Is the Samsung Galaxy S3 really the first-ever smartphone that's “designed for humans”? Or is it just more marketing gibberish designed to fleece you of your precious roubles? We give you the whole truth in this no-stone-unturned review.
It’s hard not to be slightly overwhelmed the first time you pick up the Galaxy S3. The latest flagship Android blower from the Korean giant Samsung is an even grander effort than its 20-million-plus-selling predecessor, the S2. And although it's substantially larger, somehow manages to be mind-bogglingly light.
Its massive size, despite its complete lack of bulk does take some getting used to. But the benefit quickly becomes apparent when you can slip the handset into your pocket and hardly notice it’s there.
And unlike most big phones that too often come off as overly ‘macho’ or intimidating, the S3 exudes a more welcoming, female-friendly appearance courtesy of its curvaceous form factor and softer colours.
Measuring 136.6 (L) × 70.6 (W) × 8.6 mm (D), the Galaxy S3 is 16 per cent larger than the S2, but weighs just 0.3 grams more at 133g. Fortunately, it manages not to feel as flimsy or plasticky as the latter, thanks to rejigged innards and a sturdier polycarbonate chassis.
Dedicated smartfans will notice the obvious physical similarities the S3 shares with last year’s Galaxy Nexus, which in many ways, make the S3 closer to a spiritual heir to its Google-branded cousin than an evolution of the S2.
Subtle improvements such as an ever-so-slight curve, a reduced bezel and rounder corners all help to make the S3 look a whole lot prettier and easier on the eye than its forebear. Meanwhile, a so-called ‘hyperglaze’ coating used in the paint gives the handset a level of sheen – and resists scratches, too.
Buttons are unobtrusively tucked away on the sides and have a satisfying ‘click’ to them. And much to our relief, the tried-and-tested physical home button, along with touch-sensitive Menu and Back keys, all return, quashing any concerns that Samsung would opt for a buttonless design.
Packing 4.8 inches of real estate (22 per cent bigger than the S2), the Super AMOLED display is inarguably the Galaxy S3’s crowning glory, almost nudging the handset into ‘phablet’ territory.
The display rocks a native 720p (1280 x 720) HD resolution and a 306 pixels-per-inch (ppi) density, making for super sharp, eye-popping visuals for video playback, gaming and web browsing.
Better yet, it’s reinforced with the latest Gorilla Glass 2 to protect against most shocks and knocks, and an oleophobic coating that repels those unsightly smudges.
Where the screen slightly disappoints, however, is under direct sunlight, even with the brightness setting all the way up. It may well be that Samsung has capped the max brightness to conserve battery life, but I really hope a future software update will rectify that.
Another potential pitfall is that if you have relatively small hands, you’ll have some difficulty reaching parts of the screen – particularly the top where most on-screen buttons tend to be. It can get a tad frustrating at times, but it’s a small compromise to make for the stunning viewing experience you’ll get in return.
Underneath the big, beautiful screen sits an Exynos 4 Quad system chipset housing a 1.4GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU, an ARM Mali-400 MP GPU and 1GB of RAM. In layman’s terms, you’ve got a phone that’s armed to the teeth to handle multitasking and 3D gaming without so much as breaking sweat.
In the week that I used the handset, I don’t recall experiencing any lag, freeze or undue load times. Most applications launched near instantly, while web pages rendered in a matter of seconds on a steady internet connection.
The S3 also finished with flying colours on numerous synthetic benchmarks, including Quadrant, NenaMark 2 and AnTuTu, with scores of 5324, 58.7fps and 11492 respectively – ahead on all counts of its nearest rival, the HTC One X.
The S3 is packed with an eight-megapixel rear-mounted camera, just like its older brother. What’s new is an improved Sony BSI sensor, which produced markedly sharper, brighter images that were on par with the equivalent numbers on rival handsets – better even, in some cases.
Below is a set of photos captured with the S3 (left) and the iPhone 4S (right). As you can see, snaps taken with the S3 generally have an increased level of brightness, thanks to a wider f/2.0 aperature compare to the 4S’s f/2.4. This is advantageous in gloomy, overcast conditions, but does result in some oversaturation. On the whole, S3's images appear slightly sharper and have less noise, whereas the 4S offers deeper contrast and warmer tones.
Yes, it shoots in full 1080p HD and yes it looks terrific. Frame rate sticks at a rock solid 30fps and there’s active autofocus, which works like a charm for capturing fast moving objects.
Turn it back around and you’ve got a front-facing 1.9-megapixel camera to make video calls that also records in 720p HD, which is a pleasant surprise.
The camera application itself comes with a dazzling array of extras, including a tap-activated Face Zoom function, scene modes for a variety of photo opps and a range of colourising effects to name a few.
Connectivity and Storage
Now onto the less glamorous but still vital subject of connectivity. Not unsurprisingly, the S3 has got the lot, featuring everything from Bluetooth 4.0 to Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n) and Near Field Communications (NFC).
NFC is obviously all the rage these days, promising contactless payments that could eventually replace your wallet and make you a grilled sandwich (not really). Right now, at least, it offers easy, fast exchange of data, facilitated by Android Beam (a standard feature of Ice Cream Sandwich) and Samsung’s own ‘S Beam’ feature.
In case you’re wondering what the difference is, the former is used to transfer smaller packs of data, say contact information, instantly, by simply touching the S3 against another NFC-enabled handset. S Beam, on the other hand, enables you to send larger files, such as photos, music and videos, between devices using a combination of Android Beam and Wi-Fi Direct.
Then there’s Wi-Fi hotspot allowing you share the S3’s internet connection with up to five other devices and Virtual Private Network (VPN) for remote-access to your work or home computer.
The lack of an HDMI port is slightly disappointing. But DLNA support goes some way to making up for that, enabling you to stream multimedia content from the handset to an HD TV.
As for memory, you have 16, 32 or 64GB to play with depending on the model you pick, which is expandable by a further 64GB via the microSD slot. And if that doesn’t quench your storage thirst, you also receive 48GB of cloud hosting from Dropbox, free of charge for two years.
Battery and Wireless Charging
You must be wondering by now what sort of toll all these lovely features have on the battery life, right? Well, not much it would seem, thanks to a bigger 2,100mAh battery and a variety of changes Samsung’s made to conserve power.
Among these are more energy-efficient 32nm CPU that consumes 20 per cent less power than its predecessor, the ability to detect when the screen is not in use (more on that later) and an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts screen brightness according to the amount of light in your surroundings.
I’ve typically used the phone for a day and a half before it needed recharging. By comparison, my iPhone 4S barely lasts the day.
The S3's battery is also user-replaceable, allowing carry spare with you for emergencies and whatnot.
Android Ice Cream Sandwich is installed out of the box on the S3 and brings a range of improvements, including enhanced multitasking that lets you ‘swipe’ to terminate applications, a new face and voice activated screen unlock mechanism, and offers an all-round smoother, faster user experience.
Samsung has also crammed in a whole host of its own software enhancements, with ‘S Voice’ leading the charge. This, for the uninitiated, is basically a clone of Apple’s Siri that lets you ask questions and command the phone to carry out functions using just your voice.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. Phrases are often misunderstood or not recognised at all, making web searches an often painful and embarrassing process. However, more basic operations such as setting an alarm or finding out the weather work just fine.
A more practical and functional feature, though, is ‘Smart Stay’. This is an sleep mode of sorts that ensures the screen remains on when user is looking at it, say during a movie, and falls asleep when they are not, thus saving battery life.
Smart Alert, meanwhile, is a clever notifications system that recognises important incoming missives by ‘learning’ which contacts you’re most likely to open messages from and alerting you with a slight vibration when you’re around. A similar feature is Direct Call, which lets you automatically call the person you’re writing a message or email to by just raising the phone to your ear.
Social networking is another area at which the S3 excels. ‘Face Tag’, for example, recognises your Facebook friends in pictures you’ve taken and tags them automatically. If it doesn’t know someone by name, it enables you to tag him or her manually. Buddy Photo Sharing, does what it says on the tin and lets you share photos instantly with multiple friends.
Last but certainly not least, you have Pop-up Play, a picture-in-picture effect that you may have seen on TVs. Essentially, this pops up a miniatursed version of a video you’re watching, allowing you to use other functions of the phone at the same time.
Ease of use
Android gets a bit of a bad rap for being unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome to use. While that was true a couple of years ago, since then Google’s OS has made considerable strides in offering a better, more enjoyable smartphone experience.
Ice Cream Sandwich, combined with Samsung’s own additions, is proof-positive that iOS does not have a monopoly on 'great user experiences’. And while S Voice is bit of a damp squib, the rest of the device works almost impeccably.
Everything just feels faster and snappier thanks to that powerful quad core processor. Being able to customise up to seven home screens with widgets and shortcuts to your favourite apps allows you to tailor the phone exactly to your needs. Having dedicated 'Back' and 'Menu' buttons is also a huge boon and I hope Samsung will hold onto these for future sequels.
Yes, it’s a little frustrating to not always be able to use the phone comfortably with one hand as you can with smaller kits, but it’s a price well worth paying to get such an expansive screen to take with you on those long commutes.
On the whole, there’s not a great deal to fault about this phone, which is a rare exception for me. Unless you’re really nitpicking, you’ll be happy with all that the S3 has to offer. And then some.
While not without its imperfections, the S3 is doubtless a more aesthetically pleasing bit of kit than its older brother and a step in the right direction for Samsung to stand out in a crowd of 'me-too' devices.
I’m particularly impressed by the gorgeous screen, which blew me away with its level of detail and sharpness. And I’d say the camera is probably the best I’ve used on any Android smartphone.
If you’ve read this far and are still wondering whether you should buy this phone, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.