With virtually every cutting edge feature you could imagine packed into its slim and uniquely designed chassis, the Galaxy S3 has everything it takes to become a modern classic. Other manufacturers should take heed, because Samsung may well have set a new standard for smartphones with the Galaxy S3.
Samsung's Galaxy range of smartphones has over the last few years established itself as the leading brand in the Android smartphone market, consistently topping sales charts and earning critical acclaim. This is thanks in no small part to the quality and popularity of the flagship 'Galaxy S' models.
At the time of writing, the original Galaxy S and the Galaxy S2 have between them surpassed an astonishing 50 million sales with their combination of cutting edge technology and stylish design. Such is the reputation of the Galaxy S brand that the third edition, the S3, reportedly sold over 9 million units in pre-orders alone.
Given the impressive legacy of the original Galaxy S and the S2, few can have been surprised by the hardware specifications that Samsung delivered in the Galaxy S3. This is a true powerhouse, packing all the latest technologies, a vast, high definition screen and a potent quad core processor.
More surprisingly, Samsung has chosen to depart from some of the established visual idiosyncrasies of the Galaxy S brand and develop the S3 with a whole new design ethos, summed up by the tagline for the phone: “Designed for humans, inspired by nature.”
The 'designed for humans' element of the new ethos is clearly redundant to the point of being daft, so I'll decline to mention it again for the rest of the review. The 'inspired by nature' element is far more telling and its influence can be seen across virtually every facet of the S3's design.
So is the Galaxy S3 destined to be the next big thing? Does the hardware live up to its cutting-edge credentials, and is the new design direction a successful one? Read on to find out...
The exterior design of the first two Galaxy S phones followed a fairly consistent theme. They were slim and rectangular, with straight edges and rounded corners. The SII was slimmer than its predecessor and its larger screen size prompted further tweaks to the design, with the rounded corners losing some prominence as the edges expanded, but there was no mistaking that the two were related.
This latest iteration of the Galaxy S brand is really a new beast, with a chassis that's all gentle curves and contours. Excepting the flat front face of the device housing the black rectangle of the screen, there's barely a straight line to be found on the Galaxy S3. Even the side edges of the phone are curved, expanding towards the centre so subtly that it took a ruler and some squinting for me to be certain it wasn't a trick of perspective.
When unlit, a colour-changing notification light at the top left and the Menu and Back keys that flank the raised Home button beneath the screen all blend indistinguishably into the surface of the phone. When lit, these have a lightly frosted appearance and a subtle halo surrounding them, an effect vaguely reminiscent of bioluminescence.
The overall result is a pleasantly organic, rounded device. It's a refreshing change from the monolithic black slab design that has become ubiquitous in the smartphone world of late. To highlight the step away from standard design trends, Samsung isn't even making the S3 in black – it's available in 'marble white' and 'pebble blue'.
The names of the colours give us something of an insight into the inspiration Samsung's designers employed for the S3. If the standard angular black smartphone is like a shard of obsidian, the Galaxy S3 is more like a glistening, water-rounded stone plucked from a stream, with the wet-look glossy finish completing the illusion.
The S3 has an unusual design, and it's likely to divide opinion. Some may bemoan the lack of metal in the build, something that always helps add a premium-feel, while for others the handset may prove just a bit too large. And it is undeniably large. To put it in some perspective, the 4.8” screen alone is wider than the entire body of Apple's iPhone 4S and only marginally shorter.
For me, though, the whole ensemble works very well. The slim and light chassis is remarkably comfortable to hold for such a large phone and the bezel has been trimmed down to a bare minimum to keep the size in check. To me, it's a phone that looks and feels exceptionally well designed.
Samsung has also earned some bonus points with less visible physical design decisions, most notably the inclusion of a removable battery and micro SD card support. These two simple additions provide an important edge over phones like the HTC One X, which is otherwise well matched against the S3 in many areas.
As the flagship model for 2012 from Samsung, the Galaxy S3 naturally comes packed with a veritable cornucopia of features, and none is more prominent or impressive than its astonishing display. At an expansive 4.8”, this is the largest display I've encountered on a purebred smartphone. It is, in fact, only half an inch smaller than the display of Samsung's popular Galaxy Note phone/tablet hybrid – a device which some have endearingly labelled a 'phablet'.
Size alone doesn't make a good display, but the S3's Super AMOLED HD screen happily has the performance to match its stature. The display is vividly colourful and bright enough to read with relative ease even on a sunny day.
Most strikingly, its resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels produces exceptionally sharp images with a pixel density of 306ppi. While I'll admit that there are probably blind creatures in the lightless ocean deeps with better eyesight than me, with or without a pair of glasses I still have to get pretty damn close to the S3 before I can spot a pixel.
The next feature that demands a mention is the Galaxy S3's camera. An 8 megapixel unit with more tricks to its name than a world bridge champion, I very much enjoyed playing with this one. In the high-end smartphone market, there are two other devices that come to mind with cameras in this league – HTC's One X and the Apple iPhone 4S. Both of these competitors boast a cutting edge combination of camera hardware and software, but the Galaxy S3 is quite possibly a match for either.
Outdoors on a bright day, the S3's camera captured some stunningly colourful and sharp images. The ever-useful 'touch to focus' feature that's gained popularity in recent years is present and correct here, and helps in the composition of some outstanding shots. Contrast is handled well even where stark differences between light and dark regions are present.
Indoor performance is likewise impressive. Though extremely dim light conditions will result in some speckling, the camera takes moderate light levels in its stride. And, of course, there's always the LED flash if things get too dingy.
As with the HTC One X, I found the close-up photography credentials of the Galaxy S3 especially impressive. Astonishing detail can be captured, and the S3's zero shutter lag means you can take plenty of shots quickly and pick out the best.
The S3's media playing abilities are as impressive as you'd expect from a high-end device. The in-built music player is well laid out, categorising tracks by artist and album, and there are wealth of equalisation options for those who like to tweak their tunes.
Surprisingly, the speaker of the Galaxy S3 is actually OK. Music played from the speakers of most smartphones tends to sound like an angry wasp trapped in a copper kazoo trying to hum its way out, but this isn't the case with the Galaxy S3. The sound is perhaps a little tinny but otherwise really quite listenable.
The video player performs well and handled the handful of HD formats I threw at it without a complaint or a stutter. A unique feature of the S3 is the ability to shrink the video you're watching into a small floating window and perform other tasks. This handy feature makes full use of the Galaxy S3's expansive display and is great for when you want to write a quick note or fire off a reply to a message without interrupting what you're watching.
Finally for the Features section, let’s say a few words about S Voice. Samsung's answer to Apple's Siri, S Voice is a natural language user interface for the Galaxy S3. What does that mean? In essence, that you can tell S Voice what you want it to do and S Voice will do it.
On the whole, I found that S Voice was very similar to its iPhone counterpart in that it is promising but not quite polished enough to become something I'd use regularly. Like Apple's offering, S Voice has impressive speech recognition capabilities but still misinterprets around one in four commands – a good ratio from a technical perspective, but one that can become frustrating in daily use.
One significant advantage S Voice has over Siri, at least in the UK, is that it is a complete package. Siri was infamously lacking certain features outside of the US at launch, most notably location-based services like maps and navigation. S Voice, on the other hand, will quite happily harness Google Maps Navigation to provide directions to your destination of choice. Well done, Samsung.
With the latest and most powerful Samsung Exynos chip on board, performance is an area in which the Galaxy S3 expects to excel. At the heart of this phone is the Exynos 4 Quad processor, a 1.4 GHz quad core system-on-a-chip. Samsung's sales patter has it that this chip, built using 32nm semiconductor technology, provides double the CPU performance of its predecessor while improving power efficiency by 20%. These are impressive claims, but claims that the phone's performance seems to back up.
It isn't possible for a smartphone to smirk. Smartphones don't have lips or, for that matter, personalities. Still, I couldn't escape the feeling that my review model of the Galaxy S3 was trying to smirk as it effortlessly surpassed the best scores we've recorded from other phones on a variety of benchmarks.
With the Quadrant benchmarking app, the Samasung Galaxy S3 achieved a total score of 5529, decisively besting the high score of 5014 set by HTC's One X just a few weeks ago. The One X employs the popular and powerful Tegra 3 quad core chip, but Samsung's own Exynos chip left it standing.
So far as benchmarks go, then, the Galaxy S3 is well ahead of the pack. Does this translate into high level performance in actual use, though? Simply put, yes, it does.. The S3 is really a joy to use, distinguished by its fast and silky smooth responsiveness.
Browsing is a particular pleasure. Even websites with complex elements such as Flash prove to be no challenge for the S3, which pans and zooms around them with easy aplomb. And the big, HD screen certainly makes browsing the web on the go an entirely more comfortable and enjoyable experience than users of smaller-screened phones might be used to.
The one possible drawback of Samsung's clearly excellent Exynos 4 Quad processor is that at the time of writing there's little on the Android that can truly and fully harness its capabilities. Competitors employing the Tegra 3 chipset have the Tegra Zone suite of games to show off all of their fanciest tricks, but the majority of the latest crop of HD Android games have yet to add support for Samsung's hardware. Still, with sales of the S3 already approaching the 10 million mark a few short weeks after launch, you can expect this to quickly change as developers catch up with consumers.
So, finally, there's the matter of battery life – always a contentious issue in the world of smartphones. As I've mentioned, Samsung claims that its 4 Quad processor is 20% more power efficient than the processor housed in the Galaxy S2, but the S3 also has a considerably larger screen for its 2100mAh battery to supply with juice.
I'm happy to report that the S3 does a very, very good job of managing the power demands of its hardware. From a full charge in the morning, I often found the device had used barely more than a third of its power by evening – and this with fairly frequent activity and the screen set to maximum brightness. With moderate use and a few power-saving strategies I'd expect the S3 to happily glide through two days without demanding a top-up from the socket.
OK, so it's not a return to those days when mobiles could go so long from a full charge that you'd be due for an upgrade before you needed plug them in a second time, but for a modern smartphone it's thoroughly impressive.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 ships loaded with the latest version of Google's Android operating system, which means it comes equipped with all the tricks and features of Ice Cream Sandwich like face unlocking and resizable widgets. Samsung has quite significantly altered the default user interface of Android, though, by adding their own TouchWiz UI on top.
As with the physical design of the phone, the 'inspired by nature' element of Samsung's new design ethos is evident throughout the S3's UI. This manifests in rich natural colours, fluid transitions and organic sounds.
The default lock screen provides a fine example of the new, naturally-inspired approach. Where previous incarnations of Samsung's UI might have required users to drag some geometric shape across the screen to unlock the phone, TouchWiz 5.0 has them skimming a finger across the display to the accompaniment of ripples and gentle water sounds.
It must be said that the UI is not without its annoyances, though, chief among which is the sound generated to acknowledge the press of a button. This is a noise a little like a pebble dropping into a small pool of water: “Blop”.
It's an inoffensive enough sound to begin with, but one that's produced with such frequency that it soon challenges the user's grip on sanity. So, in the interest of the nation's mental well-being, here is my advice: Press 'Apps'. (Blop.) Open 'Settings'. (Blop.) Select 'Sound'. (Blop.) Deselect 'Touch sounds'. (Blop.) Press the back key... Ah, sweet silence.
Once I'd expunged the blop, I found the overall effect produced by Samsung's UI to be very pleasant; organic and conspicuously un-mechanical, it distinguishes the Galaxy S3 experience from competitors.
As well as the cosmetic changes to Android's user interface, Samsung has also made numerous functional additions specifically aimed at enhancing the usability of the phone. One noteworthy feature, dubbed 'Smart Stay', prevents the phone's screen from dimming while a user is looking at it by employing the forward facing camera and face detection. Innovative, simple and effective, this was a feature that I stopped noticing after a short while but have really missed when using other phones since.
Though it boasts great depths of customisation options for experienced users, the S3 should be very accessible to smartphone newbies, too, thanks to its intuitive layouts and a comprehensive range of helpful tips that are displayed the first time a user opens particular apps and menus. There's even a User Manual widget that leads to a simple but detailed guide to the S3's features, stored online.
The selection of widgets pre-installed onto the S3 isn't anywhere near as wide ranging as that you'd find on, say, one of HTC's One Series phones. This isn't a major drawback since a plethora of free widgets are available from the Play Store, anyway, but Samsung's choice of which widgets to include is sometimes baffling.
For example, the S3 doesn't come pre-installed with any widgets for accessing Facebook or Twitter, which is unusual but not really disappointing as there are plenty of options available for download. On the other hand, the S3 does come with a widget that inverts the display colours when pressed. Quite why anybody would want to invert the screen's colours I have yet to figure out, and why Samsung believes this is more likely to be of use to its customers than, say, a Facebook widget, I doubt I'll ever know.
More useful widget additions from Samsung include its proprietary S Memo and S Planner services, which perform pretty much the functions their names imply, and the excellent magazine app Flipboard, formerly an iOS exclusive and making a welcome Android debut on the Galaxy S3.
Finally, Samsung has upgraded the pull-down notifications menu with some very useful new functionality. An expanded range of quick settings toggles ranging from WiFi and network data to sound and power saving options now grace the very top of this easy-access display, along with a shortcut to the full settings menu beneath.
Creating a successful follow-up to the iconic Galaxy S and Galaxy S2 smartphones was never going to be a simple task, given the faithful followings enjoyed by both devices. The easiest option would have been creating something very similar to the Galaxy S2, with a few beefed-up specs to make upgrading seem worthwhile. Samsung is to be commended for not taking the easy option.
The Galaxy S3 is visually disparate from previous members of the Galaxy S range, to the extent that only a few tell-tale features and the Samsung logo reveal their kinship, but in carrying the 'natural' theme consistently through both physical and software design, Samsung has created a very attractive and unique device.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 won't rely on looks and design alone to sell itself, though. This phone has almost every feature you could ask for, all provided with unerring quality. The camera is second to none that I've encountered on a smartphone and the vast, high definition display is a delight to use.
The Exynos 4 Quad processor inside the S3 has likely set the benchmark for Android performance for quite some time to come. Once more developers harness the capabilities of this chipset and support for the device spreads, it will truly be a mobile gamer's dream.
No smartphone is without its flaws and the S3 is no exception, but its flaws are few. Some may pick fault with the plastic build or with the large size of the phone and these are fair objections, but subjective ones. There are also annoyances to be found in elements of the interface but these are usually simple to rectify.
Overall, then, the Galaxy S3 has not only reached but surpassed my expectations for it. It's truly an exceptional and unique offering, high-end and high-quality in practically every way. I don't doubt that it will become a new modern classic.
Oh, and apparently it's “Designed for humans”, too, so... That's convenient?
We're currently in the process of putting our Samsung Galaxy S3 through its paces, so stay tuned for a full hands-on review soon. In the meantime, though, here are our first impressions of this highly anticipated smartphone.
Firstly, some reference should be made to the excitement that surrounded the S3 before it arrived. This is a handset that received in excess of 9 million pre-orders and following launch delays of some models in the UK, the degree of anticipation was reaching extreme levels. Against this background, then, we were a touch worried that the arrival of the phone itself would be a bit of an anti-climax. We needn't have been concerned.
As soon as we'd got the S3 out of its box and liberated it from the colourful plastic covers that proclaimed its Super HD AMOLED and Quad Core credentials to the world, we could tell this was a special smartphone. The exterior design is subtle and attractive, all ergonomic curves and softly contoured glossy plastic. A huge 4.8” screen dominates the front of the handset, but the super-slim bezel keeps the phone pocketable.
The next task was to pop open the slim back cover, load the battery and power up the phone. At this point we got a proper look at what the Super HD AMOLED display is capable of, and it's really quite special. Colour reproduction is rich and warm, the 720 x 1280 resolution makes pixel-spotting a challenging activity and pushing the brightness up to its maximum setting can be quite dazzling!
Software-wise we've barely scratched the surface, but we like what we're seeing. The S3 of course ships with the latest version of Android, which is 4.0 or 'Ice Cream Sandwich'. As usual, though, Samsung have layered their own user interface on top of this and the 'inspired by nature' principle is evident throughout, in all the colours, shapes and sounds selected for the UI.
Overall, the user interface has so far been a pleasure to use. Its remarkably smooth, responsive and fluid, thanks in no small part to the dizzyingly fast 1.4 GHz quad core Exynos processor under the hood. We're looking forward to testing the full capabilities of that processor very soon...
Battery life is also looking extremely promising. We managed to charge the battery up to 75% before impatience got the better of us and we took it off for some experimenting. 20 hours and much messing about later, it still has half of that initial charge. More scientific tests are pending, but battery life is looking great so far.
So, let's wrap up our first impressions of the Samsung Galaxy S3. It's very nice. It's very, very nice. We don't want to get too carried away before we've completed a more systematic review and spent some more time with the handset, but let's put it this way: it's been a long while since we've liked a phone so much so quickly. Will the affection last? We'll see you in the full review write-up to find out!