|NYT & WSJ reviews Samsung Galaxy III|
New Samsung Galaxy Phone Bristles With Extras By DAVID POGUE Wow. When Samsung wants to win, it doesn’t kid around.
Its new flagship Android phone, the Galaxy S III, is teeming with features aimed at humiliating the iPhone. It’s like a boxer entering the ring with ceramic body armor and semiautomatic weapons.
The question is, Does it all work together to create a masterpiece? Or is it a heap of chaotic spaghetti?
The Galaxy S III is available from all four major carriers in the United States — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile ($200 for the model with 16 gigabytes of storage, with a two-year contract). It runs on each carrier’s fastest data network — 4G LTE, for example.
The first thing to know: This phone is huge. Its 4.8-inch screen is a broad canvas for photos, movies, maps and Web pages. But you can’t have a big screen without a big body, and this one is more VHS cassette than postage stamp. It’s the old trade-off: A big phone is better when you’re using it, but a small one is better when you’re carrying it.
Still, once Samsung decided to incorporate a Jumbotron, its designers did a spectacular job designing a case around it. The back is glossy plastic (white or dark blue), rounded at all edges and corners. It’s superthin — 0.34 inches, even thinner than the iPhone — and feels glorious; when you’re nervous, you can rub it like a worry stone.
Samsung may not call it a Retina display, but the screen actually has more pixels than the iPhone’s, 1,280 by 720 pixels versus 960 by 640. It’s nearly as sharp, too: 306 pixels per inch instead of 326. It’s an Amoled screen: bright, vivid and relatively energy-efficient.
The Galaxy has a removable battery and a memory-card slot — take that, Apple! It runs the latest version of the Android operating system from Google (4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich). The camera on the back takes bright 8-megapixel photos, although they’re not very sharp.
More important, the S III’s designers have married hardware with software to create dozens of truly ingenious, handy features. On the iPhone, Apple would probably crow about any one of these:
¶ Smart Stay. The phone’s front-facing camera looks for your eyes. When you look away, the screen dims to save power; it brightens back up when you return your gaze. Brilliant.
¶ Buddy Shot. The Galaxy’s face recognition software knows whose face is in the scene. The first time you take a photo of someone, you can type in the subject’s name — your mom, for example. Thereafter, whenever you take her photo, one tap sends it to her without your having to fuss with entering an address.
¶ Direct Call. If a texting conversation is getting too complicated, just lift the phone to your ear. It calls your texting partner, no taps needed.
¶ Tap to top. Swat the top edge of the phone to jump to the top of a list.
¶ Tilt zooming. With two fingers on the screen, tip the phone toward you and away to zoom in and out of a photo, map or Web page.
¶ Instant muting. Mute audio and video playback by covering the screen with your hand, as though to say, “Shhhh!” Mute incoming rings and notifications by turning the phone face down on the table — in a meeting, for example. That’s just so, so smart.
¶ Palm swipe capture. Save an image of the screen by wiping the edge of your hand across it, as though you’re the scanner of a photocopying machine.
¶ Answering key. You can answer an incoming call by pressing the Home button, and hang up by pressing the on/off button. No need to look at the screen.
All of these features are optional — you turn them on in Settings.
There’s another crazy-great idea in TecTiles: small, embedded-circuit stickers ($15 for five). When your phone gets near a sticker, it activates some task that you’ve selected from a list of dozens in the free TecTiles app: make a call, send a text, adjust a phone setting and so on.
A TecTile on your dashboard could turn on Bluetooth when you get in the car. A sticker on your bedside table could turn the phone’s alarm on. This is fun, useful, outside-the-box thinking.
Not all of the breakthroughs are winners. For example, Samsung makes much of S Beam, which lets you transfer a photo, video or some other file to another phone just by tapping their backs together.
Unfortunately, setting it up is more work than assembling an Ikea dresser. Both phones must be Galaxy S III’s, both must be on and unlocked, and both require the right services turned on in Settings — Wi-Fi Direct and S Beam. By the time you’ve gone to all that trouble, you could have just e-mailed the darned thing.
Another example: In addition to the standard Android speak-to-type feature, the Galaxy offers something called S Voice — a direct copy of Siri on the iPhone.
In addition to the usual Siri functions (“Call Mom,” “Navigate to 200 West 68th Street,” “How tall is Mount Everest?”), you can also use it to open apps (“Open Calculator”), adjust settings (“Turn off Wi-Fi”) and make notes to self (“Record voice”). You can also handle calls by voice (“Answer” or “Reject”), shut up your alarm (“Snooze” or “Stop”) and, delightfully, even control the camera (“Shoot” or “Cheese!”).
In practice, you’ll probably wind up S-chewing S Voice. Not only is her required syntax far more restrictive than Siri’s, but in my tests, S Voice just doesn’t work well.
Me: “Make an appointment with Charlie, Thursday at noon.” Her: “An unexpected server error occurred. Please try again.”
Me: “Turn Wi-Fi off.” Her: “What app do you want to open?”
Me: “Turn Wi-Fi On.” Her: “What Tom.”
Me: “Record voice.” Her: “Network error. Please try again.”
More disappointments: There’s no physical camera-shutter button — you can’t even use the volume key for that purpose, as you can on the iPhone.
And it’s goofy that, after you take a photo, the Share menu offers one-tap access to things called Group Cast, ChatON and Flipboard — but the far more commonly used options, like E-Mail and Text Message, are hidden in a submenu.
There are three illuminated touch buttons beneath the screen: Menu, Home and Back. But after a few seconds, the light turns off to save power, leaving only a completely dark, black strip. Now you have to guess where those buttons are. You’ll quickly learn where to tap, but still.
The thing is, those are very small flies in some really great ointment. The Galaxy S III is an amazing, amazing phone — the crème de la Android. For many people, the next question is: Samsung or Apple?
The Samsung is infinitely more customizable. You can control which status icons appear at the top (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, clock and so on). You choose which of the camera’s 40,000 options appear on the viewfinder screen. You have a choice of text-input systems, including one where you drag your finger across the on-screen keys. A bar-graph screen reveals exactly how much battery charge is being gulped by each app. And so on.
Of course, with great flexibility comes great complexity. The phone bombards you with warnings and disclaimers — sometimes upside-down. You really need a Learning Annex course to master this thing.
With an iPhone, you get far less control, but you get the Apple ecosystem: a smoothly integrated app/music/movie store. Universal charger connectors that show up in cars and hotel rooms worldwide. Hardware and software that were designed together, so features look and work consistently.
But in Samsung’s latest and greatest machine, you get 4G Internet speed, a huge screen and clever motion-sensing features — in a thin, stunningly sculptured slab. In the galaxy of app phones, this one is a bright, beautiful star.
Galaxy Quest: One Phone Aimed at All Networks
By WALTER S. MOSSBERG The Galaxy S III isn't a game changer, but it's a very good phone, and a strong competitor for the iPhone and other Android models in every major feature area, such as voice calling, Web browsing, and photography, says WSJ's Walt Mossberg.
While smartphones based on Google's Android operating system collectively outsell Apple's iPhone, no single Android phone has risen to become a giant hit the way the iPhone has. Instead, there has been a profusion of often-confusing models with mostly forgettable names and design tweaks dictated by mobile carriers.
Now, Samsung, the leader in Android smartphones, is aiming to change that. It is rolling out a single new flagship model, with the same design and features, on all four major U.S. wireless carriers this month and next.
I've been testing this new phone, the Samsung Galaxy S III, for several days, using variants for Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T . The phones, which come in white and a dark blue, are indistinguishable externally except for the carriers' names printed on the rear. Inside, they are also identical, except for the technical underpinnings needed to work on the different networks, and some app icons preloaded by each carrier.
Like other new Android phones, this Galaxy S sports a huge screen—4.8 inches—and an 8 megapixel rear camera. But it's thinner and lighter than the iPhone 4S, even though the latter has a 3.5-inch screen. So the Samsung feels a bit smaller than it is. Prices will start at $200 with a two-year contract. The phone runs the latest version of Android, called Ice Cream Sandwich.
Samsung You can bump two Galaxy S III phones together to transfer content and do other things to share files.
Based on my tests, I consider the Galaxy S III a very good phone, and a strong competitor for the iPhone and for other leading Android models. In every major feature area, such as voice calling, Web browsing, and photography, it performed very well. I can recommend it to people who would like a much bigger screen than Apple offers, who prefer Android, or who are attracted by some of its secondary features, like new ways of sharing content.
However, the Galaxy S III lacks any game-changing capabilities and is instead packed with a dizzying array of minor new tricks that users will turn to frequently. There are so many of these that it can take hours to learn and configure them. I had the strong impression Samsung's designers failed to focus and just threw in as many technical twists as they could, some of which didn't work very well.
One feature that Samsung touts lets you share, in real time, photos you take at an event—like a party. It sounds cool, but it only functions with friends who also have the Galaxy S III. And all participants have to go into settings, turn on a special kind of Wi-Fi and then tap on a series of on-screen buttons, a process that kind of drains the spontaneity.
The first carriers to offer the phone will be T-Mobile and Sprint, followed by AT&T, and then, early next month, Verizon Wireless. Sprint, Verizon and AT&T are selling the 16-gigabyte model for $200 with a two-year contract, but T-Mobile is selling it starting at $280, after a $50 rebate, if you buy its most common "classic" data plan. Service plans are similar to those on other smartphones. A pricier 32-GB model is available, except at AT&T.
One concern about any Android phone is whether it can be upgraded to the coming versions of the operating system. Unlike Apple, Google doesn't control this—handset makers and carriers do. And only a small percentage of Android phones currently run the latest version. Samsung couldn't assure me the Galaxy S III would be able to work with the next couple of versions of Android, since it hasn't tested them yet on the device. But it said it left extra memory inside to fit a larger OS.
On the major criteria, the Galaxy S III is mostly a winner. The screen is sharp and vivid, avoiding the over-saturation I've seen on some other recent Samsung devices. The sound is good, and the on-screen keyboard and dictation worked as expected.
Voice calls on all three phones were clear and didn't drop. Data speeds varied by network. In the Washington, D.C., suburbs, I got about 13 megabits per second download speeds on the AT&T and T-Mobile versions, and much less on the Sprint version.
The camera worked well and has nice features, like a "best photo" mode, which quickly fires eight times, then suggests the series' best shot. When recording video, you can simultaneously take a still picture.
My only big concern was battery life. I didn't do a formal test, but all three phones had only about half of their battery capacity left by midday, despite a feature that supposedly can detect your eyes looking at the screen and keep it bright only when you're doing so.
Then there are the secondary features. You can broadcast a presentation or photos to groups of devices that use Samsung's sharing software, bump two Galaxy S III phones together to transfer content and do other things to share files. I tested them all and most worked only some of the time and took some setup.
You can also dial someone with whom you're texting simply by bringing the phone to your ear. This worked for me, but not always.
Finally, Samsung has its own version of Siri—the voice-controlled assistant on the iPhone—called S Voice. In fact, it does more than Siri. It can launch apps and turn Wi-Fi on or off. Like Siri, it doesn't always work.
The Galaxy S III is a solid, capable phone. But its most important feature may be ubiquity.
—Find all of Walt Mossberg's columns and videos at the All Things Digital website, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article appeared June 20, 2012, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Galaxy Quest: One Phone Aimed At All Networks.
Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company