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Samsung Galaxy S III: A Swiss army knife of wireless tech

Forget the moon-sized screen, the innovation's in the airwaves

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Samsung's new flagship smartphone is being admired for its big screen and voice control, which make for easy headlines and pretty photographs, but more interesting are the wireless capabilities of the S III, even if they take a little longer to appreciate.

As well as sporting an enormous 4.8" screen which looks so shiny, and boasting 4G support (though not saying in which bands), the Galaxy S III also packs Bluetooth LE and NFC (the first phone to support both). Not only that, but it can pair up a couple of Wi-Fi channels for more speed, or set up a peer-to-peer connection with a bonk where there's no Wi-Fi network to work with – and if that weren't enough you can even charge the thing without reaching for a cable.

Not that we know much about the "Wireless Charging Kit", mentioned in the glitzy product launch. Particularly important is whether it conforms to any of the wireless charging standards (qi, or Qualcomm's WiPower) and if the technology is built in or requires a replacement battery/case. We've asked Samsung for more details and will pass them on when we have them, but the fact that Samsung claimed to be the first mobile phone with the capability bodes badly (Palm, of course, did it years ago).

We do know that the Wi-Fi includes 802.11a (in the less-crowded 5GHz space) and that the bonding conforms to the HT40 standard, probably. HT40 expands the usual 20MHz channel used by 802.11g and/or 802.11n to 40MHz, taking up twice the frequency and (in theory) doubling the speed. Some devices, such as the MacBook, only support HT40 at 5GHz and we're not clear if that limitation applies to the Galaxy; Samsung is silent on that point too.

One needs to double up Wi-Fi, in speed and frequency range, because the standard is so massively inefficient. At a recent presentation by Broadcom, leaders in Wi-Fi technology, 802.11b (11Mb/sec) was described as "suitable for email", while 802.11g (54Mb/sec) could enable "rich data web experience", and one needs 150Mb/sec (802.11n) to transmit "medium-resolution video" – quite a claim considering that a Blu-Ray disc delivers around a third of that.

But Wi-Fi is horribly inefficient, inheriting all the inefficiency of wired Ethernet and adding radio issues into the mix to achieve only a fraction of what it promises. Broadening the signal increases throughput, even if most of that throughput is lost in transit and more interference is generated for everyone else.

But more than the how is the why: the applications for which Samsung sees Wi-Fi being used. Not only can the S III throw content onto any DLNA screen on the local area network, but it can also replicate the current screen onto such a device – allowing big-screen gaming and slide-show presentations using existing applications.

One big screen becomes many, many screens

Even more interesting is AllShare Cast: echoing out the same screen to multiple devices and allowing viewers to scrawl their own amendments which are shared in real time, so a team can work collaboratively on the same screen. Your correspondent created something similar around a decade ago and while the hardware (Compaq iPAQs, using Bluetooth) wasn't really up to it, the experience was compelling even if it took a little getting used to.

AllShare Cast needs a Wi-Fi network, but not all the new features do: the S III supports Wi-Fi Direct and NFC pairing, so one could bonk the handset onto a TV to instantly replicate the screen of the former onto the latter over a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection. That's assuming one could find a TV supporting both Wi-Fi Direct and NFC pairing. The handset itself does support both things, of course, so two Galaxy S III's can be tapped together to rapidly exchange large files – though it's hard to think of a GB file one might want to exchange without inferring copyright infringement.

NFC isn't just used for pairing; the phone has a secure element from Giesecke & Devrient which can host protected applications such as Google Wallet and its competitors. It's safe to assume that the phone also supports the SWP standard, connecting the NFC hardware to the network operator's secure store, but with Samsung planning to have Visa's payment system in operation for the Olympics, it's probably going to end up in that G&D space.

We haven't even mentioned Bluetooth LE, but then neither has Samsung to any great extent. Bluetooth LE is a very low power variant of the standard for connecting up wristwatches, wireless sensors and other devices which need a battery life measured in months at least. No one is quite sure what Bluetooth LE is for just yet, but it's all pretty exciting stuff.

It's a sentiment which can be attached to many of the radio innovations in the Samsung Galaxy S III. There's a lot stuff in there, much of which could be revolutionary if it was more widely supported or if someone finds a killer application for it, but when much of today's "innovation" involves a coloured case or pretty icon, it's nice to see really new things even if it's far from obvious what they're good for. ®

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