Samsung's Galaxy S II was the king of Android in 2011. But now HTC is on top with the new One X. The Galaxy S III is the most anticipated spec-beast of the year (so far), but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best.
Why It Matters
The Galaxy S II was the best selling Android phone of 2011. It was available on virtually every carrier (sometimes under different names). It had a fast, dual-core processor, a big beautiful screen, and Samsung's TouchWiz UI painted over Android (not a positive). The S III looks to improve on that in every way, with a new processor, a whopping 2 gigs of RAM, HD screen, LTE, NFC, and more software bells and whistles than you could ever possibly use.
From a design standpoint, the S III is lovely. There's a subtle curve to everything, which makes everything feel nice and smooth. The screen is a huge 4.8 inches (just shy of the Galaxy Note 5.3 inch screen), but Samsung shrank the bezel so that it's virtually the same size as the Galaxy Nexus (4.65 inch screen). Samsung broke convention here with the buttons. While most new phones are going without navigation buttons at all, or with the standard Android four, Samsung went with a capacitive back button, a capacitive menu button, and a physical home button. Pressing the home button once takes you to your home screen, holding it opens the task switcher, and double-clicking it opens the voice commands. It's very intuitive.
The international version of the S III uses Samsung's new quad-core Exynos processor, but because the company hasn't figured out how to make it work with LTE (really guys?) the U.S. version uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4. The S4 is a great processor for a dual-core, but last year's Exynos (also dual-core) smoked everything in its path, and there are a lot of people who are going to be bummed that the quad-core version isn't going to make it to the states. That said, the S4 almost never stutters at all. Navigation around desktops and websites is fast and fluid, and apps load quickly. Radio connectivity was also good, and it locked onto a signal nice and quickly.
Now, let's talk bells and whistles. Samsung went a little nuts on the software side, slapping so many tricks and tweaks on top of Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) that it's easy to feel a bit overwhelmed. Some of them are genuinely useful, some are useless, and some just simply don't work. There are also some very slick accessories. The Universal Multimedia Desktop Dock, for example, looks good, folds up nicely, and is easy to get your phone in and out of ($50). There's also the HDTV Smart Adapter which lets you plug your phone directly into an HDMI cable and into your TV so you can stream video, music, games, etc. It works a lot better than HTC's attempt at this, which uses Wi-Fi, but it definitely doesn't have great frame-rates, and audio could be out of sync ($40).
The phone looks and feels great. It's smooth like a polished stone, but very light. Samsung corrected some of the biggest mistakes on the Galaxy Nexus. For starters, the camera is absolutely terrific. Photos were incredibly sharp and detailed, and colors looked good. It does struggle with dynamic range when something is brightly backlit, but it's not too bad (and the HDR mode helps compensate). The camera software is not as nice or intuitive as HTC's but the image quality makes up for it. The Galaxy S II won our mobile phone video battle last year, and video on the S III is even better—really crisp looking footage. The front-facing camera at 1.9MP is way better than most of the other front-facers out there. (Click here for full res photo and video samples.)
Some of the bells/whistles are great. If you have a text message open and you lift the phone up to your ear, it will sense that and automatically call that contact. It can use the front-facing camera to see if you're looking at it, and if you are it won't dim the screen. With NFC, you can click two Galaxy S IIIs together to share content (photo, video, contacts, maps, etc) via S Beam, which is quite handy. If you get a call you don't want to take, just turn the phone face down to mute the ringer and reject the call. Swiping with the side of your hand takes a screen shot. I also really enjoyed using the programmable TecTiles (those little NFC stickers) to quickly toggle a bunch of settings at once, or to send the same text message to my ladyfriend when I left work.
Really, though, the best feature is that it's just a good phone at its core. We tested the AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile versions. Call quality was good on all three. AT&T's LTE peaked at 24Mbps down / 13 Mbps up. T-Mobile uses HSPA+ instead of LTE, and it peaked at 9.6Mbps down / 3Mbps up. Sprint's was limited to 3G and peaked at 2.5Mbps down / .9Mbps up, but expect that to improve when Sprint launches LTE later this year. Navigating the phone is fast and smooth, and the speaker is loud enough (not the case with the Galaxy Nexus) so that you won't miss calls. This thing does not slow down even when you have a ton of apps open, thanks to the crazypants 2GB of RAM. To put that in perspective, my MacBook Pro came with 2GB of RAM when I bought it just four years ago. That is nuts. We need more time before we can report on battery life, but for now it seems about average. Most days we got through without needing a charge, but not all days.
We liked how HTC just lightly augmented Ice Cream Sandwich with little improvements here and there. Samsung went with the more is more approach, and the Galaxy S III suffers for it. The TouchWiz UI is not as intuitive as it could be, and it often adds more steps to get it to behave the way you want. For example, creating folders is now less intuitive. Some of the bells and whistles are cool (like Share Shot, where each photo you take is auto-shared within a group at a party), but most people will never use the majority of them. And some just seem broken. S Voice, which is Samsung's answer to Siri, gives wildly inconsistent results. And you're supposed to be able to say "Cheese" to signal the camera to snap a photo, but it never worked, not once, even when the Samsung reps tried it.
The screen is pretty nice on its own, but when you put it next to the HTC One X it literally pales in comparison. Not only is it extremely blue, but it's not nearly bright enough. Using navigation on a road trip, I had to shade the screen with my hand in order to see it (not safe!). The One X was brighter at 70 percent than the S III was at full. It also seems more pixelated because of the Pentile display, even though it's almost the same PPI as the One X. Also, there is no dedicated camera button. Grrr! If you're going to put the best camera on a phone, then put a dedicated, physical camera button on it! Nobody who has one wishes they didn't. Seriously. We're tired of saying it.
While the S4 processor is pretty hardy, there are rare occasions where it struggles and skips. Mirroring out through HDMI, for example, is not nearly as smooth as it is when the quad-core Tegra 3 is driving. Can't help but wonder if the new Exynos could have handled it better. Also, the volume rocker and power on/off button are directly opposite each other so it's hard to press one without accidentally pressing the other.
Should I Buy It?
If you are on Verizon or T-Mobile, then yes, definitely. It will be without a doubt the best phone on those two carriers when it drops. If you're on AT&T or Sprint, then you've got a tough choice because of the One X and the EVO 4G LTE, respectively. If you want the best screen and a lighter touch on the software, go HTC. If you want the best camera and more bells and whistles, go Samsung. Really, though, you won't go wrong with either.
OS: Android 4.0
Screen: 4.8-inch Super AMOLED
Processor and RAM: 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 / 2GB RAM
Storage: 16GB / 32 GB + Micro SD card slot
Camera: Back: 8MP, Front: 1.9MP
Weight: 4.69 ounces
Battery: 2100 mAh Li-Po
Price: $200/16GB, $250/32GB (w/ 2 year contract)
Giz Rank: 4 Stars
Video by Michael Hession.