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Australia’s first Samsung Galaxy S3 review

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:28 pm 01/06/2012

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Samsung’s update to last year’s excellent Galaxy S2 is one of the most talked about and hyped phone for 2012. With ten million preorders internationally, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is already a winner for the Korean company. But how does the phone perform, and is it enough to take the crown from Apple as the best smartphone, right before the next iPhone arrives?

Features

In Samsung’s next generation of Galaxy handsets, the company is doing more than just prove it can ramp up the specs, pushing the software to a new place while improving much of the hardware.

First let’s look at the screen, with the 4.3 inch Super AMOLED Plus from the S2 shifting to a bigger 4.8 inch Super AMOLED on the S3, sporting an increased 1280×720 HD resolution (up from 800×480). This increased size and resolution also makes the pixels per inch value higher, coming out to 306ppi, under that of the iPhone 4’s Retina panel (330ppi), but certainly high enough for the human eye to see perfectly clear text and images.

The choice of processor has improved dramatically, with a Samsung dual-core processor being effectively doubled to a quad-core Samsung chip in the S3. Dedicated graphics is on offer as is the same 1GB RAM size from before.

Android has also changed, now at the current version of the operating system, 4.0, also known as “Ice Cream Sandwich”, bringing with it faster camera support, a more speedy interface, face unlocking, and a whole bunch of other improvements.

Samsung’s overlay to Android still comes with the handset, with a cleaner version of the TouchWiz interface installed on this handset.

Most of the specs are close to the Galaxy S2 from here, however.

Storage in the S3 sits at practically the same as the previous generation, with a minimum of 16GB built right into the handset, though there is a 32GB model coming shortly. A microSD slot is also this handset, affording you the optionto upgrade with up to a 64GB microSD card.

Like the Galaxy S2, you’ll find an 8 megapixel rear camera with autofocus and LED flash, as well as a front 1.9 megapixel camera capable of capturing 720p HD video recordings, as well as being useful for video conferencing.

Connectivity options are also similar, with WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, DLNA, and a HSDPA 21Mbps downlink for mobile Internet. A few things are different here, with GPS getting support from the Russian GLONASS satellite system, Bluetooth being pushed up to the newer power efficient Bluetooth 4.0 version, and the modern wireless Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology being included in the battery.

While some Galaxy S3 devices are being reported as having a dual SIM, we only had a microSIM and a microSD slot on ours.

Like most touchscreen devices, you can expect an accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, and proximity sensor, as well as a couple of newbies, including an RGB sensor and a barometer.

Gone from the Galaxy S2 though is the standard SIM card slot, replaced with the ever-popular microSIM standard we’re seeing on most devices released lately.

Samsung hasn’t changed the chassis much, though, again relying on plastic as the main build material, completely with plastic rear cover that can be removed to change microSD cards, microSIMs, and of course the battery. The front of the handset is protected by Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 2.

Few ports or buttons exist on the S3, with merely a microphone and microUSB port at the bottom of the handset, a 3.5mm headset port and second noise cancelling microphone at the top, volume rocker button on the left, and lone power button on the right. A single home button sits on the front, flanked by a soft button on each side that are only visible when the phone is powered and they light up.

In the hand

With a bigger size and a 4.8 inch panel, how the Samsung feels in the hand is obviously an important thing.

The good news is that the company has crafted a very nice device, with enough curves and contour to allow the handset to rest comfortably.

It’s not like Motorola’s RAZR handset, a mobile that gave us too harsh a square edge and really did feel like we needed the biggest hands ever to hold onto it comfortable. Nor is it the same massive device that Samsung’s Galaxy Note proved to be, offering a tablet like experience that could fit in your pocket.

Rather, the phone only feels marginally bigger than the Galaxy S2, and barely any heavier. In fact, Samsung has even managed to keep the thickness down, now only 0.1mm thicker at 8.6mm.

The gimmicks

More than just another mobile phone, Samsung has added a bunch of features designed to make the handset more than just a telecommunications tool.

One of these is S Voice, a feature that aims to let you speak directly to your phone and have it do things for you, as if the phone was your personal secretary. You can ask it things in your language like “What’s the weather like” or “Set an alarm for me at 7pm for Friday” and the phone will do it for you.

You’ve probably heard of Apple’s human interface “Siri,” and we’re pretty sure Samsung has, as S Voice is basically Samsung’s version of this feature.

For the most part, S Voice is able to comprehend much of what we asked of it, processing half of our questions and statements with ease. Many of the things we said did get muddled, and at times we just gave up and performed the web searches ourselves. We noticed that by default, S Voice is set to censor things, so if you plan on calling any friends names, you’ll just send them a word filled with a bunch of asterisks.

We also noticed that S Voice didn’t appear to have anywhere near as much personality as Siri, with Apple allowing you to ask more random geeky questions to its vocal counterpart than Samsung’s. A few questions we could get away with included “what is the Matrix”, “what is the meaning of life”, and “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck would”.

Smart Stay is another of these features, one which may result in reduced battery life.

The basic premise of Smart Stay is that instead of having the screen switch off while you’re watching a video or reading a webpage, Smart Stay takes advantage of a face tracking camera and doesn’t switch off your screen, only dimming when it realises you’ve fallen asleep or aren’t there.

Our tests with Smart Stay showed that while it can work in this way, more often than not the screen wouldn’t turn off even when we’re not looking at it, staying on for minutes and draining the battery further. Smart Stay is certainly a cool concept, but could do with a good firmware upgrade or two to make it work better.

Smart Alert is another of these, and feels like something dragged back from older smartphones that shouldn’t have been removed from the first place. When someone leaves a message, a little colour LED will blink at the top of your handset to alert you, even when the screen is off. Also, the handset will vibrate slightly when you pick it up, in case you’ve switched the alert LED off.

There isn't as much personality as Apple's Siri, but you can ask S Voice some rather unorthodox questions.

And, have you ever started writing a message to someone, only to realise it would be easier if you called them instead? Direct Call is a feature that will let you raise your phone to your ear while typing that message, making the phone call the person you were writing to. Yes, it’s another gimmick, but one that will probably get much use from how convenient it is.

Strangely, many of these features are actually disabled from when you first setup your phone, forcing you to dig into the settings and find them yourself.

There are a few other bits that we haven’t spent as much time with, including S Baro’s use of the built-in barometre, S Beam’s use of transfering files over NFC (requires another Galaxy S3 or NFC-equipped Samsung handset), AllShare Play for sharing a screen with multiple devices, applying facial recognition to check out what friends are doing in photos with Social Tag, and a few others.

What we love

Using the Galaxy S3, it’s clear that Samsung has done a lot of work to make this the best phone it possibly can be.

Let’s start with the experience, as the 4.8 inch screen shows images and icons beautifully.

While it’s not quite the same high-grade IPS panel as the HTC One X, the screen on the S3 is magic. The viewing angle are pretty impressive, even if they aren’t as strong as HTC’s current flagship, and it’s certainly a bright phone. The clarity is also pretty awesome, and we had no problems looking at text or images on this handset.

Samsung has also done a lot of work on the user interface, trying to clear it up and make the whole phone gel together in the way some of its competitors have certainly managed. This includes the ability to uninstall apps easily through the applications menu, moving icons around the app drawer at the bottom of the screen, switching phone functionality on and off through shortcuts in the status bar drop down, and adding new types of gestures to let you do more in the phone quickly.

Making a phone call yields large dial numbers, a massive information screen for who you’re talking to, and clearer options that make it easier to work out what you need to do.

All up, the phone feels like it has come together more cohesively than any other Samsung handset has before it.

Samsung has also improved the sound of the handset, with the S3 boasting some of the best voice quality we’ve heard in a long time.

Touchscreen responsiveness is also commendable, and we had some of the easiest keyboard typing action experienced yet on a smartphone. The touchscreen buttons were fast and between the simple virtual keyboard presses and Swype word spelling, the phone rarely slowed down or skipped a beat.

Samsung’s choice of cameras hasn’t changed much in a year, as we’re still using an 8 megapixel shooter. That said, the camera is now faster, resulting in virtually no lag and firing a shot off immediately. Shooters can fire 20 shots in burst mode and even switch on a “best photo” mode that will fire eight shots and pick the best out of the lot for you.

Focus is also improved throughout the camera and the clarity in images is very impressive. While we’re not sure if the Galaxy S3’s camera is good enough to replace your compact yet, this is one of the better choices for doing so.

And then there’s the speed: this thing is fast.

As far as handsets go, the Galaxy S3 is insanely fast, beating every device we’ve previously reviewed on benchmarks without a problem. It’s roughly twice as fast as Samsung’s only currently available tablet. That alone is impressive enough.

The Samsung Galaxy S3: fastest phone around. The benchmarks practically prove it.

What bugs us

Not everything can be totally amazing with Samsung’s flagship. After all, it’s a new phone, and right from release, it would be foolish to expect the phone to be perfect.

Nothing is perfect, and we wouldn’t expect perfection even from a device trying its hardest to

First up is the battery life, and while we were initially keen to see such a massive battery on the S3, it doesn’t pan out quite as well as expected. The capacity of the S3’s battery is set to 2100mAh, higher than the 1650mAh in the past Galaxy S2 handset and higher than the average premium handset normally has (1400-1800mAh).

But while the number is impressive, the performance is really average. We suspect the bright 720p screen, always on face tracking software, and speedy processor severely hit the battery life, offering roughly one day of life on a charge.

It’s not quite as bad as the HTC One X, a handset that couldn’t even last a full work day with us, but it’s not too far off.

Like in the S2, Samsung does offer a power saving option which will give you quite a few more hours, but this happens as the expensive of the processor and screen brightness, handicapping each a little.

While we didn’t have the time to properly test this, we suspect that if you switch off the gimmicky face tracking features, you’ll find the battery life will improve.

We’re also a touch disappointed that Samsung hasn’t readied a 4G capable version of the S3 for release in Australia, but given the battery life, we’re not sure a quad-core LTE phone with a 720p screen and this much technology would actually work right now. The possible battery life on a beast like that actually scares us.

Another thing that bothered us was the build quality.

Unlike much of the competition, the S3 comes off feeling cheap and very plasticky, even moreso than the Galaxy S2.

Samsung has made improvements to the front panel of glass, pushing the technology to the latest version of Corning’s Gorilla Glass – “Gorilla Glass 2″ – now thinner and offering more touchscreen responsivity and a brighter image.

While that’s awesome, it’s a stark contrast to the glossy plastic casing that completely surrounds the rest of the handset. The plastic back is incredibly slippery, ditching the textured backs we’ve seen on the S2, Galaxy Note, and Galaxy Nexus. It’s now easier to accidentally let go of, and feel greasy, almost dirty in your hands.

It’s certainly not the quality of the heavy plastic body of either the Nokia Lumia 800 or HTC One X, and doesn’t exude the same sense of strength you get from picking up the glass and aluminium Apple iPhone 4S.

The Galaxy S2 (left) and the Galaxy S3 (right). The new handset isn't much bigger, but manages to throw in a bigger screen, the 4.8 inch screen on the S3 bigger than the 4.3 inch on the S2.

There’s even a few issues with software. Oh sure, there’s the odd bug here and there – gallery images that aren’t rotating properly, the screen not waking up as quickly as it should be – but more than anything, we’d say that Samsung hasn’t quite nailed the balance between the S3’s complexity and controlling that complexity.

It’s true that the Galaxy S3 is loaded with power and features, but the settings to control these technologies are buried in layers and layers of complexity that you need to get adjusted to.

For instance, there’s an automatic brightness setting you can turn on and off, something we switched off because we thought the auto setting was too dim. But even if this is off, the web browser has its own automatic brightness setting with multiple power settings, and you need to switch this one off too, otherwise your brightness will change the moment you start surfing the web.

Another example can be seen in the S Voice tool, Samsung’s version of Apple’s Siri.

By default, you can speak to your Galaxy S3 using S Voice and everything will be fine, but the moment you use anything regarded as vulgar language or profanity, you’ll find it censored. Asterisks will replace letters, and if you’re sending a message to a mate, taking a memo, or searching for something using these words, your requested word will be censored.

That’s fine, and you can switch it off, but the settings for this functionality aren’t actually in the “Language and input” settings as you expect, but rather in the settings of S Voice directly. Mind you, Language has its own setting for hiding offensive words, so you’ll probably want this switched off here too.

Both of these examples show the native apps on the Galaxy S3 doubling up on settings, when it should really be just working from the one place. Samsung probably sees this as offering more user control, but this level may just be overly complicated in the long run.

Conclusion

While there’s more hype here in the S3 than we ever could have imagined, Samsung has managed to live up to much of that hype, providing a handset that offers so much technology, we’re sure Apple can’t wait to really start the fight.

Sure, it’s not without its bugs and random little issues, but the experience is a solid one. We still wish the battery would be better, but a day’s life seems to be par for the course when it comes to 720p screens and quad-core batteries, so it’s hard to argue too much.

Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is an easy recommendation, offering more than enough technology for anyone after a phone that should survive a good two years.

 

Price (RRP)

$899 outright; Available on plans from Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Virgin, etc;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

The fastest phone there is; Excellent camera; One of the easiest Androids to use;

Product Cons

Battery life is still pretty average; No 4G LTE option; Aspects of the system are overly complicated; Body feels very cheap and plasticky;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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