that, the phone does remain fairly warm while playing games, although not uncomfortably so.
One thing I was keen on testing on the Galaxy S IIIis the video playback performance. Samsung's Android phones have always shipped with the best video player in the business and the Galaxy S III is no different. The video player played most of the files we threw at except for videos in the MOV format and those with DTS audio codecs. The video player has tons of features, such as being able to split the file into nine chapters so you can skip to a particular section, subtitle support, separate brightness control, ability to change the playback speed, equalizer presets, color tone setting and an outdoor visibility mode that boosts the brightness so you can see the video even under sunlight.
One new feature in the video player is that it actually places the video in a small window on the screen, so you can continue using the phone while the video plays in a corner on the screen. Although a good demonstration of the phone's processing power, I found little use for this feature as the video often blocked a significant portion of the screen and making it difficult to see anything else. Another area where the phone flexes its hardware muscles is by showing live thumbnails of videos in the grid mode, although the playback isn't particularly smooth.
The loudspeaker on the back of the phone was sufficiently loud although the quality was not exceptional. Also, I've seen better speakers on Samsung's own phones, such as the Nexus S. Samsung does provide a decent pair of in-ear headset with the phone but it would be better to invest some more and get a higher quality pair.
The camera has often been the strong point of Samsung phones. If you read our Galaxy Note review you'd know how much we loved the camera on that phone, which was basically identical to the camera on theGalaxy S II. TheGalaxy S IIIhas a different sensor compared to these phones but maintains the 8 megapixel resolution with 1080p video recording.
The image quality on the Galaxy S III is very good. The camera gets the color, contrast and white balance right on most of the shots. There is a hint of over-sharpening but it is within acceptable limits and not as bad as on the One X. Noise is also well under control.
The only major issue I have with the image quality is the poor dynamic range, which has become something very common on smartphone cameras these days. Thanks to this, all the bright areas in the image appear as just white spaces with little to no detail. Thankfully, the HDR mode fixes this issue wonderfully, producing good looking, believable images (unlike the outrageous HDR mode on the One X, which gives the images a surreal look). You just need to make sure that the camera and the subject remains perfectly steady for a couple of seconds as the phone takes multiple images at different exposures and merges them.
The camera software on the Galaxy S III is well designed and gets the job done. It also has a fair amount of features, matching the standard set by all the other apps on this phone. There is also a burst mode like on the One X that takes 20 pictures in quick succession and lets you choose which ones to keep and automatically deletes the rest.
One cool mode in the Galaxy S IIIcamera is that you can single out a particular color and then only that color in the photo will be preserved while the rest of the image is turned into black and white. The phone lets you choose from blue, green and red/yellow. In my testing this mode worked extremely well with near perfect results almost every time. It's only with complex and numerous subjects (such as leaves on a tree) that the system occasionally gets foxed but otherwise it works very well.
It's worth mentioning just how fast the camera is on the Galaxy S III. Pressing the shutter button instantly takes a picture and because phone does not waste time displaying it to you, you can instantly move on to clicking the next picture.
1080p videos also look great. You get stereo sound thanks to two mic placed on both side of the phone (which you have to be careful not to block with your hands) and you also get continuous auto-focus. They have also fixed the issue with the focusing that was present on the Galaxy S II where the subject is not in focus when the video begins.
The Galaxy S III has a massive 2,100mAh battery somewhere inside that thin package. Samsung even managed to make the battery removable, without actually making the phone significantly thicker or wider. The thing is though, as big as the battery is, the phone's power consumption is similarly quite big. Because of this, even with such a large battery the phone just about manages to go through a day on a full charge. I'm not talking about basic things like calling or messaging here but stuff like gaming, web browsing and video playback. These are the things for which you buy these phones, after all.
In our video playback test, the Galaxy S III lasts for five and a half hours while continuously playing a 720p video.
Comparisons to the One X
You may have noticed all the comparisons to the One X in this review so far. It's no secret that the two are arch rivals and the flagship products of both the companies, fighting for the crown of the best smartphone out there. So which one is better?
Both have their set of advantages. The two big advantages in favor of the One X are the design and the display, which would be enough for most people to instantly go with the One X because they make such a big impression when you hold the phone for the first time in your hand.
The One X also has arguably the better looking interface of the two. The Nature UX on the Galaxy S III maybe a lot better than TouchWiz and have a lot of useful features but it still can't match the Sense UI in terms of visual appeal.
The Tegra 3 processor on the One X also gives the phone an advantage in gaming. Although it is not as powerful as the Exynos 4Quad on the Galaxy S III, there are quite a few games already that are already optimized for this processor, which not only make up for its relative weakness but also include extra visual effects that cannot be experienced on any other processor in the Android ecosystem.
Lastly, another major point in favor of the One X is the price, which is lower by almost ₹ 5,000 compared to the Galaxy S III. That's a serious amount of saving and not something you can easily dismiss.
Now coming over to the Galaxy S III, this phone easily has the more ergonomic design of the two. They may look similarly sized but while the One X is an ergonomic nightmare the Galaxy S III is infinitely more comfortable to use.
The UI on the Galaxy S III feels a lot faster. The One X is not exactly running a slow processor but the UI never quite felt very smooth, especially when scrolling through the homescreens or the applications. The Galaxy S III also just feels smoother and faster, which is something you notice very easily after using both the phones.
The UI may not be as attractive but it is loaded with useful little features that come in handy. Sure, there is a lot of unnecessary stuff there, but there is also a lot of genuinely useful stuff that you learn to appreciate when you use the phone on a daily basis.
The Galaxy S IIIalso has a memory card slot, which might seem like a minor feature but comes in really handy when you consider the multimedia capabilities of these devices.
Lastly, the camera is also better on the Galaxy S III.
Overall, the Galaxy S III is the better phone out of the two but by a very small margin. Unfortunately, the higher price tag offsets this margin and makes the two equal again. Had the phone been priced lower it would have been a no-brainer but as it stands now you are not going to get a lot more for the extra money you pay for the Galaxy S III.
The Galaxy S III is truly a wonderful device. It's powerful, it has a large, high resolution display, a great camera and despite its size is comfortable to use. It's in every way better than the Galaxy S II, which itself was an excellent smartphone.
However, the current price is far too high and considering Samsung's recent track record, it's not going to go down soon (if at all). This is the only thing that prevents me from recommending this phone over the One X, which costs significantly less in comparison and is an able smartphone, too.
If you're a fan of Samsung and appreciate all the extra things mentioned in this review, you should consider spending the extra few thousand rupees and getting this phone. But if you just want a good all-round Android smartphone, the HTC One X is the better option right now.
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