Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts:
Samsung Galaxy S III

Tech Test Lab Review

Product: Samsung Galaxy S III Price: $189.99 (AT&T) / $629.99 (unlocked) Rating: Strong Recommend*

Have you ever watched a TV series that you initially didn't care for, but over time the story got better and better, until soon enough you found yourself a fan? That's been the trajectory of my relationship with Android devices. The first Android-powered phone which began the thaw was the Samsung Galaxy Note, the smartphone equivalent of an IMAX screen in your hand. But I always knew the Note was bordering on the ridiculous, the 5.3" screen proving to be an ergonomic challenge further hampered with the ever-clunky Gingerbread OS. Cue in the Samsung Galaxy S3, a slight reduction in size, but an upgrade in nearly every other category...

Specs:
  • 4.8″ Super AMOLED 1280×720 Display

  • Dual-Core 1.5 GHz Snapdragon S4 Processor
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • 16/32 Internal storage
  • Up to 32GB MicroSD
  • 8 MP 3264×2448 pixels | 1.9 MP Front | 1080p@30fps Video
  • WiFi/Bluetooth 4.0/4G LTE
  • Near Field Communications (NFC)
  • GPS navigation
  • Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • 2100 mAh Li-Ion Battery

It's One Hot Phone...Literally!
Samsung has already sold 10 million Galaxy S3's (that's two phones for everyone in Turkmenistan!), and from the specs list alone you can understand its worldwide popularity. The dual-core 1.5 GHz Snapdragon processor partnered with Ice Cream Sandwich fills in all the performance and usability potholes that marred my time using the Galaxy Note (which I was very fond of despite these deficiencies). At the flick of a thumb or swipe of a finger, scrolling is immediate and smooth. Launching apps is nearly as instant, and after just a day using the device I found myself thinking, "I could live with this". You only get one chance at first impressions and the S3 impressed right out the box.

Well, until a few hours of use. It's important to note, the S3 can get extremely hot...occasionally to a worrisome degree. If too many apps are open and in use, the 2100 mAh lithium-ion battery heats up the flimsy back cover till the device becomes so hot, it's slightly uncomfortable to hold. On a recent road trip, I had DoubleTwist playing music, the Maps app providing directions, and Instagram always open to capture any roadside memories. In a few hours the back of the Galaxy S3 reached temperatures which could only be described as "aye caramba!". So watch out and consider getting an external case or replacement back (I've ordered one already), because the back cover is as flimsy as a Forever21 tank top.


Luxury Features, Budget Finish
And since we're on the topic of the case and construction, everything I like about the Samsung Galaxy S3 is slightly muted by the fact their otherwise premium device is covered in what feels like a budget paygo model finish (no offense to paygo owners, I've been one myself!). Samsung has put the equivalent of an Audi motor and leather-covered interior and covered it with a Kia Optima body, plastic fenders and all. It's not that the S3 is ugly by any means, but its visual and tactile impression is practically invisible when compared to the likes of the S3's competition (Apple iPhone, Nokia Lumia 900, or HTC One X). Samsung, please, please, please stop it with the paper-thin plastic backs, the smartphone equivalent of engineered wood for furniture.

So thin, I bet you could slice tomatoes with the plastic back cover of the Galaxy S3.

Coming over from the Galaxy Note, I'm also bothered by the inclusion of a physical home button, a protrusion which seems antithetical to Samsung's marketing spin about the S3's nature-influenced heritage. Last I checked, river polished stones are not usually found with buttons on them. My Pebble Blue edition would have looked much more...ahem...polished without the oblong home button, it presence proving no more superior in use from the Note's touch capacitive flush buttons. It's a shame, because otherwise the S3's svelte form factor is impressively comfortable.

Unique Features
The Galaxy S3's flavor of Android (this time a much more delicious to use, Ice Cream Sandwich) is delivered tweaked with a few features unique to the model:

  • Smart Stay tracks your eyes, keeping the screen display bright as long as you're looking at the phone, dims the screen once you set it down.
  • Flip to Mute makes it easy to keep your phone quiet during moments when your annoying ringtone should be on the hush.
  • S Voice is Samsung's voice-activated cousin to Apple's Siri. After a few ridiculously unpredictable results, I'm waiting for the Jelly Bean update for improved voice-control options, because as much as I wanted to use S Voice, it seemed to be fluent primarily in gibberish.
  • S Beam allows two Galaxy S III to get down and wirelessly transfer photos, videos, documents, and other data while back-to-back. Very cool, but unfortunately I only have one set and every darn person I know owns an iPhone.
  • Buddy Photo Share is a feature integrated into the camera app, recognizing faces of your friends and allowing easier sharing amongst other Galaxy S3 owners (once again....anyone, anyone out there?)
  • Improved TouchWiz UI, most useful is the lock screen swipe app unlock and app drawer options (much easier to hide all the bloatware shipping from Samsung and in our case, AT&T); most annoying is the folder creation divergent from Google's standard drag and drop "create folder" option. But overall, the UI doesn't get in the way, and any Android user has endless options for customization.

Hold down the "Home" button for a couple of seconds to access a list of recent apps

Voice performance is on par with my Lumia 900 and Samsung Note, neither noticeably better or worse, and without any notable distracting ambient sounds for either caller or receiver. If it sounds like I'm only making passing mention it's partially because I rarely use voice, except for weekly conference calls using a headphone and mic, but I've yet to hear any complaints during/after longer duration calls.

More important is the data performance; when the S3 is within the vicinity of an AT&T LTE tower the speeds enjoyed could summarized by this. Put on your seatbelt if you've been riding on the pokey 3G wagon trail, friend, because the S3 feels faster even when switched over to HSPA+ around the city. But yeah, LTE...it may be a battery drain, but it truly is the best next thing to Wi-Fi. I've been more than pleased with the S3's browsing speeds, image uploads, and data downloads, kudos to Samsung's antenna design and AT&T's improved coverage.


The Camera
And finally, there's the Galaxy S3's camera, which is every bit as good of a shooter than the Galaxy S2 (in fact, it might be the same hardware with software optimization) and seems competitive to the iPhone 4S (the quality of images comparing Apple's iPhone to Samsung's Galaxy line, it's become more of a subjective preference discussion about color temperature and contrast rather than really clear cut quality). A burst mode feature allows you to snap up to 20 shots in quick succession for action, while "Best Shot" takes 8 photos and then chooses what it deems the best of the bunch.

Social photographing junkies like myself will appreciate how well the S3's camera performs in both bright, sunlit environments and also in darker interior spaces. Where the phone's limitations become evident are in mixed lighting source spaces, where extreme light and shaded areas vie for the sensor's attention. Yet, I find myself leaving my dedicated camera at home half the time now because the S3's 8 MP 3264×2448 pixels capability excels as a snapshot camera. Sample images below.

Closing Thoughts
Thanks to all the spec and hardware upgrades, the S3 is simply the first Android phone which has convinced me there's yet hope for Android to steal away a few iPhone loving customers. Migrating from a Gingerbread device to my first Ice Cream Sandwich handset has been a night and day change for the better, delivering performance and usability on a magnitude of improvement. And the best thing? It's only going to get better with a rumored Jelly Bean OS upgrade just around the corner!

Pros: Quad core with Ice Cream Sandwich OS equals the Android experience I've always hoped for; Samsung has nailed size and weight with ergonomics; 4.8" 1280 x 720 AMOLED HD screen isn't the best, but it's pretty close; battery life consistently lasts through the day; both HSPA+ and LTE connectivity will leave your iPhone friends a bit envious.

Cons: Samsung still has yet to upgrade their flagship device with a premium finish, ho-hum design and still plasticky as ever; device can get uncomfortably hot depending upon how many and which apps are in use; S-Voice is better left "off"; occasional app crash leaves device inaccessible for moments.

Our Ratings:
Strong Recommend*
Recommend
Weak Recommend
Don't Recommend

Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by Samsung for testing and review purposes.

23 Comments