I spent the last week with two Samsung Galaxy S IIIs—a Sprint version and an AT&T version. Sprint’s version is LTE, which has not rolled out yet, so it has been on the slow 3G CDMA. AT&T’s version is also LTE, which I am often able to get access to while on the outskirts of Silicon Valley. For that reason, I have used the AT&T version most of the time. But really, they are the same phone, which is the big news here…

Samsung is often accused of stealing ideas from Apple, but it may have finally taken something substantial and useful: its focus on a simplified product line. There is only one Galaxy S3 releasing this month; there is no Skyrocket, Fascinate, Vibrant, and Captivate. As much as Sprint probably wanted to append the name with “Epic LTE Touch 4G,” it somehow managed to hold off. More important than naming, these phones on the top five United States carriers are almost completely the same device: same screen, same Qualcomm S4 processor (vs. Quad core Exynos processor on the International SIII), same whopping 2GB of RAM, same look and feel, same huge 2100mAh battery. This is important, because, while Samsung does not control updates like Apple, it will push updates to the carriers at the same time. The carriers will compete to get their S3s upgraded the quickest.

The Hardware:

Coming from the 480-by-800 Galaxy S2, users will appreciate the much improved 720p Pentile pixel resolution screen. It is brighter and has better color than the 4.65-inch 720P screen on the Galaxy Nexus. It does not beat, however, the screens on HTC’s One line—especially the One X on AT&T that is roughly the same size (4.8-inches diagonally) and 720p resolution. I called the HTC One X the best screen I have ever seen on a phone. That still stands. Samsung is also very aggressive on power savings, and I found that I usually wanted a brighter screen than the automatic settings offered.

The plastic backing and sides that Samsung uses is also a premium over the S2 in quality, and the white versions I received had a durable porcelain look to them. After a week of heavy use, they both still looked great. I also liked the way these phones feel in my hand and in my pocket, especially compared to the squared edges of Apple’s iPhone. Again, though, HTC’s aluminum on the One S and a more sturdy plastic on the X were better. The tradeoff is that Samsung still allows you to take off the phone’s back for access to a 2100mAh battery and a Micro SD Card, which is admittedly nice. While the HTC Ones and iPhones of the world are locked to the storage they ship with, you can still upgrade the S3s with up to 64GB SD Cards (we are told).

Samsung kept its microUSB port on the bottom, which I appreciate much more, especially in the car, than the side location of the HTC Ones. It also shipped with an MHL adapter, which put up 1080p pixels with no problem, but it is apparently different from previous MHL adapters. Therefore, you will need to buy a new one for this model if you have an old one. These are great for watching Netflix and other videos at a hotel or on other HDTVs. It is worth the $20 price if you travel a lot. Otherwise, just buy a Roku. Samsung also sent an unremarkable charging dock with an AUX audio line out and a “cover” that replaces the back plate. Both are not going to see much use.

The buttons are simple on the S3: Power on the right side, with a volume rocker on the left. There is no dedicated camera button. This might push some Sprint users over to the EVO One, which does have a dedicated button. I do not mind.

Call quality on the S3 is probably the best I have ever experienced. Calls sound crisp on both sides, and I found little distortion even in low signal areas. One of the advantages of getting two review units on two carriers was that I was able to isolate just how well these phones talked to each other. Outstanding. The speakerphone is as loud as could be expected and was not bad on distortion.

The battery is great. Without doing formal tests, I would put it on par with the HTC One’s offerings. I easily made it the entire day and halfway through a second day when I forgot to give it a nightly charge. Again, Samsung is very aggressive in its power settings, but you might want to make the screen brighter with the sleep kicking in later. This will still give you a day of heavy usage.

The camera is also fantastic. It is an improvement over the earlier S2s and certainly over the 5-megapixel one found on the Galaxy Nexus. Both photos and videos were fantastic, and the camera software is easy to use—especially coming from earlier Samsung phones. Like most camera phones, the quality fell off in low light, but things like HDR and some other software tricks genuinely helped the final picture quality in a big way. Overall, it is on par or better than the HTC One X or the iPhone 4S.

Software

The TouchWiz overlay, like almost every overlay (be it Sense, Blur, or anything else), is usually a negative for me. Replacing or —as is often the case with the S3—adding features to Ice Cream Sandwich is just painful. Samsung’s S voice, for instance, sits on top of Android’s built-in Voice Actions. Coming from previous Android devices, I am comfortable with Voice Actions. However, both are present on this phone in different places. So, which do I choose for a given situation? Can I just use that DoubleClick home button for Google Voice actions? I realize Samsung felt it needed an answer to Apple’s Siri, and in many ways, it has one. For me, however, I like the simplicity of Voice Actions. I would have preferred an option to remove it.

Crapware: One thing nice about this lineup of phones, and more specifically Android 4.0, is that you can uninstall most carrier and manufacturer apps if you want. That said, the S3s came with a few of the typical carrier apps that I removed.

The main reason reviewers got more than one phone was to be able to test some new sharing features that Samsung is offering. Neat tricks…these phones let you share camera shots with others using the same software over Wi-Fi Direct. Unfortunately, your friends will need the same phones/software, so very few people will be able to take advantage of these features. Speaking of friends, Samsung also has some nice tagging software called “Buddy Photo-Share” that automatically recognizes your friends faces after you tag them. This worked reasonably well, but I am not sure how often I would use this in practice. S Beam is a NFC sharing feature that works well, but it is also like Google’s own NFC file sharing feature, re-invented.

There is some good software innovation here. If you are in a text and put your phone to your ear, the phone will call the person you are texting. Samsung also allows you to keep the screen on as long as you are looking at the phone while using the camera to face detect (this is off by default). Samsung also included “Tectiles,” which are programmable NFC tags that you can create and change. Again, this is a neat trick. But, I am not sure how practical this would be.

In fact, overall, the stuff that Samsung has done to Android will largely be a net positive for many users, especially those who have grown accustomed to Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay.

Wrap-up:

Without a doubt, the Samsung Galaxy S III is the best phone Samsung has ever made. For the biggest Smartphone manufacturer in the world, that is a big deal. The fact that Samsung has simplified its product line, in a nod to Apple, only makes this launch that much more impressive and important. Samsung will sell a lot of these, and I have no problem recommending it.

However, HTC has come with its A-game this year. Unlike last year, when its phones felt like grenades, this year’s One line feels every bit as good if not better than this Samsung offering in many cases. Couple that with the fact that Apple is due to upgrade its iPhone later this year and a Google-Motorola that builds on top of the RAZR line and you might see Samsung’s rapid expansion over the past few years slow.

However, I am optimistic that Samsung will show off another Nexus Phone based on the S3 this year that has all of this great hardware and Google’s next-generation pure Jelly Bean software. I want that phone.

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