Samsung Galaxy S III

Can any other phone generate the same level of interest as new iPhone? The Galaxy S III would appear to be one.

Samsung did a great job of hyping it up by using the world's largest trade event for the mobile industry not to unveil the phone but rather to announce that it would be unveiling the phone later, on its own terms. Just like Apple.

From February to May, people awaited news as they would for any new Apple release. What would the phone look like? What would it do? What processor would it have?

Then, at the start of May, the Samsung Galaxy S III was unveiled, and it left a lot of the tech world feeling disappointed.

The Galaxy S III doesn't look too different from Samsung phones of the past, or from the Galaxy Nexus that came out before Christmas. Some have suggested that the polycarbonate shell makes the phone too cheap to be considered a flagship, but cheap this phone is not.

Even though its appearance does look a little cheap, once you pick the phone up you'll change your view. It feels very solid, with no flexing or creaking, while the 'hyperglaze' coating gives it a smooth and shiny finish. The only downside is that it picks up finger marks a little too easily.

Stand out from the crowd

It's increasingly difficult to create a unique smartphone these days. Anyone can take a powerful processor, camera, and screen and throw it into a black, silver, or white casing with the latest version of the Android operating system. Considering how many Android devices there are on the market, it's getting harder and harder to stand out.

The Galaxy S III is powered by a 1.4GHz Exynos 4 Quad processor, which is the fastest quad-core chip on the market today. But is that enough to entice more than the hardcore geeks?

While the phone is faster in virtually every test against the previous leader, the HTC One X, it's not actually the processing power that Samsung will be pushing most. The company has also been working on a series of software features to make the phone unique, packaging them all up and selling them to the consumer with a 'designed for humans' marketing campaign.

It's cheesy, but with every major network operator taking this phone on it's going to sell in large numbers regardless.

There are plenty of other neat things about the phone, like a 2,100mAh battery to keep it going for longer than a blink of an eye, a removable battery, and a memory card slot. There's dual-band wi-fi with Wi-Fi Direct, NFC, and Bluetooth 4. But to a lot of people these are not as important as the overall user experience.

Watch the screen and we'll begin

This begins with the HD screen. The 4.8-inch screen is huge, and it packs in 1280x720 pixels. Even with a PenTile matrix, which can lead to fuzzy text and loss of detail, you won't notice any fuzziness unless you look at the screen up close.

A narrow bezel keeps the phone from growing to a ridiculous size (such as the Galaxy Note), making it perfect for use as a normal phone between emailing and gaming.

Then there's Samsung's TouchWiz user interface, which has been toned down and integrated within Android's Ice Cream Sandwich OS. This integrates widgets within the app launcher menu, and gives quicker access to the Play store.

You can also re-order apps manually, display them alphabetically, or uninstall apps quickly. You can freeze the system apps you don't want to use to save memory, while holding the 'home' key will bring up the recently accessed apps or the task manager.

Pull down the notification bar and you'll gain easy access to toggle various services (wi-fi, Bluetooth, Mobile Data, etc) or access to the settings menu.

With Android 4 now having a more consistent look and feel, based around Google's rather minimalistic design, everything looks more professional and civilised. You can even adjust the colour profile for the screen, to lower the saturation that usually makes AMOLED screens show totally unnatural and exaggerated colours.

Switched to 'normal', the Galaxy S III has what looks like the best quality display of any smartphone.

Going through the motions

The Galaxy S III now has a series of motions and gestures for doing just about anything. Motions include making a direct call to someone you might initially have started writing a text message to. As you write, simply pick up the phone and put it towards your head, and the phone will make a voice call automatically.

Smart alert detects when you pick up your phone from a desk, showing you missed calls and messages, while turning over the phone will mute the volume or pause music or video playback.

Another nice touch is the ability to cover the phone display with your palm to pause media playback. Useful for those moments where someone interrupts you to ask a quick question.

All of the motions are supported by tutorials, as is 'Smart stay', which keeps the screen on as long as the front-facing camera can detect you still looking at the screen.

None of these features needs to be exclusive to this phone, or indeed just to Samsung, but most of the features aren't available on other devices. No doubt Samsung has patented them, too, hoping to stop Apple from introducing them on the next iPhone.

Just the way you like it

Other nice feature to help personalise the phone is the ability to change the system font, or customise the lock screen to include weather forecasts or a news ticket service. A series of widgets are also included, giving access to Samsung's own music and movies service, as well as recommending apps and games.

ChatON is Samsung's own instant messaging client, while AllShare Play app allows you to share the phone screen via wi-fi to suitably equipped televisions and other devices. You can also connect a HDMI cable to the phone, to do things the old-fashioned way.


Now that we seem to accept that simply adding more pixels isn't the only way to improve picture quality (that is unless you're doing something clever like Nokia's PureView 808), Samsung has stuck with an 8-megapixel sensor and ensured the camera interface is excellent and the image sensor works better in low lighting conditions.

As with the HTC One X and One S, you can shoot video and take stills at the same time. However, along with the usual features like HDR, panoramic mode, and beauty shot, Samsung has also made it easy to tag people in photographs for sharing online.

Once you've tagged the faces that the phone automatically picks out, you can do clever things like view or send all the photos featuring individual people or groups.

But, there's no dedicated camera button. This means messing around with swiping a 'camera' icon from the unlock screen or jumping to the home screen to launch the camera via its icon.

Taking a photo is also easier with a dedicated button, which even Apple 'fixed' by making it possible to use a volume key as a shutter release. Samsung has, perhaps wisely, chosen not to copy this trick but it could have solved the problem with a simple hardware modification.

HD video recording at 1080p is particularly impressive, although file sizes can quickly become humongous. I was left a bit disappointed with the noise present on photos taken in darker conditions, although the LED lamp is exceptionally bright and compensates to a degree.

Overall, the camera performance is good, but I'd still favour the Sony Xperia S for taking a lot of photos, if only for the convenience of having a camera button.

What's that you say?

S Voice looks a lot like Siri and works in just the same way. You speak to the phone, and it sends the speech to an online server that processes the response.

If you asked a question, as against wanting to make a call or send a message, the returned information can be presented as a text answer, a snippet from a web page, or information presented from one of the apps on the phone itself.

You activate S Voice with a double tap of the home button, or by saying a pre-defined phrase ('Hi Galaxy' being the default).

Does it work? Well, like Siri, the answer is: sort of. That's if you ask the right question and speak clearly.

Besides wondering when I'd need to use it, I found myself wasting time thinking about how to ask questions beyond the obvious 'what's the weather like?' In most cases, it would be quicker to do a Google search or open an app directly.

Some of the responses were also made confusing by the way the phone simply reads everything so literally. In some cases it read out punctuation in the text, or spelled out shortened or abbreviated words. All things that could be fixed, but probably not worth the effort when so few people are likely ever to use it.

If you know anyone using Siri on their iPhone 4S, you could play games by seeing which works best, but for everyone else it's a feature worthy of a 'gimmick' award.

Top performer

Samsung might be playing down the hardware and concentrating on software features, but for anyone craving power this phone has it all. For a lot of the time the phone runs on just two cores, stepping up to three and only enabling all four under the heaviest load. For most of the time, this phone won't ever use all of its power.

You can even restrict the performance for power-saving reasons, and the phone even states that it will continue to do things like play HD movies even then. Few apps will ever need the extra power, and while there's an argument for having a device that's ready for when they do, it soon becomes pretty clear the phone is too powerful for current demand.

It's not just about raw power, and other things stand the phone out from the crowed - things like faster wi-fi data transfer and the support of both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. If you live or work around an abundance of wi-fi services clogging up the airwaves, a switch to 5GHz might make all the difference.

Many handsets, including the HTC One X or Sony's Xperia S, don't support this band or the same data throughput.

NFC on the Galaxy S III isn't solely for reading smart tags or possibly making smart payments in the future, as Samsung has made it possible to tap your Galaxy S III against another compatible phone and quickly send files over wi-fi, with no need to pair a device or enter security codes.

The larger battery is the icing on the cake, allowing the phone to be used a lot longer between charges. It makes the difference between hesitating before doing something and just doing it, without worrying about whether you'll still have a phone to use by the evening.

Samsung has created a perfect mix of hardware to keep fanboys excited and software features to keep the ordinary consumer happy. A lot of features could be seen as gimmicks, but you don't have to use them.

With a range of accessories also on offer, including a wireless charging solution that will be released later in the year, the Galaxy S III isn't just the flagship for Samsung, but the best performing Android smartphone on the market today.

Samsung Galaxy S III

The Galaxy S III is an amazing phone, and not even its plastic build can ruin things. The only bad thing is that there's hardly anything to push this phone to the limit, but for anyone wanting the best of the best, don't look any further
Jonathan Morris
Jonathan Morris
From starting out as a games tester for Mastertronic, Virgin and Sega in the late 1980s, it may seem odd to then ditch everything to write about mobile phones that, at the time, lasted 20 minutes between charges. He always had a hunch mobiles would become quite popular, but possibly didn't realise how powerful (and, ironically, returning to 20 minutes between charges). Jonathan's job is to continue advising on the best hardware to buy, in order to enjoy games that have advanced considerably since those long days and nights testing Double Dragon on the C64.