Samsung Galaxy S III review: A rock star phone, but does it deliver?

Samsung's Galaxy S III is one of the most hotly anticipated Android phones ever. We test it to see if it lives up to the hype.

It isn't every day a phone like Samsung's Galaxy S III comes into the world. The Galaxy S III is practically a celebrity, thanks both to the massive public interest surrounding it and the Olympic-sized promotional pushSamsung's providing.

Hype and presentation, however, don't always equal greatness -- and these days, there's no shortage of eye-catching smartphones available. So does the Samsung Galaxy S III do enough to stand out from the pack?

Samsung Galaxy S III

I wanted to find out. I've been using the Galaxy S III in place of my own personal phone for the past several days -- going back and forth between a white AT&T model and a blue T-Mobile model -- and I've learned a lot about where the phone shines and where it falls short. So dim the lights and get ready: Our latest rock star is about to take center stage.

(Note: The Galaxy S III will be sold by all four major U.S. carriers as well as U.S. Cellular. We've included a chart that lists some of the details; you can find the full rundown of launch dates, prices, and model availability in my carrier-by-carrier guide.)

Body and display

Samsung has made much of the fact that its Galaxy S III is "designed for humans" -- not only that, but it's "inspired by water, wind, leaves, and pebbles." (Please, someone gag me now.) Here's the truth: The "magical" marketing speak is great for commercials, but it has little to do with the real world. The Galaxy S III is just a phone.

That said, it's a very nice phone, and its quality is apparent the second you pick it up. The Galaxy S III is a sexy piece of hardware, all angles and curves; its back panel is so smooth and glossy that you can actually see your reflection in it.

The Galaxy S III's casing is made of plastic, like most Samsung phones. Though the back panel feels a bit flimsy when removed -- bend it too far and it might just snap -- the material feels durable when in place.

The Galaxy S III is 2.8 x 5.4 x 0.34 in., making it slightly longer and thinner than the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy Nexus (U.S. versions). The phone weighs 4.7 oz. -- a hair more than the One X and 0.4 oz. less than the U.S. Galaxy Nexus.

The new Galaxy doesn't feel overly large in the hand, which is quite a feat when you consider its supersized 4.8-in. screen. Samsung has managed to include a large display while still achieving a sleek-feeling form; the phone is well-designed and quite comfortable to hold. The glossy back feels somewhat slick compared to the textured material on a phone like the Galaxy Nexus, but despite my initial concerns, I never felt the device slipping from my hands.

One thing I did feel was heat: Both the white AT&T model and the blue T-Mobile model occasionally became quite warm to the touch during use (and not even resource-intensive use -- just casual Web and social media browsing). The phones never got so hot that I couldn't physically hold them, but they got hot enough that I was acutely aware of the temperature, both on the back casings and on the glass displays.

Speaking of displays, the Galaxy S III packs a 1280 x 720 HD Super AMOLED screen. The screen looks good: Colors are bright and blacks are satisfyingly deep. Display aficionados may balk at the Pentile-based nature of the technology, which is generally considered to be less impressive than the LCD-based alternative seen on phones like the One X. While there's certainly merit to that argument, it's hard to call the Galaxy S III's display a weak point; even looking at the Galaxy S III and the One X side by side, the difference in display quality is difficult to detect. Unless you're finely tuned into subtle display differences, you're going to be pleased.

A warning, though: The autobrightness feature on the phone isn't so great. The display frequently adjusted itself to a too-dim setting during my use, which proved to be mildly irritating. (You can, of course, set your brightness manually, but that sort of defeats the purpose of having an autobrightness tool.) Hopefully Samsung can correct this via a future firmware update.

The Galaxy S III has an LED notification light on its front that alerts you to missed calls and messages; if you want, you can use a third-party LED notification control app to make the light even more useful. The phone has a volume rocker on its left side, a headphone jack on the top, a power button on the right, and a charging port on the bottom. The charging port can be used to connect the phone to a TV or monitor via HDMI, though you'll need a special adapter to make it work. (Adapters from older Samsung phones won't do the trick).

It's worth mentioning that unlike past-generation models, the Galaxy S III will be relatively constant from carrier to carrier. The back-of-phone branding and app additions (a.k.a. bloatware -- more on that in a bit) are the only real differences in the various networks' phones.

Samsung Galaxy S III carriers and pricing

*After $100 mail-in rebate. **20 monthly payments of $20 ***After $50 mail-in rebate All prices require new two-year contracts.

The buttons -- oh, the buttons

With Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich, Google is moving the platform toward a button-free environment: Instead of devices relying on physical navigation buttons, as they once did, Android 4.0 revolves around the concept of virtual on-screen buttons that rotate to match a device's orientation.

Some manufacturers are resisting this change -- perhaps in an attempt to achieve consistency with past designs or maybe just because their hardware was conceived before Android 4.0 came around. Samsung's Galaxy S III is among the 4.0-level devices whose design is clinging to Android's past instead of embracing its future, and that takes an unfortunate toll on the quality of the user experience.

In stock Ice Cream Sandwich (left), all options are accessible via on-screen icons. In Samsung's version (right), many options show up only if you press the phone's physical menu button.

The Galaxy S III has three buttons on its face: a centered hardware "home" button and a capacitive button on either side. This is where Samsung's decision-making gets most vexing: One of the capacitive buttons is a "back" control, which is sensible enough, but the other is a "menu" control -- something phased out of Android after the 2.3-level release in order to move away from having hidden functions and make the platform more user-friendly.

Having a menu button on the Galaxy S III makes the phone feel dated and results in a far less fluid and intuitive user experience. Functions remain hidden and hard to find, and the menu button doesn't even work consistently throughout the system (in the Camera app, for example, there's an on-screen menu button; pressing the physical button does nothing).

Samsung also elected not to include an app-switching button of any sort -- something that's now standard in Ice Cream Sandwich -- and instead requires users to long-press the physical home button in order to activate the multitasking tool. The multitasking tool is one of the high points of Ice Cream Sandwich and something you'll likely want to access often; having it buried in a place that requires a two-second long-press is a serious downer and another ding that makes the phone feel dated.

Sadly, the Galaxy S III's button problems don't stop there: Philosophical approach aside, the mix of a hardware home button with capacitive back and menu buttons simply doesn't work. Once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring and feels bizarre. I can't count the number of times I found myself touching the home button only to realize I had to press it firmly to make it work.

On top of that, the phone's capacitive buttons are frequently not lit up -- and when they aren't illuminated, you can't see them at all. When the buttons are lit up on the white model of the phone, you see quite a bit of light bleed around them. And for some reason, Samsung opted to put the back button on the right side of the phone instead of the left, where Google has it placed in Ice Cream Sandwich; this seemingly trivial decision makes the phone unnatural to use for anyone accustomed to any other ICS phone or tablet.

When the buttons are lit on the white model, there is light bleed around them.

Much ado about buttons, I know. But all in all, I feel like Samsung made some very bad decisions with its Galaxy S III button design -- and with buttons being such a crucial part of the phone-using experience, the impact is significant.

Under the hood

While the international Galaxy S III model runs on a quad-core processor, the U.S. models utilize a 1.5GHz dual-core chip made by Qualcomm. They also have a whopping 2GB of RAM -- twice the RAM of their international brothers as well as all current high-end phones on the U.S. market.

So what's that actually mean? The phone is fast -- really fast. The Galaxy S III flies with most any task: Swiping between home screens is smooth, apps load instantly and Web browsing is as speedy as can be. No amount of multitasking seems to slow this sucker down.

That said, it's hard to quantify the effect of the extra RAM in real-world terms; even though the phone's speed is impressive, other recent high-end devices like the One X and Galaxy Nexus have similarly snappy performance. Based on my experiences, I'd say the Galaxy S III has a little extra zip in certain areas, but with the other top-tier phones being as fast as they are, it's tough to tell any major difference in most everyday usage.

The Galaxy S III uses a 2100 mAh battery that can be removed and replaced. I found the phone's battery life to be good but not incredible: One day, for example, I spent about an hour reading online content and a half-hour streaming music with Pandora. By lunchtime, my battery was down from a full charge to 58%; by 5 p.m., after a seven-minute phone call and a few minutes of quick on-and-off Internet usage, it was down to 36%.

Still, with moderate to heavy use, I was generally able to make it to the end of the day -- or close to it -- without getting a low-battery warning. The Galaxy S III is no Razr Maxx when it comes to stamina, but it's certainly no slouch.

The Galaxy S III comes with your choice of 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. It also supports up to 64GB of external storage via a microSD slot located beneath the back cover. Some models of the phone include 50GB of free Dropbox storage for two years; the AT&T and Verizon models, however, do not.

Samsung's Galaxy S III is 4G-ready, though connection type and speed will obviously depend on your carrier. The AT&T and Verizon models run on LTE right now, where such service is available, while the Sprint model will be limited to 3G data speeds until Sprint's LTE network has launched. The T-Mobile version, meanwhile, utilizes the carrier's HSPA+-level 4G network.

I had no issues with voice quality on the Galaxy S III; calls were loud and clear, and people on the other end of the line reported being able to hear me just fine. The Galaxy S III does have a series of in-call EQ settings, but I was unable to detect any difference with the optimizations on vs. off.

The Galaxy S III has full support for near-field communications (NFC), which enables you to use contact-free payment and phone-to-phone data-sharing services. Samsung has built in support for some interesting types of contact-free interactions; I'll explore them fully in a blog later this week.

Cameras

Camera quality is becoming an area of distinction for high-end smartphones, and with its Galaxy S III, Samsung doesn't disappoint. The Galaxy S III's 8-megapixel main camera consistently captures sharp shots with vibrant, true-to-life colors and fantastic detail.

In some ways, the Galaxy's camera lags behind the lens used by HTC on its One series -- Samsung's camera lacks a dedicated image chip, for example, and has a more limited aperture range than HTC's -- but it took great-looking photos in almost any environment.

Samsung's Galaxy S III camera is capable of capturing images in HDR mode, which quickly snaps shots at different light exposures and then combines them into a single photo.

A sample photo taken with the Galaxy S III's camera.

The camera also has a "burst shot" mode that allows you to hold the shutter and capture 20 photos in rapid-fire paparazzi style. The interface for this mode is a bit of a letdown, though; whereas HTC made the function available on-demand on its One phones, Samsung requires you to scroll through a menu to find and activate the function before it'll work with every use.

The Galaxy S III has a face-detection tagging feature that's supposed to recognize faces automatically and make it easy for you to share photos with friends. In my tests, the feature was very hit and miss; it worked as promised some of the time but just as frequently failed to recognize faces that had been programmed in.

The Galaxy S III's camera is capable of recording 1080p HD-quality video. The phone also has a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera for vanity shots and video chat; its photos aren't studio-quality, by any means, but compared to the majority of front-facing mobile cameras, they're actually quite good.

The software

The Galaxy S III runs a version of Android 4.0 heavily customized with Samsung's TouchWiz interface. The result is a mishmash of interesting features and inconsistent design; you could call it a Neapolitan version of Google's Ice Cream Sandwich.

The Galaxy S III interface (right) feels cluttered and busy compared to Google's base Android 4.0 UI (left).

In terms of the actual interface, Samsung trades the subdued gray-and-blue design introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich for a far more busily colored alternative. Many of Samsung's UI changes seem to have been made merely for the sake of change and at the expense of the user experience: For example, to create a home screen folder in the stock ICS software, you simply drag one icon onto another; with the Galaxy S III, you have to first drag an icon directly from the app drawer onto a "Create Folder" command at the bottom of the screen, then drag a second icon on top of it. Samsung essentially altered the process to make it more cumbersome and less intuitive.

Samsung packed plenty of bloat into the S III, too, ranging from its usual set of content-purchasing "hubs" to a series of Yahoo News applications. (The carriers have tacked on their share of garbage as well; thankfully, most of it can be disabled and hidden from view.) Even elements like the home screen widgets -- of which Samsung has added several of its own -- are visually random. The net result is an OS that feels cluttered and busy, which is a sharp contrast from the sleek simplicity Google achieved in its base ICS software.

Interface aside, Samsung made some innovative feature additions to the Galaxy S III's operating system -- things that actually do add value to the user experience. One of the most useful additions is something called SmartStay: When enabled, it allows the phone to use the front camera to "see" when you're looking at it and keep the screen from turning off.

Samsung also put power controls into the phone's notification area -- a feature that's handy, even if it could be achieved just as easily via third-party add-ons -- along with an option to display your exact remaining battery percentage at the top of the screen. Samsung's nature theme provides some pleasant visual flourishes, too, such as a rippling water effect that happens when you unlock the phone.

Some other noteworthy feature additions:

  • Samsung created a cool "Pop Up Player" that lets you watch a video while simultaneously conducting other tasks. The video plays in a floating picture-in-picture-style box that can be moved around the screen. The feature is wildly impressive and a great demonstration of the phone's power, though I question how often one would actually use it (particularly considering that videos have to be on the phone's local storage to work -- YouTube isn't supported).
  • The Galaxy S III has a host of new motion-based commands. Some of them are more novel than practical -- being able to tilt the phone to move an icon around on your home screen, for example -- while others are legitimately useful, like the ability to have the system automatically call someone when you move the phone to your ear while texting.
  • Samsung has provided a handful of gesture-based commands, like the ability to swipe left on someone's name in the Phone app to text her or swipe right to dial her number. It also, however, removed Google's ICS-level People app, which offers a centralized place to view your contacts and all their connected social network info.

Finally, there's S Voice, Samsung's voice-powered personal assistant that's clearly an answer to Apple's Siri. Like Siri, unfortunately, S Voice feels more like a gimmick than anything. In general, I found its accuracy and responsiveness to be inconsistent and unreliable.

The Galaxy S II's S Voice in action.

The few areas where S Voice shines are those in which it expands upon Google's own Voice Actions technology, which is integrated into Android by default. S Voice has a few useful additions to Google's simple command-driven tools, such as voice-activated options to set timers or toggle the phone's Wi-Fi mode. But it lacks some of the basic commands that make Voice Actions useful, such as the ability to compose and send an email.

The more natural-language-based functions are a waste of time. S Voice rarely understood me correctly, and even when it did, it almost always responded by apologizing for not having the answer and then prompting me to search the Web. (This happened even with easy queries like: "How tall is Michael Jordan?") Most tasks could be accomplished more effectively and with less aggravation by using Google's Voice Actions or just searching the Web directly.

Other elements of S Voice are integrated throughout the Galaxy S III, such as the ability to use voice commands to unlock the phone or to capture a picture while in the Camera app. Some of these functions are novel, but I found their reliability to be around 50% at best, which basically renders them useless.

(An observation: You can't talk about Samsung software without talking about upgrades. From the early days of Android through now, Samsung has been notoriously bad about providing timely OS upgrades to its users. The past doesn't necessarily predict the future, of course, but if fast and frequent upgrades are a priority to you, buying a Samsung Galaxy S phone sure seems like a risky bet to make.)

Bottom line

The Galaxy S III has a lot of great things going for it. The phone has a sexy, sleek design; a big, beautiful screen; and perhaps the best performance of any smartphone on the market today. The new Galaxy has an excellent camera, too, and some nice perks like NFC-based sharing and external storage support.

At a Glance

Galaxy S III

SamsungPrice: Varies according to carrier (see chart).Pros: Sleek design; big, beautiful screen; top-of-the-line performance; excellent camera; removable battery; supports external storage; has innovative features like "SmartStay" and "Pop Up Player"Cons: Dated button setup; awkward combination of physical and capacitive buttons; capacitive buttons can't be seen much of the time; has a tendency to run hot; busy and inconsistent UI compared to Google's base Android 4.0; lots of bloatware

For all its strengths, though, the Galaxy S III has some drawbacks that can't be ignored. Samsung's button approach is riddled with problems, ranging from an awkward combination of physical and capacitive buttons -- the latter of which frequently can't be seen at all -- to a dated choice of button commands. The phone's software has some commendable bonus features, but the overall user interface feels bloated, busy, and inconsistent compared to Google's base Android 4.0 OS.

Whether or not these things are deal-breakers is dependent on your perspective; if you're more of a casual smartphone user, you may not even think twice about them. For many people, the large number of positive qualities will outweigh the negatives. But if you're an Android enthusiast or someone who values a cutting-edge, optimal user experience, Samsung's choices may leave you feeling let down.

All considered, the Galaxy S III is a standout smartphone that easily earns a place among the Android elite. It isn't without its flaws -- no technology is -- but it's a mighty fine device with an awful lot to offer.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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