If you're looking for an affordable phone on a major carrier, you typically need to prepare to make a compromise. The $169.99 (full price) Samsung Galaxy J3 on AT&T doesn't buck this trend, but unlike many other affordable smartphones, you won't be compromising on software. The J3 runs the latest version of Android, 6.0 Marshmallow, which is more than you can say for even plenty of higher-end devices. It also boasts a rich 5-inch 720p AMOLED display and great battery life, making it a solid choice for AT&T customers shopping on a budget.
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Design, Display, and Features
The J3 is essentially identical to the Samsung Galaxy S4 in terms of appearance. Measuring 5.6 by 2.8 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and 4.9 ounces, it has similar dimensions to the HTC Desire 626 (5.8 by 2.8 by 0.3 inches; 4.9 ounces). One-handed use isn't a problem.
You get Samsung's classic physical home button flanked by a capacitive touch button on either side. A plastic silver frame does its best to make you think its metal, while there's a smooth white polycarbonate back. The plastic feels sturdy, and the faux-metal looks reasonably classy.
You'll find a power button on the right, a volume rocker on the left, a 3.5mm audio jack up top, and a micro USB charging port on the bottom. The back peels off to give you access to a SIM card slot, a removable battery, and a microSD card slot, which worked with a 200GB SanDisk card.
Samsung makes some of the best displays on the market, and does a fine job here. The J5 boasts a 5-inch, 1,280-by-720 AMOLED panel, which offers rich, bright colors, good viewing angles, and strong outdoor visibility. Text, games, and video all look good on it, and it's crisper than the Desire 626's 720p Super LCD2. That said, it still can't compete with the 1080p (or Quad HD) displays you'll find on higher-end devices.
Network Performance and Connectivity
The Galaxy J3 supports LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/12, which is pretty standard for AT&T phones. Network performance was average in midtown Manhattan, where I tested the device. I saw highs of 12.5Mbps downloads and 2Mbps uploads, which are in line with other AT&T devices we've tested in the area, including the LG G5.
Call quality on the J3 is mixed. Earpiece volume is very loud, and transmissions are clear indoors, with the rare skip or crackling. But outdoors voices are sound just plain harsh and robotic. Noise cancellation is decent, with some minor wind noise and crackling making its way through.
The J3 has Bluetooth, but not dual-band Wi-Fi or NFC.
Processor, Battery, and Camera
The phone is powered by a Samsung Exynos 3475 processor clocked at 1.3GHz. It's an entry-level chipset, and turned in accordingly average benchmarks. General performance is surprisingly smooth, though, considering the phone only has 1.5GB of RAM. It was able to handle multitasking and even games like GTA: San Andreas and Asphalt 8 without issue.
Battery life is the best I've seen on a recent budget device, coming in at 9 hours and 27 minutes of run time when streaming full-screen video over LTE at maximum brightness. The J3 absolutely blows the Desire 626 (3 hours and 4 minutes) out of the water. The battery is also removable, so you can swap it out, but with these stellar results, you should be able to get through a full day of usage quite comfortably.
The 5-megapixel rear-facing camera is the phone's weakest link. When taking a picture, autofocus takes several seconds to lock on, even in well-lit settings. One it locks on, pictures are clear, with minimal noise and blur, but colors look bland and uninspiring. Video recording is clear at 720p and 30fps, though focus is often lost when panning around. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera is better, with warmer colors and accurate skin tones and detail.
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Software and Conclusions
The J3 runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with Samsung's TouchWiz UI layer on top. App icons are different from stock Android, the app drawer has been moved to the bottom right corner of the screen, the notification shade has been altered, and the settings menu is almost entirely different. If you're a fan of stock Android, this isn't the phone for you. But you are getting the latest available version of Android, which is something you won't find on most phones, and that certainly counts for something.
In addition to the design tweaks, Samsung has added a number of new features. Easy Mute silences incoming calls when you place the phone facedown; Smart Alert makes the phone vibrate when you pick it up if you have any missed calls or message; Outdoor Mode sets screen brightness to a level beyond the maximum for a period of 15 minutes; Samsung Knox is security software and encryption for enterprise use; Quick Launch lets you open the camera by pressing the home button twice; and Ultra Power Saving Mode turns off Wi-Fi and mobile data and sets the display to black-and-white to help save power.
Unfortunately, there's also a significant amount of bloatware. The phone comes with a number of AT&T preinstalled apps including, Amazon Kindle, seven AT&T apps, DirectTV, DriveMode, Galaxy Apps, Lookout, Milk Music, Plenti, SmartLimits, Uber, Usage Manager, Wild Tangent Games, and YP. Only Wild Tangent Games can be uninstalled, while the rest can be disabled. You're left with 9.66GB out of 16GB available, though you can always put in an SD card if you need more room.
For the price, the Samsung Galaxy J3 offers fantastic battery life, solid build quality, and a crisp display. The camera isn't so great and all that bloatware is a bummer, but you can't ask for much more from a $170 carrier phone. The $185 Desire 626 looks like it matches the J3 on paper, but falls short in actual usage, with weak performance and poor battery life. If you're willing to go the unlocked route, the Blu Life One X provides plenty of bang for the buck with a better display and camera. If you dislike bloatware and custom UIs, the Motorola Moto G is another solid alternative. Otherwise, the Galaxy J3 is one of the better budget phones you can get on AT&T.