Samsung Galaxy S III reviewed: The defining Android phone

Taking a play out of Apple’s(s aapl) book, Samsung has introduced one phone model for the world: The Galaxy S III. The new Android 4.0(s goog) smartphone arrives on five U.S. carriers in the coming weeks and I’ve had a few days to use two Galaxy S III models: One for AT&T(s t) and one for Sprint (s s).

With a single model around the world, the only differences in the U.S. versions are operator services, software and the carrier name on the back of the phone. So will Samsung’s new phone become as successful as its predecessor? I have no doubt for a number of reasons.

Hardware and performance

Although smartphone experiences are influencing sales as much as, if not more than, the actual hardware specifications, it’s worth pointing out that the Galaxy S III is at the top of the hardware class. The handset has a large 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED display, but the device doesn’t feel overly large in the hand. I have small hands and I feel comfortable using a phone of this size. At only 0.34 inches, it’s quite thin.

The overall dimensions of the phone are barely bigger than my Galaxy Nexus, which uses a smaller 4.65-inch display. And unlike the Nexus, the full 4.8-inch screen of the Galaxy S III shows more content without software buttons taking up space. Instead, the new Galaxy has two capacitive buttons on the face — for “menu” and “back” functions — and a hardware home button below the screen. This makes the interface easier to use: Button are easy to hit and I find typing on the software keyboard a better experience too. The screen is beautiful to look at as well, with wide viewing angles. The home button has a little too much play for my tastes, but some may not mind.

Unlike the international version of the Galaxy S III, Samsung opted not to use its quad-core Exynos chip in the U.S. version. That’s no surprise as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4(s qcom) chip already works with LTE networks. To compensate for the less powerful chip, Samsung includes 2 GB of memory, and this combo of chip and RAM makes the phone fly in all activities. It’s the fastest Android phone I’ve ever used; not based on benchmarks, but on everyday use. It does, however, run a bit warm to the touch.

Browsing, email, apps all move quickly as do videos and games. I can see a definitely difference in particular with graphic-intensive games: They run noticeably smoother on the Galaxy S III compared to my Nexus. And of course, the device supports LTE networks.

I speed tested the AT&T model in San Antonio and saw more than 50 Mbps download speeds, which is currently double that of my FiOS home broadband. I was able to download the entire Beatles 1 album in about 90 seconds. Granted, AT&T’s LTE network has fewer users than Verizon’s(s vz)(s vod) so as more use the network, those speeds will drop. Still, the phone is capable of the fastest mobile broadband speeds a current network can throw at it.

Phone calls were just fine as were a few GTalk video calls I tested. The battery is fairly generous, able to power through a day on a full charge in my tests. However, I didn’t spend much time using the device in an LTE market, so I can’t speak to daily usage with that fast data radio.

Does the phone feel “plasticky” like prior models? Yes. Is this a big phone? Yes. But is it well designed, easy to hold, thin and light? Yes and I think most will be fine with the build quality and overall phone aesthetics. Plus it’s a fantastic performer, which quickly quells any other quirks one may have with the hardware; such as that hardware button. It rocks more that I’d like and it has two functions: Tap for the Home screen or hold for a list of running apps.

Software galore

The Galaxy S III is loaded with nice hardware, but it’s also filled to gills with Samsung software improvements. TouchWiz is still the company’s user interface, which hides Google’s stock Android 4.0 user interface — and even though I think it isn’t needed, it does make the phone easy to use. There are more software features available than I had time to test, but here’s a rundown of them; all of which are completely unique to Samsung

  • S-Voice allows voice control for many actions: Answer a call, wake the phone, take a picture, play music and more.
  • Pop-up player lets a video play in a small window while using another app.
  • Face unlock — with optional voice security — or motion control to unlock the phone.
  • Customizable lock screen shortcuts for quick app access.
  • Smart Stay; a feature that checks for your eyes and keeps the display lit if it detects you looking at the screen. This feature worked well, even with my glasses on.
  • Direct call will dial a contact from a text message or a contact record by lifting the phone to your ear
  • Various other motion controls for screen capture, muting the phone, pausing music or video and panning a photo or web page
  • Burst camera mode with a best shot function

The list goes on but those are the features that stand out. I do want to highlight the sharing options Samsung built in, however, because Android itself is known for seamless content sharing. Samsung improved the experience with both software and hardware tweaks.

  • Groupcast allows for collaborative presentations of PDF files, slide decks and photos with multiple Galaxy S III handesets.
  • S Beam uses NFC to start a shared connection and then uses Wi-Fi Direct to pipe many different types of files to another phone at up to 300 Mbps.
  • Share Shot is a quick way to share photos in real time: You set up shared phones in advance and the Galaxy S III will push photos to them as you take them.
  • AllShare pushes movies, photos and music content to Samsung SmartTVs, DLNA-hardware and Windows PCs via an AllShare app.

The phone-to-phone sharing is impressive and since I have two devices, I’ll follow up with a video to show how these features work.

Conclusion: It’s a clear winner

Not only is this the best Android phone currently available, in my opinion, but it may be for some time. Yes, competing handsets might include a better camera (this one is quite good though) or higher-resolution screen or some other hardware improvement. Few, however, will be able to quickly top Samsung’s software improvements.

Of course, the obvious question people will surely ask is: Samsung Galaxy S III or Apple iPhone 4S? More than any phone prior, the Galaxy S III rivals the iPhone in many areas. If you’re tied into the Apple ecosystem and don’t want to leave, you likely won’t for any Android phone. For those that are willing to see what’s going on with Android though: It will be a touch choice. There’s just too much to like here and I say that even after using the iOS 6 beta that will be available on the iPhone in a few months. If the next iPhone includes LTE support as expected, the choice becomes even more difficult.

I personally plan to stick with my GSM Galaxy Nexus even though it’s behind the Galaxy S III  in terms of the processor, RAM and absence of LTE support. My reasoning is simple and likely to be very different from most of you: I prefer having a phone without carrier control and I want Android updates as soon as they become available — if not sooner. However, if I were replacing my Galaxy Nexus, it wouldn’t be a question of what phone to get. Instead, I’d be MULLING which carrier I wanted to use with my new Galaxy S III.