The question is, Does it all work together to create a masterpiece? Or is it a heap of chaotic spaghetti?
The Galaxy S III is available from all four major carriers in the United States — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile ($200 for the model with 16 gigabytes of storage, with a two-year contract). It runs on each carrier’s fastest data network — 4G LTE, for example.
The first thing to know: This phone is huge. Its 4.8-inch screen is a broad canvas for photos, movies, maps and Web pages. But you can’t have a big screen without a big body, and this one is more VHS cassette than postage stamp. It’s the old trade-off: A big phone is better when you’re using it, but a small one is better when you’re carrying it.
Still, once Samsung decided to incorporate a Jumbotron, its designers did a spectacular job designing a case around it. The back is glossy plastic (white or dark blue), rounded at all edges and corners. It’s superthin — 0.34 inches, even thinner than the iPhone — and feels glorious; when you’re nervous, you can rub it like a worry stone.
Samsung may not call it a Retina display, but the screen actually has more pixels than the iPhone’s, 1,280 by 720 pixels versus 960 by 640. It’s nearly as sharp, too: 306 pixels per inch instead of 326. It’s an Amoled screen: bright, vivid and relatively energy-efficient.
The Galaxy has a removable battery and a memory-card slot — take that, Apple! It runs the latest version of the Android operating system from Google (4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich). The camera on the back takes bright 8-megapixel photos, although they’re not very sharp.
More important, the S III’s designers have married hardware with software to create dozens of truly ingenious, handy features. On the iPhone, Apple would probably crow about any one of these:
1. Smart Stay. The phone’s front-facing camera looks for your eyes. When you look away, the screen dims to save power; it brightens back up when you return your gaze. Brilliant.
2. Buddy Shot. The Galaxy’s face recognition software knows whose face is in the scene. The first time you take a photo of someone, you can type in the subject’s name — your mom, for example. Thereafter, whenever you take her photo, one tap sends it to her without your having to fuss with entering an address.
3. Direct Call. If a texting conversation is getting too complicated, just lift the phone to your ear. It calls your texting partner, no taps needed.
4. Tap to top. Swat the top edge of the phone to jump to the top of a list.
¶ Tilt zooming. With two fingers on the screen, tip the phone toward you and away to zoom in and out of a photo, map or Web page.
5. Instant muting. Mute audio and video playback by covering the screen with your hand, as though to say, “Shhhh!” Mute incoming rings and notifications by turning the phone face down on the table — in a meeting, for example. That’s just so, so smart.
6. Palm swipe capture. Save an image of the screen by wiping the edge of your hand across it, as though you’re the scanner of a photocopying machine.
7. Answering key. You can answer an incoming call by pressing the Home button, and hang up by pressing the on/off button. No need to look at the screen.
All of these features are optional — you turn them on in Settings.
There’s another crazy-great idea in TecTiles: small, embedded-circuit stickers ($15 for five). When your phone gets near a sticker, it activates some task that you’ve selected from a list of dozens in the free TecTiles app: make a call, send a text, adjust a phone setting and so on.
A TecTile on your dashboard could turn on Bluetooth when you get in the car. A sticker on your bedside table could turn the phone’s alarm on. This is fun, useful, outside-the-box thinking.
Not all of the breakthroughs are winners. For example, Samsung makes much of S Beam, which lets you transfer a photo, video or some other file to another phone just by tapping their backs together.
Unfortunately, setting it up is more work than assembling an Ikea dresser. Both phones must be Galaxy S III’s, both must be on and unlocked, and both require the right services turned on in Settings — Wi-Fi Direct and S Beam. By the time you’ve gone to all that trouble, you could have just e-mailed the darned thing.
Another example: In addition to the standard Android speak-to-type feature, the Galaxy offers something called S Voice — a direct copy of Siri on the iPhone.
In addition to the usual Siri functions (“Call Mom,” “Navigate to 200 West 68th Street,” “How tall is Mount Everest?”), you can also use it to open apps (“Open Calculator”), adjust settings (“Turn off Wi-Fi”) and make notes to self (“Record voice”). You can also handle calls by voice (“Answer” or “Reject”), shut up your alarm (“Snooze” or “Stop”) and, delightfully, even control the camera (“Shoot” or “Cheese!”).
In practice, you’ll probably wind up S-chewing S Voice. Not only is her required syntax far more restrictive than Siri’s, but in my tests, S Voice just doesn’t work well.
Me: “Make an appointment with Charlie, Thursday at noon.” Her: “An unexpected server error occurred. Please try again.”
Me: “Turn Wi-Fi off.” Her: “What app do you want to open?”
Me: “Turn Wi-Fi On.” Her: “What Tom.”
Me: “Record voice.” Her: “Network error. Please try again.”
More disappointments: There’s no physical camera-shutter button — you can’t even use the volume key for that purpose, as you can on the iPhone.
And it’s goofy that, after you take a photo, the Share menu offers one-tap access to things called Group Cast, ChatON and Flipboard — but the far more commonly used options, like E-Mail and Text Message, are hidden in a submenu.
There are three illuminated touch buttons beneath the screen: Menu, Home and Back. But after a few seconds, the light turns off to save power, leaving only a completely dark, black strip. Now you have to guess where those buttons are. You’ll quickly learn where to tap, but still.
The thing is, those are very small flies in some really great ointment. The Galaxy S III is an amazing, amazing phone — the crème de la Android. For many people, the next question is: Samsung or Apple?
The Samsung is infinitely more customizable. You can control which status icons appear at the top (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, clock and so on). You choose which of the camera’s 40,000 options appear on the viewfinder screen. You have a choice of text-input systems, including one where you drag your finger across the on-screen keys. A bar-graph screen reveals exactly how much battery charge is being gulped by each app. And so on.
Of course, with great flexibility comes great complexity. The phone bombards you with warnings and disclaimers — sometimes upside-down. You really need a Learning Annex course to master this thing.
With an iPhone, you get far less control, but you get the Apple ecosystem: a smoothly integrated app/music/movie store. Universal charger connectors that show up in cars and hotel rooms worldwide. Hardware and software that were designed together, so features look and work consistently.
But in Samsung’s latest and greatest machine, you get 4G Internet speed, a huge screen and clever motion-sensing features — in a thin, stunningly sculptured slab. In the galaxy of app phones, this one is a bright, beautiful star.