Samsung Galaxy S III T-Mobile review: Samsung Galaxy S III T-Mobile

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.

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An Android Ice Cream Sandwich phone through and through, the GS3 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 contain the same highs and lows, 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 GS3 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 (that last 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 GS3's lock screen. You can choose among such favorites as the dialer, messaging, the camera, and maps.

Samsung Galaxy S3
Samsung lets you perform a pile of functions with various gestures. It takes a little time to learn, but you'll find some you latch onto. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The T-Mobile GS3 comes with plenty of preloaded apps. First, the Samsung apps. It comes with 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).

T-Mobile-appointed apps include Access T-Mobile (a shortcut to your online account), T-Mobile Name ID, T-MobileTV, T-Mobile hot spot, and the visual voice mail service. You'll also see Flipboard, Messenger+, and the calendar, calculator, and clock, in addition to Dropbox. T-Mobile's GS3 extends Samsung's Dropbox offer, which extends 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 GS3 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 GS3 has virtually zero shutter lag; in fact, it processed photos a hair faster than the One X.

Samsung Galaxy S3
Samsung continues its camera home run with the Galaxy S III's 8-megapixel shooter. Josh Miller/CNET

I compared about 20 indoor, outdoor, day and night shots taken with the GS3, the One X, and the iPhone 4S, phones that CNET has lauded for their excellent smartphone cameras (you'll find 10 images 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, but I was able to take excellent shots with all three. In some photos, the GS3's colors were brighter, more defined, and more balanced. In other photos, the One X best captured shadows, color, and definition; and in others still, the iPhone 4S bested the other two.

Galaxy S3
The Galaxy S3 did a bang-up job of capturing these flowers in the full morning summer sun. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

(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 GS3. 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 more seamless.

Galaxy S III
What happened here, Galaxy S3? It looks like the white paper threw off the white balance. This was the best of three successive shots. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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.

Samsung Galaxy S3
The Samsung Galaxy S3 oversaturates the green grass and yellow tree moss. Josh Long/CNET

Photo quality from the front-facing camera was also pretty good 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 U.S. Galaxy S3 comes in 16GB and 32GB versions, and can take up to 64GB in external storage.

Galaxy S3
Free ice cream treats is a moment worth capturing. Notice that the words on the truck are in focus, but the girl's arm is not. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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."

Samsung Galaxy S3
Pop Up Player is a new feature that floats a thumbnail video in 720p over any screen. Now, that's what I call multitasking. Josh Miller/CNET

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. 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.

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Did you know that you can capture video on 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 (850/900/1800/1900MHz), the GS3 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 location, 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 pleasantly loud, and otherwise sounded pretty natural and even, whether I whispered or shouted. Call clarity was another high point.

Samsung Galaxy S3 call quality sample Listen now:

The ever-problematic speakerphone feature was a winner on the GS3, 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 bit more garbled.

Data speeds: T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 4G network did well by the GS3 here in notoriously finicky San Francisco. I used the diagnostic app in various Bay Area cities over the course of several days. Most of the time, I was able to get pretty consistent speeds ranging from 8.5Mbps down to a peak of 16.58Mbps. There were some troughs as well; the worst was just 0.84Mbps down, but for the most part, I got in the 9Mbps-to-13Mbps range. Upload speeds never climbed above 1.54Mbps. In real life, I was able to quickly download and stream videos, load Web pages, and so on. For one example, I downloaded "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" over T-Mobile's 4G network. It took 6 minutes and 11 seconds to download the film, which runs 147 minutes. diagnostic app
This diagnostics app consistently recorded between 8Mbps and 11Mbps down on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, and often faster. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Data performance on the GS3 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. I'd expect Verizon and AT&T's network speed to surpass T-Mobile's, which was still swift. One thing I should point out is that Qualcomm uses a slight variation of its processor in T-Mobile's GS3; the MSM8260A version (the same found in T-Mobile's HTC One S) doesn't have an LTE radio, but is tuned to HSPA+.

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 is its fastest yet. For the most part, I had few complaints about the GS3'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 things faster: the camera, Gmail, settings, maps, the gallery, and so on. The phones unlocked at about the same rate.

The GS3 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 GS3 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 GS3 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 S III 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, that consistently work. In addition, Samsung's 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 GS3 has an excellent camera, expandable memory (which the One X doesn't have), 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 GS3 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 GS3.

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 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 GS3 to iPhone fans who prize the crystal-clear Retina Display and Siri.

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