Samsung's Galaxy S III is Android's new champion in the smartphone wars, despite its pretentiously cute quirks.
Samsung's 4.8-inch Galaxy S III is the smartphone Apple doesn't want you to see. This alone speaks volumes. But if Samsung did "borrow" some ideas from Apple, an appreciation of elegance wasn't one of them. Samsung's efforts to out-iPhone the iPhone vary from cute to cripplingly annoying -- it's simply trying too hard to impress.
To be honest we prefer the more reserved Sense UI 4.0 interface used on HTC's Android flagship the One XL. The One XL can stand toe-to-toe with the Galaxy S III, plus it has the added benefit of LTE-compatibility which Samsung has neglected to offer Australian users. While we're partial to the One XL, we have to concede that the Galaxy S III comes out slightly ahead. It seems unfair to review one without referencing the other, so today we've gone for an Android double-header and published side-by-side reviews of Samsung's Galaxy S III and HTC's One XL.
It probably flows better to read the One XL review first and then come back to this review.
The Galaxy S III sells for $899 outright or you'll find it on plans from around $65 per month. Fire up the phone and you're presented with a gorgeous 4.8-inch, 1280x720 Super AMOLED screen. The extra tenth of an inch means that the handset just loses out to the 4.7-inch One XL in terms of pixel density, but it's an imperceptible difference. The size and weight of the two handsets are also almost identical, with the slightest of curves helping them sit beautifully in your hand. The Galaxy S III is a mere three tenths of a millimetre thinner but, if anything, this actually makes it feel flimsier than its rival.
Assessing the screen's picture quality is difficult when Samsung is so obsessed with preserving battery life. This is understandable considering big screens and fast processors suck juice, although the phone does pack a generous 2100 mAh battery which should get you through even the toughest days (an impressive feat for such a thin handset).
Unfortunately the default screen settings are simply too dim and don't do the screen justice. We were forced to override five settings before we could view the browser at full brightness. It was worth the effort, as the Super AMOLED screen is simply stunning and may force us to rethink our allegiance to Super LCD. The display offers warm, vivid colours but it's not oversaturated or tainted with a blue tinge like many earlier AMOLED displays. It also offers high contrast and wide viewing angles. The One XL looks slightly washed out in comparison, but the trade-off is that the One XL's whiter whites do a better job of combating outdoor glare.
The Galaxy S III's display is unusable outdoors under the default brightness settings, but these aren't the only settings you'll need to override to make this phone bearable. Android fans will be pleased to note that the phone runs Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" out of the box, but they might not be happy with all of Samsung's tweaks. The default lock screen ripples when you touch it, with the sound of running water and a dripping noise when you unlock the screen. It's an impressive way to show off the phone's graphics grunt but quickly becomes annoying. Once the phone is unlocked, you get the same annoying drip sound every time you touch the screen or lock the phone. Every single press. Drip. Drip. Drip.
Popping noises indicate a calendar appointment, while the phone actually whistles at you when an email comes in. Should someone call you, you're treated to a painful muzak symphony dubbed "Over the horizon". All of the 32 ringtones sound like hipster marketing jingles. If you want your phone to sound like a phone you'll need to copy a file into the phone's media folder or record something with the Voice Recorder app.
Once the novelty of Samsung's pretentious over-the-top cuteness wears off you'll need to trawl through the menus looking for ways to disable all those annoying effects. Even then Samsung's clunky "TouchWiz" Android interface isn't as elegant as iOS or Windows Phone 7. Nor is it as practical as HTC's Sense UI on the One XL. In the Galaxy S III's defence, most of these things can be tweaked to your liking but they don't make a great impression (I guess unless you're the target market for those hipster marketing jingles).
Where Samsung's efforts really pay off is with the Galaxy S III's bundle of pre-installed apps. You've got Navigon turn-by-turn satellite navigation, Quickflix movie rentals, MusicHub subscription music, Flipboard for news, Dropbox with 50GB of storage and Allshare for sending content between devices. Apart from Android's Google Play app store you've also got access to the Samsung App store. The Samsung ecosystem is even more appealing if you've got Samsung gear in your lounge room.
Unfortunately Samsung seems to have abandoned the Reader Hub found on the Galaxy S II, which bundled the impressive Kobo, Zinio and PressPlay apps for reading books, magazines and newspapers respectively. To be fair, pre-installed apps are less important than they were in the old days when apps were very fussy about which handsets they ran on. Today's exceptions are more to do with licensing restrictions than hardware limitations, such as the fact that the Quickflix app is only available from the Samsung App store for now.
While the Galaxy S III is razor thin, Samsung has managed to cram in plenty of features. It sports 1.9MP and 8MP front and rear cameras with a f/2.6 rear lens which offers decent low-light performance. It still falls short of the f/2.0 lens on the One XL which offers a little less noise and slightly better dynamic range in varied lighting conditions. What you do notice with the Galaxy S III is that the camera is very responsive, as is the phone in general thanks to the grunt under the bonnet that we'll get to shortly.
The Galaxy S III's connectivity options include 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi with 2.4 and 5GHz support, Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP and EDR and finally NFC for close-range wireless interactions. Samsung has also unveiled "TecTiles" -- NFC capable stickers that let you launch apps and reconfigure the phone with a swipe. These will make it easy to configure the phone according to your location.
The handset lacks a micro-HDMI port, however you can buy a micro-USB to micro-HDMI adaptor. Unfortunately Samsung has changed the pin configuration so you can't use an older HDMI adaptor. You've got 32GB of onboard storage to play with and what's really impressive is that -- despite the phone's razor-thin design -- you can still pop off the back to access the battery, SIM card and micro-SD card slots.
Of course under the bonnet you've got a 1.4 GHz quad-core Cortex-A9 powerplant and Mali-400MP graphic just dripping with raw power. Thanks to these the Galaxy S III thumps both the quad-core One X and the dual-core One XL across a range of benchmarks such as the Rightware Browsermark, Sunspider and Quadrant. The Galaxy S III might lack LTE, but the dirty little secret of smartphones is that processing power often trumps data speeds. In an LTE coverage area the 3.5G-capable Galaxy S III still often loads webpages faster than the 4G-capable One XL, because the bottleneck is rendering speeds rather than download speeds.
So what's the verdict? Samsung has delivered a killer smartphone in the Galaxy S III which deserves the title of Android flagship. Along with cutting edge hardware and a metric shedload of grunt, Samsung delivers an impressive ecosystem which is only marred by pretentiously cute quirks which can be disabled. Those with a thirst for LTE and a taste for HTC's Sense UI might prefer the One X/XL and they won't be disappointed. But Samsung's Galaxy S III rightfully deserves the Android crown.