The rise of smartphones has been a truly impressive trend to watch. Devices that started as PDA/cellphone hybrids have quickly evolved into robust portable computing platforms. They’re still limited by relatively small screens and cramped physical inputs, but those restrictions seem like a small price to pay for the truly pocketable mini tablets we have today.
In the not-an-iPhone camp, Samsung’s Galaxy S III is the new hotness. This ultra-slim handset has a massive screen with a 720p resolution, a speedy SoC fabbed using 28-nm process technology, and user-friendly features like a microSDXC slot and an easily replaceable battery. On top of that foundation sits Google’s Android OS, which has been infused with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface tweaks and support for additional gestures.
We’ve largely steered clear of covering smartphones here at TR. However, as devices become more compelling computers, our interest in them grows. That’s part of the reason why the Galaxy S III has been at my side for the better part of a few weeks now. Also, I was shopping around for a new smartphone and couldn’t resist the opportunity for an extended test drive. Playing around with a handset briefly in-store doesn’t always provide an accurate sense of the thing. Read on to see what the Galaxy S III is like—and whether it’s become my daily driver.
A slick design
Like an increasing number of smartphones, the Galaxy S III combines a big screen with a svelte body. The enclosure is surprisingly slim considering what’s stuffed inside. However, there’s no getting around the footprint of the 4.8″ screen. Add the bezel, and you’re looking at a device measuring 5.4″ x 2.8″. Even at only 0.34″ thick, the Galaxy S III is a handful.
That said, the S III is also a relative lightweight. The handset tips the scales at just 133 grams, or marginally less than the current iPhone. Provided your pockets are big enough, the Galaxy certainly isn’t a challenge to carry around. I barely notice sitting on the thing when it’s in my back pocket, perhaps because it has a much lower profile than the wallet squished under the other cheek.
The unit I’ve been using has a two-tone color scheme that pairs purplish back and bezel pieces with a blue rim around the edge. Don’t let the faux finish fool you. Despite their brushed aluminum appearance, most of the exterior panels are plastic. The whole body is covered by a glossy coat that effectively removes any texture and makes the Galaxy feel almost slippery.
I’m all for low-friction touchscreen surfaces, but the rest of the device should have some grip. The Galaxy S III has almost escaped my grasp numerous times over the past few weeks. You’ll want to add a case, if not to provide something to hold onto, then to cushion the inevitable crash onto unforgiving pavement.
In addition to lubricating the exterior, the shiny surfaces pick up plenty of fingerprints. The pseudo brush strokes mask the smudges a little, but not enough to stop the Galaxy from becoming yet another reminder of why glossy plastic is a bad choice for handheld devices.
You know, I’m not so sure clicky home buttons are a good idea, either. I’ve heard a couple of iPhone users complain about their home buttons flaking out over time, and the same thing happened to my Palm Pre. It’s probably only a matter of time before the Galaxy S III’s home button becomes unreliable.
The touch-sensitive buttons to the left and right should be much more durable. They offer haptic feedback in the form of a subtle vibration, nicely making up for the lack of tactile clicks. This input arrangement allows the S III to cover Android’s basic buttons without cannibalizing precious screen real estate, unlike Google’s most recent Nexus devices.
As one might expect, the Galaxy’s integrated speaker is tiny and hopelessly underpowered. Our sample lacked earbuds, but I was pleasantly surprised by the output quality of the 3.5-mm audio jack. When paired with my Koss PortaPro headphones, the Galaxy produced good, clean sound with more low-end oomph than I was expecting. The rare times I actually used the S III as a phone, call quality was excellent.
Smartphones seem to have replaced point-and-shoot cameras for most folks, and the Galaxy S III works pretty well in that role. The 8MP rear camera produces decent pictures and offers a nifty HDR mode that snaps shots at two different exposures before combining the results, which can then be destroyed via your favorite Instagram filter. Naturally, 1080p video recording is supported. There’s a front-facing camera for video chat, too.
Big screens and back doors
If you’re considering the Galaxy S III, odds are you’re in the market for something with a big screen. At 4.8″ diagonally, the display is just 0.5″ short of the humongous screen on the Galaxy Note and a full 1.3″ larger than the iPhone 4’s Retina panel. Much has been made of the Retina’s 330 PPI, and the Galaxy comes close to matching that pixel density. The Galaxy’s 1280×720 display resolution works out to 306 PPI.
At typical distances, the screen looks great to my eyes. Text is sharp and colors are vivid, although there’s a clear bias toward the blue end of the spectrum. That tint is typical for the underlying Super AMOLED panel technology.
The screen’s individual pixels are difficult to see up close, but I noticed the same screen-door effect Cyril observed on the Galaxy Note, which uses a similar Super AMOLED panel with a pentile subpixel layout. My face has to be about 6″ from the display to see any hint of the associated lattice pattern, though.
The problem with typical smartphone screens, and indeed the full-color screens on most electronics devices, is that their backlights are no match for the raging fireball in the sky. Even the best displays wilt in direct sunlight, and the Galaxy S III’s is no different. Fortunately, there’s sufficient backlight brightness to for visibility in the shade and more than enough to be blinding indoors. You can click the buttons under the image above to see each lighting condition with the screen set to full brightness.
More often than not, I found myself adjusting the S III’s brightness manually. The auto option’s output is simply too dim in most conditions, resulting in a picture forced to share focus with reflections in the screen’s glossy surface. If a smartphone maker’s auto brightness algorithm is going to be that conservative, it would be nice if users were given some freedom to tweak the sensitivity.
At least you have the freedom to expand the Galaxy’s internal storage, which consists of 16GB or 32GB of flash depending on the configuration. All it takes in a thumbnail to pop off the back panel, revealing a microSDXC slot that can accept memory cards up to 64GB.
Our view of the innards also highlights the removable battery, which is a beefy 8Wh unit. Swapping the battery requires neither tools nor a genius.
The Galaxy S III regularly lasted over 24 hours while I was testing it, but I’m admittedly not a heavy user. When you work from home sitting in front of a combined 137 inches of screen area and have multiple tablets floating around the house, smartphones don’t get much action.
At home, the Galaxy pulled most of its data from my Wi-Fi network. The S III supports the 802.11n standard, and Bluetooth 4.0 is included for the headset crowd. A 4G LTE modem takes care of broadband connectivity on the go.
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5GHz|
|Display||4.8″ super AMOLED with 1280×720 resolution|
|Software||Android 4.0 with Samsung TouchWiz interface|
|Ports||1 Micro USB 2.0
1 analog audio headphone port
|Expansion slots||1 microSDXC slot (up to 64GB)|
HSPA+ 850/900/1900/2100 (up to 21 Mbps)
|Camera||8-megapixel rear with LED flash
|Input devices||Capacitive touch screen|
|Dimensions||5.38″ x 2.77″ x 0.34″ (136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm)|
|Weight||4.69 oz (133 g)|
|Battery||7.98Wh (2100 mAh) lithium-ion|
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 SoC can be found inside Galaxy S III handsets sold in the US. Wikipedia tells me the specific model number is MSM8960, which denotes a 28-nm dually with ARM-based “Krait” cores clocked at 1.5GHz. An Adreno 225 GPU joins the CPU cores on the chip, bringing DirectX 9-class graphics to the party. Samsung adds a monstrous 2GB of RAM to cap things off.
We haven’t run the Galaxy through our benchmark suite, but I can tell you it’s very fast. Applications load quickly, and there’s a snappy feel to the whole user experience. Even without Android 4.1 Jelly Bean’s “Project Butter” responsiveness enhancements, the user interface feels agile. We’ve captured some common tasks on our high-speed camera at 240 FPS to illustrate. For reference, a second clip shows the same actions on the Galaxy Nexus, which has a slower CPU but is running the latest Android release.
Jelly Bean’s optimized UI is definitely more fluid, although it doesn’t necessarily feel much faster in day-to-day use. The Galaxy S III holds its own, and the UI transitions exhibit less hitching than we’ve captured on the ICS-equipped Transformer Pad Infinity tablet, which boasts a quad-core Tegra 3 SoC.
Nobody beats the TouchWiz?
The Galaxy S III will purportedly get its Jelly Bean update soon. Since Samsung layers its own TouchWiz software and UI tweaks on top of Android, time is needed to test the new OS and make sure everything works as it should. Some of the TouchWiz enhancements are better than others, and a few really stand out.
Take something as simple as the battery life indicator in the status bar. Stock Android implementations show just an icon, but TouchWiz adds a numerical percentage that’s much easier to read. Pulling down the notification area reveals loads of handy shortcuts for things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and different operating modes. Too bad the notification area lacks control over the screen brightness.
Instead of the usual five home pages, the TouchWiz UI serves up seven. The ability to flip through these pages continuously should be very handy for people with lots of widgets and shortcuts. By default, Android doesn’t let users jump from the far-right to far-left pages without swiping through everything in between. The S III’s page looping capability does restrict the background wallpaper to a single portrait image, though. Getting the usual panning background to play nicely with the wrap-around looping would probably prove tricky.
Likely because I have XL-sized mitts, I found the Galaxy S III to be relatively easy to use with one hand—slick exterior aside. My thumb reaches the bottom three quarters of the screen without having to stretch, which is more than enough coverage for the pop-up keyboard. Of course, I also have big thumbs, which makes the touchscreen keyboard a little frustrating to use in portrait mode. Typos were much less frequent when tapping the larger keys offered by the landscape orientation.
The keyboard features multiple modes and includes support for Swype-style continuous input. For me, the most useful feature is the swipe gesture that flips the keyboard between the alpha keys and the first set of numbers and symbols. In both portrait and landscape modes, this gesture proved quicker to activate than the on-screen key assigned to the same task.
As far as additional gestures go, keyboard swipes are just the tip of the iceberg. The Galaxy is packed with extra control options, most of which rely on manipulating the handset’s body rather tracing one’s fingers across the screen. Media playback can be paused by placing the Galaxy face down on a surface, and icons can be moved between pages by tilting the device left and right. Want to scroll to the top of your contacts list? Simply tap the top edge of the case.
Apart from the keyboard swipes, I rarely used any of the S III’s advanced gestures. They feel more cumbersome than doing things the old-fashioned way, a sense compounded by the fact that some gestures don’t register reliably. That said, the tilt-enhanced zooming and panning controls are pretty sweet, especially since they offer adjustable sensitivity. It’s nice to see Samsung exploring alternative gestures and input methods, even if some of them are a little gimmicky.
Speaking of gimmicks, the Galaxy S III’s video player has a pop-out function that puts content in a floating window that can be dragged around the screen. The idea is that users can keep watching video while performing other tasks, like reading email, surfing the web, and incessantly tweeting plot details. There’s just one problem: the pop-out window is tiny. If you think watching video spanning a 4.8″ screen is painful, try squinting at a window measuring less than 2″ diagonally. No thanks.
Another questionable feature is S Voice, a Siri knock-off that proved too frustrating to use with any regularity. The speech translation engine built into Jelly Bean seems to do a better job of decoding my voice than either Siri or Samsung’s software. Voice control does have potential. However, the only thing more obnoxious than loudly talking to someone on your smartphone is loudly talking to your smartphone.
Like most folks, my smartphone provides an all-important link to my personal and work calendars. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S III’s default scheduling app is dreadfully ugly. The interface is dominated by a mix of brown and beige tones that in no way match the colors used elsewhere in the OS. Samsung is apparently going for a simulated leather look, as evidenced by the textured panel in the top-right corner of the screenshot above. S Planner is otherwise a nice improvement over Android’s default Calendar app. Too bad the colors taint the experience.
As someone who has grown accustomed to largely stock Android implementations, I expected Samsung’s TouchWiz tweaks to annoy me more than they did. There’s more good than bad, I think, and potentially a lot more good with some refinement here and there. Some of the skinning seems entirely unnecessary, though. Do we really need different icons throughout the Android settings menu? I think not.
As a premium smartphone, the Galaxy S III ticks all the right boxes. The screen is huge, the body is slim, and there’s a potent processor capable of handling everything from productivity apps to games. Throw in 4G LTE connectivity, a decent camera, good sound quality, easily expandable storage, and a replaceable battery, and the Galaxy looks very tempting.
The only glaring omission is an all-important update to the latest Jelly Bean version of Android. That’s coming soon, we hear, and I’m inclined to cut Samsung a little slack given how deep its TouchWiz OS enhancements go.
As a brand-new device, the Galaxy S III was pretty much guaranteed a Jelly Bean update. However, older Samsung handsets may not be updated to Google’s latest OS, which makes me question whether the S III will keep pace with major OS revisions that come after Android 4.1. Samsung’s history doesn’t leave much room for optimism; even if updates are released, they may not come in a timely manner. Based on the progress Google made with Jelly Bean, I wouldn’t want to miss out on Krispy Kreme—or whatever the next version of Android is called.
With an on-contract price of $200 through AT&T (or $160 in Canada with a three-year term), the Galaxy S III is unquestionably a high-end device. It would be nice if the lofty price tag came with some assurances about future OS updates, at least for the length of a typical cellular contract.
The uncertainty surrounding upcoming Android updates is one reason I decided against picking up a Galaxy S III for myself. Another is the handset’s slick exterior, which still makes me slightly nervous when holding the device. Then there’s the dim auto-brightness profile and the associated need for frequent manual adjustment. By far the biggest factor was the cost, though. I could justify splurging on a high-end smartphone if I were a heavy user, but working from home surrounded by multiple PCs and tablets leaves me with little desire to use anything with this small of a screen.
Calling a 4.8″ smartphone display “small” seems a little silly, but even a 7″ device like the Nexus tablet is much more usable thanks to its larger screen and input area. The Nexus 7 won’t fit in my pocket or provide Internet access on the go, which is why I ended up with the smartphone equivalent: Samsung’s own Galaxy Nexus. It’s plenty fast, practically free on contract, has no region lock, and shouldn’t have to wait for future Android updates. I do miss some of the S III’s TouchWiz tweaks, but not as much as I enjoy being free of its quirks.