Review: Samsung Galaxy S III for US carriers

Samsung works to retain Android leadership with Galaxy S III (July 6th, 2012)

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Product Manufacturer: Samsung

Price: $199 as tested

The Good

  • Fast chipset
  • Android 4.0
  • Extensive NFC integration
  • HD, AMOLED display
  • Interchangeable battery

The Bad

  • Faux metal appearance
  • Unlikely to receive quick OS updates
  • No quad-core for US variants
  • Delayed availability

Samsung ended 2011 with the Galaxy Nexus launch, shipping the flagship Android smartphone just in time for holiday shoppers. The Korean handset maker has kept up its fast-pace product cycle by upstaging the Galaxy Nexus in just six months with the Galaxy S III, which brings significant improvements over its S II predecessor and several minor enhancements compared to the Nexus. In our full review, we attempt to determine if the Galaxy S III deserves to take the crown among high-end Android smartphones.

Design

Aesthetically, the Galaxy S III represents the nuanced evolution of Samsung's industrial design. A gigantic 4.8-inch display dominates the facade, surrounded by a white bezel (in the AT&T model that we received for this review). The shape closely resembles the Galaxy Nexus, however Samsung has retained a physical home-button rather than completely embracing the soft-button layout of the Nexus, which was co-developed with Google.

A silver metallic band surrounds the edge of the S III, with a brushed appearance that resembles aluminum. Upon holding the device, however, users will quickly find the material to have the characteristic warmth of plastic rather than the cold conductivity of actual metal. We acknowledge that modern polycarbonate construction can be superior to metal in some ways, though the faux-metallic appearance is a bit of a turn-off.

Despite the larger display compared to the Galaxy Nexus, the S III shaves the depth down to 8.6mm--besting the iPhone 4S by a modes 0.7mm. Samsung's obsession with matching or beating competing iOS device thicknesses is admittedly silly in some respects, but the slim build of the S III helps maintain a "pocketability" that feels similar to the iPhone despite a significantly larger display.





Display

Samsung has been a driving force behind AMOLED technology, and in most ways the Galaxy S III highlights this push. The 4.8-inch panel utilizes the company's Super AMOLED technology, offering advantages to sunlight readability compared to basic AMOLED panels.

As expected, the S III's AMOLED panel presents beautifully saturated colors. The panel is not the most color-accurate display--some potential buyers may desire more balance--but images truly pop. Contrast ratio is also excellent, as AMOLED technology completely de-powers black pixels rather than insufficiently filtering the backlight. We find the AMOLED contrast to be particularly beneficial when viewing the display in low-light conditions, such as driving at night while using a navigation app, or watching movies.

Most top-shelf Android phones now integrate a 1280x720 display, supporting native HD content and approaching the pixel density of the iPhone 4/4S. The Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S III, HTC One X and several other models, have settled on the same spec. We expect 1280x720 to eventually become the bare minimum for smartphones, and the S III helps raise the bar in this respect.

Among a myriad of high-end features in the S III, the Super AMOLED display is a double-edged sword. Arguably the most significant drawback to traditional AMOLED panels is the reliance on a PenTile pixel matrix, which utilizes an RGBG arrangement that shares subpixels rather than providing a dedicated red, green and blue channel for each pixel. This does not sound like a big deal, in theory, but it leads to fuzzy edges on distinct boundaries such as fine black text on a white background.

The primary reasons to integrate a native HD display are clarity and sharpness. We confidently place our bets on 1280x720 and 1920x1080 resolutions as the gold standards in upcoming smartphone displays, however PenTile technology already should be a thing of the past. Some technology disparity can be blamed on patent ownership, but Samsung already took the technology beyond PenTile when it introduced RGB-based Super AMOLED Plus panels in the Galaxy S III and Droid Charge.





Performance

Samsung and its US carrier partners have carefully avoided discussions focusing on the hardware differences between North American models and the international variants, which we previewed at the company's UK launch event, however the internal chipsets are quite different. The international edition features Samsung's Exynos 4 Quad processor, a quad-core system-on-a-chip (SoC) that is designed to compete with Nvidia's Tegra 3 platform. The US-bound models, in contrast, integrate Qualcomm's dual-core Snapdragon Krait chipset.

We have been impressed by most Tegra 3-powered devices, though we caution against placing too much significance on the dual-core vs. quad-core debate. The S III exemplifies this observation, as the 1.4GHz quad-core chipset, in our experience, does not appear to equate to a doubling of raw performance over the 1.5GHz dual-core chipset.

We found the US-bound S III to keep up with the rest of the high-end Android crowd--neither noteiceably faster, nor slower in our real-world tests. We expect developers to soon push the limit with graphics capabilities and other tasks, but, for now, the dual-core S III seems to perform well against its quad-core counterpart.

Software

Both the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Nexus share Android 4.0 as their core operating system, however the former represents Samsung's latest effort to differentiate itself by adding custom interface elements. The skin--another Samsung TouchWiz creation--is designed to enhance the experience by supplementing the basic Android UI.

Our experience with previous TouchWiz iterations has not been entirely positive. Custom overlays from any manufacture, wether Samsung's TouchWiz or HTC's Sense, have only added to the concept of "fragmentation." After Google releases its latest Android build, OEMs must scramble to rework their overlays and tweak the OS to work with existing hardware. The development resources required to address both angles lengthens the time-frame for updates, reduces the number of handsets that receive such updates, and in some cases results in lingering software bugs.

Samsung has scaled back the depth of its TouchWiz customizations with the Galaxy S III, expanding the shortcut switches in the slide-down menu and centralizing the multitasking functionality via the physical menu button. Unlike earlier versions of TouchWiz, we did not find the S III to experience slowdown or freezing. The interface "enhancements" also did not interfere with basic OS functionality.

We commend Samsung for limiting the reach of its TouchWiz UI, and we understand the motivation for handset makers to feel the need to differentiate their products through both hardware and software tweaks. Google also deserves praise for refining the core OS, however, leaving much less reason for OEMs to modify the interface. Galaxy Nexus owners can reasonably expect to receive the next Android overhaul well before the S III, along with the latest security patches, despite owning an older device.

Google has continued to improve its voice-based search feature, which now lags behind Apple's Siri technology, however Samsung appears to have hastened its direct competition with the iPhone by introducing "S Voice" search. Ironically, we have found both Siri and S Voice to be awkward and overhyped in many situations. Both systems encounter difficulty discerning basic words and interpreting many contextual queries.






NFC, Wi-Fi Direct

Near-field communications (NFC) represents one of the inevitable technologies that will eventually adorn every smartphone. Google and a number of other companies are currently working to adapt payment systems to accept smartphones as payment devices rather than credit cards or cash.

The S III supports the same NFC-based payment features as the Galaxy Nexus, though Samsung is attempting to push the wireless communications technology to enable a much broader range of features. The company offers "TecTiles" adhesive NFC stickers, along with a companion app, that can be used to perform custom functions whenever a user places their NFC-enabled phone near one of the tags.

The stickers can be used to modify phone settings or launch Android apps. One of the best examples is alarm functionality; users can place on their nightstand a TecTile sticker, which, when touched by the phone, activates the alarm for a specific wake-up time and immediately turns the phone to silent mode for an undisturbed slumber.

Users can also place TecTiles on their business cards, enabling contact sharing; in a vehicle, to send a pre-written text message; somewhere in a store, for Foursquare or Facebook check-ins; or on any random item associate with a specific contact, to automatically call or text that person.

We found the first example--alarm clocks and silent mode--to be the most useful. The TecTiles successfully activated our alarm clock for the correct time and switched the ringer mode to silent/vibrate, reducing the chance that we might accidentally oversleep or annoy our significant other with early-morning alerts from e-mails originating from overseas.

Aside from the basic NFC functionality, Samsung also provides an "S Beam" feature that takes advantage of the Android Beam feature from the core Android 4.0 OS. At a special event in New York City, company representatives showed us how images captured from the S III camera could be automatically transferred to other devices via Wi-Fi direct by tapping a TecTile sticker.





Camera

The Galaxy S III features an 8.0-megapixel primary camera, along with a 1.9-megapixel front-facing shooter. The smartphone market has matured enough that, by now, many users already will recognize that megapixel metrics are hardly significant in gauging photo quality.

We liked the Galaxy S II camera and image-processing engine, though we found the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S to be slightly superior in this regard. Many smartphones have eight-megapixel ratings or higher, but the optics and image-processing tech only effectively support lower resolutions. With the Galaxy S III, however, we were impressed by the image quality viewed at the full eight-megapixel resolution.

Aside from raw pixels, color representation and range appeared to be decent for a smartphone camera. The automatic exposure settings seem to work well in most situations, aside from extreme conditions of excessive brightness or darkness.

Video performance also appears to be decent compared to many other smartphones we've tested, although the autofocus can be a bit erratic. Calm, static scenes bring out the device's 1080p recording capabilities.




Audio, battery

As media-playback devices and actual phones, we expect modern smartphones to deliver robust audio quality. The Galaxy S III performs well as a phone, effectively reducing background noise and cranking incoming-audio volume through the integrated speakers for effective standalone speakerphone functionality without any accessories.

The speaker appears to be tuned for voice fidelity, and we agree with this engineering choice. After attaching a pair of Etymotic ER4-P earphones, which carry a higher impedance than most headphones, we were impressed by the S III's ability to reproduce full-range audio without breaking apart at higher volume.

When using the S III for an intensive day of web browsing and app usage, along with a few phone calls, the phone appears to beat the Galaxy Nexus in battery life. This did not come as a surprise, as the S III utilizes a 2,100 mAh battery instead of the Nexus' 1,850 mAh pack.

Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx may beat the Galaxy S III in a head-to-head longevity competition based on a single battery charge, however the Samsung handset offers interchangeable batteries that can be easily swapped by popping open the rear housing. We appreciate that Samsung has found a way to keep a thin profile without sealing the battery into the housing.

Final thoughts

The Galaxy S III's closest competition appears to be HTC's One X and the Galaxy Nexus. The One X also features a 1280x720 display, but with IPS technology for improved brightness and off-angle readability. The Nexus touts many of the same specs, without the interface customizations.

The Galaxy S III impressed us with its Ice Cream Sandwich OS, snappy chipset, HD display and well-engineered cameras. Users who immediately purchase the device will benefit from the best Android has to offer. After observing Samsung's behavior in the Android arena for a few years, however, we have become disheartened by the lack of attention to Android OS updates.

Samsung appears to be so consumed by differentiating itself from other Android competitors--and rivaling the iPhone--that it has turned its back on its own customers. Fragmentation may be a real problem for the Android platform, and heavily customized skins are not helping to alleviate this problem.

The vast majority of non-Nexus devices seem to be built under the assumption that hardware enhancements and UI overlays are more important than prompt OS updates. Samsung and other hardware makers only indirectly benefit from software updates, and a slow update schedule may be financially beneficial by encouraging users to drop more cash on new hardware to get the latest OS.

We were very impressed by Google's Android 4.1 Jelly Bean introduction, shown less than two weeks ago. At the moment, all high-end Android phones are powered by Ice Cream Sandwich. The v4.1 preview left us wondering if phones such as the Galaxy S III and HTC One X will be any "better" than the Galaxy Nexus, in terms of the entire hardware/software experience, after Jelly Bean arrives--presumably first on the Nexus device.

The Galaxy S III with 16GB of internal storage is available from Verizon, AT&T and Sprint for $200 with a two-year contract for new or upgrade-eligible accounts. T-Mobile offers the 16GB variant for $280, while the 32GB edition steps up to $330.



by Justin King


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