Posted on 04 March 2013.
While most Americans will have to wait just a little bit longer to get their hands on Samsung’s latest flagship, in various parts of the world the device has been out for almost a month already. We gave you a brief look at the Galaxy S3 at CTIA but I managed to persuade a friend of mine here in the UK to give me a few hours of playtime with the one he’s just bought so here are my thoughts on the device (spoiler alert – it’s pretty special). Keep in mind, this is the Exynos-powered UK-edition. Geek.com has a US model as well that we’ll be covering in the future.
I was incredibly surprised by the build quality of the S3, even with all its plastic it still manages to feel very premium, even more so than the Galaxy Nexus. I find myself loving the hardware button — it mirrors the contours of device and looks great. I’m not a massive fan of the menu and back buttons but that can’t be helped with a physical home button unless you’re willing to do it wrong, like HTC. Having the physical buttons also leaves much more of the massive 4.8-inch screen for consuming media.
When I first got my Galaxy Nexus I thought the screen was huge and that I would never need a bigger screen but I actually found myself jealous of the S3′s screen. Even though both the Galaxy S 3 and the Nexus have 1280×720 HD Super AMOLED screens and the Nexus has a greater amount of pixels per inch somehow the S3s screen appeared better but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It’s also not much bigger height and width wise in comparison to the Galaxy Nexus and is actually thinner.
Despite being thinner than the Nexus, Samsung have managed to fit a whole extra 250 mAh (350 over the GSM version) into its battery and this makes all the difference. When I checked the battery usage, the phone had been off charge for 13 hours and 40 minutes, the screen had used up 39% of the depleted battery on medium brightness and the phone still had 24% remaining. On the Nexus I usually get about 2 hours of screen on time at a low brightness before I need to connect a charger.
If the battery still isn’t quite enough for you, Samsung have have provided a power saving feature which limits the CPU, uses a low power level for the screen, changes the background color (only in email and browser, strangely) and turns off haptic feedback. Changing the background color seems to just reduce the white on the background of web pages, not quite the dramatic effect I was expecting.
Samsung have implemented some simple gestures for common tasks that can be activated under the ‘Motion’ heading in the settings page. My favorite is the palm swipe to take a screenshot. All you do is swipe your palm (I find the side of your hand is the easiest way to perform the gesture) across the screen, moments later you see a white line sweep across the screen kinda like the light you see escaping from a document scanner and the notification for the saved screenshot then pops. I was surprised at how well this worked, I expected that when I moved my palm across the screen that it would cause the home screen to move or to pan the current web page thus creating a screenshot of something unexpected but it worked perfectly and is much cooler than pressing the home and power buttons together.
Another gesture is tilt to zoom, whilst reading a web page you can simply tilt the phone back slightly and the page zooms in, tilt the phone towards you and it zooms back out. Then there’s the palm touch, which is stated that when you touch your palm to the screen the current media playing will pause. By media I assumed this would include YouTube videos, sadly it did not, it did however, work on music playback.
The direct call gesture is a nice touch, if you have a contact currently displayed on screen you can simply lift the phone to your ear and it will begin to call them, it also works in a thread in the stock SMS app. Likewise if you’re scrolling through your contacts list you can swipe left on a contact to send them an SMS or swipe right to begin calling them.
I was excited to try S Voice as I hadn’t had much experience with Siri and last I checked the current Android alternatives weren’t much to shout about. I love the UI of S Voice with the carbon fiber looking background, unfortunately that’s where my love of S Voice stopped. The first query I tried was ‘What’s the weather like today’ which worked perfectly, I then tried to ask ‘What’s the greatest smartphone in the world’ which it completely misunderstood. I thought, well that’s alright, I do tend to mumble, so I tried again, this time I was greeted with a network error even with great signal as can be seen in the screenshot above. All subsequent attempts garnered network errors and even one server error, I gave up in the end.
A complaint I have with TouchWiz is with some of the replacement stock apps, to me they aren’t as nice as the stock ICS ones, especially the contacts/people app. They seem to be using the design guidelines from before ICS although this isn’t such a big deal as they don’t have to fit in with the stock launchers Holo theme, maybe they would actually look out of place if they took on the new design guidelines. It does however make them look out of place with some of the ICS optimized apps coming through the Play Store currently. Some of the TouchWiz apps are actually extremely similar to their stock counterparts, the Gallery app for example seems to be exactly the same except for the Action Bar at the top.
A minor issue I have with the stock browser is that it has it’s own brightness settings, it took me forever to work out why the screen was dimming whenever I opened the browser, for some this will be a great added feature but for me it seems a little strange, if the device were mine however, I’d be replacing the stock browser with Chrome Beta anyway.
For all Samsung’s work on polishing TouchWiz and creating a great user experience one blindingly obvious mistake they made was with homescreen folders. For some ridiculous reason you have to press menu on the homescreen, tap create folder and then drop the apps you want into said folder. You can’t just drop an app on top of another to create a folder like in stock ICS which seems a really obvious thing to overlook.
As I was flicking through the available widgets there was one named “Videos”, intrigued I placed it on the home screen, I was then asked to choose a video from the gallery, which I did and the widget was placed. It was a screenshot of the video with a play icon in the center, I clicked play and expected the video to start playing within the widget which it didn’t. It opened up the video player and played from there, who needs access to a video so frequently and quickly that they need a widget on their home screen? Also the pop out and overlay feature of the videos is certainly a wow factor but I couldn’t see myself ever using it, I would rather pause it and quickly take care of whatever it was that required me to move away from full screen video enjoyment.
One last little part of TouchWiz that I like is some of Samsung’s own live wallpapers, specifically the news one. You simply choose your location and news topic (top stories, politics etc.) and the live wallpaper shows various headlines of your chosen topic. It looks incredibly cool and polished but if you’re someone who has a cluttered home screen then ultimately it becomes pointless as you won’t be able to read the headlines or touch them to open up the news article. There’s also a similar wallpaper for stock market information.
TouchWiz is by far one of the best custom skins to land on Android, I never thought I’d say this but I wouldn’t be apposed to using this over stock, for a while at least. I’ve never owned a smartphone that wasn’t running stock Android but there’s something about TouchWiz on the S3 that makes me contemplate not getting the next Nexus and waiting for the S4. Perhaps it’s the smoothness that Samsung have instilled throughout the OS that brings it more inline with the smoothness of iOS or the inclusion of some of the features you only get on a stock device by flashing something like CyanogenMod (power controls in notification bar or expandable number of home screens, etc.). Either way Samsung have created a truly great experience through the combination of their excellent hardware and amazing software.
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