Galaxy S III review: Hands down, the best Android smartphone

Thanks to real attention to usability and meaningful features, Samsung's flagship takes its place as the Android front-runner

All the excitement round the Samsung Galaxy S III is justified. It's an extremely nice Android smartphone, with well-designed hardware and software, marrying the best of the Android 4.04 "Ice Cream Sandwich" core OS and Samsung's usability extensions. Even Apple fanboys will be impressed by the attention to detail (often lacking in Android devices) and level of usability Samsung has brought to the Galaxy S III. It deservedly is the new flagship for the Android community.

In the United States, the Galaxy S III is available on all four major carriers, though they've been staggering their releases; T-Mobile will make it available on June 27, Sprint on July 1, AT&T on July 6, and Verizon Wireless on July 11. I tested a Sprint version, though the hardware is identical across all versions (except for the cellular radios, which are tuned for each model's carrier). The Galaxy S III with 16GB of storage costs $199 with a contract, though its actual price ranges from $150 to $229 at various outlets; it costs $589 without a contract. A 32GB model is available for $50 more.

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Hardware The Galaxy S III is a very pretty smartphone. It has the same curved shape as the first "Ice Cream Sandwich" smartphone, the Galaxy Nexus, but is a little thinner and lighter, with a larger screen. It also looks more elegant in both available color schemes: white and metallic, and blue and metallic.

The Back and Menu onscreen buttons are hidden in the bezel, appearing only if you tap the screen -- a nice touch that adds to the simple elegance of the design. Note that you can set the buttons to stay on permanently; you might want to do that at first, until your fingers know where they are.

The LED indicator is also hidden, visible through the bezel only when it's flashing. All that mars the bezel's simple design are the two small circles between the speaker and front camera for the proximity sensors.

The Home button is an actual physical button -- a large one, at that -- rather than the usually small onscreen button (like the Back and Menu buttons). Samsung has clearly decided that the iPhone's physical Home button is the better model for this commonly used button than Google's onscreen approach, as it has opted for a physical Home button in several recent models.

 

The layout of the buttons and screen elements follows the pattern of other Samsung devices, and it's both unobtrusive and functional. Like the Nexus, the Galaxy S III may be too large to carry in a shirt pocket, from which it sticks out and is apt to fall as you bend over. It also pushes the envelope for comfortable thumb-typing in landscape mode, especially if your hands are on the smaller end of the spectrum.

As Samsung's flagship Android smartphone, the Galaxy S III has all the bells and whistles you'd expect: 4G LTE support (for AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon; T-Mobile as yet doesn't offer this faster cellular technology), near-field communications (NFC) and Wi-Fi Direct for device-to-device exchange, low-power Bluetooth 4.0 radio, that huge AMOLED screen with Gorilla Glass 2 covering, 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash, 1.9-megapixel front camera, MicroSD slot for removable storage, and dual-core 1.5GHz ARM processor for LTE versions or 1.4GHz quad-core ARM processor for HSPA+ versions (such as T-Mobile's).

The MicroUSB port also supports Samsung's proprietary MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) cables, which connect to an HDMI device such as a TV to mirror the smartphone's screen or relay video. That eliminates the need for a separate MiniHDMI port. The Galaxy S III's screen isn't prone to the "blowout" effect of the Galaxy Nexus when the brightness is dialed up.

The Galaxy S III's battery life seems to be better than that of the Galaxy Nexus, which is just OK. It helps that the S III comes with a power-savings mode you can enable to reduce the device's performance to stretch its battery life -- quite useful when on the road. As with most modern phones, plan to recharge it daily, and if you spend a lot of time talking, sharing files, or navigating with GPS, keep it plugged in when you can.

This level of hardware should give you a couple years of use without feeling inadequate as new models arrive.

User interface and applications Android 4 "Ice Cream" Sandwich is a big step up in usability for Android smartphones, with cleaner presentation and more consistency. Few Android devices yet support it, so only 10 percent of Android devices actually run it today. But that percentage should climb quickly thanks to the Galaxy S III. Of course, Google recently revealed Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," so the Galaxy S III is already behind the times -- and the situation won't likely won't be remedied until the end of the year, according to Samsung's vague comments about its "Jelly Bean" upgrade plans.

Widgets are one of Android's best features, one that sets it apart nicely from iOS. The ability that Samsung has added to quickly manage settings such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the notifications tray is also a step above iOS.

The combination of Android 4's crisp and adjustable fonts and the Galaxy S III's large screen means even middle-aged users like me can comfortably see what's on screen -- which can be difficult on the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen.

When it comes to applications, the Galaxy S III has the same issues with the Google Play app store and generally modest sophistication of Android applications as any Android device does. Likewise, its browser is the serviceable stock Android browser.

Samsung has augmented the "Ice Cream Sandwich" experience with several capabilities (some found in other recent Samsung Android devices), including its "Siri light" S Voice feature. Apple's Siri service on the iPhone 4S responds to questions and can take actions based on your voice commands; the stock Android OS has long offered simpler voice command support (though "Jelly Bean" aims to outdo Siri), as well as dictation capabilities for text entry. Samsung's S Voice falls somewhere between the stock Android and Apple Siri capabilities, letting you issue commands for certain applications, such as dictating a tweet, taking a photo, or answering a call.

Samsung has also added the Smart Stay feature. If enabled, the Galaxy S III uses the front camera to monitor whether you're looking at the screen (it searches for eyes) so that it doesn't shut off or dim the display while you're reading. That's a smart idea, as most mobile OSes rely on detecting button presses and touch actions to know you're still engaged -- which doesn't reliably detect someone watching a movie or reading a book.

Other UI enhancements include what Samsung calls smart motions. Some of these are copied from iOS, such as tapping the top of a screen to jump to it or lifting the phone to your ear to answer a call. Others are unique, such as scrolling through a list by tilting the screen or holding your hand on the screen to mute the sounds. You enable the specific motion "gestures" through the Settings app, so you can avoid unwanted motion-based behaviors.

Then there's the ability to set the LED indicator to show any or all of the following statuses: battery charging, low battery, and missed event (such as a call or notification) -- an enhancement over the stock Android indicator's focus on alerts.

Sharing is one of the big focus areas for Android, with the use of NFC, Wi-Fi Direct, and Bluetooth to pass data among Android devices. The Galaxy S III has all three short-range radio technologies, along with Samsung's S Beam app to let you exchange photos and files with other devices that support Wi-Fi Direct. For such sharing to work, the devices need to be running the same applications, and those applications need to support direct sharing. You can also use NFC for such exchanges, but only with other Galaxy S III smartphones, by tapping their backs together and then pulling them apart.

A less successful Samsung addition is the AllShare utility, which lets you wirelessly share your screen or an app's contents to a DLNA-equipped TV or home entertainment device. The Digital Living Room Networking Association standard is inconsistently implemented across manufacturers -- iffy at best. The AllShare app to manage this sharing is a Samsung-centric affair, so its utility in the typical living room is small. Plus, it's at odds with Google's new media center device, the Nexus Q.

You can see the attention to usability in the Galaxy S III's capabilities. Samsung's refinements of the stock Android 4 capabilities are nearly all useful and well implemented, showcasing Samsung's goal to be more than a mere manufacturer of me-too devices.

Management and security The Galaxy S III has the stock Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" with Samsung's SAFE security extensions. That means it supports nearly all of the same Exchange ActiveSync policies as an iPhone, such as failed-attempt lockout and password histories, and ActiveSync's remote lock and remote wipe capabilities. Unfortunately, Android 4 requires users to turn on device encryption -- it's not automatic as in the iPhone -- but there's now a quick-encrypt option. You no longer have to wait an hour as in the initial Android 4 release.

Android 4 also supports VPNs, but the settings are buried in the More options for network configuration. Unfortunately, the setup options are certain to scare most users away, as you get a list of incomprehensible acronyms to choose from. I could not get the Galaxy S III to work on my company's IPSec network, as none of the IPSec options allowed for entering the group ID, just its pre-shared key -- a problem I've had with every single Android 3 and 4 device I've tested. The problem seems to be that Android 4, like its predecessors, doesn't support Cisco's IPSec, which my company uses. (I have had no such issues on the iPhone.)

Android 4 also perpetuates a flaw from previous Android versions that prevents devices from connecting to Wi-Fi networks using the PEAP security protocol. You won't find this flaw in other mobile OSes.

A Galaxy S III might work in your security environment, or it might not. But Android 4 at least gives it the possibility of doing so.

The best Android smartphone you can get There's no other word for the Galaxy S III than "impressive." It's well-designed and highly capable, with an attention to usability that shows why Samsung is Apple's chief rival -- and should give Apple some food for thought as it evolves the iPhone.

The S III is certainly better than Google's own "pure Android" flagship, the Galaxy Nexus that it designed but had Samsung manufacture. If you demand a physical keyboard, you should consider the Motorola Mobility Droid 4 instead, but it's clear most of the world has adapted well to onscreen keyboards. For those touch-savvy people, the Galaxy S III is hands-down the best Android smartphone on the market today.

This article, "Galaxy S III review: Hands down, the best Android smartphone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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