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Samsung Galaxy S III Review: One X Marks The Spot


Six months ago the Galaxy Nexus (i9250) replaced the iPhone 4 as my full-time, carry everywhere phone; for reasons that I’ll save for another time. My wife also jumped over to the Galaxy S II (i9100), and like you, we’ve been waiting for the GSIII (i9300) for a while now. It’s deservedly one of the most anticipated phones of the year, but is it the best so far?


Frankly, the Galaxy S III has big shoes to fill. The GSII was front of the Android pack last year, picking up our editor and readers’ choice awards in the process. It still pips the Galaxy Nexus as the most used Android device visiting Giz AU each day, and lives on with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and a newer beefed up 4G model. The Galaxy S III doesn’t have LTE (“4G”) in Australia…yet. We reported at launch that Samsung says it’s “in discussions” with Telstra regarding a 4G version to “follow with in the future”.

While the yanks get a Galaxy S III supporting LTE, they’re also stuck with a dual-core CPU. Our version blazes quad-core all the way: 1.4GHz Cortex A9 / Exynos 4 Quad with a Mali-400MP GPU. Apparently, similar incompatibilities between quad-core and LTE chips are also why Telstra’s LTE-ready HTC One XL is dual-core versus the quad-core One X.

Ah yes. The One X/XL: the other current heir apparent(s) to the king of Android crown. HTC is back in fine form and its flagship devices and the Galaxy S III are clearly inextricably linked. On paper, I’d give the edge to the GSIII:

HTC One X

- 4.7-inch (1280×720) Super IPS LCD2 screen (~312ppi) with Gorilla Glass
- Quad-core Tegra 3
- 8MP rear camera, 1.3MP front camera (720p)
- 130g, 8.9mm thick
- FM radio
- 1GB RAM, 32GB internal storage
- No expandable storage

Samsung Galaxy S III

- 4.8-inch (1280×720) Super AMOLED screen (~306ppi) with Gorilla Glass 2
- 8MP rear camera, 1.9MP front camera (720p)
- 133g, 8.6mm thick
- FM radio
- 1GB RAM, 16/32GB internal storage
- MicroSD expandable storage (up to 64GB)

In Quadrant (an Android CPU, I/O and 3D graphics benchmark we’ve used in previous reviews), my test Galaxy S III unit scored 5244 to the One X’s 5034. The dual-core One XL achieved 4400 and my tricked-out Galaxy Nexus came back with 2354. The new phones are zippy as hell, and in real world use, I didn’t notice a huge difference performing common tasks or moving around the TouchWiz/Sense UIs. Speaking of everyday use…

Using It

As a Galaxy Nexus owner, the GSIII felt invitingly familiar and its thinner top bezel means it’s only fractionally bigger than Google’s device, despite the larger display. I prefer the GSIII’s smooth and curved finish on the back, even if the plastic (and faux metal trim) give a slightly inexpensive impression. It’s definitely well-made though, and design can be subjective. For me, the HTX One X/XL comes out ahead in style, particularly the white version.

The Galaxy S III’s button layout is just like its predecessor, complete with (for better or worse) capacitive back/menu buttons on either side of a slimmed-down physical home button. Press once to go back to your home screen, hold to bring up the ICS task switcher (with Samsung task manager bonus), and double-click to start S-Voice. The rear speaker is also far better placed for landscape gaming: anyone who has had fingers constantly muffle sound on the Galaxy Nexus will know what I mean here. The speaker is also louder on the GSIII.

As with the Galaxy Note and Galaxy Nexus, Samsung has opted for a PenTile sub-pixel arrangement for the GSIII’s display, which is said to have the effect of looking brighter with less backlight to help extend battery life. Critics will point out that the flipside can be instances of blurry text or noticeable graining. The whole display debate bores me, so here’s my takeaway. I had to look real hard to find such faults with the GSIII’s gorgeous screen. It delivers deep blacks, brilliant colours — and critical to me coming from a Galaxy Nexus — a much truer white temperature, without blue-tinges when you’re viewing the screen at an angle.

In true Samsung fashion you can switch between dynamic, standard and movie LED modes, and they’ve again gone heavy-handed with auto-brightness. Personally, I can’t resist just how vivid the screen is at full brightness. However, put side-by-side, the One X/XL screen does seem to ‘pop’ more.

What We Like

The Galaxy S III packs a 2100mAh battery (compared to 1800mAh on the One X/XL), and with power saving help, you’ll easily get through a day of browsing, calls and Google account sync with battery to spare. Meanwhile, my Galaxy Nexus relies on JuiceDefender like a crack addict.

The ‘Smart Stay’ feature can be handy when you’re using an aggressive power mode. It uses the GSIII’s camera to determine if you’re looking at the screen and not switch off — though it doesn’t like low-light. Actually, Samsung has gone to town with interesting features. Decide that it’s better to just call someone mid text and ‘Direct Call’ will automatically dial their number when you hold the phone to your ear. When you pick up the GSIII, ‘Smart Alert’ will vibrate and use the notification LED if you’ve missed a call or a message. ‘Pop up play’ lets you watch video in a window while multi-tasking. You can also tilt to zoom and perform gestures like physically double tapping the top of the phone to jump back to the start of a long scrolling page.

Noteworthy bonus apps include 50GB free Dropbox storage and Navigon turn-by-turn navigation.

Oh, the Galaxy S III is also a great phone. You know, to actually call people. Call quality was top-notch — aided by a secondary noise-cancellation microphone and a Wolfson Micro WM1811 DAC. Samsung’s dialler/contacts app has also never looked better.

What We Don’t Like

My wife runs GO Launcher EX on her Galaxy S II because even with ICS running the show, TouchWiz kind of blows in my humble opinion. However, the new TouchWiz Nature UI on the GSIII is a vast and snappy improvement. Were I to keep the phone, I’d still probably use a custom launcher — if only to make better use of the screen real estate for my icon grid and gain a scrollable dock. Some of the GSIII’s stock sounds/alarms are also kind of naff.

True story: Giz AU’s editor Luke got the evil-eye from a lady in Woolworths when his GSIII was set by default to ‘whistle’ for email notifications. Wish I was there for that. Editor’s note: I wish I was anywhere but there for that. Terribly embarrassing.

The Samsung-fest arguably goes a shade too far with a variety of useful, but tediously “S-branded” apps. S Beam looks most interesting: it uses Wi-Fi direct and an NFC handshake to share contacts and links between devices. I’ve not really found myself using S-Memo (notes) or S-Suggestions (app recommendations). Samsung’s S-Planner and Email apps both had me longing for the pure Google calendar/email app experience of the Galaxy Nexus.

Then there’s S-Voice, which — let’s face it — is a total Siri clone in both UI design and function. But I’m glad it’s there. You know the deal by now and it pretty much does what you’d expect. But outside of performing basic tasks while driving, I still feel that Siri/S-Voice is a party trick. You may feel differently.

Cameras

I’m not a fan of my Galaxy Nexus’ 5-megapixel camera, especially in low-light situations. The Galaxy S III, however, roars back in 8-megapixel style coupled with a 1.9-megapixel HD video chat camera. It has what’s basically an instant-shutter and there’s a range of useful shooting modes that go beyond auto-focus and face detection: burst mode (six per second), auto-snap upon smile, HDR, and an insanely intuitive panorama engine. Obviously the GSIII won’t replace my DSLR, but wow, I’d be more than covered at a press event if I forgot to bring the camera bag with me.

Meanwhile, the One X/XL takes 0.7 seconds to snap a photo (which is still pretty great) and has a four photos per second burst mode. Its stand-out camera features: real time effects and the ability to capture photos while shooting a video, without having to switch back and forth.

Video

Galaxy S III

HTC One XL

Galaxy Nexus

Galaxy S II


Galaxy S III

HTC One XL


Images

Click to zoom in…

Galaxy S III

HTC One XL

Galaxy Nexus

Galaxy S II

Accessories

The Galaxy S III lacks an HDMI port, so you’ll need the $40 HDTV adapter to mirror out to your big screen. Word is that older MHL adapters unfortunately won’t work — but on the upside, an 11-pin USB version will enable USB to go. Other accessories include a desktop dock ($50), stylus pen ($30), and an official flip cover ($35).

Should You Buy It? (The TL;DR Version)

If you want all the bells and whistles and LTE speeds aren’t a must for you, then hell yes. Especially if you’re off contract (See: Who Has The Best Galaxy S III Deal In Australia?) . You’ll get a quad-band HSPA+ device with great camera features, microSD storage and speed to spare. The GS III is available in ‘Marble’ White and ‘Pebble’ Blue.

For Android data speed freaks, the HTC One XL is now your go-to LTE phone (at least until the LTE GSIII complicates matters). The One XL and the One X are also where you should start if screen quality and design are at the top of your shopping list. Seriously, it’s close enough that you’re really going to have to try these puppies in person. We couldn’t encourage anything less.