Mobile

Samsung’s Galaxy S III: It’s good to be the Android king (review)

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With the Galaxy S III, Samsung is downright flaunting its expertise with Android hardware. From its gorgeous screen, to its smooth curves, the phone is a beauty to behold. The Galaxy S III joins the latest wave of Android phones (which include HTC’s One series) that finally make Android feel like the superpowerful mobile OS Google has always promised.

But it wasn’t always this way — it’s sort of crazy to consider just how far Samsung has come over the past two years. I remember sitting in a Hell’s Kitchen warehouse as Samsung showed off its first Galaxy S models in the summer of 2010. They were sleek and sexy, but what was most remarkable was that Samsung managed to bring the phones to all four major U.S. carriers — a move that helped the company become the new Android king.

With the Galaxy S II last year, Samsung repeated its formula for success, ultimately shipping 28 million phones as of last month. Google too noticed Samsung’s quick rise to success and tapped the company to build its flagship Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus phones.

So it was no surprise when anticipation for the Galaxy S III reached Apple-levels of hysteria. Tech geeks rabidly scooped up every rumor about the next Galaxy entry, but Samsung, to its credit, managed to keep the phone secret via extreme measures.

Now the Galaxy S III is finally here, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The good: Samsung’s best Galaxy yet

Samsung Galaxy S IIIQuite honestly, it would have been hard for Samsung to screw up the Galaxy S III. The company has been building killer Android phones long enough that it can design these things in its sleep. And it also helps that Samsung builds the screens and processors that make its Galaxy S phones shine (though the chip situation got a bit more complicated this time around; more on that below).

When you first see the Galaxy S III in person, you can’t help but notice the gorgeous 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED display. The phone, surprisingly, doesn’t feel excessively large in your hands, thanks to its distinctly minimal front bezel. The screen clocks in at an impressive 720p resolution, and while it’s not as sharp as the iPhone 4S’s Retina Display, you likely won’t notice as you’re drooling over it.

The Galaxy S III’s screen is unsurprisingly bright — even in direct sunlight — but it does go a bit overboard with color saturation. Colors almost pop off the screen, something that looks impressive to the average consumer, but is far from accurate color reproduction. Graphics professionals need not apply to this display.

Form-wise, Samsung boasts that the Galaxy S III has no straight lines. Sticking with its new nature design theme, the phone resembles a river stone smoothed down by water, and it comes in Pebble Blue and Marble White colors. Even though the Galaxy S III’s case is plastic, it feels much smoother and higher-quality compared to past Galaxy phones. I’ve long railed against Samsung’s build materials, as they tend to make its devices feel cheap. With Android competitors like HTC moving towards metal unibody designs, Samsung needs to think twice before relying on plastic for its future phones. (Then again, Samsung’s case allows you to remove the phone’s battery, which HTC’s One series cases don’t.)

The phone runs Android 4.0, AKA Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest and greatest version of Google’s OS. We’ve written extensively about the improvements Google has made with Android 4.0, but in short, this is the update where Android finally gets a soul. The design of the platform is more unified, and overall everything is more polished. You won’t see much of what Google originally intended, though, since Samsung shackled its “TouchWiz Nature UX” on top of the OS. While Samsung’s software is much improved over past versions, I’d still prefer just using the plain Android 4.0 skin. (Intrepid users won’t have any trouble flashing their phones to new Android ROMs though.)

The North American and Japanese versions of the Galaxy S III feature blazing fast dual-core Snapdragon S4 processors running at 1.5 gigahertz. Samsung’s own quad-core Exynos chips power the international variants of the phone, but to fit in LTE 4G radios, Samsung had to opt for the dual-core setup.

No worries, though, the Snapdragon S4 is a massive upgrade over past dual core processors, so you won’t notice the absence of a quad core chip. Doing just about everything on the phone, from swiping through menus, to opening apps, felt almost instantaneous. Just like HTC’s One series, which also sports the S4 chips in America, the Galaxy S III doesn’t feel limited in any way when it comes to horsepower.

I tested out the AT&T LTE version of the Galaxy S III, and as always, I came away impressed with the strength of AT&T’s 4G network. Throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, I was able to get consistent download speeds between 10Mbps and 20 Mbps, and upload speeds of around 5 Mbps. It could be that AT&T’s LTE network is empty at the moment — I definitely expect those speeds to take a hit once the eventual LTE iPhone launches. When it comes to phone calls (yes, people still use their smartphones for calls), the Galaxy S III impressed me with its clarity.

The phone also sports an 8-megapixel rear camera that can take 1080p HD video, and a 1.9MP front-facing camera. The Galaxy S III’s camera interface is well-designed, and it offers burst and best-shot modes, similar to HTC’s new cameras. Shooting performance was fast (I often had to double-check to make sure the camera actually went off), and generally accurate, though it had trouble with dynamic range. Overall I found the camera to be among the best on any Android phone I’ve tested (check out a few test shots in the gallery below).

Hoping to make the Galaxy S III’s NFC functionality more useful, Samsung has added Beam sharing functionality to the phone, which allows you to share files with other Galaxy S III devices simply by tapping it. The process was a bit confusing when I tested it out during a Samsung demo, but the files zipped along speedily using Wi-Fi Direct. Samsung also unveiled its programmable NFC TecTiles last week, which are launching alongside the Galaxy S III.

With all of those features, it’s a good thing the Galaxy S III sports a huge 2,100 mAh battery. You’ll be able to enjoy the phone’s huge display and 4G speeds all day long. The phone lasted just fine for me throughout a normal workday, but I still had to charge it overnight (then again, doesn’t everyone do that?).

The bad: S Voice is no Siri

When Samsung debuted the Galaxy S III, it showed off S Voice, its spin on a virtual assistant clearly aimed at Apple’s Siri. Undeterred by Apple’s legal team, which has been aggressively charging Samsung with ripping off Apple’s designs, S Voice looks and functions very much like Siri. But, try as Samsung might, the company hasn’t yet cracked the secret to Siri’s magic.

I often had to repeat myself several times to get S Voice to answer my questions, and forget about trying to ask S Voice anything if there’s a bit of background noise. S Voice is also tied to some services, like CitySearch. But in my experience they generally return less useful results than Siri’s services. Asking S Voice for the nearest Japanese restaurant sent me to locations in Manhattan (I live in Brooklyn). When I asked Siri the same question, I was immediately recommended my favorite local restaurant, along with some other local places I didn’t even know about.

The takeaway: This is the Galaxy you’ve been waiting for

Two years after Samsung first showed off its Galaxy S models, the company finally has a no-compromise device that will make iPhone users jealous. (Of course, it also helps that Android is finally at a point where it doesn’t feel like a second-rate platform.) Even though the Galaxy S III doesn’t look radically different from last year’s models, there are plenty of major internal upgrades that make the phone a beast.

If you’ve been looking to jump into Android, especially if you’re currently an iPhone user, the Galaxy S III is your best bet.

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