The Samsung Galaxy S III launches a hype level typically reserved for the Apple iPhone -- and for good reason. Samsung has earned its reputation for delivering some of the best Android hardware, most recently with the Galaxy Nexus and both the Galaxy S and Galaxy S II. Also, reviews of the international Galaxy S III have been near universally positive.
So now it comes Stateside, and it marks a milestone for Samsung. Prior Galaxy S models were each tailored to and tweaked by the respective carriers, ensuring each had their own distinct version. In the case of the S II, a long 7-month window between its official unveiling at Mobile World Congress 2011 and its US release date the following September. With the S III, Samsung is flexing its mighty market muscle, and releasing a universal device, meaning the Sprint S III will basically be the same as the Verizon S III and the AT&T S III, sans the logos, carrier network, and some pre-loaded apps.
It's not all good news, however. Samsung scuttled the quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 chipset from the international unit for a dual-core Qualcomm (1.5 GHz) CPU because Tegra 3 doesn't play nice with the US 4G LTE networks. That might make the spec obsessed frown, but what does it mean in terms of overall performance? Read this full Samsung Galaxy S III review to find out.
Build & Design
The Samsung Galaxy S III is a big phone -- and that's not stating the obvious, because in hand it seems much smaller than its 4.8-inch display would otherwise suggest. By comparison, the Apple iPhone 4S has a 3.5-inch display, and it wasn't that long ago we argued whether 5-inch displays signified tablet or smartphone.
It technically measures 5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 inches, and weighs only 4.7 ounces. As with most any Samsung device, it mostly plastic, complete with a removable back and colored trim. It's very resistant to scratches and could probably withstand more than a few accidental drops owing to its light weight, though I didn't stress test it enough to discover it's breaking point. I would caution anyone from keeping it in their back pocket however, for fear of sitting on it accidentally, and maybe cracking it. It is only a third of an inch thick remember.
A slight girth betrays ergonomics, however, and there are thicker phones on the market that are more comfortable for talking on a call. But Samsung somewhat alleviates this slight negative with a curve-heavy design. Looking at the S III, I'm hard pressed to find a straight line or flat surface other than the display front. Even the long landscape edges seem to have a slight curvature. Still, the large display front will press against your cheek when taking a call, and any makeup, dirt, or sweat will rub off.
In terms of buttons, the S III has an all-purpose "home" button that serves multiple functions (double tap brings up S Voice, tap and hold brings up recent apps) in between the menu and back light-up soft keys. The front-facing, 1.9-megapixel camera sits to the right of the ear piece and an LED indicator light, next to the proximity and light sensors.
The 8-megapixel rear camera sits on the back, with an LED flash to its left, and a speaker to its right.
The microUSB multifunction charging input is on the bottom along with a microphone, while a 3.5mm audio jack rests on the top, also along with a microphone (active for speakerphone and video). The left landscape side houses the volume rocker, while the right houses the power button.
The back cover pops open from the top and provides access to battery as well as the SIM card and microSD card slots.
The Samsung Galaxy S III has a 4.8-inch display with a 1280 x 720 resolution, giving it 306 pixels per inch (ppi). The Samsung Galaxy Nexus and iPhone 4S have higher PPI counts, but both have smaller screens, too. Anything over 300 PPI is overkill anyway, so I'm not complaining too loudly.
The Galaxy S III's unusually large -- and welcomed -- size aside, its Super AMOLED display is its defining feature. Yes, there are other smartphones with AMOLED displays, mostly from Samsung, but it is worth repeating that it produces deeper blacks and more vibrant colors than LED or LCD displays. It's vibrancy also helps it cut through glare from overhead lights better than the alternatives, and it consumes less power and helps preserve battery life.
If there is a fair complaint that can be levied at Super AMOLED displays, it's perhaps that the colors are a bit too vibrant, and contrast a bit too heavy. That can wear on the eyes with extended viewing or reading, but so can staring at a small screen, regardless of display type.
In regards to the S III, the image output tends toward the cooler blue and greenish tones, which dims any whites a bit. The S III has a large viewing angle, but a strong blue hue gives way to a magenta haze at the severe angles.
Despite not sporting NVIDIA's latest and greatest quad-core Tegra 3, the Samsung Galaxy S III is still one of the more capable phones on the market, as judged by both my day to day usage and the Quadrant benchmark. Over multiple runs of the benchmark, the S III outpaces the stellar HTC One X and the quad-core Tegra 3 ASUS Transformer Prime TF201 tablet.
Those who doubt this claim need to look no further than the Pop Up Player feature included in the S III video player. With it, users can take any locally stored video and "pop it up" out of the player, turning it into a widget-sized window that continues to play over any other application, including the browser or homescreen. The small video can be moved around the display, without interrupting any other tasks. This feature would probably be impossible on a less powerful device.
Web performance is also stellar, and remarkably smooth, which can be said for any navigation or scrolling on the Galaxy S III. No doubt, the beefy 2GB of RAM helps in this regard. Looking at the popular Sunspider Benchmark, the Galaxy S III bested virtually every tablet tested to date on Brighthand sister site, TabletPCReview. In fact, only Samsung's own Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus beat it over multiple runs. Out of the box, the device powers up to the lock screen in about 30 seconds.
The S III battery impressed, probably aided by the Super AMOLED display. Samsung claims 2100mAh unit will last 9 hours with regular usage. I believe it. I got a full day of use while abusing it and testing out the features.
Software and Apps
The Samsung Galaxy S III ships with Android Ice Cream Sandwich (version 4.04 at the time of review) along with Samsung's own tweaks and features in the form of TouchWiz. Samsung has done a good job of integrating most of the TouchWiz features that it's hard to tell where it ends and Android ICS begins, which hasn't always been the case with Samsung devices.
One feature definitely tied exclusively to Samsung is S Voice, Sammy's answer to Siri. Like Siri, S Voice, which answers to "Hi Galaxy," is a voice activated personal assistant of sorts. It's novel and fun at first, but like Siri S Voice is often hard of hearing or frustratingly dense. I did find some use for it in setting alarms and changing basic settings, but performing those tasks manually isn't really a chore. More useful than S Voice are the voice commands Samsung designed for specific apps, like the camera (say "cheese" to snap a pic), phone ("answer" or "reject"), and the alarm ("snooze" or "stop").
Also exclusive to the S III for the moment is Smart Stay, and it's one of the more practical features I've seen in some time. With Smart Stay, the Galaxy S III senses when eyes are on the display and does not timeout and dim the screen. When activated, an eye icon will occasionally pop up in the notification bar, and the S III will use the camera to look for eyes on the device. It's ideal for reading long emails, eBooks, or text-heavy web pages.
Samsung feature exclusivity doesn't end there; the company's AllShare brand of DLNA sharing is also present on the S III. Through AllShare, you can essentially broadcast locally-stored content from your phone onto other DLNA and AllShare-enabled products like Galaxy tablets, Samsung Smart TVs, and PCs with the AllShare program, provided the devices are all on the same Wi-Fi network. It works flawlessly with other Samsung devices, and users can share documents and pictures through a feature called Group Cast, and that even allows users to mark up something like a Word document or Power Point presentation. On non-Samsung device, like a Panasonic TV or Motorola Android smartphone, AllShare DLNA streaming is hit and miss and GroupCast is not available.
The Samsung Galaxy S III is the latest Samsung phone to support NFC. So as we await the coming mobile payment revolution (and to that end, the Sprint S III ships with Google wallet, while the AT&T version we tested does not) Samsung is using NFC to help share contacts, pics, links and other goodies via S Beam.
Yes, Android has Android Beam baked in that basically does the same thing, but Samsung claims S Beam can "share over a wider distance" in their reviewer's guide. It works very well between two Galaxy S III devices, though pressing the backs together is awkward owing mostly to the thinness. I'm not sure how well it would work with another non-Samsung NFC handset via Android Beam, however.
The Galaxy S III has a 1.9-megapixel front camera and an 8-megapixel rear shooter. Image quality meets the mid-to-low standards of most other modern smartphones, and the S III will do just fine for quick casual shots and simple YouTube-bound clips.
Once again, the fun is found in the features, and the S III camera has a ton of them. For stills, it offers a bunch filters and modes, many of which are also available on other Android ICS devices, including a neat panorama option for great landscape photos, and an HDR feature that combines three photos taken at different exposures for a more balanced picture.
Other decent features include burst shot, which takes 20 quick photos over about six seconds, and best shot, which then recommends the best photo based on focus, blinking, smiles and other factors. I was not expecting much from it, but I found it to be surprisingly accurate in choosing the technical "best" photo of any given bunch.
Perhaps the best feature, or at least the one with the most potential, is Share Shot. With it users can connect handsets and each photo taken by each handset will be shared across all devices in the photo gallery. On paper, it's great for a party or gathering, but in practice, it's clunky and awkward to set up. It requires a Wi-Fi direct connection between phones, which often drops or disconnects, and it only works with the Galaxy S III model at the time of this review.
To call the Samsung Galaxy S III feature rich is an understatement. In fact, Samsung sent out a 48-page reviewer guide detailing them all, and I only touched on a handful in my review. I have a feeling that one year into using it, S III owners will still be discovering the cool things it can do.
It's too bad then that the features are too often limited to Samsung smartphones and other S III handsets, particularly in regards to sharing content. I suppose Samsung has sold enough smartphones and will sell enough S IIIs to justify the move, but it flies in the face of Android "openness," and limiting sharing features is counterintuitive.
That aside, the Samsung Galaxy S III still offers great design, excellent display, and superb performance. It's the best Android smartphone at launch for my money (I have yet to test out the HTC One X, however), and probably the best overall smartphone until the next iPhone comes around. Even then, it will be hard for Apple to top what Samsung has in the Galaxy S III.
Check out our video review of the Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone, conducted by TechnologyGuide Chief Editor Jamison Cush.