Eleven years ago this month, I bought my first mobile phone: a Samsung SCH-3500 on Sprint. At the time, it was the hottest device on the market; its unique form factor and high-tech features like voice dialing made it a must-have. The wireless landscape has since changed dramatically, but two things remain true: wireless customers still seek out groundbreaking devices, and the hottest phone on Sprint is still built by Samsung.
The Galaxy S III is the latest Android superphone to come out of South Korea, and it has a lot going for it. Indeed, our own Brandon Miniman gave it high marks on his extensive review last month. But that was the international version. The phone gracing Sprint’s shelves may look similar, but there’s a lot separating it from its more worldly cousin underneath that hyperglaze coating. Do these disparities bring out the best or the worst in Samsung’s newest crown jewel? Read on to find out.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Comparisons · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion
The casing of the American Galaxy S III is virtually identical to its international counterpart, but don’t let that similarity fool you; it’s only skin deep. The U.S. variant is an almost totally different device, mostly because of the unique band requirements of American wireless carriers. That seemingly innocuous disparity has created ripples of change reaching into the very heart of the device itself.
That heart is the CPU, which on the international Galaxy S III is Samsung’s quad-core Exynos 4412 processor, clocked at 1.4GHz. The Sprint version -and in fact all American variants- have swapped that out for a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 SoC, running at 1.5GHz. That apparent downgrade results in a less impressive spec stack on paper, but there are mitigating factors that blunt the impact of losing those two cores. The following paragraph calls for a technobabble alert, as it goes deeper into this stuff than most consumers will ever care about, but it’s here because it’s important.
One of these mitigating factors is the manufacturing process: the Qualcomm S4’s transistors, integrated using a 28nm process, should theoretically be capable of faster operation than the Exynos’ 32nm hardware. That’s a tiny difference, though, and in all likelihood the impact of such a small gap on performance is undetectable. More crucial is the processor architecture: the Qualcomm S4 is built on the Krait architecture, which is superior in most metrics to the A9 core of the Exynos. Anandtech puts it pretty bluntly in an article comparing the two: “Krait will be faster regardless of application, regardless of usage model. You’re looking at a generational gap in architecture here, not simply a clock bump.”
Additionally, there’s Samsung’s eleventh-hour addition of an extra gig of RAM into the American version of the Galaxy S III. This blunt-force approach to the problem of how best to future-proof the device for Android 4.1 Jelly Bean has resulted in an American variant with twice the RAM of its international counterpart. That’s a lot of memory -at the launch event, Samsung informed us it’s an “industry first”- and more memory is seldom a bad thing.
Finally, the choice of processor discussed above carries yet another positive effect: the Sprint Galaxy S III features support for LTE on the 1900MHz band. That means Sprint customers carrying the new phone will be able to take advantage of much higher data speeds when Sprint flips the switch on the new network this summer. There’s no user-accessible SIM on this version of the device, though; Sprint customers will be used to this limitation, but phone-swap junkies coming from another carrier will want to bear this in mind.
Those differences aside, we’re looking at the same feature set as every other Galaxy S III, from the mammoth 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display with 306ppi and 720p resolution on the front, to the 8MP backside-illuminated 1080p-capable camera on the back. The Sprint version is available in 16GB and 32GB flavors; expansion up to an additional 64GB is possible on the international version via a MicroSDXC slot, but Sprint’s website quotes 32GB as the MicroSD maximum for its unit- so buy larger cards at your own risk. For in-depth coverage of these and other specs common to all Galaxy S IIIs, see Brandon’s review, linked above. But first, to see what kind of experience they deliver on the Sprint version, read on.
Know what’s important when your smartphone is little more than a giant display? A great display.
Much noise has been made about the use of the PenTile sub-pixel arrangement in Super-AMOLED displays like the one found on the Galaxy S III. Sometimes it’s for good reason: despite its high resolution, the display on the Galaxy Nexus is widely considered to be sub-par thanks to its horrible white color reproduction, which comes out looking like wet newspaper. But even though the Galaxy S III’s display uses similar technology, it does a much better job than the Galaxy Nexus’ panel. In fact, it delivers some wonderful imagery.
Does it look worse under a microscope? Sure. On close inspection, is it inferior to a truly great display like the HTC One X’s? Yes.
Will you care? Probably not.
Okay: if you’re a pixel-counting resolution aficionado, this device’s screen will probably bug you. But, if you’re literally anyone else, you shouldn’t give it a second thought. It will serve you just fine. It’s worth noting, though, that Sprint has removed the “Screen Mode” setting that let users alter the display’s saturation level in the international version, so if you’re into amping up the color, you won’t be able to do so out of the box.
Speaking of color: Samsung loves its notification LEDs, and that’s evident on this device. A big, bright LED sits just to the left of the earphone; it lights up to let you know about missed texts, emails, calls, Facebook events, etc. We love notification lights too, so we were elated to see one included on this device. It’s so bright that, in a dark room, it lights up most of the faceplate on our white version. Sprint has fiddled with the colors and flashing rate on its version for no apparent reason, and sadly there’s no way to customize it out of the box. Fortunately, there’s an app for that.
Let’s talk body. We said it after the London announcement and we’ll say it again: the Galaxy S III’s physical design is underwhelming. Because it’s identical to its sibling, aside from a slightly more yellow tint on the white version’s casing and the fact that it tends to run a bit hotter, that holds true for the Sprint version as well.
To qualify this: there’s nothing terribly wrong with the design. It’s fine. But there’s nothing really outstanding about it, either. Samsung has given us lightweight hardware before, along with phones touting rounded corners and curved bezels. Actually, we’ve seen much more unique hardware from Seoul in the past: the concave glass screens and curved teardrop casings of their Nexus devices are examples.
By contrast, there’s not much that’s compelling in the design of the Galaxy S III, which resembles a flattened Galaxy Nexus. There are interesting flairs here, but they’re either too subtle to make a difference, like the curved glass at the edges of the display, or deliberately hidden: the polycarbonate battery cover could have been interesting, but Samsung applied a “hyper glaze” coating that makes it feel like cheap plastic. Also, the “polished river stone” analogy Samsung’s pushing seems forced. A river stone at least feels substantial in the hand; at 133g, the Galaxy S III seems almost too light. Considering the phone’s silver-colored bezel is plastic masquerading as metal, that shouldn’t come as much of a shock, but it would have been nice if Samsung had taken the time to hide the seam better.
Is that nitpicking? Yeah. Will these cut corners stop Samsung from selling millions of units? No. But here’s what we’re saying: this isn’t a midrange Gingerbread device for high-schoolers. This is a $600, flagship-class superphone. And, you know what? In the hand, it doesn’t feel like it. That’s a shame.
Fortunately, while Samsung fails to impress in the physical realm, it shines in the virtual.
We talked recently about how much we enjoy the latest iteration of Samsung’s TouchWiz skin, dubbed “Nature UX.” While that appellation seems to derive entirely from some rural-themed wallpapers and watery notification sounds (more on these in a second), the skin offers some real utility. We particularly love the ever-present shortcuts in the notification drawer, which Sprint has rearranged slightly for its version of the device:
More than any specific feature of TouchWiz 5.0, we appreciate Samsung’s restraint. Many of the features that made Ice Cream Sandwich such a breakthrough in UI have gone un-touched, or been tweaked only slightly to improve usability. There’s little of the cruft and chrome present in earlier versions of TouchWiz, which unnecessarily cluttered up the user experience and reduced performance. Indeed, the new TouchWiz is light and snappy; it definitely outperformed Sense 4.0, which we tried earlier this year on the HTC One X.
As part of the “designed for humans” mantra Samsung’s been pushing, there’s also support for many gesture- and motion-based commands, some of which are fun and surprisingly useful. There are unique features like Smart Stay, Buddy Photo Share, and Pop Up Play, which all work as well as they do on the global version. S-Voice is here as well, doing as good a job as it ever does. And there are tutorial screens available for almost anything, should you become lost in the device’s dizzying array of features.
It’s not perfect, of course: Samsung’s decision to retain a physical home key below the display is a polarizing one. Contrary to its forward-thinking design in most of the UI, Samsung anchors us to yesterday with the button. It forces us to consistently switch from gliding, scrolling, flicking, and tapping on a smooth sheet of glass, to mashing our fingers on a spring-loaded pad every time we want to return home. Even worse, the dedicated multitasking button introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich has been shown the door; calling up the multitasking card view necessitates a long-press on the home key, an even bigger speed bump in UI navigation. Then again, it’s easy to find by feel when the phone is in a pocket or in the dark, and many of you disagreed with us the last time we vented about home keys, so maybe we’re in the minority here.
Speaking of keys: in American English mode, the keyboard is terrible. We called the keyboard on AT&T’s HTC One X “one of the worst virtual keyboards we’d ever come across.” The Galaxy S III’s is worse. Its auto-complete is too aggressive, it doesn’t alter its behavior when you’re editing an existing word versus typing a new one, and there’s no easy way to add custom entries to the dictionary. Nothing about this keyboard, other than its size, is enjoyable. But fortunately, this is an Android phone: replacing the keyboard is just a matter of downloading a new one from the Google Play Store. We kept the Samsung one installed just long enough to write this review, and will be replacing it with the ICS default keyboard as soon as it’s through. It’s that bad.
Android’s inherent customizability will also save you from having to put up with the interface sounds of the “Nature UX,” if you so choose. The new TouchWiz does a lot of things right, but sound feedback isn’t one of them. Hearing water drops and liquid splashes with every tap on a smartphone isn’t our idea of a “natural” experience. It’s easy to see what Samsung was going for here, but there’s a lot to be said for subtlety. And that’s in short supply in some corners of the UI.
We found the everyday apps like Email and Messaging to be tolerable, if uninspired. They did what they needed to do and not much else- though the Messaging application does allow for some fun backgrounds and text-bubble customization, which helps keep the SMS experience from getting too stale. Your experience with the email app will vary depending on whether you’re a Gmail user; if you are, you’ll probably manage your mail via the Gmail app, which offers the same (excellent) experience across all devices. Of course, that app only handles Gmail accounts, so if you don’t have one of those, you’ll want to swing by a retail store and give the phone’s email app a good test drive before pulling the trigger. Or you could use a third-party solution to handle that portion of your message traffic.
It’s important to wrap this section up on a more positive note- not because we’re big on baseless positivity, but more so because the new TouchWiz deserves a real pat on the back. In almost a month of Galaxy S III ownership, we’ve come to appreciate many of its conveniences and helpful touches, so much so that we can pretty easily overlook the flaws mentioned above. For the average consumer of ordinary mobile savvy, we’d have no trouble recommending the Galaxy S III based on the TouchWiz skin alone. Considering how militantly “anti-Wiz” we were before, that’s quite a testament to how far Samsung has come, and how seriously it takes its quest to dominate the Android space.
We found performance on Sprint’s SGS3 to be identical to that of the global version, which isn’t surprising because the camera modules are (tired of hearing this yet?) identical. Color reproduction is quite good, though the higher-than-normal saturation of S-AMOLED displays means your results will often look quite different when viewed on a computer screen.
There are a boatload of fun and useful features included with the camera software, some of which we can’t imagine ever being terribly useful. Still, it’s nice to have options. Our favorite shooting modes during the review period were HDR and Panorama, though the latter is just as finicky as its analog on stock-ICS devices; it takes a steady hand to get it just right. HDR is often a better choice than standard single-shot mode, as the camera in its automatic setting seemed to have a little trouble deciding on an exposure level when dealing with scenes featuring both brightly- and dimly-lit areas. That’s par for the course with most phone cameras, though.
The front-facing camera did about as well as you’d expect. We wouldn’t recommend using it for anything but video calls or a quick self-portrait, just the things it was designed for.
Our week-plus with the Sprint version of the phone came right on the heels of our time with the international model, so any variations in performance between the units were immediately apparent. There weren’t many to log: the experience across devices was pretty consistent despite their divergent guts.
In daily use, though, we did find the Sprint version to be slightly more buggy than its international counterpart. App crashes and other odd behavior occurred a bit more often on the Sprint unit, with Foursquare being a particularly obnoxious offender. However, these instances were rare overall, and a software update could easily correct them.
We used the Sprint Galaxy S III as our personal music player for the entire review period. Streaming music, as noted, sounded just fine, as did the music we transferred to the phone’s memory card. It wasn’t an outstanding experience -and we’re mildly embarrassed to say we missed the added “oomph” of HTC’s Beats offering on the One X- but the phone’s performance was certainly on par with an iPod or comparable PMP. Finding the on-board equalizer (hit the menu key during playback) helped a bit as well. The included headphones are great at blocking out external noise, but that’s because their gel buds burrow deep into your ears; they’re not terribly comfortable for long-term listening. That’s especially true if you’re wearing them while eating, which is a particularly disturbing experience. Go ahead and try it with something crunchy, like a pretzel. It’s intense.
Generally, we found the phone’s responsiveness and other elements of the software experience to be above-average. It’s not quite “butter,” but Jelly Bean should come along at some point to push it into that range. For more objective results, check out these benchmarks.
It’s not often you get to say this about an Android smartphone: the phone’s battery endurance is excellent, lasting us a full day with moderate use.
For our purposes, “moderate use” means a smorgasbord of consumption which includes about 1.5 hours of mp3 playback, 30 minutes of internet browsing, a combined two hours of social media app use (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Flipboard, etc.), ten or twenty photos, one or two Maps/transit app sessions, and about 100-200 text messages. That’s while routinely hopping between cellular and WiFi coverage (and searching -in vain- for LTE), with GMail and the stock email app set to “As Items Arrive” and 15-minute fetch times, respectively. Combined, that accounts for probably 50-60 emails daily, counting both sent and received. At the end of a day like that, our Galaxy S III was down below 20%, but nowhere near totally drained.
Your results can and will vary depending on your use, but we’d say this device would last the average user a full day. Power users will probably still want to carry a spare battery, though. And of course, all owners or potential owners of this phone should check out our video on maximizing the Galaxy S III’s battery life.
Call Quality/Network Performance
We tested the Galaxy S III on Sprint’s network between Boston, MA and Long Island, New York, with a few visits to New York City for good measure. As we mentioned before, Sprint has yet to commence wide-scale deployment of LTE; as a result, our testing has been spent entirely on the carrier’s 1xEvDO network and several WiFi hotspots. We were surprised to find the experience largely enjoyable; while it was certainly slower than 4G, and activities like browsing the web and downloading apps took markedly longer than on our LTE-packing Galaxy Nexus on Verizon, we were routinely pleased by how well most apps performed. Spotify and Pandora, for example, both shined- even in their high-quality modes. We even watched two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix over 3G; aside from a slightly longer buffering period at the start of each episode, the experience was flawless.
Even in more ho-hum usage scenarios, the phone shined. Voice calls, infrequent as they were, all went off without a hitch: callers said we sounded clear, though speakerphone mode was a predictably lower-quality experience. The Galaxy S III offers a considerable array of sound customization options; seldom before have we encountered equalizer settings in a phone application. That’s apparently an OEM thing as opposed to a carrier add-on; we found similar settings in the international version’s phone app.
Reception was okay, if a tad inconsistent. We experienced good performance in well-covered areas like Boston, but in fringe coverage areas like rural Eastern Long Island, the Galaxy S III tended to hop between native (1900MHz Sprint PCS) and roaming (800MHz Verizon Wireless) modes a little more frequently than we’re used to seeing other Sprint phones do. That’s made even more annoying on this device, which flashes a “Data Roaming” notification at you every time the phone changes networks. Still, the Sprint Galaxy S III beat out a Motorola Admiral by a solid 10 dBm in a side-to-side test, so the radio is a good one. And even when roaming on Verizon, we found data and voice performance to be perfectly acceptable. We did have a slight problem with the phone’s WiFi connection, which dropped out from time to time, but a quick toggle of the WiFi radio fixed the issue when it popped up.
One thing to note: as we mentioned before, the phone definitely gets hotter than its international counterpart, especially when it’s working hard. That’s to be expected, and it’s nothing terribly unusual, but it’s worth mentioning that the US Galaxy S III gets hotter than most phones we’ve handled recently.
+ Big, bright display
+ Slim and sleek
+ Huge feature set
+ Excellent UI customizations
+ Good battery life
+ Solid 3G performance
– Lack of quad-core processor may impair power users/gamers
– PenTile display will be irritating to some
– Unremarkable design, light feel-in-hand
– Slippery casing is a fingerprint and oil magnet
– Various minor bugs in software
– (Speculative) Phone/carrier only supports LTE 1900; in-building coverage may not be on par with competitors when rolled out
In-Depth Feature Articles
Pricing and Availability
Sprint’s had some trouble keeping the Galaxy S III in stock, but those problems appear to have been solved: the device is now up for sale in both “pebble blue” and “marble white” flavors, at either 16GB or 32GB capacity (though according to Phandroid, the latter can’t be found in retail stores). As usual, pricing will vary depending on length of contract and promotional offers, but the full retail price ranges from $549.99 to $599.99, depending on storage capacity.
More than a decade after the “cool factor” of its SCH-3500 wowed American phone buyers, it’s heartening to see that Samsung is still making stand-out products for its longtime partner, Sprint. And the Galaxy S III isn’t just a stand-out product; it’s probably the best smartphone available on Sprint right now. Its build quality isn’t great compared to competitors like the HTC One X, and its software is just a tad undercooked, but its bold ambition, solid performance, and overflowing feature portfolio put the Galaxy S III in a class by itself.
It may be tacky, but Samsung hits the nail right on the head with the Galaxy S III’s marketing tagline. Especially for Sprint customers, “the next big thing” is indeed already here.
Krait vs A9 architecture comparison source: Anandtech
32GB Sprint SGS3 availability info: Phandroid