Tech Review: Samsung Galaxy S3

 

It'd be safe to say that the Samsung Galaxy S3 has had a tumultuous journey to launch. Following frenzied speculation, rumour and everything in-between; a whole host of alleged 'leaks'; and a manufacturing hiccup that threatened to take the shine off the worldwide launch, the S3 has now lifted the crown from the iPhone 4S in claiming to be the UK's most popular smartphone. But does the S3 really merit the year-long wait from its 20 million-selling predecessor, the S2, and just how worthy is it in toppling the might of Apple's iPhone?

In truth, the answer is tremendously hard to come by, at least in a single sentence. Our first week or so with the S3 has been one split down the middle for better and for worse. At times, using the Galaxy S3 is a joy; where the Exynos 4 quad-core processor offers its full potential and the high-resolution super AMOLED screen matches it pound-for-pound in delivering super-crisp visuals. And at others, infuriating, a little underwhelming and upholding such poor design (in some instances) that it makes us pander for the iPhone 4 that we've left unused in journeying to the fair shores of Android.

Trying to pin down the allure of the Galaxy S3 is easy. Forget the whole 'inspired by nature' design philosophy/marketing spin for a second – environmentalists would point to the polycarbonate backing and disagree anyway, although this does result in a phone with excellent build quality – and appreciate what Samsung has achieved. Some may baulk at the smooth edges and curved surround of the phone, but for others (and me included) it's a welcome difference from the like-for-like iPhone designs on the market; all 90-degree angles and obsessive compulsive attention to detail.

It might be a polarising design decision, but in my eyes at least the S3 is the best-looking phone on the market. It's an opinion shared when reviewing the brushed 'Pebble Blue' or 'Marble White' polycarbonate it's encased in. By some its plasticky finish will come across as cheap, a sign of cutting corners on materials and a little out-dated, but they're probably the same people who have yet to get hands-on with the phone. In fact, as a result the S3 is remarkably light-weight, and surprisingly not to its detriment. Not to say the sheer scale of the phone doesn't have its draw-backs – even with Samsung thinning out the surrounding bezel – as the dominant 4.8” Super AMOLED display really takes some grasping, and trying to navigate with just one hand is often doomed for failure. Good job you took out that insurance policy, right!?

But yes, the screen is the main attraction here and for very good reason. At a resolution packed into its 4.8” frame of 720p (720 x 1280), the S3 has a wholly impressive pixel density of 306ppi and is more than a match for the HTC One X or indeed the iPhone 4S's Retina Display. In an effort to conserve battery life on automated settings, Samsung may well have set the auto-brightness level far too low; but the display is nevertheless sharp, vivid and, with the new SmartStay feature turned on, intelligent. Too bad the display suffers badly when used in direct sunlight, with content difficult to see through a blinding blue sheen.

The S3's camera is still the same 8-megapixels as its predecessor. However, with a good array of camera options (burst shots, Best Shot, macro) it's quite excellent; with good depth of field, true colours and good clarity on show. Oh, and it shoots in 1080p.

But that's really nit-picking, because what the Samsung Galaxy S3 provides with the combination of the 1.4Ghz quad-core processor under its polycarbonate skin and the HD screen is a graphical powerhouse, capable of heavy-duty tasks and one that aptly delivers power-hungry apps with relative ease – something that the introduction of the on-screen 'Pop Up and Play' feature demonstrates well. The end result of all the power Samsung have pumped into the shell of the S3 is a smartphone experience that is very hard to match. Browsing the web is slick, speedy and pages look superb on the added real estate of the 4.8-inch display; games from the Google Play store pop with colour and run at a smooth and consistent rate; and watching movies and YouTube videos on the high-definition screen is a joy. Not that our experience with the S3 has been all smooth-sailing however, we've experienced lag, freezes and crashes multiple times thus far in our time with the phone as a result of pushing the limits just that bit too far.

The question on everybody's lips will be whether the S3's battery is any improvement over the S2 and we're glad to say it undeniably is. Because despite the power hungry architecture aboard the S3, the successor to the dual-core, 1.2Ghz model performs surprisingly well where the juice is concerned. With it, you can expect the S3 to hold its charge for a whole day when using it consistently and in fairly demanding applications (not a huge success, but one that beats out much of the competition) and around 30-40 hours when doing the more menial and simple tasks.

Running on Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich) but yet again the host of Samsung's-own TouchWiz interface, the S3 boasts a generous amount of new goodies in the form of added features (S-Voice, Face plus Voice Unlock, Pop Up Play, Direct Call) and genuinely useful applications. While the interface itself is easy to navigate, intuitive and smartly designed; icons are clean and well spaced, the font is clear and menus are slick to switch between.

Combine the largest internal S3 memory with the biggest-capacity SD card currently at market and theoretically you could have a phone with 128Gb worth of storage.Moving into the software itself and the vaunted features very much take a supporting role to the third-party applications pre-installed on the device. S-Voice is nothing but a poorer relative to Apple's much more impressive personal assistant, Siri, with vocal interaction with Samsung's version irritating in the extreme. S-Voice not only fails to recognise even the most basic of instructions (whether down to pronunciation or the way it's formed) and is begrudgingly slow to process even when it does. The same goes for the Face plus Voice Unlock, an extension of the Face Unlock feature introduced in Android 4.0. Pop Up Play, meanwhile, works exactly as expect, though it's difficult to really find a need to use it besides showing off your smartphone superiority to your mates.

Much more impressive is the fact the S3 comes with a free 50Gb of cloud storage with file hosting app Dropbox (ever a coup) and the previously Apple-exclusive Flipboard application that is a welcome addition to the Android ranks. Bringing together the most popular, shared news items updated on an hourly or daily basis and all your social streams from across social networks (Facebook, Twitter), the app presents it all in a magazine-style, page-turning stream of up-to the minute updates and links. Think a meeting point of everything that matters to you on the web.

In a sense Samsung is likely to feel it has already succeeded in everything it set out to achieve with the Galaxy S3. Tailing on the back of the worldwide success of the S2, the S3 is already one of the most popular smartphones ever, that has rocked market-leaders Apple and HTC in almost every department. The 'designed by humans, inspired by nature' curved design philosophy won't be to everyone's taste, nor will the sheer size of the magnificent screen, or some of Samsung's first-party applications, but there's no denying the Korean powerhouse has deftly delivered something special here and one more than worthy to grab the attention of the technology headlines. 8

Richard Birkett

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