Monday, 2 July 2012

The Galaxy S III "Real-user" Review: Part 2 - Entertainment and media - Music and video playback, gaming, browser


The combination to make you wax lyrical about sound?


Today we’re going to bite off a fairly sizeable chunk of the review, covering a lot of the entertainment aspects of the device – music, video, gaming and the browser. If you haven't read part 1 of the review which covered initial impressions, design/build quality, screen and benchmarks then check it out here.

OK, so to start things off, here is my “I’m no audiophile” disclaimer (italicized since AndroidNZ readers will have seen it before):

Like I seem to do quite often, I have to start here with a disclaimer of sorts - this time in terms of my own listening prowess. You see, in terms of evaluating the audio quality of the phone I have to set the appropriate context - that context being my own limitations as a listener. I think my ear is above average, nearly twenty years of playing guitar certainly helps there, but I am definitely no audiophile. While I’m in complete disclosure mode: I have some high frequency hearing loss from guitar and concert attendances over the years, and I don’t own a set of audiophile headphones. What does all that mean? Well, basically, audiophiles should move right along, my ear isn’t up to advising you about whether you’ll be happy with this phone. Most everyone who isn’t an audiophile will be happy enough with the Note's audio quality, and those same readers will likely find my take on the sound quality is pitched at the right level.

I purchased a few things audio-related since the Note review.
Having said of all that I must say that it’s no longer ringing entirely true. While I still wouldn’t label myself an audiophile, I have been on rather an audio voyage of discovery since I wrote that disclaimer and should probably adjust it accordingly.

You see, since the Note review I’ve purchased the ASUS Xonar Essence One USB DAC for my desktop, an E17 USB DAC for portable use, and several sets of headphones (the Grado GS1000i, Audeze LCD-2, Sennheiser HD-251 II, and ACS-T15, for those who like to know that sort of thing). That’s a reasonably serious outlay on audio equipment, so it’s a little disingenuous to completely downplay my ability to adjudicate sound quality. Readers should realize though that I’m still in my audio lovers infancy. I might be able to discern more than some people, simply on account of having better listening equipment, but I’m hardly a paragon of audio quality assessment and astute listeners will still need to seek their own S III audition from which to form their own opinion.

So, preamble over, what is my assessment of the S III’s audio playback chops?



AUDIO QUALITY

The thumbnails view is attractive, if not
quite up to the standards of the Galaxy
S "cover-flow" and disc views.
Looking at the audio quality for the S III is an interesting proposition.

In the world of smartphone music there is already a clear leader for audio quality, and while it may not please Android fans to hear it, that leader is the iPhone. For a long time I’ve been very keen to actually get an iPhone in order to really test out its reputed audio quality, and a recent contract renewal afforded me the opportunity to do just that.

As much as I’d have loved to debunk its purported sound quality, in much the same way as I pointed out that it doesn’t deserve its near-hallowed reputation for smoothness, the truth is I can’t do that. It stands head and shoulders above any other handset I’ve ever used on stock software, and to my ear even has an edge on a Voodoo’d Galaxy S (apparently it seems I am going to start this piece by committing several acts of Android high treason, apologies if hearing the inconvenient truth offends any one-eyed Android devotees here).

For me then, a major part of my interest in the Galaxy S III as an audio player is whether it can unseat the iPhone from its current position atop the mobile phone audio leaderboard. I’m not the only person interested to know this of course, I’m in regular correspondence with several Android audio enthusiasts who keep an iPhone only to play music, and who would dearly love to rationalize their convergence devices a bit more (and no doubt there are also a number of other iPhone users who might be more inclined to try out an Android device if there wasn’t such a big disparity in audio quality).

So, with a fairly refined question in mind it was time to put them to the test. Testing comprised several hours of A/B listening (listening to a piece, or segment of a piece of music on one handset, and then immediately listening to the same piece on the other with same headphones). All songs were FLAC-encoded rips from my own CD collection, and the output volume for the iPhone was decreased to match that of the S III. From my selection of headphones I used both the Sennheiser HD25-1 II and ACS-T15 headphones for the test, as the others I have cannot be driven adequately from either source. I should note here that neither of these are as sensitive as the IEMs that many of you may be using, with 70 and 41.5 ohm impedances respectively, so neither would unmask sound quality issues relating to output impedance.

Another really nice addition, folder
playback 
I actually posted some of my early thoughts about the comparison at Head-Fi, and interestingly they really didn’t change throughout testing, so here they are:

“Can't say much as this stage, it's certainly not bad but it is easily apparent that it's no match for the iPhone

Relative to the iPhone the I'd say this of the S3: lower volume output, less resolving, bass not as tight and well controlled, mids/highs muffled in comparison, less dynamic and so less engaging to listen to (bear in mind that was listening to predominantly rock and metal, will break out some jazz/hip hop/other stuff soon). So, to my ear at any rate on my brief listening so far it doesn't come close to unseating the iPhone.”

Obviously from there I listened several more hours, trying out jazz, hip-hop, rap, instrumental music, dance and electronic music for good measure. At the end of the process my conclusion was essentially unchanged, and while some intra-observer bias no doubt came into play there (that’s where you draw a conclusion before the end and your mind inexorably seeks to find corroborating evidence to support it), the difference was so starkly apparent on only a few minutes of listening that I’m not in doubt about there being a significant difference in favour of the iPhone, only possibly it’s magnitude. I was reassured to note that one of the Android users I mentioned earlier for being a big time audio enthusiast had his own A/B test session without having read my thoughts first, and his tweeted listening notes were essentially identical to my own (and it’s unusual to see that degree of inter-observer concordance without some kind of contamination being present).

OK, so the Galaxy S III doesn’t dethrone the iPhone for audio, but how good is it in its own right? Well, really very decent, albeit with a couple of caveats. Let's speak to the good first - the output is clean, and the volume level reasonable. Given the presentation of the sound, in particular it's laidback mids and less than ideal detail resolution, listeners who tend more towards hip hop or other genres less reliant on forward mids will be happiest with the stock sound. For those who aren't quite satisfied with the stock sound, third party players like PowerAMP and Neutron MP can be used to tweak sound more to their liking with preamps, replaygain support, customizable EQs, and various effects like stereo expansion. Another solution would be to audition some headsets with a sound signature that favours mids, for example most Grado headphones. Overall I think those with a less demanding mindset where their portable music player is concerned will find the SIII does very nicely. If you look through the SIII "Official sound quality" thread at XDA you'll see that most are actually very happy with the SIII audio output, which jibes rather nicely with my conclusion here. 



Samsung finally brings a music player
widget to the TouchWiz party.


There are those couple of caveats I mentioned though...

The first represents a rather sizeable fly in the ointment: if you listen to music with the screen off you will intermittently get some crackling sounds. Whether or not that bothers you probably depends on some combination of whether your ear and headphones are good enough to pick up on it, what your personal tolerance is for sound aberration, and under what circumstances you listen to music on your device (for myself I almost always have the screen on when listening to music, so it's hardly a show-stopper for me personally). If you take a look at the aforementioned "Official sound quality" thread at XDA you can see a number of people are trying to get to the bottom of this. So far answers are proving a little elusive, but it seems like some kind of power management issue/CPU clock issue, since Root users on kernels that allow the CPU clock to be set seem to having some luck with reducing the frequency of these (credit to 
TotallydubbedHD at XDA for discovering this). We'll be keeping a close eye on developments there, and you can rest assured that the second we know anything more we'll keep you posted.

The other caveat is the output impedance of the SIII, which Supercurio and several others have measured at about 3ohms. That figure is similar to that in the Galaxy Note, and a very significant improvement over the SII, but still greater than the 2ohms or less which is ideal to drive many IEMs (which have an input impedance around the 16ohm mark, making an output impedance of less than 2ohm from the playback device ideal). Again whether that will bother you depends on which headphones you're listening from, so your mileage may vary. 



Many options available for customising
sound in the stock player
Fortunately there is more to audio output in the Galaxy SIII, thanks to amazing developer Supercurio. You see Supercurio is the author of an application called Voodoo Sound, which improves audio output in supported Wolfson-bearing devices. Voodoo Sound isn’t some marketing sham like Beat’s audio though, it is genuine sound enhancement achieved by bypassing Samsung’s sound processing software layer and directly accessing the excellent Wolfson DAC underneath. He announced soon after the announcement of the Galaxy S III that it would be supported by Voodoo Sound, a fact that probably sold more Galaxy S IIIs than most of the features announced by Samsung themselves. I was hoping to have had ears-on with Voodoo Sound before pushing out this segment of the review, but despite looking very imminent a couple of weeks ago it still isn't out (presumably delayed by Supercurio's trip to Wolfson Micro to meet with their engineers, which will hopefully allow him to bring us a parametric EQ to the SIII in addition to all the other excellence that is Voodoo Sound). Obviously once Voodoo Sound is available we'll cover it here at the blog, either updating the review or possibly writing a separate piece altogether.

While we’re talking about Supercurio, it would be remiss not to mention something else audio related that we first came to know of because of him: the presence of USB audio drivers on the Galaxy SIII. If you don’t know what these are, or what their significance is in relation to audio quality, here’s a piece I wrote on the topic a few months ago to bring up to speed.

*insert pause for newcomers to read their homework*

OK, now that we’re (hopefully) all on the same page, let’s discuss these drivers in the SIII. Supercurio detected the presence of these when someone at the Galaxy S III launch ran his app Voodoo Report from one of the demo handsets available there. At that stage he was unable to say whether they were functioning out of the box, as it’s not uncommon for many kinds of drivers to be present that are not activated or available to end-users at all.

As you might well imagine, when I got a pre-retail hands-on with the S III a few weeks ago one of the first things I did was try out my E17 USB DAC with it. I was disheartened at that stage to find that connecting the E17 did not result in gloriously enhanced sound blaring from the attached headphones, but was rather resulted in sound being routed via the phones loudspeaker, which suggested that the E17 was not on speaking terms with the S III at all.

I revisited the test with my retail SIII of course, and noted that connecting the E17 resulted in no sound output whatsoever. Furthermore, trying to select sound effects in the inbuilt music player gave an error stating that these do not work with audio in “line out” mode. Sadly no sound was output through the connected headphones either, but it definitely indicated that the device is interfacing with the phone at some level.

The Galaxy SIII and the FiiO E7, a great match. The E7 even has two
headphone outputs, for when you feel like sharing.
Shortly after my own renewed embitterment with the E17 however, USB audio was confirmed to work with another USB DAC: the Topping TP30. Unfortunately the Topping isn’t exactly compact, and so isn’t really a viable solution for listening on the go. In the search for a truly portable solution I purchased a FiiO E7 to try with my SIII. The E7 is a slightly lower-spec USB DAC than the E17, but one that has already demonstrated greater interoperability with a variety of devices than the E17, so I thought it was worth a go.

Happily it turned out that the E7 was a very worthwhile gamble, as it works perfectly with the SIII as I reported here. To my ear sound quality is improved noticeably by listening via the E7. Dynamics and detail are restored, and it also supplies punchier and better controlled bass. On the whole music just sounds a lot more engaging - distorted guitars sound forward in the mix and bring a bite and presence that is lacking on the SIII without the E7 for example. Furthermore on an extended listen those crackling sounds I mentioned earlier are absent when listening via the E7. The sum effect of these improvements is that it takes SIII audio to a level where it no longer falls short of the iPhone 4S.

I find this rather interesting, as it seems to run counter to what you'd expect based on Supercurio's measurements of E7s elder sibling the E17, in which he found it's DAC inferior to the one housed within the SIII (unclear whether he was measuring a Voodoo'd SIII here though). Looking at others experience with the E7 and the SIII at places like Head-Fi and XDA, I see others subjective experience matching up to mine, even though those were posted following Supercurio's tweets which potentially influences listeners to draw the opposite conclusion.

Whatever the case, the E7 finally takes audio on an Android handset to where I want it to be, which eases my own wait for Voodoo Sound immensely. I expect that once Voodoo Sound arrives I'll be able to jettison the E7 from my portable rig, making it that bit more compact and less complicated in the process. Hopefully Voodoo Sound will also allow me to revisit this segment of the review with unanimous positivity when the time comes, because as it stands everything I've written amounts to fairly faint praise indeed, at least where that part of the audience who is obsessed with audio is concerned. For the rest of you I expect you will be perfectly pleased with the audio output, particularly once you've given the sound a bit of a massage with your third party music player of choice.

Plugging in a headset reveals this app
menu in the notification shade, shame
you can't customise the apps in the list


MEDIA PLAYBACK – AUDIO

With the Note I'd expressed frustration that development on Samsung's stock music player appeared to have completely stalled, and I half expected the same to be true for the stock SIII player this time around also. Samsung it seems however had different ideas, re-working the player with a significant visual shake-up in line with the "built for humans" design ethic (for better or for worse), and a few other tweaks to boot.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of what has changed, it's probably worth going on the record to say that as stock players go Samsung's TouchWiz player has always been fairly good. For a long time now its come to the table with a customisable EQ, various sound effect environs to tweak its output sound, wide-codec support, music controls in the notifications tray and on the stock lockscreen, and the ability to tag songs all packaged neatly in a visually appealing interface (sadly the eye candy cover-flow view seen in the Galaxy S is still MIA, a victim of the patent war perhaps?). At the time of the Galaxy S, and even possibly the SII at release, I'd have gone as far as to say it was better than what competitors were bringing to the table as far as stock players are concerned. That said, with the relative lack of improvements over the eighteen months or so between the original Galaxy S and the Galaxy Note, it was starting to look a decidedly long in tooth toward the end of last year, and badly needed an update.

So, is the update here the cure for what has previously ailed Samsung's inbuilt music player?

Well, yes and no. It's certainly better than before, I want that to be clear, but the improvements don't go far enough, and some long-standing bug-bears remain.

First, let's cover what has improved.

The new look Now Playing screen,
more functional too
The obvious thing is the new look, which dispenses with the black-heavy UI previously seen in the Galaxy music players in favour of a mix of blue and grey tones. While this may or may not be an improvement, depending on your point of view, there are a number of small changes within the new look that add functional value (for myself I'd have rather kept the blacks, although I'd imagine for an ICS-themed ROM with blue highlights throughout the new version of the player would be a really nice fit). A good example is the presence of an on-screen button in the now-playing screen to take you immediately to the EQ and custom sound settings. It's a small thing in itself, but a notable improvement over previous iterations of the player, which took several touches to achieve the same result and took you away from the now playing screen to do it. That's just one of a number of small step-changes of this kind that are greater than the sum of their parts in terms of their value to the user experience.

Fortunately the improvements go a little deeper than that, and Samsung have finally seen fit to both fix a few glaring omissions from the past, and add new features. Prime amongst the "glaring-omissions-now-fixed" category is the inclusion of a music player widget, which is finally (FINALLY!) present in the SIII. I still have a wee nitpick to make here though, as the implementation doesn't really stack up to other offerings, with only a single widget style available. Folder play has been added as a option for those who steadfastly refuse to properly manicure their collections tags, and will no doubt be welcome to a large number of users. They've even added a feature that triggers on detection of a connected headset - a persistent selection of related apps to choose from within the notification shade. A nice thought Samsung, just a shame that you invalidated half its usefulness by not allowing users to customise which apps appear in the list.

I did say earlier that it isn't all good news though, and while the update here is more than just a superficial visual refresh, some of the old deficits and frustrations remain (and some things even regress).

For example, it still (STILL!) can’t read genre tags properly. This seems like a pretty basic thing to get wrong. What makes this all the more incomprehensible is that this is Samsung we're talking about here - a company that makes numerous media players that can read tags correctly. Previously there was no way to work around this problem, as third party players generally take their tag-reading cues from the stock player. Fortunately both PowerAMP and Neutron dispense with this dependency, performing their own media scans to correctly identify tags (PowerAMP can also handily exclude your large music folder from the inbuilt media scanner, immensely speeding up media scanning on phone start-up into the bargain).

Music player controls in the notification
shade, very handy
The stock players (ongoing) utter lack of social awareness, while not particularly affronting in and of itself, is decidedly average when you look at what competitors are offering. Motorola's stock offering for example has native support for Scrobbling in LastFM, to name but one of the several social media services it has in it's arsenal. HTC's latest stock player puts your other music-oriented apps front and centre on it's start page making it useful as a one stop hub for all things audio. Samsung, it's past time your stock player learnt to play nicely with others and got over it's autistic streak. Don't you think?

You might remember earlier that I mentioned that lockscreen player controls are present in the Galaxy range of handsets. That is no longer the case in the SIII, something I've seen quite a number of SIII owners lamenting in each of the many forums I frequent daily. I'm not quite sure what informed the decision to remove this sought-after feature. Perhaps Samsung thought the notification tray controls would suffice? Perhaps they didn't see it as a natural fit with the other functionality they added to their otherwise-improved lockscreen? Regardless of the reasons, I'd have preferred for the option to stay in place, and I'm not alone here.

As per usual a growing number of people were really keen to know about FLAC playback. I can confirm that like the Note and SII it plays them fine, and like both of those handsets it is still a bit tag illiterate here too. Regretably I have to say that tag reading is even more flawed for FLAC files than it is more ubiquitous encoding types, with the stock player failing to properly read several tag categories. For reference files were ripped to FLAC with either Exact Audio Copy, or (more recently) with MusicBee, and after that tags were curated with mp3tag to embed album art and tidy the numerous ragged edges that auto-tagging leaves behind. This method works for every other FLAC-capable device I've used the files in, so once again the problem here is the stock player. Once again PowerAMP and Neutron have your back here with their own media scanners, separate from the system scanner.

In terms of features that could have advanced the player to lift above its manufacturer-stock contemporaries it could have done with things like crossfading, gapless playback, and a better music indexing system than what stock Android offers (I’d love to not have to wait for media scanning to complete before I’m able to listen to music, please Samsung?).

...and guess what? PowerAMP and Neutron have all these features. I know you shouldn't have to pay more money to get a properly functioning music player in your high-end device, trust me, I know. On the inside I'm railing at the injustice too. But I've got a pragmatic streak, and it says "You know what? Just buy a good third party player. Sure, they ain't the cheapest apps you'll find on the Play Store, but you know you'll be using it on every Android device you ever own. Buy one, achieve music player nirvana, find some other first-world problems to whinge about."

Options in the music player, including
the ability to quickly set your own tunes
as ringtones or notifications sounds.



MEDIA PLAYBACK – VIDEO


When it comes to video, I think it fair to say that I'm fussy about the capabilities of my playback devices. You see, I hate transcoding files for watching them on different devices. I really, really, hate it. Compounding that, I have lots of files encoded in different formats. When DVDs were de rigueur I ripped mine into Xvids with mp3 sound, whereas now of course I tend to rip my blue-rays into MKV files with AC3 or DTS audio. To make matters worse still, I love foreign cinema, and a lots of my blue-rays are subtitled. For a long time I hoped for a phone with wide-codec support that would allow me to watch all these files sans-transcoding, and when the SII arrived last year it was tantalisingly close to being that phone at release. Soon after that a number of excellent third party players arrived on Android; the SII became that long-awaited handset. Things improved even further with the Note, which came with the same excellent playback capabilities, but also a gargantuan high-resolution screen. For my own usage then, the vital question is whether the SIII live can up to that, or will it live in the (considerable) literal and metaphorical shadow of the Note in this regard?

Most reviews have been uniformly glowing when it comes to video playback on the SIII, and of course the accolades are not undeserved. With it's 4.8 inch 1280x720 resolution Super AMOLED HD screen watching video on the phone screen is an experience few other handsets can match, the codec support is matched only by other Galaxy handsets, and there are a multitude of options for example around subtitle handling and changing colour temperature. Furthermore, it has DLNA and MHL HDMI out to cover connection to your HD television - since it easily plays even 1080p content you’ll really value these options, as you'll see:


[Forward to 18:38 to see a demonstration of 1080p video via MHL, or open the video in YouTube itself and use the handy time-stamped links in the video description to take you right there]


I do have to pour a little cold water on the enthusiasm of those reviews though, as like the Galaxy SII and Note before it, the SIII's video playback chops have been somewhat overblown. Don't me wrong, the Samsung stock player is better than anyone else's (in part due to the Exynos SoC ability to playback high profile video), but it is not, as some would have you believe, perfect...

The "live preview" mode in the inbuilt
player, lovely to look at without adding
any real value whatsover to the update.
Where function is concerned, the video player overall is very similar to the version we saw in the Galaxy Note. They did include a new and very spanky live preview view in the player, where all the video thumbnails simultaneously play a loop of video, and while that's an impressive display of the phones processing grunt, it doesn't help it any with playback. Much as we saw with the Note, some HD files fail to play here, some flash files fail to play, subtitles often don't work as advertised, and the audio codec range still lacks support for DTS audio. I do note that the player is now AC3 capable, and while that is a very welcome inclusion indeed, it was the only functional improvement that was apparent in my use.

Fortunately there are Dice Player and MX Player, the best video players available on Android.

Dice Player just plays everything you throw it at, or at least nearly everything. Not only that, it can handle dual-audio files, and supports an absolute plethora of subtitle types including external subs files and embedded MKV subs. Above and beyond its impeccable wide-codec support, I’ve found Dice Players hardware accelerated playback is particularly good. MX Player on the other hand has software decoding sewn up, giving you the option to set how many CPU cores are utilized for decoding very heavy files, while also offering a very similar package of codec and subtitle support. Both are available in free ad-supported flavours on the Play Store, so there is really nothing to stop you adding them to your device to shore up the weaknesses of the stock player. After you’ve auditioned one or both of them, I’d encourage you to grab the paid version/s from the Play Store to reward the developers for their work.

While we're talking about these players it would be remiss of me not to mention that in the time that has elapsed since I started penning this mammoth segment of the review, both Dice and MX Player have removed DTS audio playback in recent updates due to some licensing issues. If you already use those players I'd recommend avoiding the update, and backing up the apk for the deprecated versions for installation on future devices. If any readers are aware of a good wide-codec player that is still DTS capable, please drop me a line in the comments section.

MX Players pleasingly minimalist
UI on show.
Anyways, on to our video test. To really stress the playback capabilities of phones for review, I’ve gathered a diverse bunch of test clips to throw at the latest and greatest devices a while back (once again credit goes to Xero Xenith at XDA-developers, and MobileTopia7 from Mobile-Review for providing many of the files). In the interests of maintaining as broad a spectrum of test files as possible, I recently added several 10-bit (Hi-10P) tests files at various resolutions and bitrates to the test batch. In the interests of full disclosure I’ve taken the liberty of exporting all the properties of the test subjects to a text file using Media Info - you can download the text file with all this information here.

To summarise the results in brief; the stock player failed on quite a number of the files, Dice Player nailed virtually all of them all with a few exceptions, and MX Player was able to play all of the files although neither the 1080p 10-Bit file nor the 20,000kbps 1080p HDTV demo were watchable (for the full breakdown of results in a table with several other handsets for comparison, download this file). Overall for the Galaxy SIII I would probably give MX Player a wee edge over Dice Player at present for its enhanced software decoding, which saw it better handle the 10-Bit video side of things.

Apart from whether it will playback all the test files, I know one other thing many Note owners will be anxious to know is whether the SIII exhibits the same "black crush" problem as the Note (black crush is where various shades of grey to near black just become pure black, resulting in detail loss). I can confirm that indeed it does. There is still hope though, and once again it is that man Supercurio to the (potential) rescue. In the hopefully near future he plans to bring his screen-tuning app "Display Expert" to the SIII, and at that point all things going according to plan this problem should be eliminated.

Here is a video shootout demonstrating some of the more demanding files playing on the Galaxy S III:




To conclude let's go back to the question of how the SIII rates Vs the Note for video playback. Overall I would say that the SIII matches the Note for video playback capability, and even slightly edges it out with quad core decoding for things like 10-bit video. Obviously I'd still rather be watching on the Note's 5.3 inch screen, but we're not giving away too much in the step down to 4.8 inches, so I would probably give the SIII the tiniest of nods over the Note for video playback.

[Aside: Although my sample set is a lot more taxing than what most other reviewers are using, I've no doubt it could be better - if you think I’ve missed a vital codec for your use, please send me a sample that I can add to the test batch in the future. Obviously the sample should not have swearing/violence/nudity etc, and should not be a full movie]

Just some of the plethora of options you
can find in Dice Player.

A note on Mobile High-definition Link (MHL) and the Galaxy S III:


OK, this actually has me seeing red a little bit, but before I rant let me explain MHL if you’re not already conversant with the technology lurking within the acronym. MHL is a connection type that allows you to output what is on your phone screen via an adapter to an external monitor or HDTV (if you’ve seen the term ‘display mirroring’ or ‘mirroring’ before, that’s what I’m describing here). MHL takes it a step further than that though – if you’re playing 1080p content on the 720p screen of S III via MHL it’ll be output to the connected display at the full 1080p.

It’s a pretty nifty little technology, and one I use a lot (check the Connectivity demo here at the blogs YouTube channel to get an idea of some of the uses for this). One of the purported advantages of the technology is the fact that it is a connection standard, rather than a proprietary connection type. The chief advantage of connection standards is interoperability - cables and adapters you purchase for one device will work for all devices bearing that specification. Even better, if the connection type catches on matters improve yet further for consumers in a variety of ways.

Since it outputs 1080p at 1080p rather than the phones resolution
the SIII ably serves double-duty as a portable video player.
You can think about the adoption of micro USB as a worked example of this. Once all the (non-Apple) manufacturers agreed to settle on it as a standard charging and data port, things improved for all (non-Apple) consumers. Charging and data cables became brand-agnostic, and therefore more readily available, less costly, and as an upshot of all of that ubiquitous. Ubiquity is a very good thing, at least where it concerns electronics connections it is. Imagine being able to go to anyone's house and know that a charging or data cable would be available? Well, you don't actually have to imagine too hard, because iPhone user homes excepted, that is already largely true (and imagine how much better it would be for all of us is Apple would also adopt micro USB).

So, a synopsis of the above:

MHL=connection standard=all MHL adapters work with all MHL devices=consumer good

Or at least, up until the S III that’s how it worked.

How to connect your phone via MHL, the power source is key and
most instances I've seen where people have had trouble with MHL
have been because they weren't aware of the power-requirement...
You see Samsung, for reasons they have thus far failed to elaborate on, broke the interoperability of MHL in the SIII. It sports a re-designed 11-pin MHL connection port, rather than the standard 5-pin port, which means that you have to get either a specific (and costly) official Samsung SIII MHL adapter, or buy a Samsung-produced adapter to make your existing MHL cable work with the SIII. Yes, that's right. An adapter for an adapter. If there were only some kind of advantage to end-users in all of this, for example being able to use USB OTG connections simultaneously with the new MHL adapter, I could probably have forgiven Samsung this gaffe. Unfortunately, in my use with the SIII MHL cable, I have failed to find any tangible advantage in the new adapter at all [I note AndroidCentral recently reported that Samsung informed them the altered 11-pin layout would allow for simultaneous USB OTG connections, but I haven't got that to work myself which rouses suspicion that Samsung want to sell me another proprietary adapter]. Of all of the things that Samsung has supposedly 'stolen' from Apple, using a proprietary connector is, for me, the worst possible simulacrum.

My advice to you, fellow consumer? Wait a little while - reverse engineered copies of the Samsung official cable will come soon enough. They'll work the same, be cheaper to purchase, and you won't be giving Samsung a financial reward for screwing us all over like this.


BROWSER

Not it's time to turn our attention to the browser. As one might expect a 4.8 inch 720p resolution screen lends itself extremely well to browser, and never moreso than here in the SIII, which sports many customisations above and beyond the pure stock ICS browser.

As mentioned in Part 1 of the review,
Samsung have seriously optimised
browser performance
If you caught the first part of the review you'll know that many of these optimisations are found under the hood, adding hardware acceleration support throughout the browser and optimising the speed of operation. The incredible Browsermark score of ~170,000 serves to illustrate these changes quite nicely, but even better that speed and fluidity is apparent to the end-user too. Having come from around 7-weeks of One X ownership prior to getting my SIII, I can tell you that browsing on the SIII was like a breath of fresh air compared to HTC's slower, buggy, and less user-friendly version of the ICS browser. Even apart from sheer performance there are some other nice little touches, like performing a 'pinch-shrink' gesture on the screen to bring up the tabs management view.

As an aside I should also point out that you can always use a full blown desktop browser via RDP, and even use bluetooth keyboard and mouse with MHL for a true desktop experience. If that interests you then I recommend Splashtop, my current RDP app of choice. Splashtop has several advantages over the other clients available for Android. Here are said advantages: it's cheap at only $6NZD, it is easy to set up and connect to, it can stream sound even if your PC doesn't have native RDP support, and it is also the only one I've found that will properly utilise bluetooth keyboards and mice (or Transformer keyboard dock). Basically it's awesome. For a demo showing all this in action check around the 20:05 mark on the connectivity video a little further up the review.

Some of the excellent options available on
the stock ICS browser are present here too,
you can select to load Desktop views, or
even download for offline reading!

Naturally, no matter how good it is, browsing on the SIII is not a perfect experience (at least not on the stock browser at any rate). It retains some of the problems Samsung's versions of the stock Android browser have exhibited ever since the original Galaxy S.

The first of these is the inability to permanently select a desktop user agent (often abbreviated "UA", the user agent is how a device identifies itself to the internet, and determines which versions of webpages you get in return - desktop/mobile/iOS etc). This has bothered me ever since the Galaxy S, but at least here we have the ICS stock browser, which has the option to recall desktop versions of pages. It isn't quite an ideal solution though, as whatever you select the change won't persist in the browser across sessions. Another option is to just use another browser, and I can heartily recommend this, but more on that later.

'Pinch-shrinking' will bring up the tab
manager screen, handy. 
The second issue for me is the lack of dynamic reflow. If you aren't familiar with that term it could be because, as far as I'm aware at any rate, I coined it. Dynamic reflow is the term I use to describe the behaviour where text will reflow to fit the screen at whatever level of zoom you're at, as opposed to the fixed reflow behaviour exhibited by the SIII. In the SIII you set a single level of zoom in the browser settings, a single level that you have very little control of I might add, and then double-tapping the screen will zoom the window to that level and reflow text to fit. Subsequent zooming, for example with pinch zooming, will not result in text reflow. Frustrating, although fair to say a less egregious omission here than on say the SII given the disparity in screen size. Text size on double tap to zoom is generally sufficient to allow easy reading. It's still not as nice as having the granular control of text size you get with dynamic reflow via pinch zooming however, so the stock browser loses points for this too. Like the desktop UA problem there is a way around this, which bring us to...

...third party browsers. I mentioned earlier I would touch on this, since you can easily overcome all of the stock browsers deficits with alternate browsers available on the Android Market. This is one of Android's strengths of course, the ability to just replace anything you don't like with something you do. There are a multitude of browsers in the Android Market, so for the uninitiated it can be difficult to find the one that fits best for you. This isn't intended to be an exhaustive guide to third party browsers by any means, so I'll simply recommend a couple of the most highly regarded ones.

More options including the limited degree
of zoom level control, and inverted
rendering - just the thing for battery saving
on an AMOLED screen whilst browsing...
My own favourite, or at least current favourite, remains Opera Mobile. Opera Mobile has dynamic reflow, permanent desktop UA selection, plays flash video, has good tabbed browsing management, and opera turbo to compress images and make sure your browsing only sips from your data allowance. Opera Mobile is fast, smooth,

Dolphin HD is another of the most popular third party browsers available for Android, and well worth checking out if what ails the stock browser has you tearing your hair out in frustration. I recently re-visited Dolphin HD and found it substantially improved over when last I tried it out (which admittedly was quite some time ago). Gestures finally seem a lot more reliable, performance has been tuned up, and there is a veritable cornucopia of extensions available via the Play Store to further enhance its functions or add utility via notable services like Last.FM, Last Pass, Pocket (nee Read it Later) and Evernote. While it hasn't quite overtaken Opera Mobile as my favoured browser, it has for the first time taken permanent residence on my Android handset, and may yet threaten Opera if a few more clutch extensions arrive.

Finally, the Firefox mobile re-design has shed it's beta tag recently and seen some huge changes for the better with much improved speed and rendering, and flash support (flash might be a dinosaur, and about to deservedly settle into extinction, but the reality is that if you really want to experience rich web content it's still nice to have for now). Again, well worth a trial for the grand sum of free.

Easy access to bookmarks, the tab manager screen, RSS feed subscription,
and readability viewswhere websites support them. Note how nicely it renders
on the high-resolution 1280x720 screen, once you've experienced an HD screen
its hard to go back to lower resolutions like qHD, or, shudder, WVGA...

GAMING


You may recall from my Note review that early support for the Note from high quality games developers like Gameloft wasn't really there, which was a real disappointment considering the excellent Mali-400 GPU that dwells within the Note. There were reasons for that of course, it was partly because it was the first phone to feature an HD screen, and partly because of that in-house Samsung GPU. While that prior experience led some incumbent SIII owners to harbour anxiety about how well the SIII would be supported, I didn't really expect that to be a particular problem for Samsung's latest flagship. For one thing, HD Androids have been the rule, rather than the exception, in the high-end for some time now. Furthermore, the Mali-400 is no longer a particularly new beast either, even if the one powering polygonal computation in the SIII is vastly improved compared to the one touted by last years Samsung flagships.

I have to confess that as time wore on that confidence waned, giving way to trepidation. Despite my assurances to quite a number of potential buyers, no Gameloft titles materialised for the SIII in either the Play Store or Gameloft's own WAP store. First one week passed, and then another. Finally, as I sat contemplating the nutritional value of my hat, tomato sauce in hand, Gameloft rescued me and threw the compatibility switch in the Play Store, allowing nearly all their high-quality titles to be installed to the SIII. Even better, in newer titles like Nova 3 Gameloft have added numerous graphical bells and whistles to harness some of the GPU grunt in the SIII.

Depth of field effects for the SIII version of Mass Effect: Infiltrator
I must say that I was already pretty happy with Nova 3 from the graphical point of view on my Note, but the graphics on the SIII are a sizeable step up from even that, bringing a real "wow" factor to the game. Sporting depth of field effects, particle effects, extra lighting effects and even heat-haze from the muzzle of my bloodthirsty automatic rifle after a killing spree, these are some of the best visuals ever to grace a mobile. Other developers are coming to the party now too, I just noticed today that EA have specifically added extra visual effects for the SIII to the recently released Mass Effect: Infiltrater. Suffice to say that despite being early in it's life as a handset, the SIII is already starting to live up to some of the benchmark promise of this years Mali-400 (leading me to positively salivate at the thought that the Note 2 might sport the even more powerful Mali-T604 GPU).

Of course, no discussion of gaming on the SIII would be complete without mentioning those 'Tegra-exclusive' titles that One X owners will loudly discuss when you mention the fact that their Tegra 3 GPU is barely better than last years Mali-400. If you've read earlier pieces of mine in relation to the Tegra-exlusive games you'll know I'm no great fan of what Tegra has done to fragment games compatibility on the basis of whether or not a device carries their hardware.

Even stretched to a 42inch HDTV screen the visuals in Nova 3 look
great, this one segment of the game alone features dynamic
lighting, particle effects, and depth of field effects
Interestingly, over the course of the last year most of the titles in the Tegrazone have come out of exclusivity, and while the non-Tegra versions lack some of the visual flair, they are still great looking games in their own right. The last head count I did about 6 weeks ago revealed that of the 40 or so titles in the Tegrazone, only about 5 were Tegra-exclusives. Hardly the overwhelming coup that Nvidia would have us believe, although obviously the hottest and most in-demand new games to feature in the Zone will be unavailable to the SIII for a time. So, the whole Tegrazone thing is not as bad as I'd once envisioned it might turn be, but it's still bad enough to draw my ire. If I could bend the ear of an Nvidia exec for a few moments, it would probably be to repeat what Linus Torvalds had to say to them...

You can of course still use Chainfire 3D to let your non-Tegra device run some Tegra-only games, just as you could before. Unfortunately this is only working well for games that were released for the Tegra-2 devices, and to my knowledge none of the Tegra-3 titles are working via Chainfire 3D. If you do want to check out some of those older Tegra-exclusives, which include some excellent titles like Galaxy on Fire 2, you will of course require Root access in addition to Chainfire 3D. If you don't already know how to Root your Galaxy NSIII, or how to set up Chainfire 3D, you're in luck; AndroidNZ has guides for all of these things. The Root guide is here, and the Chainfire 3D guide can be found here.

If you're busy Rooting and modding your SIII to make it more games-ready, then you might as well check out our demo video and guide for how to use a PS3 controller wirelessly with the SIII while you're at it. If you're not quite ready to make the jump in the land of Root just yet, checking out the video demo might be just the proof you need to convince yourself that you should Root your SIII. Here is the video demo part of that piece to quell the inevitable cries of "video or it didn't happen!":





If you're still thinking high quality gaming titles look a little too thin on the ground for your liking at this stage, don't forget that emulators are available for Android. In particular I would draw your attention to the excellent Nintendo 64 and Playstation emulators, N64oid and FPSe respectively.

N64oid is available via Slideme, an alternative to the Play Store (while you're there make sure to grab his other excellent emulators, they're available free!). It’s been scanty on updates for some months now, but fortunately it was quite a complete offering before the present update drought. With titles like Mario 64, Mario Kart, Zelda the Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye and Super Smash Brothers all being fully playable N64oid offers an unbelievable gaming treasure trove. Oh, and it gets even better if you have one of those MHL adapters I ranted about earlier and a few gamepads handy, as you can see in this multiplayer  demo video I shot showcasing the same functionality on the Galaxy S II:




In contrast to N64oid, FPSe still graces the Play Store, and also enjoys very regular updates. When I was writing the Note review it had just received a substantial upgrade to take advantage of dual-core systems, offering a very decent bump in emulator performance. It’s developers haven’t been idle since then either, adding a software GPU plugin for GPU rendering in recent months, and just this week another update with a major revision that caters to the Mali GPU in Galaxy handsets. As one might expect the GPU rendering mode improves in direct correlation with the power of your handsets GPU, which makes it a natural fit for S III with its best-in-mobile-class graphical muscle. Using the software GPU plugin mode on the S III and turning on visual bells and whistles like 32-bit rendering and anti-aliasing just doesn’t cause the same hit in performance you’ll see on rival handsets.


SUMMARY


So after all that, how do I judge the Galaxy S III as an entertainment device?

If you exclude the Note, which gets extra points in video playback for its 5.3inch screen, it’s easy to see that the Galaxy S III is the current pinnacle for entertainment in the Android realm (in fact you could just as easily say in the entire mobile phone realm).

To summarize in bullet points: 
  • Browsing is utterly superb, thanks in large part to Samsung adding a lot of value to the already excellent stock browser. ...that said, they still haven’t sorted dynamic text reflow, so many (myself included) will look to alternate browsers like the excellent Opera Mobile or Dolphin HD.
  • For video playback it is extremely good, marred only by the black crush issue that also affected the Note (this stands to improve with tweaks from Supercurio in the form of the Display Panel app that will be released at some point).
  • As things stand at the present time with Voodoo Sound being unavailable for the SIII, it doesn't fare quite so well for audio quality however (meaning it doesn't yet mount an assault on the best examples of audio quality in the mobile phone world, but will still suffice for the vast majority of users' needs). If you're coming from an SII or Note, rest assured that even on stock it outdoes either of those handsets. Audiophiles will probably need to either use a compatible USB DAC, such as the E7, or resort to using a second device for their portable music needs.
  • The question of audio quality aside however, the Galaxy SIII otherwise has the makings of a successful music player, sporting not only a capable stock app with good codec support, but also having a number of excellent third party music players available via the Play Store (PowerAMP, PlayerPro, and Neutron being a few names to get you started).
  • For gaming the SIII will in time be best in class for Android, heck, it's already close to taking that title. Like most newer handsets we’ll just need to give development houses a little time to bring support for their games, and hopefully some Chainfire 3D magic can be worked for use to enjoy those few Tegra-3 exclusive titles out there (and in the meantime we can take solace in the unprecedented gamepad support the SIII brings to the table).

Next up I'll be covering GPS, reception, telephony, and possibly a couple of other lesser covered aspects of the SIII.

Comments, AKA the crowd-sourced part of the review, are always welcome. Drop us your own impressions and insights below.