Samsung's Galaxy smartphones have proven popular, both with reviewers and in the marketplace. Last year's Galaxy S II received an Editors' Choice award, making it a hard act to follow: has Samsung managed it with the Galaxy S III?
Our review sample came from Vodafone, where it's available free on £41-a-month contracts. It costs around £500 (inc. VAT; £417 ex. VAT) SIM-free.
In our recent review of the Windows Phone 7.5-based Nokia Lumia 900 we noted that its 4.3in. screen made it a bit too large to use and carry around comfortably. The Galaxy S III has an even larger 4.8in. screen. That's approaching the screen size of the 5.3in. Galaxy Note tablet/phone hybrid, making it one very large handset.
We found it impossible to reach across the S III's screen for one-handed use, and it was difficult to stow the phone in most of our pockets. Even so, it felt a little less unwieldy than the Nokia Lumia 900 in the hand. That must be down to physical design, which we find sleek and attractive.
Samsung's 8.6mm-thick Galaxy S III has a very large 4.8in. Super AMOLED screen, weighs 133g and comes in white or blue/grey
The Galaxy S III measures 70.6mm wide by 136.6mm deep by 8.6mm thick and weighs 133g, compared to the Lumia 900's 68.5mm by 127.8mm by 11.5mm and 160g. The S III's remarkably thin design somehow mitigates the fact that the frame of the Samsung handset is slightly taller and wider than that of the Lumia 900; the S III is also considerably lighter than Nokia's device. Even though it's still a bit too unwieldy for our taste, the Galaxy S III feels the more comfortable and less brick-like to use of the two high-end smartphones.
There's no doubting the screen quality: the S III's 4.8in. 720-by-1,280-pixel Super AMOLED screen knocks the Nokia 900's 4.3in. 480-by-800-pixel panel into a cocked hat in terms of viewability. It's absolutely superb for activities like video viewing and web browsing — you can read the text on many web sites without any zooming at all. The display is sharp, clear and bright, and simply looks and feels superb. You can choose between four screen colour saturation modes — Dynamic, Standard, Natural and Movie.
Business users with a serious email habit may also find the on-screen keyboard more efficient than many: the extra screen area makes it easy to tap keys accurately at speed.
The Galaxy S III is not as robustly built as the Lumia 900, despite both devices being made from polycarbonate. Where Nokia uses a thick, solid, battery-encasing unibody design, Samsung has gone for a slimline construction. It's still reasonably robust, but the backplate is incredibly thin — in fact, we almost snapped it in two it when we removed it for the first time.
The Galaxy S III's closest competitor is the HTC One X. HTC's new flagship smartphone has a slightly smaller 4.7in. screen, but it matches the S III's 720-by-1,280-pixel resolution. The One X measures 69.9mm wide by 134.36mm deep by 8.9mm thick, making it very close to the Galaxy S III in size.
Where the HTC and Samsung handsets differ most design-wise is in the below-screen button arrangement. Samsung has stuck to its physical Home button with two backlit Menu and Back touch buttons that light up when the area left and right of the physical button is tapped. The lighting duration can be toggled between 1.5 and 6 seconds, or you can set the lights to be always off or always on. There's also an LED whose functions you can personalise in the Settings area.
Elsewhere, the on/off button is on the right edge and there's a volume rocker on the left. The headset jack is on the top, while the Micro-USB connector is on the bottom. No surprises there, and everything is very ergonomically positioned.
The Galaxy S III is available in white and blue. We were sent the latter for review, the shade being a pleasing blue/grey. Both the screen and the shiny blackpate attract fingerprints readily.
Given that Samsung Galaxy S III will set you back nearly £500 (inc. VAT; £417 ex. VAT), it needs to offer absolutely top-notch specifications — which it does.
The processor is Smasung's own 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos 4212 Quad, supported by 1GB of memory. With this CPU/RAM combo at its heart, the handset felt fast and responsive.
Our review unit had 16GB of internal storage. That's less than the 32GB in the HTC One X and the same amount as the Nokia Lumia 900. Unlike both of these handsets, however, the Galaxy S III has a microSD card slot for storage expansion. This sits beneath the backplate, next to the microSIM card slot.
Samsung also provides Dropbox preinstalled. Part of the setup process involves signing in or creating a new account, whereupon you get 48GB of cloud storage for two years.
Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth (4.0+A2DP, EDR) and GPS (A-GPS, GLONASS) are present. HSPA connectivity is available at up to 21Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up, mobile network permitting. WiFi Direct is supported along with DLNA, while Kies Air allows for file management over Wi-Fi.
Samsung has also built NFC into the handset, and augmented it with S-Beam, which lets you transfer documents and other files between Galaxy S III handsets by placing them back to back. Samsung might do well to roll this feature out across its range in order to foster brand loyalty.
The Galaxy S III runs the latest Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), as you'd expect from a flagship smartphone. It has an 8-megapixel main camera at the back and a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera.
Samsung features like Smart Stay (camera-mediated screen timeout override) and S-Beam (short-range wireless file transfer) help to differentiate the Galaxy S III
There are lots of user interface tweaks and added features, many of them exploiting motion control.
Smart Stay uses the front camera to gauge when you're looking at the phone and overrides screen timeouts. We found this only worked intermittently, and it definitely seemed to need bright lighting conditions. A disclaimer pops up when you run the service saying that it won't work in the dark; in our experience, it might be more accurate to say it only works with plenty of ambient light.
If you start writing a text and then decide to make a voice call instead, when you lift the phone to your ear the handset will automatically initiate a voice call. Samsung calls this tweak Direct Call.
When setting up shortcuts on any of the seven home screens it can be tricky to physically drag them between screens one-handed because of the sheer size of the screen. So instead you can move the device to the left or right while holding down an icon to pan through the home screens, letting go when the icon is on the required screen.
Other motion-controlled settings include tilting the handset to zoom in and out when in the Gallery or web browsing, tilting the device to pan around zoomed images and flipping the handset over to mute its ring. You can also configure the device to accept a sweeping gesture with the edge of your palm as an instruction to make a screen capture, and mute the volume if you cover the screen with your hand.
The 8-megapixel camera shoots HD video and benefits from a number of tweaks. Best Photo mode shoots eight photos in burst mode and lets you retain the best one. It also matches the HTC One X in the camera's ability to capture stills while shooting a video.
Samsung also augments the range of applications you get out of the box. We're not sure we like the Calendar being renamed as S Planner, but it does make it consistent with other Samsung apps such as S Voice (a voice assistant), S Suggest (an app suggestion utility), and S memo (a note-taker).
We find S Voice a little hit-and-miss: it requires an internet connection to parse the spoken word and deliver instructions back to the phone, and it didn't always get things right in our tests. Voice control still feels like a gimmick.
Performance & battery life
By sticking with a touch-based Menu button Samsung is arguably flying in the face of how Android 4.0 handles the menu option, with its move to in-app buttons. Some may find this confusing, although those moving up from earlier Android versions may actually find the button more intuitive. Android 4.0's Recent Apps button isn't anywhere to be found either, but a long press on the physical Home button segues into that feature. We had no problem with Samsung's arrangements.
Samsung equips the Galaxy S III with a capacious 2,100mAh battery, which is needed to drive the quad-core processor and 4.8in. display. With average usage of connected services such as email and the web, and some GPS activity, we generally got to the end of the working day before a short recharge to ensure that the device would continue to run all evening. That's an improvement on the midday battery boost we often find is needed with a high-end smartphone.
If you need to squeeze the maximum life from the battery, there's a power-saving mode that slows down the processor, disables haptic feedback among other tweaks.
The Galaxy S III is a very impressive smartphone. Samsung has put a lot of thought into adding value to Android 4.0, taking advantage of motion control and sweeping gestures. It's a pity that Smart Stay didn't work well for us, but we can see its potential.
The Galaxy S III has the edge over HTC's flagship One X, thanks to its slightly larger screen and microSD card support.
For us, Samsung's Galaxy S III is currently the state of the smartphone art, which is why we've given it an Editor's Choice award. Now, if Samsung could produce a slightly smaller companion with the same features we'd be delighted.