Samsung Galaxy S3
- 4.8in super AMOLED screen
- Quad-core 1.4GHz processor
- 8 megapixel camera with HD video
- Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
- Price as reviewed: £500 SIM-free, free from £41 per month on Vodafone
Taking a leaf out of Apple's book of creating enormous publicity and expectation, Samsung's Galaxy S3 has been speculated about for months on end and now that it's here and we've finally got our hands on it, the pressure is on to deliver all that it promised.
Samsung has been on fire recently, partnering with Google to debut Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) on the Galaxy Nexus, pushing the boundary on how big a phone can be with the Galaxy Note and now squaring up to Apple and HTC with the Galaxy S3.
Samsung had its biggest smartphone hit to date with last year's Galaxy S2. The phone sold over 20 million units in its first 12 months on sale. Repeating that success will be the minimum required of the Galaxy S3, so let's see if it is up to the task.
Samsung Galaxy S3: Design and Feel
After its blockbuster launch at London's Earls Court initial reports spoke of impressive performance and a great screen, but with a lack of build quality. Due to its glossy plastic case and metal-look band around the outside edge, you could be mistaken for describing the Galaxy S3 as cheap - and we might even agree with you.
It's not that the S3 feels fragile, but it just doesn't convey the instant sense of quality and weight that the iPhone has, and that HTC managed to convey with the polycarbonate shell of the HTC One X.
The Galaxy S3 still feels well put together and as if it would survive a few knocks, but we can't help but wonder who Samsung is trying to kid with the plastic, metal-look band, when the real deal would have looked and felt so much better.
Gorilla glass is used at the front, which is some consolation to the otherwise cheap-feeling design.
Coming from our 3.5in iPhone 4S, we were expecting the 4.8in Galaxy S3 to feel cumbersome, but we're pleased to report that, despite the huge screen, a super-slim bezel and an overall thickness of 8.6mm help make the S3 both hand- and pocket-friendly.
The Galaxy S3 has a footprint of 70.6 x 136.6mm and weighs in at 133g, which is slightly more than the One X (130g) and significanlty more than the phone's predecessor, the Galaxy S2, which weighed in at 116g.
Typing with one hand does become a little uncomfortable, but this and the supersize HTC One X and One S show that a larger screen isn't too cumbersome after all.
Above that gorgeous 4.8in display sits a 1.9-megapixel camera alongside proximity and ambient light sensors. On the left, there is a notification LED that lights up to indicate low battery life, missed calls and other messages you haven't yet read.
Below the screen, Samsung has installed a central Home button, flanked either side by two touch-sensitive, illuminated buttons for Back and Menu commands. Touching these provides haptic feedback (a small vibration) if you have that turned on in the phone's settings.
We did find these buttons a little too sensitive on occasion and being located so close to the edge of the phone meant we pressed them unintentionally a few times, but this is something you do get used to after a few days.
Around the back, there's an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus, tap-to-focus and a whole smorgasbord of features and settings, which we look at in greater detail below.
The rear camera is joined by an LED flash on the left and a chrome speaker grill on the right.
On the top edge there is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack for the bundled pair of in-ear headphones (which come with four different sizes of buds), and a small recess to help open the back cover, which is a flimsy piece of plastic and really does not convey that sense of premium you expect from a £500 phone.
The left edge features a volume rocker, while the power/screen unlock button is on the right, which took a bit of getting used to as most manufacturers have it located on the top edge of their phones.
Peel away the cheap-feeling rear cover and you're greeted with the S3's user-replaceable battery, microSD card slot, although no card is bundled with the phone, and a Micro SIM card slot. It's worth noting that the SIM cannot be accessed without first removing the battery, so you'll have to go through a reboot to insert a new SIM card.
Finally, syncing and charging is done by a micro USB port on the botton edge.
Samsung Galaxy S3: 4.8in screen
Stealing the show for the S3 is a 4.8in Super AMOLED display with a resolution of 720 x 1,280 and capable of showing video in full 1080p high definition.
It's considerably larger than the 3.5in iPhone 4S and slightly bigger than the 4.3in Galaxy S2 which it replaces.
The S2 had a resolution of 480 x 800 and a pixel density of 217ppi, but the S3's screen blows its predecessor out of the water with a resolution of 720 x 1280 and a pixel density of 306ppi.
Rather than using the Super AMOLED Plus technology seen in the Galaxy S2, it has a Super AMOLED panel which uses a PenTile subpixel structure. This means that rather than each pixel having three subpixels (red, blue, green) they have two (alternating between red and blue, and blue and green).
In previous PenTile screens this has led to problems such as a distinct colour fringe between black and white text, and a blue hue coming from the screen.
Thankfully, due to the high pixel density and whatever tinkering Samsung has done under the hood, most of these problems have been eliminated - though there is still a blue hue when viewing the screen from an angle.
Becasue this is an AMOLED panel, blacks are deep and colours punchy (overly so at times).
While the pixel density is not quite on par with the iPhone 4S's Retina screen at 326 ppi, considering the Galaxy S3 screen is much, much larger, it is certainly on a par with the Retina panel in our eyes.
Samsung Galaxy S3: 8-megapixel camera
Samsung has fitted the Galaxy S3 with an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus, tap-to-focus, burst shooting, HD video recording and a whole range of other features and settings.
You can shoot photos in HDR (high dynamic range) to capture scenes with high and low lighting in the same frame, burst mode - which shoots eight photos in around three seconds, then picks the best - and the usual range of monochrome and sepia effects.
White balance, metering and ISO can all be adjusted manually, or left to work things out automatically, and there's 13 different scenes to choose from, ranging from sports and portraits, to shooting by candlelight or capturing fireworks.
Although there's a minimum of 16GB of storage on tap depending on which S3 you buy, the resolution of photos taken can be lowered from 8-megapixels to six, 3.2, 2.4, 0.9 or just 0.3-megapixel if you so wish.
As for video, the Galaxy S3 shoots in full 1080p HD, although that can be trimmed down to 720p or lower if you need to save space, while the white balance and exposure can be adjusted and photos can be taken while you shoot video.
The flash can be turned on to help illuminate the scene while recording and the phone usefully shows in megabytes how large the current recording is as you shoot, next to how much storage you have left on the phone.
The lack of a physical shutter button means that getting the perfect photo by tapping the on-screen icon can be difficult, compounded by the camera being located in the middle of the phone, rather than in an upper corner, and the touch buttons below the screen often get in the way - hitting Back and being ejected to the home screen while recording happened more times than we care to remember.
We were impressed with the quality of photos taken by the S3, both in bright, natural light and in the office. Photos came out a little on the cool side, but overall were very good, with strong distinction between shades, and the sharpness is excellent.
The HDR effect works well and did a good job of defining clouds in a bright sky, while maintaining good clarity and balance in the foreground - see the second example image at the end of this review.
During our testing of the S3 we were impressed with the camera's zooming capability - see third image below - and we liked that intuitively pinching at the screen before taking a photo operated the digital zoom, alternatively you can use the volume up/down buttons.
One criticism is that we would like to have seen more than eight megapixels from the S3's camera. The Galaxy S2 also had an eight megapixel sensor and, with rumours of a 12-megapixel snapper circulating just before launch, a high resolution sensor for the S3 would have been welcome.
See below for some sample shots taken with the Galaxy S3.
Samsung Galaxy S3: Connectivity and Hardware
Inside, there is the usual offering of Wi-Fi in all a/b/g and n variants, the newest Bluetooth v4.0 with A2DP for streaming music to wireless headphones, near field communication (NFC) and HDMI-out via the MHL-enabled microUSB port (and with a compatible cable, sold separately).
One of the S3's many party tricks - called Smart Stay - is that it knows when it is being looked at, and when it isn't. By checking with the front-facing camera every few seconds, the phone will keep the screen on if it detects a face looking at it, but if you're not looking then the screen will dim and lock according to your preferences.
In testing we noticed Smart Stay to work perfectly indoors, but sometimes struggled to notice that we were looking at it in bright sunlight. When it worked, the Galaxy S3 stayed awake while we were reading the screen, but would dim a few seconds after we glanced away. Sure, it's a bit weird to think that your phone is 'watching' you, but it works well all the same - just not in bright natural light, presumably because of issues with exposure.
The Galaxy S3 can also use its front camera to unlock the phone using face detection. Once the phone has learnt your face by taking a photo - although it is advised that you take more, with and without glasses and in different lighting, for example - it will unlock by simply being looked at.
We found the face detection to be reliable and quick, with it only occasionally failing to work and instead prompting us to enter a predefined PIN as a backup.
One downside, however, was when someon else was able to successfully unlock the phone simply using a photograph of us. To its credit, Samsung does say that face detection isn't as secure as using a PIN or longer password, but it is something you should be aware of.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 features S-Beam, which uses a combination of NFC and Wi-Fi to quickly transfer files from one S3 to another when they are held back-to-back. Contact details, documents, images, songs and even videos can be transferred in a connection that is initiated by NFC then conducted over a private Wi-Fi pairing between the two devices.
Speaking of Wi-Fi, we had a few issues with keeping the S3 connected to networks, with the phone dropping back to a cellular connection instead of staying hooked up to our Wi-Fi both at home and in the office.
While using the S3 a notification to say it had connected to our home Wi-Fi would appear every so often, suggesting that the phone was not connected when it should have been.
A quick internet search found other S3 users posting on the Android forums with similar Wi-Fi problems and we are waiting to hear back from Samsung about this problem.
Samsung Galaxy S3: Performance and Interface
Powered by a quad-core 1.4GHz processor and 1GB of RAM (the US model will get a massive 2GB and LTE when that goes on sale in late June), the Samsung Galaxy S3 is one of the most powerful smartphones on the market.
Samsung says that the S3 is "designed for humans, inspired by nature" - but what that really means is the lock screen ripples and splashes like water when it is touched, the default wallpapers are various scenes of nature and the ringtones are all along the lines of birdsongs, jungle drums and rainfall - fans of a traditional ringing phone may be left disappointed.
The so-called Nature UX extends to the Galaxy S3's alarm clock, which can be set to go off three minutes early with the sound of running water and soft music getting gradually louder as the screen becomes brighter - possibly a gimmick, but it makes a nice change to some phones' nuclear attack-style blaring.
If you've ever been watching a video on your phone but keep getting interrupted by text messages and emails, or want to play a game at the same time, then Pop up Play on the Galaxy S3 is for you.
Pop up Play is an icon in the video player, tap this and the video pops out into its own small window that can be dragged around the screen and placed over any other application.
This means you can keep watching the video while answering a text message, or continuing your game of Angry Birds. While not being a feature that we can see ourselves using often, Pop up Play is a great way of demonstrating how powerful the S3 is, as in testing the phone didn't slow down at all while playing some HD video over the top of other applications.
Tapping the pop-out video returns you to full screen and while this multitasking is clever, it does cause the S3 to get noticeably warmer and the battery fell three percent in as many minutes, so you would probably struggle to watch a feature-length film while chatting on Facebook.
Samsung has packed the Galaxy S3 with a whole host of useful, time-saving features to help make interacting with the phone easier, such as Direct Call. If you're reading a text message and think it will be easier to call the contact than text back, just lift the phone to your face and the Direct Call feature will call that person immediately.
Smart Alert is another useful feature of the S3, which causes the phone to vibrate when it is picked up for the first time after receiving new, unread notifications.
Battery life is, as with most smartphones of the S3's size and performance, limited to not much more than a day of average use. Samsung claims that the S3's 2,100 mAh battery is good for more than 20 hours of standby time and ten hours of talk time over 3G, but in the real world of calls, texts, Facebook and iPlayer, we'd suggest you charge it every night like any other smartphone.
A small problem we found with the Galaxy S3 was with unlocking the phone, especially when trying to read a new text message. After receiving the notification we swiped at the screen and instead of being presented with the keypad to enter our PIN, the phone would stutter and become briefly unresponsive.
A second attempt to unlock occasionally showed a flash of the text conversation we were trying to read - without entering our PIN, that is - before once again locking.
This issue only happened a few times during our week with the S3, but the brief flash of an unlocked operating system did give us some cause for concern, and users of the Android forums have reported similar issues with the lock screen. As with the Wi-Fi problem mentioned above, we are waiting to hear back from Samsung on this one.
Aside from this screen unlock bug, the Galaxy S3 performs as well as you'd expect from a quad-core smartphone with 1GB of RAM, Ice Cream Sandwich with Samsung's inspired-by-nature user interface skin.
Samsung Galaxy S3: S Voice
Dubbed by some as a poor man's Siri, S-Voice could be accused of being a poor spin-off of Apple's so-called humble assistant, but by sidelining the iPhone-lost-in-a-tequila-bar jokes and suggestions of where to hide a body, Samsung may have created an app that is more function than gimmick.
Sadly, during our time with the Galaxy S3 we found S-Voice to be somewhat hit-and-miss. While "set a timer for ten minutes" did exactly as we wanted, "set timer for six minutes" gave us the slightly inappropriate "Text Hannah: 'Sex minutes'."
One of Siri's major downfalls outside of America is its inability to provide location searches and driving directions; thankfully, S-Voice can provide directions, but it lacks Siri's understanding of informal language.
Where Siri (in America, at least) understands "where is the nearest Starbucks?", S-Voice struggles and instead prefers simply "directions to Starbucks".
S-Voice can be activated by double-pressing the Home button or by saying a predetermined phrase, such as the default "Hi Galaxy", but having this feature turned on means the phone is constantly listening and will affect battery life.
In testing we found S-Voice to take some time to answer our questions, more than ten seconds in some cases, and often key clauses of requests were missed. For example, asking S-Voice to remind us to buy lunch at midday tomorrow resulted in a reminder to buy lunch tomorrow, but at 9am.
Despite this, S-Voice impressed us with its ability to understand indirect phrases such as "is it going to rain tomorrow?", which gave us tomorrow's weather forecast for our current location.
All told, S-Voice is good enough at answering basic internet searches and filing reminders, but we found it's voice recognition not accurate enough to be trusted and for some reason the application told us that it is unable to send emails.
Samsung Galaxy S3: Value
At £500 SIM-free, the 16GB Galaxy S3 is the same price as Apple's iPhone 4S with the same amount of storage - although don't forget that the S3 has a microSD card slot, upping space by up to 64GB if you have a card that big.
For more information on the cost of Galaxy S3 contracts from a range of UK mobile networks, see our price and deals guide.
Samsung Galaxy S3: Verdict
After all the hype and its blockbuster launch party, the Galaxy S3 always had a tall mountain to climb in order to prove itself against the HTC One X and iPhone 4S, but we think it's just about made it.
The plastic finish and fake metal band annoy us, but behind that is a smartphone that is incredibly powerful with a gorgeous screen and excellent operating system that rivals anything else on the market.
Using the S3 for a week has made us realise that the iPhone is just too small now and Apple will need to up their game and increase its screen to at least 4in if the next iPhone is to stand a hope of continuing to fight for the smartphone crown.
- Screen 10/10
- Camera 8/10
- Operating system 9/10
- Design 8/10
- Build quality 7/10
- Overall 9/10
- Excellent screen
- Incredibly powerful and fast to use
- Good range of unique motion and interactive features
- MicroSD card slot means an extra 64GB storage available
- Cheap plastic construction is unforgivable on a £500+ smartphone
- Wi-Fi and lock screen bugs need addressing
- S-Voice proved to be inaccurate
- Average battery life on par with similar smartphones
Samsung Galaxy S3 Sample Shots
Photo taken zoomed in at 4x
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