Samsung Galaxy S3 gives iPhone 4 a run for its money

Jul 16, 2012

I bought myself a Samsung Galaxy S3 Android phone.

No, I haven’t ditched iOS. I just happen to have phones in different countries, and rather than keep switching out SIMs or such, it’s a good excuse for me to maintain multiple devices. My Estonian device was an ancient Sony Ericsson feature phone that was like 8 years old.

I used the Galaxy S3 heavily for a week as my primary phone device, and here’s some thoughts from the perspective of having used iPhone for the past 5 years.

To start off, I see mixed feedback about the device. Some people like it.

Others, not so much.

This mirrors my own experience. There are some questionable design choices made, but it is in several ways superior to the iPhone, and overall a worthy Android flagship device.

Hardware

The first thing you notice: it’s HUGE in two dimensions. It’s not very thick, but it is wide and tall, and the screen goes super close to the edges. My friends affectionately call it the “shovel”. It does fit in my pocket, but it’s somewhat uncomfortable to use software apps with one hand. I end up holding it with my left hand and using the screen with the right. When I lift it to my ear for calls, it’s easy to hold, though, because it’s slightly lighter than iPhone.

4.7 vs 4.9 ounces (133 vs 140 grams) does not sound like much difference, but somehow my iPhone feels bulkier, especially since it also has a case. There does not seem to be a decent case ecosystem in the Android world, I guess because there’s so many devices. So now I must be more careful than with the iPhone to not drop it.

As for phone calls, the sound quality is excellent.

I don’t like the experience of pressing the home button. It has a weird narrow shape and whenever I press it, only a small part of my finger actually contacts the button, and the rest ends up just being against the phone case. It is slightly raised which slightly improves the experience, but it is still weird, the iPhone button shape feels more natural.

I like how the Back button is at the most accessible location—bottom right—unlike most iPhone apps where it is top left and you must reach a longer distance for it. The whole Back button business is arguable (and see below about app switching), but this location is handy and better than what I’ve seen on some other devices, where it’s bottom left, sometimes even between other buttons.

Software

The device runs Android 4 “Ice Cream Sandwich” with some Samsung modifications and crapware. I don’t think the UI modifications themselves matter too much, but the extra crapware on the device is annoying. Sure, it’s hidden in my Apps and I removed it from all the home screens, but it still feels like those Windows PC-s loaded with crapware. Annoying. I also don’t want to root the device to load vanilla ICS or anything like that, so I guess I’m stuck with it. Why can’t I uninstall the crapware like I can uninstall the other apps?

The single most annoying thing when you use the device for realz is that there is no sane way to get my contacts to it. I’m using iCloud, and my contacts sync nicely between all my Macs, iPhones, and iPad. There doesn’t seem to be any sane way to sync them with my Google contacts. I appreciate the motivation of Apple who won’t give developers an easy way to do that, but the situation is still super annoying. For now, I basically have to maintain two “contact universes”, one in iCloud and the other in Google.

Also on contacts, there doesn’t seem to be a web UI where I could manage my Google Contacts. I can manage my iCloud contacts either on my desktop with the Address Book app, or with icloud.com browser UI. There isn’t any UI at all for Google. There’s some contacts in Gmail, but those are different. Plus is probably not relevant at all. And on the device, after I put in my Gmail account, it sucks down some contacts, and then some of them are in “My Contacts” and some aren’t. I need to put contacts in groups to make them actual contacts. I don’t really understand what’s going on there. I would like to use a web or desktop app to get a better understanding, but there isn’t any.

The most delightful part of using the device is that it’s FAST. Like, really fast. All the animations and transitions are smooth, apps start more quickly, jumping between apps is smoother, and overall it’s just really great performance. My two-year-old iPhone 4 feels like a sluggish piece of crap next to it where everything is slow. I didn’t imagine ever saying that an Android device is faster than iPhone, but there it is. Probably it’s not an entirely fair comparison, as the CPU in iPhone 4S is supposedly faster, but there.

It also reboots faster than iPhone. At least 50% faster. Yes, we don’t reboot very often, but when we do, I don’t want to wait for my device for a long time.

The Samsung is a great Skype device for voice calls. Skype on my iPhone is just unusably broken. It plain does not work and takes forever to load. Incoming chats affect calls. I used to think that it is simply not possible to do Skype properly on a mobile device, but Samsung shows that it’s specifically the combination of iPhone hardware and the iOS Skype implementation that’s broken. With the same user data, Skype runs great on Android, starts up quickly, and calls are fast and crispy clear, and chats don’t affect the calls in any way.

Transitioning between apps

One thing that helps the perceived performance is smooth transitions between apps. Imagine that you read email, and tap a link that’s loaded in the browser. Roughly the following steps need to happen:

  1. The gesture recognizer detects a tap on the element.
  2. The transition happens from the email app to browser app.
  3. Browser starts.
  4. Browser loads the page.

I shot a video where I opened exactly the same email on both devices and tapped on the same link at the same time.

You’ll notice that Samsung is faster because of several reasons.

  • The gesture recognizer timings are more aggressive and it is faster to recognize the tap.
  • The transition from email to browser app is much subtler and faster. iOS does this with “flip one app out and the other in” visual transition. It is gratuitous and happens at the expense of performance and usability. I always hated it, but seeing the much faster Android transition made me realize just by how much.
  • Browser starts more quickly. Both devices were freshly rebooted before this test, so neither had the app running.
  • Browser loads and renders the page more quickly. I am not sure how valid this part of the test is because I had previously loaded the page in browser so things may have been cached. So this may not be entirely reflective of the experience of loading a new page that the browser hasn’t seen before. Nevertheless, the Android browser is fast.

Now, imagine that you’re done looking at the page and want to go back to your email. On Android, it’s one tap of the Back button. On iPhone, you must either double-click Home and then tap the email app in running apps, or click Home and then select your email app from Springboard. No matter what the naysayers think are the downsides of the Android back button, in this situation it provides a much smoother experience.

Summary

If I had to choose which device to buy, I would still buy an iOS device for my daily main use. But whereas previously Android devices and software were clearly inferior, they have been catching up and in some cases are better than iOS. This is all great stuff for the users, and all the devices continue to be fun to work with.