Samsung Galaxy S3 Review: Still Decent Two Years On

Reviews Ben Griffin 13:54, 9 Jul 2014

We review the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Android device that is the successor to our 2011 phone of the year

Rating: 
4.5
Pros: 
Fantastic performance, Elegant design, Great screen and camera
Cons: 
Plastic casing is lacklustre, Samsung extras like S Voice feel gimmicky
Verdict: 
If you want the essence of the Samsung Galaxy S2 with more oomph or one of the best Android devices of 2012, the Galaxy S3 is for you

The Samsung Galaxy S3 is now over two years old and now shares the market with its Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5 brothers, as well as a multitude of other Galaxy variants aimed to plug every conceivable gap in the space. It's still a viable device choice, however, with a competetive spec and, these days, a more affordable price tag.

Aesthetics

While the Galaxy S2 was no oil painting, its slim profile and big screen impressed us no end. While the Galaxy S3 is a bit fatter and has a bigger screen, the profile is still relatively slender, making it slide into your pocket with ease and fit comfortably in the hand. Those of you with small hands may find it a bit unwieldy, and that's a valid argument. Not everyone wants such a large smartphone, but the combination of lightweight materials, smooth plastic and a slim waistline ensure the feeling of size isn't emphasised unnecessarily.

Our review sample came in white, which actually looks less cheap than the pebble blue ironically. Coated in Hyper Glaze, a swanky marketing term for the plastic used, the white hides finger smudges nicely – although it does seem to attract fluff from clothing. It does look very smart especially with the understated silver Samsung logo adorning the backplate.

A matt silver surrounds the device, with what little edging there is around the 4.8-inch screen. We actually had to check that number twice because the form-factor is incredible. Next to the Nokia Lumia 900 or the Motorola Razr Maxx, it looks about the same size but the display is much larger, which is an impressive feat.

Samsung has decided to keep a hardware home button, which makes it easier to locate if you aren't looking at your phone or it's dark. On the right is the back button, which lights up in bright white when pressed. On the left is a button for bringing up options. The search button you get on some Android phones is gone, but a Google search bar on the home screen makes this a non-issue. Sadly, there's no dedicated button for the camera, which is a shame given the quality of the camera, but the lack of extra buttons does add to the Galaxy S3's minimal appeal.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 is available in a whole range of colours, including brown, black and silver, red on T-Mobile and even pink in Samsung's native Korea. 

Hardware

The Galaxy S2 was a powerhouse and the Galaxy S3 follows in the same footsteps. A quad core Exynos 4212 processor clocked at 1.4GHz ensures it's lightning quick. In fact, it's proven faster than the mighty Qualcomm Snapdragon S4, which was the current benchmark standard. Suffice to say, no task will pose it a problem and games like Shadowgun looks an absolute treat. Frame rates remain high and constant, ensuring nothing detracts you from the action on-screen.

1GB of RAM and a number of storage options right up to 64GB ensures you have plenty of speed to back up the processor, and enough storage space for all your songs. A Mali 400 GPU provides the aforementioned oomph in the visual department, and it proved more than capable for the job. One negative of all this power is heat. Playing games does make the back of the device rather warm, but it's not unconformable. At worst, you might get sweaty palms.

Display

A 4.8-inch display is certainly not small, but as we said the Galaxy S3 manages to house it exceptionally well. In typical Samsung style, you get Super AMOLED technology, which means colours are vibrant and everything has a warm colour about it.

For fans of colour remaining at less saturated levels, there are four modes you can choose from to adjust them. Dynamic proves to be as vivid in colour as you can get, and Movie at the other end of the scale makes things look more natural. Testing all four, we found the middle two options (standard and Natural) to be the easiest on the eye.

Thanks to a 720x1280 pixel display, the detail is superb. We're talking a pixel density of 306ppi (pixels per inch), which is incredible on a display of this size. Make no mistake, HD quality video looks fantastic and so do photos.

Shadowgun, Epic Astro Story and Muffin Knight look almost as enticing on the Galaxy S3 as they do on the fantastic Sony Xperia S Bravia screen.

In summary, the display is top-notch but some members of the team have commented it could be a little brighter and the clarity isn't quite up there with the Sony Xperia S's display.

Camera and video

Once again, the Galaxy S2 was excellent in the video and camera stakes. Samsung has maintained these elements in the Galaxy S3 with the inclusion of an 8-megapixel camera and 1080p video recording.

There's excellent reproduction of colour when filming in 1080p quality, and the autofocus adapts quickly to quickly moving objects. Over-exposure and bluriness seems to be avoided with relative ease, although a steady hand definitely rewards you with better results, like with any digital camera.

The digital zoom does work well but going in too close means you see quite a lot of pixels. Zooming is also jerky, making it a bit pointless if you are trying some advanced shots for a school project or whatever.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich skimps somewhat on the built-in camera features. You can edit shortcuts, exposure value, and adjust some of the effects but you'll need something like Instagram or Photo Editor (which you are prompted to download if you try editing any photos on the device) to add more advanced filters or crop images.

A burst shot mode allows you to rapidly take lots of photos in succession, helping you to get the best shot.

It's a bit hit and miss but you would expect that - it's a very subjective thing dealt with by a crude algorithm so the human eye is still the best judge. Even so, Best photo did seem to favour eye contact and smiling when of a person.

We are definitely impressed with Android 4.0's camera features because the layout is simple and easy to use, making it accessible, and thanks to the camera on the Galaxy S3, the results are really impressive.

Operating System

We were never averse to TouchWiz 4.0 found on the Galaxy S2 - it was actually much less cluttered than HTC's Sense equivalent at the time, but nowadays we favour a more simple approach. Thankfully, Android Ice Cream Sandwich is much simpler and easier to navigate, although you will want a dedicated file manager app like Solid Explorer if you plan on moving stuff around.

From the touch screen you can swipe to a shortcut directly, although it's not immediately obvious how this works. We kept trying to drag our finger onto the camera icon in a swipe, but actually you are meant to swipe from the camera icon upwards to access it (and this is the same for the other shortcuts: phone, ChatON and browser).

At the bottom of each home screen is a permanent row of buttons, which link you to (from left to right) phone, contacts, messaging, internet and the apps draw. You can put whatever you like here, which makes them perfect for your most used tasks.

Above them on the seven screens can be whatever you like. The middle page default is the Google search bar, a rather attractive weather and time widget and a few other shortcuts. It's simple, easy on the eye and as with all Android phones, you can change just about anything with something like Launcher Pro.

Samsung made it very clear at the Galaxy S3 unveiling that it focused on being a natural experience. While the watery unlock screen and the accompanying sound effect is refreshing, there's little else to show for it. This isn't a bad thing - we like Android 4.0 enough to want it left alone, so we commend Samsung for staying away for the most part.

That doesn't mean there is a total lack of Samsung additions. One of our favourites allows you to bring your phone to your ear to ring someone if you were just becoming fed up of texting them. Little additions such as this may not sound exciting but it's the sort of thing that makes sense and pleasantly surprises you when you realise it's there.

Smart Stay, another Samsung addition, is meant to keep the screen from dimming and then locking when you are looking at the Galaxy S3. A little eye indicator appears at the top to remind you it's working, which is handy because it seemed to ignore us.

We could close our eyes or have them open and the screen would remain bright. Other times, Smart Stay seemed to ignore us completely. Given the unreliability, it's definitely more gimmicky than it is useful, which is perhaps why the default setting is off.

S Voice provides ample proof Samsung likes to copy Apple. Or, at least, borrow ideas. Sadly, S Voice is even more useless than Siri, which we never found ourselves using. Asking to Google something like 'Ray Ban sunglasses' ended up in 'Radium sunglasses'. Accents seemed to prove even more challenging, rendering its use to nigh-on pointless. You can't even ask it for your appointments - at least, we couldn't.

The last big addition is window-in-window. This allows you to watch a video while looking at your home screen or browsing the web. Only locally stored videos can use the feature, so YouTube videos are out of the question. But if you need to multitask with video it may prove useful, and we hope it can be improved on at a later date to allow for having two tasks side by side, Windows 7/8 style.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 is now upgradeable to Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. It's been a long time coming, with a few botched attempts in the past, but Android 4.3 is now avaliable. It's not the most up to date Android, considering 4.4 KitKat is out but it's a vast upgrade from the 4.2 it was running. So what comes with the upgrade?

Quite a bit as it goes: 

  • Support for the Galaxy Gear smartwatch
  • A refreshed user interface
  • Better microSD support
  • Bluetooth low energy support
  • Autocomplete feature on the dial pad
  • Multi window enhancements
  • Improvements to the photo sphere
  • A load of bugs and fixes for various areas
There does seem to be a few teething problems with the update though. Below are a few tweets of people who a little less than enamoured with the update to Android 4.3.
It's a shame customers aren't enjoying the update to Android 4.3. Samsung really needs to step up its customer service skills and support for older handsets such as the S3.

No Android KitKat For Samsung Galaxy S3

Samsung is about to unleash Android KitKat for a load of its older handsets, but sadly the Galaxy S3 is not one of them. Sam Mobile broke the news by leaking an apparent internal Samsung memo, which listed all the legacy Samsung devices about to be updated to Android KitKat. You can see the document below:

To make matters worse it appears the LTE version of the Galaxy S3 will receive be receiving the update. The UK version is the one above with N/A listed in the status box. According to the report the update was cancelled due to “unsolved problems” – whatever that means.

According to sources close Sam Mobile, Google has urged Samsung to upgrade the Galaxy S3 as the handset is still very popular and was launched within under 18 months before the release of Android KitKat and should, theoretically, be supported. Whether Google has any sway in this regard, however, is another thing entirely. 

And The Reason?

Samsung’s Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy S3 Mini variant are reportedly staying stranded on Android 4.3 and 4.2 Jelly Bean respectively, rather than upgrading to 4.4 KitKat as expected. And the reason why is to do with RAM.

This is specifically for the international variants, however, as carrier specific models for US networks Sprint and Verizon have already been upgraded to KitKat successfully. Samsung officially stated that the Galaxy S3 international model, the i9300, will not be upgraded further as it lacks sufficient RAM to “effectively support the platform upgrade while continuing to provide the best consumer experience.”

“Samsung has decided not to roll-out the KitKat upgrade to Galaxy S3 and S3 mini 3G versions, and the KitKat upgrade will be available to the Galaxy S3 LTE version as the device’s 2GB RAM is enough to support the platform upgrade,” the company said in a statement.

Apparently 1GB isn’t sufficient, despite the fact that Google specifically made KitKat with lower-end devices in mind and with support for as little as 512MB of RAM. Samsung already sells newer devices with 1GB or less that have KitKat pre-installed. The finger of suspicion points at Samsung’s somewhat hefty TouchWiz user interface which it bundles in with Android; although again, it already ships handsets with the same low memory that are capable of running this software, so we’re not entirely sure what’s going on here.

Android Headlines proposes an interesting theory, suggesting that “it looks like the 2GB of RAM put into American versions of the Galaxy S III to make up for the dual-core CPU, versus the quad-core in the i9300, has made all the difference when it comes to longevity of the device.”

But with all that said, perhaps we shouldn’t be too damning of Samsung. The company has a reputation for keeping devices up-to-date for much longer than many of its rivals (we’re looking at you, HTC) and the Galaxy S3 has gone from Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich all the way up to 4.3 Jelly Bean over quite a long period of time – on Android, pretty much the only manufacturer which outperforms here is Google itself on the Nexus line.

Android L

Samsung has said literally nothing about Google's Android L update, annoucned by the big G at its Google I/O conference in June 2014, meaning we can only speculate about which handsets will get the new software. Obviously, Samsung's latest Galaxy S5 flagship seems like a near certainty, but what of the Galaxy S3? Well, given that it didn't get Android 4.4 KitKat as reported above it doesn't look promising. Android L builds on KitKat's existing structure and that was a platform supposedly designed specifically for devices with as little as 512MB of RAM, but this apparently wasn't good enough for the Galaxy S3's 1GB setup. If that's all true rather than just an excuse, it seems there is an actual compatibility issue with upgrading the Galaxy S3 any further. Samsung moves in mysterious ways, but it seems software upgrade support finished with Android 4.3. We'd love to be proved wrong.

Everyday Usage

Apart from the size of the device, which will seem huge to ex-feature phone users and anyone who used to own an HTC Hero, the Galaxy S3 is easy to live with. Pockets - from a man's perspective, anyway - seem to accommodate it without any bother, and the device is strong enough to not feel like it's going to end up in bits. Apart from removing the flimsy back panel we had no damage, random lock-ups or other issues.

Android Jelly Bean has come on leaps and bounds, so we would definitely now recommend it to smartphone newbies as well as the tech-massive who love tinkering. And, of course, Google Play (formerly the Android Market) has an obscene amount of apps and games to enjoy, which means you will keep you occupied for the duration of your contract.

We did find the large screen was more prone to picking up reflections, especially when the sun comes out, and the smooth back panel is quite slippy, though. We also still secretly hoped for casing like on the HTC One X. You can't beat a bit of metal on a premium device.

Call quality was great and we experienced less signal drop-outs on our commute than we are used to. Depending on your network, you should find the Galaxy S3 capable in the actual phone department.

Battery

Unlike the quad core Nvidia Tegra 3 processors, Samsung has managed to keep the Exynos nicely efficient. Even with lots of gaming, video and music we could manage a day of use easily, sometimes two if we were a bit more sparing. For a smartphone as powerful as the Galaxy S3, it's a big achievement to see a reassuringly good battery life.

Conclusion

So what's our overall verdict? Well, we don't want to give it back, which is exactly how we felt with the Galaxy S2. Once again, Samsung has proven itself as the king of Android kingdom and there's no doubt the Galaxy S3 will fly off the shelves, even if it's not quite as game-changing as its predecessor.

It's not quite perfect and we feel a lot of the Samsung-added functionality is a little gimmicky, plus more could have been made of the natural theme, but it really doesn't matter when the rest of the device works so well.

Wrapped up in Android 4.0 is possibly the world's most powerful smartphone, a bastion of smartphone design let down only by the use of plastic. Fitting a screen of that size in a device of that size was no easy feat, but it really does pay off.

The only real barrier is the price, and that's still the case if you want the device SIM-free, but with so many competitive contracts out there you are getting a whole lot of smartphone for around £31 a month, which is surprisingly cheap.

If you want the best of the best of Android, the Galaxy S3 should be in your list of possibilities alongside the Sony Xperia S, HTC One S and the One X. You really can't go wrong with any of them.

In August 2013, The American Customer Service Index discovered more Americans are happy with the Samsung Galaxy S3, even if it is an old model, in comparison to the much fresher iPohne 5. That certainly tells us something, doesn't it?

The Samsung Galaxy S3 In 2014

Despite being abandoned on Android 4.3 the Galaxy S3 has still not yet been retired completely, and you can still pick one up either SIM free or on various contracts. Why might you consider grabbing this older handset in 2014?

Well it's not as pricey as it used to be, for one thing. Samsung now lists the handset with an RRP of £299, which might seem a little steep. While some retailers still follow this, there's a lot of scope for saving a bit of cash to grab what still amounts to a quad-core phone with good display, camera and performance qualities.

While some retailers such as Very are offering a temporary cut-price of £249, the likes of Clove and Expansys sell the 16GB model for £246 and £225 respectively. Meanwhile, over at Carphone Warehouse you can get a fairly affordable 24 month contract with O2 for £17 per month and no upfront charge for the handset - although to be honest you'd be better off in the long run going to one of the aformentioned retailers and picking up a SIM-only contract.

If you shop around a bit you can pick up similar price tags elsewhere. It's a pretty good deal in its own right, but it also makes it appealing as an affordable, decently specced device to grab for the purpose of rooting it and loading custom or stock Android builds onboard.

Specifications

Typical Price £499.99
UK Launch May, 2012
Frequency GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900, HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
Phone Style Candy bar
Thickness 8.6mm
Length 136.6mm
Width 70.6mm
Weight 133g
Built-in Memory 16/32/64 GB storage, 1GB of RAM
Additional Memory Up to 64GB via microSD card slot
High-speed Data LTE (regional)
Connectivity DLNA, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Hotspot
Screen Size 4.8-inches, 720x1280 pixels (306ppi)
Screen Colours 16 million
Designer Lens 8-megapixel, Simultaneous HD video and image recording, geo-tagging, touch focus, face and smile detection, image stabilisation
Designer Lens No
Camera Resolution 3264x2448 pixels
Zoom Yes
Flash LED
Video Resolution 1080p @ 30 frames per second
Ringtones Yes
Music Player Yes
Music Formats MP3/WAV/eAAC+/AC3/FLAC player
Song Storage Up to 64GB via microSD card slot
Radio Stereo FM with RDS
Speaker Yes
Video Calling Yes
Internet Yes
Browser HTML, Adobe Flash
Games No, but downloadable from Google Play

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