Review of the Samsung Galaxy S III on Sprint

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On July 1, Sprint began offering the Galaxy S III from Samsung. Much has been written about this phone (see list of reviews below), so I'll be focusing on my perceptions of it and try to provide some tips and suggestions for apps and accessories that I've found to work particularly well.

HARDWARE

The Samsung Galaxy S III (hereafter, GS III) is dimensionally gigantic, yet thin and light. At 5.38" tall x 2.78" wide x 0.34" thick (136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm) and just 4.69 oz. (133g), it is quite a marvel of engineering. The screen is particularly amazing, with those deep blacks and vibrant colors characteristic of Samsung's 4.8" 720p Super AMOLED screen.

Physically, there's a lot to like, here. First, despite it's overall dimensions, because it's so thin, it slips into (and out of) pockets really easily. The back comes off to access the microSDHC card slot as well as to swap out the massive 2,100 mAh battery. The external speaker is among the loudest I've used, and the earpiece speaker is similarly loud and clear. The camera generates some stellar photographs (more on that below).

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For some, the physical home button will be comforting, yet others will wonder why add something that can just break. There's also NFC (near-field communication) hardware onboard, for doing things like Google Wallet and Samsung TecTiles, as well as all the standard wireless and sensor tech.

Inside is a screaming fast Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5GHz dual-core processor supported by a very generous 2GB of RAM. That's noteworthy because it gives the phone extra headroom to keep apps in memory rather than closing them out and writing their data to flash storage; that improves the overall impression of snappiness, a sensation backed up by benchmarks.

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Also helping out on that is that the flash storage onboard (either 16GB or 32GB, depending on model) seems really, really fast. This is especially noteworthy when installing a large app to internal storage...it happens much faster than on, say, my Nexus 7 despite the Nexus having a faster, 5-core Tegra 3 processor onboard.

All that's great, but there have to be some trade-offs right? Amazingly, not really. The only minor quibble I can make about the GS III's hardware is that the HDMI output via the USB slot requires a special Samsung adapter to plug into an otherwise standard MHL adapter. The Samsung adapter is cheap, though - I found it online for less than $9 - but it's the principle of the thing...why couldn't they just do standard MHL? Regardless, once you have the adapter, video mirroring works great, as this demo video shows:

Also, the design of the phone is such that when the phone is laying face down on a surface, the sides slope inwards, making it a bit challenging to actually pick up. Finally, Samsung decided to integrate the NFC hardware into the battery, meaning you can't go pick up a cheapie extra battery off eBay if you also want the NFC to keep working. But, all told, those are some amazingly slight complaints compared to all the great tech, here...Samsung has done a stellar job on the GS III's hardware for sure.

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Finally, speaking of the battery, I had no problem getting the GS III to last all day on a single charge. When spending most of my time in Wi-Fi environments, I'd often go to bed after 18 hours or so with a third or more of my battery remaining. When spending more time using cellular data (in my case, 3G...see below), the phone would end the day a bit lower. But, I found that I had to have some pretty massive Angry Birds sessions or watch a lot of video for the battery to require charging before I hit the sack. So, I expect most people will find it lasts all day most, if not all, of the time. But, if it doesn't, and there's no charger handy, it's easy to pop in a spare battery. Having options is nice.

SOFTWARE

Regarding software, well, here's where the GS III becomes a little more of a mixed bag. It comes with Samsung's newest version of TouchWiz, a UI overlay on top of the stock Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. TouchWiz is designed to be simple, both in terms of use and appearance. I don't personally mind it, but I don't prefer it over, say, HTC's Sense. To be quite honest, Android has gotten to be so mature in its usability (thanks a lot to Matias Duarte) that these manufacturer overlays are becoming less and less necessary. But I digress. TouchWiz is like a pizza...you have to try it for yourself before you can make a final judgment.

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That said, there are a few high points within the TouchWiz environment. First is the camera app, which, when paired with the GS III's very capable 8MP still / 1080p video sensor, makes for truly enjoyable picture- and video-taking experience. And I can honestly say that I've never before thoroughly enjoyed taking pictures with a phone, but the GS III made me nearly giggle with delight at both the camera features it offers (like panorama mode and HDR mode and smileshot mode...all these actually work great!) and the photographs it produced. Here are some examples I took with the GS III...an HDR shot on top and a vertical panorama of three overlapping captures (stitched automatically in the phone) on the bottom (click to open up full-size images):

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AllShare Play is a Samsung app that provides both DLNA-like media streaming within a wireless environment and media streaming from a source (e.g., a home server) to the phone across the Internet. It works pretty well, at least within my Wi-Fi network, although there are better apps for that (such as BubbleUPNP) if you don't need the Internet-streaming functionality.

Also, TouchWiz includes Kies Air, which "enables Wi-Fi device-to-device connections and browser-based  management." In short, it lets you manage the files, media, etc. on your phone via a web browser on a PC that's connected to the same Wi-Fi network as the phone is.

While not part of TouchWiz, Samsung and Sprint have made a deal with Dropbox that gives the GS III owner 50GB of free online storage for up to 2 years. That's a pretty sweet deal since that kind of account cost $99 per year until Dropbox upped it to 100GB just recently. And, neither AT&T nor Verizon offer this deal, so Sprint's version of the GS III is just a little bit sweeter in that regard.

No review of the Galaxy S III would be complete without a discussion of S-Voice, Samsung's attempt at replicating Apple's Siri or Google's Voice Search. Summarily, it's not very good. It recognized me only about 40% of the time, often getting tripped up on homophones (e.g., "how much does a Galaxy S 3 weigh?" was interpreted as "how much does a Galaxy S 3 way?" and returned no answer). Here's one where the answer was sort of close, but not correct.

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When it did, it gave helpful, relevant information more than half the time. For simple things like weather reports, driving directions, unit conversions, and sports scores, it was generally fine, at least when it understood me ("where is the nearest ice cream parlor" turned into "where is the nearest sixteen curler"). Wolfram Alpha powers the background interpretive search function, but I'm not sure where the transcoding of voice to text is happening...regardless, it needs work to be useful.

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You call up S-Voice by double-tapping the home button. Unfortunately, Samsung doesn't give a way to map that double-tap to something else, so you can either use it or just turn it off. However, a free utility called Home2 Shortcut allows you to assign pretty much anything you want to that double-tap action. I assigned the stock Google Search (since the Galaxy S III doesn't have a dedicated search button), which is then a single tap away from Google's much more polished Voice Search feature. And, with Jelly Bean, it's leaps and bounds better than S-Voice, so I hope Samsung just eliminates S-Voice in future updates to this phone and just maps us directly to Google's voice interface.

Sprint has added minimal carrier software to this phone. It included Sprint Zone (an account management and promotions app) and a Sprint Hotspot app (which basically makes setting up the phone's Wi-Fi hotspot functionality a bit easier than within Android's settings). However, Sprint requires the user to pay an extra $29.99 per month for hotspot functionality. They've also included a visual voicemail app for free, which is nice since some other carriers charge extra for that.

As you likely know, Ice Cream Sandwich isn't the latest version of Android. That would be Jelly Bean (4.1). There are rumors that Samsung will be releasing a Jelly Bean update for the GS III within the next month or two, so we can only hope Sprint gets that to its customers sooner rather than later.

CARRIER

In addition to hardware and software, the "third leg" of the smartphone stool is, of course, the cellular carrier that provides it wireless voice and data service. Sprint is the third-largest carrier in the US. Back in late 2008, Sprint hitched its 4G cart to Wi-Max, a wireless standard that differentiated it from all other US carriers. Well, fast-forward to 2012 and that gamble is looking like a poor one, as Sprint is in the process of transitioning over to LTE for its 4G service.

While LTE provides better penetration into buildings and better speeds overall, the downside is that Sprint is just now rolling it out. So, chances are very good that you do not have Sprint 4G LTE service where you live or work, humbling the otherwise impressive Galaxy S III by relegating it to mere 3G (EVDO) speeds.

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And Sprint's 3G speeds are not stellar, at least not in my experience. At home, I consistently get below 400 kbps down and well under 1mbps up (see above speed-test). While it's certainly a first-world problem, that's just not very fast when compared to the cellular data speeds we generally expect in urban areas. At work, I fare a little better: between 1mbps and 1.5mbps down, but still under 1mbps up (see below). Combined with the lackluster pings typical of cellular networks, Skype or Google Talk video chats aren't going to be very enjoyable, if even possible, and large downloads should probably wait for Wi-Fi.

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Unless you're on a Wi-Fi network, until Sprint's LTE rollout makes it to where you live, realize that the GS III will feel a bit poky when doing anything involving the Internet. And that's a shame, really, because this phone deserves data service to match its blistering performance on everything else it does.

When I alerted my Sprint contact about my 3G data issue, he asked if I would mind including the following statement in my review (I don't mind...they did, after all, loan me this GS III for a month):

"Sprint is taking steps to improve our network experience. Sprint's Network Vision plan is designed to consolidate multiple network technologies into one seamless network with the goal of increasing efficiency and enhancing network coverage, call quality and data speeds for customers. Network Vision is expected to provide improved reliability and coverage for 3G and 4G; improved voice call quality and faster data speeds; better device performance at the same price point; and ensures Sprint can remain a technology leader, giving the customer the service they want, when and where they need it.

 

Sprint is on track to reach 12,000 cell sites with Network Vision in 2012 and to largely complete the program in 2013. So far, in 2012, we've launched six 4G LTE capable devices that are able to take advantage of the benefits of our Network Vision upgrade in the 15 cities where we've rolled out 4G LTE."


So there you have it. I hope it works out, because the US needs as many high-quality carriers as it can get...even 4 isn't enough, in my opinion, and we certainly don't need to get down to a 2-way battle between AT&T and Verizon.

SUMMARY

This is pretty easy, I think. If you're on Sprint, don't want to switch carriers (or can't), and want/need a new phone, there is no way you'll regret getting a Samsung Galaxy S III. This is just about the most tradeoff-free phone I've ever seen...it's truly amazing. Just try to be patient until they flip the LTE switch in your city. 

Sprint is asking 2-year-contract prices of $199.99 for the 16GB model (in white or blue....nope, no black or gray for some unknown reason) and $249.99 for the 32GB model. Unsubsidized prices are $549.99 and $599.99, respectively. 

SOME OTHER REVIEWS OF THE SAMSUNG GS III