Last year Samsung solidified its position as the dominant Android smartphone manufacturer with the Galaxy S II. The massive success of this phone helped propel Samsung into becoming the largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world.
Things are different than they were last year, however, as HTC has awoken from its slumber and released some really competitive and compelling smartphones. Samsung isn't sitting idly by as others ramp up their smartphone offerings, and its efforts to stay at the top are wrapped up in the Galaxy S III, a 4.8-inch powerhouse of a smartphone.
Is the Galaxy S III a worthy successor to the venerable Galaxy S II and does it help keep Samsung ahead of its rivals? In a word, yes. Aside from the fact that Samsung managed to pull an Apple-esque move and release identical versions of the Galaxy S III across five U.S. carriers, the Galaxy S III features cutting edge hardware paired with useful software additions that make it an attractive option for the prospective smartphone buyer.
Note: This review was conducted with the AT&T and T-Mobile versions of the Galaxy S III, but the vast majority of it also applies to the Sprint, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless models as well.
The Samsung Galaxy S III features a polarizing industrial design - some people will love it, while others might hate it. Available in either Marble White or Pebble Blue color options, the Galaxy S III is unmistakably Samsung through and through. This time around, Samsung has moved away from the squarish shape of the Galaxy S II and has gone back to the rounded corners and softer lines that the original Galaxy S of 2010 featured.
Samsung says that the phone's design (and software) were inspired by nature and is supposed to evoke a polished river stone. Elegant verbiage aside, the S III's rounded shape does help it cradle nicely in your hand and makes it comfortable to hold, despite its rather large dimensions. The Galaxy S III is exceptionally glossy, however, and it can be difficult to keep a grip on it at times because of that. Consequently, the phone did slip out of my hand on more than one occasion during my review period while I was trying to take pictures with the camera. The glossy finish is also prone to collecting fingerprints, which I don't think that anybody really likes.
The Galaxy S III is by no means a small phone, as it measures 136.6mm x 70.6mm x 8.6mm (5.38in x 2.78in x 0.34in) and weighs 133g (4.7oz). It is, however, smaller in all dimensions than the Samsung-built Google Galaxy Nexus, despite sporting a larger display. Samsung says that it focused a lot of effort into shrinking the border and bezel around the display to give the Galaxy S III a smaller footprint, and I have to say that the effect produced by a smaller bezel does work. The Galaxy S III is one of the few super-sized Android smartphones that most people will be able to comfortably use with one hand.
The Galaxy S III's display is a new 4.8-inch version of the HD Super AMOLED screens seen on other recent Samsung devices. It features 720p (720 x 1280 pixel) resolution and a 306ppi pixel density, and it is very crisp to the naked eye. The new display does use the much-derided PenTile sub-pixel arrangement, but at these pixel densities, it is hard to see the ill effects of the PenTile matrix. Samsung did tell us that it has improved the gaps in the sub-pixels to make the screen appear sharper than earlier HD Super AMOLED displays, and the Galaxy S III's screen is noticeably better looking than the one found on the Galaxy Nexus.
As with other AMOLED screens, colors on the Galaxy S III's display are very saturated and vibrant - almost to the point of looking cartoonish. When put side-by-side with an HTC One X, the Galaxy S III's colors are not as accurate as the HTC's, and you can notice a bluish cast in white areas on the screen. However, if you never compare the two phones next to each other, the Galaxy S III's display is pretty stunning.
It also has tremendous viewing angles, though I did find it a bit hard to view the screen in direct sunlight - something that is much easier with the Super LCD2 screens used by HTC.
Above the display you can find the light sensors, earpiece, and 1.9 megapixel front-facing camera. To the left of the earpiece is a hidden multi-color LED notification light, which I was very glad to see. The light all but disappears when it is not illuminated - a pretty cool effect.
Below the display there is a physical home button and capacitive keys for menu and back, just as found on the global versions of the Galaxy S and Galaxy S II. The earlier Galaxy S models that were available in the U.S. dropped the three-key layout and featured four capacitive keys for menu, home, back, and search, so it is nice to see that the Galaxy S III keeps the three-key format this go-around.
It is interesting to note Samsung's approach here: despite the fact that the Galaxy S III is launching with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, it is essentially using an Android 2.3 Gingerbread button layout and has ignored Google's guidelines to use virtual on-screen keys (as seen on the Galaxy Nexus). I think that was a good choice, since the hardware keys let content fill the entire height of the display without wasting precious screen real estate. Not that the Galaxy S III is really lacking for screen space, but every little bit helps.
Samsung's key layout is different than the one opted for by HTC, and there are pros and cons to each. I prefer HTC's dedicated multitasking key (you have to hold the home key down on the Galaxy S III to access the multitasking menu, which is a bit slower), but I think Samsung was very smart in providing a dedicated menu key on the Galaxy S III, since so many Android apps still require the use of one - despite Google's best intentions. A long-press on the Galaxy S III's menu key also launches a search in any app, which is certainly useful. One thing to note about the actual hardware of the keys is that they all but disappear into the front of the phone when the backlight is off and it can be hard to decipher their exact location when you pick up the device. Fortunately, the keys are very responsive to the touch, and if you just mash your finger on either side of the home key, you are likely to hit the capacitive key you are aiming for.
Though the Galaxy S III is made entirely of plastic materials, the edge features a wrap-around silver (light blue on the Pebble Blue model) trim with a faux brushed metal appearance. I'm not a huge fan of it, since I feel that any plastic that tries to ape another material's look and feel usually fails in doing so, but the trim doesn't get in the way of the phone's functionality and many users will probably not have a problem with it.
As is the Samsung tradition, the right side of the phone is home to the power/sleep/unlock key, while the left side houses the volume rocker. Both switches were solid and easy to suss out when you have the phone held to your ear. The top has your standard 3.5mm headphone jack, while the bottom of the Galaxy S III is home to the micro-USB charging port that doubles as a MHL port to output media to an HDTV with the proper adapter.
The back of the Galaxy S III is pretty sparse, with just a silk-screened logo for the carrier and Samsung's branding. At the top you can find the 8 megapixel camera, LED flash, and lone external speaker. Kudos to Samsung for making the back cover removable, since many phones on market today don't let users remove the back panel at all. Underneath it you have access to the 2100mAh battery, micro-SIM slot, and microSD card slot for storage expansion. The big battery is user replaceable, which should make power users very happy.
All in all, the Galaxy S III is a very well put together and smartly-designed phone. The only real complaints I have with it are its plasticky feel and exceptionally glossy finish. Though it is built just as solidly as most other smartphones on the market, it doesn't have the same quality feel that one gets from an HTC One X or an Apple iPhone 4S. But for sheer functionality, the Galaxy S III fits the bill.