[Device Review] T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S III
The Not So Good
With the introduction of the Galaxy S line in 2010, Samsung sought to create the perfect Android phone. Over the past two years they have refined their vision, and now we have the Galaxy S III.Samsung’s third revision of the Galaxy S line brings with it a bigger screen, thinner profile, NFC, gestures, voice commands [...]
With the introduction of the Galaxy S line in 2010, Samsung sought to create the perfect Android phone. Over the past two years they have refined their vision, and now we have the Galaxy S III.Samsung’s third revision of the Galaxy S line brings with it a bigger screen, thinner profile, NFC, gestures, voice commands and a whole slew of other features that make this quite possibly the most feature-packed device on the market. The perfection of the 720p 4.8” Super AMOLED screen shines in any light, and the power behind the Snapdragon S4 makes it feel snappy in any situation. Samsung did change out the chipset in the US version for a weaker one, but they tried to offset that by adding an extra gig of RAM, making this the first phone to ship with a whopping 2GB of RAM. While this doesn’t necessarily fix reloading issues when multi-tasking, it allowed Samsung to enable one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen on a phone; pop-up video (or picture-in-picture if you prefer). Overall the phone is a beast, and even with the annoyances that Touchwiz brings, this is among the best Android phones out there (unless you’re on Verizon, then you’re stuck with a locked bootloader).
Samsung’s designs have become increasingly “organic” over the years, and the Galaxy S III is no exception. The device is incredibly sleek; the design has no hard edges and no straight lines, unless you count the screen of course. The whole body feels like one piece, even with a removable battery cover. While the whole unit is plastic and doesn’t feel quite up to the build quality of the One S, it is extremely light and feels incredibly comfortable in the hand. The contours of the device make it feel natural in the hand, almost like picking up a smooth stone that’s been whittled down by lapping waves. Before we get too far, let’s cover the specs of the Galaxy S III:
- 4.8” Super AMOLED screen at 720p HD resolution (1280×720 pixels)
- Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core processor at 1.5GHz (MSM8260A)
- 2GB RAM
- 16gb or 32gb internal storage (up to 32gb removable SD support)
- 8.6mm thick, 70.6mm wide, 136.6mm tall
- 8mp rear camera with LED flash
- 1080p HD video recording
- Wi-Fi calling capability
- Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with Touchwiz Nature UX
Samsung has done something interesting with the Galaxy S III that they haven’t done in the past; the international version is the same body as all the US variants. In the past, US carriers have preferred only capacitive buttons on the face of the phone (read: touch sensitive lights essentially); in the international versions of almost every Galaxy phone in the last 3 years, Samsung has featured a large “Home” button on the front much like an iPhone. Regardless of the reasons this decision was made, I hate the home button. It works much like an iPhone in that pressing it once takes you home, long pressing gives you the multi-tasking screen, and double-tapping it gives you S-Voice, which is Samsung’s take on Siri. Having a physical button between two capacitive buttons is incredibly confusing, and there were many times where I found myself mashing the capacitive buttons because obviously having a physical button requires some force to press, and vice versa with not pressing the home button hard enough. There’s also the fact that Samsung went right in the face of Google and kept the menu key, which is something Google got rid of with Ice Cream Sandwich.
At this point in phone technology, a 720p Super AMOLED screen has become fairly synonymous with top-of-the-line Android phones, and the Samsung Galaxy S III doesn’t stray from the path. In fact the only difference you’ll find here between practically every other 720p Super AMOLED screen on the market is the size; apart from the Galaxy Note’s 5.3” screen, this has the largest screen on the market at 4.8”. As usual with Super AMOLED technology the black levels are fantastic, and even though this is yet again another Pentile screen, the pixels per inch help hide the flaws brought about by that pixel layout. What I was most impressed with about the screen is the complete lack of battery drain; something Super AMOLED screens have not been able to accomplish in the past.
Call and Sound Quality
Call quality was excellent, with the earpiece speaker being nice and loud, as well as the loudspeaker reaffirming its name with its function. Handoff between 2G and 3/4G towers was excellent, and I noticed that even in spots where I typically drop calls with other phones the Galaxy S III stayed true to the signal and seemed to generally have better reception than I’ve ever seen on a phone from T-Mobile. One of the things about having a relatively high frequency signal like T-Mobile has is that building penetration doesn’t always reach those super-insulated spots like elevators and central offices. However I found that even in the middle of my office building where most phones would drop to EDGE (2G) data, the Galaxy S III kept at least 1 bar of 3/4G HSPA data and had respectable transfer rates in the process.
Much like the HTC One S that we’ve reviewed from T-Mobile recently, the Galaxy S III has excellent speaker quality. Both the handset microphone and the loudspeaker performed well, and I never felt like I had to turn them up louder than the max volume in order to hear the person on the other end. Unfortunately my bluetooth headset died during testing, so I wasn’t able to test bluetooth call quality, but hooking it up to the speaker system in my car resulted in a perfectly clear conversation on both ends of the phone.
With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google introduced a new, more natural way of moving through data in an application by swiping left and right to move between “pages”. Unfortunately Samsung doesn’t appear to agree with this design philosophy, and has left it out of their custom apps. When in phone for instance, you can’t swipe to move between the dialer, contacts, favorites, etc., rather you have to click the individual buttons on top. This is a breach of modern Android design, and it makes the phone feel old. Even stranger, Samsung separates “contacts” from “phone” apps on the phone. When you click the contacts pane, it opens another app entirely to display your contacts, and vice-versa with the phone app. This sort of puzzling design is found throughout the phone. Again it’s not a deal breaker, but it’s definitely annoying and takes away from the overall experience.
Although the dialer still feels like a Gingerbread dialer, it at least comes with T9 dialing support, which means that you can start typing in a name or number and it will attempt to auto-fill the dialer with someone on your contacts list. Samsung has also added a dialog box after you hang up that includes functions to create or update the contact you called, call again or send a message. It’s a nice feature but I found myself getting frustrated with it when I had to hang up and do something right afterward, because the screen stays there for a few seconds and I couldn’t navigate away from it quickly.
Battery Life and Network Performance
When I received the phone, one of the first things I did was pop the battery out and take a look at the size. Would you believe that Samsung managed to pack a 2100mAh battery into this slim and light package, and they even made it removable at the same time? While it’s not quite as slim as the HTC One S, it was within a nearly unnoticeable millimeter difference and only weighs .4 ounces heavier too. Because of the size of the battery, battery life is fantastic with the Galaxy S III. I never once had to charge the phone in the middle of the day, even with heavy streaming and call usage to stress the phone. I was most impressed with the long screen-on time that this phone was able to deliver. After 10 hours and 20 minutes on battery, with a whopping 2 hours and 52 minutes of screen-on time, I still had 8% battery left. I think this is the first Android phone I’ve used that I can get more than an hour and a half of screen-on time without the battery being dead, much less almost double that time. Super AMOLED has come a long way, and now it seems to be able to easily compete with other screen technologies with regard to energy usage.
Network speeds were mostly fantastic and equally as good as the HTC One S also found on T-Mobile. I also noticed that the Galaxy S III had better signal strength than other T-Mobile phones I’ve used by a long shot, including the One S. I think I only saw the phone drop to EDGE (2G) data one time outside of the usual 2G-only areas I drive through, and that’s something to say with T-Mobile’s sometimes poor building penetration rates. I’m still waiting for that magical 42mbps+ rate that T-Mobile often totes in its 4G commercials to be turned on in the greater Orlando area, but when it happens this phone is rated to pull those speeds.
Not to take a backseat to rival HTC, Samsung has also implemented some really nifty features to its Ice Cream Sandwich camera. It sports the same take-pictures-while-taking-video functionality as the One S, and I felt like it definitely challenged the One S in terms of overall picture quality. I think overall the One S has the better camera, as I noticed better contrast, less noise and an overall clearer picture from the One S (especially night-time or dark shots).
Night and Daytime shots
However this doesn’t mean the camera on the Galaxy S III is garbage; far from it. Much like the One S though, the camera protrudes a little bit from the back of the body, and as such it makes me nervous that the lense will become easily scratched when being placed on anything but a soft surface.
Close and nearly-macro shots
One thing you’ll never think while using this phone is that it’s slow. The Galaxy S III shares internals with the One series, so you’ll notice that it feels just as smooth as those phones. The one glaring difference between the two chipsets is that Samsung has included a whopping 2GB of RAM in the Galaxy S III. Samsung claimed that this was in order to future-proof the phone so that it could receive a speedy Jelly Bean upgrade, but that then leads one to wonder why the international version didn’t feature the same amount which has 1GB. Even with this much RAM there is still some sort of weird issue with multi-tasking. I noticed many times where applications would have to reload after switching between a few. The web browser was unable to hold web pages in the cache, and things just didn’t feel like this phone was packing at least twice the amount of RAM as any other phone on the market. Oddly enough, even during times when applications would have to reload or the web browser would reload web pages, there was still in upwards of 900MB free according to the built-in task manager. This leads me to believe that Samsung has not yet changed just how its own applications manage themselves within memory, but still act as if there was less than 512MB in the phone.
General performance of the device is pretty incredible. Playing high-end games with rigorous physics engines like Sprinkle never dropped below 60FPS. I ran both Quadrant and GLBench and the scores are right up with the One X and One S, which makes sense given that these phones all share the same chipset.
Sprinkle on the left, GTA 3 on the right
Software and Wrap Up
Samsung has sought out to define itself with features that no one else has. They had started this with the introduction of TouchWiz, their own skin of Android some years ago, and they have only been building it up since then. My biggest problem with TouchWiz is that it just doesn’t seem to evolve with the design changes that have been made since Ice Cream Sandwich. There is no sign of the Holo theme present on this phone at all, and honestly it just looks like a Gingerbread device with a little more swagger. I can appreciate many aspects of Samsung’s user interface design, especially little things like toggles in the pull-down notification bar to turn on and off GPS, rotation, bluetooth, Wi-Fi and more, but many aspects still feel dated. The battery icons and font don’t exhibit that ICS charm, and even the redesigned settings menu from ICS has been mostly removed in favor of a multi-colored cotton candy-like experience. All this is supposed to feel “natural” according to Samsung’s definition of “Nature UX” in this new version of Touchwiz, but I have to say it feels anything but natural. The keyboard, for instance, looks initially like a modified ICS keyboard but behaves nothing like it. It’s got prediction, which I know some people love, but even with it turned off I made a lot more mistakes than I would with just the stock ICS or Jelly Bean keyboards. A lot of the UI feels like this too; it’s nice, but I would just rather have the stock experience with a few of these features added.
One of the biggest defining set of features of the Galaxy S III are the gestures. No other phone on the market has this kind of gesture support, and I found myself using them right away and loving them. Pan to move is something Samsung has done for a while on their phones, and it’s still annoying. Outside of that gestures are awesome. “Direct Call” is a gesture that lets you call the contact on screen by just holding the phone up to your head. This can be done while looking through contacts, or while texting someone. It worked flawlessly every time I tried it, and it really felt like a great time saver. Taking screenshots is easier than ever with the palm swipe gesture, as all you have to do is swipe the side of your palm across the screen at any time and a screenshot is saved. This is obviously much easier than trying to press the home and power buttons at the same time, and won’t interfere with any inputs on the given open app. Some of the others were difficult to use like “tap to top”, and some gestures just didn’t work at all, such as “Smart alert”. Then there’s also the “smart screen stay” that Samsung toted as keeping the screen on while looking at it. I don’t know if my eyes just don’t exist or this feature doesn’t work right, but I had the screen shut off on me multiple times even with this feature enabled, and I rarely saw the little eye icon in the notification bar stating that this feature was in use. It’s a great idea that I think could use a little work, because it really would help to ease the frustration of having to constantly touch the screen when trying to read something so that it doesn’t shut off.
One feature that was awesome but felt a bit superfluous was the pop-up video feature. It’s one of the more awesome features I’ve ever seen on a smartphone, and it lets you keep a little “picture-in-picture” video on the screen while you do something else. Maybe I just don’t watch enough videos for this to be a viable feature, but if you pull up a video with the built-in video player, there’s a little icon on the top right that will let you put it in a pop-up window that will always stay on top, no matter what you’re doing. I tried taking a 2-minute long video just to test this with various features, and it works mostly flawlessly. I could definitely tell the phone was bogged down trying to render the 1080p video I took with the phone while I was texting and browsing the web, but it wasn’t enough to hinder the experience of using the phone. I wouldn’t use this feature, but there might be some that will, and it’s amazing to see in action.
S-Voice almost doesn’t even deserve a mention honestly, but since it’s a big feature here I’ll go ahead and talk about it. Samsung’s answer to Siri was basically to copy it to the best of their ability, including using the same database, Wolfram Alpha, to get logical answers out of regular queries. While using it in the car I found that it worked really well for simple things like calling, playing music and doing regular searches, but it refused to recognize my wife’s voice at all, and even when it recognized mine for regular searches, it regularly pulled up the wrong words. Siri is definitely more intuitive, and I personally would just prefer Google Now integration with the phone, but this isn’t Jelly Bean. (Maybe we’ll see it added with Jelly Bean sometime in August with the rumored update!)
Overall this is a fantastic phone, and easily one of the best Android devices on the market. It’s powerful, sleek, has great battery life, a great big amazing screen, and just feels great in the hand. There are quite a few software annoyances that would just be remedied if Samsung didn’t feel the need to alter the stock Ice Cream Sandwich interface so much, but for now there’s really nothing you can do about these manufacturers and their skins. If you want stock Android, there’s a flourishing ROM community for this phone already. In fact Jelly Bean can already be found on the phone in the form of CyanogenMod 10. Most of my complaints can be fixed in software, albeit the bizarre Home button, and because of that I will give this phone a nearly perfect score.
Latest posts by Nick Sutrich (see all)
- Google’s best strategy yet: making Android more modular than it already is – Saturday, May 18, 2013
- Sonic the Hedgehog appears in Android, now with more Knuckles and Tails – Friday, May 17, 2013
- Galaxy S4 poised to sell 10 million units by next week says Samsung co-CEO – Friday, May 17, 2013
- NVIDIA Shield pre-order one for $349, launch by end of June – Friday, May 17, 2013