Not every phone can be the Samsung Galaxy S7. For one thing, not everyone can afford a Galaxy S7 – but for a while Samsung went dark on budget phones, to the disappointment of fans of the brand who lacked capacious wallets.
However, it's fired out loads of cheapies and mid-rangers over the last year or so – and its latest effort in this department, the Samsung Galaxy J3, is roughly what you'd get if you took the Moto G4 and injected it with a good shot of Galaxy S7 DNA.
But, while that sounds promising, in reality the Galaxy J3 misses out on a couple of near-essential basic features, making it a worse buy than some of the usual-suspect budget picks – it doesn't unseat the Motorola Moto G4, and the Oppo F1 is superior too.
It's worth considering how big an issue those niggles are for you, though, as at £149 (US$199, AU$260) the J3's price is pretty keen for a Samsung.
You do need to be doubly careful about which model you buy though, as there are several differently-specced versions of the Samsung Galaxy J3 floating about across the world, some with worse cameras than others; we're reviewing the UK version.
A few years ago even Samsung's top-end phones were plastic. Remember the Samsung Galaxy S5? Great phone, dodgy styling.
The Samsung Galaxy J3 looks quite a lot like the latest Samsung flagships, but the feel is more like that of the old guard. It's an all-plastic phone aside from the glass used on the front, and the central select button, which is metal.
This is no surprise given that the phone is super-affordable, but there's that hint of classic Samsung deception involved, with the sides of the Samsung Galaxy J3 intended to look like fancy frosted aluminum.
Friends will probably assume it's just 'the latest Samsung' at first glance, though, thanks to the unmistakeable button layout below the screen. It's not Apple-grade iconic, but you'd be surprised at how recognisable this configuration is, even among people who aren't obsessed with tech.
Aside from the cheaper plastic feel, the Samsung Galaxy J3's handling is fairly similar to that of the S7. Cheap phones are no longer smaller than expensive ones by default, and Samsung has done its best to make the J3 look and feel like the S7's cheaper brother. Like that phone it's 7.9mm thick, and its footprint is just a couple of millimeters longer.
It's a clever bit of design: while the J3 has thicker bezels and a less taut design, those are offset by the ever-so-slightly smaller screen. This phone has a 5-inch display, the S7 a 5.1-inch one.
The comparison only holds up on the surface, though, and the construction of the two phones is totally different. The Galaxy J3 has a peel-off plastic battery cover, hiding the removable battery, the microSIM slot and the microSD slot.
One thing to note here is the SIM size – the J3 uses the larger micro standard, not the nano one common in mid-range and high-end mobiles.
The more you look at and feel the Galaxy J3, the more it seems like a standard budget phone. However, the split-second impression it leaves is of being a lot like the Galaxy S7: good work Samsung.
Thanks to MobileFun for providing our J3 review unit!
There are some rather frustrating omissions that tone down the appeal of this efficient mimicry, though. The single most annoying thing about the Samsung Galaxy J3, the part that almost single-handedly would stop me recommending this phone to budget-conscious friends, is the screen backlight.
There's no ambient light sensor, and no auto brightness mode, so you have to turn the screen level up and down every time you head outside or return home. At one point I went into a cinema with the handset, and even switching it on before the trailers started was enough to fill me with embarrassment of the acuteness experienced by two Englishmen stuck shoulder-to-shoulder in a lift door.
Manual brightness-setting is a daily pain in the backside. However, props to Samsung inasmuch as, as usual, its display is super-super bright. And in place of where an auto mode might be there's an outdoors button that turbo-charges the screen, giving it enough backlight power to compete with the brightest of conditions.
The Galaxy J3 has a 5-inch, 1280 x 720-pixel Super AMOLED screen. Samsung is the only big brand that can afford to squeeze a display of this type into such an affordable phone – it's the master of phone OLEDs.
OLEDs destroy LCD screens in terms of contrast and black level – and in this case brightness too, compared to entry-level 720p LCDs. However, I actually prefer the character of LCD screens. It's all down to one little word: PenTile.
This is a Samsung screen architecture designed to address the problem of OLED sub-pixels deteriorating at different rates. Here the pixels share sub-pixels, which leads to a certain fizziness in the screen. The Galaxy J3 looks less sharp than a 5-inch 720p LCD phone would, and it's something I noticed instantly after turning the phone on. Hello PenTile my old friend.
That said, within a couple of days my eyes had bedded into that PenTile fizz. I just stopped noticing it –and part of my job is being a screen snob.
As with other OLEDs, the Samsung Galaxy J3 has super-saturated colors, but you can tame them to an extent using the phone's four screen modes. Just like on the higher-end Samsungs, you can pick between Adaptive Display, AMOLED Cinema, AMOLED Photo and Basic in the Settings menu.
They're not as good as the calibrations in the Galaxy S7, of course. The first three are quite severely oversaturated, and even Basic doesn't have the chilled-out, natural shades you'll see in the more expensive Samsung phones and tablets; reds still run ever-so-slightly hot.
However, I'm pretty happy with the phone in Basic mode. It gives you much richer colors than most budget handsets, which will often only hit 70-odd percent of the sRGB color gamut.
Parts of the Galaxy J3 screen are admirable, then, but it's hard to forgive the lack of auto brightness. The top screen layer is not Gorilla Glass either; it's clearly toughened, but there's a risk that it may pick up scratches a little more quickly, and it isn't as fingerprint-resistant as some more expensive mobiles.
The Samsung Galaxy J3 has a pretty limited core feature set. There's just 8GB of storage in the base model, for example, when the best phones at this £150 (US$200, AU$260)-ish price now tend to have 16GB. As there's a microSD slot it's not a killer issue, but it's enough to stop me marvelling at the price.
Right now in the UK, for example, you can get the 8GB Moto G (2015) for £129 (US$179.99, around AU$250), a good £20 cheaper; and while 16GB and dual-SIM versions of the J3 are available in some regions, they just push the price up even higher. If you wanted the newer Moto G4 it'll cost £169 (US$199, around AU$330) for the lowest storage version, but that's not much more than the Galaxy J3.
The phone does have 4G and even NFC, a Samsung favorite, but it doesn't have a fingerprint scanner or support for ac-grade Wi-Fi. So it's patchy in terms of features; I'd much rather have an auto brightness setting than NFC, as it's far more useful day-to-day, but presumably Samsung's investments in wireless payments mean NFC is a 'must-have' in all but its cheapest phones.
One feature Android veterans will notice, others maybe not, is that the Galaxy J3 runs Android 5.1.1, rather than the latest Android 6.0. It's an odd and outdated feature, but ultimately it doesn't make a huge difference because the J3 has the TouchWiz interface, which alters the look and feel of every part of the software.
It's a slightly older version of TouchWiz than that found on the Samsung Galaxy S7, but overall it looks and feels very similar. TouchWiz is a pretty good UI these days, no longer overburdened with superfluous features; it's not quite as pretty as vanilla Android, but it's no pig, is it?
One feature app hoarders may appreciate is the option to create app folders within the apps menu, and rearrange their order.
TouchWiz supports themes too, enabling you to easily reskin the Galaxy J3 with new icons, wallpaper and fonts without doing any real work. Many cost money at this point, but plenty are available for free.
It's a good interface for a budget phone, although with only 8GB of storage in the base model the fact that so much space is taken up by preinstalled Microsoft Office apps annoys. Within a few days I'd filled the phone up, and that was without any heavy-duty game installs.
Another hit to the J3's gaming cred is the speaker positioning. It's on the back, with just a single driver unit. Top volume is fairly good, but it predictably sounds a lot thinner than Samsung's high-end phones at maximum volume.
Performance and battery life
One of the Samsung Galaxy J3's more curious budget cuts is the use of an all-but-unknown processor – it's a Spreadtrum SC8830, which I've never encountered before.
This is a rather weak and dated chip compared to those in other phones around this price point. It's a 1.2GHz quad-core CPU, but uses 32-bit Cortex-A7 cores rather than the 64-bit Cortex-A53 cores that are popular in budget phones at the moment.
Its spec is very similar to that of the Snapdragon 400 used in the original Motorola Moto G from back in 2013. You also only get 1.5GB of RAM, where other budget rivals have 2GB at this point.
The Galaxy J3 does not bristle with raw power, and the 1175 (371 per core) Geekbench 3 score is bang-on what you'd get from a Snapdragon 400 phone. There's some barrel-scraping going on here.
Phone performance is acceptable, but not admirable. While most of the surface-level parts of the interface feel fast, with animations designed to make the J3 feel nippy, apps do take a little while to load, even rudimentary ones like Gmail. The delays are only short, but add up create the impression of a phone that doesn't feel 'instant'. There's occasional stuttering in some transitions too.
I've been spoilt recently, having come straight from using the Samsung Galaxy S7 to review the Galaxy J3. However, the best budget alternatives feel slightly nippier as well. Some of this slow feel may come down to the use of Android 5.1.1 rather than 6.0, as the newer OS tends to feel faster no matter what level of phone you're using.
Samsung has yet to announce whether the Galaxy J3 will get a software upgrade to Android 6 Marshmallow.
The Galaxy J3's battery sounds about right for the spec. It has a 2600mAh battery, which you can replace easily, which isn't the case with so many other phones these days.
In our regular video test, however, the J3 didn't do as well as either the Moto G or the Oppo F1, losing 21% of its battery when playing a 720p video at max brightness. The caveat here is that OLED screens tend to vary in battery consumption more than LCDs when displaying different content, at different levels of brightness.
In general use, though, I found that the Galaxy J3's stamina was only passable, as on several days I managed to run the phone down by early evening. I'd say there's not much hope of squeezing two days' use out of the J3 – and heavy users will have to pack an external battery to ensure they don't end up with a dead phone before bedtime.
The manual brightness setting won't help here either. It's quite easy to leave the J3 much brighter than is strictly necessary indoors, and while the 'outdoors' mode is pretty effective, it doesn't half eat away at the battery level.
The Samsung Galaxy J3 has an 8MP camera on the back, matched with a single-LED flash. This is a conspicuously low-resolution sensor compared to the top budget phones, several of which use 13MP main cameras.
There are several decent low-cost 13MP sensors these around days, most notably from all-round phone sensor master Sony, OmniVision and even Samsung. The J3's lens is a bog-standard f/2.2 affair too.
Looking at some of the photos I took using the Galaxy J3 on a computer, this gives you much less scope for cropping, and means your shots will look pretty dreadful as soon as you start using the digital zoom.
The J3 also doesn't have quite as good dynamic range as the Motorola Moto G (2015) when using auto shooting; that said, though, no £150 (US$200)-ish phone has really challenged the standard that phone set when it arrived.
Low-light image quality is poor too. Shooting out on the street at night the Galaxy J3 manages to make shots look nice and bright, but fine detail is smudged out entirely and there's quite a lot of noise. Without image stabilisation to lean on the J3 can only drop its shutter speed down to 1/16 of a second, meaning it needs to use a pretty high ISO (sensitivity setting) to make images appear bright enough.
However, the Galaxy J3 isn't bad either, for a cheap phone.
I've used plenty of 8MP handsets with much poorer color fidelity and far worse lenses. The Galaxy J3's tones look quite natural most of the time, and there's no major lens distortion or chromatic aberration (color fringing); this enables the phone make good use of the resolution it has to work with.
There's also a lot to like about the Samsung camera software at this point. It's intuitive, and lets you adjust the exposure quickly and easily. When you pick a focus point an exposure level pops up right next to the shutter button, and you can flick the value up and down with your thumb.
It's a smart way to make slightly more advanced camera features 'auto-unlock' when you start getting a bit more involved with the process, rather than just pointing and shooting.
The Galaxy J3 also has a decent HDR mode, although it's not one that automatically switches itself on when needed, and it's not as good as the S7's either – no surprise there. It has a Pro mode like that top-end phone, but it's really not worth bothering with here, as, lacking shutter speed or focus control, it's very limited.
Shooting speed is passable: it's not lightning fast, but shutter lag is minimal enough to keep the J3 fun to shoot with.
Around the front the Galaxy J3 has a 5MP camera which, like the rear one, delivers relatively good color reproduction. There's a little bit of shutter lag again, but it's not terrible.
Video capture is fairly poor, maxing-out at 720p for both cameras.
Has Samsung made a Motorola Moto G-killer? Not quite. While it gets quite a few elements right, they don't add up to a phone that feels entirely complete.
The Samsung Galaxy J3 is genuinely affordable, and appears to be a genuine alternative to something like the Moto G when you look at it from a distance.
Samsung has had a good stab at making a cheap version of the Galaxy S7 too. It has none of that phone's high-end build, but the style and dimensions are very similar.
The screen is sure to please those who like powerful display color too. As it uses an OLED screen, there's not even a hint of the undersaturation you'll see in some lower-end LCD phones. It also goes extremely bright, enabling it to handle bright days better than many of its peers.
Samsung has made some pretty questionable choices about what it has left out here. Including NFC but leaving out an ambient brightness sensor may fit in with Samsung's corporate goals, but forcing you to manually change the screen intensity is continually frustrating.
The phone also has an old version of Android and a rather low-power CPU, which results in performance that's a little slower than the best budget handsets. It's not a huge deal, but it means there are better experiences available at the price.
There are similar shortcuts when it comes to the camera. It's not dreadful – it's not even bad – but you can get better for your cash if you care about image quality.
The Samsung Galaxy J3 is an 'almost-there' budget phone which looks and feels right, but makes a few sacrifices in the wrong places.
And the one that crops up the most is something that sounds almost trifling: the lack of an auto brightness setting. This means you have to change the screen intensity manually every time you go out, and may set the screen too bright a lot of the time, reducing stamina.
For the money you don't get as much storage as with rival handsets, and the camera isn't quite as good as the Moto G's. The Samsung Galaxy J3 has the framework to be a great budget mobile, but a few of the features bolted onto that framework are just that bit off.
Thanks to MobileFun for providing our J3 review unit!