The Samsung vs Apple smartphone war has reached its much hyped crescendo with the Samsung S3 - how does it stack up and is it the long awaited iPhone killer?
Samsung has managed to do what no-one else in the smartphone market other than Apple has been able to do - develop hype ahead of a launch.
The S3 is the new model of what was already the de facto Android flagship model, the Samsung Galaxy S2.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 has already seen in excess of 10 million pre-orders, and Apple has even gone to the (tragic) lengths of attempting to block its US sale at launch. If Apple is scared, does this mean we have our first iPhone killer?
This is the most obvious change from the S2 - and unfortunately not for the better. It certainly polarised opinions around our office. While the S2 was more square, with a good grip, firm plastic body and nice heft, the S3 seems a step backward. Samsung has gone for a more rounded, almost oval shape as opposed to the S2's staunch lines. The screen is larger, but where the S2 felt quite nice and hefty in the hand, and almost faux-metallic, the S3 feels a bit light, unwieldy and plasticky. It also feels very breakable, so a case would come recommended, especially since it also isn't very grippy anymore, and has a tendency to slip out of your hands.
Physical button placement remains the same on the two models - power on the right, volume rocker on the left. The Home button on the front is a physical button, with touch sensitive menu and back buttons to either side.
One of my pet niggles with most Android devices remains the lack of a physical mute button on the body, similar to Apple's flick 'mute' switch on the side of its body. It is now a part of my lifestyle to flick that switch in my pocket going in and out of meetings etc., and its omission here (it was also absent on the S2) still grates.
The Galaxy S3 is 8.6mm thick and weighs 133g. Unnoticeably thicker than the S2, which is 8.49mm deep. By way of comparison, the iPhone 4S is 9.3mm thick and weighs 140g.
But despite the rather tame physicality of the device, the main attraction will remain the screen. And it is an absolute stunner, a 4.8-inch AMOLED running at 720x1280. The screen size I feel is almost getting too large for general phone usage (I'm not a fan of the Galaxy Note's sizing, 5.3", for example), but the trade-off is that it is perfect for media consumption. Surfing the web, watching TV shows, taking and adjusting photos are all an absolute pleasure. The screen is exceptionally bright and sharp, with great contrast levels and colour accuracy. Almost any web page can read fully zoomed out with ease. It is certainly superior to any iPhone, and pips the Nokia Lumia and HTC One X as the new king of smartphone screens.
The S3 also adds a new notification light, which will pulse when new messages, emails arrive or errors occur. I found this annoying more than useful - it was perpetually flashing (due to emails etc.) and lights up full red when charging, which, if you charge your phone beside your bed, means an extra light at night to keep you awake. Fortunately this can all be turned off.
Samsung has kept two of its best design features that I still feel should be industry standard. Namely removable batteries and a Micro-SD slot. As well as ensuring longevity for the device (ballsy by Samsung, when most competitors want to force their customers into upgrade cycles), this now means users can potentially buy 2-3 batteries and roll through them - vital for anyone in business, watching movies on a long haul flight; or indeed for anyone who can't get near a charger daily (for battery life, see the performance section).
The inclusion of a micro-SD slot to supplement the 16/32/64GB of onboard memory is most welcome. It supports up to 64GB micro-SD cards, more than enough to load up your phone with media, and/or use your phone as a portable backup drive for your important work documents.
The S3 has a quad core processor at 1.4Ghz with 1GB* of RAM: borderline overkill. There certainly aren't any existing applications or games available to use this power properly yet, but it ensures that the device is future proofed. It also means the UI is flawlessly fast. Apps, movies, games, no matter what I threw at the device the performance was superb. It had negligible load times, no jerkiness when scrolling or zooming, and quick multi-tasking, which is essential for anyone in business flicking between documents.
I would expect that the device, currently running Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0 OS) will be more than capable of handling Jellybean (Android 5.0) which is expected to be announced next week at Google I/O.
Web browsing in particular is a real joy, everything loads quickly and can be viewed at a glance - non-mobile versions of websites in particular look fantastic, and zooming, swiping and pinching all work flawlessly. I would go so far as to say viewing mobile versions of websites is a bit pointless on this device.
All of the games tested ran flawlessly, and it will be interesting to see where this kind of power takes these kinds of applications in the future. HD video similarly looks stunning with no jerkiness, blockiness or other processing errors. Nothing seemed to tax the phone.
Surprisingly with such a large bright screen and processing power, the battery performance trade-off is not as extreme as I had feared - with its 2100mAh battery it remains a charge a day device, around 8-10 hours of general usage, similar to the iPhone 4S - even with serious wi-fi usage.
The HTC One X, the other major quad core Android phone, I found managed significantly less, its capacity usually lasting around 5-8 hours. The Galaxy S3 was at around 50% after watching 4 hours of video - very impressive. Games that involved 3D rendering dropped this to around 40% in 2 hours. This is still much better than the HTC One X, which barely scraped past 2 hours watching HD video.
Leaving the screen on 'auto adjust' seems to help somewhat, putting the phone to full brightness kills battery life very fast. The phone does have an excellent power saver mode, which limits the processor and the screen. I used it regularly for normal phone usage and got a full 10-12 hours. This especially is refreshing for a smartphone if you're having a 'no-play' work day, i.e. using your device like a feature phone.
However I would think this kind of defeats the purpose of buying a quad core phone.
As a battery nerd I do wonder what might've been If Samsung kept the device as a dual core - a 16-20 hour smartphone appeals to me personally. However, as mentioned earlier, the removable battery means long haul workers can buy multiples and exchange them.
The camera is excellent, while it hasn't seen an upgrade since the S2's 8MP, that is no bad thing. It still takes accurate photos on par with a low-mid range dedicated compact camera, with nice colour reproduction and blacks and very good sharpness. Like all smartphone cameras, it remains pretty useless at night, with grainy, splotchy images, with or without the flash. Full 1080P HD video recording is possible, but this too is not of a high quality - it looks little better than a Youtube video unfortunately, with average frame rates, blurriness, graininess and artifacting. The front camera is 2MP for video calling and face detection (see features below); it is fit for purpose, and little else.
The sound quality on the S3 is another strength, while it sounds perfectly acceptable as a phone, it also has a decent enough DAC to output nice music and video quality into a nice set of headphones. Its external speaker isn't too bad either, no worse or better than any of smartphone, tinny, with no bass resonance. Fine for spoken word, but headphones are ideal.
User Interface and Features
The Galaxy S3 utilises the Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 OS in the back end, with Samsung's own TouchWiz at the front.
TouchWiz Samsung's interface layer placed on top of Android, most noticeable on the front end/homepage. Note and S2 users will be at home, but other Android converts will need to get used to it. It remains a nice bright and simple inferface that doesn't deviate too far from Ice Cream Sandwich norms.
What has become interesting is Samsung's huge influx of new features. The company has come on strong with motion gestures, which can now control almost every facet of the phone, from locking to calling. For example, Direct Call means that any number on the screen (i.e. in a text message or the contact book) will be run once the phone is moved to your ear. My favourite is the ignore call - if you place your phone face down on a table while ringing and it will mute and stop the phone's vibration - without hanging up the call.
The S3 also includes its own version of Apple's Siri voice based assistant. Like Siri, S Voice will check the weather or making calls, set an alarm, and check Wolfram Alpha for information. Like Siri, it is mostly a silly gimmick that, in its current form, no one will really use for anything serious.
Samsung's version misses the humour of Apple's, so the fun of asking it ridiculous questions tends to more often than not tell you it 'doesn't understand'. Any attempt to use S Voice for anything more serious involves you looking a bit foolish as you carefully enunciate your vowels to the phone 2-3 times in public. I wouldn't bother, it's far quicker to load a webpage or click an app to get the job done.
Another feature, S Beam allows users can send files to each other over wi-fi, alongside the Android Beam which uses NFC. There are other incorporated functions, such as 'share shot', where a photo taken on one device is beamed to all on prespecified lists instantly - useful for photos at parties, for example.
Options such as tethering, portable hot spots and dev mode are all useful Android business applications that work well enough. Data encryption of the phone's data and SIM card is also built in, but needs a good hour to run.
The S3's lock screen itself now has more options than most whole apps on an iPhone, alongside the eye-candy of a 'watery' wallpaper which you can swirl your finger over to unlock, users can enter a PIN number, a drawn pattern, a gesture (such as flicking the phone) and voice and facial recognition, or a combination of the above to unlock the phone.
The facial recognition option is hardly secure - even the phone warns you that it isn't a foolproof security mechanism, but is very quick and sci-fi-ish for those so inclined.
The phone thankfully includes tutorials for this huge menagerie of confusing features, but to be brutally honest most users are going to use 2-3 of them at most, and they strike me more as gimmicks for a show room floor than actual tools.
App wise, the S3 gets the former Apple exclusive Flipboard, which allows you to effectively build your own virtual newspaper to flick through. I still maintain this app only really works on tablet sized screens. Dropbox is installed and comes with 50GB of storage for free (2 year subscription), which is very generous.
Samsung's own apps, Music Hub and Samsung Apps take you to the relevant Samsung stores, and/or parts of the Google Play (Android App) store. The function perfectly fine, but still don't match up to Apple's App Store or iTunes Music Store. S Suggest also looks at your user habits and app history and suggests apps that might be of interest.
At launch Samsung made a big deal about its eye-tracking technology, it dims or turns off the screen if it doesn't detect a face looking at it, to save battery. Again, a gimmick and too finicky. I found it dimming the screen when I placed the device on a table and needed to look at it from an angle (it was especially annoying when taking the photos that accompany this review).
The camera's software feature set is very good, what is already good hardware (see performance), is made better by all the toys attached to it. Although S Voice apparently allows you take photos with your voice (which would be handy to stop handshake) I couldn't get it to work. The camera does have HDR functions in it to help with the dynamic range and fix exposure levels, and other minor editing tools such as cropping and colour level adjusting.
What I did love about the device is its endless customisability - it was almost option overkill. Everything option on the phone has at least 2-3 permutations (see the lock screen mentioned above for example), and the readily available debug mode is a godsend for app developers. ICS combined with Touchwiz means that you feel like you're holding a proper computer, where almost every facet of its design can be reworked to your preference. You aren't locked into design choices like older Android and Apple devices, boffins will love getting lost in the mechanics of the phone, but it may be off putting for casual users and those not so technologically inclined.
One of the big disappointments with the UK version of the device is the lack of 4G support. We may not have 4G yet, but this does mean that early adopters will need to buy another phone within the year if the telcos launch it in 2013 (more so if Everything Everywhere is given clearance to launch its own service this year). It also means that business travellers won't be able to access 4G connectivity in the existing 4G markets, such as US or Germany either.
The S3 also does not support the new 3.5G, higher speed HSPA 21Mbps or 42Mbps networks that EE and others have been rolling out across the UK, and thus remains very much a 3G device.
(NOTE: The American 4G edition actually uses a completely separate processor (a dual core Qualcomm Snapdragon), a potentially painful performance dropping trade-off for our American readers. Samsung claims it hasn't been able to get 4G LTE working on its Exynos processors yet)
The headphones included in the package are a step above the iPhone's rubbish. They are proper in-ear models, but the performance still doesn't match any dedicated headphones. A decent set will show off what is a pretty decent DAC for audio output, at least as good as the iPhone 4S.
You can tell Samsung went absolutely all out on this phone, and it shows. For its core functionality, as a smartphone, it is unparalleled, the new flagship for Android and a superior device to the iPhone 4S. It is slick and powerful with a stunning screen and better-than-most battery life.
The flipside to Samsung's kitchen-sink approach is that there is a lot of fluff, the majority of Samsung's app additions seem to be little more than tech demonstrations to prove proof of concept and look good in press materials. Most users will never use them. Most will never even know they're there. Enthusiasts will use them to show off their phone to friends, but in all honesty it felt to me like bloatware - the useless spammy apps installed on modern laptops as part of hardware manufacturers' sponsorship deals. Unfortunately most of them can't be removed.
In all fairness, they aren't intrusive to the aforementioned core functionality, and don't change the fact that the S3 is a brilliant phone. It's a pity then that the device is wrapped in such as uninspiring case. For the shallow among us, it will not make friends and family coo like they did when they first saw the iPhone 4 - it feels like a plasticky, fragile and lightweight toy saved by the front screen real estate.
Google's app and music stores still remains weak compared to Apple's offerings, and the 4S is still a superior piece of physical design. Whether the S3's spec sheet and fantastic UI is strong enough to carry its momentum past the iPhone 5 later in the year is another matter, but this is the first time we seen a genuine A-level iPhone contender. For the first time in the last 2-3 years, the smartphone war is neck and neck at the high end.
SPECS (see full spec sheet here)
PROCESSOR: 1.4GHz Quad Core Samsung Exynos 4212 with 1GB of RAM
SCREEN: 4.8" HD Super AMOLED, 720 x 1280, with 306 pixels per inch.
STORAGE: 16/32/64GB, Micro-SD expandable to 64GB
CAMERA: 8MP, 2MP front.
DIMENSIONS: 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm
OS: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, with Samsung TouchWiz
CONNECTIVITY: NFC, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
*Correction: This article originally stated that the UK S3 had 2GB of RAM, it has 1GB of RAM.