Design and interface
UPDATE: We’ve now plugged our preview full of video, new hands on photos and more information on sections within the world’s most hyped Android phone… so check out all our new findings.
There’s something so refreshing about seeing such fervour about a phone that’s not prefaced with an ‘i’ – so it’s almost an honour to be one of the first publications to get a proper hands on with the Samsung Galaxy S3.
While the Korean firm has been subject to the same clamour for information as Apple, which will have pleased the now-largest smartphone maker after years as an also-ran in the mobile phones space, it’s not been in the same league as the Cupertino lot when it comes to secrecy.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 has been snapped multiple times in leaks – some more accurate than others, it has to be said – and the specs mooted have turned out to be pretty bang on.
But that doesn’t matter – megapixels and gigabytes don’t mean anything if they’re not wrapped up in a decent package, so is the Samsung Galaxy S3 a worthy successor to the much-loved Galaxy S2?
The Samsung Galaxy S3 is, according to Samsung anyway, ‘inspired by nature – it sees, listens, responds, and allows you to share the greatest moments’.
While this is all a little hyperbolic, the nature theme is certainly present when you handle the phone for the first time. Brushed plastic – you’ve got a choice of ‘Marble White’ and ‘Pebble Blue’ – adorns the large device, which runs in with dimensions of 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm, despite still having to pack in a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED HD screen.
We’ll lay it out right now: the plastic feeling of the Galaxy S3 won’t appeal to all. It feels very lightweight (despite tipping the scales at 133g) in the hand, and some people will read this as feeling a little cheap.
However, it’s exactly the same sensation as we found on the Galaxy S2, and given the silly numbers of sales that had, we think there’s more than a market for a phone that you’ll barely notice in your pocket most of the time.
Compared to rest of the Galaxy line, the S3 has more in common with the original Galaxy S than the Galaxy S2, with curved edges the theme in the design language. The home button has also been elongated, although the same menu and back buttons remain from the prequel.
Overall, the effect is much more like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus than anything else – rounded edges, HD screen but with a more minimal bezel to really accentuate the screen in the hand.
And let’s take a minute and talk about the screen: it’s beautiful. We almost feel sad that this isn’t the first HD screen we’ve seen on a mobile phone, as it’s kind of lost its lustre since the likes of the Nexus, Note and One X have all managed the same trick – but if you’ve not seen one before and you compare it to a Galaxy S2, its worlds apart.
The 309ppi pixel density is up there with the iPhone 4S, and it makes us realise that while a Retina Display is lovely, 3.5-inch screens just don’t cut it any more.
We’ll be mightily surprised if the combined popularity of the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S3 don’t prompt Apple into a re-tooling of the screen with the iPhone 5, as the contrast ratio, large display and excellent colour reproduction will definitely wow users on the shelves.
It seems Samsung has tweaked the colour balance on the Galaxy S3 as well – things don’t look as saturated as before, which will certainly help entice those that previously were against Super AMOLED before due to the harshness of colours.
But in the hand, the Samsung Galaxy S3 feels superb. The design contours well against the palm, and while the screen size may be a little big for some (you’ll need a bit of shuffling to reach the upper section of the screen) it’s definitely useable in the hand.
So in short: if you don’t mind plastic and you like big HD screens in your pocket, this is a phone definitely worth checking out.
Samsung has unsurprisingly re-tooled the Touchwiz overlay for the Galaxy S3, and has really gone to town with the whole ‘inspired by nature’ business.
For instance, the lock screen now becomes more interactive than ever. You don’t get a visual clue when you’re unlocking (which may be a nod to the litigation brought forth by Apple on the subject) but touch the screen and you’ll see a little water ripple under the finger.
Added to that is a little water drop sound, and the whole effect is surprisingly pleasing. We can see it irritating a few people after a while though, so turning it off will probably be a decent option.
It’s clear with the S3 that Samsung has worked out there’s only so much it can do on the hardware side these days – not to say that we’re pretty impressed with the spec list – and as such has tried to bring the unique flavour through the interface instead.
With the re-worked Touchwiz, there’s a definite sense the whole process has been simplified, as the phone has got a much easier feel to it when swiping around. That’s not to say there aren’t loads of widgets to be played with, but there is less clutter on the larger screen.
The dock at the bottom of the display has been increased to now hold five favourite items, which is a real plus for those that want internet, mail, phone and messaging all within easy reach (as well as the app menu).
Swiping around the display was easy as pie – it’s not exactly taxing on the processor, but we could not find a jot of slowdown in the pre-production model we were playing with, which always bodes immensely well.
However, there is a worry that the quad core 1.4 GHz Exynos CPU could suck power a little too dramatically – and to that end Samsung has come out with an innovative eye-tracking method called Smart Stay.
This idea will track your eyes when looking at the display, and dim it when you’re not checking out your phone. In practice it seemed a little all over the place when trying it, but there’s only a momentary icon that pops up to let you know if the eye has been tracked by the camera.
It’s a novel idea though, and one that could really be ace if it comes to fruition as Samsung hopes.
The other ‘smart’ idea Samsung had was the idea that voice recognition could work with S Voice – and we hope that this does actually happen as it was nowhere near Siri level on the Samsung Galaxy S2.
Visually, there are a few cues from Siri in the demo we saw – the layout is pretty similar, as you can see, and the phone itself needs to be trained to hear your voice for certain features.
For instance, you’ll have to repeat your wake up call, be it ‘Hi Galaxy’ or ‘Hi Buddy’ four times so the phone learns the timbre of your voice, which feels a little last century, but does improve the accuracy
We’re still not convinced that voice control will ever really work on a phone, but Samsung is touting ‘natural language processing’ as the reason why the phone will be more accurate in hearing what you say.
Smart alert is also present, and will be a lot more useful than voice activation. Pick up the phone when you’ve got a missed call or text and it will vibrate gently in your hand in combination with the notification light to let you know you’re a popular bunny.
But overall the good news is the large screen looks great, the slick operation under the finger is exactly what we wanted and the little touches like the rippling lock screen do actually feel quite natural.
Media, messaging and contacts
The Samsung Galaxy S3 is designed for media – which is what you’d expect from a phone that’s the sequel to the phone we dubbed the best out there for media on the go.
The video player is obviously taking centre stage here on the Galaxy S3, and Samsung has increased the codec support to the point where you’ll struggle to find formats that won’t play on it – although we’re sure we could find some.
It’s an understandably good experience, with the screen veritably shining with quality contrast ratios and decent colour reproduction.
The navigation experience is easy as well, and slipping up and down the timeline to move through a video seems very intuitive.
A cool-but-slightly-pointless feature has been added here, called Pop Up Play. Simply put, it allows you to watch video as well as perform other tasks by pressing an icon in the corner of the video.
You can then move the video wherever you want on the screen, and is, as Samsung puts it, ‘true multitasking’. We can’t really see a use for it, but it does demonstrate the power of the Exynos processor underneath.
Here’s a video of the new Pop Up Play in action too – is there any point to it in your view?
The music player on the Samsung is pretty standard fare to be honest – there’s not a lot of an update here when it comes to the UI.
Sonically it sounds pretty nifty though, and the ability to skip songs and jump into playlists is offered from the notifications bar and through the lock screen – no change there, but the lack of lag was perceptible when bouncing between applications.
However, the integration of searching for places to stream the music too is more prominent than before, making it a decent choice if you have wireless streaming already set up in your house.
AllShare Cast is included as well, powering up the ability to stream to and from other devices. In addition to being able to send content from the phone to a TV and receive from a PC in your home network, you can also do this remotely now, as long as the device is turned on obviously.
Another feature is mirroring, where you can send whatever is on the screen of your Galaxy S3 and have it show on a larger display. Samsung has promised that this will be good enough to use your phone as a game controller, essentially turning the S3 into a console.
It’s a lofty claim, and one we’ve seen be made other times and not live up to the hype – but we’re excited to try it out.
Samsung has managed to push ahead of the pack when it comes to internal storage too – it will be available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB flavours plus up to 64GB through a microSD card as well. That’s more storage than most will ever need on its own, right?
Well, with a snook thoroughly cocked at HTC, users will also get 50GB of Dropbox storage to play with as well, meaning you can keep pretty much any photo or video uploaded to the cloud.
There’s also a load of SugarSync storage on there too, but we’re not sure whether that will be for the UK or other areas, as it’s a direct competitor to Dropbox.
We’ll be surprised if any other manufacturer can match that prowess, and will be a big selling feature for the phone.
Messaging and contacts
When it comes to today’s smartphones, it’s often easy to forget they’re phones as well as all-singing mini-tablets too – but it doesn’t look like this has been forgotten here.
It’s much the same as the Galaxy S2 when it comes to the S3’s messaging and contact management capabilities, but that’s no bad thing. For instance, you can link a person’s Facebook and Google+ account to the phonebook entry – which might not sound very special, we grant you.
But the S3 will then learn what that person looks like, and use it to tag them in any photos you take automatically – plus give you the option to post them to their Facebook page too.
Whether that works in real use is up for debate – it sounds like some pretty clever algorithms would have to be in place to achieve it, but if it can work it will be a real nifty idea.
The messaging keyboard is nothing special, but we did note that the accuracy on the larger screen seemed to be a little better than before. However, the bouncy auto-correct was still present, meaning some customisation will be needed if you’re one of those that constantly mis-types words.
Messaging and calling have been mashed together better than ever before on the Galaxy S3 – the ‘raise to call’ feature means if you read a text from a buddy and want to call them, all you need to do is put the phone to your ear while their missive is on the screen.
It’s not that spectacular – but it works well and will really help users save time messing around with menus.
Internet and camera
While the focus of the Samsung Galaxy S3 is all about the new things it can do, spare a thought for the humble internet browser – it’s goshdarn good on this large screen as well.
Over Wi-Fi, the loading speeds were noticeably better than a Galaxy S2 from a standing start – around two or three seconds on most cases.
The words on the screen look pin sharp and really ping off the screen, as do pictures and Flash video where necessary.
As this is Android 4.0.4 under the hood, you’ve got all the Ice Cream Sandwich bells and whistles, meaning the ability to turn desktop mode on and off to see different versions of the web – although this didn’t always work every time.
Using Pop Up Play to watch a video while you’re browsing the web is a really fun feature – however, in today’s attention-deficit-based times, we’re not sure that being able to mess about on one’s smartphones twice as hard is the best thing in the world…
The Samsung Galaxy S3 camera is ‘only’ 8MP, which is bound to bring forth ire from users that always want a big step change in a sequel.
It’s not necessary to have a 12MP sensor on here though, as the S3 is more than capable at taking snaps and brings a much more intuitive experience compared to the Galaxy S2.
Samsung also promises excellent low-light snaps from the S3 as well, but ‘hasn’t finalised’ the aperture ratio at the time of writing.
From a blindingly bright flash to a backside illuminated sensor, our quick snaps came out crisply and clearly – and when we say quick, we mean it.
To put it into real numbers: you can take three photos manually per second, or 20 in a row (at six per second) in burst mode.
Burst mode also brings with it ‘Best Shot’, which isn’t a new experience – but the phone was adept at noticing when no smile or closed eyes were present in a picture and easily chose the best out of 20 photos – this is the sort of element we think users will really get on board with.
The facial recognition mode allows you to zoom in on any mug without a hitch – a double tap is all it takes to make sure that person is the focus of the photo, although the digital noise is hiked up quite a bit.
You also get a 1.2MP camera on the front of the phone for some decent personal snaps – plus you can also get 720p video recording out of it as well if you’re into those ‘I love Britney so much’ from under a sheet movies.
The whole range of functionality is on board: High Dynamic Range (HDR), panorama, Smile Shot, Beauty Mode and many more all offer something different in varying degrees.
But it’s the post-snap area that also impresses: it can work out where the faces are and tag them based on your contacts’ profile pictures, as we mentioned before. Should you want to start a slideshow on a larger screen is also a slightly tweaked experience, as the S3 will show the whole photo before bouncing each face in the photo.
Why? We don’t know. Samsung seems to think it fits in with the whole ‘human interaction’ element though.
You can also set up specific groups in your phonebook, and when the S3 recognises each person will automatically sort them into the correct pile – meaning if you’re one of those that likes taking pictures of your kids or cats you can easily have them in one place.
Providing your cat has a phone number in your mobile, that is…
Apps, battery and verdict
The Samsung Galaxy S3 has a similar number of pre-installed apps – well, mostly Hubs, but other like S Suggests and S Memo are pretty clear on what they are.
We’re wondering if the Hubs available on the S3 have been pared back from the Galaxy S2 – we saw no Reader Hub for magazines and newspapers, and the Social Hub to unify your social networking accounts and email wasn’t anywhere to be seen either.
But the likes of the Video Hub are now available to take its place – and this will be a real portal to movies on the go to take on HTC Watch and the (also installed) Play Movies from Google.
We’ve not been given information on how much said movies will cost from Samsung, but we’ve been told the collaborations with studios is pretty comprehensive from the outset.
The Music Hub is also present and correct, with music available to buy (sadly not stream) but still not any cheaper than can be found on the Amazon MP3 store.
Gamer Hub is a more interesting proposition, as Samsung has managed to get some top titles on board that really make use of the quad core graphical power and HD screen.
Samsung is touting up to 65% improvement over previous GPU capability on the Galaxy S2, so it will be interesting to see what that actually looks like in real terms – and when it comes to pounding the battery.
S Beam is also present – which is a turbocharged version of Android Beam from Google, allowing you to send content between phones over NFC.
But with S Beam, Samsung uses the NFC capability to connect the phones, but then uses Wi-Fi direct to transfer movies, photos, music or office files.
So instead of being only able to send links or map directions to a buddy, now you only have to hold the phones together, wait for the beep, tap the screen and you can send content at 300Mbps… and it really comes across that quickly too.
You can share a whole photo library almost instantly in this way – but sadly it’s only limited to Galaxy S3 units, despite being theoretically possible with an HTC One X or similar.
Samsung has managed to keep the thickness of the Galaxy S3 pretty comparable to the Galaxy S2 (OK, 0.1mm thicker) but upgraded the battery from 1650mAh to 2100mAh, promising a much larger capacity and therefore longer life.
However, with all those extra pixels (1280 x 720) to drive and more cores – we’re not sure whether this will actually translate to better battery life or not. Samsung has promised that the power management will be more intelligent than ever before, but we’re yet to play a good half hour of HD gaming and then a monster movie marathon on the S3.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 has got all the hallmarks of the best Android phone yet – exactly what Samsung wanted to achieve.
The specs are all industry leading: 4.8-inch Super AMOLED+ HD screen, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, 64GB internal memory, eye tracking and so much more. The design may be lightweight but is certainly iconic, and the feel in the palm and pocket is impressive.
Samsung’s decision to focus on services and interaction as much as design will be the area that makes or breaks the Galaxy S3 – if they all work as intended, the rest of the competition will really have to work to catch up.
However, if the likes of Smart Stay or S Voice don’t live up to expectations, this is still a cracking phone – it’s the Samsung Galaxy Nexus on steroids and covered with Samsung’s own overlay, which will divide opinion for Android lovers.
But we’re really excited about this phone – following up the Galaxy S2 was always going to be a difficult task, but with the S3 we’ve definitely got a phone that could be worthy of that crown.