Wednesday, June 20, 2012

There are Android phones, there are Android superphones, and then there’s the Samsung Galaxy S III. Samsung’s Galaxy phones are no longer just hot new mobile devices they’ve become a force of nature. Just like the iPhone, users can expect a new Samsung Galaxy every year, and then must decide whether or not to upgrade.

The first Galaxy S arrived in 2010. Prior to it, the “hero” Android device was the Motorola Droid, but the Galaxy set a new standard with its bright screen, slim form and wide availability. The Samsung Galaxy S II came the following year, taking the line a step further with a better processor, improved camera and extremely thin design. Thanks to the S II, Samsung became the top Android phone maker in the world.

With the S III, powered by the latest Android software, version 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich,” Samsung hopes to keep its winning streak going. It’s doing a lot more than just hoping, however, stuffing a goodie bag of new “human” features (a catchphrase of Samsung’s) into the phone that are so far only available on this device. Samsung appears to have awakened to how influential its Galaxy phones are: The Galaxy S III won’t just be the flagship of its mobile division it’ll be the company’s top product, period.

There are a number of things the Galaxy S III does that no other phone can do yet. For starters, the front facing camera will track your eyes and keep the screen from timing out if you’re still looking at it. You can also wake up the phone using just your voice. There’s also a “groupcasting” feature for sharing pics and presentations with other phones as long as those phones are also Samsung Galaxy S IIIs.

Those are just a few of the features exclusive to this phone, and it’s mainly because of the hardware, which packs many cutting-edge features into a surprisingly lightweight design. Although the 4.8-inch screen on the Galaxy S III is much bigger than the iPhone 4S’s 3.5-incher, the S III is both slimmer and lighter. That’s thanks in part to the plastic back, which may feel slightly cheaper than glass or metal but helps keep the weight way down.

First Impressions

Turning on the Galaxy S III for the first time, I saw no fewer than than five branding screens three for Samsung, one for the Galaxy S III itself and one for AT&T. Mercifully, bootup is fairly fast, about 30 seconds (by comparison, my iPhone 4S takes about 36 seconds to get going). The phone prompts you to restore your Google/Android account if you have one, quickly downloading your apps and setting up Gmail.

Even though the phone has a big screen, it feels friendly to the hand. It’s just short of being too big, which is what I’d consider the Samsung Galaxy Note. Samsung likes to point out that the phone is almost nothing but curves there’s barely a straight edge anywhere. While that sounds weird, it’s actually very comfortable to hold and I always felt I had a solid grip on it.

The Samsung Galaxy S III’s HD Super AMOLED screen has 1,280 x 720 pixels and uses a tech called PenTile, which actually has fewer sub-pixels than regular LCDs. While some have criticized the display for that reason, most users won’t be able to tell the difference. However, if you put it side by side with, say, one of Apple’s retina displays, you’ll likely find the GSIII slightly fuzzier. But the brightness is impressive, and will likely win over more customers than any PenTile deficiencies will drive away.

As an object, though, this phone is closer to the iPhone than any other Android phone I’ve seen, mainly because it has a physical home button beneath the screen. Most Android phones I’ve used typically have have a row of touch buttons along the bottom, partly as a way to differentiate from iPhones. The appearance of a home button is kind of a bold move considering the patent skirmishes between Apple and Samsung (time will tell if it means anything in that conflict.)

Camera Capabilities

After setup, I went straight for the camera. Today, a phone’s camera matters more than almost any other feature or app, for obvious reasons. I absolutely love the camera in HTC’s One phones, since it includes a burst mode and instant saving to the cloud. I was excited to see how the Galaxy S III which has similar features would compare.

I wasn’t disappointed. The Galaxy S III’s camera has a very capable burst mode, capturing three pics per second (for up to 20 pics), which was just enough to get a couple of great shots of my two-year-old son throwing a Frisbee in a perfect action stance. You can also enable a “best shot” mode, which automatically picks the best of the burst, deleting the rest, but its judgment is often not great (thankfully, you can override its choice).

One of the great features of the Galaxy S III is auto-tagging of photos. After you snap a pic of someone,a yellow box appears around any faces, prompting you to tag away. Then the next time you shoot any of those people, the face-recognition software goes to work, suggesting tags for faces it recognizes.

The feature is, quite frankly, an awesome idea, but it’s rendered moot because it doesn’t work in the one place you really want it to: Facebook. The tags don’t translate to the network, although Samsung says it’s working on the issue and a software update should fix this eventually. In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for convenience of getting the people you tag suggested when you select to share via email.

Saving photos to the cloud is pretty simple these days and the S III points you toward three very capable options: Dropbox, which recently made automatic uploads even easier on phones, Google+, which is just as easy and unlimited (although picture resolution has a ceiling of five megapixels, with anything higher down-rezzed), and Samsung’s own AllShare service, which uses the SugarSync app for storage.

Dropbox would be my preferred path, but it’s annoying that you can’t change the folder your pics are uploaded to or how your photos are listed. I have hundreds of photos in my Camera Uploads folder and once a pic is uploaded it becomes a needle-in-a-haystack situation to find it. Google+ is a much more elegant solution, but sharing is limited to that network. And SugarSync’s ability to organize photos appears to be the digital equivalent of tossing a bunch of pics in a shoebox and shaking hard.

Finally, I would prefer a dedicated shutter button even a virtual one to instantly switch to the camera even when the phone’s locked. As it is, you’ll need to get by your lock screen to launch the camera before you can start snapping not good when you need to be nimble.

Galactic Features

“Unique” is an often overused and misused word, but it’s no exaggeration to say the Samsung Galaxy S III has some features that qualify for the label. One that I was very excited to try out is its voice wake-up function, where you can bring the phone out of the lock screen just by speaking to it.

In reality, it’s not as awesome as Samsung makes it out to be. Once enabled, the feature lets you awaken the Samsung by saying “Hi, Galaxy,” or a custom phrase. I thought it might let you wake it up from sleep mode, but it only starts listening once you push the home or power button. And then it only works when you haven’t locked your screen with a PIN code. Lame. It feels like no one really thought through the usefulness of the feature and how it might affect security.

Potentially more useful is Smart Stay, which uses the front-facing camera on the phone to check if your eyes are looking at the screen. If they are, it’ll hold off on timing out the screen.

Again, great idea in theory. But it never worked for me. After enabling the feature, I tried reading in the web browser, using various apps and even the home screen, but the display would always time out no matter how hard I stared. Removing my glasses helped a little, but not much (and it had the side effect of rendering reading impossible).

At first I thought it was a software bug, but the Smart Stay “eye” icon was right there, indicating the feature was enabled. Hopefully a software update will eventually make the feature useful, but right now it’s not ready for prime time you’re better off disabling it and just increasing the timeout duration.

There’s also S Voice, Samsung’s Siri clone. Like Siri, you can ask it basic questions like the weather or if sushi places are nearby. After using it for a few minutes, it became clear to me why Samsung chose to downplay the feature. If you veer at all away from the most basic functions, you can expect to hear “Network error. Please try again,” over and over. At least Siri, as limited as she is, is much less cold.