Chock full of original features, a new-and-improved TouchWiz interface and a 2,100 mAh battery (which should give it ample battery life), Samsung says the GS3 outperforms the GS2 and competes single-handed with the latest generation of high-end Android phones.
Does the Samsung Galaxy S3 really leave the competition paddling in its wake? Find out below...
DESIGN & HANDLING
What makes the new star smartphone from the world's leading mobile manufacturer stand out is its specs—not its design, which, though sober and clean, at the end of the day isn't anything drastically new.
Compared with recent products from Sony, Nokia and HTC, which have taken particular care to the look of their phones, the S3 lacks in daring. But, of course, design is always a matter of taste. You decide what you like.
The Galaxy S III (left) and the HTC One X (right): glossy vs matte
While we're fond of the rounded lines and edges on this new model, which is a welcome break from the more angular S2, we wish Samsung hadn't gone with an all-plastic body, no matter how good the quality of materials is. Visually speaking, it doesn't exactly scream "state-of-the-art".
Samsung's tour de force resides is the fact that for such a big phone, the size, weight and overall handling are remarkably well-balanced. Of course, you won't likely forget about it sitting in your jeans pocket. But it fits surprisingly well in your palm (although those of us with smaller hands will find certain features difficult to use without a second hand) and it's light as a feather (133 g). This is even enough to make you appreciate the plastic casing, which is what allows the light weight.
All in all, the excellent finish goes a long way to make up for the lack of a more "adventurous" design.
A word about the two touch-sensitive buttons below the screen—on more than one occasion we ended up touching one of them by accident, activating the corresponding function (Back / Settings). This can especially happen when using the camera: the function quits out of nowhere, just because your finger happened to brush against the Back button. That's something to get used to if you don't want to make that mistake all the time.
One highly practical feature of the S3 is an LED at the top-left of the screen that flashes when you receive a notification and changes colour depending whether it's a text or an e-mail.
Now on to the superb, 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED display, which we reviewed last week.
This stunning screen provides high detail and more balanced colours than the Galaxy S2. Colours are more neutral, a bit less "out there" with a Delta E of 5.3. While the colour temperature has been slightly reduced, there is still a tendency towards blue, especially in white areas of the image (like in web pages). With excellent contrast and good brightness levels, you shouldn't have trouble seeing what's going on onscreen—even in bright sunlight.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
Being such a heavyweight in the market, Samsung has managed to bypass Google's few recommendations for Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) to develop an interface in which the firm's own applications, like Music Hub or Game Hub, take centre stage.
Unlike the latest mobiles on Android ICS, this handset has a microSD port so you can boost the internal storage. Like the S2, it still has two touch-sensitive buttons under the screen and a physical button, which with a short press takes you back to the homescreen or with a long press opens the multitasking centre. As a result, there's no touch-control for accessing multitasking like in other current Android phones.
The enhanced Samsung TouchWiz interface covers up the underlying Android OS relatively well and is both dynamic and user-friendly. Android purists may not appreciate Samsung's add-on, diluting Android with home-grown graphics and navigation systems. However, it's also more than likely that plenty of users will get used to using it in no time and have relatively few complaints—especially since first-time users are effectively guided through the new interface in this 'pick up and use' smartphone.
Although TouchWiz has been noticeably enhanced (with clear, minimalist graphics, alphabetical app sorting, folders for user content, new software functions, etc.), it still doesn't seem quite as rich and advanced as the HTC Sense interface. However, as with the overall design, it's ultimately a matter of taste. The main thing to bear in mind is that the overall user experience has improved in this handset, and is certainly more accomplished than mobiles running previous versions of TouchWiz.
screen is now home to four user-chosen apps and one permanent link to the app and widget menu.
Obviously, we were sure to check out S-Voice, the voice assistant à la Apple Siri. Pressing twice on the central button activates this function but, to be honest, we didn't really think it was up to much. In fact, we quickly got annoyed with the way it kept misinterpreting what we were saying. All in all, the software still needs work and Siri remains a step ahead, in spite of its own obvious imperfections.
Some nice new features. Right: swipe your finger to the left over a contact to send them a text or to the right to call them.
Luckily, Samsung has included some functions that are much more useful and more effectively developed than S-Voice. Most of these can be found in the Motion section of the settings menu.
For example, you can set the phone to silence the ringtone when you place it face-down on a table (although that's nothing new) and to vibrate when you pick it up again, notifying you that new messages have arrived. You can also call someone whose text message you just read simply by bringing the phone up to your ear—the S3 then automatically dials the sender's number. Similarly, by activating Direct Call, you can answer calls by simply lifting the phone up to your ear—no need to press any buttons. Note, however, that we didn't find this function 100% reliable, as our Galaxy S3 didn't manage to pick up the call automatically every time.
An effective notification system with fast access (along the top) to settings like Wi-Fi and brightness.
Right: multitasking manager.
Another nice touch is that you can now copy what's onscreen by swiping the display to the left or right. Another handy touch-sensitive control in the Galaxy S3 is a double tap on the top of the handset to jump back to the top of a list (contacts, e-mails, etc.). That said, we still prefer the sleek iOS/iPhone system that jumps you back to the top of a long page by simply touching the top of the screen.
Other new ideas are Social Tag and Buddy Photo Share. These Samsung-made applications use face-recognition software to visually identify contacts in your phone so you can tag people more easily on Facebook, view their Facebook activity and share snaps with contacts via text message or e-mail (see below).
One great new feature is Smart Stay, an intelligent standby system that stops the screen from going on standby when watching long videos. That means you don't have touch the screen every other minute to keep it awake. The Galaxy S3 uses a front-facing sensor to detect whether a viewer's eyes are still watching the screen and keeps the display active for as long as it takes for you to finish watching your video or reading your article or e-book. It may not sound like much, but—believe us—it's incredibly useful!
The onscreen keyboard is excellent, precise, responsive. Basically, you can say bye-bye to typos.
The Galaxy S3 is a fast, responsive handset that never flinches. In fact, it never once dropped the ball while we were testing it. Not once. Browsing through menus is ultra smooth (more so than with HTC's One X, if you really want to nitpick), apps download quickly and even complex web pages load like the wind. Plus, effective multitasking means the S3 is able to run several applications and functions without slowing the handset down. The benchmarks show the Galaxy S3 miles ahead of its rivals (including the HTC One X), both on graphics processing (smooth graphics even in heavyweight games and fluid 1080p videos) and in terms of pure processing power (CPU).
Although pages load quickly and the screen is comfortable to read, the browser's design could be better.
The good news is that Opera is available in the Play Store.
With all this onboard power, it'd be great to see some games and functions that make full use of all the S3's potential. While users of Tegra 3 phones can access all kinds of exclusive games developed specifically for this CPU in the TegraZone, developers are still waiting for Samsung's go-ahead to make games for its Exynos chips. In the end, this could make mobile gamers opt for a HTC One X or the upcoming LG Optimus 4X HD.
As well as paying great attention to the Galaxy S3's core specs, Samsung hasn't overlooked the built-in camera in its latest flagship handset. There's no physical button to access the photo/video camera but this cameraphone boasts a backlit sensor with stabilisation. As we outlined in our recent test, this phone makes an excellent pocket snapper. It takes and saves photos quickly, and is up there with the best cameraphones of the moment, including the Apple iPhone 4S and HTC One X. It's even a little faster than the One X, which is already super fast when it comes to shooting pictures.
The camera's interface is very nice to use, especially since you can move all the buttons round into the order you like. The camera also features face detection (although the function for detecting when a subject's eyes are open isn't all that reliable), as well as an HDR mode, panorama function, burst mode and best photo function (the camera shoots 20 consecutive photos, then selects the best shot). Users can access ISO settings, and the macro mode is pretty effective for a smartphone.
The camera interface is user-friendly and you can take a photo while filming a video
The video mode gives decent results (although it's a different story entirely for the sound) with stabilisation that's OK for a smartphone. However, you might not want to zoom in too far, as this soon causes digital noise. You can take a photo while filming video by pressing on a shutter-release icon in the top right corner of the screen—a great feature, and something already seen in HTC's One series phones.
Another new video feature is Pop Up Play, with which you can carry on watching a film (although only movies stored on the phone's internal memory) while simultaneously doing something completely different with your mobile, such as web browsing or reading e-mails. The video is overlaid in a corner of the screen (see below), taking both human and handset multitasking to another level!
Audio quality doesn't seem to have been updated in the Galaxy S3, as our lab results were extremely similar to those seen with the Galaxy S2. The output is therefore good quality with no signal distortion and a decent maximum volume level. The built-in speaker is on the better side of average compared with competitors, so it's fine for occasional use (but not more).
The integrated audio player still doesn't have enough settings. In fact, it doesn't seem to have any new features. The included hands-free kit is fine for phone calls, but for listening to music you'll definitely need to invest in a better-quality pair of headphones.
With its 2100 mAh battery, the Galaxy S3 has plenty of juice—much more so than the S2. Some, however, may say that outlasting the S2 wasn't exactly hard. The Galaxy S3 is up there with the Huawei Honor, another model with a great battery life for this kind of phone. The Galaxy S3 can easily hold out for a day and a half before it needs recharging. Even though HTC's main competitor, the One X, has been updated to boost its battery life, the S3 still has more staying power.
To Sum Up ...
The Galaxy S2 was a real hit—there's no doubt about that. In fact, Samsung shifted S2s by the crate-load. The Korean tech firm is clearly counting on repeating its success with the Galaxy S3, especially with key rival, the upcoming iPhone, not too far around the corner. But with a screen this size, Samsung is taking a risk—are there really that many people out there who want a smartphone of these proportions? The Galaxy Note is proving popular in spite of its hybrid XXL format; but can Samsung really get away with imposing a phone this big and indiscreet on the masses of common-or-garden mobile users? Unless, of course, Samsung now has the trendsetting power to impose and popularise new product formats, create new norms and make users really want a massive new device they never have imagined using before—a bit like Apple has been doing over the last three years with its iPhone and iPad ...