Thursday, May 3, 2012

Samsung Galaxy S III hands-on and first impressions

Is it May 2012 already? Gosh, how fast has time flied this year. Well what better way to welcome the new month with a hands-on post about the new Samsung flagship superphone. Samsung today announced the Galaxy S III at the Samsung Unpacked 2012 PR event at Earl's Court in London. I was not supposed to attend (I've already booked off my break), but last minute rescheduling meant I was able to do so, just for you. But first let's get the specs out of the way.

  • Samsung Exynos 4212 SoC with 1.4 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU and Mali-400MP GPU
  • 1GB RAM and 16GB/32GB/64GB built-in flash storage
  • 4.8" Super AMOLED HD capacitive touchscreen with 720 x 1280 resolution PenTile matrix
  • Quad band GSM and 3G
  • 21 Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA
  • Wolfson DAC (yay for audiophiles!)
  • 8 Megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash and 1080p30 video recording
  • 1.9 Megapixel front camera with 720p video recording
  • Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi 802.11b/g/n
  • Contactless charging, NFC
  • microUSB with MHL
At the heart of the Galaxy S III/S3 lies the Samsung Exynos 4212 SoC. This is basically a upgraded version of the one found on the Samsung Galaxy S2. The Exynos 4212 contains a quad core ARM Cortex A-9 CPU and Mali-400MP GPU. On paper the upgrade looks rather impressive, and early benchmarks seems to have confirmed just that. 1GB of RAM helps move things along while ample amount of built-in Flash ROM ensures there is plenty of storage for your multimedia needs. Unusual for a high end device released in 2012, the S3 also contains a microSDHC expandable storage slot. You also get 50GB of cloud storage via Dropbox.
Connectivity wise, the Galaxy S3 will have most of your base covered. With quad band GSP and quad band 3G HSDA+ support, the phone is pretty much a world phone. No LTE here for the UK markets, but Samsung has promised that a LTE version will be announced in due time. It also contains WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, A-GPS support (with GLONASS) and digital compass - all of which are pretty much standard stuff now The inclusion of GLONASS support does raise the possibility that the S3 may be one of the most accurate phones for providing geo positioning. It is also only the second smartphone to come with built-in wireless charging capability, after the Palm Pre.

Specifications aside, the 4.8" Super AMOLED display with Gorilla Glass layer is the main focus of the Galaxy S3. With a HD resolution of 720x1280 and 306ppi, the display is sharp. While Super AMOLED's over saturation isn't to everyone's taste, if you like your colours to pop out, the S3's display will not disappoint. On the other hand, the PenTile RBGB matrix is sadly noticeable so I wouldn't class this as a true retina-class display, and I know quite a few people will be disappointed by that fact.
Beneath the slim body lies a 2100 mAh battery, a fair upgrade over the 1650mAh battery found inside the S2. But with a beefier processor and larger battery sapping AMOLED screen with plenty of pixels to push, I am not quite sure if it would be enough. Only time will tell.

Speaking about slim bodies, the Galaxy S3 is very slim. In fact at 8.6mm, it's one of the slimmest smartphones ever announced. On the other hand, it feels light and cheap. Liberal use of glossy plastic isn't the sort of material one would expect from a high end device like this. Design wise, Samsung has moved away from the  blocky iPhone-ish design that the S2 sported. The S3 looks more like an older Samsung phone from yore, the Windows Mobile-powered Omnia II. Samsung has also claimed that the bezel on the S3 is thinner but a side by side comparison with the S2 proved that this isn't true.
The camera on the Galaxy S2 was one of the best I've ever used on a smartphone. It is not known if the sensor here is a new version. It has a 8 Megapixel backlit illuminated sensor of unknown size. No lens specifications has been released yet, but it is safe to assume that it shares many of the characteristic seen on the Galaxy S2. Like the Galaxy S2, the S3's camera will also record videos at 1080p30 resolution. The front 1.9MP camera is capable of recording in 720p30 resolution.

Samsung has made a big deal about the speed of the camera with the ability to take almost instantaneous shots from start up, including shooting at a rate of up to 3.3 frames per second. The S3 also allows automatic sharing feature called buddy share. When activated, the S3 will use its facial recognition software to tag pictures and automatically shares them out to relevant people. While it may look neat on paper, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen (imagine if the face recognition failed and send compromising pictures to someone else). Like the HTC One X, Samsung has also introduced simultaneous video and still shooting.
What good is it with all that power without an engine to put it good use? Well the Galaxy S3 runs on the latest and greatest Linux fork, Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. As with all other Samsung Galaxy smartphones, the S3 also features Samsung's proprietary launcher/UI layer dubbed TouchWiz. While I've never liked third party OEM launchers, TouchWiz has evolved to be actually pretty powerful and usable, if a bit boring looking.

It isn't pretty, and the icon-based UI is getting rather dated. Despite using an interface that belongs in noughties, you can't argue that it doesn't get the job done. Power users will likely prefer to run something else (or root it and get a custom ROM on it), but the majority of users will be perfectly at home with TouchWiz. Samsung has attempted to give TouchWiz a more 'mature' look, but I still think it looks rather cartoony.
Like the previous version of TouchWiz, the UI supports up to seven panels on the homescreen. Shortcuts to Phone, Contacts, Messaging, Internet and Applications can found docked below, similar to what you would find on a typical iOS offering. Unfortunately the shortcuts can not be customised. Like the stock ICS app drawer, the one here is horizontal-based. Here you can create new pages or move applications into folders. It is a shame that, despite having a larger screen, app shortcuts and widgets are still arranged in grids of four.

Overall there isn't much changes to TouchWiz UI, at least from a superficial level, over its previous version and to say that is a disappointment is an understatement. TouchWiz has existed in some form for many years and it is about time Samsung overhauled the interface. Beneath the interface however Samsung has upgraded the software with plenty of new features that they hope will differentiate their offering from other Android handsets.
S Beam is their take on the Android Beam function with WiFi baked in, allowing people to swap large files between each other. Direct call is another unique feature. Using gyroscope sensors, the phone anticipates when you would like to make a phone call. Other features include eye tracking, which allows the phone to switch off if it detects that you've fall asleep or stay on if it detects you are still reading; and S Voice which is Samsung's take on Apple's Siri. Lastly, rather unique feature is Pop Up Play. This feature allows you to multitask by resizing windows and overlaying them. For example you could continue watching a video whilst googling the web. It's like a bit like Windows 8 multi-task snap, but done in a less elegant, crude way.

Will the SGS3 dislodged the HTC One X as current world champion? Not on design it won't. HTC has paid plenty of attention to detail when it came to making their devices desirable. Samsung on the other hand seems content with providing the best in specs in what many seem to agree is a mediocre looking device.
On raw specs alone, the GS3's Exynos 4212 chip was always going to be a challenger and the One X's Tegra 3 SoC will have to put up a good fight against the newcomer. Early benchmarks reports has shown that the Exynos 4212 pips the Tegra 3 by a small margin. And yet, despite all that, there are still hints of lag to be found! It would be interesting to see how the Exynos 4212 fare against Qualcomm's much hyped Krait SoC, the Snapdragon S4.

Will raw specs be enough? After all there is more to a phone than just raw speed. Certainty Samsung seems to believe so. The key question here is will Sammy's ignorance of the need of good design cost them one day. Based on my conversations with other members of the media, many share the same disappointment with the design of the SGS3, so I believe that sooner or later Samsung will have to see the light and hire an actual designer. For what is essentially a hero phone, you kinda expect a mixture of premium materials of good design. Alas, only a proper review will reveal all, so do watch this space.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 is due to go on sale on 29 May 2012 and will cost from £499 sim-free. It will be available in either plain white or almost black blue.

My friend from FoneArena has posted an extensive collection of pictures, and will no doubt offer his hands-on preview soon.


Anonymous said...

nice idea.. thanks for sharing..

Anonymous said...

Is that Flipboard?

Anonymous said...

And here I thought the sgs2 was large. at this rate I will be picking up the one s. any chance of testing that?

jAZx said...

Looks like an identikit Android phone by Huawei or ZTE.

Jon Choo said...

I will attempt to check out the One S. It's nice trade off between the One X and SGS2.