Thanks to the previous Galaxy model's success, Samsung is now the world's biggest phone manufacturer, a title it will no doubt keep once the slim and pebble-like Galaxy S III hits stores at the end of May. At 4.8-inches, you can tell Samsung worked really hard at retaining the slightly-smaller Galaxy S II's footprint, so despite the 22 per cent larger display, it's only 16 per cent bigger than the S II. We hear HTC's One X is already quaking a little in fear.
Reassuringly, Samsung seems to have cottoned on to the fact that there's only so far you can go with hardware at the moment. Rather than bolting a silly 16MP camera sensor on, or slimming it down to the slim widths of the Motorola Droid RAZR, they've instead focused most of their attention on upgrading Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) with some much-needed features, and in several cases, new tweaks and additions that you never knew you wanted before.
But before we get bogged down with the glossy stuff, let's talk hardware. The 4.8-inch display is a Super AMOLED panel with 720 x 1280 (306ppi) resolution, and inserted just above that display? Why, it's a 1.9MP forward-facing camera which shoots 720p video. Over on the Galaxy S III's backside, it's got a simple 8MP camera that can shoot 1080p video. But don't let that lowly sensor number put you off -- Samsung's got a few camera tricks in store this time, which I'll touch on in a minute.
Running on one of Samsung's beastly new 1.4GHz Exynos 4 Cortex-A9 quad-core chips, it comes with 1GB of RAM, and a choice of either 16, 32 or 64GB internal storage configurations (all of which also let you chuck a microSD card up to 64GB in, as well.)
In certain territories (the US, Japan and Korea), the S III will be available in LTE, but we'll have to make do with HSPA+ here in the UK. Seven sensors, including an accelerometer; RGB light; digital compass; proximity; gryoscope; NFC, and barometer have been shoved in too.
All of this in a body that weighs 133grams, measures 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm, and houses a 2100mAh battery; Samsung's first smartphone with a battery that size.
The names for the two colour options, marble white and pebble blue, should lead you down the garden path and knocking on the door of Samsung's inspiration with this phone, but if it doesn't, then the lock screen and wallpaper skins will scream "nature" at you, even if you live in a concrete jungle with nary a potplant in sight.
As mentioned before, Samsung's overhauled ICS with some nifty new TouchWiz tricks. These include:
- Smart Stay, which uses the forward-facing camera to determine if you're looking at the phone. You can set time intervals from as little as 15 seconds, which result in a small flashing eye logo in the Android notification bar. If it recognises that your eyes aren't focused on the phone anymore, the screen dims.
- Direct Call, which will auto-dial a contact if you have their contact details or a message open. By moving the phone to your ear, the proximity sensor; accelerometer and gyroscope all kick into use, and automatically dial the contact's number.
- Smart Alert, which will make the phone vibrate in your hand and flash an LED if you pick the phone up after a missed call.
- S Voice, which is a Siri-like voice recognition feature, that you can use to enquire about the weather; take a photo ("Hi Galaxy, please take a photo" to open the camera app, or "cheese" to snap it), and other tasks such as locking the phone, or controlling music. Each demand can be configured by the user.
- Social Tag, which links photos of friends in your photo gallery to their Facebook or Google+ accounts, using facial recognition.
- S Beam, which pairs other Galaxy S III phones (and only them, for now) via NFC, shares photos, videos, files or even albums of media over Wi-Fi. If your friend's S III doesn't have Wi-Fi enabled, S Beam will automatically turn that user's Wi-Fi on, and then off.
- AllShare Cast, which pairs to TVs, laptops or tablets over Wi-Fi, mirroring whatever's on the S III. You can also use the S III as a game controller.
- PopUp Play, which will literally pop a video out of its player, rendering it in a small thumbnail so you can continue watching while surfing the web or doing other functions on the phone. The thumbnail is movable around the display, even if it's pretty small.
A bright light should be shone on the Galaxy S III's camera and its new features, as this brings them right up against HTC's One series in terms of performance. While I couldn't get an accurate feel for photo quality during my briefing (there wasn't enough time, and the room wasn't the brightest), anyone who's interested in taking photos on their phones (that's all of you, let's face it), will be pleased to hear of these new additions:
- Minimal lag. Samsung minimised reloading time drastically with the S III, so there's virtually no lag between pressing the button and the shot being taken.
- Burst Shot / Best Photo, which takes 20 shots in quick succession (six photos per second), and then recommends the best photo (using algorithms to determine which has the best light, and which has all eyes open, for example). You can of course override the phone's choice, if you prefer those shots where your subject is staring blankly outside the frame.
- Face Zoom, which recognises individual faces in a live view, so you can tap a face and zoom in, taking a photo only of them. Sorry, other ugly people in the shot.
- Photos while filming. Like the feature HTC added to their One series, Samsung also thought about those people who like to take photos at the same time as filming video. It's possible now.
- Face Slideshow. Once some photos have been taken (or loaded onto the phone), a slideshow showing all your merry photos will zoom across each photo, but also take turns to focus on each person in the frame's face, so no-one gets left out like they often do on Apple TV, for example.
- Group tag. Auto-generated from your contact groups, you can view all photos of your family, for example, as long as you've tagged all contacts in certain categories. Facial recognition will do the rest.
If I had any complaints about the Galaxy S III, based on my brief play with it, the crux would revolve around the build quality. Samsung still hasn't got it right, in my eyes, however beautifully-designed the phones are (and they are beautiful -- check out the photo gallery for some comparisons with the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S II). Perhaps my heart belongs to HTC and its "batshit-crazy space-age materials", but Samsung's products always feel too plasticky for my liking.
Saying that, it's remarkable that Samsung's managed to trim the bezel down so the overall footprint is only 16 per cent larger than the previous model, and the extra-rounded edges really add to that whole pebble look they're going for. (Though thankfully they've not been as obvious as their Pebble MP3 player from years ago was.) Despite its relative lightness, the phone doesn't have that too-thin feel; it's still got some weight in your hand, meaning you won't easily drop it.
And yes, before you ask: Samsung has pre-installed various apps and a Samsung app store / music hub / game store etc. Though some of them, like Dropbox (Samsung has thoughtfully included a 50GB allowance for two years), are genuinely useful. The rest, you can ditch 'em.
While we're waiting for a review sample to arrive on our doorstep, we can't give a definitive thought on the Galaxy S III just yet. But it should be fairly obvious to all that Samsung's holding on tight to their crown, won fairly and squarely by the Galaxy S II which stole hearts and took names thanks to the sheer amount of features and specs it crammed inside.
The third iteration under the Galaxy S name feels a lot more polished and thought-out than other Samsung products, and zips about comfortably with its powerful engine and responsive display. I only wish I could say the same about my post-Samsung-conference knees.
On sale across Europe at the end of May, O2, Orange, Three, T-Mobile and Vodafone have already confirmed they'll be stocking the Galaxy S III, along with Carphone Warehouse, which has confirmed tariffs will start from £36 a month.