Samsung’s Galaxy S III: Between The Lines

So you’ve read about Samsung’s Galaxy S III that was announced earlier today and skimmed over the specifications and the pictures with muted interest – it’s progressive and it ticks all the boxes. We know it’s important, we know it’s likely to be the single most popular Android phone within the next 12 months, but instead of just regurgitating the press-releases ad infinitum, let’s take a closer look between the lines and analyse the implications of some of the less-publicised technologies and features within this milestone device.

Hardware / Performance

The Samsung-designed and manufactured Exynos 4212 quad-core 1.4ghz, is a Cortex-A9 based design, this is the first Samsung device that this chip has been used in – and most likely the final (*sniff sniff*) departure for it’s Cortex-A9 designs – in use since the original GT-I9000 Galaxy S. It supports 128-bit instructions (double the width of the previous Exynos) and it’s manufactured on a new 32nm high-k manufacturing process, less power consumption, higher yields and reduced gate leakage – each core is also individually power-gated. Dynamic Voltage and Frequency Scaling (DVFS) is used, which effectively functions to adjust speed and voltage individually, as well as a hotplug (much like the OMAP 4460 devices on screen-off state), to completely disable CPU cores as they are no longer needed. This reduces the need for a ‘helper’ core, as seen on the Tegra 3 – Variable SMP is applicable here. It’s important to note that bringing a mass-produced quad-core chip to market is no mean feat. Even Apple’s latest and greatest, the A5X in the new iPad, is a dual core CPU.

Theoretically at least, we should see very admirable battery life from the device, combined with the huge 2100mAh battery (2nd largest only to the Razr Maxx). Samsung claim somewhere between a 20-40% reduction in power draw from the SoC alone. However, it’s important to note that the Super AMOLED HD screen used in the Galaxy Nexus (which is extremely similar in design) is notoriously power-hungry. As expected, the 4212 also supports features like USB host (USB OTG) which allows USB peripherals to be plugged in. Support for up to four memory cards (and funnily enough, SATA support) is built into the chipset, though this is not a feature that will be seen in production. Like some of it’s cousins, MHL support (HDMI output through USB) is also built-in. We will also see Wifi channel-bonding for increased Wifi performance.

On a related note, It’s unlikely that the next generation of Galaxy Tab devices will utilise this 4212 processor, but instead the Cortex-A15 based Exynos 5250 @ 2.0-2.5ghz (which has a far more powerful Mali T604 GPU), but also based on the same 32nm HKMG manufacturing process. Subsequently, it supports resolutions up to WQXGA (2560×1600), ideal for ‘retina’-spec (to coin a marketing term) displays.

How does it perform? Initially at least – short answer: around 20% better than the Tegra 3 powered Transformer Prime in OpenGL based tests, in Browsermark and OpenGL tests it blows away every other smartphone on the market, One X and 4S included, by a long margin. Long answer: It depends on the test. In Sunspider Javascript tests (which predominantly test the floating-point performance of the CPU), it scored 1479ms. The HTC OneX at 1757ms, the Galaxy S2 at 1849ms and the iPhone 4S at 2217ms (lower is better). Does this make it the fastest Android-based device to date, yes. Is this improvement likely to be dramatic or hugely revolutionary for the masses? Not particularly, but nobody is going to complain it lacks grunt. More on this later.

Region-specific 4G support is delivered by using Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 SoC (as seen in the HTC One S), instead of the Exynos chip. This is a similar setup to the Galaxy S2, where LTE-based devices were powered by the 1.5ghz Qualcomm APQ8060 chips instead of the Exynos. In simple terms, the Exynos-based S3 does not support 4G. In Australia at least, it’s likely that LTE-based devices will see a similar delay to the S2 generation. Naturally, this means that the next generation of iPhone, presumably with LTE support, will beat it to market.

The device uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass 2, a further iteration of the ever-popular ultra-hardened material. Gorilla Glass 2 is 20% thinner, brighter and more responsive, whilst being as strong as it’s predecessor. No complaints there. The design is far more rounded than previous iterations, both in profile and face-on. Perhaps Samsung’s designers leaning to a more ‘human-friendly’ approach. The wireless charging accessory certainly points to this.

Some other quick notes on the hardware which will crop up in reviews. It’s an RGBG Pentile display, which means if you look at it on a micro level, you will see sub pixels. The specifications of the 4.8″ screen are nearly exactly the same as the 1280 x 720 display on the Galaxy Nexus, down to the pentile arrangement. You can see the red sub-pixels are smaller on the S3 here. What does this mean? Not very much for the average person – it looks clear and smooth. I certainly can’t notice any sub-pixels on my Galaxy Nexus (though it has a slightly higher pixel density – 316ppi vs 306ppi). Make no mistake, this is one of the highest density phone screens on the market, bar none.

Finally, GLONASS support. Good for areas where GPS reception is sketchy. It’s a Russian technology, and it’s also in the iPhone 4S. Overall – it’s very thin, it’s very light, it’s very durable, it’s ergonomic, it cannot be faulted.


OK, so we’ve briefly covered the hardware side of it. What about the software? In the process of designing this device, Samsung has looked back at the history of the Galaxy line and noticed a glaring trend. Even while the hardware from the outset was arguably decent and has steadily improved since then, the software has been dramatically lacking, especially on the first generation devices. The SGS2 has functionality patched from a variety of third-party sources, not an optimum solution. The software is absolutely crucial in ensuring a satisfying user experience, down to the finest details and this is where it appears a lot of the work has gone into. Initial reports show that the entire Touchwiz interface is substantially improved, simplified and easier to use.

The approach this time appears to be accessibility and easy-to-use everyday features. Burst shooting on the camera (20 frames at a time, or 3.3fps) will be something commonly used, to pick shots where the subject isn’t blinking, for example. Or taking that one step further, it can algorithmically choose the best picture for you (a feature originally seen on the Nikon J1/V1), or tag people based on facial recognition technology. A multi-coloured notification LED at the top (ala Galaxy Nexus style) allows for easy and presumably configurable blinking lights based on the types of screen-off notifications you have.

Eye identification technology (called Smart Stay), using the front-facing camera, will recognise when you are viewing the screen actively and delay screen shut-off time – indicated by an icon showing you you’re being tracked. Clever and useful on a daily basis, something that even the third-party has been slow to pick up on, though whether it justifies the battery consumption of the camera is yet to be seen. Put the phone to your head while SMS’ing somebody or viewing their details and it dials the person (known as Direct Call). Existing sensors, innovative uses. If any of these were on an iOS device, you can be sure there’d be a catchy name for it (iTracking – it’s Magical!).

The voice command system (known as S-Voice – I hate regurgitating marketing names, but in the interests of accuracy), brings nothing substantially new to the table. Many of the commands are already doable via the built-in Voice Command / dictation system in Android, or by third party applications like VLingo – which ironically was a software partner on the SGS2 release.

Other notable features are a 50GB Dropbox space ($99/year value), following the trend of HTC including 20GB with their handsets, and NFC support – a must for a flagship device and infinitely helpful for file and contact sharing, even though uptake is limited, especially outside of KR/JP/US. It’s worth nothing that a feature called ‘Pop-up multitasking’ promises true window-on-window multi-tasking – holding down on a window (such as a video), can resize it to a smaller window where it can be placed at the side of the screen while you complete other tasks.

The included video player itself has a vastly improved range of codec support, with Samsung’s Allshare media streaming/transcoding solution via Wifi. Alternatively, wireless screen mirroring is also an inbuilt function.

My Thoughts

So what does all this mean? I believe phones have reached a ‘fast-enough’ point, just like PC’s, where the vast majority of people can complete their tasks seamlessly with minimal delays. Any improvements in processing capabilities from here provide incremental benefits at best, with the exception being 3D game performance. As such, I believe that the emphasis on improving the out-of-box software experience and steps towards automation are the right choice. For many, the specs may prove ‘underwhelming’, but the Galaxy is the workhorse of the family, the volume seller which requires evolutionary, not revolutionary ideas. These improvements are ‘human’ friendly improvements, something that for many Android devices has been lacking.

I’ve never been a big fan of OEM skins and layers on top of base Android, but in some cases it’s justified. When Android was still in it’s early days, the HTC Sense overlay on Android 1.6, I found extremely useful in tying together the various functions. However, since then Android has progressed to a point where the vanilla experience is extremely full-featured and functional, if somewhat sterile and relentlessly monochromatic.

In this case, however, the Galaxy brand is well-recognised and will be the default choice for many, it must be able to deliver a trouble-free experience in an instantly recognisable form (especially those coming from their 24-month Galaxy S contracts). The inclusion of a hardware button is also an interesting choice as well, a clear and intentional step away from the inevitable future of button-less devices, to stick by a tried and true tactile approach.

Will it sell? Alot of that is up to the carriers. They don’t want to gamble on lesser known products, and that’s where the proven history of the Galaxy brand will come into play. The paradox of choice also dictates that people will aim straight for the S3. 20+ million SGS2 shipments have established a strong reputation.

Will it be profitable? Already, Samsung has been churning out 4212’s from their Korean manufacturing plants at a healthy rate, whilst gearing up their US manufacturing plant for the 5250 (along with Apple’s A5X). If the yields are sufficient good, then economies of scale will take care of the rest.

Will we see variants? Yes, definitely regional variants are already being planned and the obligatory 3-4 varieties for the US carriers with minor differences. Doubtlessly, there will be also lower-spec variants of this chip to go into the Galaxy Play successor and low-end tablets.

Where to from here? ICS update will inevitably rise from the current ~5% rate over the next 12 months to at least 25% if not greater. With the slowing of major releases and the focus and involvement of OEM’s (see SE’s platform involvement), the fragmentation issue – one that arguably has little direct negative effect on people, will be lessened. Going head to head with HTC’s One X flagship, and the upcoming 2012 iPhone will be interesting.

What about tablets? There’s a strong case to say that Android tablets up till now have been half-baked affairs. With sufficient performance in the 5250, WQXGA resolutions and a hardware-accelerated ICS base (not to be underestimated), some competitive options will be available later in the year. Whether that will trounce the iPad remains largely an ecosystem question. A 295 ppi tablet resolution will be icing on the cake.

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