I’ve been waiting for the day for the best smartphone in the world to have a name that isn’t iPhone. For years, I said that Android’s strength is in the speed of its updates, and no matter how fast Apple produces new hardware and software, it is still limited by a yearly cycle and a very small product line. Other companies like Samsung and HTC don’t have that problem, which doesn’t make it easier for some consumers but does appease the general public. With new hardware coming every few months instead of once a year, and software upgrades to Android coming just as fast, it was only a matter of time.

Now, the best smartphone in the world is the Samsung Galaxy S III.

Don’t take that statement the wrong way. Android still isn’t better than iOS, but the phone hardware itself is better than the iPhone 4S. Not because of the bigger 4.8″ 720p pentile display, a battery with nearly double the capacity, or LTE. The combination of extremely solid hardware design and generally excellent build quality make the Galaxy S III the best phone that you can buy today. But be warned: the upcoming iPhone 5 will release within the next 3-6 months, so if you’re looking for the very best, this Samsung may only be king for a short while. Longer than the HTC One X, but a short while nonetheless.

Hardware

Most phone reviews I do feature a single unit, but for the Galaxy S III (GS3 from this point on), I was fortunate to receive two, one from AT&T and another from Verizon, both with active and tested LTE networks. In general the models are identical, but there are some slight differences which I’ll discuss.

The GS3 is a very large handset, but also slim and light. The weight doesn’t match the size – it feels lighter than it should, but that’s not a bad thing. The airy inside makes the large phone more comfortable to hold for long periods, something I’ve done very much of. The GS3 is also the first of Samsung’s Android phones to be identical across the world, for the most part. The US model is only different from the Asian and European model by including an LTE chip, which still isn’t widely available outside of the US.

It’s actually the most similar phone to an iPhone there is, except besides for the Palm Pre. The GS3 has a home button and a power/standby button, though only the latter is properly built. The home button is long across, and doesn’t fit the thumb’s profile making it annoying to press, though uncomfortable at most. It’s still awfully convenient to have, and Apple really did a brilliant job designing the phone in that way. More Android phones should have a home button.

The volume rocker on the left and power/standby button on the right are both well built and comfortable to press. The charging port is where it belongs, on the bottom of the phone, while the loudspeaker is a tiny, scratchy cheese grater beside the 8MP camera. And while I said that the GS3 didn’t look great, both compared to the previous Galaxy S II, HTC One X and iPhone 4S, it actually does look pretty stunning once you get your hands on it. For anyone who has stated that it’s ugly and built worse than previous models, that’s an outright fabrication. The plastic shell is flimsy and a little slippery, but completely functional. And if you buy the white model (which I recommend because it hides scratches and fingerprints), then it looks pretty stunning. It might feel a little cheap, but only from the back.

On that note, the back cover truly is a flimsy little piece of plastic. Snap off the cover and my first reaction was to hope I didn’t just bend the rear panel permanently. It’s surprisingly elastic, but flimsy feeling and looking nonetheless. The GS3 only comes in a 16GB version now, but also includes a MicroSD card slot, so users can get up to 48GB of space, much more than is generally required for a phone. I’ve recently been filling my up 16GB on my iPhone 4S, thanks mostly to games, but the larger screens on Android devices make them more appealing for media. That needs much more space.

Inside the phone is just as pretty. The GS3 has the same dual-core 1.5GHz ARM processor as the HTC One X, which is very powerful. The 720p display, at 4.8″, has a high DPI rate of 300+ (305×304), and though complaints have been widespread about pentile displays, Samsung has made it work. Not only does picture quality look excellent, the display is a pleasure to use and to gaze upon. Except in bright conditions, where the panel seriously struggles, like the previous Galaxy phones, to be visible. At least the original Galaxy S and Galaxy S II used AMOLED displays, which provide excellent color contrast but poor brightness levels. The GS3, in a sense, capitalizes on none of those strengths for the panel. It’s a real shame.

Inside the Exynos 4 SoC is extremely powerful as you’ll see in the benchmarks below. Besides for the glossy and flimsy back, the Galaxy S III is one of the finest phones there is, with two serious mistakes: the display, while excellent for a pentile screen, lacks brightness and doesn’t have the appealing color contrast we’ve come to expect from Galaxy S phones. And, of course, the rear panel.

Software

I’ve written about Android 4.0 at least a dozen times now, so we’ll skip to the stuff pertinent to the GS3 only. Samsung debuted what they call S Voice, a competitor to Apple’s Siri which listens to real-world voice and acts on it. Just like Siri, S Voice is very limited, but not nearly as much as Siri is. S Voice can open applications, respond to dumb queries, and provide all of the basic functions of the phone like getting directions, setting alarms, and look up information. I find that it’s more accurate than Siri and easier to use, though the actual hardware response is very prohibitive.

What I mean by that is Siri works either via loudspeaker or talking into the receiver like a phone call, and the iPhone tracks the user’s voice clearly. S Voice doesn’t. Using S Voice in the car is difficult because you have to press the button so it stops listening to the sound of the road (which, thankfully, it doesn’t attempt to translate). However, it also is more accurate and faster, which is potentially thanks to LTE functionality on both the Verizon and AT&T models, but also because of the different service and servers used.

Additional software benefits over other Android devices include instant on/off switches for all of the major phone functions, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, etc. all in the drop-down menu. Notifications are split in two, with Wi-Fi always showing which network you’re connected to (and a tap on that will open the network surroundings for quickly switching between networks). Built-in media applications will also allow for instantly continuing playback, like Play Music, so you don’t have to open the app directly to continue a paused song.

There are some slight differences between the AT&T and Verizon model here, specifically with Wi-Fi. Verizon’s doesn’t allow for instantly turning Wi-Fi on and off, instead leaving the ongoing Wi-Fi notification there at all times when both not connected (prompting users to enable Wi-Fi or to connect to a local network) and when connected.

There are also a wide variety of motion controls for the GS3, most of which are made for convenience but require learning because they aren’t intuitive. Direct call will automatically dial the person who’s contact information you’re viewing, smart alert will activate the phone as soon as you pick it up from a flat surface when there are alerts, tilt to zoom (self explanatory), turn over to mute…these are all interesting, but take getting used to. Two that I really like are the hand motions: palm swipe to take a screenshot and palm touch to mute/pause media. The first acts like a scanner for screenshots, and works perfectly. The latter doesn’t work at all and seems brilliant, especially for people using their phones for music, say, in the kitchen with dirty hands. It’s a shame it doesn’t work.

Besides for that, there are only a few slight differences on the GS3. First is that folders aren’t created like on most Android 4.0 devices; instead users must hit menu, select the create folder option, and go from there. It’s less intuitive and not easier. The lock screen also features four apps that can be opened by swiping up on them, but those apps are set in stone. Only the camera, messages, phone, and S Memo apps can be quick-opened, which is a real shame because I’d only ever use the camera for that feature. S Memo also has some trouble saving documents automatically. Two notes I’ve typed for myself disappeared, because I never actually saved them. As an iPhone owner, no autosave function just feels obnoxious.

Overall the software is excellent, but not quite as good as it can be. There’s no word yet when the GS3 will update to Android 4.1, but those updates are few and not crucial.

Battery Life

The GS3 has one of the largest batteries of any smartphone, behind only the Motorola Droid Razer Maxx and Samsung’s Galaxy Note. At 2100mAh, I’ve had the GS3 last as long as three days, but never less than a day. I don’t live on my phone, but the few days I have I’d end up with 30-40% charge by the day’s end. A 40 minute call will only drop the battery by 5-8%, and thanks to the adequately powerful SoC HD media doesn’t kill battery life either.

That, combined with the very efficient battery performance of Android 4.0, and the Galaxy S III has the best balance of performance and battery life of any Android device. It can last around 3 days of light use per charge. The only downside is that there is no software to lower battery consumption rates at night.

Benchmarks

I ran the usual slew of benchmarks on both GS3 models, to see if there are any significant differences in the software design. For starters, the Verizon model has a locked bootloader, and only a $600 developers model can be purchased for root access on Verizon. There are of course slight differences here and there, so just to be safe I tested both out. The differences between the two are negligible except when shown.

In my two browser tests, the GS3 is behind only the HTC One X and Galaxy Nexus in the Sunspider test, and only the former handset for Browsermark. It still lags behind tablets for javascript, which is reasonable to expect.

Again, the only faster phone is the HTC One X, and likely because it’s software is closer to stock Android than the GS3′s is. Excellent performance nonetheless.

Finally, the GLBenchmark test shows that, once again, the only Android phone to beat out the GS3 in every test is the HTC One X, which uses an identical SoC but has 512MB of less RAM. Considering how low the differences are, I can only assume that they are software and not hardware related. Then again, you won’t notice any real difference in performance between the two phones, though technically speaking the One X is faster.

As for the Verizon versus AT&T GS3 models, AT&T’s proved to be slightly faster in every test, again likely due to software. We’re talking 1-2% differences in speed, which are even smaller than the already unnoticeable differences between the One X and GS3. The only major difference between the device on both carriers is multicore processing, which AT&T’s model is around 15-20% faster in tests than Verizon’s.

Camera

The GS3 has an excellent camera, one I went so far as to actually compare head to head with the iPhone 4S, which I’ve believed to be the best cameraphone on the market. The only comparable phone for photography has been Nokia’s Lumia 900, which takes stunning photos but it, as a device, worse than the iPhone. The GS3 isn’t.

You can see the results in that piece here. In short, the GS3 has an excellent camera, especially for shooting in the sun or otherwise bright conditions. With an overwhelming amount of light, like a cloudy day when you just can’t escape the glare, the GS3 suffers, and the flash for darker settings is overpowering. The lens is also slow to capture night shots, and seems limited to an aperture of f/2.4. It comes with the standard range of features, like HDR, scene modes, anti-camera shake, and others, and is overall an excellent camera. Not better than the iPhone 4S or Lumia 900, but certainly on-par with both.

Most importantly, however, is that the pixel accuracy is the best of the three. Zoom in on any shots from all three and the GS3 has the clearest shots almost every time.

Conclusion

I’m very impressed with the Galaxy S III. It really sets the bar high for not only Android handset makers like HTC, LG, and others, but also for Apple and even Samsung itself. The phone is fast, fluid, comfortable, and a pleasure to use. It has a surprisingly good voice-recognition system built in, and Google’s own voice search service is above and beyond what Apple offers. Performance is, while not as good as the HTC One X, still excellent and this smartphone can run any application or media you can dream of with ease. Finally, the camera is excellent, providing some of the cleanest and clearest pictures I’ve ever seen on a smartphone.

It’s also still a limited device. The home button is only okay, not good. The display lacks brightness for use outdoors, especially in bright conditions or direct sunlight. The screen also lacks the visual quality for media that the Galaxy S II had, with excellent color and light contrast. A flimsy back cover works and looks appealing enough, but the entire frame could have been made better.

Yet in the end if you asked me what the best phone in the world to buy today is, I’d have to say there’s a choice of two: the Samsung Galaxy S III, or waiting. Windows 8 phones will start coming in November, and will likely include a high-end Nokia model like the Lumia 900. The next iPhone will release around the same time, if not sooner. All of the major Android players will have new models, especially Motorola, which has kept quiet as of late even though it’s Droid Razr and Droid Razr Maxx are hugely popular. Then again, life isn’t about waiting, so why the hell would you want to?

If you purchased your last phone in summer or don’t have a contract right now, then get the Galaxy S III. I’d recommend either the Verizon or AT&T model because of LTE, or AT&T/T-Mobile if you don’t live in an LTE area and don’t expect to anytime soon. For Verizon, that shouldn’t be a problem because so much of the country is already in LTE territory, though AT&T is still only starting out. But at least with AT&T and T-Mobile, they have slower 4G which is still pretty darn fast.

As for it’s biggest competitor, the HTC One X, I’d recommend the Galaxy S III even though it doesn’t have a better screen and the build quality is noticeably worse, for one major reason: the camera. HTC’s camera in the One series just wasn’t up to snuff with today’s smartphones, while the Galaxy S III has arguably the best camera of any Android phone. And for users today, camera and photo quality is far more important than just looks.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★½

Excellent

Bottom Line: The best Android phone there is

Pros:

  • One of the fastest Android phones there is, regardless of carrier
  • Excellent service, speed, and general cellular use
  • Solid display
  • Excellent camera, the best of any Android phone
  • Excellent battery life

Cons:

  • Home button is a great addition, but not shaped for the thumb
  • Display lacks brightness outdoors
  • Build quality could be better, though it looks great in white
  • Anyone who purchased the Galaxy S II last October/November is going to be pissed about it



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.