Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini review: Best entry-level Android $1 can buy

Night shots are a different story when you're in automatic mode. Native low light is abysmal, with nearly pitch-black rendering. The strong flash rescues the scene, but with artificial pep that makes night look like day.

Another complaint: the capture process is slow, due mostly to the modest processor. You'll need patience while the camera loads, captures the image, and readies itself for another. You may miss photos, like I did, and subjects will have to hold their poses a little longer. See the performance section below for more metrics.

Back to the good news, the Mini's 720p HD video is equally consistent with photo quality. Videos taken in ample light looks best, and the phone is capable of capturing pretty smooth video that adjusts as you pan. Audio pickup was fair, but, predictably, works best when the subject is closest and isn't competing with ambient raucous.

Front-facing photos and video chats are passable on the VGA front-facing camera, but quality is basic. The better the lighting conditions, the self portrait. I wouldn't advise using it for VoIP calls if you have other options; your caller will just get a blurry, grainy picture of you.

See the results for yourself in these test shots, which were all taken on automatic mode for the sake of -- there's that word again -- consistency.

This chicken salad looks good enough to eat. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
My first attempt to take this picture turned out out of focus. This second attempt better shows the little guy on his perch. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Motorcycle row looks colorful in bright sunlight. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The camera captured a mix of artificial and natural light in this inside shot. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The S3 Mini's harsh flash nearly blinded other customers in this darkly lit bar. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Here's the same low-light shot again, this time without the flash. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Taken outside in even shadow, this grainy mess was the most flattering front-facing photo this phone could muster. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
There's quite a bit of noise in this standard studio shot, but exposure is fairly even. Click for full-resolution. Josh Miller/CNET

You can compare other studio shots taken from a range of smartphones in this gallery.

Call quality
I tested the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini in San Francisco using AT&T's GSM network (850/900/1800/1900MHz bands). Call quality hit right in the middle. While long calls weren't pleasant, shorter discussions worked just fine, and the disruptions were never bad enough to impede actual conversation. I found that I constantly fiddled with the controls in an effort to nail down a comfortable audio level.

One thing to know is that many Samsung phones embed extra software features to assist with call quality. Noise reduction is turned on by default, but you'll also find an on-screen control to boost the volume, plus a drop-down for selecting other characteristics, like soft volume or clearer sound. (Hint: Volume boost makes everything louder, not just voices; and actually can worsen problems, not solve them.)

Leaving on-screen settings in their default configuration, I found that I needed the volume setting at a notch or two below the maximum. Voices attained a slightly raspy quality and didn't sound as round or natural as they should. I didn't hear any background crackle or hiss, but there were a few weird interruptions from time to time, like whoops and echoes.

On his side of the line, my chief testing partner said I sounded fine from his land line, but a little muffled. The call was loud enough, and quiet, but a little unnatural, and not very resonant or warm. I was clear, he said, but not necessarily pleasant.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone was pretty loud when I held the phone at hip level. Noise cancellation turns itself off at this setting, and once again I needed to hitch volume up to the three-quarter mark. My test caller's voice sounded a little thin and reedy, and I'd need his voice louder if the room were noisier. The more I increased the volume, though, the buzzier the phone became in my hand. Audio also picked up a lot of artifacts. On his end, my main partner noted that this phone seemed to amplify speakerphone's natural echo, and that my voice quality otherwise sounded unchanged.

Performance: LTE speeds, processor, battery life
Performance hits expectations for this entry-level device, delivering highs and lows across the board. Navigation was swift enough when swiping through the S3 Mini, but it did take apps longer to load, and the camera app was especially pokey from shot to shot.

Internal and data speed results using diagnostic testing apps. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Mini's 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8930 processor could handle casual games no problem, but expect broken pixels for resource- and graphics-heavy games, like our common testing title Riptide GP2.

AT&T's typically blazing LTE speeds experienced peaks and valleys here. One test using the diagnostic Speedtest.net app spiked to 30mbps down, but mostly results straddled the low singles (3, 5, and 6) and teens (14, 18). Likewise, upload speeds ran the gamut from low (under 1Mbps up) to high (14Mbps up).

Battery life is always a tricky subject, because your actual drain depends on how you use the phone. AT&T's Mini got a bump in battery capacity from the global version's 1,500mAh juice box up to 2,000mAh, a nod to the phone's LTE-driven consumption. This gives it a rated talk time of up to 11 hours and up to 15.4 days standby time. During our battery drain test for video playback, the device lasted 14.1 hours.

A few final specs to through your way: the S3 Mini has 8GB total internal storage, and can support an up-to-64GB microSD sidekick. It has 1GB RAM. FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 0.71 watt per kilogram.

Who should buy it?
Price is typically the most compelling feature in a budget device, making potential customers more willing to accept mediocrity for the sake of the bottom line. Not so with the S3 Mini. Though it was never high-end, even in its prime (and was never meant to be), it still packages together enough hardware and software features to provide an all-around complete software experience for first-time smartphone owners. I'm thinking especially of teenagers getting a first taste of responsibility and freedom, or really, anyone transitioning from a simple phone to a smartphone.

The 99-cent on-contract price does pump up the Mini's value, and its modern Android version gives it an edge over AT&T's other dollar bargains, like the (also good) HTC One VX and last September's Pantech Flex . AT&T is also selling the stylish HTC Windows Phone 8X for the same price, with similar features. These would all be acceptable choices for the price range, though I'd lean toward the HTC and Samsung phones, and this Mini in particular if you're all about software extras.

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Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

Part Number: 6880772 Released: Sep. 27, 2013
MSRP: $248.99 Low Price: $0.00 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Sep. 27, 2013
  • Service Provider AT&T
  • Weight 3.93 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4 in
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