Samsung Galaxy S III review: A rock star phone, but does it deliver?

Samsung's Galaxy S III is one of the most hotly anticipated Android phones ever. We test it to see if it lives up to the hype.

It isn't every day a phone like Samsung's Galaxy S III comes into the world. The Galaxy S III is practically a celebrity, thanks both to the massive public interest surrounding it and the Olympic-sized promotional pushSamsung's providing.

Hype and presentation, however, don't always equal greatness -- and these days, there's no shortage of eye-catching smartphones available. So does the Samsung Galaxy S III do enough to stand out from the pack?

Samsung Galaxy S III

I wanted to find out. I've been using the Galaxy S III in place of my own personal phone for the past several days -- going back and forth between a white AT&T model and a blue T-Mobile model -- and I've learned a lot about where the phone shines and where it falls short. So dim the lights and get ready: Our latest rock star is about to take center stage.

(Note: The Galaxy S III will be sold by all four major U.S. carriers as well as U.S. Cellular. We've included a chart that lists some of the details; you can find the full rundown of launch dates, prices, and model availability in my carrier-by-carrier guide.)

Body and display

Samsung has made much of the fact that its Galaxy S III is "designed for humans" -- not only that, but it's "inspired by water, wind, leaves, and pebbles." (Please, someone gag me now.) Here's the truth: The "magical" marketing speak is great for commercials, but it has little to do with the real world. The Galaxy S III is just a phone.

That said, it's a very nice phone, and its quality is apparent the second you pick it up. The Galaxy S III is a sexy piece of hardware, all angles and curves; its back panel is so smooth and glossy that you can actually see your reflection in it.

The Galaxy S III's casing is made of plastic, like most Samsung phones. Though the back panel feels a bit flimsy when removed -- bend it too far and it might just snap -- the material feels durable when in place.

The Galaxy S III is 2.8 x 5.4 x 0.34 in., making it slightly longer and thinner than the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy Nexus (U.S. versions). The phone weighs 4.7 oz. -- a hair more than the One X and 0.4 oz. less than the U.S. Galaxy Nexus.

The new Galaxy doesn't feel overly large in the hand, which is quite a feat when you consider its supersized 4.8-in. screen. Samsung has managed to include a large display while still achieving a sleek-feeling form; the phone is well-designed and quite comfortable to hold. The glossy back feels somewhat slick compared to the textured material on a phone like the Galaxy Nexus, but despite my initial concerns, I never felt the device slipping from my hands.

One thing I did feel was heat: Both the white AT&T model and the blue T-Mobile model occasionally became quite warm to the touch during use (and not even resource-intensive use -- just casual Web and social media browsing). The phones never got so hot that I couldn't physically hold them, but they got hot enough that I was acutely aware of the temperature, both on the back casings and on the glass displays.

Speaking of displays, the Galaxy S III packs a 1280 x 720 HD Super AMOLED screen. The screen looks good: Colors are bright and blacks are satisfyingly deep. Display aficionados may balk at the Pentile-based nature of the technology, which is generally considered to be less impressive than the LCD-based alternative seen on phones like the One X. While there's certainly merit to that argument, it's hard to call the Galaxy S III's display a weak point; even looking at the Galaxy S III and the One X side by side, the difference in display quality is difficult to detect. Unless you're finely tuned into subtle display differences, you're going to be pleased.

A warning, though: The autobrightness feature on the phone isn't so great. The display frequently adjusted itself to a too-dim setting during my use, which proved to be mildly irritating. (You can, of course, set your brightness manually, but that sort of defeats the purpose of having an autobrightness tool.) Hopefully Samsung can correct this via a future firmware update.

The Galaxy S III has an LED notification light on its front that alerts you to missed calls and messages; if you want, you can use a third-party LED notification control app to make the light even more useful. The phone has a volume rocker on its left side, a headphone jack on the top, a power button on the right, and a charging port on the bottom. The charging port can be used to connect the phone to a TV or monitor via HDMI, though you'll need a special adapter to make it work. (Adapters from older Samsung phones won't do the trick).

It's worth mentioning that unlike past-generation models, the Galaxy S III will be relatively constant from carrier to carrier. The back-of-phone branding and app additions (a.k.a. bloatware -- more on that in a bit) are the only real differences in the various networks' phones.

Samsung Galaxy S III carriers and pricing

*After $100 mail-in rebate. **20 monthly payments of $20 ***After $50 mail-in rebate All prices require new two-year contracts.

The buttons -- oh, the buttons

With Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich, Google is moving the platform toward a button-free environment: Instead of devices relying on physical navigation buttons, as they once did, Android 4.0 revolves around the concept of virtual on-screen buttons that rotate to match a device's orientation.

Some manufacturers are resisting this change -- perhaps in an attempt to achieve consistency with past designs or maybe just because their hardware was conceived before Android 4.0 came around. Samsung's Galaxy S III is among the 4.0-level devices whose design is clinging to Android's past instead of embracing its future, and that takes an unfortunate toll on the quality of the user experience.

In stock Ice Cream Sandwich (left), all options are accessible via on-screen icons. In Samsung's version (right), many options show up only if you press the phone's physical menu button.

The Galaxy S III has three buttons on its face: a centered hardware "home" button and a capacitive button on either side. This is where Samsung's decision-making gets most vexing: One of the capacitive buttons is a "back" control, which is sensible enough, but the other is a "menu" control -- something phased out of Android after the 2.3-level release in order to move away from having hidden functions and make the platform more user-friendly.

Having a menu button on the Galaxy S III makes the phone feel dated and results in a far less fluid and intuitive user experience. Functions remain hidden and hard to find, and the menu button doesn't even work consistently throughout the system (in the Camera app, for example, there's an on-screen menu button; pressing the physical button does nothing).

Samsung also elected not to include an app-switching button of any sort -- something that's now standard in Ice Cream Sandwich -- and instead requires users to long-press the physical home button in order to activate the multitasking tool. The multitasking tool is one of the high points of Ice Cream Sandwich and something you'll likely want to access often; having it buried in a place that requires a two-second long-press is a serious downer and another ding that makes the phone feel dated.

Sadly, the Galaxy S III's button problems don't stop there: Philosophical approach aside, the mix of a hardware home button with capacitive back and menu buttons simply doesn't work. Once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring and feels bizarre. I can't count the number of times I found myself touching the home button only to realize I had to press it firmly to make it work.

On top of that, the phone's capacitive buttons are frequently not lit up -- and when they aren't illuminated, you can't see them at all. When the buttons are lit up on the white model of the phone, you see quite a bit of light bleed around them. And for some reason, Samsung opted to put the back button on the right side of the phone instead of the left, where Google has it placed in Ice Cream Sandwich; this seemingly trivial decision makes the phone unnatural to use for anyone accustomed to any other ICS phone or tablet.

When the buttons are lit on the white model, there is light bleed around them.

Much ado about buttons, I know. But all in all, I feel like Samsung made some very bad decisions with its Galaxy S III button design -- and with buttons being such a crucial part of the phone-using experience, the impact is significant.

Under the hood

While the international Galaxy S III model runs on a quad-core processor, the U.S. models utilize a 1.5GHz dual-core chip made by Qualcomm. They also have a whopping 2GB of RAM -- twice the RAM of their international brothers as well as all current high-end phones on the U.S. market.

So what's that actually mean? The phone is fast -- really fast. The Galaxy S III flies with most any task: Swiping between home screens is smooth, apps load instantly and Web browsing is as speedy as can be. No amount of multitasking seems to slow this sucker down.

That said, it's hard to quantify the effect of the extra RAM in real-world terms; even though the phone's speed is impressive, other recent high-end devices like the One X and Galaxy Nexus have similarly snappy performance. Based on my experiences, I'd say the Galaxy S III has a little extra zip in certain areas, but with the other top-tier phones being as fast as they are, it's tough to tell any major difference in most everyday usage.

The Galaxy S III uses a 2100 mAh battery that can be removed and replaced. I found the phone's battery life to be good but not incredible: One day, for example, I spent about an hour reading online content and a half-hour streaming music with Pandora. By lunchtime, my battery was down from a full charge to 58%; by 5 p.m., after a seven-minute phone call and a few minutes of quick on-and-off Internet usage, it was down to 36%.

Still, with moderate to heavy use, I was generally able to make it to the end of the day -- or close to it -- without getting a low-battery warning. The Galaxy S III is no Razr Maxx when it comes to stamina, but it's certainly no slouch.

The Galaxy S III comes with your choice of 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. It also supports up to 64GB of external storage via a microSD slot located beneath the back cover. Some models of the phone include 50GB of free Dropbox storage for two years; the AT&T and Verizon models, however, do not.

Samsung's Galaxy S III is 4G-ready, though connection type and speed will obviously depend on your carrier. The AT&T and Verizon models run on LTE right now, where such service is available, while the Sprint model will be limited to 3G data speeds until Sprint's LTE network has launched. The T-Mobile version, meanwhile, utilizes the carrier's HSPA+-level 4G network.

I had no issues with voice quality on the Galaxy S III; calls were loud and clear, and people on the other end of the line reported being able to hear me just fine. The Galaxy S III does have a series of in-call EQ settings, but I was unable to detect any difference with the optimizations on vs. off.

The Galaxy S III has full support for near-field communications (NFC), which enables you to use contact-free payment and phone-to-phone data-sharing services. Samsung has built in support for some interesting types of contact-free interactions; I'll explore them fully in a blog later this week.

Cameras

Camera quality is becoming an area of distinction for high-end smartphones, and with its Galaxy S III, Samsung doesn't disappoint. The Galaxy S III's 8-megapixel main camera consistently captures sharp shots with vibrant, true-to-life colors and fantastic detail.

In some ways, the Galaxy's camera lags behind the lens used by HTC on its One series -- Samsung's camera lacks a dedicated image chip, for example, and has a more limited aperture range than HTC's -- but it took great-looking photos in almost any environment.

Samsung's Galaxy S III camera is capable of capturing images in HDR mode, which quickly snaps shots at different light exposures and then combines them into a single photo.

A sample photo taken with the Galaxy S III's camera.

The camera also has a "burst shot" mode that allows you to hold the shutter and capture 20 photos in rapid-fire paparazzi style. The interface for this mode is a bit of a letdown, though; whereas HTC made the function available on-demand on its One phones, Samsung requires you to scroll through a menu to find and activate the function before it'll work with every use.

The Galaxy S III has a face-detection tagging feature that's supposed to recognize faces automatically and make it easy for you to share photos with friends. In my tests, the feature was very hit and miss; it worked as promised some of the time but just as frequently failed to recognize faces that had been programmed in.

The Galaxy S III's camera is capable of recording 1080p HD-quality video. The phone also has a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera for vanity shots and video chat; its photos aren't studio-quality, by any means, but compared to the majority of front-facing mobile cameras, they're actually quite good.

The software

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