An Android Ice Cream Sandwich phone through and through, the GS3 is fully loaded with all the Google goodies, and then some. There are the Google apps and services, like Gmail, Maps with turn-by-turn voice navigation, a music player, and YouTube, to name just a few. Wi-Fi, GPS, Wi-Fi Direct, and Bluetooth 4.0 are other communication features, along with NFC (which powers stuff you can do with TecTiles and Google Wallet).
Although you get only one keyboard option -- Samsung's -- you can get Swype-like behavior with T9 Trace, which is enabled by default. It seems to contain the same highs and lows, depending on your typing style. You can separately also download Swype.
Gesture controls have always been one way that Samsung differentiates its phones, and for motion-control lovers, the GS3 has more than ever. Most are switched off by default, and if you want them, you have to hunt through various settings; most are in the Motion settings submenu. Some notables include flipping over the phone to mute a call, lifting the phone to your face while texting to initiate a call instead, and pressing the lock screen while turning the phone 90 degrees to open the camera (that last is a nice touch, and isn't hard, but honestly, a hardware camera button just seems easier).
Another neat Samsung setting is SmartStay, a program that periodically scans for your pupils from the front-facing camera. If it "sees" you looking, it won't dim the screen, which is helpful when you're reading, watching videos, or studying a map. It works at intervals before your screen timeout kicks in. I also like the capability to customize which icons go on the GS3's lock screen. You can choose among such favorites as the dialer, messaging, the camera, and maps.
The U.S. Cellular GS3 comes with the bare minimum of preloaded apps, a nice change from the piled-in software you may or may not want in rival carrier offerings. Samsung's branded apps include the aforementioned AllShare Play, Kies Air for Wi-Fi sharing across devices, the games, music, and media hubs, and additional Samsung apps. It also has S Memo, and S Suggest (an apps collection). There's no ChatOn social networking and IM app in this model (you can add all the apps you want from the Google Play store,) but there is Dropbox, and you get an extended offer of 50GB free online storage for two years. A VPN client is a shortcut for connecting to a corporate virtual network.
Camera and video: Samsung has used some excellent 8-megapixel cameras in the Samsung Galaxy S II phones, and I'm happy to report that this 8-megapixel camera lens, with backlit sensor and LED flash, is worthy of a flagship phone. The GS3 has a lot of software extras, which I'll get to, but before playing around with modes and effects, I wanted to see how well the camera performed on automatic settings.
For the most part, photos largely emerged with sharp edges and plenty of color. The camera didn't get everything right -- there were some problems with white balance in indoor shots, and shadows in outdoor shots, and photos of sweeping landscapes were less in focus than close-ups. As advertised, the GS3 has virtually zero shutter lag; in fact, it processed photos a hair faster than the One X.
I compared about 20 indoor, outdoor, day, and night shots taken with the GS3, the One X, and the iPhone 4S, phones that CNET has lauded for their excellent smartphone cameras (you'll find 10 images from each in this camera shoot-out.) I took the same shots from the same positions, focused on the same areas, and resized and cropped photos the same way. The results were a toss-up; no one phone camera routinely outperformed the others on close-ups, fully blown-up images, color temperature, and focus, but I was able to take excellent shots with all three. In some photos, the GS3's colors were brighter, more defined, and more balanced. In other photos, the One X best captured shadows, color, and definition; and in others still, the iPhone 4S bested the other two.
(You can compare standard studio shots in this smartphone photo gallery.)
Samsung's extra software features are also helpful and easy to use. There's face-tagging when the software recognizes faces, and HDR (which is already in the iPhone 4S and the One X) makes an appearance. Burst mode is also new to the GS3. You can either take 20 frames in quick succession, or turn on Best Shot, which lets you choose your favorites of eight burst shots. The software looks for logic like open eyes and crescent smiles when suggesting its favorite. There's also a new cartoon mode, and it has the aforementioned ShareShot and Buddy photo share modes. I do really like Samsung's effort to deeply integrate the camera with the address book in an effort to make sharing photos even more seamless.
Tagging and sharing aside (which I think are cool and fairly useful), I have to give the One X the nod for the smoother camera experience overall. The editing tools and toggling between the gallery and camera were both more obvious on the One X.
Photo quality from the front-facing camera was also pretty good for the purposes of video chats and vanity shots, though of course it didn't compare to the rear-facing camera.
As a reminder, the U.S. Galaxy S3 comes in 16GB and 32GB versions, and can take up to 64GB in external storage.
Video: Video quality was very strong. Audio came through loudly and clearly, colors were crisp, and streamed and self-shot videos played back smoothly, without any jerking. The same goes for downloaded videos, though a more brightly lit screen would have been useful at times, especially when playing darker films like "Sherlock Holmes."
There's a small feature related to video that's pretty impressive nonetheless. When you launch a video from the gallery you can pop it out to a floating thumbnail. You can then drag that thumbnail around the screen while you do other things like responding to a text. The video quality is good
(720p, in fact), and the videos pick up where they left off. I'm still waiting to find a natural impetus to use it, though.
Putting the Samsung Galaxy S III video camera to the test
Did you know that you can capture video on the 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera, and it plays back in 720p HD quality? The video quality was better than expected, but perhaps a bit too close for comfort. Shooting this way would easily let solo videographers set and check the scene while they shoot.
Call quality: I tested the Samsung Galaxy S3 on U.S. Cellular's roaming network in San Francisco. A dual-band CDMA phone (800/1,900MHz), the GS3 also supports LTE, but not while roaming. Calls didn't sound quite as good on the U.S. Cellular version of this phone as they did on other networks. The background was clear, but voices sounded slightly sharper than I knew them to be in real life. At points, the audio sounded raspy, and bobbled in and out. While I was always tuned into the conversation, the discrepancies were noticeable.
As with the other GS3 handsets, maximum volume or just under was a fine audio level in a mostly quiet office location, but is far too soft for louder outdoor environments, like windy San Francisco streets, and also too quiet when my office started getting noisy. Luckily, the phone comes with extra listening settings, like an in-call equalizer and an onscreen volume-boost button, which you can press to dramatically increase your in-ear volume. That button mitigated my volume complaints.
On his end, my chief testing companion noted that I sounded a little unnatural and my voice was distorted at the higher frequencies. I also sounded slightly muffled, but comfortably loud. The background remained clear throughout.
Samsung Galaxy S3 call quality sample (U.S. Cellular)
The ever-problematic speakerphone feature was a winner on most of the GS3 phones, as far as these things go. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as good on the U.S. Cellular version we tested (while roaming.) On my end, voices sounded a little thicker and fuzzy, but still nice and clear. Volume was strong, so I dialed it down from maximum. The worst trait was the buzzing I felt in my hand every time my testing partner spoke, even with the phone volume turned to low.
On the other end of the line, my testing partner noted that volume sounded louder and said that I was harder to understand. The phone seemed to enhance the echo that typically accompanies speakerphones, so it's more echoey than usual. Aside from the echo, voice quality between speakerphone and normal didn't really change when switching back and forth.
Data speeds: At the time of writing, U.S. Cellular had recently launched its 4G LTE network in select cities in Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin, populations that cover 25 percent of the carrier's customers. However, the phone roams on 3G, so here in San Francisco, it was impossible to test U.S. Cellular's 4G speeds. I realize it puts the carrier at a disadvantage to be tested at 3G speeds, so if you reside in U.S. Cellular's 4G network footprint, expect better results.
I used the Speedtest.net diagnostic app to test in downtown San Francisco. 3G speeds were predictably on the lower end of the speed scale. The diagnostic app Speedtest.net reached highs of less than 0.5Mbps down and a high of .87Mbps up. Speeds were also notably slower in real-life tests. It took over 30 seconds to load CNET's mobile site and more than a minute to load the full desktop site (Verizon's 4G network can load this page in 10 seconds.) It took 4 and a half minutes to download 30 percent of the Rovio game Amazing Alex (21.89MB) over 3G. In contrast, Verizon's 4G network downloaded and installed the entire app in 65 seconds.
Data performance on the GS3 will vary by carrier. AT&T and Verizon both have 4G LTE, T-Mobile has its HSPA+, Sprint's version will ride 3G until LTE rolls out, and U.S. Cellular has a nascent, limited LTE network. Verizon's and AT&T's network speeds surpassed T-Mobile's when at their peak, but even T-Mobile's was still swift.
Internal performance and battery: Like the HTC One X, the Galaxy S3 has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, which Qualcomm boasts is its fastest yet. For the most part, I had few complaints about the GS3's internal performance. I did, however notice that the phone took a little longer to switch tasks and open apps than I thought it should. Sure enough, when I held the phone phones side by side, the HTC One X routinely opened and closed things faster: the camera, Gmail, settings, maps, the gallery, and so on. The phones unlocked at about the same rate.
The GS3 has a 2,100mAh battery, which is large, but not atypical for such a big phone (the Note's, for instance, is 2,500mAh.) I've been testing the GS3 mercilessly, with the screen on full brightness for extended periods of time, with frequent downloads and streams, and plenty of S Voice activity. So while I'll need to continue testing the battery performance under more "normal" circumstances, I get the sense that the battery life can hold up to heavy use. However, you should expect to recharge your phone daily, as you would with most other smartphones.
For all its battery-consuming features, the GS3 also contains power-saving options in various settings throughout the phone -- check the main settings menu and submenus, and also settings menus by app, for ways to cut back.
With its combination of form and function, the Samsung Galaxy S3 excels where it counts, and at a price that matches the features. However, by many measures, the Galaxy S III isn't the top Android phone on the market. HTC's One X has the brighter, more detailed screen, the sturdier build quality, and the extras, like Beats Audio, that consistently work. In addition, Samsung's S Voice repeatedly blunders in understanding and executing on tasks, both here in the U.S. and in the U.K. On the other hand, the GS3 has an excellent camera, expandable memory (which the One X doesn't have), and double the RAM. S Beam sharing over Wi-Fi Direct is a smash hit, and Samsung has beefed up its camera software. With no One X in the picture, the GS3 would be the unquestionable Android king.
And then there's the looming spectre of the iPhone 5, which is expected to land in fall with 4G LTE support, a 4-inch Retina Display, a faster processor, and a more evolved camera. Hype alone will make some hold off on buying the GS3.
Samsung's effort here is clear; the company is trying hard and taking risks. Evolving Voice Actions to S Voice was no mean feat, and I hope the programmers work out the kinks in the next update. I also hope that Samsung will offer a more satisfying screen that stands up to the competition. Would I recommend buying the Samsung Galaxy S3? Absolutely, and it is without a doubt my favorite Samsung phone available today. Yet I slightly prefer the One X for AT&T subscribers, and I wouldn't recommend the GS3 to iPhone fans who prize the crystal-clear Retina Display and Siri.