Screen and Controls
Cutting right to the chase, the S3’s screen is excellent and is a huge upgrade over most screens from previous generations. Its sheer size is enthralling when watching video or playing games, making the iPhone 4S look positively backward in this regard. It’s also colourful and sharp thanks to its 1,280 x 720 (720p) pixels, and has great viewing angles.
However, there are a number of issues.
In practice we found the automatic brightness setting was way off, constantly making the screen too dim, which is annoying as it means regularly having to change this setting manually to balance readability and battery life. Bizarrely there are also four separate brightness levels reserved for the web browser only – one for the browser, fine, but not four. Moreover, overall brightness is lower than we were expecting, being outdone by both the iPhone 4S and HTC One X. The result is that the S3 isn’t as good as those two in bright conditions.
Then of course there are the downsides of the size of the thing. Sure, it’s a notch smaller than the very popular Samsung Galaxy Note and only a tad larger than many other large premium Android phones, but there’s no denying it’s a bit of a handful.
Samsung Galaxy Note, Samsung Galaxy S3, LG Optimus 4X HD, Apple iPhone 5, Apple iPhone 4S
Comparing dimensions with the rest of the big phone fraternity, the Galaxy S3 is slimmer than the rest but is in fact the tallest and widest apart from the Note – no surprise given it also has the largest screen at 4.8in (again aside from the Note). At 133g it is surprisingly light, though.
Frankly, we’re still somewhat in two minds as to which overall philosophy we prefer – the small phone accompanied by a tablet approach of the iPhone and iPad or the “one device to rule them all” style of these larger phones. Ultimately it comes down to how you operate as to which you’ll prefer, but we still tend to like the slightly smaller phones. Or at least if we were going for a large device we’d go for something that added extra features such as the stylus of the Galaxy Note. After all, if you need two hands to use the thing anyway, why not use a stylus to be more accurate about it – it’s better for Draw Something at the very least.
What’s more, within the context of these large phones, the Galaxy S3 didn’t feel as easy to handle as we’d hope, despite some laudable attempts to make it so.
Its curved edges make it sit quite comfortably in the hand but along with the glossy back they also make it very slippery. Indeed to us the phone’s ‘designed for humans’ label seems woefully misjudged. Despite the screen lock button being put on the right edge, where it should be easier to reach than the top, we actually found it little easier. If you have particularly large hands you might be able to reach but for average hands or smaller it still doesn’t fall under your fingers when holding the phone normally. Designed for giants?
Likewise, the physical home button should in theory make things easier as it saves you having to reach for the power button to unlock the screen. But, again Samsung has slipped up. We found it an awkward manoeuvre to reach the button as it’s too near the bottom of the phone and it’s too narrow. Also, we found we quite often accidentally pressed the two touch-sensitive buttons to either side, which is aggravating to say the least.
As such, despite its screen lock button being on the top edge, and it having a touch-sensitive Home button (i.e. one that can’t be used to unlock the screen) we actually found the HTC One X pretty much on par in terms of handling.
Much of this is nitpicking, and we strongly doubt anyone will be driven to distraction by any of these issues but overall it does leave us feeling that there’s still work to be done to really make these large phones practical for one handed (i.e. practical day to day for busy people) use.
Getting back to the screen, the other reason it’s a potential issue is that it uses an HD Super AMOLED display. What does this mean? Well, the AMOLED bit means it uses pixels that are self-illuminating, with no need for a backlight like on LCD displays. This results in amazing contrast, with black and other dark colours not looking washed out when next to bright colours. Meanwhile the HD bit denotes this as having a peer-matching 720p (720 x 1280 pixel) resolution. The combination of these two means watching video and playing games is a truly mesmerizing experience on this phone.
So far so good, but it’s the lack of the word Plus – as seen on the Galaxy S2 – that is the concern. This lack denotes the display as using a PenTile subpixel arrangement. Here, instead of using three subpixels (Red, Green and Blue) for each pixel it only uses two (Red and Green, then Blue and Green). This results in a number of visual oddities including a slight shimmering/moire effect in some moving images, a raggedy look to the edges of fine text, coloured fringes between bordering black and white pixels and a slightly grainy look to solid blocks of colour.
All these elements were particularly noticeable on earlier Pentile AMOLED screens but the much smaller pixels on these latest high resolution screens means most are almost imperceptible now. It’s only really the moiré and graininess that are visible. The former stands out when using the camera or watching video where movement highlights the shimmering effect, while the latter can still come through on solid colours such as the white backgrounds on web pages. You also quite often get horizontal or vertical lines that should be the same width appearing as different widths, such as the text box in a web browser. It’s the sort of thing that if you’re aware of it, you’ll probably still find it slightly annoying but equally you could quite easily use this phone for a year and never notice.
Samsung Galaxy S3 Screen Closeup – note how you can almost see the red, green and blue subpixels on the block of white.
HTC One X Screen Closeup – this screen has a similar level of sharpness but colours look smoother.
iPhone 4S Screen Closeup – the iPhone 4S (and iPhone 5) have slightly sharper, smoother looking displays
The final thing to consider is AMOLED can have a slightly blue colour cast to the whole screen that only gets worse at an angle, and colours can look over-saturated too. However both these issues aren’t too noticeable here. Comparing the HTC One X and S3 side by side, the S3 does look a bit blue but then the One X does look a bit red, and Samsung seems to have toned down the saturation a bit so everything looks a bit more natural.
When all is said and done, the S3 screen is still excellent, it’s just not taking screens to another level. The Galaxy Note and Galaxy Nexus both offer essentially the same experience in terms of AMOLED quality while the HTC One X’s LCD display is better for some things (reading text and web browsing) but worse for others (watching video). Meanwhile if you aren’t dead set on getting a massive screen the iPhone 4S still impresses when it comes to raw quality but boy does it look like a baby compared to these monsters.
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