Review: Samsung Galaxy S III is a technological triumph

How do you review a phone like the Galaxy S III? It’s already been subject to so much speculation, exposure, and early judgment — some of it coming from myself, admittedly — that it feels overwhelming to try and condense what it means to everyone into a single treatise. To Samsung, it’s the new flagship handset to keep the company ahead of every other Android OEM through 2012, for most people it’s a device that stretches the definition of the smartphone form factor, and to mobile gaming enthusiasts it’s potentially the most powerful platform yet.

Being a spec leader isn’t new to Samsung, but the Galaxy S III betrays an even loftier ambition: South Korea’s largest chaebol wants to also be known as a front runner in software. Android 4.0 is the basis upon which Samsung has built a formidable list of new and returning enhancements: S Beam, S Memo, S Planner, S Voice, Smart Stay, Direct Call, and even a limited-term exclusive of the Flipboard Android app. Throwing in 50GB of free Dropbox storage for two years makes Samsung’s offering seem comprehensive, but is it cohesive? That’ll be the primary question to answer for people wondering if the long wait for the Galaxy S III has been worth it.

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Hardware

Everything you do with the Galaxy S III starts and ends with its 4.8-inch Super AMOLED screen, so it’s fitting that Samsung has sought to minimize the amount of material surrounding it. As big as the display is, it doesn’t make the phone feel terribly unwieldy. You’ll still find yourself adjusting your grip to reach the top corners, but there’s almost no degradation in usability relative to a 4.3-inch device like the Galaxy S II.

As is now almost standard across flagship handsets, one piece of glass covers the entire front, punctuated by the home button at the bottom and the earpiece at the top. A silvery band wraps around the Galaxy S III’s sides, and its curvature is extended by the rear cover, which is white on my review unit or a faux-brushed aluminum blue on the alternate version. I’ve never been a fan of plastic being made to look like metal — it feels disingenuous both on the part of the company selling the product and, subsequently, the person owning it — and I find it makes the Galaxy S III look cheap. It’s okay for Samsung to use plastic to build this phone, but less so to feign that it’s made of higher-grade materials. The white version suffers from this issue in a more diminished way than the darker variant — its silver sides have been subjected to a similar treatment as the Pebble Blue GS III.

Aside from being somewhat aesthetically challenged, the Galaxy S III feels like a very well built device. It’s thin, light, and shaped just right to make handling it a joy. While I still prefer the sharper looks of the HTC One X, the Galaxy S III feels gentler and easier in the hand. Perhaps we can finally accuse a mobile phone manufacturer of subjugating form to the needs of function.

Although the back cover is made of a glossy and seemingly flimsy plastic, Samsung’s previous Android handsets with similar plastic shells have tended to be very durable. The Galaxy S and Nexus S would pick up scratches easily, but you could drop them almost on a daily basis without fear of something cracking or buckling. Samsung also deserves credit for flattening out the rear of this phone — there are no more humps at the bottom as with the previous Galaxy S iterations, plus there’s no protrusion around the camera as you’ll find on the HTC One X.

Physical measurements for the Galaxy S III are almost identical to HTC’s One X, its most direct competitor, and in practice you really cannot tell a difference between the two. When you factor in that Samsung’s phone fits a significantly larger battery (2100mAh versus the One X’s 1800mAh) and actually lets you swap it out thanks to the removable cover, you have to hand the functional design advantage to the Galaxy S III. Its microSD card slot also makes it more versatile in terms of storage, however you can’t hot-swap Micro SIM cards on the Galaxy S III the way you can on the One X. Still, my general impression of Samsung’s new flagship is that the closer your scrutinize this phone, the more impressive it becomes.

The ergonomic advantages of the Galaxy S III also extend to the few buttons it has. I’ve grown to prefer Samsung’s choice of mounting the power button on the side, which is particularly handy with taller devices such as this. It’s also good to have a physical home button at the center, giving you a tactile reference point, much in the same way as the little nubs on the F and J keys on desktop keyboards serve to orient your fingers. It’s the little things that count. And speaking of little things, I love that Samsung has borrowed the disguised status LED light from the Galaxy Nexus, placing it in the top left corner of the Galaxy S III.

Display

Serving as the primary means for both input and output makes the display the most critical aspect of a mobile device’s hardware. Everything else can be perfect, but if you can’t stand looking at the screen, you will not enjoy using your phone. Samsung’s long been a leader in this area with its Super AMOLED displays, particularly the latest generation of Super AMOLED Plus panels. Regrettably, the Galaxy S III is a step behind the cutting edge of Samsung’s research — most likely because a S-AMOLED Plus display of this size and resolution is not yet feasible — leaving it with a 4.8-inch 1280 x 720 Pentile AMOLED display.

As keen as I am to consign the RGBG Pentile subpixel arrangement to the annals of history, the fact is that Samsung’s use of it in the Galaxy S III is not something that negatively impacts the user experience. If you try hard, you will be able to spot evidence of the Pentile matrix affecting the smoothness of fine edges, but that’s only of academic importance. This 4.8-inch display can be held up proudly alongside most other AMOLED panels. Sadly, while that may have been a great compliment a year or two ago, the quality and viewing angles of AMOLED have recently been bypassed by refinements in LCD technology. HTC’s One X is the standout demonstration of that — offering unrivalled clarity, color balance, and viewing angles. In all of those respects, the Galaxy S III is one or two tiers below the One X: its display has the usual blue tinge characteristic of AMOLED displays, which gets worse as you begin to look at it off-center.

Relying on the GS III’s automatic brightness is also problematic, as the phone tends to lean toward under-illuminating itself, making it usually a little too dark for comfortable use. Exactly as with the Galaxy S II, the auto-brightness jumps around in discrete stages, making for abrupt changes in brightness instead of a more gradual transition.

Touch responsiveness from the Galaxy S III’s screen and the two capacitive buttons underneath it (framing the physical home key) is perfectly reliable and gives no cause for complaint. On the whole, I’d say this is a display that will serve the vast majority of people extremely well, provided they’re never unfortunate enough to see it side by side with a One X.

Camera

The famously large 2100mAh battery within the Galaxy S III has few competitors on the market. Only the Galaxy Note, at 2500mAh, and the Droid RAZR Maxx, at 3300mAh, can claim to contain larger cells inside smartphone-like enclosures. That gets the GS III off to a good start, though you shouldn’t expect it to actually be too far ahead of the competition: its vast 4.8-inch display and superpowered quad-core processor do make full use of the energy available. Under intensive use, the Galaxy S III lasted a solid seven hours before flashing up a low battery alert — that time included capturing 137 GPS-tagged photos and six 1080p video clips at an average length of 40 seconds, running multiple instances of our favorite benchmarks, and the usual poking and prodding that comes with investigating a new device. The following day, I was able to go from 8AM to 11PM before facing a critical battery warning, while again giving the phone regular use and syncing up Gmail, Twitter, and Flipboard.

Predictably, battery drain was at its fastest when the self-illuminating AMOLED display was turned on, with a period of nearly three hours around lunchtime knocking only a few percentage points off my energy reserves. With judicious use, you could probably go a full 24 hours between recharging this phone — not terribly impressive to someone coming from a featurephone, but very reasonable given the size of the display and the amount of power the Galaxy S III offers.

Another note of import with regard to the GS III’s battery is that it houses the phone’s NFC chip. That’s a repeat of the way Samsung did things with the Galaxy Nexus and shouldn’t pose a problem to most people, but if you have your heart on set on buying multiple batteries for this handset and using it as a true road warrior’s sidekick, it’ll be something to keep in mind.

Audio output is handled by a single loudspeaker on the rear, which can be muffled easily by pressing a finger against it, but doesn’t seem to suffer too much when the Galaxy S III is laid on its back. In any case, much like the front-facing camera it’s just passable in quality and will be used only in emergencies. Raising the volume up doesn’t lead to much distortion and you’ll have no trouble using it as a speakerphone.

The bundled pair of in-ear headphones are of reasonable quality. They don’t have a particularly wide sound stage and don’t isolate external noise as well as you might expect, but they have strong (slightly exaggerated) bass response and are adequate substitutes for your higher-quality listening gear. I’ve not yet been able to confirm this with Samsung, but early reports suggest the GS III has a Wolfson DAC residing within it, like the Nexus S before it, which is a sign that the sound quality you’ll obtain from this phone will not disappoint. I listened to a Deadmau5 album on the GS III with a set of Shure SE315 in-ear headphones plugged in and I was not disappointed.

If you care to tweak your music a little further, Samsung’s Music Player app includes a vast range of EQ presets. You can pick the one that’s most to your liking or leave it automated and let the phone do the thinking for you. There’s a Music Player widget for the home screen and playback controls automatically appear in the notifications menu, but there are no music controls on the lock screen. Additionally, using the volume rocker now brings up the option to directly alter the full set of volume levels, giving you more direct access to that menu.

Voice calls on the Galaxy S III were a revelation. Call clarity was noticeably superior to any phones I’ve used recently, conveying natural sound in both directions. Reception was also reliably strong and data speeds are indistinguishable from those obtained with the well-performing HTC One X.

Software

Android 4.0 may underpin every interaction you have with the Galaxy S III, but Samsung has diligently skinned almost everything about the operating system. The only break from the norm is that I don’t actually mind that fact. TouchWiz, particularly in this latest iteration, is the only Android OEM skin that I feel I can live with over the long term. As excellent a device as the HTC One X is, Sense 4 pretty much forces you to install Apex Launcher in order to restore some of Android’s sanity and visual consistency. This Nature UX-branded version of TouchWiz doesn’t invite such feelings of dread. I wouldn’t describe it as pretty nor particularly efficient — the space saved by moving the soft Android keys into the bottom bezel has been taken up by vast spaces between icons on the home screen — but plenty of its changes are actually for the better.

The primary advantage here is a somewhat counterintuitive one. Samsung has broken with Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich not only in replacing the soft Android keys with its tried and trusted combination of capacitive and physical buttons, but also in its choice of functions. Instead of a dedicated multitasking key, the Galaxy S III retains a context-dependent menu button. Multitasking has been relegated to a long press of the home button. In regular use, I found this to be the most sensible way to arrange those keys, better than even Google’s own solution. Moving the multitasking thumbnails from left to right is also helpful to right-handed users, who can now reach them more easily.

Other improvements over stock Android 4.0 include a set of quick toggles in the slide-down notifications tray plus the aforementioned trash icon shortcut in the gallery app and quick access to granular volume control. The app launcher is refreshingly sparse, carrying no aesthetic baggage and giving you total control: you can hide unwanted apps, rearrange the grid to your liking, or switch to a list view. It does help that entering and exiting that menu is done with scintillating fluidity thanks to the excellent processor inside the Galaxy S III. That power is also harnessed on the lock screen, where the default unlocking animation is a water ripple — pretty much the only evidence I could find of Samsung’s supposed Nature UX, that really is a soulless branding exercise.

Some old TouchWiz favorites are still here, such as swiping a contact’s name one way to call and another way to message. You can do that on the contacts list or from within the messaging app. It’s not entirely consistent with Google’s effort in Android 4.0 to make lateral swipes the central method for dismissing items — as witnessed in the multitasking overview and notifications tray, both present on the Galaxy S III — but I find those shortcuts useful to have anyway. Getting to grips with them just might not be as quick and intuitive as a thoroughly coherent UI.

On the topic of intuitiveness, I’m sure there’s a way to alter the four quick-launch icons present on the lock screen, but after two full days with the Galaxy S III, I’ve still not managed to dig deep enough into the configuration menus to figure out how that’s done. That’s not helped by Samsung customizing the entire settings menu.

Underneath all the Samsung spit-polish, you’ll still find the core strengths of Android’s latest version, including the updated Gmail client, compatibility with Chrome for Android, detailed data and battery usage charts, and simply all-around better performance. The Calendar app has been eschewed in favor of Samsung’s own S Planner, which I consider a move in the wrong direction.

Two other aspects of the user experience are troublesome. Firstly, there are still bugs in the UI that have not been ironed out — when waking the phone, you’re sometimes greeted by a quick glimpse of the last home screen you were on before the lock screen appears, and at other times you have to wait for a weirdly long time for anything to show up. That detracts from the otherwise very quick navigation on offer from the Galaxy S III. The second pain point is that you can’t create folders by dragging icons atop one another — you have to pick up an app from the app launcher, drag it to a dedicated “Create folder” link and only then place that folder on your home screen. Don’t ask me why that is the way it is.

Added Functionality

Although the lock screen is bereft of any music playback controls, it can be used to pause anything you’re listening to — just by placing the palm of your hand over the display. The same action works when playing back video as well, while a lateral swipe of your palm across the screen will take a screenshot. Both are part of Samsung’s deluge of motion controls, though they’re arguably the only ones that will get any consistent use after the initial surge of curiosity.

One truly unique feature to the Galaxy S III is the introduction of a picture-in-picture (Samsung calls it “Pop up play”) option. It’s available with any video you have on the phone, allowing you to keep watching it in a small, repositionable window atop the usual phone interface. I still haven’t made up my mind whether I consider this a gimmick or not, though there’s no denying that it’s highly impressive in technical terms.

S Beam is Samsung’s enhancement of the standard Android Beam in ICS. With Android Beam, you can transfer small packets of information NFC-capable devices, but with S Beam you can use the NFC connection to initiate a Wi-Fi Direct linkup between the Galaxy S III and another compatible device to transfer far bigger files. There are two problems with this. Firstly, I’ve yet to see Android Beam work reliably, and my attempts to send an image and a Maps location over from the GS III to the HTC One X were met with resolute failure. I was only able to successfully transfer a contact card between the two phones. The second issue is simply one of scarcity — the only phone you can have S Beam relations with at the moment is another Galaxy S III. Hence, equipped with only one review device, I haven’t been able to test out the reliability of that function.

More tweaks from Samsung include the ability to Direct Call a contact you’re composing a text message to by just lifting the phone to your ear, and a Smart Alert that will vibrate the phone when you pick it up after an extended period of idleness to inform you of missed calls or unread messages. The former has a spectacularly narrow set of legitimate use scenarios, but works, for what that’s worth, and the latter misleads more often than it helps, making me think I only just received a new message or email.

Smart Stay is yet another software feature to be granted its own marketing name. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary — the front-facing camera tracks your eyes and if it identifies that you’re still looking at the handset when not interacting with it, it won’t switch the display off at the usual screen timeout time. Put the phone down on a desk so that it can’t see your eyes directly or try using it in the dark and Smart Stay becomes decidedly dumb. I’m not begrudging the inclusion of this feature, it’s reliable most of the time and has its uses, but Samsung didn’t need to overstate its intelligence the way it did during that dizzying press event earlier this month.

The additions of Flipboard and the bonus Dropbox storage are the only major concessions to third-party software providers, serving to augment Samsung’s in-house solutions. There was a rumor of a Samsung S Cloud only storage service ahead of the Galaxy S III launch, however that hasn’t materialized. At least not yet.

S Voice

Say hello to Siri for Android, as produced by Samsung. If you harbored any doubt as to whether or not Samsung ripped off Apple’s voice assistant, let it go now. That’s not to suggest that Apple invented voice commands on mobile phones — Samsung had the Vlingo-powered Voice Talk on the Galaxy S II — but the look and feel of this application takes so much inspiration from Apple’s effort on the iPhone 4S as to deserve being labelled a clone. Not that any of this matters a great deal — neither Siri nor S Voice is good enough in its present incarnation.

S Voice consistently chews up my words when I try asking it questions, although it works better when instructed to schedule an appointment or set an alarm. It can also be used as an unlocking mechanism once you pre-record a pass phrase. That adds to the face unlocking option that’s native to Android 4.0 in being frustratingly unwieldy and planted firmly within gimmick territory — more than once I was stuck repeating “hello” without any recognition from the phone.

The state of these voice control apps reminds of the Hulk movie starring Eric Bana and The Matrix Reloaded — both were released in 2003, during a time when the enthusiasm for integrating computer-generated graphics into action scenes was that little bit too far ahead of the best technology available. Though both films represented the state of the art in their time, they have aged terribly since then and shown the folly of using technology for a purpose it’s not fully ready to fulfill. That’s what both S Voice and Siri are to me — exhibitions of technology that can potentially become central to how you use your phone, but presently too constrained and unpolished to truly perform that role. In short, just because voice control on your phone now has a brand name attached to it doesn’t mean that it’s actually worth using.

Kies Air

If you want to sync up the Galaxy S III with your Mac via a wired connection, you’ll need the Android File Transfer app. Windows is rather easier, though on the Mac I had a problem getting the AFT application to recognize this handset and fell back to an old favorite by downloading Kies Air from the Play Store. This app doesn’t ship on the Galaxy S III, replaced by something called Kies via Wi-Fi that doesn’t work nearly as well, but Samsung gets the credit for creating it nonetheless.

Kies Air requires that your computer and Samsung smartphone are connected to the same Wi-Fi network, then gives you a URL to punch into your desktop browser, and asks you authorize yourself once you’ve tried accessing the phone’s storage in that way. Once in there, you’ve got a litany of options, including downloading and uploading files, checking and updating your calendar, and making changes to your contacts, messages, bookmarks, and ringtones. For extra security, you can lock some of these categories on the phone so that they’re not accessible from the remote computer.

I managed to pull a song out of my music collection and turn it into my phone’s ringtone within seconds. I also used this method to download all the sample photography shot with the Galaxy S III, which happened in the background while I continued using the device. Is there a better way to wirelessly sync a smartphone? Not to my knowledge.

Performance

I’ve been alluding to this throughout the review, but the Galaxy S III is a processing powerhouse. As amazing as the Snapdragon S4 and Tegra 3 have proven for performance, Samsung’s new Exynos chip bests them both.

The usual benchmarking provisos apply here. What this data represents is only a snapshot, one that I’ve verified through first-hand use, of the processing capabilities of the Galaxy S III. Scores in AnTuTu and Quadrant are both constrained by the Galaxy S III’s 60fps cap, meaning neither is fully accounting for its GPU power. GLBenchmark does a better job of that since it renders the requisite frames off-screen and thus bypasses the limitation that hampers the other two tests.

Although it’s clearly an extremely powerful device, the Galaxy S III faces a peculiar problem: Android’s Play Store and general software ecosystem lack the applications to push the GS III to its full potential. At the present moment, the only real difference between the dual-core Snapdragon S4 and Samsung’s new quad-core Exynos is that the former has shown itself to be more power-efficient. Both will handle any Android game you throw at them, and there are no guarantees that the the GS III’s extra power will result in a tangible real world advantage before it comes time for you to upgrade your phone again. If Samsung does indeed opt for Qualcomm’s chips in its upcoming US version of this phone, it shouldn’t be too much of a loss.

Wrap-up

One thing that goes consistently overlooked with respect to Samsung’s phones is the company’s ignominious track record with Android software updates. There may be worse offenders out there, but Samsung’s chronic failure to update its devices on time (or at all) is a significant black mark for a brand looking to lead the way in almost every other respect. Thus, as much as I may enjoy the Galaxy S III today, I have to temper that enthusiasm with the knowledge that its long-term future may not be as rosy as that of a stock Android device or one produced by HTC.

That having been said, the Galaxy S III is a technological triumph. Not at first sight, perhaps, but Samsung has done the overwhelming majority of things right. The camera is easily the best I’ve used on an Android device, the processor claims the title of benchmarking champion, and the customizations layered on top of Ice Cream Sandwich are mostly unobtrusive and sometimes even helpful. They never really gel into one coherent user experience, meaning you’ll have to learn what each new feature does individually rather than intuiting it from the phone’s general behavior, however that’s a trifling complaint when compared to our usual disappointments with Android OEM skins. TouchWiz may still have its illogicalities, but it’s been cleaned up and streamlined sufficiently to make it an adequate alternative to Google’s stock experience. While neither the display nor the construction materials on the Galaxy S III are the best possible, both represent acceptable compromises that help Samsung balance out the rest of its class-leading spec sheet.

The extra-large size of this phone, even with its great ergonomics, may prove to be a stumbling block for those who can’t comfortably fit a 4.8-inch handset into their daily routine. Still, the popularity of the Galaxy Note has shown that phone buyers are willing to look to more exotic form factors in their pursuit of novelty and extra functionality — and the Galaxy S III suffers no shortage of either.

Want more? Check out the recap of our extensive Galaxy S III Q&A !

This article was originally published on theverge.com - Samsung Galaxy S III review

 
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