TechReview: Samsung Galaxy S3 Review
Writing tech reviews is not the typical concern for my blog, but I have done it before, and when I managed to get my hands on the S3 to use, I simply could not resist; I have owned the first and second generations of the phone and was looking forward to the third.
After using it for a few weeks, I can say that while the phone has its quirks, it really is a very good to have. I’ll be addressing the phone in the point of view of someone who has an iPhone and is looking to switch (like iDid when iFirst jumped ship to Android couple of years ago), and in light of people who have the HTC One X in their consideration set.
You can also have a look at my Storify feed which lists the related tweets as I have been using the phone.
The first aspect of the phone you’d be exposed to is the build quality, which, I have to say, is not as good as I have expected. Its predecessor, the Galaxy SII, feels more elegant in the hand; the textured matte back and the shiny rectangle where the camera sits were beautiful; the S3, however, will have iPhone users in seizures and looking for the nearest iTemple to cleanse their hands. I am not saying that the plastic is phenomenally bad; it is just decent, and feels less elegant.
That said, the phone feels comfortable, which is important given its size. The screen has a nice bevel like the HTC 1X but not as pronounced; it certainly is better than the SII’s bevel (where it bevels down). The design sports a curved form and a slightly curved back, so while the plastic does not feel as refined, it feels comfortable. I was not fond of the white S3; the gloss made it look even cheaper. The pebble blue — the version I got — is pleasing and the metal-brush gives off a high quality appearance under the light.
To be honest, though, I managed to get over the build quality by the mid of the second week. If build quality is very crucial to your decision, then the HTC 1X and the iPhone are unmatched.
If there’s a tangible difference between the screen on the S3 and the One X — or any phone — is the coating. It feels sort of “oily” to the touch and the finger just “slides”. On the One X, you feel slight resistance from the screen. Some of my colleagues were able to tell the difference and others could not, so it is a subtle and subjective observation.
As of this writing, the S3 is loaded with Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0.4) with Samsung’s TouchWiz 5.0 interface. Typically of vendors, the Android OS is bloated with their custom interface and apps that most people would not really care for. I have never been a fan of TouchWiz; it is just too colourful and seems to target a younger demographic (3-10 year olds). This version of TouchWiz, though, has “matured”, and looks quite similar to the stock Android OS, only replacing the beautiful blue hue with a green one as well as the toggles.
TouchWiz theme also applies to many of the default applications, replacing the blue on white stock colours with purplish-blue on very dark purplish-blue. I never liked dark-themed applications myself. The HTC 1X on the other hand is themed with the more elegant Sense UI, with a beautiful white, lime green, and grey interface that simply looks beautiful.
On the other hand, having used both phones I can tell that the HTC’s Sense interface consumes a lot of memory, slowing down the interface giving the HTC 1X the swipe lag Android phones and tablets are known for (iOS users know this too well). The TouchWiz on the S3 works perfectly. I have never believed that a non-stock Android interface can be this fast, but Samsung pulled it off with this edition of TouchWiz. The phone is just responsive. No matter how many widgets I add and how fast I swipe, it never lags. I even played a video on overlay (more on that later) and not a hint of slowdown. Brilliant.
The good thing about Android devices though is that, regardless of whether you’re on Sense or TouchWiz, you can replace your launcher and some of the default apps like SMS, dialler, and contacts, so the colour theme is not a terribly annoying issue for me. For those who dislike HTC’s Sense launcher, you can try Nova or Apex for a stock feel. TouchWiz replicates the stock launcher elegantly, but if it still annoys you then the alternative launchers work just as well.
Another thing that annoys me about TouchWiz is the Arabic font. It is just… weird. You can replace the fonts though in the settings and you can download some Arabic fonts using this app. It’ll replace the Arabic font in most areas but would show the default font in other areas. It’s an OK workaround, but I wish Samsung would decide on a better Arabic system font.
You can also transmit the music and videos on All Share to your Samsung TV or hook up the devices in crazy ways to get files and play games and stuff. This video explains it all.
There is one important aspect of the screen that I need to mention, which is the white balance. The colours on the S3 are great (once you go to settings and tone down the display settings to “natural”), and it looks fine as it is. If you put it next to the One X, however, you’d notice the difference in colours; the One X is superior, having a more natural, warmer “earthly” look compared to the colder white on the S3. You will not notice the difference unless you have Facebook open on both devices and have them next to each other. Like with any screen, the eyes will adapt to the white balance and only after looking at another screen would you notice the difference. I took a screenshot of both but the underlying OS takes the same colour so both are identical (and my monitor is calibrated differently than both phones anyway).
The plus side, though, is that the S3 has a dedicated menu button whereas the One X replaced the menu button with the task manager and integrated the menu within the interface itself as a dickbar. While both screens are the same size and resolution, the S3′s screen appears to be bigger only because the dickbar consumes real estate on the One X.
Music and Video
Thankfully, the applications play music files and video files ^_^. iPhone users will be pleased to know that the S3 can play practically any video and audio format I have thrown at it, so it doesn’t have to be encoded into Apple’s iCantPlayAnythingElse format. You can download plenty of music and video players from the Google Play store if you have one you like in particular.
As for quality, the S3 has a significantly louder speaker than the One X. Playing the same YouTube video on both devices sounded better on the S3 but looked more or less the same on both screens (some minor colour differences). However there were two things I have noticed: (1) the video loaded faster on the One X, and (2) YouTube offered an “HD” setting for the video on S3 and an “HQ” setting on the One X for the same video. Not sure what the basis of this was as I am certain that the One X is more than capable of playing back HD.
There is a gimmicky feature on the S3 for video playback which is more of a display of processing power than it is for functionality, which is that you can “detach” a video and “dock” it on your screen as an overlay while you browse your Facebook or type in an email. Useful? Probably you’ll just try it once or twice, but it is mostly for show off.
As for music, there is the traditional “hiss” when you crank up the volume so if you’re connecting the device into your car’s aux or RF you will need to spend a few good minutes finding the right balance between the volumes on both the S3 and your car’s audio system. The One X has Beats Audio, so I will just keep it at that.
An interesting feature which works roughly 80% of the time is the Music Square, which analyses your music and categorises them into various “moods”. You can then use the matrix to let the S3 pick songs that suit your current mood or variations of the mood; you can swipe across the board to have it select a combination between the moods. It is very interesting and a quick way to play anything that fits what you’re looking for without you having to manually go through your playlists or albums. It’s not perfect when you’ve got confusing music, but generally it works rather well.
The camera is probably the killer feature for me. HTC had a great campaign with their skydiving photoshoot, but they clearly had no clue of what Samsung had under their sleeve. The camera is GREAT, but not without flaws.
First, the good stuff. IT IS FAST. Launching the application from the lockscreen or the homescreen has it open in less than a second. There is ZERO shutter lag, just like the One X. Sorry, iOS users, but you really are missing out on a lot of moments. The burst mode is good, but not as fantastic as the One X (I hardly use it, but having the option is good). The HDR is much better than the iPhone’s. The front camera is of very high quality and the videos and photos that come out of it are really good. The camera sensor is very sensitive to light, so the scenes hardly look dull. The best feature, though, is the auto-focus: IT IS JUST TOO GOOD. It’s faster than the iPhone’s and the One X’s, and the macro focus is brilliant. I have never imagined I could get so close to a subject and maintain it in focus. The One X failed miserably when I tried to get it to focus on something within the same distance as the S3. The bokeh is good, too, and you can get more detail out of objects in the photo than the camera on the One X. The first row of photos are taken with the S3 and the second row with the One X (note that the lighting conditions were terrible in the cafe):
The not so good stuff: while the HDR is better than the iPhone (in my opinion), it is a bit too HDR-ish; almost everything gets a green tint. I don’t use it much but it in the few instances where I had to take an HDR shot, I was not too happy with how the colours turned out, but was quite happy with the exposure (which is the point of HDR). It’s a cell phone, in the end, so I am not expecting something like this out of it. Also, since it is more sensitive to light — it can go up to ISO 800 — you’d get a lot of photos with lots of grain on them if you keep your ISO settings on auto. So keeping it on auto is fine for most of the day, but when the lighting conditions are tricky, you may want to fiddle with the settings yourself.
That is from the default camera. The app I primarily use is called Vignette, possibly the best camera app I have used on any mobile operating system. You have more control over colours, borders, and effects, while retaining the auto-focus and macro capabilities of the camera. ISO and noise are more controlled as well. But regardless of which application you use, the sensor and focus system is the same, and they’re both great.
Other Functions and Battery
Other functions on the phone have a lot to do with “motion”, and there is a special settings menu just for that. With simple motions you can do things like make a call to the person you’re SMSing by raising the phone to your ear. You can swipe the screen for a screenshot (which I find awkward). You can mute the phone and music by placing your palm on the screen and do other funny things with motion that will make you look like a wizard with a wand in a café.
There’s also a “stay awake” setting which will have the phone track whether you’re looking at it before it goes into standby. It’s a good feature to have, but like car headlights that turn off on their own, you’ll eventually toggle it off. And it obviously does not work in the dark, either.
The battery is fantastic. It could easily last you 10 hours with moderate to heavy use, 16 hours on moderate use, and 26 hours on light use — also bear in mind that using it on WiFi or 3G will of course vary your results. For my uses, though, I unplug at 7:30 AM and come back home 12 hours later with some battery left. I am on 3G most of the day and my average “screen time” per day is 3 hours – 4 hours.
Wrapping it all up
To be honest, it is a tough choice between the S3 and the One X; where one falls short, the other excels. The One X has better build. The S3 has better camera. The One X has nicer UI. The S3 is more responsive. You can go on forever. It as as though both companies had a board meeting to decide on how to confuse people.
It ultimately falls on you on deciding what is important for your daily use. For me, the camera is a clear winner. The white balance aggravates me as a photographer, but as long as I don’t look at an HTC One X screen I will be OK. Though there are plenty of bells and whistles you can get on other phones (or custom ROMs, when they’re out), the camera, screen feel, and UI responsiveness were the features that won me over.
Pros: Camera, responsiveness, comfortable, sexy screen, battery life.
Cons: Build quality, white balance, TouchWiz theme.
Update [2012.06.11]: A few people have pointed out that I have not mentioned the S Voice anywhere in my review. This is because voice-recognition applications like S Voice, Siri, and others have a hard time understanding my heavy Arabic accent, so I can’t judge the phone’s performance based on my accent and an immature technology.