After dawdling along in the slow lane of mobile data for the past couple of years while our buddies in the US zoomed ahead at 4G speeds, the UK is finally moving up a gear with the launch of EE's 4G network. One of the first phones to be able to take advantage of the mobile web on fast forward is the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE.
The phone is a tweaked version of the standard S3 and adds 4G support, some extra memory and a new titanium grey chassis. If the standard S3 was the Ferrari of Android handsets, then this iteration is surely the ThrustSSC.
Making the switch to 4G with the S3 LTE is expensive, however. On even the cheapest EE deal the phone will costs you £150, and you'll then have to pay £36 a month on a 24-month contract. That equates to an overall cost of £1,014, yet only bags you a measly 500MB of data per month. Is moving to 4G with the S3 LTE worth the hefty outlay? Probably not at this time, but you'll have to decide that for yourself.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE?
The Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE is a powerhouse of a phone and even beats the original S3 in some benchmark tests thanks to its additional 1GB of RAM. Running Android Jelly Bean, it provides a smoother and slicker experience than Android phones stuck with the older Ice Cream Sandwich version of the OS.
Of course, the main reason you'd buy this phone is for its support for faster 4G mobile speeds. Here things are a little more problematic. The 4G radio draws more power than the 3G one in the standard S3, with the result that you end up trading faster data speeds for shorter battery life. Add in the fact that there's pretty limited coverage on the EE network at the moment, plus the high price of the phone and EE's 4G contracts, and the S3 LTE starts to look a little less attractive.
Still, when you're connected to the 4G network Internet, browsing does feel faster and download speeds can be astonishingly quick. Nevertheless, at the moment we'd only really recommend this version of the handset to those who absolutely have to have the latest tech or desperately need faster data download and upload speeds on the go. The rest of us would be better off waiting a while before making the move to 4G.
Fast Forward to 4G
The S3 LTE is one of the few phones available in the UK that supports the Long Term Evolution (LTE), the standard for 4G mobile networks. EE is the first network to get 4G up and running in the UK and so naturally was the network I used for testing the handset.
EE says you can achieve download speeds of up to 40Mbps on 4G, but typically you're more likely to get between 8 and 10Mbps. Coverage is currently limited to 11 cities, including London, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow, with a further five to be covered by the end of the year.
I tried the phone out on EE in east London near the Olympic site and speeds were mixed to say the least, but still impressive overall compared to 3G. Using the Speedtest.net app, the results from the S3 LTE varied from a peak of 21.78Mbps for download -- which is faster than my home broadband -- to a low of 4.09Mbps. Similarly upload speeds also varied widely from a peak of 20.46Mbps to a low of 1.8Mbps.
That said, download speeds tended to hover around a mean of 7-9Mbps -- a lot lower than the headline figure -- but still much faster than what I'd usually get on HSDPA, which tends to deliver 2-3Mpbs in this area, so it does just about approach the 'four times faster than 3G networks' claim that EE makes.
There are a few problems with 4G at the moment, however. Firstly the network coverage isn’t very good. At present EE's network only covers the major cities, so when you're outside of those big urban areas you're going to be back on 3G or maybe even Edge.
Secondly, even in the areas where the EE website says you should get good coverage, signal quality can be pretty patchy. My area was marked as having good coverage on the EE website, for example, but I found in reality it was actually very mixed. Indoors I got one to two bars of signal when the phone was connected to 4G, but even at that the handset tended to skip between connecting to the 4G and 3G networks seemingly at random.
Outdoors things improved a bit with three to four bars of coverage. I noticed that speeds weren't necessarily fastest when the signal was strongest. Often I got the fastest speeds when I was getting middling reception, which seems strange. In terms of raw speed, though, if you've got decent coverage, 4G really does deliver a massive jump over 3G, as getting over 20Mbps download speed on a mobile phone is fast in anyone's book.
The S3 LTE packs the same battery as the standard S3 -- a 2,100mAh power pack -- and it's removable, unlike the battery on the new Nexus 4 or the iPhone 5. Unfortunately, battery life does seem to suffer quite heavily due to the addition of the 4G support, though.
While streaming The Lives of Others on Netflix over 4G, for example, the battery went from full charge to 38 per cent over the 2 hours and 17 minutes of the movie. On the standard S3 running on O2's 3G network, the battery went from full charge to 50 per cent completing the same task. Although the two are not strictly directly comparable as they're running on different networks, the signal strength was similar so it does give an indication of the extra battery drain that 4G places on the phone.
Even in more general day-to-day use, it was quite noticeable that the 4G was much tougher on the battery. It usually struggled to get through a full day without needing to be topped up with juice. The standard S3 on the other hand, would happily last a full day when used for similar tasks.
The problem seems to be that the LTE version has to do more polling of the network to find a 4G signal, and that's something which tends to eat up a lot of battery life over the day. I can’t help feeling that Samsung should have gone for a bigger battery in this LTE version, even if it meant making it the phone a tad thicker and heavier.
The S3 LTE looks almost identical to the standard S3. It's got the same rounded corners and curved back where the camera on the rear sits almost flush with the battery cover. It's a very wide and tall phone, thanks mainly to its massive 4.8-inch screen, but it's also extremely slim measuring just over 8mm thick. The phone also feels very light, but this is partly due to the fact that its chassis is made mainly from plastic, something which makes it feel a little less premium than you'd expect of a blower of this price.
The only outwardly noticeable difference between this model and the standard one is the LTE logo stamped on the rear of the phone and its titanium hue. The latter helps it to look more professional and upmarket than the standard S3, but the difference is so small as to be almost negligible.
The phone runs Android Jelly Bean, which is the latest version of the operating system. Google has done a lot of work on speeding up the user interface in Jelly Bean, making the Android experience much more pleasant and intuitive. It no longer suffers from the annoying stutters and pauses that afflicted previous versions of the OS -- even when they were running on very fast hardware.
Now the whole user interface runs at a solid 60 frames per second and there are other tricks, such as touch anticipation, which help to finally make Android as silky smooth as the likes of iOS and Windows Phone. It really does make a massive difference to how responsive the S3 LTE feels. Nevertheless, although the standard S3 launched with Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean is now available for it, so it's not as if it's exclusive to the LTE version.
Of course, as with all of Samsung's other Android handsets, the company has slapped its own TouchWiz skin over the top of Android. It's more colourful than the standard Android interface and has different icons. In other ways, however, it's not that different to the standard Jelly Bean aesthetic. You still get multiple different homescreens, onto which you can drop shortcuts to your apps or live widgets. The latter are mini apps that provide you with snippets of information, such as previews of incoming texts or emails, news feeds and the like.
Samsung has also thrown in a few of its own neat features, including good integration with the Dropbox cloud storage service. You get a bunch of its own applications, including S Calendar, which improves on the standard Android calendar with a better layout, and S Suggest which suggests apps and games that you might like.
Naturally, the phone also has Samsung's S Voice on board, which is like a less successful version of Apple's not-all-that-successful Siri voice assistant software. You can use it for stuff like checking the weather, sending voice dictated text messages or creating calendar entries.
It has to be said the phone is a pleasure to use, mainly due to its overall speed. The homescreens glide effortlessly by as you swipe from one to the other, apps launch in the blink of an eye and even the most demanding of 3D games run flawlessly.
On the 4G compatible One XL, HTC swapped out the quad-core processor for a dual-core one. Samsung has managed to retain the same quad-core processor here as used on the normal S3. What's more, the company has actually beefed up the specification a little bit, as it's doubled the RAM in the LTE version from 1GB or 2GB. You also get 16GB of storage space for your own files.
The extra RAM has improved its performance ever so slightly, something that's mainly apparent when it comes to the web browsing benchmarks. The S3 LTE, for example scored 162,916 in Browsermark compared to the 158,605 gained by the standard S3 running the Jelly Bean version of Android (higher is better), and in Sunspider it scored 1,151.5ms compared to the 1,203 of the standard S3 (lower is better).
Elsewhere there was much less of a difference. In CF-Bench it scored 13,124 compared to the S3's 12,960, in Geekbench 2 it scored 1,758 compared to the S3's 1,751, while in the GL Benchmark Egyptian Classic test both handsets returned the same score of 59fps.
Certainly the S3 LTE is a very powerful phone and in use it really does feel like it's rollicking along. The problem, though, is that the S3 'platform' that it's build on no longer serves as the benchmark of ultimate Android performance, as our recent review of the Nexus 4 showed. Despite costing just £259 SIM Free, the Nexus 4 has a faster 1.5GHz quad-core chip and the same 2GB of Ram. As a result it outscored the S3 LTE in both Geekbench 2 (1,975) and CF-Bench (13,207).
In truth, you're unlikely to actually notice that kind of difference in day-to-day use, but it still irks that a handset that's so much cheaper outperforms the S3 LTE, even if it doesn't have 4G on board.
The S3 LTE has the same excellent display as the older S3. It's huge, measuring 4.8 inches on the diagonal, and uses Super AMOLED technology rather than the TFT technology used on most other phones, including the iPhone 5.
It's extremely bright as AMOLED is a self-emitting technology, which means that each individual pixel is its own light source, unlike TFT technology, which uses a backlight that shines through the display to illuminate the pixels. The AMOLED technology also allows it to produce astonishingly deep black levels. When it comes to accurate colour reproduction however, there's a slight tendency to overegg things, especially on greens and reds. Some people some will actually prefer this look though, as it gives a lot of intensity to images.
The display has also got a very high resolution of 720x1,280 pixels, so it's possible to read even zoomed-out text on webpages like the BBC news site. There are higher resolution displays out there on other mobiles, but to be fair, we can’t see anyone complaining about the S3 LTE's screen, as it really is top class.
The camera also remains unchanged, so you get the same 8-megapixel snapper that can be found on the standard S3. The camera is excellent, with practically zero shutter lag when you're taking photos. It can also shoot video at up to 1080p, as well as take still shots while you're capturing video.
Still images are very clean and crisp and are up there with the very best you'll get from any phone. It's generally quite fast at finding focus, and you can also touch an area on the screen to get it to refocus quickly on another area of the frame. Colours look bold and vivid, although it does oversaturate some shades, albeit not in a totally unpleasant way.
It works well in low light even without the flash, and when you do resort to using the flash the results are thankfully not as cold looking as some other phones we've used.
The quality of the 1080p video isn’t quite up there with its stills performance, as detail levels tend to break down the more movement there is in the frame, but that's true of most of the 1080p recording modes on high end phones at the moment.
There's also a 2-megapixel front-facing camera that can be used for video calling as well as the face unlock feature. However, Samsung has also added face detection that uses the camera to track your eyes and keep the phone's screen on while you're looking at it. It has its limits though, as it only really works if you're staring dead at the screen. It doesn't track you very well if you prop the phone up against something while viewing a webpage, for example.
There's very little outward difference between the standard Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy S3 LTE, apart from a new lick of paint. Internally most of the specifications remain the same too, although Samsung has increased the phone's memory, which has boosted performance ever so slightly, and added the crucial 4G support.
Although the 4G support on the EE network provided very quick download speeds, it comes at a cost, not just in terms of the price of the phone and associated data contract, but also in battery life. If you really, really need 4G support then the S3 LTE is one of the best 4G phones around, but most people would be better waiting for both network coverage and battery life to improve before switching to 4G.