The Samsung Galaxy S3, one of the most anticipated Android smartphone ever, finally arrives in the USA after a successful launch in Europe and elsewhere. In its final North American form, the Galaxy S3 differs from its international cousins in two ways: it it not powered by a Samsung Exynos quad-core chip, and it comes with support for faster 4G LTE networks (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon), thanks to a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chip.
Now, the question is: “how good is it?” and our goal here is to take our best shot at answering this. In this review, we hope to give you a realistic feel for how it is to use the Samsung Galaxy S3 in the real world. Ready?
Display: HD Super AMOLED, 4.8”, 1280 x 720, 306 PPI with Gorilla Glass 2.0
Dimensions: 5.17 inches x 2.51 inches x 0.34 inches, 4.69 ounces (131.3 mm x 63.7 mm x 8.6 mm, 132.95 grams)
OS: Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0
Processor: SnapDragon S4 1.5 Ghz Dual-Core with 2GB of RAM
Storage: 16 GB + microSDHC or 32 GB
Battery capacity: Li-ion 2100 mAh
Back camera: 8 megapixels with LED, autofocus, records video
Front camera: 1.9 megapixels
AT&T Network: 3G, HSPA+, 4G LTE (and WiFi)
Verizon Network: 3G, 4G LTE (and WiFi)
T-Mobile network: HSPA+ (and WiFi)
We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that we tell you what I do with my smartphone(s): we typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. We browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but rarely watch movies or play music. Not much phone calls – maybe 10mn a day, if at all.
On the “apps” side, Hubert has a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager and random apps (<20), but but rarely play games or do something super-intensive like video editing. Eliane likes to check-in often and tends to install a lot more apps on her phone. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…
Industrial design (very good)
The Samsung Galaxy S3 features a slightly slimmer, a rounder body and a sleeker design than its predecessor: the Galaxy S2. Unlike the S2, the backside surface is smooth, and does not get any bump at the bottom. The lines are pure. Talking about the backside, Samsung has come up with a clever way to add a screen protector by selling a backside plus integrated front cover. This is great.
Although it is made of plastic, the Galaxy S3 conveys a good build quality, the white version embodies this better than the blue model. Some people do not appreciate the “plastic” feel of the Galaxy line, so for them, we would recommend getting a case, or looking at the HTC One X, which features a polycarbonate body with a soft touch finish.
The physical camera integration is also more subtle than the previous model, which provides a more elegant look to the whole phone. Samsung pitches the SII design as “inspired by nature”, and more specifically, pebbles. The curvaceous lines alongside the smooth surface are certainly reminiscent of the small rounded stones.
As usual, Samsung remains minimalistic on the physical buttons side: on the right edge you will find the power button, the volume is on the left and the home button is at the bottom of the display.
As usual with Samsung, the Super-AMOLED display is great, its quality is comparable to other high-end smartphones such as the HTC One X. AMOLED technology delivers more saturated colors, which Eliane likes better since her designer tastes lean toward vivid colors over an accurate transcription of reality.
The contrast is very good and black is really black. In comparison, on the HTC One X, black is slightly gray. However the One X reproduces the “reality” more accurately especially when using the display as a camera viewfinder. Overall, both devices offer a comparable display quality, with a slight edge for Samsung.
In direct sunlight the display is still readable and offers comparable visibility/readability than the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X (see picture).
As we wrote in a previous paragraph, the Samsung Galaxy S3 features a more elegant and sleek design than its predecessor the Galaxy S2, we are happy with the disappearance of the bump on the bottom-rear, the use of a smooth surface instead of the textured finish and the new curvaceous body.
The usual Super AMOLED display is larger (4.8”) and has a higher resolution (1280×720) than the previous model which was only 4.3” large with a 800×480 resolution which was a common standard at that time. The Galaxy S3 display is also a hair larger than the HTC One X screen (4.7”).
Obviously, this latest phone uses a much faster chip, and we will have much more data a little bit later in the review.
New / Specific features
Samsung says that it has designed the Galaxy S3 to interact with “real world objects”, which is a fancy way to say that Samsung wanted to make sure that its latest phone would be useful in real-world situations. To do so, the company has added a few features that use technologies like NFC (Near field communications) and WiFi-Direct.
NFC is an ultra-short range wireless communications protocol that enables devices to exchange short bursts of data. The distance is so short that it’s convenient to say that we have to make “contact” in order to initiate the transfer, but this should work through a glass for example. Samsung has modified the NFC feature of Android to support transfers as big as 1GB.
WiFi-direct basically allows two devices or computers to communicate with each other without going through a router (which usually managed everyone’s IP addresses). This allows WiFi direct to run in the same way that Bluetooth does, except with a much higher bandwidth.
GroupCast via WiFi-Direct: GroupCast is typically used to share documents with other phones via WiFi-direct (same router). First, all the participants have to connect to the same session, then the “master” device can broadcast while participants can write notes on top of the shared information. One can share a Powerpoint presentation for example. We really like the idea, but you need other people to have GroupCast as well, so until this becomes more universal (and even cross-vendor), chances are that business folks will stick to the good old projector.
AllShare can send a video from the Samsung Galaxy S3 to a Samsung TV that is compatible (we tried with an LED 8000D). AllShare is based on DLNA, and although it may work with non-Samsung TVs, you can imagine that having all devices from one brand is probably the easy way to do it. AllShare can also act as a local server which lets you access local content from the web. To do that, you will need to create a Samsung account so that Samsung servers can initiate the connection between your devices over the Internet.
Samsung Voice commands – S Voice Application (Could be better)
We have tested the S Voice application listed as one of the key features on the Samsung Galaxy S3 official website.
In many instances S Voice did not understand what we were saying, and this may be due to our foreign accent in English. However Google Voice Commands understood perfectly sentences such as “Find restaurants” or “422 Townsend street”. For the latter, S Voice understood “422 Canton Street” perfectly though. When we asked “What is the weather” both applications got it right, however S Voice was much slower to return results than Google.
The results might be better if you do not have any accent in English, however, many different people speaking English as the first language may still have very different accents, so eventually some of them would experience similar difficulties with S Voice.
Note that while they can return similar results for some questions, the Google Voice Commands does not interact with apps at the same level than S Voice does. Google would not be able to set an alarm for example.
Samsung Smart Stay: According to Samsung, Smart Stay uses eye tracking technology to prevent the display from timing out as long as you are looking at it. This feature is transparent to the user, and we did not notice any issue with it.
Smart Alert: A feature we did not have the time to try: Smart Alert detects when you have been away from the smartphone and it triggers a vibrating nudge to alert you when you have missed calls or messages.
TecTiles programmable tags: as you may have seen previously, Samsung is selling programmable NFC tags that you can program from the device. You can simply download the Samsung TecTile app. This application lets you program a tile and associates it with several types of action that that can manipulate Settings and Apps, Phone and SMS, Location/Web and Social Networks.
Each type of action lets you trigger some kind predefined response, like sending a text message, launching an app or update a social network status. By now you probably get the picture. This is only one application, and NFC’s potential is extremely vast. TecTile is very cool because it will let you automate a number of actions, and more importantly, it can make things effortless. Here are a few example of what we did with the TecTiles:
1/ Prepare the phone for the night: by touching a single TecTile on the bedside table, it is possible to: a/ set an wake-up alarm b/switch to night mode c/put the phone in silent mode d/turn WiFi and Bluetooth OFF to save battery life – not bad for just dropping the phone on the tag, right?
2/ By sticking a tag on the smartphone car mount, inserting the phone in place would a/switch to car mode b/ turn Bluetooth on to pair with the car or headset c/ send a text to someone to say that you’re back in the car.
These are two simple examples of what can be done, but you can imagine that app developers and merchants/services will come up with more ideas. For the regular consumers, Samsung sells the TecTiles for 14.99 the pack of 5.
S Memo (very good): S memo was introduced with the Samsung Galaxy Note, it features great handwriting recognition along with nice drawing capabilities, whether you use your fingers or a stylus. Unlike the Note, the Galaxy S3 does not come with a stylus, however it is very easy to write with your finger and the handwriting recognition works well, so far it is the best that we have seen on Android.
The only downside is the unfriendly user interface when it comes to find the key that switches from QWERTY keyboard to handwriting. Due to its narrower size, the Galaxy S3 virtual keyboard, unlike the one in the Galaxy Note, feature only one key for accessing the various input modes, and you have to hold the key to switch from one to the other: voice command, keyboard, handwriting and settings. Users who did not read the reviews or the user manual may not discover the options easily.
Virtual keyboard: Ironically, despite having hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal, most users still refer to text-based communication as being the “critical” application for them. That’s why you must not underestimate the importance of a virtual keyboard. The more productive you want to be, and the more likely this element may get in the way.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 virtual keyboard looks very much like the stock Android 4.0 keyboard. It’s simple and clean. By default, our text prediction feature was OFF, which made the keyboard fast and responsive. We like it better that way because text prediction is based on a dictionary, and it is often not very good when you speak more than one language, or use technical lingo/slang. If you write in plain English, that could actually help, so that’s really up to you.
Email (very good): The email experience is pretty decent. Samsung has chosen the approach of making the titles very big and readable instead of showing a more detailed preview of the message.It is possible to flag and multi-select emails for batch operations, so curation should be pretty easy. The typography could be better, but we doubt that many people will complain.
Some email clients “cheat” by checking only the notifications, but download the actual message only when you open the email app. This *may* save some battery life, but it is also a major annoyance in my opinion. Fortunately, the Galaxy S3 does download mails in the background to make them available as soon as the Mail app launches. I get a lot of emails, so this is a big deal for me, and I feel like I can actually get some work done in an efficient way with this.
On a daily basis, the most important features are the search and background download. Not having a search is a “no go”, and having the app load the emails only when you open the app is frustrating.
Calendar (very good): The calendar is pretty efficient. It is nicely designed, and the overall layout and typography is much better than the Email app. We take it that two different teams worked on them. Anyhow, you can view your schedule by day/week/month or by upcoming event, which is a favorite for many. Adding an event is efficient, thanks to a screen that is particularly compact.It is also possible to create tasks, but unfortunately, they do not sync with Outlook’s own tasks. Too bad, but we’ll easily survive.
Facebook: No problem there. Facebook is its old self and upon installing the app you will pretty much have the same experience than on any other modern smartphone. Facebook’s main drag is the sheer quantity of network requests and bandwidth that the app uses. When Facebook Camera will come out on Android, things will be much easier for that aspect of the social network. Until then, you’re stuck with the regular Facebook app.
Google Maps: it is already excellent on Android, there is no question about it. My favorite feature: map area preload that lets you download a 10 square-mile map onto your local storage. Rocks!
Skype: Audio calls work just fine with Skype and were clean and all. However, we bumped into issues with the video chat. We couldn’t get the incoming video to show up, and although we could see ourselves on the screen, the other-end of the conversation could not see us. We’ve seen our share of Skype issues, but it works very decently on some Android devices so we hope that Skype and Samsung will work on this together.
Video playback (excellent): The video playback is excellent both on the fluidity side and on the image-quality side, thanks to the awesome display and the powerful graphics processor. We tried HD trailers in streaming over WiFi from YouTube and video files stored locally accessible in the Gallery application.
However, there was one little thing that we found annoying when watching a movie from the gallery application: the general brightness settings were impossible to maintain while the video was playing, the image became suddenly slightly darker. Each time we paused, the image got back to normal. This did not happen in the YouTube application so it seems to be an isolated bug related to the Gallery app, our two review units behaved exactly the same way. We will ask Samsung about it, it will probably be fixed with the next software update.
Gaming (excellent): equipped with a fast Adreno 225 graphics processor and a couple of custom-designed Cortex A9 CPUs which have more powerful floating-point units, the Galaxy S3 can run games at a surprising speed. For example, we could run the Riptide GP game at a solid 60FPS in the first level. It’s actually hard to find games or benchmarks that will challenge this hardware for now. (Note that the video above plays at HALF the actual framerate)
Speaker-quality (very good): the Samsung Galaxy S3 (loud)speaker uses a rear-design which is clearly loud enough, but tends to work well when the phones is flat on a table because the sound “rebounds” towards the user. Although the loudness is not a problem, we found the sound to have less “volume” (in the volumetric sense) than the HTC One X which has the top speaker at the moment.
Camera application, photo and video capture (Excellent): The camera user interface (UI) is easy to use and offers a broad range of features including a good still photo shooting while recording video mode, panorama, smile detection, burst shooting modes, various scene modes and more. The HTC One X delivers similar features including still photo shooting while recording video, panorama, smile detection, burst shooting mode, various scene modes…
We slightly prefer the simplicity of the HTC user interface, especially the two big buttons, one for shooting video, the other for capturing still images. They are easier to manipulate than the sliding button in the Galaxy S3 camera application. HTC does also a better job for the burst mode, you just have to hold the shutter button to trigger it, on the S3 you need to drill down in the menus to change the mode before starting to shoot.
Overall both camera applications offer a similar quality and a good set of features, unlike the iPhone 4S which has “zero flexibility”: you cannot select any shooting mode except with or without flash, and you are stuck with a single image resolution.
Photo quality (Excellent): Similarly to the traditional camera market, the megapixel race is on in the smartphone segment, so the Galaxy S3, like the HTC One X, gets a 8 megapixel rear camera with auto-focus and LED flash. Except for the Nokia PureView, 8 MP is now the new standard for high end smartphones.
We have tested the image quality against the HTC One X and the iPhone 4s, and overall the image quality is comparable on all phones. There are slight differences here and there, but nothing so noticeable to be mentioned. For example, the iPhone 4s seems to be a little bit better for the areas in the shade (see the street photo), but gets more noise than the two others.
See for yourself and check carefully the pictures below, to access the HD versions go to our Ubergizmo Flickr account.
Video Quality (excellent): The video quality is excellent, and it is slightly more fluid than what the HTC One X delivers: the Galaxy S3 records at 30 fps while the One X does so at 24 fps. As you can see on the movies we shot (go to our Flickr account), both devices gets less flare and delivers a crisper image than the iPhone 4s.
Share shots and Buddy Sharing are two features that are based on WiFi direct. Share Shots lets a group of friends photos by copying photos to all the smartphones that are connected via a Direct-WiFi session. The idea is that you won’t need to ask your friends to send the photos after the party, and you can go home with all the pictures right in your phone. This works only if the phones are within WiFi direct range, so if you stray too far from one another, you may lose the connection.
Buddy Sharing is a bit different: after shooting a photo of a friend, the phone will recognize that person and can accelerate the sharing by pre-populating the share option for your friends. This ultimately save “taps”, which saves “time”.
Smart Burst mode: The camera shoots a bunch of picture, and after analyzing them, it suggests the best picture. If you approve, the Galaxy S3 will discard the unused ones for you. Burst shots don’t turn into a storage nightmare anymore.
In its original form, the Samsung Galaxy S3 was equipped with Samsung’s own Exynos quad-core processor. However, to accommodate the 4G LTE requirements of U.S carriers, Samsung has opted for the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core SoC with a Adreno 225 graphics processor, which is the prefered chip of many handset makers when it comes to a 4G LTE solution.
We’ve seen the Snapdragon S4 in action before with the Sprint HTC EVO 4G LTE, so we expected -and got- very good performance out of the couple of Samsung Galaxy S3 phones that we have in the office. To illustrate this, we ran some benchmarks, and here are the results:
Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.
As you can see, the Galaxy S3 is among the top contenders, and the Tegra chip wins here because Antutu has a good test for multi-core performance. At this game a quad-core chip like Tegra 3 will tend to win. To be fair, the Snapdragon S4 does outperform Tegra 3 in floating-point benchmarks Floating point computations tend to be important for scientific calculations, game simulations and things of that nature. On the other hand, multi-core is used natively (to a point) by the OS and non-floating point instructions are used more often. Interesting architectural differences.
Nenamark 2 is a test which tries to measure the graphics processor performance. It is handy, but keep in mind that the latest games use much more complex techniques that are not represented in this test.
With an average of 59.7 frames per second, or 55 Megapixel per second (55 million pixels processed per second), the Adreno 225 GPU of the Snapdragon S4 easily win this contest, and it is no small feat. This thing is really fast. Actually, this benchmark doesn’t even show the real speed of the Adreno 225 GPU because the framerate was capped at 60FPS for most of the demo. Basically, the Snapdragon S4 makes the benchmark obsolete.
Perceived performance: Synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is the user experience is smooth and responsive (responsiveness is not always solved with brute-force processor power). In the end, what good is raw performance if you can’t perceive it?
The perceived performance of the Galaxy S3 is excellent. The phone is fast and responsive and did not experience any hang up, which is always comforting for an Android phone. In fact, the phone is so responsive that I think that the user interface animations are holding it back, and we would love to get an option to disable them for maximum productivity.
Assistive light widget: this is basically a flashlight widget that turns the LED light of the camera ON and OFF. It’s great because it is faster than any app and that’s because there is no loading time. The widget is always loaded and ready to go. Genius.
No Power widget: where did the Power widget go? For sure we can access all those functionalities in the notification area, but having the Power widget on the home page is the best way to see if something should be turned off like WIFI or GPS. Fortunately, there’s the power control widget from PainlessDeath.
Battery life (Good+)
With an overnight (8hrs) 13% drop in battery life (T-Mobile GS3), the battery life under the best conditions isn’t what we expected. Other devices equipped with the same chip fared much better and went as low as 4%, while other top phones are around 8-9%. We will have to take another stab at testing this and make sure that the conditions are exactly the same or as close as possible, but for now, these are the numbers.
Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the: display is ON. You can always refer to the Android battery report to see what is consuming the power. Finally, keep in mind that network transactions generated by apps can appear as “Android” as it is ultimately the OS that handles those transactions.
It is fair to say that the Galaxy S3 is an excellent smartphone. While it is not the “revolution” that Samsung fans were waiting for, the S3 deserves its spot in the Android Hall of Fame. Its design had created some controversy, but we do like it – a lot. The curves of the phone make it very nice to manipulate and the smartphone feels surprisingly light – even if it is not actually lighter than the HTC One X – the power of design, we suppose.
Samsung’s near-fanatical focus on providing genuinely useful features to the end-user deserves some kudos as well. While not every project turns out to be a blockbuster, things like S-Memo, S-Voice and TecTiles have demonstrated great potential at making a difference in one’s daily life. Finally, the quality of the camera hardware and software makes the Galaxy S3 a pleasure to use for casual photography, which is the #2 activity for smartphone users.