Samsung Galaxy S III mini review: a small Galaxy with few stars

Samsung made a bold move when it announced the Galaxy S III mini. Here was an Android phone with the potential to take the iPhone 5 head-on. While the original Galaxy S III is clearly the flagship, its 4.8-inch display means it's literally too much for some people to handle. By matching Apple's screen size inch for inch, it could have been pitched as a device aimed at winning over some iOS fence-sitters. However, when you look at the specifications: a dual-core 1GHz processor, WVGA (800 x 480) display and a 5-megapixel camera, it's clear that Samsung had other ideas, opting to fish for a more mid-range customer instead.

Fast forward to the present, and it's no longer a matter of intellectual debate as to what the mini is all about: the phone is here, and on sale in much of Europe for £299 / €379. So hubris, brand appeal and pundit talk aside, is this the real-deal Galaxy S III, just for smaller hands? Or is it a budget phone simply wearing its elder sibling's tuxedo to the ball? We spent some time getting to know the phone in an attempt to find out.

Gallery | 49 Photos

Samsung Galaxy S III Mini review

Hardware

If you happen to own a Galaxy S III, it might be useful to get it out of your pocket or handbag and rest it on some surface beside you -- now, if that's possible. For a lot of what we are about to describe will otherwise seem eerily familiar. But, rather than labor the GS3 comparisons right from the off, we'll give the Galaxy S III mini the individual attention it's entitled to, and then we'll see how (and maybe why) it differs.

Previous Galaxy phones have typically been pretty subdued when it comes to the design flair. They've been relatively nondescript oblongs of plastic, furnished with the requisite details to let you, the user, make calls, browse the web and otherwise get on with your mobile life. The third iteration of the Galaxy S line was the first major departure from this comfortable, familiar arrangement, but one that was welcome. This same design language -- the curved top and bottom, the metal-look accents, et cetera -- is in full effect here.

It's handsome enough.

All told, the Galaxy S III mini is a handsome enough device. Our review model was the marble white version (pebble blue is also available), which looks bright and modern in person. The smooth lines along the top and bottom make the whole thing feel like one continuous shape, almost circle-like, which again makes it feel much more like part of Samsung's 2012 lineup than, say, the Galaxy Beam. Dimensions-wise, it's 2.4 inches wide by 4.7 inches tall, and just a touch over a third of an inch deep. A large device -- unsurprisingly -- this is not. Those measurements are what frame this phone's defining feature -- a 4-inch Super AMOLED PenTile display, which we'll talk about in more detail later on.

Above this screen is the grille for the earpiece, the front-facing (VGA) camera and a couple of sensors. Below it, the familiar Samsung "home" button, as well as two capacitive buttons: one for "menu," the other for back. Neither are visible until the screen is activated, at which point their backlighting will bring them to your attention. The rest of the device's personality comes from the metallic detail around the home button, and around the outermost part of the bezel.

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The flanks have the familiar configuration of volume rocker on the left-hand side, and the dual-function power and standby control over on the right. Down at the bottom is a micro-USB port and mic hole, while at the opposite end you'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack and indentation for popping open the back. Which, kinda brings us neatly on to that very section of the phone. By and large, it's an ocean of white plastic around here, with only the 5-megapixel camera, speaker grille, LED flash and corporate branding serving to break up those otherwise calm, white battery-cover waters. Underneath which is where you'll find the full-sized SIM slot, 1,500 mAh battery, and, beneath that again, the microSD card slot for expanding the onboard (8GB or 16GB) memory by up to another 32GB.

Deeper inside, and fortunately not exposed to eager eyes and fingers, are the 1GHz dual-core NovaThor processor, 1GB of RAM and GSM / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900MHZ) radios with support for HSPA 14.4 (900 / 1900 / 2100). Other radios include dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n (2.4 and 5GHz), GPS and GLONASS and Bluetooth 4.0. The Android version running the show is Jelly Bean 4.1.1. This all results in a typical Samsung phone in terms of current design language and quality of build. It feels solid, without feeling too precious that it might scuff or scratch at the first buttery-fingered indiscretion.

What's different?

If you skipped straight to this section, well, we don't blame you. Releasing a product that bears the same name as your flagship, whatever the suffix, will certainly guarantee -- for better or worse -- a high level of expectation. And, while there's certainly reason not to compare the Galaxy SIII mini with its larger sibling, many of you are surely here for the smack-down, and we wouldn't want to disappoint.

We'll start with some superficial exterior differences before moving onto some of the more significant, internal traits that the mini-version may or may not have inherited. Firstly, starting toward the top of both devices, the mini has a slightly more rounded appearance. Certainly, this is a side effect of its narrower shape, meaning those same curved shoulders come together more quickly, leaving less flat space between them. Below this, you'll note that the sensors and camera have moved from the right on the original Galaxy S III to the left this time around. Beneath these, the Samsung logo is actually larger than before, as is the total distance from the top of the screen to the top of the device, making the bezel taller at the extremes of the newer phone. This also gives the device a slightly more elongated feel overall when placed side by side. Curiously, it seems that Samsung also thinks smaller hands want bigger input options, as the home button is notably larger on the mini than the one on the standard GS III. Likewise, the power button on the right-hand side is slightly taller and squarer than the one on the original, which is more symmetrical.

Around back, the only notable difference is the positioning of the LED flash, which now sits below the camera lens. Also, the speaker hole is now located to the left of the camera, rather than to right, as it did the first time around. Also, while not instantly noticeable as a physical feature, the OG GS III sports a notification light -- something that seems to have gotten lost during the miniaturization process. A definite shame, we think. That takes care of the more cosmetic differences, leaving us to examine the various interior discrepancies (and yes, these are much more plentiful).

Sadly, this doesn't translate to a pixel-packed HD display, because with those smaller dimensions comes a lower resolution: 800 x 480.

Starting from the top again, is that display. We don't want to cast its size as an inferior spec, when the whole point was to build a smaller phone. The OG's 4.8 inches will have teetered a little too close to phablet territory for some, so the idea of a more manageable 4-inch version will likely appeal to many shoppers. Sadly, though, this doesn't translate to a pixel-packed HD display, because with those smaller dimensions comes a lower resolution: 800 x 480. This definitely is an inferior specification, and puts it in the same class as HTC's Desire X, which incidentally, is comparable in many other ways too (same clock speed, camera resolution, et cetera). The PenTile matrix won't win it many fans, either. On the GS III's 4.8-inch screen, meanwhile, that 1,280 x 720 resolution translates to 305 pixels-per-inch. Dropping down to WVGA and losing 0.8 of an inch sees that PPI slip to 233, which, while far from the worst we've seen, does make for a notable difference. You won't have to look hard to spot pixels with the naked eye, and bright text on a dark background can have a visible pixelized edge, whereas on the full-sized Galaxy S III you have to bring the screen much closer before you start to see such details.

The next -- and possibly most significant -- difference is what's in the engine room. While Samsung's quad-core Exynos chip caused our usually serious faces to go slack at the jaw, the company evidently felt that such power (or even the Snapdragon S4 LTE chip) was just too tasty for a handset of this size, opting for a more modest ST-Ericsson-made dual-core 1GHz NovaThor U8500 processor (the same found in the Galaxy Beam, no less). While the performance is hardly a travesty, if you were hoping the mini would be the ultimate pocket-rocket, well, it's not.

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Okay, so, they eased off the gas a little with the processor. Fair enough, you say -- it probably evens out somewhere else, right? If it does, then it's not in the camera department. The megapixel count has been slashed from eight to five on the main shooter, with the front camera dropping from 1.9 megapixels down to VGA resolution. One last number that shrunk was the battery capacity -- 1,500mAh, down from 2,100. This, of course, was a more expected change, and -- as we'll explore later -- not one you should be concerned about.

This rather more mediocre internal specification will likely be the center of much discussion regarding the Galaxy S III mini. It could do almost anything else from here on out, and we imagine that it wouldn't matter all that much for some. Aside from a teleportation feature, a hologram creator or supporting 5G, the fact is, many will read the above and dismiss the phone almost right away. They'd be entitled to do that, of course, and if you were looking for a Samsung flagship -- just smaller -- then we wouldn't blame you, either. If, however, you're of a more forgiving nature, join us and read on to get to know it a little bit better, and perhaps you might not have such a damning view of this little fella after all.

Display


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As we revert back into review -- rather than comparison -- mode, we'll be going over some of the same numbers. This is particularly true with the display. We'll reiterate again: it measures four inches across diagonally, with a WVGA (800 x 480) resolution and a density of 233 ppi. Samsung's sticking to its Super AMOLED PenTile guns whether you like it or not, but if you're the kind of person who finds that a turn-off, you likely already lost interest somewhere in the last section. In reality, the display is adequate, and still delivers a pleasant enough experience. What it lacks in pixel density, it makes up for in brightness and color representation. It might not be quite as brilliant as some of the laminated screens we've seen recently (HTC's Desire X, or Acer's CloudMobile for example), but images display faithfully, with no glaring contrast issues, and if you're into watching lots of video, again, we found it perfectly acceptable for the casual viewing that we performed during our time with it.

Camera


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While it's no longer 2010, the iPhone 4 showed what you can do with five megapixels pretty well. Its time in the sun may has since passed, but it might start to give you a better sense of where the Galaxy S III mini sits in terms of intended market (hint: not at the top). So, five megapixels it is (plus aperture of f/2.6, focal length of 3.54mm), but it's what it does with them that really counts, and we're happy to say that it actually does a pretty good job. Colors look solid and clear, even if the great British autumn made finding bright examples worth shooting a little more difficult. Low-light performance varies, with dimly lit rooms being the camera's particular nemesis, producing much more washed-out colors. But even then, with a steady hand and use of the built-in low-light modes you can still eke out some decent nocturnal pictures.

With a steady hand and use of the built-in low-light modes you can still eke out some decent nocturnal pictures.

As we're not on stock Android, the camera has a few extra options that you don't get with Google's unskinned OS. If you've used any other recent TouchWiz phones from Samsung, you'll know you get a decent spread of additional camera modes, including Panorama, Burst and HDR. There are, of course, the other regular tricks, such as tap-to-focus, face detection and geotagging. All of these work just as well as they did on the original Galaxy S III, which is to say they're useful tools that succeed in enhancing the experience.

Gallery | 26 Photos

Samsung Galaxy S III Mini sample shots

What about budding video makers? Well, we're not suggesting this will win you any Oscars, but when we grabbed some footage in the great outdoors, we found it perfectly capable of preserving memories of a quality that's enjoyable to watch back on the phone itself as well as on the desktop. You don't have to take our word for it though, as there's a sample clip below. You're recording in 720p at 30 fps (at 12 Mbps, 128 Kbps audio), so you're at least gaining membership to the HD club, even if it's at the entry level.

Software


Back in May, when Samsung unleashed the "designed for humans" Galaxy S III, it did so with a TouchWiz revamp. We weren't too smitten with it when we gave the flagship its full review, but we've had half a year now to come to terms with it, and those frustrations -- while still present -- have at least faded somewhat with time. The important thing here is that the UI is one of the few areas where the experience between the two phones is comparable. All those new treats like S Voice and Motion gestures are on display and at your disposal. This also includes other neat tricks such as pop-up video multitasking. Sure, with the smaller screen, it might not be quite as useful, but it's still a fun addition, and one that we're glad made its way over regardless.

Other familiar friends include the lock screen apps, which we found ourselves quick to customize, ensuring these soon became a fast favorite of ours. Also the quick access widgets and shortcuts under the notification pull-down are still a great way to get to useful settings real fast. At the more basic level (i.e., under the hood), remember that we're on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean out of the box, and that means things like Google Now are just a long-press of the menu button away, which goes a long way toward making the experience feel current.

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We were, however, sad to see the the lack of S Beam / NFC. When the phone was first announced, there was loud chatter about this feature being included, with the caveat that it might be region-specific. Alas, that is indeed the case. Our UK retail model does not support NFC. Nor do any of the other European territories (Sweden, Norway, Germany, Belgium, etc.) where it is currently available. We've asked Samsung for clarification on which territories will get the advertised NFC, but for now it's worth checking your local Samsung site just in case.

Overall, the takeaway here is that while you might be getting a slightly rougher deal in terms of specs, what Samsung let you do with the phone hasn't really changed. (NFC notwithstanding, of course.) Not bad, really, especially if you look at this from the increasingly obvious angle of it being more of a budget device, one that's inspired by the Galaxy S III, more than anything. Okay, we know some of you still wanted an exact scale replica of the GS III, but your cause was, regrettably, lost some paragraphs ago.

Performance and battery life


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Specs are one thing, but does it perform well? The answer, is yes. And also, no.

If you skipped straight to the "What's Different" section above, perhaps you came here next? After all, this is really where it's at if you're in the "I want a small Galaxy S III" club. Specs are one thing, but does it perform well? The answer, is yes. And also, no. When you use the original Galaxy S III alongside this one, you can spot the difference straight away. The Exynos processor in our comparison model won't bat an eyelid at anything you throw at it. The dual-core 1GHz NovaThor, however, lets you know it's there from time to time with its slightly slower response. While not terrible, exactly, we'd frequently press the home button and there'd be a noticeable pause before we were returned to the home screen. Occasionally, too, when you press the standby button to wake the phone up, it'd present the home screen for a second, before the lock screen would suddenly appear on top of it, like it was only just kicking into action after the fact.

In general use it's actually fairly smooth, though still more sluggish than its big brother. Comparisons aside, and fully on its own merit, the Galaxy S III mini performs well enough that using it as our daily driver for a week presented no problems at all. This included the usual round of casual gaming, plenty of laps on the slightly more graphically intensive Asphalt 7, video viewing, photo snapping and app usage (we sure do love to check our email). If you are coming over from a lower-specification phone to this, then it's a pleasure to use, and will serve you well as a daily driver. If you just want to compare it to the clearly higher-specced sibling, then sure, it's never going to fare as well. On the other hand, compare it with other mid-range phones -- for this is what it really is -- and it starts to stand out from the crowd a little bit more. Again, the HTC Desire X is a good example. Similar specification, and Samsung's mini feels much more responsive side by side. Likewise, Sony's Xperia U, which also runs on the same NovaThor chip, also feels like a more direct competitor when you get down to the reality of it. Against these phones, the Galaxy S III mini starts to make a bit more sense again in terms of where it fits in the market. For those that want the pure numerical performance breakdown, however, your benchmarks are below.

Samsung Galaxy SIII mini (i8190) HTC Desire X Samsung Galaxy S III (i9300)
Quadrant (v2.0) 3,048 2,682 5,875
Vellamo (v2.0) 1,389 1,147 1,626
AnTuTu 4,539 4,938 10,344
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 2,021 3,448 1,194
GLBenchmark 2.5 1080p Egypt Offscreen (fps) 6 Wouldn't run 15
CF-Bench 4,572 5,460 12,922
SunSpider: lower scores are better. Galaxy S III and Galaxy S III mini results both from Jelly Bean

There is one area where the Galaxy S III mini does stand shoulder to shoulder with big bro, and that's battery life. When we reviewed the flagship back in May, we were surprised to find it lasted between 8.5 and 9.5 hours. We performed the same rundown test (video looping, brightness fixed at 50 percent, WiFi on but not connected), and we got almost exactly the same results, a smidgen over nine hours (9:14, to be precise). This is rather good, we have to admit, especially as the cell is some 600mAh lighter than the OG's 2,100mAh battery. Perhaps Samsung was so precise in its calculations when scaling down the screen that it was able to keep this excellent running time. Or maybe it's just good old-fashioned coincidence. Either way, we like it. We like it a lot.

In general, the battery performs well, and that's even when we're not intentionally trying to drain the life out of the cell. We got through two days of steady use (occasional calls, messages, gaming, photos, etc.) without a problem, and still managed over a day when we found ourselves taxing it a bit more (e.g., flicking between data connections, working in poor signal areas). If you've hung in there with this phone so far, then you'll be pleased to know that it handles those old-school telephone calls pretty well too, with clear audio that remained constant regardless of where we happened to find ourselves (extremely poor signal areas notwithstanding). Likewise, the data / HSPA connection around London was handled at the same rates as whatever its brother could muster, which for number fans ranged from 2.8 Mbps to 4.3 Mbps in and around London on O2.

Wrap-up


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Oh, Samsung, what did you do? We think we know what you thought you were doing. A cheaper phone for those who want a little bit of the Galaxy S III experience, for less money, in a more manageable form. And that's what the Galaxy S III mini actually is. We get that, and what's not to like about that idea? Sure, some people will have taken things a little more literally and expected a flagship device -- in a smaller package -- but that's just not what this is. What you do have, however, is a decent mid-range phone with top end looks. So, for those in search of such a thing, the Galaxy S III mini will be just the ticket, and we're in no doubt that's potentially a lot of people. There was a chance, however, that if done differently, this could have taken the Galaxy S III "brand," in a whole new direction. If this had come with specs similar to its bigger brother, it could have truly been something to behold.

Some, will understandably be disappointed that this isn't so. Sad, instead, that what Samsung did was try and stretch the phone's identity to mop up some of the more budget-conscious market along with those eager for a little bit of the top dog. For these people, that decision will have proved a stretch too far, with the phone's "credibility elastic" snapping under the tension. What we're left with, then, is a perfectly good mid-range phone that might never truly get the consideration it deserves -- after all, compared to much of the actual competition (thesimilarly specced and priced Desire X, Sony Xperia U, etc.) it definitely holds its own. In the end, Samsung has taken a gamble with arguably the largest of all its brands, the Galaxy S, and it's not entirely clear whether it will pay off.

Thanks to Expansys.com, which supplied the review handset.

80
Samsung

Galaxy S III mini (i8190)

Pros

  • Excellent battery life
  • Same software experience as the GS3 
  • Attractive, modern design

Cons

  • Slower performance than on the GS3
  • No NFC or S Beam
  • Mediocre display 
Summary

If you were hoping for a mini Galaxy S III, this isn't it. If, instead you fancy a decent mid-spec phone with a modern design, this is a great choice.