The Samsung Galaxy S3 is easily the most anticipated Android phone of the year -- following in the footsteps of the insanely popular Galaxy S2.
If you like to play spec-sheet top trumps, the S3 won't disappoint. This beast of a phone packs a whopping 4.8-inch 720p-resolution display and has a beefy quad-core processor ticking away under its shiny surfaces. There's a slick new design too -- albeit, this rounded look hasn't pleased everyone, with some Android fans describing it as old hat.
If you want to pocket the S3, you'll need a well-endowed wallet. It's being offered free on two-year contracts starting at £26 a month -- and rising to well over £30. If you want to avoid being tied to a contract, you can pick it up SIM-free for around £520.
The S3 comes in 16GB or 32GB storage options but it has a microSD card slot so you can further expand its virtual shelves. A 64GB S3 is also due to arrive later this year.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S3?
The S3 is not a phone for folk with modest mobile needs or small amounts of cash to spend. Happily, those guys are spoilt for choice, with many great mid-range Android phones to choose from that would serve their mobile masters as faithfully as Old Yeller.
The S3 is a phone for people with serious power hunger and a healthy bank balance. If you want a device for 3D gaming, HD video streaming and surfing the web like a pro -- I don't mean faffing around with mobile versions of websites or lightweight apps -- the S3 has the superpowered engine and massive display you're looking for.
The rectangular shape of the S2 (right) is replaced with a somewhat retro rounded design.
Indeed, this phone sits at the very top of the smart phone spectrum -- rival high-end Androids at this lofty price are hard to find. The main alternative is HTC's quad-core brute -- the One X -- which is actually more affordable than the S3 but not such a powerhouse, judging by my benchmark tests. Samsung also makes an even larger device -- the Galaxy Note -- which is a smart phone that's pushing into mini tablet territory.
The main non-Android rival device to the S3 is Apple's top-of-the-range blower, the iPhone 4S -- at least until the iPhone 5 lands. The 4S can be bagged for around the same monthly toll as the S3.
Apple's iOS software is generally slicker and easier to use than Android, with a simplified interface that's really straightforward to use. However, iOS won't appeal to people who really like to drill down, tweak, tinker and customise their kit. You guys will fall hook, line and sinker for the S3's customisable charms -- relishing the fine-grained opportunities Android opens up for customising and controlling your digital environs.
Ice Cream Sandwich and TouchWiz
The Galaxy S3 is running on Android, Google's mobile operating system. Specifically, it's powered by Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Until very recently ICS was the latest version of Android but that honour now goes to 4.1 Jelly Bean.
The S3's home screens will be familiar to most Android users -- with a launcher bar of apps and space above to fill with widgets and more apps.
Samsung has not yet confirmed whether the S3 will get an update to Jelly Bean. If you're desperate to get your hands on the latest Google OS, you might be better off opting for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which is due to get Jelly Bean later this month.
Despite Samsung's reticence to confirm a Jelly Bean update for the S3, it seems pretty likely it will get one. Do be prepared for a bit of a wait though -- the S2 ICS update was a long time coming.
Android is a powerful, flexible operating system that affords users loads of scope to customise and tinker with their phone. But the wealth of options and tools available can be overwhelming to newcomers, which makes having a really slick interface especially important.
Atop ICS, Samsung has plastered its own software, called TouchWiz. It's the same colourful interface you'll see on kit like the Galaxy S2 and Galaxy Note.
TouchWiz on the S3 looks polished, with lots of carefully drawn icons and easy-to-read fonts. But when it comes to ease of use, it's not always as well thought through as rival mobile maker HTC's Sense 4.0 Android overlay. At times, as you poke and prode TouchWiz, the intuitive action does not yield the hoped-for result.
On the left are the Recent Apps thumbnails that ICS serves up; on the right is the S3's notifications tray, fit to burst.
For example, adding widgets to the home screens is not done by long-pressing the place where you want to add the widget. Rather, you have to dive into the apps view, switch to the widgets tab and long press on a widget -- then move it onto the home screen position of your choice.
It's an inelegant way of doing things and, while it's only a minor quibble, it is indicative of TouchWiz's tendency to be a tad gnomic.
Another example is TouchWiz's notifications interface. Even if you turn on SMS notifications in the settings, if the notifications icon is toggled off in the notifications tray, you won't hear any sounds until it's toggled on. That's fine once you know about the existence of this icon. But if you haven't found it yet, you'll be really confused about why you can't hear any SMSes coming in.
S2 owners won't have any trouble navigating the S3's interface since they're retreading familiar ground. But newbies will certainly need to get accustomed to Samsung's way of doing things.
One new addition to TouchWiz on the S3 is Samsung's much-trumpeted eye-tracking technology. This makes use of the phone's front facing camera so it can keep the screen on if it detects a face looking at it.
It's a nice idea, which works well if you're holding the phone directly in front of your face. But if you're looking at the phone at an angle -- say you've propped it up a little way off so you can watch a film -- it won't register your face and will turn off anyway. The flashing eye symbol can also be distracting, if not downright disconcerting, as it warns you that your phone is watching you.
Dropbox and apps galore
Those with files to hoard will be happy to know the S3 comes with two years of online storage app DropBox, giving you an impressive 50GB worth of virtual disk space on which to plonk your files.
The S3 comes pre-loaded with lots of Samsung apps -- and several of these, including S Suggest and the Games Hub -- give you additional ways to get content onto the phone, as well as being able to download apps from Google's Play Store.
The S3 includes Samsung's Games Hub -- a one-stop-shop for getting games on the phone, and a Video Hub for renting or buying films.
The previously Apple-exclusive Flipboard app also makes an appearance on the S3's home screen as an attractive widget. The Flipboard app turns links and updates from your social networks into an attractive magazine-style layout. The app and widget really come into their own on the S3's gloriously large display.
There are other new goodies on board, including a neat 'Pop up Play' feature that lets you watch videos while performing boring functions like sending a text, and a transfer tool called S Beam, which lets you send large files over a Wi-Fi connection.
Pop Up Play
Pop up Play makes intelligent use of the S3's quad-core engine by letting you overlay and playback a mini version of a video over whatever else you're looking at -- be it a web page, your email or an app. Sadly, you can't pop out embedded videos in apps like YouTube -- it's only for videos stored on the phone itself.
Quad-core power on the S3 is utilised intelligently with the Pop Up Play multi-tasking video player.
While Pop Up Play is cool, I feel it could be even cooler. One big limitation is there's no option to custom-size the video window. I could see it being really useful to have a video playing on half the S3's screen, leaving the other half for typing out a text or email, but the popped-out video window can't be made any bigger (or smaller). And it really is small -- about the size of two stamps side by side. You certainly wouldn't want to watch a feature length film on it.
That said, it's a clever addition -- it's the most coherent case for multi-core phones with very big screens I've yet seen.
A voice control assistant app is on board too, dubbed S Voice. It has a very Siri-esque interface with a tap-to-talk-to-the-phone microphone icon.
Like Apple's Siri, you can ask S Voice to tell you the weather or perform tasks like making a call, setting an alarm, controlling music playback or taking a photo. You can ask, but don't expect S Voice to give you the right answer -- I found it very frustrating to use as it repeatedly failed to understand what I was asking it.
S Voice couldn't faithfully transcribe my text to Zack, and when asking it for the weather in Iraq -- well, let's just say it got geographically challenged.
In an extensive comparison of S Voice and Siri, neither acquitted themselves terribly well. But Samsung's virtual assistant was by far the worst of the two -- it had real trouble recognising my voice, was slow to process sounds and ultimately seemed gimmicky rather than genuinely useful. Most of the time it's much quicker to tap to get to the function you're after, rather than faff around hoping S Voice hears your words correctly and understands what you're after.
Face plus Voice Unlock
S Voice has been bundled into Ice Cream Sandwich's Face Unlock capability on the S3 -- so now you can choose to have the phone demand to see your visage and hear your voice before it unlocks.
Setting up Face plus Voice Unlock took multiple attempts to run through the vocal stage as my efforts to use my own voice repeatedly failed to win the approval of a very disappointed-sounding female-toned S Voice. Eventually I managed to set it up -- but I can't imagine too many people will want to have to speak to their phone every time they need to unlock it (Sergey Brin excepted).
If you want to pretend you live in a dystopic future, you can set up the S3 to require you to look at it and speak to it before it unlocks.
The S3 includes Samsung's Music Hub app, which links through to a 7 Digital-powered music store where you can listen to clips and buy songs and albums to live on the device.
Want to fill your S3 with tunes? On the right is the music store, accessible via the Music Hub (on the left).
Buying songs is fairly straightforward although you do have to drill down to find out exactly how many benjamins you need to spend to buy each track or album. The categorisation of albums isn't perfect either -- I found lots of individual songs listed under the albums tab.
Individual tracks cost around £0.99. Album prices vary, with prices ranging from around £5 to £15.
Buying tunes on the S3 is fairly straightforward but you do have to drill down to find the price.
Once you've loaded the S3 with your favourite tunes, you can pipe them into your ears by using Samsung's Music Player. This includes a feature called Music Square -- which creates custom playlists based on the tunes you listen to.
Samsung's music player includes 'Music Square' -- a feature that Sammy reckons will learn your tastes and create custom playlists to suit your mood.
Samsung has also added a handsome-looking FM Radio app to the phone, which includes a pleasing analogue-style knob-twiddling interface and the ability to save station presets so you can tune in with a single tap.
Samsung's FM Radio app has a handsome knob-twiddling interface.
The app also lets you record content from the radio station you're listening to.
S Planner is Samsung's name for the S3's calendar app. It's a pretty cumbersome name -- say it quickly and it sounds like spanner. But despite this unpromising start, it has some neat features. For example, you can pinch to quickly zoom in and out from day view, to week, to month and to year.
S Planner is Samsung's calendar app -- view your events weekly, monthly, yearly and more.
Most importantly, S Planner syncs with Google Calendar so -- if you use Google Calendar (and as an Android lover you surely do) -- you can keep abreast of all your appointments on the fly.
The overall S Planner interface isn't super-straightforward, but that's to be expected as it's a fully featured calendar app -- letting you set reminders, add event participants and so on. It also links with S Memo, Samsung's note-taking app, so you can add memos to calendar appointments.
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted an app-naming theme emerging, whereby Samsung sticks the letter 'S' in front of a word describing the app's function. And so it follows that S Memo is a note-taking app.
S Memo is Samsung's notes app, allowing you to create text notes or more fancy scribblings.
This app lets you create both text or scribble handwritten (or hand-drawn) notes. It's more fully featured than Apple's Notes app on the iPhone, with a range of pens and colours to choose from -- as well as the ability to draw pictures or scribble words, not just create typed text notes. So, for example, you could draw a map of how to get to your house and attach the S Memo to the corresponding S Planner birthday invite.
You can also add pictures to memos, lock private memos to keep out prying eyes and add audio recordings -- handy if you want to record a meeting as you take notes.
Calling, contacts and messaging
The S3's contacts app includes some neat features. If you swipe left over a contact's name, it will take you straight to the messaging menu so you can rattle off an SMS double-quick. Swipe right over their name and the phone will call your buddy without you having to tap twice.
You can create groups of contacts so you can easily send emails or SMSes to multiple people. If you're trying to find someone in your address book, you can press on the corresponding letter of the alphabet in the index at the right-hand side to jump down to the right section, or just start typing their name into the search box. The software favours surnames over first names so it will display anyone with the surname 'Johnson' before your mate 'John'.
Here's the S3's dialling inteface and the top level contacts view.
The S3's messaging interface is nice and easy to use. It deploys a speech-bubble graphic to display conversation threads. If you're composing your missives in landscape mode you won't be able to see the preceding SMSes in the chain, but in portrait mode you can scroll back through to read what went before.
The messaging interface has a nice layout but the S3's predictive typing doesn't always hit the mark.
The S3's keyboard is roomy, even in portrait mode, but word prediction isn't the finest I've seen.
There is a Swype-style interface pre-loaded on the S3, which can be switched on -- if you turn on 'continuous input' in the Samsung keyboard settings. I found swiping around on the keyboard wasn't as fast as it can be on smaller handsets since your finger has to make its way across more glass, due to the S3's hugeness.
The S3 sports a beefy quad-core processor clocked at 1.4GHz, which means it's more than capable of chomping through high-resolution video and graphically demanding games. As you'd expect, performance feels super-slick, with much less sluggishness and lag than you get on lesser (cheaper) Android phones.
Pop Up Play and 3D games aside, you'll be hard-pressed to find apps in the Google Play shop that stretch the S3's processor to its limits. What you do get is the peace of mind of knowing it has a good chance of handling demanding apps that crop up in the future. A more powerful processor also means the S3 is less likely to be left out in the cold when the next version of Android is rolled out.
Slash and rev your way to phone-based thrills with the S3's smooth and stutter-free gameplay.
I tested several high-end 3D games running on the S3, including Blood
& Glory and Real Racing 2. Such graphically rich 3D games typically require
additional content to be downloaded before you can play them. While these
large downloads weren't instantaneous on the S3, none took more than around
Gameplay was smooth, with no noticeable slowdown or stutter. If you're after a mobile device that's powerful enough to double as a portable games console, the S3 should do the trick -- provided you're happy with the calibre of Android games out there.