Samsung Galaxy S3 review
Android 4.0, 4.8in 720x1,280 display
The Samsung Galaxy S3 was a big hitter when it was first released back in 2012, establishing Samsung as arguably the market leader for flagship Android handsets - and unarguably in terms of sales. That means there's lots of Galaxy S3 handsets around, and with the removable battery they're still going strong as well. You can currently pick one up for around £50 on eBay, although we'd advise getting a new battery for it too, they're under £10.
The handset has been updated since launch, and currently uses Android 4.3 or 4.4 (depending on the exact model), so how does the old flagship match up to today's budget handsets?
Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE Edition
The original S3 is a 3G-only device, but the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE is an updated version with a new wireless chip to support 4G networks here in the UK. There are a couple of other tweaks too: the LTE phone has 2GB rather than 1GB RAM, and is available in a smart Titanium finish as well as the standard Galaxy S3 white. This 2GB version is currently upgradeable to Android 4.4. Samsung has officially ended support for the phone though, so you won't be getting Android 5.0 by any official means.
We did find, however, that the new version had slightly worse battery life than the old - we're not sure whether this is due to the new operating system or the chipset, but in our continuous video playback test we saw 9h 19m from the Galaxy S3 LTE, compared to 9h 57m from the Galaxy S3.
If you're picking up a handset second hand, you'll probably find the battery won't even last this long if the phone has had some serious long term use. It would be wise to pick up a replacement battery - it shouldn't cost more than £20 online and it should have a longer lifespan than the one that originally came with the phone.
Samsung Galaxy S3 Display and Build
The Galaxy S3 and S3 LTE have the same exterior build and display. It was once a big phone, but things have moved on and now it's merely mid-sized with its 4.8in display. There's only a couple of millimetres of space either side of the screen, and around a centimetre of plastic on the top and bottom to house the front-facing camera and home button. The handset is also just 9mm thick, but, while its slim body is comfortable to hold, we weren't so sure about the all-gloss-plastic back.
The Galaxy S III 1,280x720 resolution screen makes it simple to browse web pages in full desktop mode, with little need for zooming and scrolling left to right; if you have this phone, there's not really much need to have a tablet as well.
^ It was once a big phone, but now it feels very reasonable next to modern monsters
In contrast to most smartphones, which have IPS LCD displays, the Galaxy S3 has an AMOLED screen. It's a PenTile screen with just two rather than three coloured sub-pixels per pixel, but there's none of the colour cast we sometimes see with PenTile displays, such as the slight green/yellow tint on the Motorola RAZR MAXX. We found it very hard to find fault with the Galaxy S3's screen; if you look really closely the text isn’t quite as sharp as on the iPhone 4S's and iPhone 5's displays, but it's really splitting hairs.
Samsung Galaxy S3 Gesture Controls
Samsung claims the Galaxy S III is "designed for humans", and to this end the handset has several different motion controls that are meant to make it particularly intuitive to use. Whenever you launch an app for which a motion control is available a help screen pops up telling you about it and asking whether you want to enable the feature. All the motion controls are grouped together in Settings, so you can tweak them later.
^ Some of the gesture settings on offer
We had varying degrees of success with the gesture controls. You can turn the phone over to mute a call, and when you pick it back up the Smart alert feature will make the phone vibrate to let you know that you have a missed event such as a missed call or an unread text message. You can double-tap the top of the phone to go to the top of a list, such as your contacts, but we couldn't get the tilt-to-zoom function on web pages and the gallery to work at all. One feature we did like was that if a contact is on your screen or you're in the middle of writing a text message to that contact, bringing the phone up to your ear will automatically call that person.
^ Thanks to Smart Stay the BBC homepage won't fade to black while you're reading it
A particularly interesting addition is Smart Stay, which is meant to use the front-facing camera to stop the screen turning itself off when you're looking at it - great for reading text-heavy webpages. However, we found it sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. The phone also has Samsung's S Voice control, which is meant to perform functions such as sending people messages or dialling them, Siri-style. We were able to make the phone open Google Navigation with "Navigate to Guildford", call Dave with "Call Dave", but trying to dictate a message was pretty hopeless, leading to garbled rubbish every time.
Samsung Galaxy S3 Camera
The well-designed camera app makes it simple to get the best out of the phone's eight-megapixel camera. There are several different ways to take a photo, including a 20-shot burst mode, HDR and the fun Panorama feature. The phone takes pictures almost instantly, but we found the thin screen bezel meant we would nudge the touchscreen sometimes and activate an option when lining up a shot. The resulting images are still excellent by smartphone standards today, with natural colours and plenty of detail in bright light. It's here that the S3 still beats modern budget phones.
As this sample shot shows, the S3's camera rivals the best available, alongside those from HTC, Sony or Apple
The S3 comes with a 50GB Dropbox account for two years, and the phone will automatically upload photos (over Wi-Fi) to your online storage.
An Oldie but a Goodie?
The Galaxy S3 was unquestionably Samsung's big launch for 2012, and was our recommended Android smartphone for some time. It’s getting a little long in the tooth now, but on the upside you can pick one a good-condition second-hand S3 from eBay for around £60. So how well does the old handset stack up against more modern devices that cost a similar amount?
We took our old Samsung Galaxy S3 and did a hardware reset to clear years of digital detritus. The handset retained its recent upgrade to Android 4.3 though, and running our benchmarks on the spring-cleaned handset gave some encouraging results. While its Geekbench 2 score was essentially unchanged at 1,752 points, improvements to the Chrome browser had brought its SunSpider browser score down to a speedy 1,061ms.
^ The S3 still feels pretty quick to use, though more modern handsets for similar money are faster still
That puts it just behind last year's Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini and ahead of our recent budget champion the Motorola Moto G. However, you can notice stutters and pauses compared to the best of today’s handsets, such as the Nexus 5, which is super-smooth in comparison.
The 1,280x720 Super AMOLED display has held up well, still looking bright and vibrant with lots of contrast. It’s arguably better than either of the display’s on the handsets above, with the S4 Mini only having a 960x540 resolution and the Moto G’s LCD not matching the quality of the S3’s AMOLED.
The S3’s camera also holds up well, it balances exposures well, has a fast burst mode and cope fairly well in low-light. Newer flagship models have improved on this, by not by a huge amount really, as they generally use the same 1/2.3in sensors as the S3. The Moto G’s camera can’t compete – it’s the phone’s key weakpoint; while the S4 Mini is on a par for quality based on our test photos.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 is still a good phone to have in your pocket, though if you’ve been running yours for a couple of years may we suggest a software reset and maybe a new battery and rear shell to spruce it up a little.
If you’re considering it as a second-hand budget buy then it does very well against its immediate competition, and is a good choice if you want a better camera than the Moto G provides. We narrowly prefer it over the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, though they are similar in many respects the S3’s screen nabs it for us.