So far we’ve looked at the hardware of the Samsung Galaxy SIII and the HTC One X, as well as their respective Android software. For the third part, Samsung’s added value apps will be subject of examination, and whether the One X has got some of its own to match the SIII’s capabilities. The main topics of discussion will be the audio performance and media playback features, and some of Samsung’s homegrown apps such as the much talked about S Voice and more.
See below for more red hot action!
- Lawrence Borden asks “Is there microphone control on the S3? That is a killer for me. Or…an easy external microphone solution.”
Interesting question. The short answer is no, there’s no manual control of the microphone on the SIII; like every other phone I can think of the gain is adjusted automatically. It is possible to find an adapter to split the 3.5mm jack on the phone into one for headphones and one for mics (the built in one is a 4 pole combined). This would allow you to plug in an external mic and record using the voice recorder app, though again there is no manual control over the gain.
I see you play in an orchestra, and my recommendation for an easier microphone set up would be to use a portable audio recorder instead, like a Zoom or Tascam. They would be much easier to use and the built in mics on those would give you exponentially better recordings.
- openid asks “I think the conclusion of a draw for the screens of both phones is biased as the screen shots provided in the review clearly shows that the HOX is a lot better.”
You’re right, the One X is sharper, as seen in the screen comparison – this is because of the Pentile arrangement of pixels in the SIII. This would be a disadvantage, except it is over 300ppi. That picture is very (very) zoomed in, and it is nearly impossible to make it out with your eyes – I called it a draw as it I judge upon real world usage and not just spec vs spec differences that doesn’t affect daily use.
- Ib Ross asks “Dude u must b kidding. The s3’s scene is ridiculously blue. Major disappointment for me.”
If by scene you mean the screen, then yes I totally agree that the screen looks more blue than most others. But there are a couple of reasons why this won’t make any difference to 99% of users, and so I deemed it to be a non-issue. Firstly, it doesn’t actually impact the experience of using the phone, unless you need accurate colours for photo editing, where a computer with a nice monitor should be used instead. Secondly, the display is so vibrant and has such ridiculous contrast that it more than makes up for the limited disadvantages that a more blue screen brings.
Those who know they need accurate colours should stay away from AMOLED – you could try turning up the brightness to make it less blue, or go for the One X, which also has an beautiful screen without the blue tint.
Let’s start with music playback. Everyone appreciates good music, and so virtually everyone owns an iPod. Both Samsung and HTC have raised their game here with audio playback, trying their very hardest to make you replace that iPod with their smartphones, yet both have gone about it in quite different ways. Samsung have gone down the route of improving the software of the music player, which is in general what they’ve been doing with the entire phone. In fact, it is the first stock music app I would actually be fine with using. Previous attempts at the music player on nearly every Android device in the past have seemed half-hearted and like an afterthought.
Something uncommon with Android phones – the UI looks like more than 5 minutes of time has gone into it. There is a now playing bar at the bottom of the screen which is always there whether you’re browsing through lists or other areas of the app. Pretty useful for quick pausing or skipping of tracks. Album art is also emphasised as you can view tracks, artists, and albums in a list view with the album art, or a grid of just the album covers. The most interesting feature is the ‘music square’. This is a 5×5 grid of squares, which visualises the genre of your music as a balance between ‘calm’ and ‘exciting’, and ‘passionate’ and ‘joyful’. When first used, it scans your music and using some sort of dark sorcery, decides on which square a particular track belongs on. So let’s say you’re feeling down and you need some exciting and joyful music to cheer you up. You’d tap on the top right square and it’ll serve you up a queue of songs which, it thinks, should match that. Iif you’re familiar with Apple’s Genius playlists, this is the same concept, only presented in a more unique way. You can also drag your finger along the tiles and select multiple squares. So, does it actually work? It is completely opinion to what degree a song is ‘passionate’ or not, and that applies to all four buzzwords. But in general I thought it was actually OK; it gets better the more songs you have, and while it’s an interesting concept I didn’t find myself using it that much. That could change in the future though.
The second feature is called SoundAlive, which is basically an equaliser. In fact, it is and equaliser. There are a lot of presets, and there’s also a custom equaliser where you can set specific frequencies. Something I haven’t seen on a phone before is the extended equaliser, giving you control over 3D, Bass, Reverb level, Room size, and Clarity. I’m not going to pretend I’m an audiophile so I can’t tell you if that’s any good or not!
The One X doesn’t have a custom equaliser, but it does have Beats Audio. This has been subject to some very detailed and scientific tests on the internet to find out what it actually does. The general consensus is that it does nothing that special, mainly jack the bass and volume. If bassy music is your thing, the One X does a good job of using the software to emulate that sound that you get with Beats, and there are also specific sound profiles designed for use with urBeats and Solo Beats. The One X also has handy shortcuts to other music related apps from within HTC’s music app, so I can jump straight into TuneIn Radio or SoundHound from the music app.
The Music Hub is Samsung’s major push on the content end – it was just another music portal before, but now it’s grown into a £9.99 per month unlimited streaming service, with a catalogue of over 17 million tracks. This is a Very Big Thing as it’s the first big attempt by a phone manufacturer to dethrone Apple’s iTunes. In terms of pricing, £9.99 will buy you about 12 songs on iTunes, and unlimited streaming on Music Hub. If you assume that you’ll be catered for by those 17 million available tracks, then £9.99 per month is a competitive price, for those who like to listen to a wide range of music and are constantly hungry for more. Do I think it will be successful? It all depends on how hard Samsung and the carriers push it. In order to compete well with iTunes, people need to know about it, and, as obvious as that seems, it’s (much) easier said than done. People also need to accept that the £9.99 is for a streaming service – you don’t own a copy of the songs you listen to. Maybe if it was used alongside the iTunes store or Amazon MP3, it would give users the most benefit. You could buy the songs you liked for offline listening or on your iPod, and use Music Hub for discovering and trying out new music. That’s before you bring Spotify into the picture of course.
Great music features and services are pretty useless if the phone doesn’t sound good. Again, I’m no sound freak, but from what I’ve heard it has a Wolfson DAC chip which is well regarded for good sound quality. (try Murray Winiata at AndroidNZ to get technical). Through testing with my average ears, both the SIII and One X sounded great. If you just have a collection of MP3’s or wma’s then any modern smartphone will be more than adequate in the sound department, given you have quality earphones of course. Speaking of headphones, I’ve now used the bundled Samsung pair quite extensively and they are actually pretty good – I suspect the majority of people will be happy with the quality and noise isolation they offer. They also have a handy mic and remote, with volume controls and a play/pause button that doubles up as a skip button when double clicked. The speaker is a familiar story – it sounds fine at relatively low volumes, but pump it up loud and the tinny sound becomes much more obvious; you definitely won’t be throwing out any speakers you have. It does get loud though, if the grill isn’t obstructed. It’s a similar story with the One X, but it does sound a touch better. For voice calls, it’s actually very clear since bass isn’t important for voice, and it’s very similar with the One X.
One other small but useful tweaks is the notification bar – if you plug in a pair of headphones, the SIII will show five audio application shortcuts so it’s quicker to launch the music player. The standard music playback controls also appear here such as the play and skip buttons, something which the One X also features. In fact, the One X also has media playback controls directly on the lockscreen, an option the SIII lacks despite all the other customisations possible with the lockscreen. There are controls in the pull down notification bar which you can access without unlocking, but it’s even quicker to have it One X style.
The video capabilities of the SIII and Samsung devices in general are one of the best. Most other smartphones will playback MP4 and maybe wmv files, but Samsung make it possible to play virtually every popular format, including 1080p mkv files. This is a real advantage for those with a large library of ripped movies. As long as they’re not restricted by DRM in some way, the SIII will comfortably be able to play what you have, which it should given the amount of processing power there is available. The One X could almost match it, only leaving a few avi files out of the party, but there will be some third party players to make up for that. (Interestingly, both could play more formats than their official specs list, but who’s complaining…)
Samsung’s party trick here is Pop-up play, which is essentially picture-in-picture technology for those familiar with this on TVs. What this means is that you can watch movies (full HD files included) while doing something else; the video is minimised to a preset size, and you can drag it around while it sits on top of whatever else you want to do, allowing full use of the phone as normal while the video still plays. The phone does not slow down either – I can play Angry Birds Space and watch a video, at the same time.This feature is probably a demonstration of the multitasking capabilities of the SIII more than anything else, and proves to me that while the phone can do both, I can’t.
YouTube is also here, and it’s had a makeover recently, updated to the new design language of Google apps, and the look that Google is encouraging for all apps in the future. The home, browse, and account sections are still here, as well as searching of course. It’s a great app to use, making full use of the huge display. Unfortunately, the Pop-up Play feature is only available for Samsung’s video player – it doesn’t apply to any online video in the browser, the YouTube app, or any other video players. To me, it’s not really a big deal, as I am yet to find a real use for Pop-up Play, as impressive as it is.
Google Play Books is the reading app preinstalled; the Reader Hub you may be familiar with on the Galaxy SII is gone. Reading on a phone isn’t something that I’d usually talk about, but the high resolution and large screen size make text much clearer, and allows more words to be on screen at any one time. Both the One X and the SIII have the same resolution and almost the same screen size so there’s no real discernible difference. The difference is when compared to a lower resolution screen like the SII’s 800×480 display. Notice the extra words you can fit in the screenshots, or alternatively you can have a bigger font without having to turn the page every five seconds; the left is the SIII, and the right is the SII. Both have the font size at the smallest possible setting in Google Play Books.
Samsung’s software additions extend beyond interface or gesture tweaks, to full blown apps. Some may scoff at the ‘bloatware’ as unneeded apps to clog up your menus. For them, there’s a hide application function, and Android’s new feature that gives you more control over disabling some preinstalled apps totally. With the SIII, there are some pretty useless ones but also some useful ones too.
I’ll quickly skim over what the less useful ones are – firstly S Suggest, Samsung’s app store front which features apps that are just links to the Play Store. Samsung Apps is similar, but it’s actually a proper app store, though it’s sparse and nearly all of them can be found in the Play Store anyway. (How about rolling these two apps into one, Samsung?). Secondly are the two other Hubs, the Video Hub and Game Hub. Both try to sell to you videos and games in a better way than Google’s own Play Store, and neither succeed.
Now we come to what is perhaps the most talked about ‘app’ – S Voice. Let’s just say if you know about Apple’s Siri, you know about S Voice too. Except S Voice is not really on the same level as Siri. I’m no iFan, but it looks very much like a tweaked Vlingo found on the SII, just modified in response to Siri. Even the interface has been tweaked so that it now stinks of Siri; but whether that’s a good or bad thing doesn’t matter to me. What does is how well S Voice actually works, and, well, it’s not great. More often than not I’d have to repeat myself as it didn’t register what I said correctly. When it did, it just wasn’t as ‘human-like’ as Siri is – it feels just like the usual voice recognition with a facelift. If you dig far enough into the UI, you’ll find that is actually what it is – Vlingo with a new look and some help from Wolfram Alpha. Siri, which is in beta and is far from perfect, impressed many with its human-like witty comments and that’s lacking in S Voice. You don’t even have to go far at all to find the limits of its ‘intelligence’. Don’t know what S Voice is? If you try asking “Who are you?” or even just simply “Samsung”, it doesn’t know what to do with either. Of course you don’t actually have to use S Voice at all though, but don’t buy an SIII hoping for a Siri-like experience.
I think it’s safe to say that S Voice needs some serious improving, both in recognition accuracy and in responding intelligently – maybe Samsung are going to blow us away with S Voice 2.0. No pressure.
Flipboard is one of the most popular, and best may I add, news reading apps on iOS. Its road to Android has been a long long wait, and it has come – in the form of an exclusive for the SIII. It didn’t stay exclusive for long though. In fact, it was leaked before the SIII even made it to market, and funnily enough it even received updates in-app for those who managed to look hard enough to find the apk. But let’s pretend that it never happened and Flipboard can only be had on Android on a Galaxy SIII. If have an iOS device you’ll be familiar with Flipboard (and if not, why not?!) because it is very much the same in terms of how it looks and how it works. Essentially, it’s a news aggregator which brings in stories from sites in user-selectable categories such as Photography or Technology which are displayed like tiles on WP7. You can also assign a tile to a specific news site or blog. I know it doesn’t sound too special, but it is a joy to use. You simply swipe up to flip the page onto the next story. Tapping on a headline will link you to the story in the browser, but many sites have Flipboard optimised content which presents the text in the Flipboard fashion, sans ads and other junk. If that’s not enough to convince you, you can also add a multitude of other social accounts, from Renren, Sina Weibo, 500px, Tumblr, Flickr, Instagram, Linkedin, Google Reader, and yes, Twitter and Facebook.
As you’d expect, there are Twitter and Facebook apps, both official and third party such as Ubersocial and Tweetdeck. Thanks to a larger screen and cranked up resolution, you can see more of your friends mindless ramblings at any one time, if that’s a good thing. Instagram also made it to Android recently, if you’re into hipster photo sharing.
Again, Samsung couldn’t resist getting its slice of app pie, and this time it’s in instant messaging. Forget iMessage, Facebook Chat, or even BBM, because the SIII has ChatON! Yep, ‘ChatON’. I’ve love to be able to ramble about how amazing it is, except I don’t know a single person who has heard of it, let alone uses it. So if you use it, add me maybe? If, for a reason I can’t comprehend, you pass up the opportunity to use ChatON there is the boring option of using GTalk, which has also received a UI makeover. There’s not much to say about GTalk really – you type, you send. Simple.
So that’s it for the apps. The notable ones anyway. If there’s an app you’d like to know more about or how it works, feel free to leave a comment; and then wait in anticipation for part 4, where the competition between the SIII and One X gets hot – the camera.
Review by: Vince