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

Samsung's Galaxy S III is one of the most hotly anticipated Android phones ever. We test it to see if it lives up to the hype.

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The buttons -- oh, the buttons

With Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich, Google is moving the platform toward a button-free environment: Instead of devices relying on physical navigation buttons, as they once did, Android 4.0 revolves around the concept of virtual on-screen buttons that rotate to match a device's orientation.

Some manufacturers are resisting this change -- perhaps in an attempt to achieve consistency with past designs or maybe just because their hardware was conceived before Android 4.0 came around. Samsung's Galaxy S III is among the 4.0-level devices whose design is clinging to Android's past instead of embracing its future, and that takes an unfortunate toll on the quality of the user experience.

In stock Ice Cream Sandwich (left), all options are accessible via on-screen icons. In Samsung's version (right), many options show up only if you press the phone's physical menu button.

The Galaxy S III has three buttons on its face: a centered hardware "home" button and a capacitive button on either side. This is where Samsung's decision-making gets most vexing: One of the capacitive buttons is a "back" control, which is sensible enough, but the other is a "menu" control -- something phased out of Android after the 2.3-level release in order to move away from having hidden functions and to make the platform more user-friendly.

Having a menu button on the Galaxy S III makes the phone feel dated and results in a far less fluid and intuitive user experience. Functions remain hidden and hard to find, and the menu button doesn't even work consistently throughout the system (in the Camera app, for example, there's an on-screen menu button; pressing the physical button does nothing).

Samsung also elected not to include an app-switching button of any sort -- something that's now standard in Ice Cream Sandwich -- and instead requires users to long-press the physical home button in order to activate the multitasking tool. The multitasking tool is one of the high points of Ice Cream Sandwich and something you'll likely want to access often; having it buried in a place that requires a two-second long-press is a serious downer and another ding that makes the phone feel dated.

Sadly, the Galaxy S III's button problems don't stop there: Philosophical approach aside, the mix of a hardware home button with capacitive back and menu buttons simply doesn't work. Once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring and feels bizarre. I can't count the number of times I found myself touching the home button only to realize I had to press it firmly to make it work.

On top of that, the phone's capacitive buttons are frequently not lit up -- and when they aren't illuminated, you can't see them at all. When the buttons are lit up on the white model of the phone, you see quite a bit of light bleed around them. And for some reason, Samsung opted to put the back button on the right side of the phone instead of the left, where Google has it placed in Ice Cream Sandwich; this seemingly trivial decision makes the phone unnatural to use for anyone accustomed to any other ICS phone or tablet.

When the buttons are lit on the white model, there is light bleed around them.

Much ado about buttons, I know. But all in all, I feel like Samsung made some very bad decisions with its Galaxy S III button design -- and with buttons being such a crucial part of the phone-using experience, the impact is significant.

Under the hood

While the international Galaxy S III model runs on a quad-core processor, the U.S. models utilize a 1.5GHz dual-core chip made by Qualcomm. They also have a whopping 2GB of RAM -- twice the RAM of their international brothers as well as all current high-end phones on the U.S. market.

So what's that actually mean? The phone is fast -- really fast. The Galaxy S III flies with most any task: Swiping between home screens is smooth, apps load instantly and Web browsing is as speedy as can be. No amount of multitasking seems to slow this sucker down.

That said, it's hard to quantify the effect of the extra RAM in real-world terms; even though the phone's speed is impressive, other recent high-end devices like the One X and Galaxy Nexus have similarly snappy performance. Based on my experiences, I'd say the Galaxy S III has a little extra zip in certain areas, but with the other top-tier phones being as fast as they are, it's tough to tell any major difference in most everyday usage.

The Galaxy S III uses a 2100 mAh battery that can be removed and replaced. I found the phone's battery life to be good but not incredible: One day, for example, I spent about an hour reading online content and a half-hour streaming music with Pandora. By lunchtime, my battery was down from a full charge to 58%; by 5 p.m., after a seven-minute phone call and a few minutes of quick on-and-off Internet usage, it was down to 36%.

Still, with moderate to heavy use, I was generally able to make it to the end of the day -- or close to it -- without getting a low-battery warning. The Galaxy S III is no Razr Maxx when it comes to stamina, but it's certainly no slouch.

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