If you have any business reading this website, chances are you’ve at least heard of the Samsung Galaxy S3. Samsung’s curvaceous, nature-inspired flagship smartphone has sold over 30 million units worldwide, and is our top recommendation for buyers in the U.S. and international markets.
But when the S3 was released internationally this spring, it lacked 4G LTE network connectivity. That wasn’t a huge deal at the time, but in the latter half of 2012, support for burgeoning European LTE networks is increasingly seen as a necessity.
So here we have the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE, also known as the GT-i9305. Of all the various Galaxy S3 models we’ve seen this year -- and there’ve been a few -- this one packs the greatest punch. It couples Samsung’s quad-core Exynos chip with 2GB of RAM and European LTE connectivity, and it’s running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean out of the box.
In the UK, the Galaxy S3 LTE is available on the EE (Everything Everywhere) network alongside its big brother the Galaxy Note 2 LTE. We’ve been testing the S3 LTE out on EE’s 4G network in recent days, and we’ve prepared a few thoughts on the phone and the network.
Check past the break to find out more in our EE Galaxy S3 LTE mini-review.
Hardware and build quality
Externally, the Galaxy S3 LTE is all but identical to any other S3 you might care to produce. The device comes in “marble white” and “titanium gray” colors, and it’s the latter we’ve been using in the run up to this review. Visually, it’s a little more muted than the “pebble blue” 3G Galaxy S3, but the effect is much the same -- a faux brushed metal pattern on the front and back. It’s inoffensive enough, but we're sure it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Incidentally, you’ll find that the screen is a lot easier to use outdoors if you opt for a darker chassis. The bezel on the white Galaxy S3 (and Galaxy Note 2) is extremely reflective, making it much more difficult to view the screen comfortably on a bright, sunny day. (And that’s compounded by SuperAMOLED’s well-known outdoor performance issues compared to the LCD/IPS competition.)
The S3 LTE’s only other distinguishing feature is the “LTE” branding on the battery door -- printed in grey, it’s pretty easy to miss at first glance. There’s also a removable Qualcomm 4G sticker up top, indicating the presence of Qualcomm LTE radios. Should you take issue with it, it’s easily removable.
So this thing’s still a Galaxy S3, and if you weren’t a fan of curvy sides, metallic-looking plastic and big, clicky home buttons, there’s nothing here to change your mind. However, the S3’s ergonomics do deserve another mention. I kept a white Galaxy S3 as my main device for a good few months, and I’ve used many different phones in the interim. But the S3 is still one of the most ergonomic and hand-friendly smartphones I’ve used this year, and going back to it feels incredibly natural and comfortable.
On the inside you’ll find a few more hardware changes. There’s that 4G LTE radio, of course, and Samsung has bumped up the phone's RAM all the way up to 2GB -- double what’s in the international 3G version. This means memory-hungry apps like Google Chrome get a bit more breathing space, and heavy multi-taskers should notice fewer instances of apps being dumped out of memory.
Other hardware gubbins, such as screen CPU, GPU, camera and storage are identical to that of the older international S3. There’s a 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos 4 CPU, a Mali 400MP GPU, 16GB of storage and a microSD card slot on-board. The screen, still a 720p SuperAMOLED dealie, is decent, but no longer the pinnacle of the high end of the display spectrum. Colors pop and text looks pretty good thanks to the high resolution, but competitors like the HTC One X series have a clear advantage here.
The camera assembly is identical to that of the other S3 models. We’ve already covered that extensively in earlier reviews, so check out some of them if you’re interested in learning what level of photo and video performance is to be expected.
LTE connectivity and EE network coverage
Now, down to business. If you pick up a Galaxy S3 LTE, chances are you’re doing so to take advantage of that 4G connectivity. In the UK, EE’s LTE network debuted in 11 British cities including Manchester, where we did our testing. The operator says it's aiming to bring that up to 16 cities before the holidays.
Generally speaking, we found EE’s coverage map to be an accurate predictor of the boundaries of the company’s 4G service area, however LTE coverage terminates abruptly outside of this umbrella. Off LTE, you’re left with EE’s DC-HSDPA network, which is fully supported by the Galaxy S3 LTE, and surprisingly robust. We saw speeds as high as 20Mbps down and 3Mbps up in some cases.
Out and about, EE’s LTE starts to kick in reliably within around six miles of Manchester city center, though signal strength fluctuates considerably compared to current 3G/HSPA networks. And outside of that radius, coverage is pretty patchy. That’s likely due to only some of EE’s cell sites being used to deploy LTE, and we can probably expect this to improve as the network grows.
Surprisingly, our LTE signal strength didn’t have much of an impact on the download and upload speeds we saw from EE’s 4G service. In some cases we’d pull 15 megabits per second in both directions with only a single bar of reception (around -101 dBm), in others download speeds would be reduced to 5Mbps or so, even with four bars present on-screen (around -80 dBm.) In speed tests using the Ookla Speedtest.net app and connecting to local servers, latencies averaged around 78ms, with a high of 139 and a low of 42.
That suggests that it’s network contention, rather than reception issues that are pushing down 4G speeds. We also found that in cases where download speeds were reduced to single digits we often had higher upload speeds. In fact, more often than not our upload speeds were in excess of 10Mbps, even in areas with low signal strength.
Fortunately (and perhaps remarkably), the S3 LTE’s 4G radio didn’t seem to take any noticeable toll on the phone’s battery life compared to its 3G cousin. We had no trouble getting through a full day of normal use on the S3 LTE, even jumping on and off 4G with variable signal strength. The battery is the same size as the regular Galaxy S3 -- a 2100mAh unit -- which makes this performance all the more impressive.
Our experiences with EE’s LTE coverage in Manchester reflects what we’ve found in other cities on other devices. (James Richardson previously went out and about in London with EE’s Galaxy Note 2 LTE.) This is still a network in its infancy, and although there’s plenty of room for improvement, I have to say that the benefits of LTE go beyond simply pulling more bits down over the airwaves. The main difference with LTE, even on a young network like EE’s, is its reliability. In crowded areas where HSPA+ slows to a crawl, LTE remains very much alive, pulling down enough megabits each second to get the job done.
The question of whether it’s worth your money, however, is one we’ll save for later in this review.
Software and performance
The Galaxy S3 LTE comes with Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean out of the box, and that’s exactly what we found on our review unit. Our device also didn’t contain any EE branding or bundled apps, though that might not be the case with retail units sold by the carrier. In any case, Android 4.1 gives you the ability to disable any particularly offensive apps in the ‘Apps’ menu. It’s also worth mentioning that we haven’t yet received the latest “premium suite” update that brings multi-window and other Galaxy Note 2 features to the international Galaxy S3, so you may be waiting awhile for that.
The software is virtually identical to that of the 3G Galaxy S3. Jelly Bean plus TouchWiz makes for a fast, if slightly disjointed experience. Samsung’s UI isn’t as pretty as vanilla Android, or competing offerings from HTC, but it does the job, and is highly customizable.
Thanks to Jelly Bean and its speedy internals, the Galaxy S3 LTE is about as fast as any Android device you can buy, including LG and Google’s new Nexus 4. Scrolling and animations are generally smooth, and app-switching is seamless thanks to the extra gigabyte of RAM. (Although the lack of a dedicated app-switching key may cramp your style somewhat.)
You’re also getting one of the most fully-featured Android phones, thanks to the wealth of functionality bundled with TouchWiz. A few highlights include Samsung’s excellent camera app, full photo and video editing suites, excellent full-screen calendar and task widgets, and S Memo for taking detailed notes and syncing to the cloud. That’s not to mention neat little gimmicks like Smart Stay, which uses the front-facing camera to detect whether you’re still looking at the screen, and lock it accordingly. What TouchWiz lacks in visual finesse it makes up for in its extensive feature set.
For more on the Galaxy S3's software, check out our review of the international 3G version.
EE’s Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE is an obvious first choice if you’re looking for a high-end Android device on the UK’s first 4G network. Sure, the Note 2 LTE can do a lot more, but the 5.5-inch screen size means it’s not for everyone. EE also offers HTC’s One XL, but that’s still running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich at the time of writing. Until the next wave of Android smartphones arrives early next year, the S3 LTE is easy to recommend over the Android-based competition.
The question of whether you should get in on the ground floor with EE’s 4G service is a bit more complicated. EE’s prices are high, almost ludicrously high, if you want a decent bucket of data to go with your 4G phone. Obviously, if you live outside the carrier’s LTE coverage area, you’d be mad to pay the extra cash for a service you can’t use. If you’re under the 4G umbrella, the decision comes down to how badly you need LTE in the next 6-9 months. Rival 4G networks from O2, Vodafone and Three should be with us by next summer, and prices are sure to fall across the board as a result. If you get yourself locked into a pricey 24-month contract with EE, you may be kicking yourself after just a few months.
If you want the best all-round Android phone, with the fastest data speeds possible in the UK, then right now that’s the Galaxy S3 LTE on EE. Just be aware you’ll pay a hefty early adopter tax to get it.