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

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MSRP: $248.99

The Good The Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini delivers Android 4.2, 4G LTE, NFC, and a solid 5-megapixel camera for just $1 on contract.

The Bad Mediocre call quality and internal speed hiccups are two trade-offs for the price; you'll especially notice shutter lag.

The Bottom Line First-time smartphone buyers get a lot for a little with Samsung's year-old Galaxy S3 Mini, but keep in mind that this is no high-end performer.

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6.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6

One dollar on contract. That's pretty much all you need to know about why AT&T is selling an Android phone that's a year old, and why anyone would choose the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini over many other "minis" -- the HTC One Mini, Motorola Droid Mini, and iPhone 5C included.

It doesn't hurt that this baby S3 has a pleasing design, a modern Android 4.2.2 OS, and a reliable camera. On the other hand, the smartphone is slower than most, and although the Mini debuted as a midrange Galaxy S3 alternative, its hardware specs are entry-level by today's standards. Although its credentials trail behind, the S3 Mini is pretty great for what is essentially a free phone, and an ideal 99-cent investment for smartphone first-timers.

A word about Minis
Although new to AT&T, the S3 Mini in fact kicked off the trend of manufacturers issuing a slightly smaller, more scaled-back alternative to the premier smartphone that nevertheless kept the phone's basic look, feel, and design elements.

With its October 2012 debut, the Galaxy S3 Mini became the cheaper, midrange alternative to the high-end Galaxy S3, while still remaining part of the S3 family. AT&T's decision to include it in its lineup, despite the Galaxy S4 Mini being the most obvious next of kin, is an interesting move that brings new life to an "older" device.

Design and build
Beyond its petite 4-inch screen size and slightly thicker chassis, the S3 Mini looks almost identical to the original Galaxy S3, with all the side swoosh accents, body shape, and button shapes intact. As with the original, this "mini me" comes in ultra glossy pebble blue and white finishes.

With its more compact feel, the Mini, which measures 4.8 inches by 2.5 inches by 0.39 inch and weighs 4 ounces, is small enough to slide into most pockets, but weighty enough so that it doesn't get lost. That high-shine exterior is extremely reflective and smudge-prone, but it does feel pretty comfortable in the hand.

Let's talk about the phone's 4-inch Super AMOLED WVGA resolution display (800x480 pixels). At 233 pixels per inch, the Mini is far less pixel-dense than, say, the $100 HTC One Mini's 340ppi-yielding 720p HD screen. But don't let that worry you too much; the Mini's resolution is still within range for its size and delivers the rich colors that AMOLED displays are known for. A bigger downside is that it also happens to be highly reflective, which makes words and images all but disappear in direct sunlight, even with the screen brightness cranked up to its maximum value.

The Galaxy S3 Mini is compact and pocketable. Josh Miller/CNET

The phone's navigation array features Samsung's now-typical physical home screen button flanked by Menu and Back soft keys that also do double duty bringing up recent apps, S Voice, and Google Now/voice search. The power/lock button lives on the right, in the same spot that makes Samsung phones particularly susceptible to turning on at unwanted times. Volume control is on the left. You'll charge your phone from the Micro-USB port on the bottom, and plug in the headset jack up top.

An LED flash gives the 5-megapixel rear camera an assist, while the front-facing VGA camera takes on self-portraits and video chat. Beneath the back cover, the microSD card awaits up to 64GB in external storage.

OS and apps
Thankfully, when it comes to its OS, the S3 Mini has not been wounded by the passage of time. A year after it debuted globally with Android 4.1, AT&T and Samsung have wisely elevated the OS to version 2.2. Considering that we're just now starting to see phones and tablets ship with Android 4.3, you can't really ask for a $1 smartphone that's more up to date -- or even a $100 smartphone, for that matter.

As usual, Samsung's customizable TouchWiz interface rides shotgun over Android, which gives the phone an all-Samsung personality. This version understandably pulls back on the multitude of options unleashed for marquee phones like the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 3. Still, there are plenty of extras -- like motion controls, the S Beam NFC app, and Smart Stay (which keeps the screen active as long as you're looking at it) -- to make you feel like you're using a juiced-up Android phone.

Apps from Google, Samsung, and AT&T populate the device when you first boot it up. Josh Miller/CNET

If, in fact, the OS strikes you as overly convoluted, Easy Mode switches to a simpler look and feel with larger icons that are more digestible to the eye at a quick glance.

Whichever interface you choose (and yes, you can switch back and forth to your heart's content), you'll get some helper tools, like word tracing on the virtual keyboard. This helps keep larger fingers from getting too frustrated with mistypes on the S3 Mini's more cramped screen. I personally go back and forth between pecking out letters and tracing them, and there are third-party apps that can also adapt to your style over time, even premeditating your next word choice.

In terms of apps, you'll have the full Google suite, from maps and navigation to social connections like Google+, and also Google Now. AT&T throws in its usual bundle of account management apps and services, like a window to its mobile TV subscription service, and a mobile hot-spot helper. On top of this, Samsung's favorite extras, like S Translator, S Voice (a Google Now competitor), and Group Play, nestle in.

You'll notice a helper bar at the bottom of the screen when you fire up the native browser. Leave it on if you'd like, but if you're like me and find that it just gets in the way, you can toggle it off in the settings menu.

Other software features include Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and that hot-spot capability for up to 10 devices.

Cameras and video
Consistency is key, and that's something that Samsung has mastered across its camera experiences on its gazillions iterations of smartphones. The 5-megapixel camera you get here in the S3 Mini is solid and reliable, producing roughly the same clear, colorful, well-defined images we've seen on so many other Samsung phones.

Autofocus and an LED flash are two of the most important tools here, but you'll also get a handful of shooting modes, like panorama, night mode, sports shot, and beauty face, the latter of which air brushes people. I think it's a little creepy and unnatural, myself. There's no HDR mode for capturing high-dynamic range, which is probably a result of the smaller internal storage size, RAM spec, and/or processor clock speed. Strangely, you do get Sound and Shot, which records a snippet of audio to go with your still, but only plays back on other Samsung phones with this feature.

An LED flash gives the 5-megapixel camera a hand. Josh Miller/CNET