The Samsung Galaxy S III: Was It Worth The Wait?

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Watching live streams of product announcements is a mixed bag. Depending on your expectations going in, they’re either a mild disappointment or a blow-your-face off surprise. Today, for me, it’s the latter.

After months and months of leaks and a truckload of tech speculation, Samsung today finally took the wraps off the Galaxy S III smartphone, in an orchestra-accompanied ceremony of Olympic proportions. It’s easily the most anticipated mobile phone of the year so far, so was it worth the endless months of waiting?

Oh yes.

gs3 side


Hardware

You know what? No. We’re not going to run through this the usual way, with hardware specs up front. Brandon Miniman already covered those in the above-linked article, but I’ll reiterate them toward the end. Because the real story here is …

Software

Presenting for Samsung at today’s announcement, Suzi Perry made the astute observation that “it’s not just about what smartphones can do … it’s about how they do it.” Nebulous and vague though the statement may be, it’s entirely true: there’s a reason the term “user experience” was coined to describe the front-to-back interaction with a product, and Samsung looks to be delivering something entirely new with the GSIII. Let’s check it out in descending order of awesomeness/creepiness.

Smart Stay

Samsung seems to have structured its announcement for maximum adaptability into the written word, as every one of their new features has its own brand name. “Smart Stay” is by far the most intriguing (and slightly unsettling, if you’re worried about technology one day overwhelming we poor dumb meat bags).

“Screens usually go dark after a pre-set time,” explained Samsung VP Jean-Daniel Ayme, “but sometimes we want to linger on a page without touching it. It’s annoying to have to touch the screen to keep it awake. The S III will solve this for you. It sees us with its front facing camera and knows whether we are looking or not.”

GALAXY S III Product Image (3) B

Stop poking me. I’m up.


He’s right; anyone who’s taken too long pondering a move in Words With Friends understands the frustration of constantly tapping the screen to keep the phone awake. With this feature, Samsung has eliminated that nuisance- a mild one, sure, but one that constantly and imperceptibly made the user experience less enjoyable. It’s also just plain cool from a technology standpoint, and it will be interesting to see how it works.

Of course, this opens the door to a whole new array of irritating problems, such as when we want the screen to remain active even when we’re looking elsewhere. To squelch that annoyance, and to prevent Smart Stay from going down the same it’s-cool-but-I-don’t-use-it road as Face Unlock, Samsung will have to offer override capability though some other means.

Hey, how’bout if the user just tells the phone what he wants?

S Voice

Yeah, you can talk to it. And no, it doesn’t appear to be as limited as Siri.

Continued Ayme: “It also listens and responds … The S III is more like a good friend who listens intently and responds quickly.”

Well, sometimes I like my friends to think for a minute about what they’re going to say, but I imagine that delay will come along as “sequences shortened” announcement demos give way to real-world usage. The upshot is: you can talk to your phone. Not just to ask it if it’s raining outside, like some famously quirky brunettes on Siri commercials, but to say things like “snooze” when your alarm is going off in the morning. Presumably, you can also program it to perform that function if it hears a string of muffled half-asleep expletives at 7am, but we’ll have to wait and see.

gs3rear

Okay; I’ll shut up. Jeez.


The cooler part: it will only respond to your own voice, so a stranger shouldn’t be able to “S-Voice bomb” you on the sidewalk by shouting “Hi Galaxy; play the Spice Girls!” before running away, guffawing. And no matter what language you speak or dialect you use, you should be covered if you live in a release country; S Voice understands eight languages and multiple dialects.

Direct Call

Samsung has taken other intuitive steps to make using the phone easier. For example, if you start texting someone from your GSIII, but then decide you want to call them instead (something you should never do, by the way), you can simply raise the phone to your ear to make the call. No buttons, no talking, no thinking. That’s pretty awesome.

Pop Up Play

Picture-in-picture is a feature I’ve always associated with the kind of people I never want to be stuck in a conversation with: to my mind, they’re the same folks who can’t take their eyes off their smartphone more than a fifth of the time you’re talking to them. I never fathomed the urge to watch two things at once on a television screen.

But this is a new world, and not just one where multitasking is de rigueur; half the time people spend watching videos on YouTube, they’re simultaneously scrolling through the related-videos column hunting for the next clip. We’ve seen other companies release some specialized hardware to take advantage of this multitasking urge, but software has yet to catch up. Pop Up Play aims to change that, allowing a user to watch video overlaid in a window that floats atop the app they’re currently using. For video addicts, or those who simply like to listen to music via YouTube while working on their phone, this may be one of the more useful features Samsung has introduced.

Sadly though, the feature appears locked to the native media player at the moment, meaning users will need to download YouTube videos to their phone before watching them in the Pop Up Play window. Baby steps, I suppose.

S Beam

You guys remember Touch-To-Share between the HP TouchPad and the HP Pre 3?

Yeah, I know – nobody does.

Well, it was feature that allowed web pages to be passed back and forth between the smartphone and tablet, just by touching them together. Though it used different technology, it was akin to Bump for Android and iOS devices. It was pretty cool to transfer a webpage from my TouchPad to my Pre3 just by touching the two, but I was always hungry for more imaginative use of the technology than swapping URLs.

gs3 nfcf


Enter S Beam. Like the mutant offspring of Bump and Touch-To-Share on steroids, the new feature will leverage the NFC and WiFi Direct technology built into the GSIII to permit sharing of files between phones. And that includes large files, like videos. As Ayme explained: “Let’s say I want to share a video with a friend. All I have to do is choose the video, put it next to my friend’s phone, touch the screen, and away it goes.”

While Samsung’s playing fast and loose with terminology here -who knows what the term “video” entails, especially regarding DRM-protected content- this is an immensely cool feature for those who frequently find themselves wanting to instantly share content in-person with friends or coworkers.

Camera Software

It’s anybody’s guess how well the backside-illuminated 8MP sensor on the Galaxy S III’s primary shooter will perform, but the software is touting some impressive performance promises. Specifically, Samsung claims camera startup time of less than one second, so “you’ll never miss a shot again.” They’re also promising zero shutter lag, image stabilization, and 1080p video recording with still-shot capability in video mode. The 3.3 shots-per-second frame rate in burst mode isn’t quite up to par with the HTC One X’s 4-frames-per-second capability, but we’re really splitting hairs here.

TouchWiz

Samsung’s new iteration of their Android skin looks to be every bit as cartoonish and heavy-handed as previous versions, despite its new “Nature UX” moniker which seems only to bring a few water- and wind-based sounds and effects to the experience. There’s no dedicated multitasking button to augment it, and to my eye, no real reason we should still be putting up with such an elementary-looking skin in 2012.

Hardware

(for real, this time)

galaxy s 3


This thing isn’t going to impress those of you for whom smartphones are mere spec billboards, but there’s some good stuff here. The GSIII offers storage options of 16 or 32GB, with a 64GB variant coming later on and MicroSD expansion available in all models. There’s the usual HSPA radios (with LTE promised for the US model), a 4.8-inch, 306ppi S-AMOLED display (sorry, it’s PenTile), “high-throughput” 802.11n WiFi, GLONASS-enhanced GPS support, and Bluetooth 4.0, all powered by a 2100 mAh battery and stuffed inside an 8.6mm-thick, 133g casing. As we expected, the processor is Samsung’s Exynos quad-core SoC, clocked at 1.4GHz.

As mentioned above, NFC compatibility is included, and with any luck we’ll be able to make use of wireless payments with this device – Samsung said they were “working with” MasterCard and Visa on NFC-enabled apps. There’s also a barometer on board, which is pretty cool – but not as awesome as the wireless charging ability. I’ve talked before about how we’re long-overdue for widespread adoption of this feature in our smartphones, and it seems Samsung agrees.

As for the casing design, it’s a bit of a disappointment; with the GSIII, Samsung is essentially offering a blown-up amalgamation of every Galaxy phone that came before it. The “chin” featured on some earlier devices has been removed completely, annihilating any semblance of distinctiveness or personality, and putting the device firmly in “just another big slab” territory. There’s no space-age polycarbonate or ceramic material here; just your basic plastic. There’s also no metal chassis underpinning the casing. As I speculated based on the teaser imagery, the device is available in two colors: “marble white” or “pebble blue.” On the plus side, we have a much thinner bezel than in past designs, which makes the added bulk of the 4.8-inch display bearable.

Correction: The casing does appear to be polycarbonate, according to SlashGear, though it’s painted with a “hyperglaze” coating.

Wrap Up

gs3 burst


I’m disappointed by the casing and the presence of a still-overbearing TouchWiz, and I worry about how well that 2100mAh battery will endure … but I’m also incredibly excited about this device. I’ve accused Samsung before of copying instead of innovating, but this announcement is a prime example of the company at its best. It seems like they herded all their best thinkers into one room, asked them to come up with their most outlandish ideas for what a UI could offer, and executed on fully half of them. That’s space-age thinking; that’s imagination in action … it’s Samsung in its best form.

It’s unlikely that any of these features, standing on their own, will take the industry by storm, and if they were included piecemeal across a portfolio of separate devices, one or two per phone, I’d call them all gimmicks. But gathered together inside one device, backed by Samsung’s marketing and the cachet of the “Galaxy S” brand, I think this phone stands to markedly change the face of Android going forward.

I want one.

Title image source: Slash Gear

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!