Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini review: Best entry-level Android $1 can buy

One dollar on contract. That’s pretty much all you need to know about why AT&T is selling an Android phone that’s a year old, and why anyone would choose the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini over many other “minis” – the HTC One Mini, Motorola Droid Mini, and iPhone 5C included.

It doesn’t hurt that this baby S3 has a pleasing design, a modern Android 4.2.2 OS, and a reliable camera. On the other hand, the smartphone is slower than most, and although the Mini debuted as a midrange Galaxy S3 alternative, its hardware specs are entry-level by today’s standards. Although its credentials trail behind, the S3 Mini is pretty great for what is essentially a free phone, and an ideal 99-cent investment for smartphone first-timers.

A word about Minis Although new to AT&T, the S3 Mini in fact kicked off the trend of manufacturers issuing a slightly smaller, more scaled-back alternative to the premier smartphone that nevertheless kept the phone’s basic look, feel, and design elements.

With its October 2012 debut, the Galaxy S3 Mini became the cheaper, midrange alternative to the high-end Galaxy S3, while still remaining part of the S3 family. AT&T’s decision to include it in its lineup, despite the Galaxy S4 Mini being the most obvious next of kin, is an interesting move that brings new life to an “older” device.

Design and build Beyond its petite 4-inch screen size and slightly thicker chassis, the S3 Mini looks almost identical to the original Galaxy S3, with all the side swoosh accents, body shape, and button shapes intact. As with the original, this “mini me” comes in ultra glossy pebble blue and white finishes.

With its more compact feel, the Mini, which measures 4.8 inches by 2.5 inches by 0.39 inch and weighs 4 ounces, is small enough to slide into most pockets, but weighty enough so that it doesn’t get lost. That high-shine exterior is extremely reflective and smudge-prone, but it does feel pretty comfortable in the hand.

Let’s talk about the phone’s 4-inch Super AMOLED WVGA resolution display (800×480 pixels). At 233 pixels per inch, the Mini is far less pixel-dense than, say, the $100 HTC One Mini’s 340ppi-yielding 720p HD screen. But don’t let that worry you too much; the Mini’s resolution is still within range for its size and delivers the rich colors that AMOLED displays are known for. A bigger downside is that it also happens to be highly reflective, which makes words and images all but disappear in direct sunlight, even with the screen brightness cranked up to its maximum value.

The Galaxy S3 Mini is compact and pocketable. Josh Miller/CNET

The phone’s navigation array features Samsung’s now-typical physical home screen button flanked by Menu and Back soft keys that also do double duty bringing up recent apps, S Voice, and Google Now/voice search. The power/lock button lives on the right, in the same spot that makes Samsung phones particularly susceptible to turning on at unwanted times. Volume control is on the left. You’ll charge your phone from the Micro-USB port on the bottom, and plug in the headset jack up top.

An LED flash gives the 5-megapixel rear camera an assist, while the front-facing VGA camera takes on self-portraits and video chat. Beneath the back cover, the microSD card awaits up to 64GB in external storage.

OS and apps Thankfully, when it comes to its OS, the S3 Mini has not been wounded by the passage of time. A year after it debuted globally with Android 4.1, AT&T and Samsung have wisely elevated the OS to version 2.2. Considering that we’re just now starting to see phones and tablets ship with Android 4.3, you can’t really ask for a $1 smartphone that’s more up to date – or even a $100 smartphone, for that matter.

As usual, Samsung’s customizable TouchWiz interface rides shotgun over Android, which gives the phone an all-Samsung personality. This version understandably pulls back on the multitude of options unleashed for marquee phones like the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 3. Still, there are plenty of extras – like motion controls, the S Beam NFC app, and Smart Stay (which keeps the screen active as long as you’re looking at it) – to make you feel like you’re using a juiced-up Android phone.

Apps from Google, Samsung, and AT&T populate the device when you first boot it up. Josh Miller/CNET

If, in fact, the OS strikes you as overly convoluted, Easy Mode switches to a simpler look and feel with larger icons that are more digestible to the eye at a quick glance.

Whichever interface you choose (and yes, you can switch back and forth to your heart’s content), you’ll get some helper tools, like word tracing on the virtual keyboard. This helps keep larger fingers from getting too frustrated with mistypes on the S3 Mini’s more cramped screen. I personally go back and forth between pecking out letters and tracing them, and there are third-party apps that can also adapt to your style over time, even premeditating your next word choice.

In terms of apps, you’ll have the full Google suite, from maps and navigation to social connections like Google+, and also Google Now. AT&T throws in its usual bundle of account management apps and services, like a window to its mobile TV subscription service, and a mobile hot-spot helper. On top of this, Samsung’s favorite extras, like S Translator, S Voice (a Google Now competitor), and Group Play, nestle in.

You’ll notice a helper bar at the bottom of the screen when you fire up the native browser. Leave it on if you’d like, but if you’re like me and find that it just gets in the way, you can toggle it off in the settings menu.

Other software features include Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and that hot-spot capability for up to 10 devices.

Cameras and video Consistency is key, and that’s something that Samsung has mastered across its camera experiences on its gazillions iterations of smartphones. The 5-megapixel camera you get here in the S3 Mini is solid and reliable, producing roughly the same clear, colorful, well-defined images we’ve seen on so many other Samsung phones.

Autofocus and an LED flash are two of the most important tools here, but you’ll also get a handful of shooting modes, like panorama, night mode, sports shot, and beauty face, the latter of which air brushes people. I think it’s a little creepy and unnatural, myself. There’s no HDR mode for capturing high-dynamic range, which is probably a result of the smaller internal storage size, RAM spec, and/or processor clock speed. Strangely, you do get Sound and Shot, which records a snippet of audio to go with your still, but only plays back on other Samsung phones with this feature.

An LED flash gives the 5-megapixel camera a hand. Josh Miller/CNET

You’ll get four filters as well, an additional macro mode, some wacky sharing features, and the ability to drill down into (more limited) white balance, ISO, and other settings. Voice control is also built in, which means you can speak a command to take a picture, a boon for when you need to keep both hands on the phone.

Night shots are a different story when you’re in automatic mode. Native low light is abysmal, with nearly pitch-black rendering. The strong flash rescues the scene, but with artificial pep that makes night look like day.

Another complaint: the capture process is slow, due mostly to the modest processor. You’ll need patience while the camera loads, captures the image, and readies itself for another. You may miss photos, like I did, and subjects will have to hold their poses a little longer. See the performance section below for more metrics.

Back to the good news, the Mini’s 720p HD video is equally consistent with photo quality. Videos taken in ample light looks best, and the phone is capable of capturing pretty smooth video that adjusts as you pan. Audio pickup was fair, but, predictably, works best when the subject is closest and isn’t competing with ambient raucous.

Front-facing photos and video chats are passable on the VGA front-facing camera, but quality is basic. The better the lighting conditions, the self portrait. I wouldn’t advise using it for VoIP calls if you have other options; your caller will just get a blurry, grainy picture of you.

See the results for yourself in these test shots, which were all taken on automatic mode for the sake of – there’s that word again – consistency.

This chicken salad looks good enough to eat. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
My first attempt to take this picture turned out out of focus. This second attempt better shows the little guy on his perch. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Motorcycle row looks colorful in bright sunlight. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The camera captured a mix of artificial and natural light in this inside shot. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The S3 Mini’s harsh flash nearly blinded other customers in this darkly lit bar. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Here’s the same low-light shot again, this time without the flash. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Taken outside in even shadow, this grainy mess was the most flattering front-facing photo this phone could muster. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
There’s quite a bit of noise in this standard studio shot, but exposure is fairly even. Click for full-resolution. Josh Miller/CNET

You can compare other studio shots taken from a range of smartphones in this gallery.

Call quality I tested the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini in San Francisco using AT&T’s GSM network (850/900/1800/1900MHz bands). Call quality hit right in the middle. While long calls weren’t pleasant, shorter discussions worked just fine, and the disruptions were never bad enough to impede actual conversation. I found that I constantly fiddled with the controls in an effort to nail down a comfortable audio level.

One thing to know is that many Samsung phones embed extra software features to assist with call quality. Noise reduction is turned on by default, but you’ll also find an on-screen control to boost the volume, plus a drop-down for selecting other characteristics, like soft volume or clearer sound. (Hint: Volume boost makes everything louder, not just voices; and actually can worsen problems, not solve them.)

Leaving on-screen settings in their default configuration, I found that I needed the volume setting at a notch or two below the maximum. Voices attained a slightly raspy quality and didn’t sound as round or natural as they should. I didn’t hear any background crackle or hiss, but there were a few weird interruptions from time to time, like whoops and echoes.

On his side of the line, my chief testing partner said I sounded fine from his land line, but a little muffled. The call was loud enough, and quiet, but a little unnatural, and not very resonant or warm. I was clear, he said, but not necessarily pleasant.

Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone was pretty loud when I held the phone at hip level. Noise cancellation turns itself off at this setting, and once again I needed to hitch volume up to the three-quarter mark. My test caller’s voice sounded a little thin and reedy, and I’d need his voice louder if the room were noisier. The more I increased the volume, though, the buzzier the phone became in my hand. Audio also picked up a lot of artifacts. On his end, my main partner noted that this phone seemed to amplify speakerphone’s natural echo, and that my voice quality otherwise sounded unchanged.

Performance: LTE speeds, processor, battery life Performance hits expectations for this entry-level device, delivering highs and lows across the board. Navigation was swift enough when swiping through the S3 Mini, but it did take apps longer to load, and the camera app was especially pokey from shot to shot.

Internal and data speed results using diagnostic testing apps. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Mini’s 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8930 processor could handle casual games no problem, but expect broken pixels for resource- and graphics-heavy games, like our common testing title Riptide GP2.

AT&T’s typically blazing LTE speeds experienced peaks and valleys here. One test using the diagnostic app spiked to 30mbps down, but mostly results straddled the low singles (3, 5, and 6) and teens (14, 18). Likewise, upload speeds ran the gamut from low (under 1Mbps up) to high (14Mbps up).

Battery life is always a tricky subject, because your actual drain depends on how you use the phone. AT&T’s Mini got a bump in battery capacity from the global version’s 1,500mAh juice box up to 2,000mAh, a nod to the phone’s LTE-driven consumption. This gives it a rated talk time of up to 11 hours and up to 15.4 days standby time. During our battery drain test for video playback, the device lasted 14.1 hours.

A few final specs to through your way: the S3 Mini has 8GB total internal storage, and can support an up-to-64GB microSD sidekick. It has 1GB RAM. FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 0.71 watt per kilogram.

Who should buy it? Price is typically the most compelling feature in a budget device, making potential customers more willing to accept mediocrity for the sake of the bottom line. Not so with the S3 Mini. Though it was never high-end, even in its prime (and was never meant to be), it still packages together enough hardware and software features to provide an all-around complete software experience for first-time smartphone owners. I’m thinking especially of teenagers getting a first taste of responsibility and freedom, or really, anyone transitioning from a simple phone to a smartphone.

The 99-cent on-contract price does pump up the Mini’s value, and its modern Android version gives it an edge over AT&T’s other dollar bargains, like the (also good) HTC One VX and last September’s Pantech Flex. AT&T is also selling the stylish HTC Windows Phone 8X for the same price, with similar features. These would all be acceptable choices for the price range, though I’d lean toward the HTC and Samsung phones, and this Mini in particular if you’re all about software extras.