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Review: Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

Allan Swann
December 11, 2012

Samsung’s flagship S3 smartphone gets a ‘mini’ sibling – but just how far has the apple fallen from the tree?

Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini
£300 sim free, or £25p/m on contract
Reviewer: Jasper Jackson

The S3 Mini tries to be a smaller, cheaper version of the S3 – but ends up being a rather poor relation at a high price. In many ways the S3 Mini does what it says on the tin. It takes the design and operating system tweaks of the hugely successful S3 to a smaller, cheaper handset. However, without that handset’s speed, or its big and beautiful screen, the Mini feels far inferior to both its big brother, and its cheaper but more powerful rival devices released in recent months.

It’s a mid-range smartphone that, in its attempts to associate itself with one of the most successful smartphones ever, ends up falling embarrassingly short.

STILL LOOKS SHARP
In pure design terms, the S3 Mini really is the spitting image of the S3. Everything is simply scaled down. It still has the comfortable pebble-like feel, though its smaller size makes fit more comfortably in your palm. That will hopefully reduce the likelihood you’ll let its silky smooth back plate slip from your grasp.

While mimicking the S3’s design obviously seemed like a winner to Samsung, using the same plastic casing found on the flagship device hasn’t panned out. While the beefy, top-end spec Galaxy S3 could get away with a slightly budget plasticky case, knowing what’s inside the Mini just makes it feel cheap.

The back of the device is also difficult to peel off. You feel like you are about to snap it every time you try to get inside to change the battery, place a SIM or upgrade the storage – a worrying experience. The trade off is that unlike more sturdy, sealed handsets, you can actually get inside. You’ll probably need to as, after installing your files, apps and other software, you only have about 4.7GBs of storage to play with.

COST-CUTTING IN ABUNDANCE
Shrinking the screen down to 4-inches in itself isn’t a terrible thing. The screen space now seems small, but only a couple of years ago it would have been considered at the large end of the spectrum (the iPhone 4S is only 3.5-inches). However, screen quality is a bit of an issue.

The Mini’s Super AMOLED display isn’t by any means bad, and Samsung hasn’t messed with the super-saturated colours it has been exposing its users to for the last couple of years. However, that screen just isn’t as sharp as the one on the S3 – making reading a web page on a browser that bit harder than you would like. Video and images look good, but again they pale in comparison to what’s on offer on the S3.

WEAKER CAMERA
The five mega-pixel camera is also a bit of a let-down. Picture resolution isn’t bad, and the camera performs decently in low light. It also records respectable video – but not in full 1080p HD. While not bad for a mid-range device, it again isn’t a patch on the eight or 12 mega-pixel snappers that now come as standard on higher end devices. Unlike handsets like the Xperia S, the HTC One X or S3 it won’t replace a holiday camera for those who take a little pride in their photography. It will however suffice for the odd social media update.

DATED INTERNALS
The other big area where cost-cutting is apparent is in pure power. True the S3 Mini has a very respectable 1 GHz of RAM – but its 1GHz dual-core processor sounds like the sort of chip you’d put in a high-end device all the way back in 2010, not a mid-range smartphone today.

In a Quadrant Benchmark test the Mini didn’t exactly set the world on fire. In fact it came out at roughly the same level as those top range devices from two years ago. With the advances in processing power since, that’s far from impressive.

FOR MID-RANGE OR POWER USERS?
That lower spec does have one advantage – power consumption. With moderate usage throughout the day – the occasional YouTube video, a couple of calls, some social networking and using a newspaper app regularly – the S3 Mini coped more than adequately. You will get more than a day out of it in most circumstances – however there was one situation where the Mini’s battery did die quickly than a badger crossing a motorway. – downloading tracks on Spotify through wi-fi,

While the specs don’t look great on paper, the Mini has enough power to take advantage of Google’s recent efforts in the  Jelly Bean version of Android to deliver a smoother experience. Navigating around the OS is silky smooth. It even seems to be able to cope reasonably well with running video as a small box in the corner of the screen.

TOUCHWIZ: SAMSUNG BLOATWARE?
The most recent version of Samsung’s particular flavour of Android, TouchWiz, is pretty much identical to the one found on the S3. The Mini also comes with the same set of pre-installed widgets found on its larger predecessor:  A well-designed but pretty standard music player, a video hub linking to Samsung’s own movie rental service, and S Suggest, an app recommendation service.

Samsung's TouchWiz sometimes feels like bloatware

Samsung’s TouchWiz sometimes feels like bloatware

There is also of course, S Voice, Samsung’s attempt to match Apple’s Siri voice recognition system. It’s ok for simple commands but too inaccurate to make dictating text reliable and Apple has managed to integrate Siri far more effectively into the workings of the phone. I’m not particularly entranced by either system.

Visually, I find TouchWiz slightly cartoonish.

THE RISE AND RISE OF SAMSUNG – DUE FOR A FALL?
Samsung has had an astonishing rise in the last three years to overtake Nokia and become the world’s largest maker of mobile phones. It has also become the only brand able to challenge Apple’s dominance of the top end of the market. The handset that sparked that rise was the S2 – a great device with a lot of power, a big screen and a good implementation of Android. The S3 has continued the trend, and is doing even better.

Yet having reviewed a few Samsung handsets in the last few months, I think that rise has a downside. While the Korean brand has put a lot of effort into its high-end handsets such as the S2, S3 and Galaxy Note, it appears to have neglected cheaper handsets such as the Galaxy Mini, Advance and now the S3 Mini, leaving other manufacturers to produce better devices at the same price or lower.

HEATED COMPETITION FROM RIVALS
The S3 Mini is a decent handset. While it isn’t up to the standards of the S3, that’s a pretty tough act to live up to. But the Mini’s biggest problem isn’t the disparity between it and its bigger sibling, it’s the fact that since the launch of the original S3 a number of handsets have come to market which offer a great deal of power at a low price.  It is tough to recommend unless you really do believe Samsung is the next Apple and are prepared to pay more for less in the name of branding.

There are two ways of looking at the Samsung S3. It’s either a noble attempt to bring the excellent experience of the S3 to a wider audience with a cheaper, smaller version, or it’s a cynical attempt to cash in on what is the first smartphone to really have the star appeal of the iPhone. Considering the price tag for what is at best a middle-of-the-road handset, it seems the latter is more likely.

PLUS
+ Samsung’s latest, pretty version of Android
+ Decent battery life
+ Looks like an S3

MINUS
– Cheap case materials
– Underpowered for the price
– Mediocre camera

PERFORMANCE 3 Stars
USABILITY 4 Stars
DESIGN 3 Stars
FEATURES 4 Stars

OVERALL 3 Stars

VERDICT
From a distance people may mistake this for its pricier S3 sibling. However, the S3 Mini is a shadow of its big brother in almost every sense. It also can’t really compete with its main Android rivals, such as Google’s Nexus 4, which are significantly cheaper.
SPEC SHEET
OS Android Jelly Bean 4.1.1
Screen Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen
Resolution 480 x 800 pixels 4.0 inches 233 PPI
Storage 8 or 16 GB, up to 32 GB microSD expandable
Camera rear 5MP autofocus, LED flash, Face detection – front 0.3MP
Video 720P 30fps
CPU NovaThor U8420 -1GHz dual-core
Memory 1GHz Ram
GPU Mali-400/MP4
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi hotspot
Ports Micro-USB 3.5m jack
Battery Li-Ion 1500 mAh – Claimed battery life 430 hours standby, 7 hours + talk time
Dimensions: 121.6 x 63 x9.9mm
Weight 111.5g

 

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