The Samsung Galaxy S III launched in late May, to a level of consumer and media attention once reserved for only Apple's smartphone offerings
When we crowned the HTC One X as “the [Android] phone you should lust after” we were aware that we may have to revise our position after we’d had a chance to put the Galaxy S III to the test.
With its 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos CPU, the S III is an incredibly powerful Android phone. Is it enough to knock the One X from its perch? In raw performance, certainly – but we knew that , based on benchmark scores we'd seen long before we got our hands on an S III review model. Power doesn’t make a winner, though. It’s what you do with that power, and Samsung had some grand ambitions for the Galaxy S III.
Sleek and slim at just 8.6mm thick, the S III seems built to draw your eye to its huge 4.8-inch, 720 x 1280-pixel touchscreen. Yep, that’s right – 720p High Definition. Watching videos is a pleasure, particularly HD video from YouTube or your own media collection at its native resolution.
The S III’s display boasts 50% more pixels than the Apple iPhone 4’s Retina display (itself 640 x 960). The iPhone's 330ppi pixel density still pips the 306ppi of the S III, but the S III is capable of the same sort of smooth, no-pixels-visible rendering of text and icons as devices with Apple’s Retina technology.
Samsung’s Super AMOLED display provides beautifully rich colours, good contrast and sufficient brightness for outdoor viewing. In summary, the S III can delivery some stunning eye candy.
Our white model has minimalist styling, with shiny silver trim around the outer edge. There’s a physical ‘home’ button on the front, touch-sensitive menu and back buttons, and that’s it. On the left side is a volume up/down rocker switch, and on the right is the power button. The back is just one smooth sheet of polycarbonate plastic, which is removable to reveal a user-replaceable battery, microSIM slot and microSD memory card slot.
It’s not a particularly attractive design – in fact, though it feels very solid in the hand, it looks a little cheap at first glance. Some may be put off by this. Personally I liked the way the screen was the sole focal point of the device, and nothing else was worth a second glance: the screen is the only part of the phone you really interact with.
Android & TouchWiz
The phone runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) out of the box, with Samsung’s TouchWiz 'Nature' UI lightly draped across the top. It’s not a heavyweight, Android-crushing ‘skin’, and doesn’t negatively impact the performance of the S III as some vendor-specific Android overlays have been known to do.
TouchWiz 'Nature' adds several neat features, including very quick access to common settings via Android’s pull-down notification bar. That may seem a trivial thing to single out, but it’s amazingly useful and quicker to access than the home-screen widgets often supplied for the same purpose. The 'Nature' portion describes many of the themed alerts and responses of the S II, which were based on the sound of wind, water and stone.
Honestly, Smart stay sound a little creepy. You flick the setting on, and your phone is always watching. Rather than hitting its ‘no activity’ timeout and going to sleep, the front-facing camera checks whether you’re looking at it. If you are, the phone stays awake. Brilliant, right?
The idea is that if you’re reading a long document, checking your mail or perhaps trying to view a magic-eye picture, you won’t have to keep pawing the screen every minute or two so your phone doesn’t fall asleep on you.
It worked for me, most of the time. The feature isn't as effective in the dark, because the camera can’t see you. I also found it didn’t work when I put the phone on a table and leant forward over it to read. I suspect the camera couldn’t see my eyes, or recognise me at that angle. In daylight, holding the phone in a comfortable reading position, it worked almost perfectly. When it ‘fails’, you haven’t lost anything – the phone would have gone to sleep anyway – so it’s a nice option.
‘S Voice’ is both more useful, and less novel than I imagined. It’s something you may have heard of before... Apple calls it ‘Siri’, and it’s a cloud-based speech recognition system that allows you to issue the phone commands, or ask it questions, in ‘natural language’ (as you would speak to a human).
I only had a week with the Galaxy S III, and apparently that wasn’t enough time for ‘S Voice’ to learn its way around my strange accent. Set to either US or UK English, it had a terrible time with even the simplest commands and message dictations. I did have a few pleasant successes, such as ‘set alarm for 6:00 am’, ‘what’s the weather like here’, and ‘what is 27 inches in centimetres?’. Simple questions like those will be answered right in the speech command window.
If S Voice can’t answer you directly, it offers to perform a web search. My luck was mixed in that area – common phrases worked alright, but names, numbers and technical terms were usually a no-go.
I can’t say much more about S Voice without a lot more hands-on time. With the speech recognition happening server-side, it’s also something that I’d hope to improve behind the scenes as time goes on. As it stands right now, I wouldn’t call it a major selling point.
Pop up play
An interesting little feature of the S III, Pop up play uses the phone’s immense processing power to let you watch windowed HD video on top of another application – like a very simple version of multitasking.
Pop up play hasn’t gained a great deal of attention, and really seems more suited to a tablet than a smartphone. However, if you’re watching a video to pass the time – the only reason I ever watch a video on my phone personally – it’s nice to be able to handle your messages, email or even check the bus timetables without pausing the video and switching apps.
Camera & Best photo
The Galaxy S III’s rear-facing camera records stills at 8 megapixels, and full HD 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Photo and video quality are great, with the high-resolution screen making a particularly good viewfinder. It’s also easy to whether your shots are slightly blurred, and re-take if necessary.
The ‘Best photo’ feature makes that a rare necessity indeed, taking eight photos in rapid succession when you press the shutter button, and auto-selecting the best of the lot. You can then manually confirm which shot (or shots) you wish to keep. It’s very similar to the feature of the same name found on the HTC One X.
Despite the S III’s quad-core CPU and massive screen, the 2100mAh battery easily provides at least a full day’s use. For me, that included extensive web browsing, use of email and calendar features, a few hours of music playback and a few minutes of video. If you’re trying to watch feature-length films, expect a different outcome.
Charging is via Micro USB, and an ultra-compact USB/mains adapter is included in the box.
If you want power, and you want it now, Samsung’s Galaxy S III is the most powerful Android smartphone on the market. It’s your best option, and at $1,049 outright from 2degrees, Telecom and Vodafone, it’s just $50 more than the HTC One X.
Speaking of which, it’s hard to say whether the S III is ‘better’ than the One X overall. Both have a similar feature set, the same display resolution and nearly the same size. S Voice or Samsung’s other proprietary additions to Android are not enough to steamroll the competition outright – not yet. The One X feels a little more solidly built, the S III has the advantage in grunt. Try out both in store if you can, because it’s a tight race.
On its own merits, the Galaxy S III is well worth PC World
’s Platinum award, as today’s most cutting-edge Android phone.