Review: Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone

Feature-packed phone raises the bar, but will it topple the iPhone?

The latest entrant in the battle to topple the iPhone is Samsung’s Galaxy S III, a highly anticipated 4G LTE smartphone that hits the United States market later this week. All four major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint) have announced plans to carry the device.

Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone

The big question on everyone’s mind is, “Is this better than the iPhone?” Unfortunately, the answer depends on the mindset of the current smartphone user – do they already own an Android device? Are they considering switching from an iPhone? Have they never owned any smartphone before?

For hardcore iPhone owners and supporters, we’re not sure that any device that comes out will be able to change their minds. There’s always a new iPhone around the corner, even if that corner takes a year or two to get there.

For iPhone owners who are tired of their device and looking for additional features (or a long-awaited network boost), the Galaxy S III should definitely be on their short list. The feature-packed phone raises the bar on what people should expect on a smartphone, so much so that future iPhones and other devices will need to make sure they’re tackling at least some of the innovations (both hardware and software) presented by Samsung here.

For first-time smartphone owners, we think the jury is still out. They might be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of things they can do with this phone – in all likelihood, the price may also turn them off, and we’d recommend moving to a more basic Android device.

On the hardware side, the biggest features of the SIII are the larger screen size and the light weight. The smartphone industry’s twin fascination of huge, gorgeous screens (this one sports a 4.8-inch superAMOLED HD screen) and making the phone lighter and lighter (Gorilla Glass 2.0, 20% thinner with a 8.6mm bezel) give the device a somewhat odd feeling in the hand. Some people were turned off by the size of the phone, thinking it would be too big to put up to their ears when making a call; others saw the display and marveled at the large display for watching movies, typing out text messages or reading a Facebook feed. The large size is not quite big enough to be a problem for one-handed use (the Galaxy Note seemed to be too large in that respect), but we’re getting close. The size issue will plague smartphone vendors for years, because certain apps work better with larger screens, while other apps (such as making a phone call) benefit from a smaller device.

As we’ve mentioned, the screen is gorgeous – everything on the screen is crisp and clear, with very nice ripple effects on the lock screen that make it appear as if you’ve dragged your finger through a pond for the unlock procedure. Associated sound effects are also water-themed, which a lot of liquid “beeps and boops” – it’s entirely possible that using the Galaxy S III for too long will give you the urge to pee.

The 720p screen shines when using video apps – watching one of our own movies or streaming something via Netflix was quite enjoyable on the phone. The video player also includes a pop-up player, which continues to play the video in a small picture-in-picture window – it’s handy if you are watching a movie and want to figure out what other movies that particular actor was in, or if you want to check your email during a slow scene

The S III’s camera was also quite impressive – an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with “zero-lag shutter speed” that lives up to that phrase. Samsung seems to understand how consumers are using their phones as their main camera device these days. Too many times we’ve seen parents taking horrible photos of their kids at parties or athletic events because of their phones’ limitations

The camera offers six different shooting modes, including “Burst Shot” and “Smile Shot”, in addition to HDR, “Beauty”, a single-shot and a panoramic mode. Burst Shot is aimed at the Saturday Morning Soccer Crowd, which can capture 20 continuous photos at the press of a button. The “Smile Shot” uses smile-detection feature gives you a green box around the subject’s face when they are smiling so you can take the photo, but in reality the Burst Shot works better for large groups of people, especially kids.

The camera can also add a lot of metadata to your photos – once you start taking photos of people, you can tag the pictures and associate them with existing or new contacts on your phone. While you can easily upload photos to social sites, it doesn’t appear as if the tagging follows the upload (at least with Facebook, it didn’t). 

To take on the iPhone 4S’s Siri voice assistant, the Galaxy S III offers up “S Voice”, a set of voice controls for commanding certain features and offering search and information tools. Like Siri, the voice assistant is hit-or-miss, depending on what you’re searching for, whether it can hear your words correctly and the words that you choose. On a fun note, you can activate or “wake up” the S Voice with a special word or phrase, so it was fun to activate it by saying “Funkytown”, and trying to get the assistant to update Twitter with a voice command.

Speaking of networks, the 4G LTE coverage from AT&T on our test device was a bit spotty – we had very low coverage at our office (Framingham, Mass.), and slightly better service at home (outside Worcester, Mass.). Speed tests at home indicated an average download speed of 7.14 Mbps, and upload speed of 1.07 Mbps, which are OK (certainly better than 3G), but our home broadband connection ran circles around those speeds.

The situation was even worse with the Sprint unit we had – in our home, we could only achieve 3G network coverage, which gave us 1.28 Mbps of download speed, and 0.89 Mbps of upload speed. Choose your carrier wisely, based on coverage area for 4G depending on where you plan to use the phone most.

Because of carrier data plan limits, Samsung has added a nice app in the settings area that tells you how much data you’ve consumed, and lets you set limits so you don’t go over, or gives you a warning if you’re getting close to the bandwidth cap.

The 2100 mAH battery gave us about 2.5 days of life on standby, and with power-saving settings activated, this should give you a full day’s charge with semi-active activity (checking emails, making some calls, not watching full-length movies all day).

Because it’s running Android (Version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich), you get the full complement of Google apps on the phone – if you’ve got a Google Account for things like Gmail, Reader, Picasa photos and YouTube, you can access them easily with the phone. The Google Play app (formerly Android Marketplace) will let you download a ton of other apps for your Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja needs. Flash support also means it’s easier to watch videos on Web sites than with the iPhone.

Samsung was also keen to highlight features that kick in when you have more than one Galaxy S III device in the same room. For example, it’s All-Share application lets all of the S III’s on a given wireless network to join a session and share pictures and videos. This ensures that everyone is looing at the same thing, but since it’s all peer-based, with no session administrator, anyone can flip through pictures at any time. All-Share also lets you make little telestrator-style doodle’s on the screen, which show up on everyone else’s phone, but this was kind of gimmicky in our opinion, and Samsung noted that this is still more of a proof-of-concept at this point.

Another two-device feature is Sbeam, which lets two devices to pair via Wi-Fi Direct in order to share large files (such as HD video) without having a user blow through their mobile data allowance. To use Sbeam, you touch two devices back-to-back to activate pairing via NFC, then send the files. This is a nice workaround for sending large files, such as videos and photos, but it won’t work for DRM-protected content. The Sbeam and All-Share features are nice, but this only works if everyone has an S III – maybe if this gets extended to all Android devices, more people will benefit.

We did encounter some issues with the device – whenever we had the web browser opened, the screen automatically dimmed its brightness – other apps allowed us to have it on the highest brightness settings, but the browser never did. No matter what we tried, we couldn’t find a way to brighten the browser.

Overall, this is an impressive smartphone to consider as your next purchase. If you’re open-minded about making the switch from the iPhone, or you want to experience the latest-and-greatest (at least until the new iPhone version comes out) in the smartphone arena, the S III is an excellent choice. 

Grade: 5 stars (out of five).

Pricing: The 16GB model starts at $199.99 for all carriers, with two-year activation and monthly service plans. The 32GB models should start at $249.99, again depending on the carrier and data/voice plan requirements.

Special thanks to Jonathan Gold, who contributed to this review.

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