[Review] Does the Samsung Galaxy S III Live Up to Its Hype?

The Samsung Galaxy S III is the latest flagship Android smartphone, and it is selling well globally, giving Apple's iPhone a run for its money. But where does the Galaxy S III fit in the pantheon of the world's best smartphones?

Hardware to Rival All Comers

Not all Android smartphones are created equal. That is evident just from taking a look at Samsung’s own Galaxy series. But when a company aims for the top of the market, it better come armed with its best hardware and software specifications. Smartphone enthusiasts expect nothing less. 

The Galaxy S III delivers on the promise of top-end hardware. It sports a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED screen (1280x720 resolution), 16 or 32 GB of memory, and an 8-megapixel back camera with a 1.9-megapixel front camera. It can run on networks all the way from 2.5 G to 4G LTE. It has all the standard sensors for a top smartphone, such as Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC (Near-field communications, for mobile wallets and such), Bluetooth, gyrometer/accelerometer, compass and even a barometer. In the United States it ships with a dual-core 1.5-GHz processor.

If you are not a hardware-spec geek, just know that the Galaxy S III does everything you would ever want from a modern smartphone and does it seamlessly. It has more power than the iPhone 4S and is comparable to other high-end Android smartphones like the HTC One X. 

Unfortunately, the Galaxy S III's physical construction doesn't quite measure up to its technical specs. While almost exactly the same size as the HTC One X, the S III feels lighter and, well, cheaper. The culprit is a flimsy plastic back that is common to Samsung Galaxy products. At least the back is removable, offering easy access to the battery, SIM card and a Micro-SD slot. (The HTC One X requires a special key - provided - to pop out the SIM card). The Galaxy S III's plastic shell simply doesn't feel as sturdy as the One X’s ceramic casing - and it may not hold up as well when dropped. 

Lamenting the Skin: TouchWiz

The Galaxy S III runs the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system (and is rumored to get 4.1 Jelly Bean later this summer). Like most Android-phone makers, Samsung puts a skin on top of the OS to differentiate it from pure Android (such as is found in Google’s own Nexus devices) and other competitors' products. Skinless Android can be hard to figure out for the average smartphone user. Putting a custom overlay on the operating system is supposed to make things easier.

But Samsung is trying to match the impressive hardware of the S III with an equally powerful software integration. Once you figure out Samsung's skin, called TouchWiz, it can be an enjoyable experience. It is well laid out, easy to read and the icons are big and bright. Android power users will likely love the added functionality, but regular consumers may feel confused and even angry that things are not as easy as they should be. If you are coming from an iPhone or even a Windows Phone (like the Nokia Lumia 900), it will take a little while to figure out Samsung’s style.

There are niceties, though, including an improvement in working with Android widgets. Instead of dragging a widget between home screens, you can just move the phone side to side and TouchWiz automatically move cycles through the home screens. This may seem minor, but anybody that has tried to reorganize their widgets on an Android phone knows that moving a widget from one home screen to another is not always a simple process. 

Another TouchWiz nicety places a function tray within the drop-down notification menu. This is convenient for accessing the settings to toggle Wi-Fi, GPS, Airplane mode, Bluetooth and other functions. This is not particular to the Galaxy S III, but the interface is improved in this version of TouchWiz. 

An S For Everything

If you like a simple Android machine that provides powerful functionality without a lot of extra third-party apps, the S III is not for you. The Galaxy S III brings an array of Samsung’s own "S" apps and functionality to Android. The list of apps impressive. Or annoying, depending on your perspective. 

“S” apps include S Memo, S Planner and S Voice, which essentially replace normal Android functionality with Samsung versions. S Voice is voice-guided search, a function that Samsung advertises as a better alternative to Apple's Siri. How you like S Voice depends on what you expect from a voice-guided app, but, in practice, none of these apps (Siri included) actually work all that well. Google improved voice search with Android Jelly Bean 4.1 but that is not yet available on the S III. 

S Memo is akin to Apple’s Notes app, but with a bit more functionality - not a bad option for smartphone note-takers. It lets people to use the touchscreen to take notes or draw maps as well as enter information via a keyboard. S Planner is Samsung’s calendar app and it too is a little more complicated than it needs to be. S Suggest recommends apps to download from Android’s Google Play store or Samsung’s own media hub.

The problem with the “S” apps is that replace perfectly functional Android apps with alternatives that Samsung created and branded. Why bother?

One of the first things we did when we got our hands on the S III was delete all of the “S” apps along with the carrier-specific bloatware that comes when you buy a device through AT&T, Verizon or Sprint. Some smartphone buyers may like having a bunch of ready-made media and utility apps already loaded onto their home screens, but we prefer to delete them and start from scratch. 

Media, Camera, Basic Functions

Samsung has gone the extra mile when it comes to sharing and playing media. The S III adds a unique feature to Android, called AllShare Play, that's essentially a personal cloud that allows you to share pictures, video and other media between devices. You can share photos among your S III-toting friends with a few simple buttons.

The S III also comes with Media Hub, which holds Samsung's own media apps for video and music. This is just more bloatware. One of the simple beauties of Android is that it is fully integrated into all of Google’s services, including Google Play, which makes Media Hub redundant. It is much easier to forego Samsung’s own apps and just go with the default Google properties. 

The camera on the S III is comparable to the lenses on the iPhone 4S or HTC One X. It delivers good depth of field, makes colors pop and has all of the camera features that are new to Ice Cream Sandwich, such as the ability to take a still picture while recording video. 

When it comes to basic functions like phone calls and texts, the Galaxy S III uses TouchWiz to its advantage. You can call or message a person in your contact list by swiping a name left or right, a function carried over from previous Galaxies.

Android can import whole contact lists from your Google account, which is nice for owners of older Android devices. Texts appear on Samsung’s standard black background with blue and yellow bubbles for incoming and outgoing messages.

The battery on the S III is comparable to the One X: better than almost all other Android smartphones. Even if you want to use the GPS with an app like RunKeeper while playing a music app like Pandora or Spotify, you will be able to go for several hours and still come home with battery life left. This is a benefit of the D III's higher-end processor and the superior battery technology found in today's top smartphones. Users upgrading from older Android smartphones like the Droid Bionic or HTC EVO will be amazed at how much longer the S III lasts. 

Is This Android You're Looking For?

In the month that the Galaxy S III has been on the market, it has sold nearly 10 million units globally, an impressive total for a device that is not an iPhone. 

In 2011, the Galaxy S II was unquestionably the best Android phone available. The S III is a worthy upgrade over the S II, packing a bit more punch than its predecessor.

But when you put the S III up against its closest Android rival, the HTC One X, it's not clear which is superior. They are nearly the same size, have similar screen sizes, battery life, third-party apps and features. The One X - with Beats Audio - wins when it comes to media playback, while Samsung wins for its variety of content and social sharing. 

Comparing two nearly equivalent phones, it really comes down to which Android skin you like better. And that is the way it should be. Power users may like TouchWiz, while more casual consumers may prefer the relative simplicity of HTC’s Sense 4 skin. Android geeks are going to like the hardware both phones but may long for an equivalent Ice Cream Sandwich device that does not have any skin at all.