We go hands-on with the latest and greatest Android smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S III.
Despite what's going on in the courtrooms against Apple, Samsung's experiencing great success with Google's Android operating system. Thanks to the mobile OS, Samsung is now one of the world's biggest producers of smartphones. Not only that, but it arguably has the largest brand recognition in the market for Android devices with the Galaxy name, perhaps rivaled only in the U.S. with Verizon's "DROID" branding.
Over the past week, I've been using a Samsung Galaxy S III as my main device, though not unrivaled as I still keep my Galaxy Nexus, iPhone 4 and Nokia Lumia 900 nearby. The Galaxy S III is most directly comparable to the other Samsung-made phone, the Galaxy Nexus; there are similarities in hardware, but much less so in software. I'm on vacation right now, but this could be the perfect time to relay my phone experiences as the more time I spend at a desk with a computer, the less I would be on a smartphone. I'll be on the road in British Columbia over the next couple of weeks, giving me plenty of reasons to pull the phone out of my pocket for some heavy usage days, whether it's to check the weather, maps, or to use the camera to capture the a photo or video.
The version of the Galaxy S III that I'm testing is the North American LTE model (currently running on Bell's 4G network), which actually runs on the dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chipset rather than Samsung's own quad-core Exynos. The reason for the switch was simply to accommodate the LTE radio, but the move from four cores to two should not be viewed as a downgrade. Benchmarks show that the S4's architecture carries its own even against the latest Exynos. Not only that, but the North American models (even those without LTE) get an extra 1GB of RAM to "make up" for that core drop – and that's a very worthy trade to get a phone with 2GB of RAM. (Stay tuned for more technical details in our upcoming review.)
Users of "big screen" phones such as the previous generation of Galaxy won't be too startled by the new 4.8-inch AMOLED HD 1280x720 screen. Those coming from a Galaxy S II will appreciate the bump in resolution more than the size, and those coming from a Galaxy Nexus will feel right at home.
I did find that the slightly larger screen, which appears to be of a slightly higher panel quality than the Galaxy Nexus (that's progress for you), makes single-handed phone operation even more difficult. The Galaxy S III is undoubtedly a phone that's best used with both your hands. It's still not mammoth-sized like the Galaxy Note, but it's definitely at the very outer limits for a device that you can use in one hand while holding a drink in the other.
Besides the increased screen size of the Galaxy S III, there was something else that I had to adapt to when coming from the Galaxy Nexus. The Nexus phone uses software buttons that are rendered by the 1280x720 display, while the Galaxy S III retains the hard-set menu and back keys with a clickable hardware home button. The discussion on which is superior all comes down to user preference, but I can share my experiences. Having the full 1280x720 display that's not cut off for navigation is quite nice, but the placement of the buttons near the bottom of the phone makes for some interesting ergonomics. The back button at the bottom right corner of the Galaxy S III means that I can't grip it with my right hand the same way I do for the Galaxy Nexus, despite being similar in size. When in the right hand, the bottom of my palm grazes the back button when my thumb stretches over to touch something on the left side of the screen. This activates the back button and dumps me out whatever I'm doing. To quote Steve Jobs on the iPhone 4: "Just don't hold it that way." So I've adapted and am now mindful of the back button's position. Keep in mind that this is just a personal experience, and it won't happen to everyone given that people will hold their phones differently, or simply have larger hands than I do.
Someone going from an iPhone to a Galaxy S III will find the jump in size something he or she will have to get used to, especially for the one-handed operators. After getting used to a 4.8-inch screen, it's tough to move back to anything much smaller.
Stay tuned for the next update on the camera, battery life and more.