Reviews

Samsung Galaxy S III Review: The next big thing or a big letdown?

June 20, 2012 | by Andrew Kameka

Android Phones and Devices, Samsung

galaxy-s-iii

Samsung did the impossible when it announced that the Galaxy S III would be coming to America as one device. There would be no more definitively different hardware changes that made each Galaxy phone so unique that they were related only by name. Rather than being cousins raised by different carriers, they would be sextuplets separated at birth and sent to live with AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, C-Spire, and U.S. Cellular. Yes, there are a couple of minor quirks in each model, but Samsung’s flagship phone is identical at each carrier.

The Galaxy S III has the potential to curb the trend of unnecessary differentiation, but only if its uniform styling is stellar enough to please users across the board. Exactly how good does this phone “designed for humans, inspired by nature” perform?

HARDWARE: Big RAM, bigger body

At some point, phone companies are going to have to stop increasing the screen size of their phones. That point is clearly not today because the Galaxy S III has a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display. Fans of Super AMOLED will love its vibrant colors, and detractors will nitpick that its whites have more of a blueish tint than LCD, but the negatives associated with the display are in fine-tuned numerical comparisons. What matters is how Super AMOLED rates when you look at it on a daily basis, and this phone definitely passes the eyeball test.

The most interesting thing about the Galaxy S III is that the bump up to a larger display hasn’t adversely affected the overall size of the device. The GS III is a few millimeters taller and wider than the Galaxy Nexus, but it’s actually smidgen slimmer in depth (8.6 mm). The GSIII takes cues from GNex with curved sides that trick the eye into perceiving the device to have a slimmer profile, but the wider frame features more round corners on all sides. That includes a razor-thin bezel that lets fingers gently slide over the edges. It’s a small touch in the Corning Gorilla Glass 2 screen, but one that you will pick-up on when you touch another phone with a flatter screen or one with a slightly raised rim.

Internally, the Galaxy S III has 16 or 32 GB of memory, a whopping 2 GB of RAM, and a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor. Both the AT&T and Sprint models that I was lent to test laughed at my attempts to cause a slowdown, keeping more than 800 MB free with several apps and services using up 840 MB. The extra RAM seems to focus on maintaining a smooth experience, and it so far it feels like Samsung has done well to make this, in a performance sense, a winner. It also does well on the battery front. I’ve used the phone extensively for a month now and can comfortably get through an entire day on a single charge provided I keep screen brightness at 70 percent or lower. Experience may differ based on settings and activities, but the Galaxy S III is solid on battery life.

The Galaxy S III body doesn’t feel nearly as premium however. Samsung’s legacy of “plasticky” phones carries on with the glossy white rear and gray rim. The phone can feel flimsy, though in fairness, most Samsung phones fit that description and have held up as durable.

The Galaxy S III also continues the trend of ignoring Google’s plea for virtual navigation buttons. The phone has a physical home button and illuminating capacitive fields to access the menu and back buttons. An LED flash and speaker with loud but not particularly rich sound anchor the back. (With headphones in, the music player has SoundAlive to improve quality.)

SOFTWARE: Beauty’s not skin deep

There was recently an incident in Miami where someone posted graffiti over a building exterior decorated with work from artist Romero Britto. That’s exactly how I feel about the way Samsung Touchwiz UX looks over Android 4.0. Though I grew to respect and tolerate the Touchwiz of recent memory, seeing it sewn over ICS is a bit of a letdown. Apps like Calendar, Contacts, and Settings have the same look as Touchwiz on Gingerbread, and the browser doesn’t stack up to the stock version. While recent changes to HTC Sense felt like a transitional merge of Sense concepts with new-age ICS guidelines, Touchwiz feels like a stubborn imposition of old thinking.

I can appreciate graffiti as an art form, and I understand why Samsung wants the GSIII to be a unique presentation; however, knowing what lies beneath the most recent coat of paint makes it hard to not think that something more radiant was defaced. The beauty of Android is that you can replace some of these follies with alternative dialers, keyboards, and launchers, but that shouldn’t be necessary.

While companies sometimes make big misses in the UI department, they can also come up with big hits in their software. Take for instance the lock screen. Samsung provides options for jumping to unlocking with a voice command, showing a scrolling news ticker, selecting four apps to place to have direct links, and loading the camera app by tapping on the screen and changing to landscape. These are features that you can get in a replacement lock screen, but Samsung managed to get it right in its standard app and do it very smoothly.

The Galaxy S III has some middle of the road features like Smart Stay, an eye-tracking system that keeps the screen active until your eyes close or are diverted away. Lighting is key for the function’s effectiveness, so don’t get your hopes too high. The various motion shortcuts and voice commands are also welcome tweaks, even if they are inconsistent and at times frustratingly unresponsive.

There’s also a big push for sharing that Samsung includes in the Galaxy S III. Rather than go into great detail about S Beam, ShareShot, and All Play – Samsung’s method of enabling media sharing in a less tedious manner – I’ll turn it over to Natesh Sood’s post that explains why the Galaxy S III is all about sharing.

S Voice: The Siri Killer that Wasn’t

Like all “Siri for Android” products, S Voice seems to bring a comparable voice search and command feature that’s touted on the iPhone. And like most of these apps, including Siri itself, it’s not very reliable or practical. When it’s not busy failing to connect to the network, S Voice often misinterprets what is said or requires posing the question in the exact manner. Ask S Voice “When did America gain independence?” and it will be stumped; say “When did America become independent” and it magically knows 1776.

S Voice occasionally comes through in the clutch, such as when you need to look up information, send a text message without touching the phone, or control music. But this is still a beta product being promoted as marquee feature, and Samsung should stop pretending this is an amazing feature.

Camera: Hey there, gorgeous

Samsung, Apple, Sony, and Nokia. Those are companies who have produced the best mobile phone cameras that I’ve used, and those are the ones who I expect to deliver as people abandon their point and shoot cameras for comparable results that are more convenient. The Galaxy S III more than holds its own against these rivals with a very good camera. View the full camera review with sample images and photos here.

Conclusion

The Galaxy S III has been 2012′s most hyped device, whispered about and supposedly added or removed mythical features more times than I care to count. It would have been impossible for anything released by Samsung to live up to those demands, but I’ll be damned if the company didn’t put forth a solid effort in trying. Ironically, the big-ticket items that Samsung promotes feel half-baked and not hype worthy at all. However, the cumulative weight of the many small improvements in motion sensing, voice recognition, and display are what will make you consider this as the phone to buy for the remainder of 2012.

Samsung is the number one producer of Android phones for a reason: aside from making a lot of them, it makes the kind that people want to buy. From a pros and cons standpoint, the positive virtues of the Galaxy S III are too plentiful to ignore or grumble about for long. The Galaxy S III, while not the jaw-dropping sequel that so many dreamed it would be, has a beautiful body and soul that you can easily get lost in.