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

June 20, 2012 06:00 AM ET

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 currently run on LTE, 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 versus off.

The Galaxy S III has full support for near-field communication (NFC) technology, 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-or-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

The Galaxy S III runs a version of Android 4.0 heavily customized with Samsung's TouchWiz interface. The result is a mishmash of interesting features and inconsistent design; you could call it a Neapolitan version of Google's Ice Cream Sandwich.

The Galaxy S III interface (right) feels cluttered and busy compared to Google's base Android 4.0 UI (left).

In terms of the actual interface, Samsung trades the subdued gray-and-blue design introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich for a far more busily colored alternative. Many of Samsung's UI changes seem to have been made merely for the sake of change and at the expense of the user experience: For example, to create a home screen folder in the stock ICS software, you simply drag one icon onto another; with the Galaxy S III, you have to first drag an icon directly from the app drawer onto a "Create Folder" command at the bottom of the screen, then drag a second icon on top of it. Samsung essentially altered the process to make it more cumbersome and less intuitive.

Samsung also packed plenty of bloat into the S III, ranging from its usual set of content-purchasing "hubs" to a series of Yahoo News applications. (The carriers have tacked on their share of garbage as well; thankfully, most of it can be disabled and hidden from view.) Even elements like the home screen widgets -- of which Samsung has added several of its own -- are visually random. The net result is an OS that feels cluttered and busy -- a sharp contrast from the sleek simplicity Google achieved in its base ICS software.

Interface aside, Samsung made some innovative feature additions to the Galaxy S III's operating system -- things that actually do add value to the user experience. One of the most useful additions is something called SmartStay: When enabled, it allows the phone to use the front camera to "see" when you're looking at it and keep the screen from turning off.



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