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Another Star In The Galaxy?

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My very first thought as I took a certain gleaming white phone out of a gleaming white box and held it in my hand was — that's huge. For a few moments there, the Galaxy S3, the most talked-about phone on the planet at the moment, seemed to me like it was crossing the boundary from tablet to phone. I don't think of the Galaxy Note as a phone, but as a tablet with calling capabilities; so it never seemed outlandishly large to me. Holding this one, I did think it didn't need to be that large — 4.8 inches of screen. The HTC One X is almost the same size, of course, and I remember getting accustomed to thatfast. And that's what happened with the S3. I also put it alongside its predecessor, the S2, and thought oh well, it's not that much of a difference.

With the size out of the way, my attention was caught by the plastic back. How could it not be? Now I've been tolerant of plastic on Samsung's phones to the point of being accused of having a plastic fetish, but this "hyperglaze" polycarbonate only looks hyper-annoying because it doesn't feel as premium as it costs — a whole Rs 43,180, unless you get a good deal and can buy it for Rs 38,000 or less. Here I thought wistfully of the HTC One X's white plastic back and how it felt good to hold and unlikely to play host to scratches and fingerprints. Why Samsung can't fix this plastic feel, I don't know. People spendhours discussing that one aspect and surely it would be worth the trouble. Plastic helps keep the phone lighter and thinner and apparently helps cellular receptivity, but why can't they do premium plastic? Why couldn't they have done something to design this much-anticipated phone to look head-turningly different?

But I have to say, you forget the exterior once you switch on the S3. It comes to life with the power button on the left, and in a few moments, lets you swipe softly up to wake up the device. I loved the blue opening screen with water rippling at my touch. I spent a few minutes just switching on and off to get my fill of the fluid animation.

Ah, the screen. That's been so much of a discussion point when pitted against the HTC One X's that I spent a while looking at it from this angle and that. But I don't have the HTC One X around any longer and so it wasn't a consideration. The One X's screen is beautiful and given the tag of technical superiority by experts, but as I suspect buyers of the S3 won't have a One X around to keep comparing with, there's little point in addressing what is a non-issue. Both screens are, after all, good enough to live with. What did annoy me though was the auto-brightness which dipped low and for a moment startled me into thinking something was wrong.


Is this phone worth it?

With phones in this category costing upward of Rs 30,000, I'm tempted to answer  "No!" where all of them are concerned. Astronomical prices like the S3's in a recession-hit world seems particularly unfair. On the other hand, the S2 sold close to 50 million without batting an eyelid and the other day, I spotted a vegetable seller in Bangalore's Russel Market proudly holding an S3. Sadly, he only wanted the camera on it (other than calls, of course) so he could take a few pictures of the renovated interiors of his shop. And he will find he can't, because the place is really dimly lit. So, for him, I would say it wasn't worth it, but perhaps he has more money than he knows what to do with. As do many people. If by being worth it, one is asking whether the phone delivers as promised, then, on some fronts, it does. Unequivocally, the performance, speed, power and hardware are all fantastic. There are software innovations, but they don't add up to the revolution they were made out to be.  If you use the apps and capabilities to add richness to the way you do things, it's worth it. If you plan to make phone calls and send SMSes with an occasional game or video thrown in, it's a waste.

How is the S3 different from the S2?

 These two differ by a whole generation. Every bit of the internals is better by leaps and bounds. The S3 is bigger, slightly heavier and thicker. The S3 has a sharper 4.8 inch screen with 386 ppi versus the S2's 4.3 inch screen with 217 ppi. The S3 has a quad core processor that makes doing everything on the screen faster and more importantly, smoother. This shines through with videos and games, and shows up in browsing and navigating. The camera is an 8 megapixel, just as the S2's is, but it has better optics, taking sharper pictures. The operating system is Android's Ice Cream Sandwich, which you can get on the S2 if you want to, but on the S3 it's blended better with Samsung's own TouchWiz interface. For S2 users, there's no practical reason to "upgrade" although the emotional reasons may be many. 

The S3 and the HTC One X… which one is better?

There is no clear answer. Never have two phones been this close in specs.  The speed and performance feels better on the S3 while the design and "premiumness" feels more on the One X. The camera seems to give sharper images on the S3, but are not bad on the One X either. Technically, the One X's screen is said to be better, but the difference is too minor. The HTC has a lower price in its favour. As for software, both are running Ice Cream Sandwich but their own overlay of a customised interface makes them feel different. If you're used to the Samsung Touchwiz, you may prefer that, and if you are comfortable with the HTC Sense interface, you may be happy with that. Samsung has put in a lot of its "designed for humans" gimmicks and compared with that, the One X is a quieter, more sedate phone. The S3 is also stylus-enabled, but you have to buy that separately. The S3 has a clear advantage in replaceable battery and additional SD card slot. With the One X you can't open the back at all as the phone is sealed.

How does the S3 compare with the iPhone 4S?

Ideally, one should be able to compare the S3 with the next version of the iPhone, but because the release cycles are different, this is out of the question for now. While one can again go head to head with specs whereupon the S3 will have better speed and power than the current iPhone, a real comparison is between the two philosophies, ecosystems and operating systems. The world is divided into groups who swear by one or the other — iOS vs Android or Apple vs Samsung. Which one comes out on top is based on whether you're an Apple fan and love the better apps, the solid build and the design of the iPhone or whether you like the customisability of an Android phone like the S3.

You can tell, from first touch on, that this is one fast phone. Any faster and it'll run off by itself. Be ready for accidental touches leading to immediate activity. That famous quad core processor certainly does work. I'm not getting into a tech-specs war with other phones, but this is the fastest I've seen yet. Not just phone. Any device. You see the speed when you browse — draw a quick breath and a page is all loaded up. Watch a video and see how smooth it is. In fact, watch a video while doing something else, because this phone has a sort of picture-in-picture capability. Not a feature you should need very often, but it shows you the capability of the phone.

The S3 is about the software, too. There's S-this and S-that. I was disappointed with the S-Voice, Samsung's out and out rip-off of Apple's Siri. But then it's not as if Siri works so great either. I had a battle of sorts with the S3 to get it to wake up, as promised, with a "Hi Galaxy", which I must say would sound idiotic if you began to use it when not alone. It wouldn't oblige, and then someone else took it from me and said ‘hi' and it obeyed, leaving me miffed. But it doesn't understand natural language very well and doesn't have an Indian-English mode, which is surprising, considering India is a huge market for Samsung. Other software innovations like Smart Stay, which keeps the screen on while you're watching, are a welcome direction in usability — if Samsung maintains that direction. I wasn't able to test the S- Beam, but the All Share Play which lets the phone play media off a network, worked well.

The camera is great and I took an immediate liking to it. But it isn't the one compelling reason to buy this phone. I'm not falling over backwards to instantly send off photos to friends as I like to work on them first, but anyone who wants to will find this is one of the new capabilities.
The battery, which you can see (and replace) if you open up the back, is a huge 2,000 mAh, sitting right next to the SD card slot which expands the 16GB storage by 64GB. There's NFC capability, which should enable new functionalities as the technology sees wider use.

If it wasn't so expensive, I might indeed consider upgrading to the S3 and when I'm asked whether I will, retort that it isn't like I can press a button to get new hardware to wrap around my S2, with the software to follow. Samsung has clearly priced the S3 to be in the same bracket as the iPhone. Now it just remains to be seen whether it'll sell as much as the S2.

And that, knowing Samsung, it might very well do. Now if only they could do away with their "Designed for Humans" line…

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter