Google Galaxy Nexus and Samsung Galaxy S III Mega Review (Part 2)

Mobile Device ReviewsDevin Balentina

Introduction

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In the first part of the battle between the Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy S III we took an introductory look at the two devices and the hardware. In this second part of this review we take a look software, camera and performance.

Software

While on the hardware side there are surprisingly quite a lot of similarities, software-wise these devices are two very different beasts with a different approach to the user interface. In typical Nexus fashion, the Galaxy Nexus is running stock Android, specifically version 4.1 known as Jelly Bean, with the assurance that the device will always be the first to get the latest version of Android. Typical for any customized version of the OS, the S III is a step behind, currently running version 4.0, known as Ice Cream Sandwich with the TouchWiz Nature UX on top.  Samsung have promised that Jelly Bean will be making its way to the S III  and judging by the fact that Note II which runs Nature UX on Android 4.1, we’re guessing that this update will be released somewhere between now and October. While the S III  will get the newer features found in Jelly Bean, for example Google Now, the UI known as TouchWiz Nature UX  should remain almost exactly  the same as the version found on Ice Cream Sandwich. In Samsung’s defense, they’ve been quite aggressive with software updates, pushing several fixes and new features, clearly showing their commitment to their devices. But as is evident with the S III, they fall several months behind when a new version of Android comes along. Companies like Asus also push frequent updates and are even faster  when a new version of Android arrives, clearly showing that the less you modify the quicker you’ll be able get updates to the consumer. It’s also still safe to safe that if you value the latest updates and want it quickly, Nexus devices are still the way to go.

Google Google Nexus

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If Samsung somehow managed to ship their devices with TouchWiz and also offer the option of stock Android baked-in, they could have a clear winner beating everything else on the market. Most users should do just fine with TouchWiz, but it’s especially for the enthusiast market where such an option would be highly desirable. Samsung if you’re reading this, make it happen!    

Vanilla Android found on the Galaxy Nexus looks dark, elegant and futuristic with its Roboto typeface,  dark color pallet and splashes here and there of a bright shade of Blue. Most of the included  wallpapers  have this very distinctive pink and pastel-type colors that look like they’ve been taken straight from Instagram. This gives the Galaxy Nexus an instantly recognizable soft female look that almost seems like it was intended to soften the predominant cold, robotic look and feel of the UI. Nature UX on the other hand uses a bright and colorful UI that’s cleaner and simpler than TouchWiz 4.0, but definitely still looks a bit Fischer Pricey. It is also instantly recognizable as a Samsung UI with the bright icons and Blue or Green background, similar to what’s found on their SmartTVs and somewhat reminiscent of Windows XP. Despite being nature-inspired, there’s nothing fundamentally nature to the bright, bubbly icons and UI. It’s when the nature-inspired add-ons like wallpapers, notification sounds and unlock screen come into play do you begin to see Samsung’s naturalistic aspirations. One thing is for sure, in bright sunny conditions, the lively colors of Nature UX are better when visibility is concerned, while the dark look on stock Android can sometimes be a difficult to see in these conditions. Since design is a very subjective matter, we’ll leave it up to you to decide which of the two looks better. However we do feel that Samsung should try to make an effort in making TouchWiz a little bit more like stock Android. We’re not saying they should drop their characteristically colorful Samsung look, but at least modify it in way to make it clear that it’s derived from stock Android. The way it currently looks, TouchWiz almost looks like an entirely different operating system and in some cases  a bit inconsistent when it comes to its look and feel. Despite its modified looks and enhanced feature-set, one thing we like about TouchWiz Nature UX is that it quite light and easy on the resources, making it one of our favorite modified Android interfaces. HTC for example has a long way to go with their Sense UI which sometimes feels bloated and simply isn’t as smooth as TouchWiz or stock Android, even on a ridiculously fast device such as the HTC One X.

Samsung Galaxy S III

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Judging the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S III  purely based on their out-of-box experience we’d say that stock Android is the more elegant and consistent package, but TouchWiz Nature UX is the more practical, feature-packed and user-friendly of the two, despite sometimes feeling like different, unrelated modules bolted onto each other instead of one seamless experience. I’d can’t stress this enough: after using TouchWiz and going back to stock Android, vanilla Android definitely is lacking in features and practicality. Although many of these features can be added by using third party apps, TouchWiz Nature UX clearly wins here by offering a compelling feature-packed package the moment you turn the device on. One of the best examples of how Samsung changes stock Android for the better are the various quick toggles in the slide-down notification area giving you quick access to commonly used features such Wi-Fi, GPS, volume/mute/vibrate, screen rotation, notifications, power saving, mobile data, Bluetooth, driving mode and Sync. This feature alone pushes TouchWiz UX several steps ahead of the stock experience. It doesn’t stop there either. Another example is the app tray. On stock Android all apps in the tray are stored alphabetically with no way of changing this.

TouchWiz UX goes one step further by not only allowing you to sort apps alphabetically in a grid like the Galaxy Nexus, but also alphabetically in a list and my favorite, the customizable grid which also you to have different pages where you can freely move apps among these pages. I for example like to have my cooking apps or music apps all in one dedicated page. There’s even the option to hide apps, which comes in handy for useless icons like the Flash Player Settings. One of my favorite features has to be Samsung Dive, an add-on that once activated, allows you to control your device remotely from the Samsungdive.com website. It allows you to track, lock, ring, wipe and unlock your device. You can even remotely forward calls and messages from the lost device to a specified mobile number and retrieve call logs. In my case I forgot my unlock code and was able to use Samsung Dive to unlock the device. There’s even a cool feature called Pop-up Play, a picture-in-picture style video player that  can be moved around on top of the other apps. Basically think Facebook and watching a video at the same time! Rounding of the list are a slew of quite  intuitive ways to interact with the S III: turn over to mute, vibrates when you pick up the phone when you have missed calls or alerts, palm swipe for screen capture , tilt to zoom and my favorite, smart stay. The device literally detects if you’re eyes and prevents the screen from turning of. Sometimes it doesn’t work, especially in dark conditions, but when it does it’s simply brilliantly. Basically put, Samsung has done an amazing job when it comes to enhancing stock Android, adding compelling and usefull features and not like many manufacturers changing things just to be different. In combination with these “smart” ways of interacting with the device gives it a very natural, almost organic feel.

SamsungDive

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The Nexus differentiates from the S III, at least for now, in the fact that it sports Google’s latest Android 4.1.  Jelly Bean establishes Android as a polished, modern, and complete OS that can genuinely compete with iOS and even beating it when it comes to flexibility and openness.  One of the more important features, Project Butter, is intended to improve performance and it definitely does. Animations are executed with an incredible fluidity, speed and finesse that so far has only been achieved on iOS. What’s more impressive is that it’s accomplished using the year-old specs found on the Galaxy Nexus, imagine what can be accomplished if it’s fined tune to newer SoCs like the quad core Exynos. The various effects are performed in such an effortless, fluid and elegant manner that’s that it almost feels a like pre-rendered video playing, instead of UI animation that quickly needs to be processed and rendered by the CPU. The effect is quite subtle, hard to describe and simply needs to be seen to be appreciated. You truly begin to this speed and eye-candy when you go back to an incredibly fast device like the S III, that even despite its power cannot achieve the same fluidity. Another useful addition to JB are the expanded notification, basically more info is display if you use two fingers to drag a single notification down to expand it. There’s also NFC pairing for Bluetooth, a better camera app and my favorite Google Now. Google Now takes searching to the next level with an almost instant voice recognition and a natural voice response, which is one of the best and natural sounding I’ve heard in any device. It’s also smart enough to be context and location aware. With the inclusion of Google Now, I personally don’t see the need for Samsung’s own S Voice and as it stands they should consider completely removing to save space on the ROM. The two basically serve the same purpose, which is why Samsung should consider adding their own enhancements to Google  and simply axe S voice to avoid confusion.

All-in-all we’d say that stock Android is the more elegant and aesthetically speaking the more consistent package, but TouchWiz Nature UX delivers a compelling, practical, feature-packed and user-friendly experience, despite sometimes feeling like it consists of unrelated modules bolted onto each other instead of one seamless experience. We’d also say that 95% of users out there should be more than happy with TouchWiz Nature UX, but it’s the tech enthusiasts that love to root their device and tinker with various ROM that are better served by the stock experience that’s found on the Galaxy Nexus. Personally I prefer TouchWiz simply because it comes with lots of features built-in. Admittedly you could add these features to stock Android using third party apps, but then you’d end up with lots of extra apps and a somewhat inconsistent experience. For this reason Samsung should consider either creating a special pure Android version of the  SIII or during setup, allow the user to choose either the stock experience or TouchWiz. Such a move would send shockwaves throughout the industry and make their Galaxy devices even more desirable.

Camera

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Let’s talk cameras. The units found on these devices have a lot in common:  both are incredibly fast and believe me when I say their fast: auto-focus is almost instantaneous and after taking a shot, in less than a second these smartphones are ready for the next shot. Both use auto-focus shooters, a single LED Flash and both are capable of shooting 1080 video at 30 frames per seconds. That’s where the similarities end. Typical of Galaxy devices, the S III’s  8 megapixels shooter delivers one of the best performing mobile cameras on the market (both pictures and video) and is only outdone by Nokia’s 808 PureView and N8 smartphones. Nokia’s Lumia 920 also seems likely to be step above the S III as imaging has always been Nokia’s strong point. The camera on the S III is similar to what’s found on the Galaxy Note or S II, but slightly better but most importantly much much faster. It even adds a few extra tricks like a crazy 20 shot burst-mode or the ability to take pictures while shooting video and panorama shots. The Nexus on the other hand delivers subpar images and video, making this it’s second biggest con behind the lack of  a microSD slot.  This of course has nothing to do with the megapixel count as we feel that even a 5 megapixel sensor should be more than enough in any modern smartphone. In this case the selected optics and sensor deliver results that we wouldn’t call bad, but rather unconvincing, even more so in low-light conditions. We simply expected more from THE Google phone as many popular and sometimes cheaper devices deliver better results. On the bright side it is  incredibly fast and even has the ability of creating panorama shots up its sleeve.

Galaxy Nexus Sample Shots

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As expected, the Nexus uses the stock camera app with its minimalistic look and feel. It is a bit too sparse for our taste and we aren’t fans of the cryptic icons or the large Grey bar that eats almost a quarter of the screen real estate.  The idea was probably to keep things simple, but the result is the opposite with cryptic icons , hidden features and minimal use of the large screen. There aren’t a lot of options either, with just the basic to be found here: Flash mode, White Balance, Exposure and just 4 scene modes (auto not included). Lastly there the option to store the picture location and the picture size. That’s it. You switch over to the panorama mode where you don’t get any options. The video mode gives you options for the flash mode,  White balance, there are also some cool real-time effects like Silly faces and background. The silly faces works as advertised, but the background feature requires you to stand in front of a one color background, with even the slightest of shadows ruining the effect. You also get a time lapse interval, you can save the video location and change video quality.

Galaxy S III Sample Shots

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The S III doesn’t use just one but two Grey bars, one on each side. Like Nexus, we prefer a clear background, but at least with the S III there’s good use of the available space giving you quick access to your most used features. It’s all customizable which is something we like a lot. You have control over Flash, Shooting mode (which includes things like Panorama and HDR), effects ( which include negative Sepia, Posterize etc), 13 scene modes, exposure, focus mode,  timer, resolution, White balance, ISO (up to 800), metering, you can turn outdoor visibility mode on which makes the screen brighter, anti-shake, auto contrast, guidelines, image quality, GPS tagging and  where images are saved ( phone or memory card). Video mode gives you control over Flash,  recording mode (Normal or MMS), exposure value, timer, effects, resolution, White balance, outdoor visibility, anti-shake, guidelines, video quality and storage. All of this makes the S III one of the most complete when it comes to cameras with results and performance to match. The only feature lacking is the control over aperture and shutter speed.

On both devices, the front camera should be more than enough for Skype calls and provide good results and performance. Special mention has to be given to the S III’s front camera which provides exceptionally good video quality and even pictures, something we can rarely say about a front-placed camera.

Performance

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Both of these devices are fast, but the Galaxy S III takes things to level I haven’t seen before making it one of the fastest smartphones available today, where it only has to bow down to its bigger brother, the Note II which admittedly has the same Exynos Quad CPU, but is clocked slightly higher at 1.6 Ghz instead of its 1.4 Ghz. The S III should be even a bit faster than Tegra 3 based devices like the HTC One X in benchmarks, while in real-world usage it offers an overall more responsive feel. One area where Tegra 3 devices do have the upper hand is game compatibility and  extra graphical effects in certain games like Riptide GP and ShadowGun. It’s not that the Tegra 3 is superior in any way, but Nvidia have struck a deal with developers to only enable certain effects on Tegra devices and in some cases even restrict these games to devices with Nvidia graphics. Ironically the Exynos powered  S III  is able to run these games much faster than its Tegra-based competitors.

For everything else the S III  is simply a monster and flies through the UI, content heavy web pages and opens apps without even breaking a sweat. Apps open instantly and it’s able to install these very same apps with a speed that I haven’t seen on any Android-based smartphone. It’s quite amusing clicking away opening various apps and watching the S III easily keeping up. Even when you set the S III in power saving mode it’s faster than any dual core device I’ve used, it’s that fast! Knowing the processing prowess  of their Exynos quad CPU, Samsung have enabled certain extras that really make use of the added speed. Pop up Play for example shows a Picture-in-picture type video player that can be moved around while doing other tasks. What’s even more amazing that it’s able to do this while still maintaining the insane speed and responsiveness. In the video player for example it uses it’s extra muscles to play previews of all video clips on your device! I was simply impressed. The S III does a cold boot in a mere 15 seconds before it’s ready to be used. The Nexus takes about 30 seconds to startup and delivers an overall smooth experience and speedy performance that should be more enough for most users. Add the smoothness of Project butter and you animations and eye-candy that not even the mighty S III can match. The Galaxy Nexus might not be able to have the highest benchmarks scores, but it’s able to keep up with any recent smartphone delivering performance that’s up to current standards. Just be aware that it’s not at the same level as the S III, but once you think about nothing is. Considering the Nexus’ $350 dollar cost and the performance it’s capable of, you begin to see the shear value that is the Nexus. The S III is a high-end device, with a pretty high cost so we wouldn’t expect anything less, but judging by what you’re getting with the Nexus, it scores high when it comes to value. The S III is simply a benchmark, a technical marvel when it comes to performance by which future phones will be judged by, just be prepared to pay for this type of performance. Simply put, if you want the fastest smartphones around you don’t have to search any farther than the S III  or the Note II. The Nexus is a great value, it’s fast and should keep up with the most demanding apps, just don’t expect S III levels of performance.

The S III does a cold boot in a mere 15 seconds before it’s ready to be used. The Nexus takes about 30 seconds to startup

Reception and call quality was good on the Galaxy Nexus. The S III sometimes had trouble getting a good HSPA+ signal in places where the Nexus or my Note were able to this just fine. The S III sometimes also had trouble with my Wi-Fi, dropping a connection and unnecessarily switching to a data connection, while streaming using TuneIn Radio Pro. If you don’t keep an eye out for this, you could end up with a costly data bill. The Nexus for example had no problem with my Wi-Fi connection. These are probably software issues that Samsung will fix with a future firmware upgrade, but in the mean time I’d turn of mobile data if you’re downloading or streaming large amounts data while using your Wi-Fi.

Using my trusty Shure SE535, the audio output through the 3.5mm audio jack on the Galaxy Nexus is good, but on the S III is simply superb, all thanks to Wolfson’s WM1811. Both devices have a good audio output and paired with a good set of speakers you’ll be pleased with the results, even when not using a portable amp. Special mention has to be given to the S III which has one of the best in this area, giving a welcome and healthy competition to Nokia devices that have been known for their good audio output. As for the speaker output, I can say that Samsung chose one of the worst places to put a speaker. When you put these down, most of the sound will be blocked. It’s not like neither of these devices have loud and quality speakers either to counter this problem, in the case of the Nexus the speaker is particularly bad with a very low max volume. Samsung shouldn’t look far for ideas when it comes to the ideal speaker placement as the Note 10.1 tablet has one of the best speakers around. Give us front facing, stereo speakers and we’d be extremely happy.

Lastly I’d like to say a few things about the battery life on the two devices. With heavy usage the Nexus has a bit of trouble getting through a full day, with few adjustments here and there it might just barely get through the day. Considering the fairly low price, I’d recommend factor in the price of an extra battery in your phone budget which should be more than enough to get you through the day, no matter what your usage. The S III has an extremely large battery which should easily get you through the day, even with heavy use. We would like to its successor with nothing short of 3000 mAh as some pretty thin devices from Motorola have already managed to do this. Even with its 2100 mAh battery, the S III’s battery life is definitely one of its strong points and should easily beat its most direct competitor, the HTC One X.

Conclusion

The Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy S III are arguably two of the best Android smartphones on the market. The Nexus offers the guarantee that you’ll always have the latest version of Android running in its stock form, insuring a very smooth experience and fast performance, despite the fact that it’s starting to show its age. At $350 directly from Google, the Nexus is one of the best deal in the smartphone world and offers a compelling package, smooth performance and easily one of the best Android phones around. Despite lacking a microSD slot and camera that delivers subpar results, we’d waste no time in recommending it not only as an incredible value, but also because of the pure Android experience, it is after all THE Google phone. We know Google and Samsung will undoubtedly improve this device making it faster and better, but we’d suggest them to also rethink their “no external media storage” policy, as the microSD slot still remains a must-have feature for many smartphones users. 

Let’s be very clear about the S III: it’s without any doubt the best phone on the market today. Samsung have stuffed just about every feature in the thin and light package. This device will surely serve as the benchmark by which all other phones will be judged by. Surprisingly Samsung have created with TouchWiz UX an impressive enhancement to the stock Android experience that’s not only easy to use, but also offers  a lot of practical improvements. I’ve always  been a supporter of stock Android, but TouchWiz UX is the first UI that I’d prefer over the stock experience. The S III does have a few issues with mobile data connection reception and Wi-Fi, but hopefully these will be addressed in a future update. We aren’t too crazy about the speaker placement, which is why they should take a look at the Note 10.1 and somehow implement the same speaker design and placement. On the software there are some unnecessary apps included like S Suggest, Samsung Go and with Google Now,  S Voice simply needs to be axed. The S III easily beats its closest competitor, the HTC One X with a bigger battery, microSD slot and a UI that’s easier on the resources. As expected, the S III also easily beats the Galaxy Nexus, but this isn’t a reason you shouldn’t consider. The Nexus clearly is the better value and should seriouslu be considered by those on a budge, that want a stock experience or don’t want to be tied to a contract.. The Samsung Galaxy S III gets an impressive 9.9 out of 10, while the Google Galaxy Nexus gets a 9.2 out of 10.

Galaxy S III

Score: 9.9

Pros

Beautiful design

Beautiful High Res Screen

Extremely fast

Good battery life

The best phone on the market today

Good build quality, fit and finish

Useful improvements to Android

Samsung Dive is a life saver

One of few top-tier devices with a microSD slot

Hyperglaze is scratch and fingerprint resistant

The inclusion of Wolfson’s digital-to-analog converter, the WM1811 HD Audio Hub means extremely good audio output

Fast camera and one of the best in the industry

Cons

Bloatware: Samsung Go, S Suggest, S Voice

Reception issues

Weak speaker output and placement.

Extremely slippery

Google Now makes S voice unnecessary

 

Galaxy Nexus

Score: 9.2

Pros

Beautiful iconic design and curved screen

Back Hyperskin cover is grippy

Pure Android

First to get updates

$350 unlocked price is best deal for any smartphone

High Res screen

Virtual buttons

Fast camera

Cons

No microSD

Specs are a bit dated

Weak speaker output and placement.

Screen could be bigger, useable space is more around 4.3”

Subpar camera

 

A special thanks to our friends at Vodaphone the Netherlands. Be sure to check their site for the latest mobile devices!

 

A special thanks to our friends at Mobile Fun, where you can get Samsung accessories.

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