Where do you begin with a phone like this? As has become the norm these days the specs of a phone are pretty much known before they are released. With all the “leaks” in the build up, it does take form the excitement a little when they are released.
When the phone is one of the most powerful ever built the anticipation soon builds again to see just how all of those specs will translate into real world use.
The box the phone comes in is straight out of the Apple school of packaging. It is very small and leaves you wondering did they remember to include the accessories! All the usuals are present though. The three pins of the wall charger detach from the body of the plug making it very compact.
The most striking thing straight off when you pick the phone up is the size of the screen. If you have been using Android phones of late it probably won’t seem like too much of an increase but to put it’s size into perspective, if you place the iPhone 4 on top of it pretty much the whole iPhone fits just on the screen area of the SGSIII.
Even with all of the screen size this is a quiet easy phone to handle. While the plastic construction may have it’s critics, it actually makes the phone stick in your hand quiet well. It is actually counter intuitive because when you first see the smooth single piece of plastic that makes up the back cover you think it will just slip straight out of your hand.
Samsung have chose to stick with a physical home button which is flanked by capacitive back and menu keys. When the Galaxy Nexus came out it had all capacitive buttons. It also had a multitasking key rather than the menu key. The menu became a soft key on screen within apps. It took a bit of getting used to at first and not all apps implemented the on screen menu key in the same fashion so it was a little disjointed but when you got used to using them the whole experience was much faster. Swapping between running apps was a breeze as you just had to touch the multitasking key and the WebOS like set of cards popped up allowing you to quickly switch in to what ever app you wanted. As Samsung have now removed the multitasking key in favour of the menu key you now need to press and hold the home button to perform the same function as the multitasking key. This slows things down terribly in my opinion. Where it was instant with the capacitive button, it is now cumbersome, due to the phones size and weight distribution, to switch your grip to press and hold the home button. This may seem like a small issue but it diminishes the user experience and will make multitasking a two handed operation for many.
The Galaxy Nexus introduced us to 720p resolution screens on mobiles. It was an impressive pixel count for such a relatively small screen. To fit so many pixels Samsung reverted to using a Pentile matrix rather than the standard RGB setup that was used in the Galaxy S II. The Pentile matrix has a habit of making colours look on the cold side and can give the screen a blue tone, especially when viewing the phone off center. When the same tech was announced for the SGSIII I had my concerns that it was not the best choice for a Flagship model. Most, including myself, expected Samsung to use a higher resolution version of the screen from the Galaxy S II but it would seem production costs and high failure rates prevented this from happening.
Thankfully Samsung have worked on this and the screen in the S III is a different animal to the Nexus. Straight up it is noticeably brighter. This gives the whites more punch and removes some of that coldness that was found on the Nexus. Everything just looks sharper now and because it’s an AMOLED screen the contrast ratio for a phone is fantastic. With that contrast ratio comes an issue that causes many to dislike this type of screen. Colours can look over saturated. Even more so if you change the screen settings “Dynamic” which basically pushes the saturation to it’s limit.
The iPhone 4 set the bar with it’s Retina display but it is now getting “old” in tech terms and looks fairly washed out compared to the SGSIII’s screen. Compared with the new Ipad though is a different story. Colour reproduction on the new Ipad is without doubt the best I have seen on an LCD screen and is at the stage where the difference for most will be undetectable. If the same tech makes it’s way into the next iPhone I’m sure people will be happy. Where all LCD’s suffer though is with their Black levels. It’s hard to prevent the backlighting on such bright screens from washing out the blacks and giving them a grey appearance, so if watching movies on your phone is an important factor for you, the screen in the SGSIII won’t disappoint.
Android and TouchWiz
The phone comes with the latest version of Android installed but as of course Samsung overlay it with TouchWiz. I am not a fan of the overlays that OEMs install on their devices but it is the only way they can differentiate for one company to the next. In it’s latest incarnation TouchWiz is the least intrusive it has ever been. Samsung have taken on board the criticisms of previous versions and just as HTC have done with Sense 4, they have removed a lot of the features in the hope of offering a more simple and cleaner UI. When the phone came out of the box first there was a noticeable lag in the OS, caused by TouchWiz. If you were using an App that is RAM intensive and you then press the home button to exit it, there was a second or two wait until TouchWiz loaded again. The HTC One X suffered from exactly the same issue when it came out first. Thankfully while writing this review, an over the air update came through which has resolved this issue. Samsung hired Steve Kondik last year. For those of you who don’t know who he is, Steve was the founder of CyanogenMod, which is the most installed custom ROM for multiple Android devices. Those custom ROMs are so popular because they iron out these creases and unlock functionality that has been restricted by the manufacturers. The influences of the custom ROM community can be seen in this version of TouchWiz but it has a long way to go before it catches up.
Settings though is one place where Samsung have really taken note. There is a setting for absolutely everything on this phone. From fonts and text size to vibration intensity for different notifications there really is a setting for just about any part of the UI you interact with. Samsung have also included several features related to how the phone reacts to certain motions and under certain circumstances. For instance if you want to move an app to a different screen you press and hold it to select it and then tilt the phone left or right to scroll between screens. If you have been away from your phone and missed a call or message when you pick the phone up next it will vibrate gently to notify you that you have missed something. If you are watching a video or listening to music and you want to mute it you just place you hand above the screen and it stops. To take a screen shot you just swipe your hand across the screen and you get a photocopier animation that follows your hand across the screen. If you are texting someone and then want to ring them you just hold the phone to your ear and the phone rings them. This is only some of the features like this included. Some are very useful, others not so but it will be down to personal choice whether people actually use them. Something that did come to mind though is that there are so many features and settings it could be overwhelming to someone coming from a feature phone or someone who may not be too comfortable with technology. Once upon a time you would have said that wouldn’t be an issue as these phones were aimed at people who will know how to utilise them but now with these type of phones being offered for free on long term contracts many more people than would have before are purchasing them. It could be a steep learning curve!
As phones have progressed so rapidly of late I think we are reaching somewhat of a plateau now with regards to what manufacturers can offer spec wise. Quad core processors was the last milestone and with that achieved and keeping an eye on what is coming out of Cupertino, Samsung has turned their attention to bundled software and done the inevitable by including a Siri clone called “S Voice”. This for me is something the S3 could have done without. Samsung in the past has done deals with Vlingo to provide their voice control software and if I had to put a bet on it, I’d say Vlingo are behind S Voice. Where Siri has somewhat of a personality, S Voice is devoid of one and it makes for a very tedious experience. Statements such as “Open the Pod bay doors” are a non runner here but obviously there should be more to your voice control than trying to make idle jokes with it. So no personality but does it perform it’s other functions well? In a word, no. Things like asking it the weather or launching the music player work well but trying to get it to perform basic web searches in a pain in the ass. As clearly and a loudly as you speak it still seems to make a mess of what you are asking and in the time it takes to get it right, you would have completed the task manually many times. Using it reminded me of Vlingo on the SGSII. Painful. Unless Voice control is implemented perfectly it is nothing more than a novelty. Usage of these services, including Siri, are shown to drop through the floor after the initial honeymoon period with them so it is cringe worthy to think Samsung included a clone of Siri that will no doubt end up with them being sued by Apple and it doesn’t work!
Samsung have also included other Apps with the “S” moniker in front of them. “S Planner” is now you calendar. Google’s own calendar App has been removed. “S Memo” is exactly what you’d think it is and “S Suggest” offers up suggestions of Apps it thinks you may like which you can “conveniently” purchase within the “Samsung Apps” application rather than the Play Store. As with older models Samsung’s Music, Game and Video Hubs are included from the off. Annoyingly the Video Hub will not work in Ireland. One area HTC are beating Samsung to the punch in Ireland anyway. If you have used any of the Galaxy devices in recent years these Apps will be familiar to you. Very little has changed. They are not great but they are not terrible either and it is good to see manufacturers trying to include ways for people to legally buy media on their devices, even if they are not fully there yet.
Smart Stay is an interesting feature that tracks your eyes with the front camera periodically to see if you are looking at the screen. If it can’t pick up your eyes it will dim the screen. It comes in useful if you are reading long content and means you don’t have to keep touching the screen to stop it from timing out and dimming. Unlike in the TV ads though it works poorly in the dark as it struggles to pick up your eyes even with the light from the screen illuminating your face.
With an 8MP rear camera the SIII takes good photos in well lit areas or outside. Colours are reproduced naturally and picture detail is approaching that of point and shoot cameras. Where it does fall over though is in when there isn’t that much natural light on offer. Pictures become grainy. There is a very bright flash which in some circumstances can compensate but if you are taking pictures of people it does tend to wash out colours and detail.
As is the case with most smartphones it is not going to replace a dedicated camera for quality. It will however take acceptable photos for when you don’t have your camera with you and Samsung have included some features to make sure you don’t miss any shot with it.
The camera can launch in around two seconds from standby. If you pick the phone up, place a finger on the screen and rotate the phone to landscape, the phone unlocks and the camera launches. Once open it can take pictures with basically zero shutter lag. There is also a burst mode that allows you to continuously take snaps at a rate of about 5 to 6 per second.
Once you have taken your picture the Gallery App has face detection software built in allowing you to tag someone in the picture against a contact in your phone book or to share the picture with them.
30fps 1080p video capture is on offer from the rear camera. Features such as image stabilisation, using the flash while recording, exposure level, white balance and a bunch of different effects are all present. Taking pictures while recording video is also an option. Overall video quality is above average for a smartphone. Panning is smooth and the picture does not distort too badly or get that rippling effect that so many phones suffer from. Audio quality is average and does suffer badly in very loud environments. Image stabilisation works well but crops the image. The autofocus works well up close but when changing from shooting something close by to something at distance it can make the picture a bit jumbled while it is transitioning. 1080p uses a huge amount of memory though and on a smartphone 720p seems like the better option to use.
Samsung have always included very good media playing apps with their Android phones. It is not something that is given much air time as other specs tend to dominate but the included App can play pretty much any codec you throw at it. My standard test for a phone is to load a 5GB 1080p Bluray Rip MKV file and see how it performs. Most phones struggle badly with this. Usually either sound or picture play but not both. The SIII played it instantly with both picture and sound perfectly in sync. Videos can be outputted to a larger screen via the MHL port on the phone.
Playing HD videos did have a noticeable impact on device temperature and it quiet easy to locate just where the processor resides within the casing! The plastic body transmits heat very effectively.
Since an update a few months back, YouTube now allows HD streaming up to the resolution of the screen you are using which means 72op is on offer here. Even with YouTube’s artefacting issues pictures look great on the 4.8″ screen. While using the video player App you can lock the screen so no buttons are active by pressing the power button. This isn’t available while using YouTube or any other App for that matter. This does mean that it is quiet easy to hit the capacitive back or menu key when you are holding the phone in landscape. If you have big fingers this will be a regular occurrence and it gets annoying. It is something that you will remember in time and adjust your grip for automatically but in the beginning you seem to do it every time you watch a clip!
Sound volume from the loudspeaker is good. As with most phones it is “tinny” and lacks real punch but it is quiet acceptable. Sound via headphones is a much better affair and it also opens up the different equaliser settings available including a virtual 7.1 surround sound choice which does add more presence to what you are watching, but in a “that’s better than I thought” kind of way rather than a blow your mind one!
This is one area that the SGSIII really has things covered. At launch only the 16GB model is available but you will soon be able to get one with 32 or 64GB inside. On top of that there is a MicroSDXC expansion slot allowing up to 64GB cards to be used. 64GB cards are pretty new to the market so are priced at 70 to 80 Euros at present. Like everything to do with storage they are getting cheaper by the week. Samsung have also done a deal with Dropbox which includes 50GBs of cloud storage for free, for two years. At this point you could be have up to 178GBs of storage on your phone! I also have a Box account that offers 50GBs for free for ever (with 100MB file size restriction). Put this with the free allowance you get with Google Drive and this phone can become a replacement for all your storage needs! The phone can also act as a USB host allowing you to connect flash drives straight to the phone and transfer files or even watch movies stored on them. Both Google Drive and Dropbox now allow content to be streamed to your device rather than have to transfer large files to the device.
Samsung have done a good job of tweaking the standard Android browser to utilise the hardware available in previous Galaxy phones and it is no different here. If you are an Android user you are spoilt for choice lately. There is somewhat of a Browser war going on with Google Chrome Beta, Dolphin HD and Firefox Beta all fighting it out with some great features and page load speeds. While the Samsung browser can’t compete on the feature front it does beat all of the others in page loading times. The Galaxy S II’s browser was the same until Chrome came along and was the speed king. On light pages there is very little difference between any of them but on content heavy pages you begin to see value of having so much horse power underneath.
If you use Chrome on you PC and have your bookmarks set to sync with your Google account they will be present here also. Flash is also built in and working fine but as we all know it is living a charmed life now. It is frustrating though that so many websites are still so heavily reliant on Flash and while iOS has mitigated it somewhat by Apps being developed that circumvent it, the same can’t be said for Android. While there are very good iOS apps such as Channel 4’s 4oD and the RTE player, there are none for Android so using the flash version of their sites is the only option. These new crop of Android phones can handle Flash without issue but when Android 5.0 launches sometime towards the end of the year, support for the plugin will be gone.
Pinch to zoom, text reflow and rendering all are silky smooth. Hardware acceleration insures that pages are loaded fully into memory so there is no signs of checker boards when you scroll.
Having such a vivid, crisp, large screen means you can see more of every website without having to scroll or zoom in.
Which ever browser you choose on this phone the experience will be smooth and fast. It is one of the most important features of Smartphones and it is one of the best mobile experiences on offer here.
As you may expect this phone returns pretty impressive scores on what ever test you run. Just how compatible these benchmarks are with quad core processors is up for debate but it does allow us to compare it with other phones.
I have chosen the three most common tests and performed them repeatedly to get an average result from each. These tests were run with a completely stock phone.
The average score is about 5600. This is by a distance the highest I have ever seen for a stock phone. For comparison the Galaxy Nexus scores around 2600 and the quad core HTC One X with it’s Tegra 3 processor averages around 4500.
A basic benchmark test for checking computing power. Scores averaging in the 170 to 185 MFLOPS. Again a very high score for a stock phone. Generally only over clocked phones running custom ROMs can achieve or exceed this score.
Average score is about 12000. Again over twice what the Galaxy Nexus could achieve and around the same percentage more that the One X.
It is of no great surprise that the phone scores so highly in these tests. To some these results will be important but it is how the phone performs everyday tasks that will decide just how fast it is to most.
Call quality/ Signal/ Data Connection
It probably speaks for itself that this section is near the end of the review. These days s Smartphones performance as an actual phone seems to be less and less important. Also the reason Networks are trying hard to charge us more and more for data!
The phone has two mics, one in the normal postion and one at the top for noise canceling. Calls are loud and clear even with low signal strength everyone has reported that I am clear and easy to understand on the other end.
The phone is capable of HSPA+ connections if your network supports it. On the random speed tests I have performed to test it out, the phone is more than capable of taking full advantage of what ever Network speeds are available. On O2’s HSPA+ network I am seeing speeds of 7 to 8 Mbps average at peak times and as high as 13Mbps off peak. Signal strength is comparable to most smartphones I have tested on the same Network so the phone performs well but depending on your network conditions your milage will vary.
Thankfully Samsung have gone with a removable battery in the SGSIII. There seemed to be a trend of late for non user replaceable batteries which is an issue if you have become used to keeping a charged spare to hand rather than charging your phone.
The battery itself is 2100mAh in capacity. It is one of the largest available on any Smartphone. With a 4.8″ screen onboard, battery drain while using it will always be an issue. Also into the mix is the debate of whether Quad core processors improve or degrade battery life. If you were to listen to Intel they’d tell you the later but in real world use with the SGSIII it would seem to be the former. On a normal days use it is quiet easy to get through a full day and still have 30% left. The more you have that screen on though the more it will obviously deplete. Android phones rarely will have all 4 cores running during normal operation. Cores fire up as needed so for most basic tasks the phone operates on one or two cores. More important here in relation to battery life I think is Samsung’s use of a 32nm process to manufacture their chips. This allows for more transistors in the same amount of space to do the same tasks, reducing the power required. This coupled with the larger capacity battery allow you to get through the day without having to worry about topping the battery up. Under very heavy use I was able to get around 14 hours from the battery. Still enough for most people’s work day but the phone would seldom be out of your hand to deplete the battery that quickly.
In ways this phone is an incremental upgrade to the Smartphones that have come before it but in many other ways this is simply the fastest phone that Android has ever seen. Benchmarks aside, where this phone really excels is normal everyday use. It boots from cold in around 20 seconds. Apps load instantly. Webpages the same. The camera can manage around 6 shots a second. 1080p movies play smoothly without stutter or lag the same as if you were watching a 480p clip. After using it for a while you realise that there is nothing you do on the phone that requires you to wait.
For the normal user this will be the fastest, smoothest phone they have ever used. For the advanced user there is a whole world of power and additional features waiting to be unlocked via custom ROMs.
As we have grown used to expecting more and more sensational specs from each new product launch, I had my fears for how this phone would perform. After using it for sometime now, it is safe to say, that at present this is as good as Android gets.