If three's a crowd, the Samsung Galaxy S III party in the US is about to get pretty stuffy. Having already reviewed AT&T and Sprint's variants -- not to mention the original I9300 before them -- we're now ready to put a third iteration through its paces, this time from the country's fourth-largest carrier, T-Mobile.
Of course, the phone itself needs no grand introduction, as it's fast become the new darling of the smartphone world. And rightfully so, in many respects: it's the first high-end device to launch on all four major mobile operators in the US (a feat in and of itself), and it's done so with minimal carrier branding, hardware changes or bloatware levies. It is, in essence, an unadulterated handset. The reason this piece of news is so wondrous is that it opens up your ability to choose your phone service based on the network, not on the actual phone each individual carrier offers.
Sadly, the big tradeoff here is the loss of an Exynos quad-core processor in exchange for a Snapdragon S4 dual-core chipset and additional RAM. Join us as we take a deeper look at the T-Mobile Galaxy S III. Is it the best phone on the network? Is it worth shelling out $280 (with a two-year contract) for the 16GB model or $330 for 32GB? How well does it perform? This and more answers await you in our full review below.
Perhaps you've read our reviews on the global Galaxy S III (aka the I9300) or our shootout involving the AT&T and Sprint versions. If so, you'll understand if our hardware section is a wee bit briefer than in a standard review. Here's the concern: so little is different with T-Mobile's model -- the SGH-T999 -- that you'll have an awfully difficult time distinguishing between this one and the others. But with each and every version we review, we continue to be amazed at how Samsung was so effectively able to leverage its brand and convince all four major US carriers (and a couple regional ones too) to give up nearly all opportunities to differentiate themselves. No logos on the front. No frilly firmware tweaks beside the basic pre-loaded apps. No exclusivity agreements. In fact, we were flabbergasted even by the fact that American consumers had the GSIII in their fingertips within a month after the European release.
Yes, the SGH-T999 does have a unique trait, but it's in the radio setup tailored to T-Mobile's frequencies: the device is the only version in the US that offers HSPA+ / WCDMA with AWS radio support (850 / AWS / 1900 / 2100), as well as the usual quadband GSM / EDGE coverage for global roaming. And as T-Mobile's LTE-Advanced network won't be deployed until next year, no support is found for the next-gen speeds. But beyond that, it features the same 2,100mAh battery under the hood, along with a micro-SIM slot and a microSD reader that supports SDXC (meaning you can pop in 64GB microSD cards if you so desire, pushing your total capacity up to 80GB). The edges of the phone are all as anticipated: 3.5mm headphone jack and noise cancellation mic on top, micro-USB / MHL dock down south, power / screen lock button on the right and volume rocker over to the left. Let's go over a few other details. First, despite reports of some US models only taking advantage of 1GB of RAM, we were able to confirm that the T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T versions all have a full 2GB. Since all US iterations use a Snapdragon S4 1.5GHz dual-core processor rather than the international's quad-core Exynos, this is a helpful compromise to ensure American users enjoy a smooth performance. It's also a huge bar-raiser for flagship devices that will make their debut sometime this year -- if a smartphone doesn't offer that extra gigabyte of memory, it had better be extremely efficient with the RAM it already has.
At 5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 inches (136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm), the dimensions of T-Mobile's Galaxy S III are -- you guessed it -- completely identical to every single one of its counterparts. Color us pleasantly surprised, since carriers have cited the inclusion of AWS as an excuse to revamp lesser phones. We're happy to report, then, that not a single metaphorical hair has been touched here, and everything fits in the chassis exactly the way it should. The gentle curves on the back and edges make the Galaxy S III very comfortable to hold, though anyone with smaller hands may still feel more at ease with T-Mobile's other star phone, the petite HTC One S. Fortunately, the GSIII doesn't add as much width to the frame as you'd expect, so it's really not as bad as the 0.5-inch difference implies. The best part of this cross-carrier compatibility might be the interchangeable battery and back lids. Granted, we're not raving fans of accessorizing our covers, but the fact that we can swap them and the batteries means we can look forward to an incredibly wide variety of accessories. After all, a healthy ecosystem (and tens of millions of phone users) will be plenty of incentive for companies to come up with a plethora of offerings in this department. Plus, having multiple batteries at your disposal isn't too shabby either.
We borrowed a pebble blue unit to use for our T-Mobile tests, which was the same color as the AT&T device we played with last week. Yet for some inexplicable reason, we felt that T-Mo's cover was more prone to fingerprints than its AT&T counterpart. We doubt this will be of much concern for those of you interested in the white model, since smudges are difficult to see on that surface. Yes, the plastic bits on the Galaxy S III do feel a tad frail, especially when you're taking the covers off and nearly bending the thing in half in the process. Still, we didn't feel any worse off with this phone than any other Samsung devices we've tested.
But the important part is not how it feels, it's how it holds up. The front face is coated with second-generation Gorilla Glass, which should help fortify the phone against routine wear and tear, as well as keep the display safe from scratches. Of course, though, we doubt it'll actually protect the panel from cracking if you drop it from waist-level or higher. While we haven't had the opportunity to kick this thing around of our own accord, we encourage you to hit up the More Coverage link at the bottom of this post if you want to see a few durability tests in action. Nothing is lost on the gorgeous Super AMOLED HD display, a PenTile panel whose 1280 x 720 resolution translates into a pixel density of 306ppi. We've seen better, but by no means is the Galaxy S III display an eyesore. Viewing angles are not as wide as what you'll find on the HTC One X; once you start getting close to edge-on, you begin losing much of the rich color and readability you'd enjoy on the X. But let's be real here: while we're completely dazzled by the One X's screen, we doubt many users will find themselves angry that they can't look at it from oblique side angles.
Again, we had a difficult time detecting any noticeable differences here. Isn't it glorious? The same firmware experience on the other models -- even the global version -- can be had on the T-Mobile version, save for a few carrier-specific applications that we'll discuss in a moment. This time around, we're not going to lecture the masses on the merits or hazards of Samsung's proprietary TouchWiz UI as seen on the latest version of Android (4.0.4, to be specific), because we've done so at length already in our past reviews. But it's there, it's heavy and the firmware is identical.
Visual Voicemail is a nice feature to have, but the transcription service commands a monthly subscription fee. Access T-Mobile just takes you into a web browser and lets you view your account information. The Mobile Hotspot shortcut feels a bit cumbersome since the ability to tether comes included in the Galaxy S III, but the most useless shortcut of all is for More Services, which is essentially just a subsection of Samsung Apps (an app market already featured on the GS III).
Of the 49 built-in apps, we found 10 couldn't be uninstalled or disabled. Interestingly enough, the only piece of T-Mobile software included on this list was More Services. If you simply can't stand seeing this (or any other) icon taking up space in your precious app tray, TouchWiz includes an option to hide those apps from sight.
T-Mobile is one of the carriers that has chosen to include a complimentary 50GB of Dropbox storage space (something that AT&T and Verizon refuse to do). As it is, this is better than the 25GB allotment for HTC One S users, but the difference feels even more drastic when you factor in the microSD reader included on the GSIII. For kicks and giggles, we did the math on total storage space included with both phones (and that includes Dropbox): the HTC One S offers 41GB, while the GSIII starts with 66GB, going all the way up to 146GB (the discrepancy depends on whether you purchase the 16GB or 32GB model, and if you get a microSD / microSDXC card to supplement that storage). And we're not even counting any other cloud services you might use. If you take a lot of high-res photos, have a large movie library or store your entire music collection on your phone, Samsung is easily the better choice for you.
Allow us to echo the sentiments of our last Galaxy S III review: the T-Mobile model performs on par with its US brethren, though none of the Snapdragon S4-powered phones can match the I9300's quad-core Exynos chip. If you observe them closely enough in a side-by-side comparison, you may see a rise in overall performance (especially in graphics processing), but unless you're the nitpickiest of power users you won't notice that delta. The top of the US market is dominated by Snapdragon S4 at the moment, and we've always been completely satisfied with how smooth and polished everything is. We didn't see any stuttering when multitasking, playing games, or using the internet -- in fact, we couldn't spot any tiling at all when loading the Engadget home page on the stock browser.
Below you'll see two tables: the first one offers a comparison between the GSIII and the HTC One S, its primary competitor on T-Mobile. The second table illustrates how this model compares with the rest of the Galaxy S III units we've reviewed so far.
|T-Mobile Galaxy S III (SGH-T999)||T-Mobile HTC One S|
|SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)||1,764||1,742|
|GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps)||54||57|
|SunSpider: lower scores are better|
|T-Mobile (SGH-T999)||Global Galaxy S III (GT-I9300)||AT&T (SGH-I747)||Sprint (SPH-L710)|
|SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)||1,764||1,460||1,926||1,882|
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps)
|SunSpider: lower scores are better|
T-Mobile hasn't done much to tweak the Galaxy S III's battery life, as the 2,100mAh juicepack cranked through our standard video rundown test for eight hours and 58 minutes before powering down. Even though this is the shortest we've seen so far for the lineup of Samsung flagships, it only misses the international version's mark by four minutes and AT&T's by seven (though admittedly, AT&T's model was tested using LTE, whereas T-Mobile is on HSPA+). We're not going to lose valuable sleep over the discrepancy, and you shouldn't, either -- we were still able to get a full day of extensive and productive use (a day and a half for moderate users), and if you find yourself in a worst-case scenario, its compatibility with other carriers' models should mean that plenty of extra batteries will be available online.
GPS performed amicably alongside the two other US variants. Within three to four seconds, the maps had us pinned down to within 60 meters of our location -- and after getting a stronger pinpoint, it gradually inched even closer to our true whereabouts. Just as we found when comparing the AT&T and Sprint models, the Sprint version was the straggler when we brought it up against T-Mo's model. That's not to say the L710 was terrible -- it just didn't find us quite as fast as the other two. (As a side note, Sprint's was the only one connected to WiFi at the time, since the network's 3G connections are quite atrocious in comparison. This goes to show that even WiFi assistance couldn't help its GPS be more accurate in a timely manner.) Additionally, the Galaxy S III throws in support for GLONASS, Russia's global network for satellite positioning. With the ability to ping more satellites, accuracy and lockdown time are both improved. We've seen a few other smartphones with support for both systems, and we hope to see this become a growing trend amongst mid-range and low-end devices.
As with the other GSIII units, we greatly enjoyed the volume and tonal range of the external speakers, which make it ideal for music and conference calls. Listening to songs with headphones was a happy experience, and all of our calls sounded crystal clear through the speakers. If you live in an area with inconsistent T-Mobile coverage, the network also adds in its WiFi calling feature to help ensure conversations don't get dropped or ruined by a patchy signal.
We're not going to say anything different than what we've said before: the Galaxy S III's camera is among the smartphone greats, and T-Mobile hasn't done anything to screw that up. In addition to having a full suite of customization settings, the 8-megapixel sensor comes with autofocus, an f/2.6 lens and the ability to lock exposure and focus when holding down the shutter. And to honor the general mantra of Ice Cream Sandwich, shutter lag is incredibly short and almost instantaneous. We also love the camera's low-light performance, mainly thanks to having multiple choices such as night / candlelight / sunset / dawn modes, flash and HDR. That last option was our favorite tool when attempting to capture sunsets, or when we just needed a small boost in light without a major increase in noise (night mode could capture more errant light, but graininess was an unfortunate side effect).
In comparison, we didn't see anything in the T-Mobile version's still camera performance that stood out amongst its siblings. We've added a gallery for each US GSIII below to help you compare the results.
Feature-wise, it has all of the options we've come to expect in a top-notch Galaxy-class smartphone: plenty of scene modes, autofocus, macro focus, face detection, ISO (up to 800), white balance (daylight, shade, incandescent and fluorescent), panorama mode, geotagging, HDR, exposure adjustments, flash and the ability to edit shortcuts. It also has a few filters, offers burst shot, smile shot, anti-shake, a timer and the option of compressing your images. In this way, it's a Samsung device through and through -- these are exactly the types of options you'd see in a standard point and shoot.
The T-Mobile Galaxy S III is capable of capturing 1080p HD video, while the front-facing cam can hook you up with 720p for some decent video chatting. But first, let's discuss that rear camcorder. It captures the level of detail we like to see in a premier smartphone and has no problem keeping up with moving objects. We have just one concern, and it's the same that we had with Sprint's GSIII: the autofocus was constantly working throughout many of our videos (in both 720p and 1080p resolutions). At least it was subtle and didn't make itself a nuisance, but when looking carefully enough at the footage, we could definitely see the feature attempting to make adjustments several times in the video. Autofocus does have its usefulness in video capture, but only in specific scenarios, and not when it appears in the movie so many times. Footage taken with the front-facing camera didn't suffer from this problem because the sensor lacks that feature, and motion turned out pretty smooth. Our only nitpick is that it doesn't offer the same amount of clarity you'll find on the rear cam.
T-Mobile's flavor of Galaxy S III will come in marble white and pebble blue, with either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. The entry-level model can be had for $280 with a two-year commitment, with the 32GB version running $330 -- and before any mail-in rebates are applied. Even then, this particular version of the flagship device still ends up costing $80 more than any of the other carriers at the time of launch. The worst part is that there's no reasonable explanation for that extra financial commitment that T-Mobile is asking. Its componentry is the same as on the other Galaxy S IIIs, with the only exceptions being that AWS is included whereas LTE is not. This move seems contrary to Magenta's mantra of being a lower-budget alternative to AT&T and Verizon. Is the carrier going into the GSIII launch half-hearted? Does it believe that its loyal customers will pay the upfront cost regardless of how it compares to the company's competitors? Whatever the reason, it's one of the few flaws we've found with this otherwise excellent deal.
Sure, the price will go down over time, as all phones do, but how long will it take? Will this sway fencesitters trying to decide between this and the One S? Perhaps. It would be so much easier if these two phones could be the same exact price -- then, it's easily a matter of comparing oranges with oranges. But it's not so cut-and-dried: the Galaxy S III is the best T-Mobile device based on the spec sheet, but the One S is lighter, thinner and less expensive (even more so with web-only specials), all factors that may garner quite a few sales. Since most potential T-Mobile buyers looking for a premier device will be trying to decide between these two handsets, we've compiled a chart showing how the two phones fare next to each other blow-by-blow.
|T-Mobile Galaxy S III||T-Mobile HTC One S|
|Pricing||$280 (16GB), $330 (32GB)||$200 (price may vary online)|
|Dimensions||5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 inch (136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm)||5.15 x 2.56 x 0.31 inch (130.9 x 65 x 7.8 mm)|
|Weight||4.69 oz (133 g)||4.22 oz (120 g)|
|Screen size||4.8 inches||4.3 inches|
|Screen resolution||1280 x 720 pixels (306ppi)||960 x 540 (256ppi)|
|Screen type||Super AMOLED HD||Super AMOLED|
|Gorilla Glass||Gorilla Glass 2||Gorilla Glass|
|Internal Storage||16GB / 32GB options||16GB|
|External Storage||None included, MicroSDXC compatible (up to 64GB)||No external memory options|
|Rear camera||8MP, AF, LED flash, f/2.6||8MP, AF, LED, f/2.0|
|Video capture||1080p HD||1080p HD|
|Network speeds||DC HSPA+ 42Mbps||DC HSPA+ 42Mbps|
|CPU||1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 (MSM8960)||1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 (MSM8260A)|
|GPU||Adreno 225||Adreno 225|
|MHL||Yes (special adapter needed)||Yes|
|Supported multimedia formats||MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, FLAC, WMA, AMR, OGG, MPEG4, H.263, H.264, DivX, WMV||MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, M4A, AMR, OGG, MIDI, MPEG4, H.263, H.264, WMV, 3G2, 3GPP|
And then there were three. Of the six US mobile operators committed to bringing the Galaxy S III to their customers, we've now had the opportunity to play with half of these models. As far as major national carriers, we're still waiting on Verizon Wireless, while US Cellular and C Spire are bringing up the rear as the regional options. The more we see of these phones, the more we're impressed at how amazingly alike they truly are -- and yes, that's a great thing for everyone in the good ol' US of A. It ensures that everyone has the chance to use one of the best smartphones we've ever seen, and they can do so without incurring massive wireless bills in the process.
When looking at T-Mobile's current lineup, there's no doubt in our minds that the Samsung Galaxy S III is our number one choice, so long as price isn't a factor. The HTC One S is still a great performer and will be ideal for anyone wary of TouchWiz, the price tag or the larger frame, but Sammy's darling offers the same amazing performance -- with a beautiful HD display, to boot. It's a tough device to say no to; if you're worried about the temptation, you may want to avoid eye contact for a while... or at least hide your wallet somewhere.
The Samsung Galaxy S III is currently the best phone money can buy on T-Mobile's lineup.