The dust has finally settled in London after Samsung finally unveiled its next flagship phone at the Unpacked event at Earls Court. After month upon month of hype, rumours, mocks-ups and supposed leaks, the most anticipated Android phone of all time showed its hand for the world to see. The Galaxy S III had arrived. It was inevitable really that, in some areas, the specifications weren’t quite as spectacular as many of the rumours had hyped. We were promised quad-cores, Super AMOLED plus screens, state of the art graphics processors, 2GB of RAM, dual boot OS, 12 MP cameras, ceramic finishes and many more bleeding edge features. The response from the tech world was positive for the most part but as ever there were claims that the phone was underwhelming, not a true upgrade from the Galaxy S II and that it was just plain ugly. I was fortunate enough to attend the launch in person where I got the chance to visit the demo stands showing off many of the news features as well as getting a reasonable amount of hands-on time to make some judgements for myself. I’ll come back to that later.
I had two agendas when I attended the Unpacked event, first of all I was there to represent TalkAndroid and report on the event however I was also there as a potential customer. I’ve been a fan of Android phones since the original G1 and have owned or used numerous different devices from LG, Samsung, Motorola, Asus, HTC and many others. Most recently it has been Samsung that has really captured my imagination. I moved from the original Galaxy S to the Nexus S and now use a Galaxy Nexus as my daily driver. Whilst I still absolutely love my Galaxy Nexus, it’s the affliction of any true gadget lover that as soon as you have a new toy you’re already looking ahead to see what’s coming next.
Will the Galaxy S III be the phone to replace my Nexus? The quick answer is no it will not, and there are a number of factors that I considered when making this decision many of which I fully acknowledge will be unique to me. Do I think the Galaxy S III was a let-down? Absolutely not, I was hugely impressed overall and I am already suffering from tech envy due to many of the awesome features that it brings to the table. I have already convinced a few friends and colleagues to pre-order the device and in most cases I am likely to recommend it over my beloved Galaxy Nexus. In order keep things simple I have broken down my thought process into the two areas that were key to my decision, hardware and software.
Hardware is the headline grabber for most consumers. How big is the screen, how thin is the profile, how many megapixels is the camera, how fast is the processor. These are the questions that the average person will be asking when tuning in to the next big phone unveiling or when they walk through the door of their local mobile phone retailer.
Some tech sites felt that the S III fell a little short with what it brings to the table in terms of hardware but, for the most part, I disagree. The quad-core Exynos processor is cutting edge, it’s already blowing everything out of the water in benchmarks but most importantly it performs wonderfully in real life use. The presence of the Mali-400 GPU was greeted with a collective groan from numerous tech sites however the chip has been optimised and the clock speed increased to produce significant improvements to the extremely capable original chip from the Galaxy S II. How many applications or games in the Google Play Store are truly stretching the original Mali chip to its limits? Very few, the negativity surround the use of the Mali GPU really is much ado about nothing.
Cue the predictable criticism from the usual suspects when the screen technology was announced as a 4.8”, HD Super AMOLED display. Let me start by saying that I was slightly disappointed not to see HD Super AMOLED plus technology make its long awaited debut however it’s far from a disaster. I’m not going to go into the technical details of the pentile matrix display and its lack of sub-pixels as I’m sure the majority of you have read about it many times before. You can literally take your pick of tech sites showing photos of the S III screen blown up under a microscope, which I suppose is important as you just never know when you might need to use that microscope in your pocket to browse the web on your phone. The fact is that Samsung’s HD Super AMOLED display is a great display, one of the best on the market and at 4.8” it really is a marvel to watch videos, view photos and browse the web and surely that is what you want from your display.
The camera has also come under scrutiny for supposedly not improving on the module from the Galaxy S II. The megapixel wars are so 2008 and in all honesty, do we really need more than 8MP in a phone. It’s not often that I offer out praise to Apple however with the iPhone 4S, Apple showed that there’s so much more to a superb photo or sharp video than megapixel count. A high quality lens coupled with top notch software is so much more important for everyday use. The Galaxy S III has adopted the zero shutter lag feature from the Galaxy Nexus and added further features such as burst mode with best photo. From the samples that I managed to take in London last week it was clear that the S III takes great photos and videos. The S II did a wonderful job in the first place and the new tweaks do a great job of taking the imaging capabilities of the S III to the next level.
The form and design of the S III has probably been the single most criticised aspect of the phone so far. The tech world seems to be convinced that flagship phones absolutely must be made from brushed metal and glass. Personally I’m on the fence with this one as there are pros and cons for different build materials. Plastic builds are lighter, more durable and less likely to mark but don’t have a premium feel when held in the hand. Metal phones offer that premium feel but tend to be heavy and less forgiving if dropped or bumped. Contrary to popular opinion there is no right or wrong when it comes to build materials, it’s all about choice and what works best for the individual. The build of the S III feels solid and its curved form sits comfortably in the hand. Aesthetically, it’s closer to the Galaxy Nexus than the S II which is no bad thing. If I was to offer any criticism it’s that the phone is so big it can often lead to a bit of finger gymnastics if you’re a fan of one handed texting and browsing. I was a touch disappointed to see that Samsung opted for a physical home button flanked by two capacitive buttons. The on screen virtual buttons on the Nexus just seem so much more intuitive and make more sense.
So how does all of this compare to my Nexus? Well in almost all cases it compares extremely favourably. In terms of hardware, I believe that the S III has surpassed the Nexus in virtually every area. The quad-core Exynos with Mali-400 GPU runs rings around the dual-core OMAP in the Galaxy Nexus. The displays share the same technology however the S III sports a 4.8” screen over the 4.65” of the Nexus, another point for the S III. The S III camera improves on the Galaxy Nexus camera in both megapixels and software but most importantly it’s clear to see when comparing the captured images side by side that the S III does a better job. You’ll also find a 2,100mAh battery in the S III compared to 1,750mAh in the Nexus. The Nexus offers a maximum of 32GB internal memory where the S III offers storage of up to 64GB with expansion available via a microSD card. The S III offers Bluetooth 4.0 compared to the Galaxy Nexus with 3.0 and did I mention that it supports wireless charging!
Not only does the S III managed to cram in all this extra technology, it manages to do it in a phone that’s pretty much the same size, thinner and weighs less than the Nexus. That is an achievement in its own right. It’s no contest when it comes to hardware, the Galaxy S III is a clear winner here.
Software is a tricky subject to tackle when it comes to Android. Straight away you have the battle of the User Interface, is stock Android better than skinned Android and which skin is best? Motorola has been working hard on Motoblur, HTC Sense probably makes more sense than it ever has and Samsung’s TouchWiz seems to improve with every new update. Every manufacturer has its own idea on what will work best for the end-user and each UI brings with it different features and benefits.
The Galaxy S III runs Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and it’s fair to say that since it debuted on the original Galaxy S it split opinions, and I’d hazard a guess that this latest version will too. I wasn’t a fan of the original TouchWiz at all; it just looked and felt too much like iOS and for me that was not a good thing. It also never really ran quite right on the Galaxy S, it seemed to suffer from lag, random reboots and unexplained battery drain. I gather a lot of the issues were ironed out via subsequent software updates however it was such a problem for me that I couldn’t tolerate it, I swapped my Galaxy S for the Nexus S as soon as it launched. The Nexus S despite running pretty much identical hardware just ran so much faster and smoother. To quote an irritating but appropriate phrase “It just works”. My experience with the Galaxy S was bad enough that I grew wary of non-Nexus phones and of the Galaxy S II in particular. I can say now, with hindsight, that I was wrong to be so sceptical. Although I haven’t owned one myself, I’ve had a chance to use the S II on a number of occasions and found that although TouchWiz still wasn’t to my taste, it worked as it should. Lag was gone, random reboots gone and the phone seemed to fly through the most widget intensive, live wallpaper laden home-screens without a hitch. I was assured enough by my experience with the S II to have confidence that TouchWiz shouldn’t hinder the S III experience. I’m pleased to report that during my hands on time with the S III, TouchWiz behaved admirably.
The user interface is only part of the story here. All manufacturers like to bundle in some of their own unique features and applications. They look at as a value-add, many of us look at it as bloatware. The reality is that it’s probably somewhere in between.
The majority of the additional features and applications on the Galaxy S III are impressive. SmartStay in particular really stood out for me in how it builds on the facial recognition software in the Galaxy Nexus. I regularly use my phone to read and browse and quite often you will find yourself focused on the same page for a period of time, it’s extremely irritating when the screen switches off particularly if you have a lock screen to negotiate to get back in. Sure you could go to settings and set a longer delay before the phone enters sleep mode but you don’t need to if your phone is smart enough to check and see if you’re still looking at it!
S Voice is an interesting application too. Voice control features have been present on Android for a long time, Google also seem to improve the technology slightly with each new Android release. I have a hard time looking at voice control as anything more than a gimmick and the arrival of Siri on the iPhone 4S has done nothing to convince me otherwise. This is only my opinion and it’s clear that a lot of consumers out there do enjoy voice control and are using the feature. With this in mind, Samsung S Voice is the Galaxy S III’s answer to Siri and it stacks up well. Earls Court was packed to the rafters for the Unpacked event and the noise in the arena was loud and constant. In spite of all this, the Galaxy S III breezed through various requests and had an extremely high success rate in completing the requested action. For those of you who will use the feature, you won’t be disappointed.
There are loads of other features that I could go into detail over such as S Health and the ability to pin a video to your screen whilst you continue to use the phone but I don’t want to steal any thunder from the full review so I’ll cut it short for now. In summary, the S III passes with flying colours when it comes to software but how does it compare to my Galaxy Nexus.
To answer that question we need to head back to where we started when discussing software, the User Interface. It comes down to stock Android versus TouchWiz. There is no winner here either; it can only ever come down to personal choice. One man’s meat is another man’s poison as the saying goes. With that in mind, regardless of the wonderful advancements and new features that the S III has introduced, I still prefer stock Android and by a large distance too. A lot of people scoffed at Google’s hyperbole surround the new Holo theme and Roboto font but seeing is believing and it really is, in my opinion, the best looking version of Android to date. Stock Android 4.0 feels next generation, it’s polished, it’s intuitive, it’s attractive and it’s quick. I can’t quite put a finger on why it is, but Android Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy S III just looks and feels more like a Gingerbread build. It just isn’t as elegant or refined in my opinion. Another key factor for me is the Google suite of applications, it stands to reason that Google’s own applications should be the crème-de-la-crème of Android applications and that is very much the case. Nexus phones come pre-loaded with the full suite and they run beautifully. I just don’t enjoy Samsung’s own music player as much as Google Play Music and find it irritating that I can’t even grab Google’s native music from the Play Store, I have to seek out an APK and side load it. When Google Chrome launched I couldn’t wait to run my favourite browser on my mobile, luckily I had a Galaxy Nexus and not a Galaxy S II otherwise I’d have been stumped for a few weeks. These issues may not be a big deal to some people but they are to me.
Perhaps the biggest factor of all when making my decision was software updates because the two experiences really are worlds apart. Nexus phones receive the latest and greatest Android updates and they receive them right away. If you’re using a non-Nexus phone you’re at the mercy of your manufacturer and your mobile service provider as to how quick you’re likely to get your update and in most cases it can be months. I remember when Google pushed out a small incremental update to Gingerbread for the Nexus S which brought with it Google Talk video calling. A great addition in what was a fairly minor update which I was able to utilise right away, my old Galaxy S took 5 months before it got the update. Chances are that if you’re a fan of Android then you’ll be looking forward to the Google I/O and the announcement of Android 5.0 Jellybean. By sticking with my Galaxy Nexus I know that I’ll get the update right away, I wouldn’t want to guess how long the delay will be on the Galaxy S III. The speed of the updates is important but so is the simplicity and again the Nexus devices just do it better. You receive a notification that there’s an Over The Air update available for your device, you click the link and your phone starts to update. What could be easier? With the Galaxy S range of phones you’re tied into Samsung’s Kies desktop software which is second only to iTunes in how horrendous it is. Having to hardwire your phone to your PC to update the software just feels like something I stopped doing 3 years ago. The first time I tried to use Kies on my Galaxy S it took about 3 days of research across various tech sites just to establish how to overcome the universal error where the phone wouldn’t pair with the desktop software. It was a disgraceful customer experience from such a huge company and it wasn’t a one off either with literally millions of Galaxy S users suffering with the same problem.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I have the Galaxy Nexus as the winner when it comes to software. With the S III winning out on Hardware and the Nexus winning out on Software I had to ask myself which was more important and for me it was simple. Having the best hardware is great and I will always prefer to have the latest and greatest where possible but not if it’s at the expense of the software. It’s the software that has the greater impact on the user experience and therefor it’s the area that I’m just not willing to compromise on. That’s not to say that the Galaxy S III offers a sub-par experience as it most definitely does not. For the average consumer who is simply looking for the best smartphone on the market I’ll be recommending the Galaxy S III. For the geeks like me who just have to live on the bleeding edge of technology, the Nexus is still the king… for now.
Let me know your thoughts on how you think the Galaxy S III compares to the Galaxy Nexus in the comments below.