Leaving Well Enough Alone: How Carriers Will Tweak The Galaxy S III

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Currently sitting at the top of many Android users’ tech wish lists, the Samsung Galaxy S III is by any measure an impressive piece of kit. The follow-up to one of the most popular devices in Android’s history, it has a lot to live up to. We’ve talked about some of the software customizations that will make this new Galaxy S its own flavor of smartphone, but we should keep in mind the fact that many millions of people will never, ever see the device in its announced configuration.

The reason for this: carrier customizations.

When wireless providers make the decision to carry a device on their networks, they rarely do so without some significant changes in mind. Most often, that includes hardware and software customizations, casing design alterations, and even changing the device’s name. Take the release of the first-generation Galaxy S device family in the United States: the phones weren’t known by Samsung’s chosen label, but as the Vibrant (on T-Mobile), the Captivate (AT&T), the Fascinate (Verizon Wireless), and the Epic 4G  (Sprint). Every one of those variants featured a modified chassis, with Sprint’s version going the farthest afield from the baseline with its sliding keyboard and WiMAX/CDMA radio combination. International variants were also in abundant supply.

With the launch of the Galaxy S II, we saw a slight shift in the blanket rebranding of Samsung’s devices. Perhaps owing to the excellent sales of the first Galaxy S line, the sequels retained their brand name alongside -or instead of- the carriers’ chosen titles. This resulted in T-Mobile and AT&T selling their versions simply as the “Galaxy S II,” with AT&T following that up with the short-lived “Galaxy S II Skyrocket” and the QWERTY-packing  “Samsung Captivate Glide.” It was Sprint that went the extra mile, opting to completely jump the shark with its version of the phone, debuting it as the “Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch” and finally opening many eyes to the reality that phone names were out of control.

Again, international markets didn’t go wanting for variants on the Galaxy S II design, either. This is a small portion of the “Variants” section of the Wikipedia entry for the Galaxy S II:

Seriously.

It’s not just device names that wireless carriers fiddle with; they alter everything. Some of these changes are entirely justified, of course: bands and air interfaces differ across networks across the world, and phones need to be customized so they can even function.

It’s other alterations that are harder for some to swallow. Sure, carriers want to make their devices distinctive, and maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world for a mobile operator to demand a faux-carbon-fiber battery door, or a specialty bezel. But when you’re locked into a contract with a specific provider, say Sprint in the US, and the only variant of the Galaxy S that they decide to carry is one that they’ve bolted a sliding keyboard to, that can be frustrating- particularly if your priority is thinness.

I’m not saying you’re fat … you’re just big-bezeled.

So what can we expect carriers to do to the Galaxy S III, in their never-ending quest for differentiation?

Casing Customizations

We’re definitely in for some serious paint-jobbery here, folks. The Galaxy S III has some awesome software features and very capable hardware under the hood, but nothing about its body design or materials really blew our socks off. That faux-brushed metal on the blue version isn’t impressing any of the folks who already have their hands on one, and white phones, despite their increasing popularity, are still in the minority. So we’ll probably see some customized colors and casing designs for various carriers. Maybe one of them will even resurrect the Nexus S’ unique reverse-chin antenna bulge, or bring a casing material with a higher-end feel than Samsung’s “hyper-glaze” coating.

Bye-Bye, Home Key

For whatever reason, wireless companies in the US are firmly convinced that the home key is public enemy number one. Whether it’s because of pressure from Apple’s patent portfolio on single-button mobile devices, or some other aesthetic consideration, one needs only to look at the previous Galaxy lines to see what happens to home keys in the States.

US version on the left, international on the right.

I’ve spoken about this before, and I won’t miss the big home key on the Galaxy S III if US carriers stay consistent in their quest to eliminate such things. From my perspective, switching from a tap-and-swipe user interface paradigm to a pressure-sensitive physical button every time one wants to use the home key is a clumsy approach, and that’s only exacerbated by Samsung’s placement of two capacitive -and therefore touch-sensitive- buttons alongside that big space bar.

Switching Out The Guts

I’ve already mentioned network customization as a necessary evil for connectivity; a phone needs to be able to operate on network of the carrier that’s selling it. Sometimes these optimizations end up changing other core elements of the device, though; The T-Mobile USA variant of the Galaxy S II used a Snapdragon processor instead of the Exynos that shipped with the international version, because the Exynos wasn’t equipped to provide the 42Mbps speeds T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network was theoretically capable of. While some aspects, like raw speed and battery life, benefited from this change, others like graphical processing power may have suffered.

There’s another big reason we’ll likely see a different set of insides for carrier- and country-specific Galaxy S III versions: LTE. So far, despite early rumors to the contrary, Samsung’s Exynos line doesn’t support the US flavors of LTE, so the company might take a page from HTC’s book and swap in a dual-core Qualcomm S4 processor instead. User-agent profiles seem to suggest that such a variant exists, at least on Verizon, and the same hunk of silicon appears to be powering the Sprint version as well. Similar modifications have been rumored for the Japanese SGS3.

There’s even more. Based on past tweaks, everything is on the table for customization, from screen size to custom LEDs to keyboards. About the only thing that’s certain is that we’re sure to see lots and lots of …

Bloatware

It’s gonna happen. They just can’t help themselves.

In any case, we’re about to bear witness to a flood of Galaxy S III variants of every imaginable shape and configuration. Given Samsung’s past performance, and their 9 million-unit-strong preorder (albeit with carrier orders included), it won’t be long before we start seeing the first of these variants in the wild.

When that time comes, what changes do you hope to see Samsung make (or avoid making) to the Galaxy S III on your carrier?

 

SGSII home button image source: Digital Trends

SGSIII Exynos LTE chipset rumor source: Engadget

Bloatware image source: Droid-Life

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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!