THROWBACK: Samsung Galaxy S3 – Propelling Android to the mainstream

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Even if you aren’t much of an Android fan, you’ve probably heard of the Samsung Galaxy S3 (called the Galaxy S III back then). It was the phone that sold to seemingly no end and was probably one of the very first Androids that actually gained supreme widespread consumer appeal. Not only did it cement Samsung as an innovator and manufacturer of some of the hottest smartphones around (no Note 7 pun intended) but also helped propelled the Android OS to the mainstream. Let’s take a little trip back to see how it all was like.

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Back in 2011, Samsung’s Galaxy S2 was selling pretty well, with 10 million sold after 5 months. Naturally, that created some attention towards the company, including one company who Samsung may or may not have taken some design inspirations from.

_DSC4363_lznThe great Samsung vs Apple court litigation came about in Spring 2011, where both sides accused each other of taking design cues from the other, ranging from “Slide to Unlock” and rounded corners to even some icons and features that devices made by the 2 companies share.

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It would seem that Samsung is fighting a losing fight, as Apple has amassed a lot of brand recognition with a huge loyal following. Samsung would be forever seen as an imitator and a “follower” to Apple if nothing was done, which would also hinder the reach of Android, which Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs once remarked it as a “stolen product”. Samsung would need a radically different smartphone with a totally different design language and philosophy in order to prove that the company is capable of being much more original.

Enter the Samsung Galaxy S3.

The Galaxy S3 brought forth a new design language that was not seen on its past devices. The square-ish and blocky form factor was replaced with a curved shape all over the device which is designed to conform to the palm. The device was made out of a polycarbonate shell with a “Hyperglaze” coating that made the device’s rear casing shiny. That rear casing also pops open to reveal a removable 2100mAh battery, a microSIM slot and a microSD card slot that officially supports microSDXC cards up to 64GB (higher capacity cards may work due to the microSDXC standard, however).

Inside, the device does see a pretty significant hardware bump in quite a few key areas for the year.

SoC Samsung Exynos 4412 Quad (International), Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus (USA)
CPU Quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 clocked at 1.4GHz (Exynos), Dual-core Qualcomm Krait clocked at 1.5GHz (Snapdragon)
GPU ARM Mali 400MP4 (Exynos), Qualcomm Adreno 225 (Snapdragon)
RAM 1GB of LPDDR2 (Exynos), 2GB of LPDDR2 (USA)
Storage 16GB NAND with eMMC-based storage controller, microSDXC card slot up to 64GB officially
Dimensions 136.6mm (height), 70.6mm (width), 8.6mm (depth)
Display (main) 4.8” (diagonal) AMOLED with a resolution of 720×1280, Gorilla Glass 2 with oleophobic coating.
Main camera 1/3” S5C73M3 (Samsung?) sensor with a resolution of 3264×2448 (8MP), f/2.6 aperture with 1.4 micron pixels, HDR, video recording up to 1080p30, zero shutter lag, contrast-detection autofocus.
Front camera Samsung S5K6A3 sensor with a resolution of 1392×1392 (1.9MP)
Location GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS
Speaker Single rear-mounted mono speaker next to camera module, 3.5mm jack
Software Android 4.0.4 “Ice Cream Sandwich” with “TouchWiz Nature UX” overlay
Sensors Accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light, compass, barometer
Power 2100mAh Li-ion (removable), no fast-charging
Features Smart Stay, S Beam, S Voice, voice shutter, smart features.

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The Galaxy S3 was also one of the first devices to gain a display that was worthy of being called “HD”, with its HD Super AMOLED panel with a resolution of 720×1280, resulting in a density of 306PPI. Despite that, though, the phone actually had a lower effective resolution as it utilized a PenTile diamond subpixel matrix, in contrast to the RGB layout used in the S2’s Super AMOLED PLUS panel. As a result, some content looked somewhat fuzzy, although the display’s infinite contrast does make up for that, although since it’s an early Samsung OLED with early software, it is very oversaturated, something Samsung has gradually toned down over the years.

_DSC4388_FotorSpeaking of software, the Galaxy S3 also marked the debut of Samsung’s overhauled custom UI; TouchWiz Nature UX, which is based on Android 4.0.4 “Ice Cream Sandwich”. The overall layout is largely similar to the previous version of TouchWiz, but with many elements taken from Google’s new “Holo” design language used in the stock build of ICS, added with some nature-inspired elements like a water-drop-inspired lockscreen, “bloop” touch sound effects (which became irritating after just a short while) and lots of blue-ish elements throughout.

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The new software also features new features, such as “Smart Stay”, which keeps the screen awake as long as you’re looking at it (barely works), S Beam, which uses Wi-Fi Direct to transfer files to another device after tapping them back-to-back and motion-activated gestures for commands like a palm-swipe to take a screenshot. Much of these proved to be gimmicky, something that went over to its successor, the Galaxy S4, but some did actually prove to be useful, which explains why they’ve become a mainstay.

_DSC4382_FotorThe S3’s camera maintained the same resolution as its predecessor, but features an ever-so-slightly wider aperture and new software that allows the phone to take quick burst shots, take a single shot without severe latency, and even pick the best shot out of a burst of 8 photos.

As for the photos themselves, they’re not bad for a 2012 phone, although you do see some weaknesses such as narrow dynamic range, more motion blur in less ideal lighting due to the lack of OIS and more digital noise. Apple’s iPhone 5 can pull better shots due to more conservative post-processing as Samsung’s software juices up the saturation and sharpness to absurd levels at the time, which they’ve since toned down, although the S3 is still capable of some very solid photos.

The phone was an instant success, amassing 9 million pre-orders in just 2 weeks, and selling in a rate that actually outsold an iPhone (albeit a model from 2011), which was unheard of from an Android device from an OEM that wasn’t known widely. Despite, a manufacturing issue with Pebble Blue S3 variants, the device went on to sell 20 million in 100 days, eventually reaching 60 million 2 years after the phone was released, and added another 10 million a year later. The device also showcased Samsung’s marketing muscle, with tons of ads airing between TV programs and game events, along with a massive promotional campaign that aired during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The S3’s success didn’t come without casualties, as former Android juggernaut HTC suffered a significant sales slump and eventually a decline in profits and even losses due to its failure to market their devices adequately.

It doesn’t hit all the high notes, though. Even though Samsung boasted about its “Hyperglaze” finish, that finish was easily scratched and also easy to scuff, as the marks on my unit should show. It also made the phone feel rather tacky and cheap, almost like a toy despite its high price-tag at the time. The plastic side-rails had its chrome-like finish flake out only after a few months and the home button on this particular unit is probably the worst I’ve ever used, with extremely mushy feedback and almost no feel. Kinda funny when you consider that the Galaxy S6 edge has the best home button I’ve ever felt due to its great clicky feel and direct travel.

The software is also a pretty significant pain-point. The Galaxy S3 was one of those Samsung phones that got really slow just after a few months and despite an update to Android 4.1.2 and 4.3 Jelly Bean, the phone just chugged along at a snail’s pace, sometimes taking seconds to even register a touch. Furthermore, if you own an i9300 model, Samsung did not release Android 4.4 “KitKat” to the device, citing performance issues, leaving it EOL with just 2 major OS upgrades, so some have taken the liberty to install custom firmware in order to bring it up to the current day, like my own unit shown above. Some phones also have issues with their eMMC controllers, causing the device to be totally unusable until a new mainboard is installed.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 isn’t my favorite Android device because it does seem to have quite a number of issues that we’ve come to associate with Samsung with their future flagships, especially the performance buffs, which have actually grown into a meme itself. Despite that, it’s hard to deny the influence it had on Android as a whole. The Galaxy S3’s success not only soldered Samsung to the top of the pack, it also propelled Android into the mainstream, reaching more and more people and cementing the platform as the dominant one of all in terms of market share. And it also certainly proved that the company was  able to come up with some original ideas for a change. Had the Galaxy S3 failed, we would be in a very different world right now. The success of the S3 was only followed by the Galaxy S4 and the Galaxy S7 line (the S5 and S6 did not sell as well).

So, kudos Galaxy S3. You weren’t perfect and you were actually quite flawed. But you did do Android a huge favor in its history and for that, we salute you.

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THROWBACK: Samsung Galaxy S3 – Propelling Android to the mainstream

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