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Editors' note: This review of AT&T's Samsung Galaxy S III varies from my review of the T-Mobile model in the areas of apps, call quality, and data performance.
With the Samsung Galaxy S III (S3), Samsung has done it again. For the third consecutive year, its flagship Galaxy phone is a tidy package of top-flight specs, approachable design, steady performance, and compelling pricing. Starting its U.S. sales debut with five carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular -- makes the Samsung Galaxy S3 nearly ubiquitous. Samsung's aggressive distribution strategy gives it a leg up against its chief Android rival, the HTC One X, but it fails to sweep HTC's finest, and Apple fans will scoff at Samsung's imitation Siri, S Voice.
That isn't to say that the Galaxy S III (henceforth called here the S3) does not impress. From the outside in, it has a large, vibrant HD display; Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich; a sharp 8-megapixel camera; 4G LTE support; a zippy dual-core processor; and tons of internal memory and 2GB RAM. The $199.99 price tag for the 16GB version is highly competitive, and that, along with its carrier spread, makes the S3 priced to sell.
Some have slammed Samsung for formulaic specs and design, and to some extent, the critics are correct. Samsung isn't setting hardware standards with new creations, and the S3's software additions, while interesting and useful, mostly build off existing Android capabilities. Regardless, Samsung has continued to produce stronger subsequent models than its first Galaxy S home run. There's a reason why the Galaxy S II sold over 50 million units worldwide, and why the S3's preorder sales smashed U.K. records. Samsung clearly has its formula worked out for making higher-end features familiar, expected, and easily within reach -- and in the all-around excellent Galaxy S III, it shows.
Pricing and availability
I don't usually start a review with pricing information, but in this case, it's worth the bird's-eye view of which carrier offers which capacity of each color when, and for how much.
This is a review of the 16GB version of AT&T's S3 in pebble blue.
It won't wow you with neon colors or evocative industrial design; it doesn't have the sharpest screen on the market; and its body isn't fashioned from ceramic, glass, or micro-arc oxidized aluminum. That said, the Galaxy S III is about the nicest plastic phone I've ever seen. Likely tired of hearing complaints about how cheap-feeling Samsung phones can be, the company decided to focus instead on making the contours more premium -- without giving up its light, inexpensive, and shatterproof material of choice.
Peer closely at the phone (it comes in ceramic white, pebble blue, and later, a red shade exclusive to AT&T) and you'll see that Samsung has rounded the edges and corners to attain smooth spines and trim pieces all around. The phone designers also intentionally arranged the backing to give the phone more of a unibody feel.
Samsung doesn't shy away from high gloss and sheen in either white or blue model and somehow, it all works. The pebble blue variety has lighter blue spines than its steel gray-blue backing, and I like the brushed-metal grain to its uncompromisingly plastic finish. In addition, the phone has felt good in my hand every time I've picked it up since CTIA. It's slick and touchable, and seems to warm to the touch, which gives it the sense that it's conforming to your grip. Though smooth, the S3 isn't slippery, and although fairly light (at 4.7 ounces, just a tad heavier than the One X), it doesn't feel like it's missing a battery or other essential components. The handset's highly reflective surfaces are its most major design flaw.
When it comes to size, the S3 is a big device. At 5.4 inches tall and 2.8 inches wide, it's slightly larger and thicker than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Samsung seems to enjoy pushing the envelope when it comes to creating smartphone displays that border on minitablet territory (the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note even became a cult hit, with about 7 million global sales.) Yet, the handset's slim 0.34-inch width, contoured sides, and glossy coating add up to that comfortable handhold.
My hands are fairly small, so I passed the phone around to see what others thought, regardless of their personal phone choice. Most initially found the S3 large, but warmed up to it as they played around. Those with smaller hands than mine generally thought it too big. Almost all of them commented on the light weight. My colleagues also stuck the S3 in front, back, shirt, and jacket pockets; everyone found a way they said they'd carry it (which really only proves that CNET editors are a resourceful bunch.)
Above the screen are the proximity and ambient light sensors, the indicator LED, and a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera. Below it is a physical home button, which Samsung managed to keep in this handset, as opposed to the typical soft-touch navigation buttons we often see in Android phones. In general, I can get behind this kind of button, but the S3's is slightly less comfy in its squashed and narrow form than if it were a larger rectangle or a square. Flanking this button are the back key and the menu key, which fade after a few seconds of use. It's interesting that Samsung kept its menu button rather than the default recent tab in Ice Cream Sandwich. You can still view recent applications by holding down the Home button.
On the right spine is the power button, and on the left you'll find the volume rocker. You'll charge through a Micro-USB power button on the bottom, and listen to audio through the 3.5mm headset jack up top. The 8-megapixel camera lens and flash are on the rear, with the microSD card slot and NFC (Near-Field Communication)-capable battery behind the back cover. The Galaxy S3 takes a Micro-SIM card.
All about the screen: In terms of screen size, the Galaxy S3's 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED display (with a 1,280x720-pixel resolution) fits right between the Galaxy Nexus (4.65) and the Galaxy Note (5.3), both of them honkers on their own. It's almost identical to the HTC One X (4.7.) How much you like the size depends on your preference for large-screen phones. If you like 'em on the smaller side, you'll find this excessive. If you enjoy the screen real estate for reading and watching videos, you'll likely approve.
Samsung's new flagship phone is one of the first handsets to use Corning's Gorilla Glass 2, a thinner, lighter, more responsive cover glass material that the two companies also say lets colors shine brighter. I definitely noticed the screen's sensitivity; at times I barely had to brush the display for a response. Colors looked bright and vibrant with the phone in a dark setting, but slide to full brightness and the screen sometimes seemed dark, especially when compared with other phones at full throttle.
Like typical AMOLED displays, the S3's overdoes it on the greens, which stand out more compared with phones with LCD screens, or when you view photos you took yourself. I downloaded a high-res image with varying contrasts and colors on five phones, also at peak brightness -- the S3, Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Note, iPhone 4S, and HTC One X. The Galaxy Note's resolution was a little loose than the other four because of its lower pixel density. The S3 showed a much dimmer picture than the Galaxy Nexus's picture. Colors on the HTC One X and iPhone 4S were bright and looked truer to life. Blacks looked blacker on the Nexus' AMOLED screen, but there was far more detail throughout the images on the One X and iPhone 4S, which both use LCD screens with in-plane switching (IPS.) From there, quality was a toss-up, with some features of the image looking better on the iPhone, and some looking better on the One X.
Don't get me wrong -- the S3's screen is still lovely when you aren't peering at it side by side with another screen, but the comparative image darkness is a little disappointing, and was especially noticeable in my sunny-day photo and video shoots. Part of the screen dimness problem is that some apps, like the browser, were actually less bright by default. Even when I changed system settings to full blast, the browser remained dimmer until I changed its individual brightness setting. In general, I appreciate Samsung's power-saving checks and balances, but checking settings throughout the phone was confusing.
Interface and OS
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich looks great on the S3, especially because Samsung used a lighter hand with its TouchWiz interface than on previous versions. That said, Samsung hasn't fully adopted all of Google's visual cues, like the ICS menu (I personally miss this aspect of the interface). With TouchWiz, Samsung is able to add things like gestures and systems control access in the notifications pull-down. There are also the unique additions that Samsung tacked on to Android Beam.
Not every one of the S3's special additions is essential, and some, like sharing content through AllShare Play and GroupCast, are unnecessarily complicated to set up and use. While Samsung deserves kudos for brainstorming and implementing these features, customers will care more about overall camera performance than the capability to tag friends' faces in photos.
S Beam: Built on top of Android Beam for Ice Cream Sandwich, the Samsung-only S Beam wields NFC and Wi-Fi Direct to "beam" larger-file photos, videos, and documents -- that's in addition to Android Beam's capability to share URLs, maps, and contact information. Behind the scenes, NFC initiates the handshake, and the Wi-Fi Direct protocol takes over for larger files. The combination isn't groundbreaking, perhaps, but Samsung deserves credit for packing it up in one seamless action. As with Beam, you won't have to do more than press the back of both phones together, confirm the beam, and pull the phones apart. The larger the file, the longer it usually takes for the transfer magic to happen.
S Beam worked flawlessly every time I tried it. Samsung really does get a high-five for this addition, which goes beyond simple cleverness to actual usefulness.
S Voice: And then there's S Voice. Samsung's answer to Apple's Siri, S Voice is a personal assistant that plumps up Android's built-in Voice Actions into the more personal format that Apple popularized with Siri. Vlingo powers S Voice on the listening and interpretation front (Siri uses Nuance), and sources answer from databases like Wolfram Alpha. You launch S Voice by double-pressing the home button, and can wake up S Voice in between commands by saying, "Hello, Galaxy" (this is optional and drains the battery faster.)
S Voice can launch apps and turn-by-turn navigation; switch into driving mode; voice dial; tweet; get the weather; compose a memo, search contacts; and schedule tasks. It can also take a photo, place and answer calls, search the Web, adjust the volume, send e-mail and texts, record voices, and launch the native music player. It also ties into Android 4.0's lock-screen security, so you can use your voice to unlock the phone. As a bonus, you can program four of your own voice commands to open the camera, record your voice, and check for missed calls and messages.
S Voice sounds great in theory, but it didn't work well. Sometimes it didn't work at all. Throughout my testing period, I used S Voice extensively, asking the phone to perform the full range of tasks. Sometimes it delivered what I wanted immediately, like driving directions or turning Wi-Fi on and off. Other times, it must have stuffed cotton in its digital ears and repeatedly garbled or blanked on what I wanted. My favorite was when it knew exactly what I said, repeated my command (you can choose voice feedback in addition to text), and then did nothing. There was also the time that S Voice stalled on deleting an alarm, then ignored my subsequent request to finish the first one.
On the whole, S Voice is more rigid than Siri about syntax and the software takes a while to process commands. Unless I'm driving or otherwise hands-free, I find it faster and less frustrating to set your own alarm, or turn on driving directions before engaging the ignition. Siri also has its share of slowness and interpretation issues, but it performed more consistently for me in my tests thus far. Stay tuned for a more detailed comparison against Siri, and in the meantime check out a CNET UK editor's test in which S Voice clearly won only one out of 15 voice test scenarios, a poor showing that makes S Voice seem more like a beta product than a Siri substitute. I'll update this review with a similar showdown.
Sharing software: Multimedia sharing is a Galaxy S3 emphasis, with four main ways to share your stuff through different means, like DLNA and Wi-Fi Direct protocols.
AllShare Play uses DLNA to share multimedia across your Samsung TVs, tablets, and phones, so you can play a video you shot on your phone on the TV, and do things like control the volume from your handset. A second, Web-storage element has you access content on your other devices by tapping into third-party client, SugarSync.
GroupCast, which you can use as a presentation service, uses AllShare Play. It takes seven steps (including a password and PIN number) to set up the share, but once you do, you can share a folder -- like slides or photos -- across all phones you've invited into the GroupCast. Any device can control the screens, and annotate with pen strokes that fade after a few seconds. Samsung should let the GroupCast leader lock it down.
Buddy Photo Share is a neat optional in-camera feature that can e-mail or text a freshly shot photo to the person you tag in it. Photos show up in a "received" folder in the recipient's gallery.
ShareShot is a camera shooting mode that uses Wi-Fi Direct in the background to automatically send photos to your friends as you shoot them, instead of e-mailing them after the fact. Multiple people can get in on the deal -- so long as they're within about 100 yards, about the length of a football field. Photos also appear in the gallery. You lose ShareShot when you switch shooting modes.
My problem with these tools is that some of them have unintuitive and disjointed user experiences. It isn't always obvious how to get to a feature, how to sign others up, and how to find your shared content afterward.
An Android Ice Cream Sandwich phone through and through, the S3 is fully loaded with all the Google goodies, and then some. There are the Google apps and services, like Gmail, Maps with turn-by-turn voice navigation, a music player, and YouTube, to name just a few. Wi-Fi, GPS, Wi-Fi Direct, and Bluetooth 4.0 are other communication features, along with NFC (which powers stuff you can do with TecTiles and Google Wallet.)
Although you get only one keyboard option -- Samsung's -- you can get Swype-like behavior with T9 Trace, which is enabled by default. It seems to have the same pros and cons, depending on your typing style. You can separately also download Swype.
Gestures have always been one way that Samsung differentiates, and for motion control lovers, the S3 has more than ever. Most are switched off by default, and if you want them, you have to hunt through various settings (most are in the Motion settings submenu). Some notables include flipping over the phone to mute a call, lifting the phone to your face while texting to initiate a call instead, and pressing the lock screen while turning the phone 90 degrees to open the camera (the latter is a nice touch, and isn't hard, but honestly, a hardware camera button just seems easier.)
Another neat Samsung setting is SmartStay, a program that periodically scans for your pupils from the front-facing camera. If it "sees" you looking, it won't dim the screen, which is helpful when you're reading, watching media, or studying a map. It works at intervals before your screen timeout kicks in. I also like the capability to customize which icons go on the S3's lock screen. You can choose among favorites like the dialer, messaging, the camera, and maps.
Apps account for a big chunk of the phone, and the AT&T variety comes with plenty. First, the Samsung apps: the aforementioned AllShare Play, Kies Air (for Wi-Fi sharing across devices,) the games, music, and media hubs, and additional Samsung apps. There's also the ChatOn chat app, S Memo, and S Suggest (an apps collection.)
AT&T-appointed apps include AT&T Navigator (a subscription service), AT&T messages, MyAT&T (a shortcut to your online account,) and Yellow Pages mobile. You'll also see Flipboard, Messenger+, and the calendar, calculator, and clock, but no Dropbox. While most carriers are extending Samsung's Dropbox offer of 50GB free online storage for two years, AT&T and Verizon apparently declined.
Camera and video: Samsung has used some excellent 8-megapixel cameras in the Samsung Galaxy S II phones, and I'm happy to report that this 8-megapixel camera lens, with backlit sensor and LED flash, is worthy of a flagship phone. The S3 has a lot of software extras, which I'll get to, but before playing around with modes and effects, I wanted to see how well the camera performed in automatic settings.
For the most part, photos largely emerged with sharp edges and plenty of color. The camera didn't get everything right -- there were some problems with white balance in indoor shots, and shadows in outdoor shots, and photos of sweeping landscapes were more out of focus than close-ups. As advertised, the S3 has virtually zero shutter lag; in fact, it also processed photos a hair faster than the One X.
I compared about 20 indoor, outdoor, day, and night shots taken with the S3, the One X, and the iPhone 4S, which CNET has lauded for their excellent smartphone cameras (you'll find 10 images from each in this camera shoot-out.) I took the same shots from the same positions, focused on the same areas, and resized and cropped photos the same way. The results were a toss-up; no one phone camera routinely outperformed the others on close-ups, fully blown-up images, color temperature, and focus, and I was able to take excellent shots with all three. In some photos, the S3's colors were brighter, more defined, and more balanced. In other photos, the One X captured shadows, color, and definition; and in others still, the iPhone 4S bested the other two.(You can compare standard studio shots in this smartphone photo gallery.)
Samsung's extra software features are also helpful and easy to use. There's face-tagging when the software recognizes faces, and HDR (which is already in the iPhone 4S and the One X) makes an appearance. Burst mode is also new to the S3. You can either take 20 frames in quick succession, or turn on Best Shot, which lets you choose your favorites of eight burst shots. The software looks for logic like open eyes and crescent smiles when suggesting its favorite. There's also a new cartoon mode, and the aforementioned ShareShot and Buddy photo share modes. I do really like Samsung's effort to deeply integrate the camera with the address book in an effort to make sharing photos even easier.
Tagging and sharing aside (which I think are cool and fairly useful), I have to give the One X the nod for the smoother camera experience overall. The editing tools and toggling between the gallery and camera were both more obvious on the One X.
The front-facing camera was also pretty good in terms of photo quality for the purposes of video chats and vanity shots, though of course it didn't compare to the rear-facing camera.
As a reminder, the AT&T version of the Galaxy S3 comes in a 16GB model, and can take up to 64GB in external storage.
Video: Video quality was very strong. Audio came through loudly and clearly, colors were crisp, and streamed and self-shot videos played back smoothly, without any jerking. The same goes for downloaded videos, though a more brightly lit screen would have been useful at times, especially when playing darker films like "Sherlock Holmes."
There's a small feature related to video that's pretty impressive nonetheless. When you launch a video from the gallery you can pop it out to a floating thumbnail. You can then drag that thumbnail around the screen while you do other things like responding to a text message. The video quality is good (720p, in fact), and the videos pick up where they left off. I'm still waiting to find a natural impetus to use it, though.
Did you know that you can capture video with the 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera, and it plays back in 720p HD quality? The video quality was better than expected, but perhaps a bit too close for comfort. Shooting this way would easily let solo videographers set and check the scene while they shoot.
Call quality: I tested the Samsung Galaxy S3 on T-Mobile's network in San Francisco and in other Bay Area spots. A quad-band GSM phone (850/900/1,800/1,900MHz), the S3 also supports HSPA+ 42, T-Mobile's fastest-available network, which can theoretically reach download speeds of 42Mbps. Calls sounded pretty good on the phone. The background was completely clear, but voices on the other end of the line sounded slightly lispy and the volume, while perfect at maximum volume or just under in mostly quiet office locations, was too soft in louder outdoor environments, like windy San Francisco streets.
Luckily, the phone comes with a ton of listening settings, like an in-call equalizer and an onscreen volume boost button, which you can press to dramatically increase your in-ear volume. That button erased my volume complaints. I also noticed that while voices sounded mostly natural, when I listened hard, it was as if my caller had a digital backbone.
My chief test-calling companion, who was listening from a landline during multiple test calls several days apart, said I sounded hollow and rough, also echoey. On the bright side, I was reportedly pleasantly loud, and otherwise sounded fairly natural and even, whether I whispered or shouted. Call clarity was another high point.
Samsung Galaxy S3 (AT&T) call quality sample Listen now:
The ever-problematic speakerphone feature was a winner on the S3, as far as these things go. On my end, voices sounded a little thicker, but still nice and clear. Volume was strong, so I dialed it down from maximum. The worst trait was the buzzing I felt in my hand every time my testing partner spoke, even with the phone volume turned to low. On the other end of the line, my testing partner noted normal levels of echo from the surrounding room. He said I sounded almost the same as I did over the standard mode, but perhaps a little louder.
Data speeds: AT&T's 4G LTE network blazed and fizzled out by turns here in notoriously finicky San Francisco. I used the Speedtest.net diagnostic app to measure speeds in the city's bustling downtown area, both indoors and outside. Most of the time, I was able to get consistently rapid speeds ranging from 15 to 37Mbps down and from 7 to 13Mbps uplink. However, the rest of the time, the app recorded speeds in the 1-4Mbps download range, and I even tripped into a few dead zones on the same block as 30-something downlink speeds. In real life, I was able to quickly download and stream videos, and load graphically heavy Web pages like CNET's desktop site in just seconds. I downloaded the 41.47MB game Riptide GP over HSPA+ data in 1 minute, 44 seconds.
Data performance on the S3 will vary by carrier. AT&T and Verizon both have 4G LTE, T-Mobile has its HSPA+, Sprint's version will ride 3G, and U.S. Cellular has a nascent, limited LTE network. On average, AT&T's network speed surpasses T-Mobile's highest speeds, which were still swift.
Internal performance and battery: Like the HTC One X, the Galaxy S3 has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, which Qualcomm boasts as its fastest yet. For the most part, I had few complaints about the S3's internal performance. I did, however notice that the phone took a little longer to switch tasks and open apps than I thought it should. Sure enough, when I held the phone phones side by side, the HTC One X routinely opened and closed apps faster: the camera, Gmail, settings, maps, the gallery, and so on. The phones unlocked at about the same rate.
The S3 has a 2,100mAh battery, which is large, but not atypical for such a big phone (the Note's, for instance, is 2,500mAh.) I've been testing the S3 mercilessly, with the screen on full brightness for extended periods of time, with frequent downloads and streams, and plenty of S Voice activity. So while I'll need to continue testing the battery performance during more "normal" circumstances, I get the sense that the battery life can hold up to heavy use. However, you should expect to recharge your phone daily, as you would with most other smartphones.
For all its battery-consuming features, the S3 also contains power-saving options in various settings throughout the phone -- check the main settings menu and submenus, and also settings menus by app for ways to cut back.
With its combination of form and function, the Samsung Galaxy S3 excels where it counts, and at a price that matches the features. However, by many measures, the Galaxy S3 isn't the top Android phone on the market. HTC's One X has the brighter, more detailed screen, the sturdier build quality, and the extras, like Beats Audio, which consistently work. In addition, S Voice repeatedly blunders in understanding and executing on tasks, both here in the U.S. and in the U.K. On the other hand, the S3 has an excellent camera, expandable memory (the One X has none), and double the RAM. S Beam sharing over WiFi Direct is a smash hit, and Samsung has beefed up its camera software. With no One X in the picture, the S3 would be the unquestionable Android king.
And then there's the looming spectre of the iPhone 5, which is expected to land in fall with 4G LTE support, a 4-inch Retina Display, a faster processor, and a more evolved camera. Hype alone will make some hold off on buying the S3.
Samsung's effort here is clear; the company is trying hard and taking risks. Evolving Voice Actions to S Voice was no mean feat, and I hope the programmers will work out the kinks in the next update. I also hope that Samsung will offer a more satisfying screen that stands up to the competition. Would I recommend buying the Samsung Galaxy S3? Absolutely, and it is without a doubt my favorite Samsung phone available today. Yet I slightly prefer the One X for AT&T subscribers, and I wouldn't recommend the S3 to iPhone fans who prize the crystal-clear Retina Display and Siri.