Samsung Galaxy S III review: A rock star phone, but does it deliver?

Samsung's Galaxy S III is one of the most hotly anticipated Android phones ever. We test it to see if it lives up to the hype.

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The Galaxy S III runs a version of Android 4.0 heavily customized with Samsung's TouchWiz interface. The result is a mishmash of interesting features and inconsistent design; you could call it a Neapolitan version of Google's Ice Cream Sandwich.

The Galaxy S III interface (right) feels cluttered and busy compared to Google's base Android 4.0 UI (left).

In terms of the actual interface, Samsung trades the subdued gray-and-blue design introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich for a far more busily colored alternative. Many of Samsung's UI changes seem to have been made merely for the sake of change and at the expense of the user experience: For example, to create a home screen folder in the stock ICS software, you simply drag one icon onto another; with the Galaxy S III, you have to first drag an icon directly from the app drawer onto a "Create Folder" command at the bottom of the screen, then drag a second icon on top of it. Samsung essentially altered the process to make it more cumbersome and less intuitive.

Samsung packed plenty of bloat into the S III, too, ranging from its usual set of content-purchasing "hubs" to a series of Yahoo News applications. (The carriers have tacked on their share of garbage as well; thankfully, most of it can be disabled and hidden from view.) Even elements like the home screen widgets -- of which Samsung has added several of its own -- are visually random. The net result is an OS that feels cluttered and busy, which is a sharp contrast from the sleek simplicity Google achieved in its base ICS software.

Interface aside, Samsung made some innovative feature additions to the Galaxy S III's operating system -- things that actually do add value to the user experience. One of the most useful additions is something called SmartStay: When enabled, it allows the phone to use the front camera to "see" when you're looking at it and keep the screen from turning off.

Samsung also put power controls into the phone's notification area -- a feature that's handy, even if it could be achieved just as easily via third-party add-ons -- along with an option to display your exact remaining battery percentage at the top of the screen. Samsung's nature theme provides some pleasant visual flourishes, too, such as a rippling water effect that happens when you unlock the phone.

Some other noteworthy feature additions:

  • Samsung created a cool "Pop Up Player" that lets you watch a video while simultaneously conducting other tasks. The video plays in a floating picture-in-picture-style box that can be moved around the screen. The feature is wildly impressive and a great demonstration of the phone's power, though I question how often one would actually use it (particularly considering that videos have to be on the phone's local storage to work -- YouTube isn't supported).
  • The Galaxy S III has a host of new motion-based commands. Some of them are more novel than practical -- being able to tilt the phone to move an icon around on your home screen, for example -- while others are legitimately useful, like the ability to have the system automatically call someone when you move the phone to your ear while texting.
  • Samsung has provided a handful of gesture-based commands, like the ability to swipe left on someone's name in the Phone app to text her or swipe right to dial her number. It also, however, removed Google's ICS-level People app, which offers a centralized place to view your contacts and all their connected social network info.

Finally, there's S Voice, Samsung's voice-powered personal assistant that's clearly an answer to Apple's Siri. Like Siri, unfortunately, S Voice feels more like a gimmick than anything. In general, I found its accuracy and responsiveness to be inconsistent and unreliable.

The Galaxy S II's S Voice in action.

The few areas where S Voice shines are those in which it expands upon Google's own Voice Actions technology, which is integrated into Android by default. S Voice has a few useful additions to Google's simple command-driven tools, such as voice-activated options to set timers or toggle the phone's Wi-Fi mode. But it lacks some of the basic commands that make Voice Actions useful, such as the ability to compose and send an email.

The more natural-language-based functions are a waste of time. S Voice rarely understood me correctly, and even when it did, it almost always responded by apologizing for not having the answer and then prompting me to search the Web. (This happened even with easy queries like: "How tall is Michael Jordan?") Most tasks could be accomplished more effectively and with less aggravation by using Google's Voice Actions or just searching the Web directly.

Other elements of S Voice are integrated throughout the Galaxy S III, such as the ability to use voice commands to unlock the phone or to capture a picture while in the Camera app. Some of these functions are novel, but I found their reliability to be around 50% at best, which basically renders them useless.

(An observation: You can't talk about Samsung software without talking about upgrades. From the early days of Android through now, Samsung has been notoriously bad about providing timely OS upgrades to its users. The past doesn't necessarily predict the future, of course, but if fast and frequent upgrades are a priority to you, buying a Samsung Galaxy S phone sure seems like a risky bet to make.)

Bottom line

The Galaxy S III has a lot of great things going for it. The phone has a sexy, sleek design; a big, beautiful screen; and perhaps the best performance of any smartphone on the market today. The new Galaxy has an excellent camera, too, and some nice perks like NFC-based sharing and external storage support.

At a Glance

Galaxy S III

SamsungPrice: Varies according to carrier (see chart).Pros: Sleek design; big, beautiful screen; top-of-the-line performance; excellent camera; removable battery; supports external storage; has innovative features like "SmartStay" and "Pop Up Player"Cons: Dated button setup; awkward combination of physical and capacitive buttons; capacitive buttons can't be seen much of the time; has a tendency to run hot; busy and inconsistent UI compared to Google's base Android 4.0; lots of bloatware

For all its strengths, though, the Galaxy S III has some drawbacks that can't be ignored. Samsung's button approach is riddled with problems, ranging from an awkward combination of physical and capacitive buttons -- the latter of which frequently can't be seen at all -- to a dated choice of button commands. The phone's software has some commendable bonus features, but the overall user interface feels bloated, busy, and inconsistent compared to Google's base Android 4.0 OS.

Whether or not these things are deal-breakers is dependent on your perspective; if you're more of a casual smartphone user, you may not even think twice about them. For many people, the large number of positive qualities will outweigh the negatives. But if you're an Android enthusiast or someone who values a cutting-edge, optimal user experience, Samsung's choices may leave you feeling let down.

All considered, the Galaxy S III is a standout smartphone that easily earns a place among the Android elite. It isn't without its flaws -- no technology is -- but it's a mighty fine device with an awful lot to offer.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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