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Samsung Galaxy S III (Sprint) Review
The Samsung Galaxy S III is a top-of-the-line Android smartphone just waiting for Sprint to turn on its new LTE network.
(4 out of 5)
- State-of-the-art everything
- Advanced call-quality features.
- Plasticky body
- Really, this lack of clarity on Sprint’s LTE rollout is getting ridiculous.
The new flagship smartphone from the world’s number-one mobile phone company, Samsung’s Galaxy S III ($199.99 with contract) is literally a huge achievement. If you love big phones with lots of options, the GS3 will deliver state-of-the-art performance with bonus sharing and media features that you’re likely to continue discovering a year from now. Sprint subscribers now have two solid choices: The Galaxy S III ties with the HTC EVO 4G LTE ($199, 4 stars) as our Editors’ Choice for touch-screen smartphones on Sprint.
Editors’ Note: The Samsung Galaxy S III models on all four major carriers are extremely similar, so we’re sharing a lot of material between our various reviews. That said, we’re testing each device separately, so read the review for your carrier of choice.
All of the new Galaxy S III models look the same, except for the carrier logo on the back panel. Each is available in dark blue or white (AT&T also has a red option coming this summer), and they’re some of the biggest phones we’ve ever handled. At 5.4 by 2.8 by 0.34 inches (HWD) and 4.7 ounces, the GS3 is slightly bigger than the already-large HTC One X ($199, 4.5 stars), although it’s still noticeably smaller and lighter than the Samsung Galaxy Note phone/tablet hybrid ($299, 3 stars). That said, this is not a phone for folks with small hands.
I’m not a fan of the huge phone. But I’ve given up on panning them because every time I suggest these handsets are too big, I get pummeled by comments from people who adore them. Huge phones are the thing. I accept it.
The all-plastic body feels a little less high-end than the exotic materials of the HTC One series, but the phone is solidly built, and light despite its size. The front of the phone is dominated by the 4.8-inch, 1280-by-720-pixel Super AMOLED HD screen. Yes, it’s PenTile, which can sometimes look slightly pixelated. But, no, you probably won’t notice. Below the screen, there’s a physical Home button, as well as light-up Back and Multitasking buttons that start out invisible, so you have to memorize where they are or change a setting to keep them illuminated. The 8-megapixel camera is on the back panel, which, thanks to its reflective finish (on the blue model), doubles as a pocket mirror.
The default Automatic Brightness setting makes the screen too dim. Kill it and pump up the brightness and it’s fine, even outdoors. It’s not as bright as the One X’s Super LCD 2 display, but it’s fine.
Unlike the competing HTC One X, the S III has a removable 2100mAh battery. Taking off the back cover also reveals the microSD card slot, which supports cards up to 64GB.
Call Quality and Internet
Are you willing for Sprint to pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today? The EVO 4G LTE (check price) promises spectacular call quality with HD Voice…sometime in 2013, once Sprint gets the network running. But the GS3 lets you tweak your call quality now.
Default call quality is good. Volume is on the high end of average, with no distortion from loud inputs. The speakerphone isn’t quite loud enough to use outdoors, but it’s fine for the car or a boardroom. The microphone does a good job of cancelling background noise. Bluetooth headsets work fine with Samsung’s S-Voice voice dialing system.
But as with so many things here, call quality gets richer if you burrow down into the GS3′s menus. A Volume Boost button throws the phone into a super-loud, quasi-speakerphone mode for noisy areas, but that’s just the start. Deep within the settings, there’s an option to set custom call EQ. The phone plays you a sequence of quiet high and low tones and you tell it which ones you can hear, and then it EQ’s calls accordingly. This is pretty radical stuff. I prefer my calls sharp, with more high-end, and the GS3 delivers.
On data though, the Sprint GS3 is crippled. All new Sprint phones are. Although the phones support speedy LTE, Sprint has steadfastly refused to give us a rollout timetable for its new LTE network, leaving its high-end smartphones on the slowest 3G network in America. We tested Sprint LTE, and it’s competitive with AT&T and Verizon, but none of this matters a whit if Sprint won’t tell us when anyone is getting it.
This is why Sprint’s Galaxy S III is getting a slightly lower rating than the other major carrier models. Sprint needs to get its act together. We will not give a Sprint phone a 4.5-star rating until the carrier gives its subscribers more information about LTE coverage.
You’ll have better luck getting your Internet via Wi-Fi on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC are also onboard, and Google Wallet is preloaded.
Our battery test didn’t complete because we ran out of time. But that’s good; we just about ran down the battery with an 8 hour, 35 minute call. This phone has solid battery life, and considering the battery is removable, you can carry a spare. That’s something you can’t do with the EVO 4G LTE.
Software and Performance
The Galaxy S III runs Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” with a whole lot of exclusive Samsung extensions. Performance was excellent in my tests. The Qualcomm S4 chip running at 1.5GHz is the fastest one we’ve seen in smartphones so far, and it’s able to take on any app challenge you throw at it, including games on the HD screen. Our benchmark tests proved this, although they were within the margin of error when compared with the One X. Both phones are very fast.
Exclusive new features include S-Beam, the ability to transfer files by tapping two phones together and using a combination of NFC and Wi-Fi Direct; S-Voice, Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Siri; TecTiles, NFC-enabled accessory tags that can change the settings on your phone, and lots of sharing and tagging options in the camera, such as the ability to automatically tag your friends’ faces, and the ability for multiple GS3s within a few feet of each other to automatically share all of their photos.
Many of these features work well, but they’re almost all buried. The interface is something of a scavenger hunt. Take Smart Stay, a neat new feature which detects your face and keeps the screen from going black while you’re looking at it. I love it! But it’s not on by default, and the only way to turn it on is by going to the Display area under Settings. S-Beam is similarly buried, under the Wireless menu.
Samsung helpfully pops up various screens telling you about various cool gestures you can use, like raising the phone to your face to automatically call someone you’re texting. But it’s a lot of information to absorb, and a lot of gestures that you’ve never used before. There’s a sharp learning curve here.
Compare this with HTC, which has been working to reduce unique UI elements. HTC’s recent Sense 4 interface focuses on a few new features and makes them integral: enhanced sound, a faster camera, and solid social networking integration. Samsung offers a lot more, but it costs you a lot more mental energy to figure it all out.
I’ll also call out two minor disappointments. The screen rotated unexpectedly more often that I’d like. Also, S-Voice isn’t as seamless or as complete as Siri. It’s a fine voice-dialing system, including over Bluetooth, but I kept vocally stepping on its prompts when trying to ask it more complicated queries.
Beyond that, there’s the usual raft of bloatware from both Samsung and Sprint: I count 17 pre-installed apps, some of which (Samsung’s Music Hub store) didn’t actually launch, and some of which (Samsung Apps and the S-Suggest app) are frustratingly redundant. Beyond that, there’s the 400,000-plus apps in the Google Play Store.
The 16GB Galaxy S III we tested had 12GB of available memory plus support for microSD cards up to 64GB, which fit under the plastic back panel. There’s also a 32GB model for $249.99 with contract, but given the phone’s microSD support, I don’t see the point of buying the more-expensive model. It plays all the usual music and video formats, including MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, MPEG-4, H.264, DivX, Xvid, and WMV at resolutions up to 1080p.
Samsung has customized both the music and video players. They aren’t as good-looking as HTC’s, but they’re functional. Along with the typical music navigation, there’s a frill called Music Square, which grades all of your music on a 2D scale from “calm” to “exciting” and “passionate” to “joyful,” creating custom playlists by mood. There’s also an epic number of EQ presets, which change the sound in effective, if gimmicky ways.
The picture/video gallery integrates Google and Facebook albums, and lets you sort your videos as a list or with thumbnails. The flagship feature here is Pop-Up Play, which can float a video playback window over other apps; I found it to be fairly useless. Netflix and YouTube both look good and run on LTE without any visible buffering. The phone also comes with Samsung’s Media Hub music and video store, which has a solid lineup of recent movies and TV shows at industry-standard prices of $4 to rent and $15-$20 to buy.
If you want to play your video on a big HDTV, you need to use Samsung’s AllShare system, which like most other wireless video systems rarely works because your home network doesn’t have the bandwidth, or a new-style 11-pin MHL adapter. Our old MHL adapters didn’t work.
The 8-megapixel camera takes good-looking, saturated photos that are sharp with little noise, at least in decent light. In our low-light test, the shutter speed dropped to 1/40 second, which will cause some softness if you don’t have a steady hand. That’s still better than many cameraphones. The 1-megapixel front camera also showed solid low-light performance. The video mode captures 1080p videos at 30 frames per second indoors and out with the main camera, which is more than we could say for the HTC One X.
You get tons of gimmicky camera modes. HDR is considerably slower than on either the iPhone 4S ($199, 4.5 stars) or the HTC One X, and showed a tendency to create “ghost” images when I tried it. Smile detection worked well, and Share Shot lets you automatically stream photos to other GS3s in the area. Buddy Photo-Share tags faces with names based on the images in their social-networking profiles. Those last two are buried in the camera settings and while cool, you’re not likely to stumble upon them easily.
The Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC EVO 4G LTE are both state-of-the-art phones. In our scoring system, they tie, each with unique features. The Galaxy has a removable battery, better video recording quality, and no hiss in quiet audio output. The EVO 4G LTE is made from higher-quality materials, has a brighter screen, a kickstand, a physical Camera button, better home-screen widgets, and HD Voice in the future. You can’t go wrong with either.
If these phones are just too big for you, go for the LG Viper 4G LTE ($99, 4 stars) packs dual-core power and the LTE future into a much smaller body. And if your upgrade isn’t urgent, you may want to consider hanging on to that old WiMAX phone for a while, at least until you can find out when Sprint LTE is coming to your city.
By Sascha Segan, PCMag