It’s been a week or so since I first laid eyes on Samsung’s new flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S III. On the night in London, the barrage of information was relentless -- brand new hardware, a new design language, a redesigned TouchWiz and countless other software additions. And over the past few days, all of us in the tech world have slowly been able to form some opinion on the latest high-end smartphone from the Korean electronics giant.
But this article isn’t just a reaction to the Galaxy S III -- we’ve presented plenty of coverage on that (maybe more than enough) already. Instead it’s more a dissection of how we came to know the S III, and how that in itself has colored popular opinion of the device. We’ll also take a look at some common criticisms of the phone, and see just how valid they are. Join us after the break as we examine the world of hype and expectation surrounding the Samsung Galaxy S III.
The successor to the Galaxy S II was always going to be a device of great expectations. The S II was monumentally important for Samsung, selling more than 20 million units worldwide and handing it the Android smartphone crown for 2011. It was clear from the start that any follow-up was going to be the subject of almost Apple-like levels of hype.
And if you think about it, Samsung played its pre-launch marketing campaign for the Galaxy S III almost perfectly. It managed to prevent any substantial leaks until just days before the announcement -- no small feat in and of itself. And the manufacturer fostered anticipation and expectation through its unwavering silence, and its decision to omit the S III from its MWC portfolio.
This was helped along by the emergence of several fake device renders, which managed to build interest and stir discussion months in advance, without exposing Samsung’s game plan. Then, when the time arrived, there was a slow trickle of information, and an artificial sense of mystery around the eventual name and design of the phone. Galaxy S III samples appeared in nondescript dummy cases during field testing, and Samsung insisted on using the “next Galaxy” moniker right up until the end. This, along with news of an event at London’s largest exhibition venue, ensured that the buzz around the Galaxy S III reached a crescendo just in time for Samsung’s glitzy unveiling on May 3. In many ways, the execution was nearly flawless.
But on the other hand, it could be argued that this campaign of hype worked a little too well. Anticipation was nothing short of stratospheric, and in the absence of any real information, increasingly fanciful specs were dreamed up, published and republished across the web. A 1080p screen! 12 megapixel camera! 7mm thick! Ceramic shell! Liquid metal shell! All-day battery life! Before long, the Galaxy S III became everything to everyone -- a blank canvas upon which fans could paint the picture of their very own perfect smartphone, free from real-world engineering or economic limitations. But in the real world, of course, building a smartphone, or any high-tech mobile device, is all about compromises.
Though not without its flaws, the product Samsung delivered on May 3 was a highly-spec'd, feature-packed smartphone in a good-looking chassis. But when you’re expecting otherworldly specs and space-age build quality, it’s easier to come away feeling disappointed if even the tiniest thing isn't up to snuff. This phenomenon is nothing new. Followers of Android will remember something similar occurring around the time of the Galaxy Nexus launch. Security -- and expectations -- were equally high for the new Android 4.0 flagship. And then... wait, what? It’s only 1.2GHz? Only a 5MP camera? A plastic chassis, not aluminum?
And elsewhere, there was the same reaction to the iPhone 4S from some iPhone 4 owners. It looks just like the last one? It’s got the same screen? Only 512MB of RAM? All the more ironic is the fact that Samsung mocked this reaction to a lackluster iSequel in its Galaxy S II U.S. ads, only to fall victim to something similar following the unveiling of the Galaxy S III. There’s no denying that the S III is less of an incremental upgrade than the 4S. Nevertheless, the towering expectations of some have led to disappointment in the face of what is a perfectly serviceable high-end smartphone, and a worthy competitor to the latest products from HTC and Apple.
Critics of the Galaxy S III have complaints concerning almost every aspect of the device, from the build quality, to the screen, to the software and its features, to the chassis design. Some are more valid than others, but all follow a common pattern. Samsung delivered a super-high-end smartphone, as opposed to the super-duper-high-end product of people’s imaginations. Somehow a quad-core powerhouse with a 720p SuperAMOLED display just wasn’t enough. (Never mind that many if not most of these critics haven't actually touched the phone.)
Firstly, the Galaxy S III is a shiny, plastic phone. Samsung has a history of making shiny, plastic phones, so no surprises there. The glossiness of the device is what seems to have gotten peoples’ goat, as if this automatically makes for a cheap, sub-par product. But it’s often difficult to get an accurate impression of the look and feel of the device through photos alone, and that’s what most people have to go on here. From first-hand experience, I can tell you it’s plastic, but it’s not cheap plastic, and it certainly doesn’t feel flimsy (though it is extremely light for its size.) The white version in particular compares favorably to the Galaxy Nexus in terms of aesthetics and quality of materials -- the glossy finish makes for a more premium appearance, compared to the Nexus’s dull grey plastic. There’s no such thing as an objectively good-looking device, but personally, I see no problems with the exterior design of the S III. Samsung’s choice in button setup is a little weird, but we’ll get to that later.
Next up is the display, and a term that’s become something of a dirty word in the past year or so -- PenTile. This refers to the subpixel layout of the Galaxy S III’s screen, which consists of an arrangement of RGBG (red, green, blue and green pixels) as opposed to the standard RGB layout. This offers greater power efficiency, and according to Samsung’s Philip Berne in a recent interview with MobileBurn, can also improve the longevity of the panel over years of use. The trade-off is that jagged edges can be noticed in certain on-screen elements, especially at lower resolutions. In addition, a PenTile matrix can cause noticeable discoloration in some panels at very low or very high brightness settings. For an excellent breakdown of the science behind PenTile, and how human sight makes it much less clear-cut than you might think, check this article from the Rantom Tech Tidbits blog.
Again, to examine why some observers are so disappointed with the use of a PenTile matrix on the Galaxy S III, we have to look back at all that pre-release speculation, which resulted in fans dreaming up non-PenTile (and non-existent) 720p SuperAMOLED Plus (RGB) panels, or even ridiculous 1080p SuperAMOLED displays. When Samsung came out with its 4.8-inch, 720p SuperAMOLED panel (with -- gasp -- slightly lower pixel density than the Galaxy Nexus), there was no shortage of dismissive online comments. Some were keen to rubbish the panel sight-unseen, claiming Samsung had made a fatal error by not using some illusory display tech. In fact, it was clear to everyone who’d seen the thing up-close that the screen -- though not quite as impressive as the HTC One X’s SuperLCD 2 -- was superior to most other smartphone displays, including the Galaxy Nexus. Overall brightness was higher, and there was no noticeable discoloration in bright whites. Since then it’s been confirmed that the S III’s screen is indeed of higher quality than the Nexus. In the interview we mentioned earlier, Philip Berne reveals that the gaps between the subpixels on the S III are smaller, making for a sharper-looking image and fewer jaggies.
Finally, we should talk about the software design, which has proved to be another bone of contention. Only the most optimistic of Android fans would’ve expected Samsung to ditch its own UI in favor of stock Ice Cream Sandwich, so it was no real surprise to see another version of TouchWiz adorning the new Samsung flagship. But there’s room for some genuine frustration that the manufacturer seems to be content reworking its existing Gingerbread designs, as opposed to starting afresh with ICS as a base. It’s not terrible by any means, but I think the software design of the Galaxy S III is probably its biggest let-down. That’s not based on any pre-release expectations, but on having used HTC Sense 4 pretty much exclusively for the past month. HTC’s got the right idea when it comes to Android -- they’ve built around ICS rather than on top of it.
To Samsung’s credit, however, the “TouchWiz Nature UX” isn’t quite the schizophrenic orgy of colors that we’ve seen on earlier TouchWiz phones. But the new “Nature UX” features the same lack of overall visual cohesion that we’ve seen on TouchWiz 4 phones. Individual elements, such as the rippling lock screen, are very well-designed, but TouchWiz as a whole continues to lack consistency. That doesn’t make it any less functional, just not quite as nice to look at.
The Galaxy S III is, first and foremost, a Samsung phone. The front face is the spitting image of Samsung’s Olympic branding -- a curved device with a large central button and smaller capacitive keys to the side. It’s packed to the gills with new Samsung software features, each with its unique (and sometimes confusing) branding. Features like Smart Stay, Pop-up Play and S Beam are sure to dazzle prospective buyers in the weeks ahead. The idea is to sell consumers on the Samsung software experience, not Android per se. That’s why Samsung's opted to go with the three button setup, rather than adopting the on-screen buttons of the Galaxy Nexus. As Android enthusiasts, we may not like the decision, but it’s one that’s understandable for a manufacturer that’s trying to create a familiar software experience across multiple platforms and device classes. (Though at times it can seem like Sammy's merely playing copycat with things like S Voice and its new "Pin" stores.)
With any highly anticipated device, there's an inevitable come down when the reality of things sinks in, and that mysterious new smartphone turns out to be just another imperfect slab of glass, plastic and metal, with its own unique set of compromises. It's easy to prejudge based on numbers and specs, or even a JPEG or two, but it's foolish to completely rubbish something like the Galaxy S III just because it doesn't live up to hype-fuelled expectations -- at least not until you've had the chance to try it out for yourself.
The success of the Galaxy S III won't be measured by the reaction of the tech press shortly after launch, or even the reviews that follow. Sales will be the deciding factor, and Samsung has the market presence and advertising dollars to ensure its shifts tens of millions of S III's, regardless of PenTile this or plastic that.
Other manufacturers are closing in, however. Sure, Motorola has yet to show its hand, but right now it's very much a two-horse race between Samsung and HTC at the high end of the Android space. Considering the gulf that existed between Samsung and its Android competitors in 2011 isn't anywhere near as wide in 2012, we're in for an exciting few months. And as the Galaxy S III spreads its reach across the globe, there's no doubt that Samsung's newfound mastery of hype will prove invaluable in the ongoing smartphone wars.