Samsung Galaxy S III: Summer blockbuster defined by superstar software (review)

Summary:Samsung was able to get the new Galaxy S III launched on all major US wireless carriers in the same form factor. After a couple of weeks of using the device, it is clear to me that the Galaxy S III is the hottest device of the summer and I plan to pick my own up soon.

Just before I went on my vacation I received an evaluation Samsung Galaxy S III eval unit from T-Mobile. I used it for a day and it was an easy decision to give it top billing in my Top 5 smartphones of the summer article. I used it as my primary camera and camcorder while on vacation, in addition to using it extensively during several days as a smartphone at Orlando theme parks. Both my wife and I are seriously considering one and I think millions more will come to that same conclusion this summer.

I recently wrote that the HTC One X is the best HTC device I have ever used and at that time I would have to say it was the best Android I have ever used as well. While I still think the hardware is currently the best available, the Samsung Galaxy S III combines solid hardware with an enhanced software experience. Samsung's ability to get it on every major US wireless carrier is a MAJOR benefit, even more extensive of a feat than what Apple has been able to achieve, as you will be able to share content with others using the device. Check out some product photos and lots of screenshots in my image gallery .

As you can see in the CNET review of the T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S III, they think it is excellent as well. One of their cons was that the screen was not bright enough, but I honestly never saw that as an issue on my review device. (Like CNET, ZDNet gave the Galaxy S III an Editors' Choice award.)


 Image Gallery: Check out several photos of the device along with many screenshots of the software on the T-Mobile Galaxy S III in this gallery. Image Gallery: Galaxy Nexus vs Galaxy S III Image Gallery: Gallery image from SGSIII 

In the box and first impressions

The Galaxy S III comes in a professional looking navy blue box with sleeve wrapped around it that has some highlighted features on it on the back. Inside you will find the Galaxy S III, USB cable, USB charger, and a wired stereo headset. The presentation is actually quite nice. I was immediately impressed by the feel of the device in the hand, especially considering it has a 4.8 inch display. The metallic blue back is attractive as well. It doesn't have the same high quality build as the HTC One X, but it is good for a Samsung smartphone.

Specifications

Specifications for the Samsung Galaxy S III include the following:

  • 1.5 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor
  • 4.8 inch HD Super AMOLED (1280x720) display
  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS
  • Samsung TouchWiz 5.0 user interface
  • 2GB RAM and 16/32GB internal ($50 price option)
  • microSD card slot for memory expansion
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • NFC
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi with support for WiFi Calling
  • 8 megapixel camera with LED flash, 1.9 megapixel front facing camera
  • DLNA and HDMI out with adaptor
  • 2100 mAh removable battery
  • Dimensions: 5.4 x 2.8 x 0.33 inches and 4.7 ounces

The hardware is impressive, especially the wireless capabilities, microSD memory expansion, and excellent display. The Galaxy S III comes in metallic blue or ceramic white. I was sent a blue one to evaluate, but plan to visit my local T-Mobile store to check out the white one before purchasing my own.

I love that all carriers launched with essentially the same device (the wireless radios are obviously different to support each carrier) that kept the center hardware button seen in the international model.

Hardware

I have never been especially fond of Samsung hardware because it always felt a bit "plasticy" compared to phones from HTC and others. The Galaxy S III has an incredibly thin plastic back battery cover, but everything is rounded smooth and the display just sort of melts into the outer frame so the device feels amazing in your hand. Like Samsung promoted at their launch event, it actually is very natural and feels like a smooth stone you want to roll around in your hand.

The front is dominated by the gorgeous 4.8 inch HD Super AMOLED display and Samsung did a great job of extending the display quite far out to the edges so there is just a small bezel. Above the display you will find an LED indicator light (YES, I like having these to see charging status and notifications at a glance), the front facing camera and proximity/light sensors. Below the display you will see the center hardware button and two capacitive software areas, one for the Menu and the other for Back. Pressing and holding the hardware button brings up the Ice Cream Sandwich task switcher with an on-screen button to access the Task Manager. Double pressing the hardware button activates S Voice (discussed below).

The Galaxy S III is pretty simple, in terms of hardware buttons, with the traditional Samsung on/off button on the upper right side and the volume button on the upper left side. The microUSB port is on the bottom with the 3.5mm headset jack on the top.

The LED flash, speaker, and 8 megapixel camera are found on the upper back. T-Mobile and Galaxy S III logos are placed on the back battery cover that removes to reveal the microSD card slot, microSIM card slot, and removable battery. It is great to see both expandable memory and a removable battery on a modern device. I took the Galaxy S III on my two week vacation and for road warriors having an extra battery and easily removable memory can be vital to keep the work (and play) going.

Software: Google and TouchWiz

All of the software provided by Google with ICS is on the Galaxy S III, including Google Play, Google Search, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail, etc. You will also find the excellent ICS task switcher and other great functions built into this version of Android operating system.

I never liked TouchWiz and when using Samsung devices I always chose to use a 3rd party launcher. It always seemed too "cartoony" for me and made my device more "playful" and childish than I wanted. I have to say though that TouchWiz 5.0 is great on the Galaxy S III so far and there is only one thing that particularly bugs me now, the inability to drag and drop app shortcuts on the Home screen onto each other to create folders.

Software: T-Mobile apps and utilities

Each carrier will have some specific apps they include on the device and some are quite useful, while others can be a bit of a bother. T-Mobile includes a fairly minimal number of apps, including Mobile Hotspot utility, T-Mobile My Account, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV, Visual Voicemail, and WiFi Calling.

You need to sign up for and pay an extra fee for the Mobile Hotspot function, but you can turn it on and off as needed too. I use it during months of heavy travel and appreciate the convenience. The T-Mobile My Account utility is handy for checking the status of my usage and account. T-Mobile Name ID is an enhanced caller ID service that provides the name (if found), city and state of the caller. It costs $3.99 per month to use this service.

T-Mobile TV provides both free and subscription content for consumers. I don't currently pay the $9.99 monthly fee since I don't use my data for streaming video. The free content is useful at times for demonstrating the video playback function. Visual Voicemail is useful to let you choose specific voicemails to listen to rather than having to go through a painful dial system on your carrier.

T-Mobile's WiFi Calling feature is grab to see on the Galaxy S III and one of those unique features that has me leaning towards the T-Mobile model instead of the Verizon one. WiFi Calling is no longer UMA, but it does give you the ability to make and receive calls via a WiFi connection instead of a cellular connection. This can be very useful if you have a weak cellular signal in your house or while traveling. Calls made over WiFi do count against your calling plan minutes, if you have a limited number of minutes on your plan.

Software: Unique Samsung apps

Samsung usually provides some additional non-native apps and functions and with the Galaxy S III they went above and beyond the call. You will find S Voice, SmartStay, S Beam, S Memo, AllShare Play, Media Hub, ChatON, DropBox with a free 50GB allowance, Flipboard, Game Hub, Gallery, Kies air, Music Hub, and Music player. They also provide enhanced Exchange support.

You have likely heard of S Voice, the voice control system similar to iOS Siri, through press releases and advertisements. You can use S Voice by simply double pressing the hardware button or by speaking Hi Galaxy to "wake up" the utility. The following functions are supported by S Voice:

  • Voice Dial: Place calls
  • Message: Send text messages
  • Search contacts
  • Navigate: Use Google Maps for navigation
  • Memo: Create a memo in S Memo
  • Schedule: Setup an appointment
  • Task: Create a task
  • Music: Play music in your collection
  • Social update: Update your Twitter or Facebook status Search Open apps
  • Record voice: Create a voice recording
  • Driving mode: Toggle this mode on and off to have text messages read to you and incoming calls announced
  • Set alarm: One of the only reasons I used Siri
  • Set timer Weather: Check the weather for stated location and day
  • Simple settings controls: YES! You can toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, and more with your voice
  • Get an answer: Use your voice to get simple answers to queries
  • Local listings: Find places around you

As you can see from this extensive list of functions, S Voice appears to easily beat Siri's current capabilities. Siri is getting an update with iOS 6 to add more functions and seems a bit sassier that S Voice. S Voice requires a network connection to work, but then again most apps on your phone do anyway so you should likely always have some kind of connection up and running.

The SmartStay function uses is toggled in the settings and uses the front facing camera to track when you are looking at the display so it can keep the display turned on. It is a pretty cool trick and should come in handy if you read a lot of books on your smartphone.

S Beam is not just Samsung's take on Android Beam, but a different wireless technology where you can share things with other devices via NFC and WiFi Direct by holding the devices close together. Google's Android Beam uses NFC to make the connection and Bluetooth to make the transfer. You can beam images and videos, songs, and more wirelessly. Samsung has been showing this function in commercials at the movie theaters and I have heard several people in public talking about this capability. It is nice to see companies making it super easy to share things such as images you capture that too often just sit on the phone or a computer and never get shared. Given that the Galaxy S III is on all the major carriers, it is likely that you will see some of your friends using this same device so sharing should be quite easy.

I used S Memo on the Galaxy Note when I had one and find it to be a useful app, especially with the ability to sync notes you capture to Google Docs or Evernote. You can create handwritten (finger written) or text notes with the ability to include voice recordings and pictures. Samsung provides the capability to share your notes (via the extensive collection of apps you have loaded that support this in Android), export notes (as image or PDF), link notes to your calendar, set notes as your contact icon, home screen or lock screen wallpaper, and print notes. It is actually a very handy and enjoyable application to use on Samsung devices.

I saw the video on AllShare Play and looked forward to testing it out on the Galaxy S III. It is a handy utility that lets you connect your GSIII to a computer (check out allshareplay.com) to check out videos, pictures, music, and files shared from your phone. You do need a TV that supports AllShare Play or a Windows-based computer to load up the application. I did not find any Mac client on the AllShare Play website.

Kies air is similar to AllSharePlay except all you need is a computer web browser as the software gives you a URL to enter to access the Galaxy S III when connected to the same WiFi network. Once connected you will see you have access to photos, videos, music, ringtones, text messages, call log, and more stored on your Galaxy S III right from the web browser. There are settings for each area/function and the ability to perform actions, including sending text messages from your browser, upload/download/delete content, set songs as ringtones, and more. It is pretty slick and I prefer it over a USB connection.

I usually stick with pretty basic communication methods, basically email and text messaging, but every once in a while I turn on Google Talk or Skype for chatting. Samsung includes ChatON, a service that is designed for cross platform messaging as long as someone knows your phone number. It does not integrate with other clients so your friends also need to be ChatON users. I only see one friend on the service so don't see much utility in this at the moment.

I have rented movies from Samsung Media Hub on devices in the past and like seeing it on the Galaxy S III with the fantastic large display. I never purchase videos, but like the option to load up a few rentals when I travel and they have a nice collection of movies and TV shows in their store.

Every Android device has some form of an image gallery utility to view the photos you capture, but Samsung enhanced their Gallery with slick tagging and quick sharing features. You can use their Face tag functionality to have the device recognize faces in your photos, similar to what Facebook does. Over time, the software learns the faces and auto tags them for you. If you then tap on a Face tag you will see options for communicating with that person (call, message, email, etc.) and can set the image as their caller ID. Using the Menu button in the Gallery app gives you many options (crop, edit, set picture as, print, rename, view details, etc.) and one of the most unique is Buddy photo share. With this option you can choose to quickly share this photo with the tagged person via email or MMS. I used this quite a bit with my daughter on vacation since she wanted some selected photos to share and does not have data on her phone. I texted them to her and then she was able to text them out to her friends. Again, Samsung enhances the ability to easily share content you capture with others, which makes having a smartphone much more useful.

As an Exchange email user I have always preferred HTC Sense for Android and Exchange, but Samsung actually does a good job on the Galaxy S III. You can view your email in conversation mode, search the server for email, view all of your Outlook folders, and more. The only thing that really bugs me is that I cannot seem to turn off the email deletion pop-up. The device also integrates Samsung Approved for Enterprise (SAFE) technology for syncing corporate email, calendars, and contacts. Exchange works well through the email client, but is still a bit behind HTC Sense when it comes to quick filters and the general layout of the application.

Software: Gesture support

Samsung has been using motion in their devices for a while and you will find all kinds of motion/gesture support in the Galaxy S III. Within the motion settings area you will find toggles for the following:

  • Direct call: Raise the phone to call the person displayed on your screen
  • Smart alert: Pick up your device to be notified about missed calls and messages
  • Tap to top: Double tap on top of the phone to go to the top of the contact list, email list or email message.
  • Tilt to zoom: Zoom in or out of the screen when in the Gallery or browser
  • Pan to move icon: Move your phone right or left while holding your selected icon to reposition it to another page
  • Pan to browse images: Pan to move left, right, up or down an image when zoomed in
  • Shake to update: Shake your phone to scan for Bluetooth, Kies air devices, and more
  • Turn over to mute/pause: Turn your phone over to mute incoming calls, message alerts, and alarms or to pause your music
  • Palm swipe to capture: Swipe the side of your hand across the screen to capture a screenshot
  • Palm touch to mute/pause: Mute or pause sounds while playing media with the screen on

Many of the motion options will appear as pop-up hints and tips the first time you get into a situation where the motion can be used. There is a checkbox to select so you don't see these pop-ups again as well.

Software: Settings

You may think it strange that I have a section on settings, but Samsung includes so much in here that I had to let you know about some of the unique settings. I also had trouble finding things, such as how to customize the lock screen shortcuts, that I wanted to raise the awareness of what is on the Galaxy S III. While many parts of the device are simple and straightforward, much of my attraction with Android is the ability to customize and tweak things to my specific desires and Samsung goes beyond what many others have provided.

Settings are divided into four sections; wireless and network, device, personal, and system. Wireless and network includes WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular data, Kies, VPN, WiFi Calling, NFC, hotspot, Android and S Beam, and WiFi Direct. Pretty much all of your wireless functions can be controlled and managed in this area of the settings.

Device settings include sound, display, wallpaper, LED indicator, motion, power saving toggle, storage, battery, and application manager. A unique feature in the sound settings is the ability to create custom vibration patterns that can even be used for specific contacts. I have never seen this before on any device. Volume controls are available for music/video/games, ringtones, notifications, and system so you have fine control over your phone.

Personal settings include accounts and sync, location services, security, language and input, and backup and reset. Make sure to setup Dropbox since Samsung gives you a whopping 50GB for free for the life of your two year contract. Other available accounts include Samsung, ChatON, Email (POP/IMAP), Facebook, Google, T-Mobile MobileLife Contacts, and Exchange. You can customize your lock screen apps within the security section of the settings. Other security options include selecting a type of screen lock, encryption options, password visibility, device administration, and credential storage.

System settings include dock, date and time, accessibility, developer options, and about device. Accessibility options include auto-rotation, toggle to answer the phone by pressing the home hardware button, screen timeout setting, font size, and more.

How does the Galaxy S III compare with the Galaxy Nexus?

These two smartphones are just about the same size and weight with the Galaxy S III being just a hair wider. The improved 8 megapixel on the Galaxy S III stands out above the rather lame 5 megapixel one on the Galaxy Nexus. Both have the same HD Super AMOLED display technology with the Galaxy S III slightly larger at 4.8 inches versus 4.65 inches. The Galaxy Nexus, GSM version I have, comes with integrated 16GB of memory while the Galaxy S III comes in both 16GB and 32GB models with a microSD card slot.

The major benefit of the Galaxy Nexus is the ability to have a pure Google device with the chance to get the next OS update faster. I can use Google Wallet on my Nexus, but carriers block me from using it on my other supported devices. However, as I detailed earlier there is a ton of software enhancements included by Samsung in the Galaxy S III so you really shouldn't be that concerned about a fast update to Jelly Bean when ICS is great as installed on the device.

How does the Galaxy S III compare with the HTC One X?

I think the HTC One X is a better piece of hardware, but the lack of a removable battery and microSD card slot takes away from the appeal a bit. HTC Sense is very good with ICS, but Samsung offers more on the Galaxy S III. Both cameras are great with lots of options in the camera software, but Samsung does a better job of making it quick and easy to share capture content.

HTC has Beats Audio on the One X and it does improve the sound, but I don't think it is enough of a differentiator to justify the device alone. Unfortunately, the HTC One X is only available on one carrier, AT&T, and if HTC had been able to get it on all the carriers it might be a different story about which one is the better choice.

Should you purchase a Samsung Galaxy S III?

If you are eligible for an upgrade, then I think you have two real options for the foreseeable future. Purchase a Galaxy S III and enjoy it now or wait to see what Apple is going to come out with in a couple more months. I personally plan to use my iPad for iOS experiences and thus I plan to purchase my own Galaxy S III, either on T-Mobile or Verizon. My wife's SIM is going into this review device this weekend and I'll see what her decision is after the weekend is over.

Topics: Mobility, Android, Reviews, Samsung

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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