The hardware has been covered here, and now it’s time to look more closely at the software. Although both devices run Android 4.0, they each have their own ‘skins’ applied. The SIII runs Samsung’s new TouchWiz, while HTC has the ever present Sense UI, albeit new for the One series. What is interesting is how both of these skins have changed over the past few years. They have gone from being animation-heavy and cutesy-icon laden software tweaks all over the shop, into comparatively light and well thought out tweaks as Android has progressed as an OS.
When comparing, both the SIII and the One X, it is in the software they run where they differ the most, and which one you chose is partly down to how useful and optimised it is, but also personal preference.
So which is best, and which should you choose? Read on to find out what I think.
- Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with TouchWiz UI
- Samsung Exynos 4212 Quad-core processor @ 1.4GHz (Cortex-A9)
- 1GB RAM, Mali 400MP graphics
- Quadband GSM, GPRS & EDGE, quadband HSPA (21Mbps up, 5.76Mbps down)
- Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi hotspot
- NFC, Android beam, S Beam
- Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP, EDR
- GPS, with A-GPS and GLONASS support
- micro USB with MHL, USB on-the-go
- Height: 136.6mm
- Width: 70.6mm
- Depth: 8.6mm
- Weight: 133g
- Super AMOLED 4.8" touchscreen, 720×1280 resolution, 306 ppi
- Gorilla Glass 2 display
- 16/32/64GB internal storage, external microSD slot up to 64GB w/ exFAT support
- 8 megapixel camera, with 1080p @30fps video recording, 1.9MP 720p front facing camera
- Accelerometer, gyroscope, RGB sensor, proximity sensor, compass, barometer
- RGB notification light
- FM Radio with RDS
- Micro-SIM support
- S-Voice, Smart Stay eye tracking, 50GB Dropbox storage (2yrs)
- Available in Pebble Blue or Marble White
- Lynn Turley asks “What is your view about the problems I have read with dimming of the brightness even when manually setting it higher please?”
On automatic setting where it uses the light sensor to measure the ambient light and adjust brightness accordingly, I have found (like everyone else) that the brightness is consistently set too low. Sitting next to the iPhone, HTC One X, and Galaxy S2, it is noticeably dimmer than all three. This is probably done to help preserve battery life.
Personally it’s too dark for me, I like ’em bright. At its maximum brightness (set manually) it is more than bright enough for virtually all situations, so you shouldn’t worry about it just being too dim. It may not be as bright as some other phones, but there’s no real need.
I would then have a widget on a homescreen so I can adjust brightness easily. The notification bar brightness shortcut on the S2 is not present here.
To finally answer your question (sorry!) I haven’t seen or been able to induce that issue of it automatically lowering the brightness even after manually setting it – all is well with the unit I am using.
Got a question? Feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be sure to answer them in the coming parts of the review/comparison, or ask via twitter by tweeting me @ecniv_
TouchWiz vs Sense
So let’s start from the very beginning. When powering up the phone for the first time, there’s the familiar set up screen to configure, allowing you to set up a Samsung account, Google account, and Dropbox account. The One X also has an idiot proof set up, and both have helpful on-screen tips for those manual-skippers out there. Samsung have struck a deal with Dropbox giving you 50GB of free storage for two years. Considering the free version gives you just 2GB, and Dropbox is one of the most useful cloud services I’ve encountered, this is a pretty nice perk.
After setting up your accounts (and deciding if you want to let Google track your location) you’ll be booted into the homescreens, a set of up to 7 screens where you can place app shortcuts and widgets. Interestingly, this new version of Touchwiz doesn’t allow you to add other shortcuts as you can do on virtually every other Android device, such as a shortcut to the battery status screen or to a contact. Either that, or they’ve made it so difficult to do, I still haven’t found it. Of course, you can also set the wallpaper to an image of your choosing, or a Live wallpaper. There are the usual ones (as well as downloadables from the Play Store) but there are some very cool Samsung added ones like the news wallpaper – it has 3D news headlines flying in every now and again. You can’t actually tap them to read the story so its usefulness is limited, but I can’t ignore cool looking things like that!
At the bottom of the homescreens, there is space for four shortcuts – the default is Phone, Contacts, Messaging, and Internet; but you can put any app of your choice here for easy access. The far right is the apps button to bring up the app grid (this is fixed in this position). The first thing you’ll notice if you’ve owned an Android device before is the widgets section, (unless of course you have an ICS Nexus device). This brings up a gridded preview of all the widgets you’ve got installed, and you simply touch and hold on one to place it on a homescreen. This is a feature added in 4.0 and it’s good to see that it’s made it here. For comparisons sake, the One X also has the same thing.
Where they differ is in the ordering of apps in the menu. The SIII is like most Android devices, giving you a customisable grid of apps, so when you install a new one, it’s simply added onto the end of the last page. On the One X you can have it in alphabetical order or date order – crucially, not your own manual order. For people who like having a good number of apps, it means it is very unlikely that an app will be in the same place in the menu list when you next come to launch it. Even in alphabetical order, it doesn’t seem as good to me as a manually organised list, as you subconsciously learn over time where exactly an app is. It also means I could have a dedicated page for games or social apps. The lack of manual sorting on the One X did frustrate me, and this also leads onto the second advantage of TouchWiz – the ability to create folders in the menu list, not only on the homescreen. More organisation options for your ever expanding list of apps can only be a good thing in my opinion. Another very neat feature is the built in ability to hide apps in the menu. James will happily tell you BlackBerries have had that option since forever, but this is the first stock launcher I have used on an Android device that allows you to do so – usually you’d have to turn to a 3rd party launcher from the Play Store. This is brilliant for reducing clutter by hiding preloaded apps you can’t delete but never use.
The lock screen is an area which has been tweaked too, understandably given the large screen. The Galaxy SIII has four shortcuts – Phone, Messaging, S Voice, and Camera – on the bottom. Swiping up on their icons instead of swiping the screen launches you straight into that app. The One X has a similar four shortcut concept too, except you drag them to the unlock ring instead. Both allow you to customise which four apps appear on your lockscreen, so personalisation options are plentiful here. But that’s just scratching the surface.
There are a whole load of options for the lock screen. Starting with the basics, you can turn the shortcuts on and off, if for some reason you don’t like them. There’s also a Yahoo-powered news or stock information ticker, dual clocks when you’re roaming, and weather information. The really neat one is the quick camera launching – put a finger on the screen while rotating the phone to landscape automatically fires up the camera (freeing up one of those four shortcuts). There are also voice activated wake-up commands, but these are not always reliable so it’s easier to just press the button.
If you were after a bit more security on your lock screen, again, you’d have more options on the Galaxy SIII than the One X. It offers an impressive seven different methods of unlocking. You may be familiar with the Face unlock feature, but there are other fun ones too, such as tilting the phone forward with a finger on the screen, or using face and voice recognition together. Neither of these are more secure than a conventional PIN or password, but they’re also a lot cooler!
Other tweaks in Touchwiz include connectivity and settings options in the pull-down notification bar. Owners of previous Samsung Android phones will attest to their usefulness – being able to toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, and screen lock from this always-there bar without having to use space for a homescreen widget is great. It is even better on the SIII, those toggles are now scrollable horizontally, giving you even more toggles to fiddle with, including a neat power saving mode that I’ll look it in detail in the battery section. The One X unfortunately doesn’t have toggles like these which is a shame, given the ample screen space.
Another interesting addition are the new motion activation controls. These had been introduced before in previous Touchwiz equipped phones, but the SIII brings a lot more to the table. There are ten different ones in total, which I’ll summarise:
- Direct call – calls the contact currently displayed on screen simply by raising the phone to your ear.
- Smart Alert – if you have missed calls or messages, it will vibrate slightly when you pick it up. Saves you having to turn the screen on to check when you pick the phone up to put it in your bag when you go out.
- Tap to top – tap the top of the phone to go back to the top of a list instead of having to scroll back up.
- Tilt to zoom – as on previous Galaxy phones, hold two fingers on the screen and tilt forwards or backwards to zoom in or out.
- Pan to move icon – when placing apps on your homescreen, you can pan the whole device left or right to move pages quicker than holding the app icon by the edge of the screen.
- Pan to browse images – when zoomed in on an image, you can pan the whole device in the direction you want to move around in the image.
- Shake to update – shake the phone to initiate scanning for the relevant app you’re in, either bluetooth, Kies air, or WiFi direct.
- Turn over to mute/pause – flip over the phone screen down to mute calls and alarms, or to pause music and other media.
- Palm swipe to capture – use the bottom edge of your hand to swipe across the entire screen to take a screenshot, by far the most useful one for reviewers!
- Palm touch to mute/pause – similar to turning over, you can place your palm over the screen instead to mute calls and alarms, or pause music.
Whether you find these to be actually useful or just a gimmick depends on the user, but you probably like the sound of a few of them – which is fine because each can be enabled independently. The turning over one and the direct call feature are the two most useful ones to me, and it’s these small but convenient additions that made the SIII more efficient to use than the One X to get things done. Speaking of useful functions, Smart Stay is another one – the front facing camera tracks your eyes when reading the screen, so it doesn’t turn off (due to the display timeout) when you’re still looking at it. I found it only works in good light, and with the camera pointing quite squarely at your face so obviously the camera can see your face. When it worked it’s great, but don’t expect it to work all the time.
The final area where Touchwiz impresses concerns the software as a whole. It was created to be lighter, more grown-up, and less obtrusive than previous versions of TouchWiz – it’s great to say that Samsung have achieved this. This, coupled with the hardware inside and the responsive touchscreen, has produced the smoothest UI experience I have ever seen on a smartphone. Seriously. There is no other phone out there right now that can compete with the speed and fluency of TouchWiz on the SIII. Other phones may be quick too, but there are always slowdowns and occasional freezes while something loads. Not so with the SIII – it is smooth and instantaneous 100% of the time. It remains to be seen if that continues through more use over time with more apps, but I have a feeling it will. Even though the One X has a quad core processor too (at a higher clock speed for what its worth) is nowhere near the level of the SIII. Samsung deserve a medal for this smoothness, and if you manage to make the SIII hiccup, you deserve a medal too.
One of the key benefits to having such a large, high-resolution screen is of course web browsing. Android was never slack in the internet department, so you’ll be right to expect nothing but the best when it comes to browsing the web on the Galaxy SIII. The stock browser is ludicrously fast, as well as rendering them as they should look. You’ll find pinching to zoom on webpages works great, and the high resolution means reading text when more zoomed out than usual is easy. As this runs Ice Cream Sandwich, its browsing benefits (and quirks) also feature here. Having multiple tabs open doesn’t choke the phone, and you can also go incognito as in the desktop version of Google Chrome. If you do use Chrome on a computer, then your bookmarks will automatically be there on your phone (providing you’re signed in on both of course). One quirk is that the screen brightness in the browser is independent of the brightness in the rest of the phone – you can manually set a specific brightness just for the browser, or you could choose to have it automatic. There’s also 3 different levels of power saving while browsing which basically makes colours more and more blue as you save more and more power. The One X has essentially the same web browser so it is equal in terms of functionality – for example, they both have a reading mode, where it will strip out the unnecessary images and adverts and format the text so you can concentrate on reading. However, it looks as though Samsung may have worked in some software optimisations to increase the performance as they did on the SII. While web browsing seems roughly the same in terms of speed, the SIII consistently returned Browsermark results of over 160,000, whereas the One X achieves ‘only’ 90-95,000. I say ‘only’ as this still beats out the Galaxy Nexus, and is close to the Transformer Prime. Benchmarks should always be taken with a pinch of salt, and the general idea to take from this is that both are very fast, almost desktop PC speed when it comes to loading webpages.
The on screen keyboard on the Galaxy SIII is also very good, though that’s not surprising when touchscreens have become so responsive and the software has had a good few years to be tweaked to perfection. A welcome improvement when compared with the Galaxy S2’s stock keyboard is that the prediction bar is always there when prediction is enabled. The S2’s bar jumped up and down like a hyperactive rabbit when you typed, as every time you enter a space it would disappear. Thankfully that has now been fixed. The SIII keyboard also morphs the Swype keyboard into Samsung’s own. You can enable this in the settings, letting you tap the keys like a conventional keyboard, or draw a line between the letters of each word. While the One X keyboard doesn’t have this, it does have directional keys allowing you to select text a bit easier. And that Swype like keyboard technology can be had via keyboards in the Play Store too.
The SIII can also handle emails with ease – if you use Gmail, the Gmail app on the SIII (and all Android phones for that matter) is second to none. All your desktop Gmail features are there, in a great looking interface to boot. My only gripe with Gmail on Android in general is that the app does not support zooming. Whatever your screen size, you can have to pan around the email rather than being able to zoom in and out as you can do in iOS and probably most other OSes. Fortunately the large 4.8″ screen helps to mitigate this somewhat, but it is still something I would very much like to see added in sooner rather than later. There is also a generic Email client where you can configure other email accounts such as Hotmail, an Exchange account, or any email at all as long as you have the server settings. Thankfully it allows you to zoom.
One last quick note – for some reason Android 4.0 got rid of the native option to connect the phone to PC in mass storage mode. Why they culled the option I don’t know. All I know is that I want it back! Thankfully, the HTC One X does give you that option, but the SIII only gives you MTP and PTP options which need Samsung drivers installed using Kies. So you can’t just plug your SIII into someone else’s computer and use it as a memory stick for example, or pull off photos onto their computer without first finding and installing drivers; something that isn’t an option on public computers. Give me mass storage mode back!
Deciding between the SIII and Touchwiz or the One X and Sense is a pretty easy decision for me. Not only is Touchwiz smoother and faster, but it actually adds useful functions that are otherwise missing from stock Android. Usually this would come at a price of some sort, but as far as I am concerned it doesn’t here. Touchwiz is subtle enough to not be distasteful and it’s the first skin which I consider to be a viable alternative to vanilla ICS’s UI. About the One X and Sense; it’s still a great phone with a very usable skin – there is nothing particularly bad about Sense, and to HTC’s credit, they have also streamlined it to make it run faster and less obtrusively than previous versions of Sense – but Touchwiz is just better. Sorry HTC!
Missed Part 1? Read about the hardware here. Check back Monday morning for a closer look at some of the apps and other software extras you’ll find on the SIII in Part 3.
Review by: Vince