All you need to do to get people excited about the Samsung Galaxy S III -- and to think twice about getting an iPhone -- is show them a few of the unique tricks this Android superphone can do. For instance, you can tap two S IIIs together and start transferring a huge, high-def video between them. Want to switch between texting and calling a contact? Just hold the new Galaxy up to your head. There's also a Siri competitor on board, so you can do everything from post Twitter updates to look up the weather with just your voice.
The Galaxy S III ($199 for AT&T) also sports all the features you would expect from a top-tier Android handset, including a 1.5-GHz Snapdragon processor, a large 4.8-inch HD screen and a blazing 8-MP camera. With so much momentum behind Samsung's sequel, it's easy to see why all the major carriers are selling it. But is the S III truly the best smartphone money can buy?
From its rounded corners to the pebble-hitting-water sound effect when you touch the screen, it's obvious that Samsung designed the Galaxy S III to evoke nature. One thing's for sure: this handset is comfortable to use despite the huge screen. Samsung managed to squeeze a 4.8-inch display into a 4.7-ounce design. The HTC One X is a slightly heavier 4.8 ounces and has a smaller 4.7-inch screen.
The Galaxy S III is also thinner than the One X (0.34 vs 0.36 inches) and is easier to turn on than the latter device because the power button is on the right side instead of up top. In other words, you don't have to awkwardly stretch your fingers to use this device, unlike other big-screen phones.
On the other hand, the plastic unibody chassis on HTC's phone has a more premium feel. The removable plastic back feels somewhat flimsy by comparison, but at least you can access the battery, SIM Card slot and microSD card slot with ease.
What color should you choose? The Pebble Blue version of the S III is more striking than the Marble White model, but some may find the faux brushed metal treatment on the blue S III to be tacky. Plus, the white version does a better job of hiding fingerprint smudges.
Samsung equips the Galaxy S III with a home button and two capacitive buttons on either side, menu on the left and back on the right. The home button feels solid, but we had some trouble adjusting to using one physical key and two capacitive keys. Plus, we'd much prefer a dedicated Recent Apps key to a Menu button. Instead, you have to press and hold the Home key to multitask. (Wasn't Ice Cream Sandwich supposed to integrate the menu button in software?)
We wouldn't call it an Achilles' heel, but the Samsung Galaxy S III's display certainly isn't best in class. The Super AMOLED panel offers full HD resolution (1280 x 720 pixels), which means you can see a lot of a Web page without scrolling and enjoy sharp-looking text. And like most AMOLED screens, the S III delivered wide viewing angles and excellent contrast when viewing "The Avengers" trailer on YouTube.
Unfortunately, the HTC One X's screen is better in practically every way. When viewing the same trailer side by side, the Super LCD 2 screen on the HTC looked significantly brighter. One onlooker said, "It's no contest." Worse, whites tend to have a blue cast on the S III's screen. In addition, some apps (such as the browser) automatically dim the screen to save on power.
The S III registered 210 lux using our light meter, which is less than half the brightness of the HTC One X (525 lux). Even the Galaxy Nexus (340 lux) was significantly brighter. The category average is 300 lux. We also had more trouble reading the S III's display in direct sunlight than the One X and iPhone 4S.
It's the rare smartphone that we can hear over a running shower. The S III's back-mounted speaker positively boomed when we streamed The Black Keys "Gold On the Ceiling." Patrick Carney's howling vocals were loud enough to fill a small room even at three-quarter volume, putting the iPhone 4S to shame. The audio didn't distort, either.
The S III also proved plenty loud when S Voice talked back to us and when providing spoken GPS directions. Users can customize the equalizer when playing music.
Software and Interface
Samsung's updated TouchWiz interface rides on top of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy S III. Most of Samsung's additions are welcome, though you'll have to dig to activate or tweak many of the features.
In addition to sporting a fun pond theme (pictured) on the lock screen that creates ripple effects with each touch, the S III provides four lock screen shortcuts you can swap out as you see fit (pictured). (It's under Settings/Security). By default the choices are Phone, Mail, S Note and Camera.
There's a couple of other cool things you can do from the lock screen. The first is the ability to display a news ticker along the bottom of the display, and the second is a nifty shortcut for launching the camera. Just pivot the phone from portrait to landscape mode while you have one finger on the display.
We also appreciate the quick settings bar in the notification shade. From this one bar you can toggle everything from the Wi-Fi and Airplane mode to activating power-saving settings.
The Galaxy S III features seven home screens you can populate with widgets and shortcuts. The main screen houses a weather widget up top powered by AccuWeather. Like other Android Ice Cream Sandwich phones, the Recent Apps menu displays the apps you have open and lets you either open them with a tap or close them by swiping them off the screen.
We're not fans of how the S III handles folders. Instead of simply dragging and dropping one app onto another like stock ICS, you need to press and hold an icon and drag it to the bottom of the screen to a Create New Folder icon. From there you can't add new apps right from the folder as you can with HTC Sense. You need to go back into the app drawer. Annoying.
The Pop Up Play feature is pretty neat, though. You can start watching a video and then continue watching it as you enter another app. It's like picture-in-picture on a phone.
The Galaxy S III has one of the better touch keyboards we've used. The keys have ample space between them to avoid typos, and we typed quickly while making few errors. Using the T9 Trace feature, you can also swipe between letters to make words. We entered full sentences in S Memo and in the Email app easily with one finger. The layout on the HTC One X provides more long-press shortcuts but it's not as accurate overall and takes up more vertical space.
Motion Settings and Smart Stay
Where Samsung has HTC beat is with Motion Settings. You can do a heck of a lot just by using multiple gestures. For instance, Direct Call enables users to call a contact by bringing the phone up to your ear, either while you're in the Messaging app or while you're on a Contact's page. This feature worked reliably in our testing, and helps save time.
Another motion feature enables you to scroll to the top of a long list (like your inbox) by tapping the top of the S III twice. You can also silence sounds by flipping the phone over. The feature effectively muted an incoming call but didn't work with a track we downloaded from Play Music.
Perhaps the coolest feature inside the S III is Smart Stay, which looks for eye contact to prevent the screen from dimming while you're reading content. When we set the display time-out for 15 seconds and set the phone down, the screen dimmed after a few seconds, but when we picked it back up a little eye icon appeared letting us know that the S III was looking for us.
A Focus on Sharing
One of the biggest themes of the Galaxy S III is sharing, whether it's beaming photos or videos to nearby phones or sharing content with a nearby TV. Here's a quick overview of the features and how effective they are.
S Beam: Like Android Beam on steroids, S Beam leverages NFC technology (for the initial handshake) and then Wi-Fi Direct to transfer files big and small between two phones. It took us less than 20 seconds to beam a 30-second 1080p video from one Galaxy S III to another, a task that we wouldn't even attempt over the Web because of the 63 MB file size.
Once Wi-Fi Direct is turned on, you can just tap the back of the S III to another and wait for a vibration. Then you touch the screen to share the file. The other person just needs to tap to accept the transfer.
Buddy Photo Share: The Galaxy S III can remember faces in your photos to make it easier to share images and post them to Facebook. When you take a photo you'll see a yellow box outline subjects' heads, which you can then match to contacts in your address book. In our experiment, the S III successfully identified the same contact in two different images.
When you tap that person's name, you'll see four different options: Call, Message, Email and Social. Clicking the phone icon automatically launched a call, but the other icons didn't do what we expected. Tapping the message and email icons opened new messages but didn't automatically attach the image. Samsung says this is a bug. Meanwhile, tapping the social icon launched the person's Facebook wall but didn't ask us to post the photo.
Share Shot: A handy feature for parties, Share Shot enables Galaxy S III users to broadcast the images they've taken to other nearby Galaxy S III phones. Available as a shooting mode within the camera, this feature also uses Wi-Fi Direct, so you don't need to connect to a hotspot. (The phones create a network of their own.) Once you've selected the devices you want to connect to, just start shooting. In our testing, the photos we took automatically showed up in the RECV folder in another S III's Gallery, though there was some lag.
AllShare Play: Apple's AirPlay still has nothing to fear. The good news is that Samsung has made streaming content to a TV and other connected home entertainment gear more intuitive over Wi-Fi. You'll see an icon show up in the top left corner of your playback window if you can share a piece of content with a device (in our case a 50-inch Samsung TV). However, photos were slow to show up on the set, and the network choked on our 1080p video. It was worse than a slide show.
We didn't have the highest hopes for S Voice when Samsung's answer to Siri greeted us with a disclaimer saying that this feature was provided by a third party. (It helps avoid class-action lawsuits but doesn't inspire confidence.) Overall, S Voice offered mixed results.
S Voice borrows liberally from Siri's interface design with a microphone button down below and dialog boxes on a black background for questions and answers. The S III has a long list of voice-activated talents, from texting and navigating to an address to scheduling appointments and alarms.
On the first try the S III successfully created a text message asking a friend if he wanted to come to dinner. However, on subsequent attempts we encountered network errors. S Voice redeemed itself by successfully giving us the weather forecast and recommending some local steakhouses, but network errors kept popping up periodically.
What S Voice lacks versus Siri is contextual intelligence. On the iPhone you can ask about steak places and then say "How about Mexican?" and it will know you're still talking about restaurants. S Voice didn't know what we meant.
S Voice does incorporate features the iPhone won't have until iOS 6 launches this fall. For instance, you can speak Twitter updates into the phone, after which you can post or cancel with a tap (but not edit). You can also open apps just by speaking them, though this was hit or miss. "Angry Birds" worked, but Slacker Radio did not. Neither did "Temple Run."
Like most top-end Android phones with LTE speeds these days, the Galaxy S III uses a 1.5-GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, but offers 2GB of RAM to the HTC One X's 1 GB. These components translated into impressive benchmark results.
On the CPU portion of the Benchmark app, the S III notched 4785, compared with 4,885 for the HTC One X and 2,544 for the Android average. However, the Samsung turned in a better Memory score (1,910 vs 1,670). On the multi-core section of the Linpack test, the S III pulled ahead once more, scoring 169 to the One X's 153.
So what about graphics? The S III scored 7,272 on An3DBench, which is higher than both the Android average (7,052) and the HTC One X (7,138). The S III also beat the One X on Quadrant, which measures CPU, I/O and 3D graphics. The Samsung registered 5,159, versus 4,901 for the HTC.
In everyday use, the Galaxy S III was snappy in some respects but laggy in others. Swiping through home screens was smooth, and most apps openly instantly. We also enjoyed fluid gameplay (pun intended) when tearing around the water in our Jet Ski on Riptide GP.
However, this phone was noticeably slower to return to the home menu from apps than the One X or iPhone 4S. There's a definite pause. We also noticed a slight delay when launching the Recent Apps menu.
The S III comes with 16GB of storage, but can accommodate up to a 64GB microSD Card.
4G Speeds and Coverage
The AT&T version of the Galaxy S III is easily one of the speediest 4G phones we've tested on any network. The handset averaged 13.3 Mbps downloads on Speedtest.net, with bursts in the 23 Mbps to 27.5 Mbps range. When surfing the web in 4G LTE coverage (AT&T has 39 markets and counting), the S III downloaded the full New York Times desktop site in 7.5 seconds, ESPN.com in 6.8 seconds and Laptopmag.com in 6.7 seconds.
Upload speeds from the S III were equally impressive, with the device averaging 9.9 Mbps. You'll have no problem uploading photos and videos on the go with this phone.
As for the browser, it's pretty straightforward, with easy access to tabs via a carousel-based interface and one-tap Incognito surfing.
Samsung bundles a bunch of its own apps for the Galaxy S III, including Email, Calendar, ChatOn (for free texting), Kies Air (for transferring content between phone and PC) and Media Hub (for downloading movies and TV shows). The content selection looked fairly current, including "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" and "Contraband." Titles are $3.99 to rent and $17.99 to buy but aren't available in HD.
Other highlights include S Memo, S Suggest (app recommendation engine) and a Voice Recorder. The AT&T load here is fairly light, such as Yellow Pages, AT&T Navigator (don't bother) and myAT&T for checking your account.
The most high-profile pre-loaded app on the S III is Flipboard, the gorgeous news reader app. Right now, it's available only in beta for other Android phones. You can download hundreds of thousands of apps and games from the Google Play Store, such as the fun and fast-moving "Temple Run Brave Game."
Camera and Camcorder
Samsung gives the Galaxy S III's 8-MP camera serious speed, letting you capture up to three photos per second. If you engage Best Shot mode, the phone will take eight shots and let you pick the best one. So how good are the photos? Outdoor shots generally looked sharp and well saturated. We could make out the cupcake crumbs on an 8-year-old's teeth from several feet away.
However, some of the S III's images turned out soft with a slight haze, especially when compared with the iPhone 4S. Engaging HDR mode helps, really bringing out the clouds in one shot, but Apple's device did better in auto mode. Indoors, the S III's images looked somewhat fuzzy in low light. The flash was powerful enough to compensate in those situations.
A 1080p video we captured of a 4-year-old riding around in an electric toy car looked positively stunning. The electric-blue vehicle really popped, as did the green grass. We could easily discern all the "Toy Story" characters on the windshield, and playback was nice and smooth.
Voice Quality and Battery Life
The S III delivered warm and accurate sound when making calls to a landline. We didn't hear any fuzziness on the line, although we wish the receiver volume were a bit louder. If you get an incoming call and don't have time to take it, you can quickly respond via text using one of several canned messages or create your own.
The 2100 mAh battery inside the Galaxy S III should get you through most of the day. On the LAPTOP Battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over 4G on 40 percent brightness, the device lasted 6 hours and 28 minutes on a charge. That's a fairly good runtime for a 4G LTE device. The HTC One X lasted 5:59 on the same test, though it has a brighter screen, and the category average is 5:51. The Droid RAZR Maxx is still the champ in this category with 8:25.
Samsung TecTiles and Accessories
The S III's most ingenius accessory is a sticker. Samsung's NFC-powered TecTiles tags ($15 for a five-pack) let you toggle all sorts of settings or perform certain actions with just a tap. When you download the free TecTile app, it's a cinch to program what you want the device to do once it comes close to the sticker, whether it's engaging silent mode or setting your alarm.
Other TecTile-oriented feats include triggering a text message (good for letting mom and dad know when Junior has arrived home), checking in to a location/business, and posting a Facebook or Twitter status. If you have a household with other NFC-capable Android phones, TecTiles should work with those, too.
Other accessories include a desktop dock (with speaker line out and micrUSB; no HDMI), HDTV adapter and multiple case options.
It's obvious that Samsung expects to sell a lot of Galaxy S IIIs. After all, many of the hallmark features (S Beam, Share Shot, etc.) assume that your friends and family will have this device, too. Based on our testing, we'd say this is a safe assumption. Overall, this Android device impresses because of its slim design, good battery life, and fast 4G speeds but especially because of its intelligence. You'll spend weeks discovering all the fun and useful tricks the S III has up its sleeve.
We give the edge to the HTC One X on AT&T because of its brighter and crisper display, but if you want a big-screen phone with serious brains the S III is an excellent choice.