Samsung Galaxy S III Review: The New Android Phone to Beat

PHOTO: Samsung Galaxy S III
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There is a not-so-silent war going on between Samsung and Apple. Part of the war is happening in the courtroom, where Apple is suing Samsung for patent infringement and in copying its iPhone software design. Another part of it is happening right in front of your eyes.

Just look at some of the ads Samsung has run knocking Apple iPhone users for being unoriginal and part of the flock. Or the ones in which they make fun of the people waiting in line to buy the iPhone 4S.

What does the Samsung Galaxy S III have to do with that war? It's the next battle. The Galaxy S III is Samsung's new flagship Android phone, and like its Galaxy S II predecessor, it's going to be the Android phone -- the one among what feels like hundreds -- to take on the iPhone (and the next iPhone). The phone hits all four major U.S. carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile -- in the coming weeks for $199 with a two-year contract.

Is it the Android phone to buy? Is it the phone to buy, period?

The Galaxy S III is a beautiful phone. Its curved edges make it easy on the eyes and give it a more natural look than lots of the other rough and tough Android phones. The screen blends with the edges, giving it a smooth and uniform look. Those curved lines also make it deceptively thin; it looks thinner than it really is. The phone comes in a white and a dark navy blue (or, as Samsung calls it, "Pebble Blue").

But when you pick up the phone, the first thing you notice is its plastic build. (Samsung says its actually polycarbonate.) That's not to say I don't like the feel of the smooth and glossy plastic -- it fits nicely in hand -- but the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X feel like more-solidly built devices. Even the edge of the phone, which looks like metal with its silver finish, is plastic.

Of course, there's a major benefit to that plastic: it makes it insanely light. The 4.73-ounce phone is lighter than most other big-screened phones, including the HTC One X.

Which brings me to that big screen. The Galaxy S III has a 4.8-inch, Gorilla Glass 2.0 display, which makes the phone quite large, at least to those who don't already have a larger-screen phone. And it's got a large and beautiful 720p Super AMOLED screen. The display is bright and vivid, and compared to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus the colors look more realistic and not overly saturated. (The HTC One X's Super LCD screen still has the best color accuracy, though.)

Don't get me wrong: This is a screen you will love looking at and touching. And the wider size actually makes it easier to type on the phone, an important thing for those that might be moving from a phone with a physical keyboard to an all-touchscreen device.

But the 8-megapixel camera could be the standout hardware feature. The camera is one of the best I've tested on a phone. Shots are clear and it handles low-light situations as well as the iPhone.

Generally, the iPhone 4S took photos with more detail, but the added camera software features on the Galaxy S III surpass those of the iPhone. You can take photos while shooting video, easily share photos with friends with Samsung's ShareShot feature, and the Best Shot feature will take a series of 8 shots and picks the best one for you.

And that's where the hardware of this phone fades to the background. The software features that Samsung has added really enhance the Android experience -- and are what makes the phone catapult the HTC One line and other Android phones on the market.

Samsung has refined its TouchWiz software that runs on top of Android 4.0, making it less intrusive and clunky. It has mostly added some new widgets and restyled the app tray, and added a physical home button. Holding the button down will launch a list of open applications; there you can swipe away apps to close them or open one up.

But where the S III shines is with the new apps Samsung has developed for the device. Sharing photos is a big part of the equation. The AllShare Play app lets you connect the phone to a Samsung TV or DLNA device to stream your photos or video right to the big screen.

Then there's that ShareShot feature; it requires another Galaxy S III, but if you connect them, you can take a picture with one and see it appear right away on the other. And maximizing the Android Beam NFC capabilities, Samsung has reconfigured the feature to allow you to send bigger files, including photos and videos, just by tapping two Galaxy S III phones together.

All of these sharing features are unique and worked quite well when I tested them, but a drawback is that they only work if two people have the same phone. Samsung would not comment on when or if it plans to make these features available for other non-Samsung Android phones.

But there are other features, even if you don't have a friend with a Galaxy S III. The Pop Up Play feature lets you watch an HD video while you surf or email. The feature worked really well on my review units, but I never really found much use for it.

There's also a Siri competitor: S-Voice. Samsung's version of the virtual assistant does similar things to Apple's -- sends emails, searches the web, makes phone calls -- but she isn't quite as friendly or funny. Also, the voice sounds robotic and the service doesn't really add much more than the native Android voice recognition features.

Another cool addition is called Smart Stay, which prevents the screen from going dark while you're looking at it. If you are watching or reading something but don't touch the screen, the phone will detect that you're looking, and the screen will stay on.

However, while Samsung has done a good job of building new and innovative features on top of Android, it doesn't make them easy to find. If Samsung hadn't told me about some of the features, including the Smart Stay and the ShareShot, I might not have known they existed. ShareShot, for instance, is buried a few menus deep in the Camera app. What good are innovative features if you don't know they exist?

None of those features slow down the performance of this zippy phone, though. It is powered by a 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor and 2GB of RAM. Website scrolling is beyond smooth and watching an HD video while scrolling down the length of a webpage doesn't seem to faze the device. You also get the benefits of fast LTE data on the AT&T and the Verizon models; unfortunately, Samsung sent me the non-LTE T-Mobile and Sprint versions. (The Sprint model has LTE capabilities, but Sprint hasn't lit up its 4G network yet. It plans to do so this summer.)

Data speeds were not as fast on the Sprint or T-Mobile phones while in Los Angeles or New York as I am used to on LTE, but I got good call reception on both phones. I was able to hear callers clearly and they didn't complain about hearing me.

All the while, you still get decent battery life. I was able to make it through a full day of heavy use with about 10 percent left. Luckily, you can pop out the battery and buy an extra one and Samsung has added a battery-percentage meter, so you can see the percentage number remaining in the top right corner of the screen at all times. It's the small things!

The Galaxy S III is packed to the brim with cutting-edge mobile technology and new features, making it what I knew it would be -- the Android phone to beat this year. While the HTC One X might have a more robust construction and a nicer screen, the Galaxy S III is more widely available and the distinct software features really set it apart from being just another Android phone. It's also really, really fast.

If you are looking for an Android smartphone, Samsung's is the one to get. But what about compared to the iPhone? The iPhone continues to have a better camera and is easier to use and operate. However, with the iPhone 5 and Apple's iOS 6 software on the horizon it might be worth waiting to see which phone best suits you. You see, the next Apple and Samsung battle is about to begin; it might not be worth picking a winner until it starts.

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