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Samsung Galaxy S3 Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Great storage options

The Bad

  • Back cover very flimsy

“Samsung Galaxy S3”. Thanks to Samsung’s new-found mastery of pulling at consumer’s ‘anticipation strings’, those words, “Samsung Galaxy S3” do things to Android fans we’ve only seen done by Apple and their iDevices thus far. With the Samsung Galaxy S3’s delayed announcement, the fact they were able to keep it under wraps and the intangible feature set revolving around eye movement and nature, Samsung have created a product broaching the point of myth before it even hit the shelves. Now we’ve got one, it’s real and no one’s denying that it’s good – the question is how good?

Samsung Galaxy S3: Design

Glossy, angle-less, under-stated, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is a big phone with a small foot print, or at least that’s how it feels. In the hand it sits with nothing but smooth curves softly weighing against your palm. Visually, it’s large, but looks less imposing than, say, a Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

Samsung Galaxy S3 front; Samsung Galaxy S3 Sensor close-up; Samsung Galaxy S3 physical buttons

Available in both white and pebble blue, the Samsung Galaxy S3 has a clean fascia complete with a convex smooth raise along all sides. This ensures the finger never swipes across to any jarring corners or edges and feels very rich to the touch. With one physical home button in the bottom centre and a capacitive button either side, the only other visual statements on the fascia aside from the speakers, the screen and the Samsung insignia are two sensors and the front facing camera up top.

On the right hand side is a power button, up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack while on the left, a volume rocker. Finally, down at the bottom side of the Samsung Galaxy S3 is a micro USB port, putting all the ports, buttons and rockers exactly where they were on the Samsung Galaxy S2.

The back cover of the Galaxy S3 is removable, clips on and off and boy does it bend in the process. Taking it off sent the fear down our spine with it flexing much more than we were comfortable with. That said, being bendy suggests it won’t shatter.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Back; Samsung Galaxy S3 Battery; Samsung Galaxy S3 Camera close-up

Underneath the back cover is a microSD card and a microSIM card slot as well as the removable 2100 mAh battery. It does feel less cohesive than unibody devices such as the HTC One X and Nokia Lumia 800, however considering the benefit of having a removable battery and memory, what Samsung take away with one hand they give with another.

Designed with nature in mind, the Samsung Galaxy S3 certainly feels more subtle, organic and for want of a better word, natural than its predecessor. Is it our favourite mobile design out there? No. We’d take the rigid, slender matte black HTC One S or Nokia Lumia 800’s curved glass and bold unibody over the S3’s design given the choice, however it’s definitely in our top five, and could well be number one for a different type of user – the quality is there.

Samsung Galaxy S3: Screen

HD Super AMOLED, 4.8-inches with a resolution of 720×1280 – the Samsung Galaxy S3 screen has the deepest blacks and most vibrant colours of any screen in its size bracket (4.65-4.8-inches). Detail is naturally fantastic thanks to the resolution despite the pentile AMOLED technology with nice and sharp and crisp pictures and video.

Samsung Galaxy S3 screen

When compared directly against the Super LCD 2 competition, the HTC One X, the screen is much more lively and saturated, thought whites aren’t as accurate. Web browsing is also slightly better on the HTC One X with text looking crisper thanks to the ever so slightly higher ppi and screen tech, but this is only noticeable if looking at each character in detail and won’t affect the general consumer.

Viewing angles and brightness are also very good. Across viewing angles, the colours retain a good amount of integrity and detail remains in tact. Outdoors viewing is also good thanks to a very nicely lit display, however on both these points, the HD Super AMOLED panel falls slightly behind the HTC One X’s Super LCD 2 display.

Overall though, there’s no denying the screen on the Samsung Galaxy S3 is fantastic. The increased saturation and vibrancy will suit the majority of users and contrast levels are the best out there thanks to deep darks and bright saturated lights.

Samsung Galaxy S3: User interface

Touchwiz Nature UX is the interface running on the Samsung Galaxy S3. It runs on top of Android 4.0.4 and delivers a familiar Touchwiz experience with a hefty dose of innovation added to the mix.

Starting with the basics, Samsung give you up to seven homescreens which can be rearranged and deleted at will. Swiping left and right will switch homescreen with a silky smooth 3D transition. To jump straight to another page on the other end of the homescreen spectrum just pinch to enter overview mode or swipe the set of dots above your dock icons to pull up a speedy homecreen slider.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Screenshots

Samsung Galaxy S3 screenshots

The apps drawer appears to have consumed a fair amount of Ice Cream Sandwich with the apps and widgets selectable from within. Samsung have maintained a degree of customisation of app arrangement but have removed folders from the apps drawer which seems like a bid to streamline the UI. You can also hide apps which which is wonderful, we’d love to see more of this on other devices.

While the Samsung Galaxy S3 does support folders on the home screens, you can’t simply drop apps on top of one another to create a folder. Why Samsung would leave this out is beyond us as it’s a really useful feature of Sony phones and stock ICS.

The pull down notifications bar has been expanded to offer more shortcuts. These are in order: Wi-Fi, GPS, Sound, Screen Rotation, Power Saving, Notification, Mobile Data, Bluetooth, Driving Mode and Sync. In addition is a settings shortcut and naturally, your notifications which can be swiped out of the way a la stock ICS. Samsung also incorporate the stock ICS multi-tasker activated by a long press of the home button.

There are a range of apps which will be available on launch with the Samsung Galaxy S3. We will have seen many of these on the Samsung Galaxy Note such as S-Memo and S-Planner and Mini diary. S-Memo is a nifty handwriting note taker which will work perfectly for the upcoming S3 S-Pen. S-Planner is the fully functioning calendar app replacement and comes complete with a fantastic widget and stunning user interface, and finally Mini Diary is where tech meets teenage girl, allowing you to diarise natively with pictures and sentiments galore.

New apps will also be available on launch with the Galaxy S3. While we previewed these at the Samsung Unboxed event at Earls court and you can read more about them here, our review unit didn’t have any pre-installed. These include S-Medic, Photo Editor and My Story.

Now onto what everyone’s been waiting for, the Samsung Galaxy S3’s Smart Features. These include Smart Stay, S Voice and motion features.

Smart Stay is the eye tracking feature that’s been getting the most limelight and it uses the front facing camera to lock onto your gaze and if it does, it keeps the screen from standing by. Does it work? Ish. It’s temperamental. Either it didn’t like our deep-set Mediterranean eyes or falls short of the mark in mediocre lighting.

S-Voice is Samsung’s answer to Siri and is just as useful. Or not. While the voice recognition worked, even in relatively bustling environments, the real-world utility of the app just isn’t there. Short of pulling up weather information, it lacks any tangible benefit. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for voice recognition being improved and it clearly is being improved in the S3, it just isn’t useful yet.

In contrast, Samsung have loaded the Samsung Galaxy S3 with a host of motion features which are pretty fantastic. Direct call lets you ring a contact you’re in a text conversation with by simply placing the phone to the ear. Tap to top lets you jump to the top of a list by simply tapping the top of the Galaxy S3 twice while smart alert allows picking up the phone to turn it on and jump straight to any notifications you may have missed. While there are others which have been carried over from the Samsung Galaxy S2, the only other motion feature we’ll mention here is the Palm Swipe to Capture. Just slide your palm along the Galaxy S3 from left to right or vice versa in order to take a screen shot. Despite requiring two hands and taking a bit of getting used to, this is a handy feature and a nice bit of UI innovation.

Samsung Galaxy S3: Keyboard

Samsung’s keyboard has seen some improvements in its latest iteration. As with HTC and Sony’s latest keyboards, digging into the settings will pull up either standard type input or a Swype-esque slide to type entry system. Both work well with the 4.8-inch display offering a great amount of room for two hand typing and one hand sliding when in portrait.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Keyboard; Samsung Galaxy S3 keyboard settings, Samsung Galaxy S3 numeric and symbol keyboard pages

Samsung Galaxy S3: Camera and Multimedia

8-megapixels with an f/2.6 lens and 28mm equivalent wide angle, the Samsung Galaxy S3 camera looks to be the same lens and sensor as found on the Galaxy S2. If indeed this is the case, it’s no issue whatsoever as Samsung have optimised the software to great effect with improved image quality and a new HDR and Burst mode.

Pictures shot at full resolution look pretty sensational in good lighting. Detail is strong and colours look great on the Super AMOLED display. When exported, pictures can look a little dull and under contrasted however by comparison given their AMOLED optimisation. When taking macro shots, you can get some great depth of field and focusing is easy with just a simple tap working nine times out of ten, however there’s no tap to expose. This hampers percieved dynamic range, with Samsung taking an evaluative metering iPhone-esque approach to auto mode. Having said that, HDR works well and compensates for this nicely.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Sample camera images

Turn down the lights and noise naturally creeps in. There isn’t as aggressive noise suppression in post processing as found on Motorola or HTC phones which means more grain, but more detail. The flash on the Samsung Galaxy S3  however is brilliant as with its predecessor and the Galaxy Note, offering strong lighting and no colour distortion. In fact, we’d go so far as to say it packs the best LED out there, superseded only by Xenons found on the Nokia N8 and Nokia 808 Pureview.

1080p full HD video shot on the Samsung Galaxy S3 also looks vibrant with a smooth frame-rate and good levels of detail. As you can see from the night video, dropping the lights will drive noise pretty sky high. While an LED video-light might be useful in closed environments, it wouldn’t be able to salvage an outdoor event.

Playback from the onboard speaker gets good and loud however there is just one dinky speaker. Cover it up and you go mute. Ramping up the volume does produce some tinniness but overall, the audio is impressive considering the tiny sound source.

Video playback is superb. The screen looks great and the Samsung Galaxy S3 packs a whole host of codecs for your every movie need. Thanks to the speedy processor, you can even get an MKV file on there and play it back through a 3rd party player if need be without stagger. Samsung’s video player is always the preference however thanks to an ingenious addition. While you’re watching a video, you can turn it into a small floating video windowand reposition it, get on with other tasks with the floating video always on top, then double tap it to go back to full screen view. This not only shows off the processing power but takes true multi-tasking to a whole new level.

Samsung Galaxy S3: Connectivity and Storage

With DC-HSPA, the Samsung Galaxy S3 gets the fastest mobile data speeds available here in the UK, maxing out at a whopping (by UK standards) 5MB per second. In addition, there’s Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi direct, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC and an MHL port at the base. Thanks to All Share, Samsung offer DLNA services with Samsung TVs.

With these faster speeds in place where we were using the Samsung Galaxy S3, we were averaging around 2 MBPS with the overall browsing experience being smooth and looking great. Samsung have also added some handy features as found in HTC’s Sense 4.0 browser such as the ability to save pages for offline reading and mobile optimised view, which when coupled with the 720p screen makes for an overall enjoyable browse.

Samsung Galaxy S3 web browser screenshots

The Samsung Galaxy S3 we’ve been testing offers 16GB of onboard memory, however it will also be available in 32GB and 64GB versions. For anyone who can’t fork out for the higher capacity off the bat, fear not, beneath the battery cover sits a micro SD card expandable by an additional 32GB.

What’s more, anyone who gets a Samsung Galaxy S3 will be treated to 50GB of Dropbox storage for the duration of their 24 month contract giving you ample cloud storage for pictures, music and movies.

Samsung Galaxy S3: Performance and Battery

The Samsung Galaxy S3 performance largely falls on its processor, and in a nutshell the quad-core Exynos 4 chipset benchmarks well, offers exemplary performance and doesn’t forget about power management in the process.

Running Antutu, GL Benchmark and Vellamo, the Samsung Galaxy S2 trumped the HTC One X Tegra 3 version across the board. The results can be seen below:

Samsung Galaxy S3 Antutu results; Samsung Galaxy S3 Vellamo results; Samsung Galaxy S3 GLBenchmark results

Despite the 3D homescreen transitions and the high resolution screen, we didn’t bump into any stops and starts, staggers or freezes in our time with the Samsung Galaxy S3. While our review unit wasn’t fully compatible with some applications thanks to us getting it before general release, it’s only a matter of time before every developer with a self-respecting Android app optimises it for Samsung’s new flagship.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Battery close-up

Onto battery life and the Samsung Galaxy S3 has a replaceable 2100 mAh battery under the hood. We were very concerned about the impact Smart Stay would have on the power. To recap, this feature turns the front facing camera into an eye tracker. It only activates every now and then so as to check whether to turn off the screen and seldom worked with us, but we kept it on regardless to see if it would sap our battery dry – and it didn’t. In fact, very little did. Keeping the screen on and Skype did a fair bit of damage, but we were able to get a comfortable day out of the Samsung Galaxy S3, more than we can say of any other flagship from either Sony or HTC which is impressive in itself.

Samsung Galaxy S3: Conclusion

“Samsung Galaxy S3”, words that send irrational thrills and tingles down fan’s spines. Are we fans? No. In fact, we’re not overly taken with Touchwiz Nature UX in terms of look and feel despite being able to appreciate all of the widgets and improvements over Touchwiz 4.0. We’re also not sold on S-Voice or Smart Stay, with both features sounding considerably richer than their real world value. Finally, the camera, while being very good isn’t really a significant step up over the Samsung Galaxy S2 and after a day with the Nokia 808 Pureview, we already know the Samsung Galaxy S3 isn’t the best camera phone out there. That said, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is the best Android phone out there.

While in the S3 a great screen meets a great design meets a great camera meets great storage and power options, it isn’t the hardware that elevates it to brilliance. What truly distinguishes it are the smart software quirks planted deep within the UI: the floating video window, Direct Call, Tap to Top. Some are hit and some are miss, but in an age of phones all looking the same, that Samsung are creating these differentiators with software bodes well for innovation, and makes the Samsung Galaxy S3 the first five star rating this reviewer’s awarded any phone to date. 

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