Samsung's Ferrari is stuck in the slow lane for a little while longer, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should pass up the Samsung Galaxy S III (S3) on Sprint
Say you're one of the top smartphones in the world. (In the whole entire world!) You know you're going to sell millions and millions of units in more countries than a 10th-grader has to memorize before the last week of school. You know your place in the world. Things are looking pretty good.
It's just not fair.
Oh, you're still that same bad-ass phone with that bad-ass phone strut -- at least as long as you've got a stable Wifi connection. But out on your own, with only a sub-par 3G network to get you by, it's like you're walking along in slow motion as the rest of the world flies by. How's that strut looking now? Yeah. Not so good.
But -- and we've said this before -- Sprint's working on it. We should see its LTE network go live any day now. And we know that the Samsung Galaxy S III is a more-than-capable smartphone. Indeed, it's easily in the running for the best Android phone of the year. So let's get to it. Behold, our Sprint Galaxy S3 mini-review.
The same stellar Galaxy S3 we've come to know in Europe and elsewhere, with the added power of Qualcomm's S4 processor. Officially has Google Wallet and runs the most recent version of Android. The price is right at $199 and $249 on contract.
Samsung's TouchWiz user interface has run its course and is more a hindrance than a help. We're still waiting on Sprint's LTE network (at the time of this review), and its current 3G network remains shameful. A number of Samsung's sharing customizations require a second Samsung phone to take advantage of them.
Buy the Galaxy S3 because it's the Galaxy S III, and it just happens to be on Sprint. And despite all the gloom and doom, we've got high hopes for the network. But right now it's an anchor dragging down a high-class fleet of phones.
Inside this review
Wait! Why a Galaxy S3 mini-review?
We know, right? Why not 5,000 words on the merits of the Galaxy S III and how it's the greatest phone ever! Well, we've already done that. Go read Alex's review of the international version. It'll cover 80 percent of what you need to know about the Galaxy S III on Sprint.
"But, Phil!" you cry. "They're different phones!" And you're right. The versions of the Galaxy S3 you'll find in the United States have more RAM and a dual-core Qualcomm S4 processor instead of an Exynos 4 quad-core chip. And we'll get to that. But aside from the chipset and added RAM, and a smattering of carrier-branded apps, and a logo on the back, the phones are exactly the same. Same physical design. Same dimensions. Same software.
But pick two people off the street who don't live and breathe smartphones, and they'll never know the difference. So, with that in mind, read on. We'll talk about the differences, and what you need to know for the phone on Sprint.
This is easy. On the outside, Sprint's Galaxy S3 has the exact same hardware as every other Galaxy S3. Same beautifully round body. Same stunning curves. Same ridiculous 8.6 mm-thin physique. Same 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED display at 720x1280 resolution. Same 8-megapixel rear camera. Same Android 4.0.4 with Samsung's TouchWiz user interface.
Sprint hasn't changed a thing, and good on Samsung for somehow making that happen.
The design of the hardware is excellent, though we're still not crazy about Samsung throwing a curve ball at the button scheme by going with a physical home/multitouch/S Voice button, keeping a menu button and moving the back button to the right. We're not crazy about that change, but neither can we do a whole hell of a lot about it. But the GSIII is curvy in all the right places, and we love the subtle slope from the edge of the display to the silver bezel.
The display is Super AMOLED, and it's pretty darn good. As we pointed out in our earlier review, it's not quite as crisp as HTC's Super LCD 2 display, but chances are you'll be plenty happy with it. We've had no problem switching back and forth. (Having the same resolution certainly helps there.)
Under the hood is where the action's at, though. Sprint (along with the other U.S. versions of the Galaxy S3) is rocking a dual-core Qualcomm S4 processor at 1.5 GHz. That's the same one we've come to know and love in the HTC One X, with its integrated LTE radio for better power consumption. And it's every bit as fast as we expect it to be. We've only seen a few instances of apps lagging -- the new Temple Run: Brave, for one -- and chances are that's as much a problem with the app as it is the hardware running it. This is still one of the best chipsets you can get in a smartphone.
And Samsung's done us one better, bumping the RAM up to a full 2 gigabytes. You'll have about 1.6 gigabytes available for running apps and stuff, meaning you've got a lot of RAM to run apps and stuff. And by stuff, we mean TouchWiz, and the other system stuff that you need not worry your pretty little head about.
The bottom line is that this sucker is fast, fast, fast, just like its cousins.
As for storage, Sprint's offering 16- and 32-gigabyte versions. We've got the 32GB version here, and Samsung has split the storage at 12GB as internal "phone storage" (for installing apps and whatever else you want), and another 12GB that's recognized as an internal SD card. On top of that, you've got a microSD card slot that'll (unofficially) take up to a 64GB card. The Galaxy S3 is not lacking for storage.
A quick word on battery life: Samsung sent us an unactivated review unit, and it's only been attached to the network for 24 hours or so, though we've been using it for a number of days on Wifi. (Thanks, CDMA.) Also worth remembering is that Sprint's in the middle of retooling not just its 4G network, but it's entire 3G network as well, and that's going to make a big difference when everything's said and done. That said, we're easily getting between 12 and 14 hours of use on AT&T before we start looking for a charger. If we see anything of note on the Sprint side, we'll update this section accordingly.
Data speeds ... well, let's just say we're counting the minutes until Sprint finally launches its 4G LTE network and retooled 3G network, all part of its Network Vision plan. Otherwise, it's the same abysmal 3G speeds we've come to know and loathe. Oh, and like on the HTC EVO 4G LTE, the Galaxy S3's LTE SIM card is internal, meaning there's nothing to swap out.
Sprint's Galaxy S3 is running Android 4.0.4 (as of this writing, that's the most version of Android, but that might well change very soon) and Samsung's new "TouchWiz Nature UX" user interface.
Read through our comprehensive TouchWiz walkthrough (and, again, Alex's full GS3 review), but know this: Your's truly is no longer a fan. I'd recommend a third-party launcher, at the very least, if not a full custom ROM.
The short version is this: This version of TouchWiz very much looks like a continuation of the past couple of versions. But in a year when we've seen the likes of Google with stock Ice Cream Sandwich and HTC with Sense 4 pare things down and make using a phone simpler, Samsung has continued to pile on feature after feature after feature. Usefulness can be debated, but even we're having a hard time keeping up with all the little bells and whistles. Samsung would do better to scale back on the tricks and redesign TouchWiz into something more that's easier to use and has a more subtle design.
And as for the much-heralded S Voice? So long as you use it knowing that it's nowhere near as good as the iPhone's Siri, you'll be just fine. Siri it is not.
As far as Sprint's concerned, it's really left the phone unmolested. There are far more Samsung apps that you might or might not use than there are Sprint-branded apps. In fact, all you'll find are Sprint Hotspot (certainly useful if you intend to do any tethering), Sprint Voicemail (again, a good one), Google Wallet (sadly, still mostly confined to Sprint) and Sprint Zone, from which you can download other Sprint-specific applications. Again, Kudos to Sprint for not mucking things up with apps we don't want, while giving us the option to download them if we do. Sadly, the same no longer can be said for Samsung.
And because someone will ask, yes, you can disable the Sprint Zone app. There actually are a couple other Sprint-branded apps buried in the system, but Hotspot and Sprint Zone are the only ones you'll see in the app drawer.
Again, nothing surprising here. The Galaxy S III has the same 8-megapixel rear shooter that we've been enjoying for a number of weeks now.
As has become the theme with the latest version of TouchWiz, Samsung's camera app could use some simplification. All the parts are there, with plenty of options. But the UI's got too much going on, especially when compared to other camera apps.
Get over that, however, and you've still got an excellent pocketable camera for taking above-average point-and-shoot pics. Here are a few.
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Other odds and ends
- The Galaxy S3 speaker is loud. Too loud. It has a bad habit of cracking and distorting the tiny speaker.
- GPS and Bluetooth appear to work as advertised.
- If you know what's good for you, you'll 86 the droplet sound ASAP.
- Samsung's default keyboard is just OK. You'll be better off with a third-party option. (Though try the 3x4 keyboard if you're into that phone dialer experience.)
The wrap up
Look, we've been a little harsh on Sprint. Not that it's unwarranted -- its current 3G network is shameful for far too many people -- but we're tired of having to write it. It also casts a dark shadow on what is a very good smartphone. The Galaxy S III is no slouch. That Samsung has managed to bring one version to multiple carriers is nothing short of amazing. So long as you don't have an issue with a phone being made of plastic, it feels like you'd expect a high-end smartphone to feel.
As we also wrote in our EVO 4G LTE review, what we have here is an excellent phone on a sub-par network. Sprint promises that'll change. And in all likelihood, we'll start to see that change real soon. At $199 on contract for the 16GB version and $249 for the 32GB option (and you will be able to find it for less), the Sprint Galaxy S III is a good buy. Samsung has kept its part of the bargain. Now Sprint needs to deliver.