Samsung Galaxy S3 review

The Samsung Galaxy S3 managed to generate a lot of hype before and after its announcement thanks to a great spec sheet along with a slew of new features.

Is the attention well-deserved, or have we perhaps gone a little overboard?

Design and build quality

Starting at the top, you have a 3.5mm jack. I’ve mentioned before that I prefer having the jack on the bottom, but let’s not make mountains out of molehills.

On the left side is the volume rocker placed almost-perfectly for your left thumb or right middle finger, depending on which hand you hold the phone with. It’s raised enough for you to easily find it and has a soft, but satisfying click when pressed.

On the right side, as we’ve become accustomed to with Samsung smartphones, is the power/wake button perfectly positioned to be within easy reach of your right thumb or left index finger.

On the bottom is the microUSB charging/data port.

Around back, at the top-middle is the camera, with the LED flash to the left of it and the speaker to the right. Below that, is a silver Samsung logo.

The rear cover is removable, though not without some difficulty. It doesn’t strike us as the best candidate for the job of protecting the delicate internals and it was a little overly fond of collecting micro scratches, fingerprints, and scuff marks.

On the front, above the screen, is a multi-coloured notification LED, speaker, some sensors, and the front facing camera. Below the screen are the Menu, Home, and Back buttons.

Samsung has decided to stick with their old configuration of hardware buttons instead of going for software buttons, or changing to the more Android 4.0-friendly (Ice Cream Sandwich and henceforth ICS) layout like HTC has with the One X, which is a shame.

For one, the Menu button isn’t always useful in ICS and is, as demonstrated by the One X, unnecessary. For another, pressing and holding the Home button to trigger the multitasking list feels slow and clunky when compared to the implementation on the Galaxy Nexus.

Of course, I have to mention the size of the S3. At 136.6mm x 70.6mm x 8.6 mm and 133g, it’s large, thin, and surprisingly light. In fact, I find it slightly too big to comfortably handle with one hand.

Overall, it is a good design, though it does have its fair share of issues.

Samsung Galaxy S3 press shot
Samsung Galaxy S3 press shot

Internals and performance

On the inside is where the magic happens, and the S3 has more than just a rabbit in a hat.

The S3 packs the Exynos 4212 Quad chipset, with a 1.4GHz quad-core Cortex A9 CPU and a Mali-400MP GPU.

This is backed by 1GB of RAM and either 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of on-board storage, which is further expandable by up to another 64GB via microSD.

For connectivity, the S3 supports WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and WiFi Direct.

In our benchmarking tests, the S3 did very well, but failed to topple the HTC One X as the reigning champion. In our AnTuTu tests, it scored an average of 8864.2, well above the Xperia S’s 6496.8, but well below the HTC One X’s 10,607.6.

With that said, no one can call the Galaxy S3 slow.

Screen and responsiveness

The Galaxy S3 has a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED screen with a resolution of 1280×720. Putting aside the arguments for and against the Pentile display for the moment, it is a great screen.

As can be expected from a Super AMOLED, the colours are bright and vibrant, while blacks are deep. The resolution ensures that text is beautifully rendered.

Up to 10 touch points can be detected, and touches and gestures were recognised with ease and few issues.

Sound and call quality

A lot of work has been put into the quality of sound output. Sound from the earpiece and built-in speaker were both of the highest quality we’ve heard.

The bundled headphones were good, but ours sounded a little hollow and the left earphone sat a bit loose and had a tendency to fall out when we moved around.

Click to enlarge
Samsung Galaxy S3 photo example

Cameras

The Galaxy S3 has an 8 megapixel rear-facing camera capable of taking 3264×2448 still shots and 1080p video recordings at 30fps.

Without beating around the bush, it takes amazing, high-detail photos and remarkably good videos.

As can be expected from a smartphone camera, it does suffer in low light, but the flash is bright enough to light up everything within a few metres of the phone.

The front side 1.9 megapixel camera can take 720p video at 30fps and is great for video calling, though it does suffer from noise in anything except brightly lit situations.

Click to enlarge
Samsung Galaxy S3 photo example

Battery life

Battery life on the Galaxy S3 wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly great either.

In our video looping test (720p video at 65% brightness with WiFi and sync on) it managed to get around 6 hours before crying for its charger.

In less intensive daily use where it had to sync three e-mail accounts; send some e-mails, messages, and tweets; make a call or two; listen to some music; and do some light browsing, it chugged happily for 12 – 14 hours. This number didn’t vary much even with power saving turned on.

Software

To say that there are lots of changes and additions to the software on the Galaxy S3 is probably understating it. There are piles, and to try and mention everything is near impossible. Instead, I’ll talk about notable features and things that stuck out for me in some way.

The lock screen has been customised to mimic a small body of water. Touch anywhere on it and ripples appear. To unlock the phone, you simply swipe the screen – which way doesn’t matter. At the bottom are four customisable icons that, when swiped, unlock the screen and directly launch the app. It’s a novel idea, and it’s easy to get used to, but there are some problems.

One is that when you press the wake/power button to switch the screen on, it sometimes takes a few seconds to come alive. It happened on more than one occasion that we thought it hadn’t detected the press, pressed the button again, and then irately watched as the screen flashed on and off.

A second problem is that the rippling water effect can be laggy at times, which is not a good way to start off a person’s interaction with the device.

Samsung Galaxy S3

The home screen has been customised to include up to seven screens, while the “Apps” launcher icon has been moved to the right of the bottom dock (which retains the ability to place any four icons or folders on it), and Samsung has seen fit to replace the default ICS folders with their own implementation of ugly manilla folders. One other complaint about the home screen is that it reloads often when returning to it from within an app.

The launcher adds the ability to manually sort your apps (over just sorting them alphabetically) and also allows you to add folders to the launcher.

The notifications pulldown has been customised to include the quick settings we’ve come to expect from TouchWiz. One other nifty feature we came across is that when headphones are plugged in, a quick menu pops up in the notification pulldown giving you access to some apps that may be useful, such as the music or video player.

There are a number of useful motions, such as “Shake to Update” and “Turn over to mute/pause”. For those who put their phones face down or have them in their pockets, meaning that they won’t be able to see the flashing LED, there’s “Smart Alert”, which vibrates when you pick it up if you have missed notifications.

One of the more useful “Smart” features, is “Smart stay”, which disables the screen timeout if it detects that you’re still looking at the screen. It’s generally quite accurate and not particularly battery intensive.

Naturally, Samsung have made changes to the stock applications, and even added some of their own.

One changed app that stood out is the default browser. In stock ICS, when you click on the “Tabs” icon, you are presented with a scrollable vertical list of tabs that can be closed with a swipe (similar to the multi-tasking menu). Samsung have changed this to a scrollable horizontal list, ditched any swipe action, and added a “Close” button to the top right corner of each tab. It’s harder to press and is a definite step down in terms of usability.

The keyboard has been changed ever so slightly. Swipe input is still available, but it has to be activated manually in the keyboard settings (check “Continuous Input”) and it doesn’t seem to always work. One noticeably irritating change is that the punctuation selector in the bottom right displays a popup that stays open even after a punctuation mark has been selected.

Samsung have removed the stock calendar app and added their own, though instead of naming it something sensible, like “Calendar”, they’ve called it S Planner.

Samsung Galaxy S3 S Voice

Our review would be incomplete without at least mentioning S Voice – a feature which many are calling “Samsung’s Siri competitor”.

S Voice’s recognition is good – it managed to make sense of some complicated queries, set alarms, and even opened up Google Navigation when asked to navigate somewhere, but there were occasions where we had to switch to a bad American accent for it to understand us. However, when asked questions like “What is the best smartphone”, it gave a message that it didn’t understand the query. Asking certain location questions, like “Where is the nearest petrol station” produced a result in New York.

It feels like Samsung have taken a scattershot approach to software. They’ve bundled so many extra features with the Galaxy S3 that just about everyone will find something useful, but unfortunately the rest of it will most like range from pointless to annoying.

Pricing

The Galaxy S3 is available on a number of contracts, and carries a standalone RRP of R7,999, though prices are understood to be significantly lower.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S3 is, without a doubt, a great phone. Samsung have clearly put a lot of work into bringing a number of great features to the Galaxy S3, but there are also a number of issues.

I have no doubt that the Galaxy S3 will sell well and that many people will be very happy with it. I also have no problems with recommending the Galaxy S3 as one of your top considerations for your next smartphone.

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Samsung Galaxy S3 review