Deathmatch: Apple iPhone 5 vs. Samsung Galaxy S III

Is Apple's svelte, skinny iPhone 5 strong enough to fend off the challenge from the big, bold Android muscle phone?

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I prefer the S III's screen. If you have middle-aged or older eyes, the bigger text of the S III (due to the fact its screen is bigger, as are its pixels) is easier to read than the sharper but smaller text of the iPhone. If you're in your 20s or 30s, the readability difference probably won't be apparent. The iPhone 5's Retina display does present text more sharply, which is helpful when reading the tiny text in so many apps.

The S III's larger size comes with a price: It's hard to use one-handed. Not only does iPhone 5 fit better in your hand, but its screen is accessible by your thumb. For the S III, only the Hulk's hand is big enough for the thumb to reach the full screen.

As you'd expect, the iPhone 5 sports a faster processor -- Apple's own A6 -- compared to the previous iPhone, as well as faster graphics processing. The speed advantage is hard to notice in practice, but various benchmarks show there is a difference. The S III also has a beefy processor and graphics subsystem, but it's hard to compare to the iPhone 5, given that the applications are different. The bottom line: Both are fast enough.

The iPhone 5 camera's optics have also been improved, resulting in finer detail, especially in low-light conditions. But the new lens has apparently caused lens flares under some circumstances. The S III's camera is unremarkable. Both are fine for most snapshots, but if you want your smartphone to replace your digital camera, you'll prefer the iPhone 5.

The iPhone 5, like its predecessors, has no removable storage. You choose 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of internal storage when you buy it (with no-contract prices of $649, $749, and $849, respectively), and you must live with that choice. The Galaxy S III, by contrast, comes with either 16GB ($630) or 32GB ($680) of internal storage, but it can take an SD card of up to 64GB capacity as well.

The iPhone 5's speakers are more powerful than those in previous models, so audio is much louder for movies and music. But for some reason, alert sounds (such as for text messages) on the iPhone 5 are harder to hear than on an iPhone 4 in a noisy store, restaurant, or bus. I often couldn't hear them at all, though I could hear the calling tone, which was louder even when using the same ringtone as the other alerts. The iPhone 4 didn't have this volume difference, and I could hear its tones in the same places I couldn't hear the iPhone 5's. The Galaxy S III's speakers are as loud as the iPhone 5's, but its sound is tinnier and less rich than the iPhone 5's (or iPhone 4's).

Some people have complained that the iPhone 5's anodized aluminum back and edges are easily scratched or scuffed. I didn't find that to be true, nor did several other people I know who bought the new smartphone. It's possible that some iPhone 5s didn't cure correctly after the finish was applied. I prefer the feel of the previous iPhones' glass backs, which warm nicely to the touch. The new aluminum back gets very warm when you're using one of the radios and after you charge it -- similar to how the third-gen iPad heats up more than the iPad 2 -- but not annoyingly so. It also gets cold easily. The glass-backed iPhones had less temperature variation. The Galaxy S III's plastic case (available in slate blue or white, as well as in dark red at AT&T only) is pleasant enough, though not as nice as either the old iPhone's glass or the new iPhone's aluminum.

The most meaningful hardware change is the support for LTE 4G cellular networks. Much of the world is only now starting to deploy LTE, so most people will get no immediate benefit from this technology. But you will notice faster downloads and application updates (such as in the browser or in news apps) where it's available -- usually. The speed can be two to three times that of 3G networks in well-served areas.

I've complained before that when I got the LTE-equipped third-gen iPad this spring that I rarely noticed a speed advantage compared to my previous iPad 2 or my iPhone 4 -- at least not in the San Francisco area where I work and live. People in other parts of the country have noticed a real difference. But when the iPhone 5 debuted in late September, I did see faster LTE performance in San Francisco from my carrier, Verizon Wireless, which like AT&T and Sprint has been rolling out LTE in many markets. It appears Verizon has also been reworking slow LTE in places like San Francisco. But LTE coverage is still spotty, and even 3G service is not universal here.

The S III also sports LTE support. Do note that the S III has both 3G and LTE radios, so even on CDMA carriers such as Verizon and Sprint, you can access data and voice services simultaneously (voice goes over 3G, and data over LTE). For the iPhone 5, there's just one radio; if voice is on, data stops if you're using a CDMA network. Ultimately, Verizon and Sprint will have to make the fix on their networks through the introduction of VoLTE (voice over LTE) technology; until then, CDMA-connected iPhone 5 users will notice that apps and services like Find My Friend stop updating when you're talking.

On the other hand, the iPhone 5 is a true worldphone. Even the CDMA models support 3G GSM networks globally, so you can pop in a SIM abroad and get service on your iPhone 5. (Verizon lets you do this in the United States with competing domestic carriers, but AT&T and Sprint do not.) The S III's CDMA models don't have SIM slots, so you can roam only in the few other countries that use CDMA -- at high prices.

The S III and the iPhone 5 are available on nearly all the first-tier carriers in the United States. The iPhone 5 is not available for T-Mobile, though you can use an unlocked or Verizon model on T-Mobile's network -- or you will be able to once the new NanoSIMs that the iPhone 5 is the first to use become available. If you have a MicroSIM from a previous phone or your iPad, it won't fit in the iPhone 5.

The iPhone 5 uses a new connector called Lightning for charging, syncing, and peripheral access. The cable has an embedded chip that assigns functions to each of the eight pins based on what it is connected to. That saves space and will let Apple add capabilities not anticipated today, which the old 30-pin Dock connector could not so easily do. But it also means the end of the cheap-cable era because the new connector is no longer solely a set of physical wires and pins. Also, the $29 adapter for existing 30-pin cables doesn't work with many peripherals, including anything that uses video-out, such as projector and monitor cables, or tries to control the music player, such as some stereos. Until new cables become available, the iPhone 5 is less connectable than previous models. Basically, you can't use an iPhone 5 to give presentations or do screen sharing today, but it will gain that capability in the future.

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