Never has an Android phone been so eagerly awaited as the Samsung Galaxy S3.
Amid levels of hype and speculation usually reserved for the launch of a new iPhone, the latest Samsung handset has arrived with a heavy brief – it must at least live up to its phenomenally successful predecessor (the Galaxy S II) and also attempt to dethrone the HTC One X as the top dog of Android smartphone royalty.
UPDATE: Read the HTC One X+ review
So can the Galaxy S3 compete with HTC’s combination of raw power and elegant design? And, perhaps more importantly, is the Galaxy S3 the first Android handset that can genuinely claim to unseat the iPhone 4S as our favourite smartphone? Let’s find out…
design, build and connectivity
The Samsung Galaxy S3 is closer in design to the Galaxy Nexus than the Galaxy S II, thanks to those rounded corners which (we imagine) leave Apple's lawyers with a little less work to do over the coming months.
Available in both pebble blue and marble white (we prefer the former’s textured appearance), the Galaxy S3 cuts a dashing figure at a svelte 8.6mm thick, just 0.2mm thinner than the HTC One X. That’s an impressive feat given its larger 2100mAh battery (the One X’s battery offers 1800mAh).
At 133g, the Galaxy S3 feels reassuringly weighty. It’s heavier than the S II by 17g, but we like the S3’s newfound solidity, which is backed up with reassuring build quality and a smooth yet tactile finish that feels natural in your hand. Small-handed gadgeteers may struggle with the extra screen real estate, particularly finding it hard to stretch up to the notification bar without sacrificing a bit of grip.
Sadly, there's no sign of Apple-inspired brushed aluminium, but unlike the S II, the Galaxy S3 is clad in HyperGlaze (Samsung's fancy way of describing shiny polycarbonate). As we’ve seen in the HTC One X, polycarbonate offers greater strength, durability and scratch resistance over traditional plastic, although we think the HTC's single-body matte polycarbonate construction still gives off a more solid, premium feel.
Once removed, that back cover is deceptively flimsy and looks similar to the plastic variants found on the Galaxy S II and Note. Clip it into place, though, and the phone feels more than sturdy enough to take an accidental bashing here and there, especially given that it’s fronted with a Gorilla Glass 2 screen.
Samsung’s included a 3.5mm headphone jack up top, a microUSB port on the bottom, and a microSD card slot (a feature sorely missing from the HTC One X). With expandable storage support for up to 64GB on top of the internal 16GB, 32GB or 64GB already available, space will not be an issue for Galaxy S3 users.
The micro-SIM slot is easily accessible beneath the rear cover, which is a godsend if you're fed up with searching for pointy objects to remove the iPhone 4S or HTC One X's SIM cards.
The power button falls on the right hand side, offering easy one-handed locking, with the volume buttons opposite. Galaxy Note users will already be familiar with this setup but some smartphone owners might find themselves accidentally changing the volume with their fingers when locking and unlocking the phone. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 has a generously sized 4.8in Super AMOLED pentile display, with a pixel-rich 1280x720 resolution. Although its 306ppi falls slightly short of the HTC One X's 312ppi and iPhone 4S's 330ppi screens respectively, you'll be hard pressed to notice the difference without a head-mounted microscope and it's just as impressively sharp to our eyes. Fonts display less smoothly on pentile screens, appearing with a slightly jagged fringe. If you're picky about your text rendering, it's worth noting the S3 is no different, though most users are unlikely to notice much.
The AMOLED display's colours are vibrant, popping out from the screen and adding an extra spark to Samsung's revamped, minimalist TouchWiz interface (more on this later). Pictures and movies are served up with plenty of eye-popping punch and – when coupled with the gratifyingly large screen – firmly confirm the Samsung Galaxy S3's skills as a formidable pocketable media powerhouse.
In contrast to the One X's 1280x720 LCD display, the Samsung Galaxy S3's AMOLED screen throws up colours that are a little too saturated. Grass in particular looks positively alien on the Galaxy S3, and the HTC One X's display will be better suited to those looking for truer colour reproduction.
Even more worrying is the noticeably blue hue in the Samsung Galaxy S3's screen, resulting in azure-tinted whites. This contributes to a level of dullness when compared to the screen of the HTC One X, although this is partly compensated by the more saturated colours, which some users may prefer.
Although the blue hue can be blamed on the use of a pentile screen (as opposed to an AMOLED Plus display), the Samsung Galaxy S3 provides truer blacks than the HTC's LCD display.
The Galaxy S3's greater contrast results in more depth and detail than the One X when zooming into photos, making pictures displayed on the One X look soft by comparison.
Either way, both the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X have excellent screens – if you prefer purer whites and more realistic colours the One X will be more up your street, but if sharper detail, true blacks and more vibrant colours rock your display boat, you won’t be disappointed with the Galaxy S3's display.
processor, power and gaming
At the heart of the Samsung Galaxy S3 lies Samsung's very own 1.4Ghz quad-core Exynos processor, and it handles Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich with ease. Transitions are delivered with a gossamer-like fluidity, while the One X offers the occasional stutter between homescreens at times. Simply put, the Galaxy S3 offers the slickest Android experience we've had to date and brings iPhone-like levels of smoothness to the Google camp at long last.
Firing up a 1080p movie trailer is also no problem for Samsung’s new phone. Smooth, fluid playback and intensive 3D games from the Google Play store posed little challenge for Samsung's homegrown silicon. GTA III and Frontline Commando perform perfectly with no lag, proving the Galaxy S3 is more than ready to take on the mantle of portable gaming.
The greatest testament to the raw power of the Samsung Galaxy S3 is its Pop up Play feature, which lets you simultaneously watch a video while carrying out other tasks. We ran a video while playing a level of Frontline Commando (see video). The Galaxy S3 showed no signs of struggling, either with the game or video. Impressive.
camera and video
The Samsung Galaxy S3's 8MP camera fires up in seconds and can snap shots even faster. So fast, in fact, you might not realise you've actually taken a photo. The photos themselves are sharp and offer more detail than the HTC One X's camera, which look slightly hazy by comparison.
Colour reproduction is also accurate with little grain on show, and the Samsung Galaxy S3's camera is easily on par with other imaging heavy hitters like the Sony Xperia S and brings along some useful options like a quick-fire burst mode which automatically selects the best picture.
One gripe we do have with the camera app is the lack of some of Ice Cream Sandwich's default imaging features like sweep panorama and time lapse, along with a few real-time effects. The One X, by contrast, has a plethora of effects, though the Galaxy S3 does ape the HTC phone’s ability to snap photos while shooting video.
The S3 also lets you assign contact thumbnails directly from photos. Simply tap a face, assign a name, and the Galaxy S3 automatically changes the corresponding contact profile picture. Neat.
Video quality is equally impressive, with 1080p-recorded video serving up vivid colours and sharp detail. Fast movement could be handled a bit better – we noticed a bit of motion blur while filming rapid action.
We pitted the Samsung Galaxy S3's larger 2100mAh battery against the HTC One X's smaller 1800mAh offering to see how they stacked up against each other.
Our test involved looping an identical SD video with the screen brightness of both handsets set to 50 per cent, on an identical third party video player (MX PLayer), and Wi-Fi and Gmail sync were also on.
After two hours, the HTC One X had rinsed through half of its juice, with 41 per cent left in the battery. The Samsung Galaxy S3 however had an impressive 76 per cent left.
The HTC One X finally packed it in after 4h:51m, while the Samsung Galaxy S3 managed to last a total of 8h:26m. That gives the Samsung Galaxy S3 nearly double the battery life of the HTC One X, which will be a substantial enough decision-maker for power users.
The significant difference in battery life could be for a number of reasons. The slightly larger battery capacity of the Samsung Galaxy S3 is of course one factor, but Samsung's quad-core Exynos processor may also be more efficient than the HTC One X's Tegra 3 chip.
The Galaxy S3's AMOLED display also comes into play here, as unlike LCD screens, AMOLED displays can turn off black pixels entirely, which can also save power. Either way, it's an important win for the Galaxy S3 and a standout victory that's impossible to ignore.
The Samsung Galaxy S3's stock browser loads pages near-instantly over Wi-Fi and scrolling is as smooth as you'd expect given the firepower on offer. That said, we were disappointed with the stock browser's approach to text rendering. The browser doesn't resize text to fit the screen when zooming into blocks of text, unlike most other Android phones we've tried. It’s a particular strength of the HTC One X and it's a shame Samsung has overlooked it on the stock browser.
Ice Cream Sandwich and TouchWiz
Ice Cream Sandwich is installed natively on the S3, though Android purists will lament the inclusion of Samsung's TouchWiz interface. Compared to past revisions, Samsung's latest skin is less intrusive and altogether more tolerable, though you'll still have to contend with an array of Samsung apps, including varous media hubs and Samsung Apps.
Griping aside, Samsung’s kitted out the S3 with some gems exclusive to its new handset, including S Voice, a speech-powered Siri clone which is able to carry out the same tasks as its Apple rival. Although voice recognition is a bit sketchy at times, the S Voice assistant managed to set alarms, search the web and send messages with around the same success rate as Apple's voice assistant.
Another unique feature is Smart Stay, which ensures the display never dims or turns off while you're looking at it. The eye-recognition works well (even with glasses) and it's a genuinely useful feature that saved us from continuously tapping the screen to keep it awake.
The S3 has a number of other simple but useful tweaks. Lifting the phone to your ear when texting someone automatically calls them and the NFC-powered S Beam feature is a quick way of sending a photo to another NFC-enabled phone, though we had a few niggles finding the desired device.
Like HTC, Samsung has made it easy to access apps from the lockscreen. Swiping up off the camera icon instantly fires up the snapper, a feature we feel should be standard on all Android handsets. Aesthetes will be pleased to note the standard entry is accompanied by a smoothly rendered ripple effect.
Samsung had a lot to live up to with the release of its latest flagship Galaxy phone. Having set the bar for Android smartphones with the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus – and seen it exceeded with the HTC One X – the S3 needed to be a special phone.
Although some people may prefer the truer whites of the One X's screen, the Samsung Galaxy S3 still more than deserves to stand at the top of the pile, just above its HTC rival. Given its innovative software, expandable storage and much better battery life, the S3 has a rightful claim to be crowned the new king of Android phones. And Apple needs to watch its back... the smartphone war isn't won yet.
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Review by Esat Dedezade