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Samsung Galaxy S3 impressions: Maybe it is designed by ‘human emotion’

The homescreen of the Samsung Galaxy S3

Check our out full written review of the Samsung Galaxy S3.

The Samsung Galaxy S2 was a turning point for Samsung. While the company has long been inching its way up the ladder of phone makers, the success of the S2 and ‘Galaxy’ brand of devices gave the company a huge boost, even helping Samsung overtake Nokia to become the top phone maker in the world in the first few months of 2012. If that doesn’t seem like an accomplishment, change your reading glasses. Nokia has been the top phone maker in the world since 1998. In the cell phone market that pretty much means, Nokia has always been the top dog. Its dethroning is a huge sign of the times, but also puts major pressure on Samsung. Last week, it unveiled the highly anticipated Galaxy S3 at an event in London. At CTIA this week, we finally got a chance to check out Samsung’s next big phone. Our impressions are below.

Is it designed by human emotion? Maybe!

Samsung’s marketing claims that the Galaxy S3 was “designed for humans and inspired by nature.” The phone is also supposed to embody human emotion. We’re not sure about these lofty claims, but it certainly got us excited. The S3 looks and feel very modern and quite comfortable. The best phone we can compare it to would be the HTC One X, which is clearly the phone that Samsung is trying to beat (aside from the iPhone 4S). Both devices are about the same size, with screens just under 5 inches and top-notch specs and cameras. From a pure construction standpoint, the One X definitely feels a bit more premium than the entirely plastic Galaxy S3, so if you’re a stickler for top-notch materials, you may opt for HTC. Having said that, as much as we criticize Samsung’s heavy and continuous use of shiny lightweight plastic shells and battery covers, Galaxy phones keep flying off shelves. Perhaps people just don’t care. We must admit, there doesn’t appear to be a huge downside to it from a user perspective.

Changing homescreens in the Samsung Galaxy S3

The Galaxy S3 comes in a navy-ish blue or white. We tried out the white version and found it quite comfortable for a phone with a 4.8-inch screen. There are times when it’s still a bit large, but thanks to a smaller bezel and thin 8.6mm frame, it feels relatively comfortable in the hand. As always, many people will find phones like this just a bit too big to be comfortable. There are smaller devices on the market, but unlike HTC, which made smaller versions of its One X, Samsung seems to be sticking with one design, and its big.

The phone does run on Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but it has been heavily modified with a new version of Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface. This version has a lot of water and water droplet sounds, likely to conform to the new nature theme. The overall effect is pretty gimmicky, but luckily, the phone is responsive and fast. (Check out the Galaxy S3’s full tech specs.)

Features, oh the features

It took the Samsung rep a good 10 to 15 minutes to run me through all of the new features in the Galaxy S3, and he didn’t even get into S-Voice and many others. This phone is packed full of new abilities. You probably won’t ever use most of them — like AllShare and a new version of Android Beam, which lets you tap phones together to share video — but there are a surprising number of features that actually improve the user experience.

In our testing, we loved the new “Smart stay” feature, for example. Typically, when you’re reading a Web page on a smartphone, you have to periodically move the screen a bit to keep it awake. It’s an annoyance we’ve all grown accustomed to dealing with. Smart stay keeps the phone screen awake while the screen is idle by using the front camera to see if there is someone staring directly at the screen. If there is, it stays on. Very cool. 

Flipboard exclusive app for the Samsung Galaxy S3Another feature lets you lift up the phone to your ear while you’re texting somebody to automatically call them. The camera and accelerometer detect the upward motion and make the call automatically. Samsung also has an exclusive on the first Android version of Flipboard — one of our favorite iPad apps. 

Some of the S-Voice functions are also neat. We weren’t able to get it working well due to the noise on the show floor, but you can wake up your phone by saying “Hi Galaxy” and perform some other simple tasks with voice commands. Want to snooze? Just say “snooze.” It’s not as robust as Siri on the iPhone, but the voice features that are integrated are built in pretty well.

There are also pretty features that you’ll never use. Samsung has built in a lot of gestures into the phone. For example, you can wipe your hand across the screen to take a screenshot of the phone, and you can minimize a video you’re watching with a push of a button and move it around while you do other things. These are fun things to show to friends, but we doubt most of you will use them often, if at all.

A good camera, but not quite the best

The camera app on the Samsung Galaxy S3With the camera, Samsung seems to be desperately trying to outdo HTC’s awesome One X camera experience, but it isn’t quite there yet. The 8-megapixel rear camera’s photos are good enough, but not quite up to the level of HTC’s One phones, and it lacks some of the high-end features that HTC’s dedicated ImageSense chip provides. The burst mode, for example, tries to pick the best shot and can shoot a bunch of pictures at once, but it just doesn’t work as well or fast as the One. You also cannot record video and take pictures at the same time (a feature we like). (Update: An astute reader pointed out that recording video and shooting pictures simultaneously is possible, though the feature is only accessible if you toggle to the video mode of the camera app.)

The phone tries to recognize faces in pictures as well, and will let you tag photos, much like Facebook. After you tag a photo, you can instantly send it out to everyone who is in it, which is neat. Supposedly, the S3 can learn faces over time as well, but its efforts at the show weren’t impressive. If you tilt your face the wrong way, the S3 can’t seem to tell that you’re the same person. It will take a few more iterations of this concept before it works well.

So much more to explore…

We really didn’t get enough time to fully explore the S3, but from what we’ve seen, Samsung has packed as much into this phone as possible to ensure it’s a hit. It’s not taking any chances here. While we doubt that the S3 will overtake the iPhone anytime soon, HTC is going to have a tough fight ahead of it. There is no word yet on Galaxy S3 pricing, release dates, or which carriers it will appear on, but we expect a wide rollout on most major US carriers in the coming months. 

Update:  The Galaxy S3 US release pricing and info has come out. It will be released on AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, and US Cellular in June for $200. Despite manufacturing issues, Pebble blue will be a part of the launch. Also, if you haven’t read our huge, in-depth comparison between the HTC One X and Galaxy S3, give it a read.