Hands On With Samsung’s Galaxy S III: Innovative Features, Vanilla Design

Samsung Galaxy S III

Samsung brought the Galaxy S III, in “marble white” and “pebble blue,” to the CTIA Wireless show in New Orleans. Photo: Nathan Olivarez-Giles/Wired

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Samsung’s next iPhone fighter, the Galaxy S III, has finally made it to the United States. Well, sort of. The phone is on display at the CTIA Wireless show, but there’s still no word on when the S III will go on sale in the States, and how much it will cost.

Nonetheless, Samsung was showing off the phone in both its color variations — “marble white” and “pebble blue” — in New Orleans this week. I spent about 15 minutes using the new handset, and came away impressed by its ambition levels but not its aesthetics. The S III is packed with clever new features, but I wasn’t wowed by either the phone’s U.I. or industrial design.

The Galaxy S III’s massive 4.8-inch screen felt awfully big, but not so annoyingly large as the 5.3-inch display on the Galaxy Note. Regardless, the large display is put to good use when the handset’s Pop Up Play feature is in action.

This feature allows you to play a video in a pop-up window that can be dragged around the screen while other apps simultaneously run on the same home screen. I loaded a website, launched a few different apps, and looked through a photo gallery, all with a pop-up video playing, and there were no hiccups at all.

When I launched the Galaxy S III’s camera app, Pop Up Play went away, which makes sense as you’ll want to devote all your attention (and screen real estate) to photo composition. All in all, the smoothness of the Pop Up Play feature felt like a testament to the abilities of the 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos processor living under the hood of the S III.

The S III never felt slow, and responded without hesitation to any tap or swipe input thrown its way.

The facial recognition features built into the S III’s camera app are slick. The interface asks you to initially identify anyone who appears in a photo, and then automatically tags your friends in subsequent photos, even when their faces are slightly blurred.

Sharing a photo with people who’ve been tagged is easy, as long as you have that person’s email address, phone number, Facebook profile or Twitter account stored in your address book. After a photo is snapped and a person is recognized, a balloon pops up asking if you’d like to share your photo with them. Simple, easy, automatic.

The S III’s voice dictation feature — S Voice, a Siri competitor — didn’t impress me in the noisy hotel ballroom where I was field-testing the phone. Background commotion drowned out my voice, and the phone couldn’t hear my commands. My testing environment was exceedingly loud, so we’ll reserve judgement on S Voice for our full review.

TouchWiz, Samsung’s user interface skin for Google’s Android operating system, introduces tweaks specific to the S III, such as a water pond lock-screen that ripples as you unlock the phone. The ripple effect feels like a needless contrivance, and doesn’t succeed in delivering the nature inspired vibe that Samsung has said it’s looking to deliver.

As far as industrial design, the S III left me unimpressed. The phone’s plastic chassis feels solid and well made, and I appreciate the thin bezel around the large screen — it helps the phone feel smaller than it actually is. But the lines of chassis itself are just, well, uninspired. Every edge is rounded and sloped, but nothing stands out as memorable or physically unique.

The Apple iPhone 4 and 4S, the HTC One X and One S, and even the understated Galaxy Nexus are all beautifully designed. By comparison, the S III looks vanilla — plain and in no way a grand, bold statement that matches the phone’s long list of features.

Samsung Galaxy S III

The Samsung Galaxy S III. Photo: Nathan Olivarez-Giles/Wired