There's no point in skirting around the fact that the GS III can be deflating when you first look at it. That's partly because its rounded corners and glossy finish make the phone look more mainstream and less, well, than the Galaxy S II, but also because the handset still bears so much physical affinity to its predecessors. The earpiece and speaker grilles, camera lenses, home button and other items of furniture are all in their familiar and predictable bolt-holes and there's nothing overwhelmingly new about any aspect of the design. HTC tried something different with the build of their new flagship, the One X, but on this occasion Samsung has voted conservative.
(Incidentally, if you begin to notice that this review mentions the One X a heck of a lot, then you've already cottoned on to one of the major themes that will dog not only these paragraphs, but also the GS III's entire existence.)
In any case, once you get past that "oh, it's another Samsung" vibe, you realize that the GS III's design tradition is -- in many respects -- no bad thing. Minimal bulk with no frills is what Galaxy phones are all about, and seeing as this particular model lugs a 4.8-inch panel it's only right that Samsung's designers used all their old tricks to keep the weight and dimensions to a minimum. Thanks to the signature plastic build and paper-thin peel-off rear cover, the weight is kept to a respectable 135 grams (4.7 ounces) -- yes, that's still 17 grams more than the GS II, but it's way less than a unibody handset like the Lumia 900, which weighs 160 grams while possessing a smaller display.
The GS III is also just 8.6mm (0.34 inches) thick, which is only marginally fatter than its predecessor and still well below the average smartphone belt buckle, despite the inclusion of a hefty 2,100mAh interchangeable battery. Speaking of interchangeable: in addition to the battery we also get a microSD slot, which means you won't have to pay over the odds for more storage. That adds up to a second (and increasingly rare) tick for the GS III -- from the current pack of rivals, only the HTC EVO 4G LTE matches this spec, but that's still a niche device due to its limited radio.
Some buyers will still be put off by this handset's length and width, but at 136.6mm long and 70.6mm wide the GS III actually falls well inside the bell curve of other current big-screened flagships. It feels like a phone, not a phablet, and when you bear in mind what you get in return – a vast, amazing display, for example – the slightly XL dimensions feel like a bargain.
Overall, the build quality is hard to criticize. The plastic is extremely well put together, it doesn't flex or creak and the phone never feels fragile. The all-over continuous sheet of Gorilla Glass 2 on the front panel did a good (though not perfect) job of fending off car keys, while the glossy rear cover was equally impervious in its own way. What more could you want from a phone that's going to follow you around for years on end?
The GS III's display is a 4.8-inch window onto wondrousness and certainly a major selling point. It has all the contrast and deep blacks that we've come to love from AMOLED displays, but it's also bigger than average, with a healthy pixel density and -- most importantly -- much better color rendition than some older AMOLED screens. Six months of progress has led to real visual improvements since the Galaxy Nexus, even though the underlying screen technology is the same: colors aren't over-saturated and they don't have that unnatural blue-ish tint. In fact, the color temperature is very similar to that of the HTC One X, which uses more conventional LCD technology, and that's a huge accomplishment for Samsung.
Although it doesn't sound like much, the extra screen size is noticeable and great to have. It's 0.1 inches bigger across the diagonal than the HTC One X, and 0.15 inches bigger than the Galaxy Nexus – which equates to a seven or eight percent difference in surface area. When it comes to watching videos, reading e-books or surfing websites, every fraction helps. In fact, if you made the leap to the jumbo Galaxy Note but couldn't quite convince yourself it was sensible, then the GS III could be the compromise you've been waiting for.
The extra screen size also serves another useful purpose: it helps to mitigate the effect of the strange PenTile technology that Samsung uses in its AMOLED smartphones these days. For the benefit of those who haven't followed this controversy, here's a refresher: PenTile displays generally don't deliver the pixelation-free appearance that you'd rightfully expect when you purchase a smartphone with a stated resolution of 1280 x 720 and a pixel density of 306ppi.
The photo above demonstrates why, by comparing the Galaxy S line of displays under a 230x microscopic zoom. Look how nice and neat the older GS II's red, green and blue sub-pixels are: they come in tightly-bunched trios (i.e., an RGB layout). The newer GS III, however, is meant to have three times the resolution of its predecessor, but if you count up its sub-pixels you'll see that it has nothing like that numerical advantage. Its sub-pixels are awkwardly spaced out in a PenTile matrix, just like the first Galaxy S. When you zoom back out to a normal viewing distance, that arrangement of sub-pixels generally results in grainier or fuzzier images.
Should the world bang on Samsung's doors and demand a 300dpi letter of apology? Well, maybe, but not so much with the GS III, because it's largely rescued by its extra screen size. Having a 4.8-inch panel encourages you to hold the phone slightly further from your face, and even lengthening the distance from your eyeballs by a couple of inches can be enough to obscure the PenTile effect. Compared to the PenTile display on a Lumia 800 for example, which is both smaller and has a lower resolution, the GS III was infinitely nicer to look at, to the point where the word "PenTile" was totally forgotten after a couple of days of acclimatization. We'd only advise caution if you're an avid e-book consumer and you're fussy about your text looking like it would on a printed page – in that case you may well prefer the HTC One X's Super LCD2 alternative. In the meantime, the world can save the door-banging for the GS IV.
Raw speed. That's what the GS III brings to the photographic table, and it's one of the most practical benefits of its powerful quad-core engine. We pulled off six frames per second with full 8-megapixel resolution by holding down the shutter button while in burst mode, which was slightly more than the HTC One X and totally sufficient for getting a nice smile out of shy subjects. In Single Shot mode, there was virtually no shutter lag, which greatly assisted shots of moving targets: what you see when you tap the screen is exactly what will appear in your gallery afterwards. There is probably a slight delay, but it's so small that it's imperceptible – judging from a non-scientific test, it's less than 0.1 seconds and shorter than the lag on the HTC One X. Overall, the speed and ease-of-use of this camera can change the way you shoot pictures – not simply by filling up your microSD card with more photos than usual, but by encouraging you to push for ever more interesting shots that wouldn't possible on a regular laggy phone.
Of course, none of that would make sense without great image quality, and fortunately the GS III is up to scratch in that area too – even though it doesn't show a great deal of progress from earlier Galaxy phones. In many ways this is good: previous models delivered sharp and colorful images, while earlier iterations of the TouchWiz camera app also offered a high level of manual control, and those qualities have been carried over into the GS III. This includes the press-and-hold method of taking a photo, which allows you set focus and exposure before re-framing and releasing the shutter to take a shot -- a system that encourages more creative control and which is sorely lacking on the One X. It also includes the ability to set the compression level (Normal, Fine or Superfine).