Samsung Galaxy S III – Initial thoughts

Samsung announced the Galaxy S III on 3rd May amid fanfare great and in the face of rabid speculation from all. Like several others, I was hooked on to several liveblogs which were covering the event as it unfolded. My first thought at the time was, the entire event was very Apple-esque in its content, structure and scope – which is a good thing. By the time the event ended however, I was left slightly underwhelmed by Samsungs new flagship device.

The Galaxy S III goes back to the design style of the first Galaxy S, with smooth curves, more rounded corners and a chrome ring around the front face. It is a quite good-looking phone, managing to look new while bringing the curves back.

A major criticism of all previous Galaxy devices has been their construction – they all have a plastic body. Unfortunately that doesn’t change this time too. Although durable, plastic bodies don’t give a phone a premium feel. A Rs. 38000(~$700, initial rumors) phone flexing in your hand is never a good feeling. It doesn’t give the phone an indestructible feel. Look at the competition – Apples iPhone 4S feels like a brick with its metal and glass construction, HTCs One S/X phones with their Aluminium bodies are slim and strong, and Nokia Lumia 800/900 are in a class of their own with their polycarbonate bodies. Samsung really missed a trick here. They remain the manufacturer of a cheap feeling premium handset, which is a shame really.

Each Galaxy S phone that came out had raised the bar in terms of configuration for Android devices and the S III, to my mind, falls a bit short there. When Samsung introduced the Exynos SoC in the Galaxy S II, it offered truly next-generation performance. It took other phone manufacturers several months before they could come close to offering the performance of Exynos, let alone beat it. In the Galaxy S III, Samsung decided to go for a quad-core Exynos which is an improved iterative design of the one in S II. It is fabricated with a better 32nm process which reduces the die-area and power consumption while doubling the core count. This is no easy task, but the chip is not next-generation like Qualcomms S4 which is inside HTCs One S. On the graphics front too, Samsung went with the same Mali-400 MP4 GPU as on the Galaxy S II, with much higher clocks than anything on the market now.

Preliminary benchmarks bear this out – S4 gives the Exynos stiff competition in the CPU department(the tests where is leads the competition by a long way is in the browser tests which are heavily dependent on browser optimizations) and the GPU is well ahead of the rest of the pack. So while it takes the performance crown comfortably for now, it might not stay at the top for too long with impending launches of Mali-5xx, Adreno 3xx and PowerVR 6xx GPUs later this year.

Since the advent of the original iPhone and the whole touch-screen revolution, screen size and display quality are important criteria now. Because of the distinctly thinner bezel than other phones, the large 4.8″ display doesn’t result in a proportionately larger device. The display is a Super AMOLED one, with a 720×1280 resolution. This also means that instead of the RGB, it has RGBG pentile sub pixels. At such high resolutions and pixel density this should not matter, but human eyes have a way making displays look worse than they actually are once a better one comes along.

This time around Samsung put a lot of effort on the software running the Galaxy S III. It comes with ICS loaded(I hope going forward, Samsung will be more regular in updating their devices with the latest Android release). In the demo and from the hundreds of hands-on videos, it seems to me that Touchwiz is not very obtrusive this time around. A lot of buyers will not be replacing Touchwiz with a different launcher by default this time. They also introduced new standards and protocols like S-Beam(which builds on Android Beam, using TouchWiz?) to transfer data between S III handsets. They now have DLNA based screen mirroring too. Samsung also made a huge deal about a Siri look-alike called S Voice. I am not sure how well these will catch on.

Also, Samsung has focused more on the small touches, the tiny details. I especially liked the feature where you can take a photograph while shooting video. Lifting the phone to your ear while texting a contact to call them is also nice(how it will work while group texting remains to be seen, a conference call?). Another interesting touch is that Samsung uses the front-facing camera to track your eyes – if you are looking at the screen it will override the power settings and keep the screen bright so that you don’t have to tap the screen regularly while reading. It also uses facial recognition to identify contacts in your photographs against tags in social networks and link them up. The video pop-up feature lets you view videos while browsing or while running other apps sounds a bit gimmicky. In day to day use, I think these small features will end up mattering more than the headline features.

Besides the device, Samsung also announced several new services and accessories with which they hope to establish an ecosystem around the Galaxy brand. They added a Scan & Match feature to their existing Music Hub – this basically works like iTunes Match. Your hard drive is scanned and songs found are matched against those in Samsungs cloud which are then made available to you over the cloud essentially making your music collection device agnostic and available everywhere. A S Pebble mp3 player links up with the the Galaxy S III to play music – I’m not clear about the use case for this. An interesting accessory announced is the Allshare Hub. It connects to a TV over HDMI after which you can play media on your S III on the TV wirelessly. That sounds cool!

I like the services and the accessories Samsung announced, it should give them a solid foundation to build upon in the future as they expand the Galaxy brand. On the whole, however, I’m a bit unenthusiastic about the ecosystem Samsung is trying to establish. Here is the thing – all ecosystems are basically lockdowns. If you start off in one and consume services steadily, then over time you end up with a sizable investment in an ecosystem which makes it difficult to move out in case something better comes along. Suppose you have a hundred dollars worth of apps on your idevice, would you spend another hundred to get the same or similar apps in Android were you to get a Galaxy phone? Now, Samsungs ecosystem is an ecosystem within the larger ecosystem that Google has already built for Android. So this makes it doubly worse. Somehow Android needs to simplify this, a model where ecosystems sit on top of ecosystems is not good. Things are a lot better on the Apple side, where the hardware and OS are manufactured by them.

Another aspect of ecosystems is integration. How well the services of an ecosystem integrate with each other and with the device is an important factor in deciding its success. Samsung now has an excellent offering of devices – phones, media players(Galaxy Player), TVs, laptops. It remains to be seen whether the current offering of services will expand to cover all these devices and give the consumer a great experience. Compare this to the other side of the fence, with Apple, who have a similar product range. With them, the more i-devices you buy the better the integrated experience!

As I alluded to at the start, the device as such left me underwhelmed – but I’m probably biased because of my expectations pre-launch. It looks a solid device in terms of features and Samsung has a nice offering of services and accessories to make owning and using a Galaxy S III a great experience. Lets wait and see how well they succeed at that.

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