The Galaxy S III, announced at a highly anticipated event last week, immediately impressed me with its advanced software. Samsung has stuffed the SGS III with so many features that my mind explodes every time I try to remember all of them - and what you saw during the unveiling is only half the story. There's more, a lot more, which is why the S III is going to be the most interesting Android phone to play with and review this year.
On the hardware front, "the next Galaxy" is quite beefy, and the only letdowns for me were the likely lack of LTE in the quad-core version and the looks. Initially, I was kind of turned off by the overly rounded corners and the weird skinny middle button (so were some of you), but I wanted to defer judgment until I got to play with it in person.
Thankfully, Samsung, which doesn't even have a booth at CTIA this year, let six of these bad boys out to play for a few hours at Mobile Focus last night, which finally satisfied my cravings (though they had to pry them from my hands - the fingers just wouldn't let go). Read on for my impressions and an 8-minute video with a rundown of some features you probably didn't know existed.
- 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED HD Display
- 1GB RAM
- 16/32GB storage, 64GB version planned
- microSD Card slot up to 64GB
- 8MP rear shooter with zero shutter lag, 3.3 shots per second burst mode, HDR and 1080p HD support
- 1.9MP front camera with "face recognition" and HD video capabilities
- 2100 mAh battery removable with Wireless Charging technology support (though this requires an aftermarket accessory)
- Bluetooth 4.0 (LE)
- Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, Wi-Fi HT40
- Notification LED
- 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm, 133g
- Android 4.0.4, at least right now
Let's get this out of the way - the Galaxy S III in person feels and looks about a metric crapton better (that's the scientific term) than it does in press photos. The screen is absolutely gorgeous - even though it's using the same technology as the Galaxy Nexus, it still somehow looks better. Perhaps it's the Gorilla Glass 2, which is about 20% thinner, or perhaps they put in some software optimizations - I'm not sure. The whole pentile debacle is not an issue for me with this phone at all.
I absolutely love the way the Epic Touch looks, but after checking it out side-by-side with the S III, it suddenly looks dated. What? How did this happen? I could swear I said the exact opposite of this a week ago, but seeing both in person reversed that right up.
The Galaxy S III feels really good in your hand. I am a fan of large-screen phones, and the S III has the perfect size for me. It's a little longer than the S II, which some people may have a problem with, but hey - you gain almost 0.3", which is very noticeable. The bezel is about the same size, but because the edges are more rounded, it actually creates more edge-to-edge illusion, which I definitely won't complain about.
The phone is relatively light and definitely feels lighter than it looks. The only problem I have is the rear cover - it's made with what Samsung calls hyperglazing - a rich coating that, unfortunately, is still very prone to fingerprints. I'm not even talking about the gloss - it's just so ugly. Can we at least have a matte replacement cover, Samsung?
The good news, on the other hand, is that it won't get dirty every couple of days like the One X. As for the material itself, I actually don't mind the plastic - if you've ever used a Galaxy s II, you'll know that it's almost impossible to damage. I've dropped the Epic Touch more than any other device (it's a slippery little bugger), but it still looks mint. The One S - not so much.
As far as the color preference, I would definitely go with the darker option. While the white One X tends to look a lot better than the gray one, in Samsung's case the situation is just the opposite. The main reasons are the absence of the black/white contrast on the front, which gives the One X its signature bad-ass looks (in my opinion, it's the single best looking mobile device to date) and the plasticky back that looks a whole lot better in dark blue.
Looks pretty good there, doesn't it?
Oh my, where do I start... First of all, the S III is buttery smooth. I wasn't able to make it choke right there on the spot, but I'll have to reserve judgment until I have a few days to play with it and load up close to 200 apps that I have loaded on my daily driver.
Unfortunately, and this is a big one, the notorious screen-on delay that annoys me greatly on the Epic Touch is still present. It can take literally 2-3 seconds for the display to wake up when you press the power button, which is absolutely unacceptable. I can't believe Samsung hasn't fixed this problem - in contrast, HTC always reacts immediately - even the original EVO 4G screen-on time beats the S III every time. Seriously, guys, fix it. It's embarrassing.
I asked the Samsung rep about the green "Gingerbready" feel of the notification area and got a response I anticipated - they want people who are already kind of familiar with Galaxy products to feel somewhat at home. Those customers who have never played with stock ICS wouldn't even know what they're missing, and while I can partly see where Samsung is coming from, I also think they've made the wrong decision here. I think most of you would agree with me. Drop the green, Samsung, it's starting to look dated. Please?
The best part of the Galaxy S III experience is a huge pile of extra features, easily double any other Android device. This is the first time I would seriously consider permanently sticking with the stock OS - I have big doubts that custom ROMs would ever be able to catch up, even if they succeed in porting some of the features. Every manufacturer tries to differentiate, but I can confidently say that nobody has ever differentiated the way Samsung did. I am one of those people who actually enjoy TouchWiz 4.0 (though I immediately swap out the launcher), so I welcome further improvements Samsung made in the SGS III.
Here are just some of them:
- Smart stay - a sensor periodically checks to see if you're looking at the screen and keeps it lit up. If it dimmed because you turned away, the phone will undim it when it catches you looking again. I've tested this, and it really works. Because the sensor is not on all the time, I think the battery hit is negligible - Samsung wasn't born yesterday and took it into account while carefully designing every feature. Of course, we'll have to see just how good or bad battery life is when we get our review unit.
- Smart alert - a friendly vibrating nudge lets you know if you have missed calls or messages waiting when you pick up the phone. Love, love, love everything about this - we've finally entered the territory of truly useful features that all add up and place this device on a whole new level.
- Direct call - another feature that just makes so much sense. Looking at an SMS? Just put the phone to your ear, and it'll dial the number of the person you were texting with automatically. If you've watched the keynote, you already know this, but did you also know that it works on a contact detail and call log pages? Brilliant.
- Face and voice unlock - in addition to the ICS face unlock, the S III features an additional "face and voice" unlock method, which should theoretically be more secure.
- Gestures galore - you can perform a wiper-blade gesture to take a screenshot, there is a gesture for firing up the camera or jumping to the top of a scrollable list by double tapping the top of the phone. You can also pause videos (and probably music) by placing your palm over the screen for a moment, although I'd like to see whether this works with apps that aren't focused. Otherwise, a single screen tap, which accomplishes the same thing, seems a whole lot easier. I'm sure there are more gestures I'm forgetting, but we'll find them all in the review.
- Pop up play - just like with Stick It!, videos can be overlaid over other apps, so, for example, when you get a message, you can reply while continuing to watch cats making fools of themselves. You wouldn't want to miss that, would you?
- Best photo - just like the One series, the S III can take a bunch of photos in rapid succession and then automatically pick one to save. Unlike the One series, you need to actually put the camera into Burst mode first. I was also surprised that pressing Best Photo doesn't actually show what photo ended up being the best and just switches back to camera mode. I hope that can be changed in the settings, because I want to make the final decision.
- Share shot - this is something Samsung added to the camera that I haven't heard of before. Share shot uses Wi-Fi Direct to share images between all connected devices. So if you go to a party and connect with your friends who also take photos, you will all end up with everyone's photos. And because it doesn't require Wi-Fi (but rather Wi-Fi Direct), you won't need to be connected to an existing Wi-Fi network and won't need to mess with Wi-Fi passwords. This feature is demoed in the video above around 2:50.
- S Voice - voice recognition, a la Siri, which actually works really well. I especially like that it is aware of the history - you can almost have a whole conversation with it about one topic. For example, "set alarm" - "what time?" - "1pm" - "here's your alarm," followed by the image of the clock. This is the prettiest and most polished implementation of a voice assistant to ever hit Android, hands-down. I am curious if they're still using Nuance-owned Vlingo in the backend or not.
- S Beam is a mashup of NFC and Wi-Fi direct, which allows you to beam images, videos, music, and other files a whole lot faster and at greater distances than NFC. This marriage makes so much sense, it's almost a no-brainer.
- Social tagging, buddy photo share - the Galaxy S III uses facial recognition to analyze and auto-tag your photos. If it's unsure of a match, it'll show a question mark next to the name, which you can then approve. Once you click on IDed names, you can call, text, email, or interact with them on social networks. You should be also able to share the photo you're looking at with the contacts displayed, but I wasn't able to demo this feature properly. This feature is demoed in the video around the 2:00 mark.
- AllShare Play - as far as I understood, AllShare Play, previously called AllShare, has 2 parts - cloud sync and direction connection. The first bit is powered by SugarSync and is basically a cloud service that's deeply integrated into the OS. You can register up to six devices (they don't all have to be SGS IIIs) and have them sync files to the cloud. Oh hey - 50GB of Dropbox storage for 2 years is not so bad either, don't you think (the Tab 2 has the same deal as well)? Having two cloud storage services on one device is kind of weird, but hey, we'll take it.
If I got it right, you can also directly connect to devices that are currently accessible (via 3G, 4G, or Wi-Fi) and transfer files bypassing the cloud. However, I am not able to confirm it at this point.
- AllShare Cast streams photos and videos to your TV, presumably using DLNA or Wi-Fi Direct. An optional AllShare Cast dongle lets you stream them to TVs that have an HDMI input. While we didn't get any demos of AllShare Cast at this event, we did manage to snag a video back in London.
- Group Cast - we didn't get all the details, but presumably this is a local Wi-Fi group chat. I'm not sure whether you can transfer things outside of messages this way, we'll have to see when we get a review unit.
- News ticker built right into the lockscreen - need a quick news update? Just enable the news ticker and look at the bottom part of the screen. You can also expand the ticker and peek at more headlines by flicking it up. Pressing on each story fires up the web browser. This feature is demoed around 7:00.
- The notification quick access toggles have been enhanced, and now include additional functions, such as toggling mobile data, driving mode, sync, notifications, screen rotation (finally - my Epic Touch doesn't have it), and power savings. Since there are now many more buttons than before, the whole area swipes sideways. This feature is shown in the video towards the very end.
There are likely more features we haven't found yet that will surface upon closer inspection. This makes me very excited - no phone has ever been as intriguing as this one.
The Galaxy S III, you can't come soon enough.
A Note on U.S. Availability
As we all know, the S II had a disastrous timeline with U.S. carriers - by the time the phone was available in the States, it was already half a year old. While all Samsung reps were very vague on availability, they all seemed quite upbeat on the announced summer timeline. If I didn't know better, I'd say we'll have the S IIIs here in June, but we also know U.S. carriers and their notoriously long testing procedures. Still, I got the vibe that the wheels were put in motion well in advance, and this launch will be nothing like the SGS II's. We'll have to see about that, but I'm feeling optimistic.