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Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy S III

Awesome power, but is it packed with gimmicks?

Product: Samsung Galaxy S III | Manufacturer: Samsung
Samsung Galaxy S III Android, thumbnail 1
Having invited over 2,000 people to come to London's Earls Court exhibition centre to see the launch of the new Samsung Galaxy S III, there won't be many people left unaware of this phone ahead of its May 30th release in the UK. It goes on to be released in 145 countries in the coming months, with a total of 296 network operators signed up. It's also the official Samsung mobile phone for the 2012 Olympic Games.

With virtually as much interest generated as a new iPhone, Samsung had to come up with something impressive. Given a lot of information had leaked, I was a little disappointed when I saw the finished article unveiled. It doesn't look much different to a Galaxy Nexus, bar its smooth colour finishes (pebble blue and marble white) and menu, home and back keys. Did we really wait all that time for this?

But given where we're at with smartphone technology now, with quad-core processors struggling to find apps to break them into a sweat, what could Samsung really do? What it has done is concentrate on the software and come up with some new and unique features, which was probably a very sensible decision.

That doesn't stop me mentioning the processor though. It has doubled the processing power of the S II, with the 1.4GHz Exynos 4 Quad chipset offering more for less. 20% less according to Samsung, which we'll test when we get a final review sample.

Samsung has also upped the screen to 4.8-inches (.1-inch above the HTC One X) with a HD Super AM-OLED 1280x720 pixel display, and also boosted the battery to 2,100mAh – another boost over the One X. With a smaller bezel, the phone isn't actually much bigger than a Galaxy S II.

Besides a new use for NFC, called 'S Beam' that allows you to quickly tap another phone and connect using Wi-Fi Direct to send the file (making it an incredibly quick way to share content), plus Wi-Fi channel bonding that effectively doubles a Wi-Fi connection, most of what is new on the S III is merely down to software.

Too much to take in

The list of new features is almost overwhelming. Put them all together and it's clear that Samsung knew that a faster phone wasn't going to be enough. Not all of the ideas are that new, as the 'S Voice' – a blatant rip off of Apple's Siri – proves, although it does let you tell the phone to 'take a photo' to fire up the camera, in addition to asking what the weather forecast is and a load of other things I'm sure iPhone 4S users ask every single day...

The 8-megapixel camera offers the same zero-lag time as the Galaxy Nexus, plus a super-fast (990 millisecond) startup time. It has a 'Burst Shot' mode, taking up to 20 shots at 3.3 shots per second, but the more interesting feature is 'Best Photo'.

Best Photo takes eight shots and then tries to automatically determine the best photo. That's all very good, but as I looked around the edges of the phone, I realised that there's no dedicated camera button. 1080p HD video can be recorded using either the rear, or front, camera - the rear having the use of the LED lamp.

Face tagging your photos doesn't just work for uploads to Facebook, but also aids searching through your phone gallery by the names of people tagged. You can even quickly send people all of the photos that they appear in, by email or picture message.

The front-facing camera has another purpose besides self-portrait shots or video calling, which is another new feature called 'Smart Stay'. When enabled, the camera keeps looking out for your face and keeps the screen on for as long as you're using the phone. How this works in low-light is unclear, but as I couldn't seem to get it to work (and it was in a dark room), I may have already answered my own question.

The face unlock feature, first introduced on the Galaxy Nexus, has been enhanced with an option to unlock using both facial recognition and voice, which gives a bit more security to counter someone simply holding up a photo to the camera.

Anticipating your every move

Direct Call is another new feature that I'm sure Apple may wish it thought of. Let's imagine you're typing a long text to someone and then decide a call to them makes more sense. Simply pick up the phone, put it to your head and the phone automatically dials the person you were writing to. Sure, it's a bit of a gimmick but if this idea takes off then expect it to become the norm, with people possibly wondering why all phones don't do it. Another use of its motion sensing ability is informing you of missed calls, emails or texts when you pick the phone up in the morning.

There were loads of accessories announced for the S III too, from a wireless charging base (information on this was surprisingly hard to find), to cases, docks, ways to get your phone display shown on a TV, plus spare batteries and chargers (yes, the battery is accessible and removable!).

The AllShare Cast Dongle accessory is a wireless receiver that plugs into your TV, while a simple (and cheaper) HDMI adapter allows a wired hook-up. You will also be able to use MirrorLink to share your phone screen with compatible in-car equipment on a range of upcoming cars. 

One last clever addition is a picture-in-picture mode, making good use of the HD screen. While using the phone to do various things, you can scale down a movie into a draggable window that can sit on top of other apps. With so many pixels, videos remain surprisingly watchable.

Back to basics

What of the OS itself? Like HTC Sense V4, the latest version of TouchWiz is more subtle and allows the many new features of Android Ice Cream Sandwich to be used as Google intended. The phone ships with Android 4.0.4, and allows a wide range of font types and sizes, coupled with a range of soothing new ring tones and alarms, comprising sounds of things like running water and birds chirping. I'll let the marketing people get excited about that, as it all sounded as silly as the 'Designed for Humans' strapline you'll soon see in the advertising campaigns.

The various Samsung hubs have been given a facelift, with the new Game Hub offering access to games enhanced for the S III, a Video Hub offering access to TV and movies, plus an enhanced Music Hub that allows online streaming, with access to 17 million songs. You can also scan your existing music collection, letting you listen to music without having to copy them to the phone.

Not that you're exactly limited on the storage font. I was pleased to see a microSDXC card slot, offering memory expansion of up to 64GB, on top of the 16, 32 and, later, 64GB internal storage options. Vodafone has an exclusive on the 32GB model for one month, but with 32GB microSD cards available at very competitive prices, you might be better off with a 16GB model and a memory card to add storage later. Try doing that with an iPhone!

Don't underestimate the power!

So, while Samsung didn't talk up the new processor, I thought it only fair to do a quick Quadrant benchmark test, which revealed just how powerful this phone is. It makes the Nvidia Tegra3 powered HTC One X, which got 4,479, look almost sluggish compared to the S III's awesome score of 5,351.

To put that in context, it's faster than any Android smartphone or tablet currently on the market, bar none.

Even if you think a lot of the new features are gimmicks and the handset doesn't look much different to other Samsung offerings, you have to bear in mind the sheer power of the phone.

If you're not entirely convinced, keep a look out for one of the many pop-up stores arriving in a town centre near you in the coming weeks (see below), giving a perfect opportunity to have its many new features demonstrated to you. Don't forget our full review too, naturally.


Reviewer photo
Jonathan Morris 4 May 2012
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