Despite the abundance of low and mid-range Samsung handsets and the granularity to which each differentiates itself from the next, the Ace family has always proved to standout to consumers on the high street. 

The original Galaxy Ace was the first widely successful Android mid-ranger in Samsung’s lineup, so can the new Galaxy Ace 3 instil the same values and draw the same audience? 

Plain Jane 

You have to feel sorry for the Samsung design team, with so many handsets crammed into their annual portfolio and so many rules to keep things consistent, there’s not much in the way of wiggle room for a mid-ranger like the Ace 3.

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It features all the hallmarks of the company’s other 2012/2013 handsets. Glossy plastic bodywork, chromed plastic edging, accented home button and earpiece, alongside a removable back and battery. It has some premium elements, but nothing to really grab your attention.

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The larger the device in the lineup the more squared the silhouette; with the Galaxy Note 3 being the hardest edged of Samsung’s handsets and entry-level devices like the Fame being extremely cutesy and rounded. The Ace 3 is the absolute midpoint; an equal blend with lightly rounded corners, inoffensive straight edges and not much else to help it standout. Knock off the Samsung logos and it loses any distinct identity, blending into the array of obscure mid-rangers out there from lesser-known manufacturers.

Ergonomically it’s a good size in the hand, and not too heavy either at just under 120 grams. One handed-use is comfortable enough, with all the phone’s hardware controls in easy reach including the volume rocker on the left-hand side, power/lock key on the right and of course navigation keys below the display. Access to the battery and microSD slot is also very much appreciated and something that only really Samsung is offering across all of its devices. 

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The 4-inch WVGA LCD panel is wholly competent, although actually features a lower pixel density than that of its predecessor, which used a 3.8-inch display at the same resolution. Colours are rich, viewing angles decent, not to mention icons and text are perfectly sharp and legible, but the manual brightness can only be pushed so high and as a result outdoor viewing may sometimes prove a little difficult.

Packed to the gills

When you buy a Samsung device you can always expect to be inundated with features, sure you may not use all of them, but it’s nice to know they’re there. The Ace 3 comes pre-loaded with Samsung’s custom TouchWiz overlay, running atop Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean.

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Jelly Bean throws useful elements like lock screen widgets into the mix, whilst Samsung has granted the Ace 3 the likes of Smart stay, S Voice and S Translate - the sorts of features that don’t always make it out of the flagship-pen. How useful they are however, depends on what type of user you are.

TouchWiz looks pretty good; crisp, clean fonts and a more refined aesthetic over previous iterations help make the Ace 3’s user experience feel more premium. What’s more, there are a number of Samsung specific widgets that add something over the base Android experience too.

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The UI’s biggest asset is its customisability. You can dictate how many home screens there are (you can add a maximum of seven), and the order they fall into, swap out wallpapers, add and remove apps and widgets, organise the applications tray and more. It’s in fact pretty overwhelming just how much tweaking can be done, but it does mean you get great fine-grain control over your personal experience with the Ace 3, certainly more so than with stock Android.

Just enough power

Over last year’s Ace 2, the processor and RAM have both been bumped up, but only slightly. The 1.2GHz dual-core chip and 1GB of RAM are clearly working hard to provide a smooth user experience, and TouchWiz is a notoriously heavy Android overlay to work with as a result of all of its features. Opening apps can leave you waiting for several seconds for anything to happen, as can multitasking, but there are some highlights.

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Storage has also received a bump over the Ace 2, with 8GB of inbuilt memory and room for expandability via microSD by a further 64GB.

Optimised 3D games such as Asphalt 8 run surprisingly well and feel almost as fluid as they would on a higher-end device, albeit with a noticeable drop in resolution. You’ll still get lens flare, motion blur and particle effects, so it should serve most mobile gamers well, will certainly be able to handle the likes of Candy Crush or Plants VS Zombies 2. Full HD video playback is also possible; there are occasionally a few dropped frames here and there, but it won’t ruin your experience.

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The Galaxy Ace 3 is one of the most affordable 4G phones in the company’s lineup, which is great for those looking for a more affordable way to get superfast mobile data speeds, but as we’ve seen time and again, 4G use can have a serious affect on battery. The 1800mAh cell died before the day was out after a mix of 3G and WiFi usage, so those on 4G plans should anticipate making a trip to the charger in the mid-afternoon to keep their Ace 3 alive.

Small-time snapper

The 5-megapixel shooter on the back of the Ace 3 is certainly usable, but by no means the best around. In good, natural lighting, it offers up accurate colour reproduction, but the narrow dynamic range is noticeable, resulting in images that lack any real depth. You can get nice and close for shooting macro images too, but again, there’s no sense of depth and the absence of OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) is particularly noticeable, resulting in blurred edges and no discernable fine detail.

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Video wise, the Ace 3 can shoot at a maximum 720p HD resolution. Footage again doesn’t look fantastic, with poor detail, image stability and weak auto focus. In natural light it’s usable, but there are certainly rival devices that offer much more.

Middle of the road

The Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 isn’t a bad device, Jelly Bean and TouchWiz provide plenty of functionality and the hardware ticks all the boxes with regards to what a modern mid-range smartphone should offer: 4G – check, multi-core processor – check, HD video recording and playback – check, premium user interface – check. But despite meeting these base requirements, it doesn’t stand out at all. Performance is just good enough, the camera is just good enough, the battery is just good enough.

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If you want a good Samsung Galaxy Ace, the Ace 2 will still serve you well and costs less. If you want a solid mid-ranger that totes 4G, then the Sony Xperia SP will offer a higher resolution screen and camera, better battery life and better performance for around £10 more than the asking price of the Galaxy Ace 3, which retails for about £205.

Motorola’s ‘exceptionally powerful, exceptionally priced’ Moto G has also shaken things up in the mid-range market and in its wake, made phones like the Galaxy Ace 3, less relevant. The Ace 4 will have to offer more for less, and right now, the Ace 3 doesn’t offer enough, but asks for too much.