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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 18, 2012 at 11:33 AM

Review: Samsung Galaxy S III, the smartphone to beat?

Be thankful that Samsung’s new Galaxy S III is fast, powerful and gorgeous.

I say that because there’s a good chance it will be your next phone.

Samsung Galaxy S III_front.jpg

Samsung has become the world’s leading phone-maker, surging past Nokia and Apple largely on the strength of the Galaxy S line, which debuted in 2010.

The third version goes on sale later this week on every major U.S. carrier, starting at about $200, plus a voice and data plan.

After testing a Galaxy S III on T-Mobile USA’s 4G network last week, I’ll bet it further extends Samsung lead. I found the phone hard to resist, despite software that’s not as elegant as the gleaming new hardware.

The Galaxy S III uses carriers’ latest 4G technology and has a ridiculous list of features, including most every new wireless trick for transferring files, photos and videos.

Samsung seems to have added every feature it could think of to be sure its flagship stacks up against any other phone in the store.

If you’re intrigued by the iPhone’s Siri voice-control system, for instance, a phone salesperson may suggest you check out the “S Voice” controls on the Galaxy S III.

No wonder Apple tried to block its importation with a patent lawsuit.

The Galaxy S III is a big phone, which won’t appeal to everyone. At times it felt like I was talking into a shaving mirror held against my cheek.

It’s basically a 4.8-inch diagonal screen, behind which Samsung stuffed a 1.5 gigahertz, dual-core processor, an 8 megapixel camera and a big battery.

Yet it’s just a third of an inch thick — about the same as a ballpoint pen — and weighs about 5 ounces. Overall it’s 5 3/8 x 2 3/4 inches.

samgalside.jpg

It feels well balanced and light for its size. Curved edges make it look smaller than it is, and the glass face tapers smoothly into its frame.

There’s just one physical button on the front, a home button. It’s flanked by hidden, touch-sensitive “menu” and “back” controls.

The high-definition display uses Super AMOLED technology. In other words it’s strikingly vivid, though it’s a bit hard to see the display in bright sunlight.

The battery, which can be replaced by users, kept my test model running on a single charge for two days of moderate use. Samsung claims 11 hours of talk time and 463 hours of standby.

On T-Mobile, the phone uses an HSPA+ network with theoretical download speeds up to 42 megabits per second. On my bus commute, without all bars of reception showing, I saw download speeds of 9 to 11 Mbps and uploads above 2 Mbps, using Speedtest.net.

High-def YouTube videos played with no buffering on or off the bus.

Calls were clear and the phone keypad was large and easy to use.

samgaldoubletap.jpg

There’s a fun mix of gesture controls, such as shaking the phone to slide icons around the screen, or tapping the top the case to jump to the top of a list of emails. But it may take awhile for users to learn them all.

Like other Android phones I’ve tested recently, the Galaxy S III comes packed with apps, including competing media stores run by the carrier, the handset maker and Google.

This doesn’t feel like a bonus. It’s more like a strip mall and contrasts with the minimalist hardware design. Buyers will need to set aside time to clear this clutter after they’ve figured out which of the pre-loaded apps are worth keeping.

You’d think Google and its partners would share credentials, so you only have to sign in once, when you first turn on the phone and link it to a Google account. But you’ve got to set up a separate account to use Samsung’s media applications.

I’m not a fan of Android’s interface, which still feels dated and clumsy compared with Apple’s iOS and Windows Phone. But people don’t seem to mind and buy more Android phones than any other kind. I wouldn’t be surprised if Samsung announced a Windows version of the Galaxy S III, perhaps later this week.

Samsung is among the tech companies exploring ways to incorporate mobile devices into home entertainment, using them as auxiliary screens and remote controls. With the Galaxy S III, Samsung added multiple ways to get video and photos on the phone onto larger screens nearby.

Video and photos can be played back wirelessly on a networked PC or TV or via an HDMI cable. I wonder how many people will bother, since there are so many devices connected to TVs nowadays.

samgalmediahub.jpg

I didn’t have time to test the video sharing but was able to use a Samsung app for mirroring phone content on a PC over Wi-Fi. It worked fine, but required a Java download on the PC and the interface was clunky. It’s still easier to simply connect to a PC with a USB cable.

Many buyers may look past these advanced connectivity options and buy the Galaxy S III simply because it’s one of the best-looking phones in the store and loaded with most every gee-whiz feature they’ve heard of.

It will come in white and metallic blue finishes. T-Mobile hasn’t yet disclosed pricing but it will probably be comparable to Verizon Wireless, which has said its LTE version will start at $200 for a model with 16 gigabytes of memory and $250 for 32 gigabytes. T-Mobile’s sales begin Thursday.

Galaxy phones have been the best-selling models at T-Mobile for the last two years, according to the product manager, Brenda Fisher.

“Collectively they’ve done better than any other brand T-Mobile has sold,” she said. “Consumers just keep coming back for it.”

They’ll probably find that, on the third time around, the Galaxy’s even more charming.

UPDATE: Initial supplies of the Galaxy S III are apparently limited. T-Mobile’s releasing the phone in 29 markets to start on the 21st and will extend it to other markets “over the coming weeks,” a spokesman said.

T-Mobile’s also charging more than some for the phone. It’s charging $280 for the 16 gig model and $330 for a 32 gig model, after $50 rebate and with a “classic” voice and data plan. With a “Value” plan the phone’s up-front cost will be $230 or $280, depending on storage size – plus another $400 that’s paid in 20 installments of $20 per month.

Unboxing:

samgal3.jpg

Hello Google:

samgal7.jpg

T-Mobile is using the controversial CarrierIQ diagnostics technology on the phone. If you’re concerned about the privacy implications, uncheck the “diagnostics” in the settings menu:

samgal10.jpg

Hay fever sufferers may want to change the default desktop image:

samgaldandelion.jpg

A photo I took with the phone:

samgal12.jpg

Here are specs, as provided by Samsung:

Dimensions: 5.38″ x 2.78″ x 0.34″

Weight: 4.7 ounces

Battery standby time: Up to 12.5 days

Battery usage time: Up to 8 hours usage time

Battery type and size: 2100mAh

Platform: Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich

CPU / Processor: 1.5 GHz dual core

Display resolution: 1280 x 720 pixel

Main display size: 4.8″

Main display technology: HD Super AMOLED

User interface features: TouchWiz; Smart Unlock; Accelerometer; Motion Gestures; Smart Stay; S Voice; S Suggest; Kies Air; Pop Up Play; Share Shot; AllShare Play

Camera: 8.0 Megapixel

Front-facing camera resolution: 1.9 Megapixel

Digital optical zoom: 4x

Features: Auto Focus; Shot Modes, Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent, Incandescent; Camcorder; DivX; HD Recording; HD Playback; Video Share; Zero lag shutter; Burst Mode; Best Shot; Share Shot; Smile Shot; Buddy photo share

Audio features: Music Player; Compatible Music Files, 3GP, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, M4A, MIDI, MMF, MP3, PMD, QCP, WAV, WMA; Audio, Streaming; Ringtones, Polyphonic; MP3/Music Tones

Video features: Video Player; Compatible Video Files, 3GPP, H.264, MPEG4, WMV; Video, Streaming

Games and entertainment: Downloadable Content; Animated Wallpapers; Samsung Widget Gallery; Samsung Media Hub; Google Play Books; Music and Movies; Google Talk; Flipboard; T-Mobile TV

Productivity: Microsoft Office-compatible; Voice Memo

Messaging options: Email; Corporate Email; Picture Messaging; Text Messaging; Instant Messaging; Threaded / Chat-style Messages; Predictive Text (T9/XT9); T9 Trace

Connectivity features: Bluetooth; Bluetooth Profiles, A2DP, AVRCP, HID, HFP, PBAP, HSP, OPP, SPP; Wi-Fi; Wi-Fi Hotspot; HTML Browser; Flash; GPS

Internal memory: RAM (2GB), ROM (16GB

External memory/microSD Capacity: Up to 64GB microSD

Calling features: Speakerphone; Voice Recognition; Voicemail; Visual Voicemail; Text-to-speech; Music ID; Picture Caller ID; Multitasking; Call Restrictions; Hearing Aid Compatible (HAC), M3; TTY; Airline Mode

Comments | More in Reviews | Topics: 4G, Android, Android 4.0

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