With the Galaxy S III Samsung is looking to cement its position as the leading maker of Android phones. With a bigger screen, faster processor and lots of new software it represents a significant upgrade over last year’s model, the S II, which has to date sold in excess of 28 million units. But can it really match the levels of expectation that surround it?
Upon its launch the design of the S III was met with some consternation in some quarters. It’s true that the look and feel of the phone does not match that of the HTC One X (or the more mid-range One S, for that matter), with the back plate especially feeling lightweight and plasticky.
But it’s also fair to say the phone looks better in the flesh than it does in the pictures: it’s thin and light but feels solid, and the rounded corners help it to sit in the hand very comfortably. It’s not unreasonable to have hoped for a more premium finish like those we see from the likes of HTC, Nokia and Apple, but the S III doesn’t feel cheap in spite of it.
The styling is stripped right back. There’s a single home button below the screen, with capacitive buttons either side. One of these is a Menu button, something that Google is encouraging developers to phase out in their apps.
Around the sides there are the power button halfway up the right edge, perfectly positioned to be under either your thumb or forefinger depending on which hand you hold the phone in, and volume controls on the left edge. The top houses the headphone jack, and the bottom the microUSB port, which also doubles up as a HDMI-out port with the right connector (which is not included).
The back plate snaps off to reveal the microSIM slot and a slot for microSD cards.
The device is dominated by the 4.8” display. It isn’t the best we’ve seen – HTC’s One X holds that title – but it is pretty stunning all the same. The 720p resolution and pixel density of more than 300ppi makes it incredibly crisp, making it possible to read text on web pages without even needing to zoom in.
Initially we found the auto-brightness levels to be a little on the dim side, and it gets brighter and darker in distinct steps rather than graduated, but with extended use our eyes got use to it. Given the performance of the battery, as we’ll see later, you could probably afford to increase the brightness manually if you needed to, without any adverse effect on performance.
The S III runs Ice Cream Sandwich with Samsung’s own TouchWiz UI on top. TouchWiz hasn’t always been a popular choice among many Android users but the version here is the best yet by far. For the first time TouchWiz is less about skinning the device to create differentiation – making it look different for the sake of it – and more about adding real functionality to the software.
There are still a few quirks in usability of TouchWiz. You can’t create folders of apps on the home screen by simply dragging one on top of another, for example, as you can in ICS. Instead you have to create a folder first.
And changing the icons in the dock requires you to drop the icon onto a home screen first, before then moving it into place. This can result in some serious icon juggling if your home screens are already packed.
We’re also not to keen on the fact that Samsung has stuck with the dekstop-based Kies application for some system updates, instead of delivering them over the air as almost every other phone does.
But there are improvements as well. One of the things we didn’t like about ICS is the way it combines the volume for phone and notifications into a single setting – TouchWiz makes them independently configurable once again.
For the most part TouchWiz is less lighter and less brashly designed than previous iterations have been, and there’s bags of extra software that adds real interest, if not always real value.
TouchWiz is crammed with apps, all branded as S- something. S Calendar replaces the basic calendar app, and comes with an excellent array of widgets. S Memo is for notetaking and supports stylus input (but the not the S Pen from the Galaxy Note series)
S Voice is the supposed highlight. This is Samsung’s equivalent of Apple’s Siri speech recognition system and, like that, it fails to move beyond mere gimmick. The idea of S Voice is that you can speak to your phone if you want to compose a text message, add a date to your diary, check the weather, or perform any number of other functions on your phone.
It’s a nice idea, but for speech recognition to work it needs to have near 100% understanding of natural speech. S Voice is too limited with regard to the phrases can interpret, and not accurate enough in understanding those. Too often it responded by telling us it didn’t know what we meant, or merely offering up a Google search as a consolation.
You can see where S Voice might be useful in the future, but in its present form is not much more than a proof of concept. The same thing could be said about the S III’s motion gestures.
These perform certain functions depending on how you are holding or moving the phone. If you’re reading a text message, lifting the phone to you ear will dial the number of the SMS sender; pick the phone up and it will vibrate to remind you of unread notifications; when at the bottom of a list or long web page double tapping on the top of the phone will scroll you back to the top.
There are many more as well, and they all work pretty much as advertised, but we found we didn’t have the inclination to learn the gestures, and their functionality is so minor that you could probably go weeks without using any of them.
Another idea that has potential is Pop-up play. This allows you to carry on watching a video in a separate window while using other apps on the device. We don’t recall too many instances where we weren’t willing to pause a video in order to reply to a text message so, again, is something that we couldn’t see ourselves using at all. A better use case would be if you could leave, say, BBC News playing from the iPlayer app, while using the phone for other things, but in its current form Pop-up play is only available in the stock video player.
This video player is one of the S III’s triumphs. In our tests we found it able to play pretty much any video we tested, regardless of size or format. And on this screen they looked fantastic, too. One neat trick to show off the power of the handset is a DVD-style ‘chapter’ feature that splits your videos into 12 segments, each displayed with a live thumbnail. Strangely the video player also includes some very basic editing features, while the ICS video editing app is not included at all.
Samsung’s music player is equally good. There isn’t anything to match HTC’s high profile Beats Audio branding, but there are lots of audio presets that enable you to get the best quality out of your music. Also present in a feature-rich music app is Music Square. This analyses all your music and then enables you to create automatic playlists based on how passionate, exciting, joyful or calm the songs are. Inevitably it is a bit hit and miss, but worked well enough to put a different spin on playlist creation and management.
To complement these impressive media players Samsung has included some content stores to the S III, in the form of ‘hubs’, but these are definitely in bloatware territory. There’s a downloadable music streaming app that is listed as free but is actually charged at £9.99 per month and is no better than the likes of Rdio or Spotify. The Video hub is a very sparsely populated movie and TV store. The Games hub offers a few games that you can find elsewhere.
Worst of all Samsung includes its own app store, that in some instances is unavoidable. For example, if you choose to edit a photo from the Gallery app you’ll be prompted to download the free Photo Editor from the Samsung store, and you’ll need to create an account in the process. The rest of the apps on show are the same (but much smaller in selection) as you’ll find in the Google Play Store. Having two places to find and download apps is needlessly confusing.
Apart from these hubs bloatware is surprisingly thin on the ground with the S III. Surplus software is in short supply (Samsung’s ChatOn messaging app is included), so you’ll even need to head over to the Play Store to find apps for Twitter and Facebook, or to download any file viewers.
The main area where we would have liked Samsung to do a bit more is with the camera app. The camera itself is superb, shooting high quality stills and video that can rival the output from any phone bar Nokia’s camera-centric handsets.
Yet HTC has recently raised the bar on camera software, and the S III feels weaker in comparison. There are lots of good features – shutter lag is virtually non-existent, a burst mode with ‘best shot’ selection will help ensure you always capture those key moments, you can shoot video and take snaps at the same time, and the image stabilisation in video mode works very well (albeit it crops into the image to achieve the effect). But there’s no way to adjust key settings like saturation or sharpness, few effects (with a useful HDR mode the best) and the sharing options are also limited.
The camera is one of the standout features of the impressive hardware lineup. The quad-core processor devoured every task we threw at it. Scrolling around the screens was entirely lag-free, including on large and complex web pages, and 3D gaming was equally smooth. As already noted, video playback was excellent regardless of format or size.
There were a few instances where a firmware update could smooth the performance over even further. Exiting the Chrome browser (which we installed separately) would occasionally cause the home screen to redraw, suggesting tweaks on memory usage would be beneficial.
Our review handset had 16GB of internal storage, which is the lowest of three configurations (up to 64GB), although with an easily accessible microSD slot taking cards up to 64GB you’re unlikely to encounter storage shortages any time soon. Users of the S III also get 50GB of free cloud storage through Dropbox for the next two years.
With so much going on on the S III, and so much powerful hardware on board you might expect the battery life to be the one area where the phone falls down. That isn’t the case, Samsung has totally nailed it. Through a combination of a larger than average (2100mAh) battery and some no-doubt clever stuff going on with the processor the S III is able to deliver a full day’s heavy use with relative ease. Go a bit lighter and you’ll be well into your second day before you need to consider reaching for the charger.
Battery usage can vary wildly from user to another, of course, but we were routinely getting up to five hours of screen-on time, where many other devices will struggle to get much beyond three. The phone charges pretty quickly, too, taking around three hours through the official charger. So often phones present a compromise between battery life and functionality.
With the S III there is no compromise, and no need to ration your usage. There will be no excuses for other flagship phones to not repeat this level of battery performance in future.
The Galaxy S III had a lot to live up to. Its predecessor is the biggest selling Android phone to date, and the level of hype that greeted this handset’s launch was unprecedented. Samsung has well and truly delivered. It isn’t perfect, of course, and we would like to see the company explore different materials for the casing in its future phones.
But the S III represents a sublime marriage of hardware and software, helps the continued progress of Android, and will no doubt soon supplant the S II as the world’s most popular Android phone.