- Review Date: 07/17/2012
- Bottom line: With state-of-the-art everything, the Samsung Galaxy S III edges out the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx as our top touch-screen smartphone for Verizon Wireless.
- Pros: Fast performance. High-resolution screen. Lots of exclusive features.
- Cons: Screen is a bit dim. Plenty of bloatware.
The new flagship smartphone from the world's number-one mobile phone company, Samsung's Galaxy S III ($199.99-$249.99 with contract) for Verizon Wireless is literally a huge achievement. If you love big phones with lots of options, the GS3 will deliver state-of-the-art performance with bonus sharing and media features that you're likely to continue discovering a year from now. While the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx ($299.99, 4.5 stars) remains a top choice, the GS3 delivers even better performance for less money up front, making it our new Editors' Choice for touch-screen smartphones on Verizon Wireless.
All of the new Galaxy S III models look the same, except for the carrier logo on the back panel. Each is available in dark blue or white (AT&T also has a red option coming this summer), and they're some of the biggest phones we've ever handled. At 5.4 by 2.8 by 0.34 inches (HWD) and 4.7 ounces, the GS3 is ever so slightly bigger than the already huge Droid Razr Maxx, making this no phone for people with small hands. It's much lighter than the Maxx, though, and gives you a considerably bigger screen in the same form factor (4.8 inches as opposed to 4.3).
I'm not a fan of huge phones. But I've given up on panning them because every time I suggest these handsets are too big, I get pummeled by comments from readers who adore them. Huge phones are the thing. I accept it.
The all-plastic body feels a little flimsier than the rock-solid Razrs, but the phone is well built, and light despite its size. The front of the phone is dominated by the 4.8-inch, 1280-by-720-pixel Super AMOLED HD screen. Yes, it's PenTile, which can sometimes look slightly pixelated, and it's definitely dimmer than other top-of-the-line smartphones. But killing the auto-brightness setting helps alleviate the dimness, and the Razr Maxx is PenTile, too. Below the screen, there's a physical Home button, as well as light-up Back and Multitasking buttons that start out invisible, so you have to memorize where they are or change a setting to keep them illuminated. The 8-megapixel camera is on the back panel, which, thanks to its reflective finish (on the blue model), doubles as a pocket mirror. Unlike the competing Razr Maxx, the Galaxy S III has a removable 2100mAh battery. Taking off the back cover also reveals the microSD card slot, which supports cards up to 64GB.
Call Quality and Internet
The Verizon Galaxy S III connects to the carrier's 3G CDMA and 4G LTE networks now, and it'll be able to hit global GSM/HSPA networks with a software update coming soon, Verizon says. Signal strength was good, on par with the Droid Razr Maxx; although the Maxx sometimes reported a slightly stronger signal, I didn't see any difference in terms of placing calls. LTE speeds, as tested with Sensorly and Ookla software, came out pretty consistently faster than the Maxx, a reflection of the GS3's faster processor and a solid radio chip.
I'm very happy to report that I didn't see any of the reception or call-quality problems here that plagued Samsung's last major Verizon phone, the Galaxy Nexus ($199, 4 stars). While the Galaxy Nexus rated well and has the latest version of Android, 4.1 "Jelly Bean," I tend not to recommend it enthusiastically because of its now-well-known connection problems.
Call quality is fine, although transmissions through the mic could be a bit clearer. There's a lot of good news about the earpiece: It's loud, and you can tweak the sound quality through a custom EQ scheme to make it sound even better to you. The speakerphone is of medium volume—fine in the car, not quite loud enough on the street. Transmissions through the mic sounded a bit computerized on the other end, and the speakerphone let through more background noise than I would have liked. Bluetooth headsets work fine with Samsung's S-Voice voice dialing system.
The Galaxy S III supports Wi-Fi on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC are also onboard, although Google Wallet is blocked on this phone. The GPS chip locked in extremely quickly and accurately in midtown Manhattan.
Battery life was excellent at 10 hours, 43 minutes of talk time. That isn't as long as the Razr Maxx's crazy 16 hours, 45 minutes, but it's very good nonetheless.
Software and Performance
The Galaxy S III runs Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" with a whole lot of exclusive Samsung extensions. Performance was excellent in my tests. The Qualcomm S4 chip running at 1.5GHz is the fastest one we've seen in smartphones so far, and it's able to take on any app challenge you throw at it, including games on the HD screen. As can be expected, it scored slightly faster on our benchmarks than the Razr Maxx with its 1.2GHz TI chip. The difference wasn't huge, though; both of these are very fast phones.
Verizon bloatware is here, like on other Verizon phones. The carrier's "app store" is the worst kind of bloat, useless, sluggish, and empty. There's also an app to launch the phone's Wi-Fi hotspot mode, an account management app, visual voicemail, a VPN client, the incomprehensible "Color" social sharing app, and Verizon's own VZ Navigator GPS app, which now has 3D city views. Most of these apps can't be deleted. Beyond that, there's the 400,000-plus apps in the Google Play Store.
Exclusive new Samsung features include S-Beam, the ability to transfer files by tapping two phones together and using a combination of NFC and Wi-Fi Direct; S-Voice, Samsung's answer to Apple's Siri; TecTiles, NFC-enabled accessory tags that can change the settings on your phone, and lots of sharing and tagging options in the camera, such as the ability to automatically tag your friends' faces, and the ability for multiple GS3s within a few feet of each other to automatically share all of their photos.
Many of these features work well, but they're almost all buried. The interface is something of a scavenger hunt. Take Smart Stay, a neat new feature which detects your face and keeps the screen from going black while you're looking at it. I love it! But it's not on by default, and the only way to turn it on is by going to the Display area under Settings. S-Beam is similarly buried, under the Wireless menu.
Samsung helpfully pops up screens telling you about various cool gestures you can use, like raising the phone to your face to automatically call someone you're texting. But it's a lot of information to absorb, and a lot of gestures that you've never used before. There's a sharp learning curve here.
Compare this with HTC, which has been working to reduce unique UI elements. HTC's recent Sense 4 interface focuses on a few new features and makes them integral: enhanced sound, a faster camera, and solid social networking integration. Samsung offers a lot more, but it costs you a lot more mental energy to figure it all out.
I'll also call out two minor disappointments. The screen rotated unexpectedly more often that I'd like. Also, S-Voice isn't as seamless or as complete as Siri. It's a fine voice-dialing system, including over Bluetooth, but I kept vocally stepping on its prompts when trying to ask it more complicated queries.
The 16GB Galaxy S III we tested had 12GB of available memory plus support for microSD cards up to 64GB. There's also a 32GB model for $249.99 with contract, but given the phone's microSD support, I don't see the point of buying the more-expensive model. It plays all the usual music and video formats, including MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, MPEG-4, H.264, DivX, Xvid, and WMV at resolutions up to 1080p.
Samsung has customized both the music and video players. They aren't as good-looking as HTC's, but they're functional. Along with the typical music navigation, there's a frill called Music Square, which grades all of your music on a 2D scale from "calm" to "exciting" and "passionate" to "joyful," creating custom playlists by mood. There's also an epic number of EQ presets, which change the sound in effective, if gimmicky ways.
The picture/video gallery integrates Google and Facebook albums, and lets you sort your videos as a list or with thumbnails. The flagship feature here is Pop-Up Play, which can float a video playback window over other apps; I found it to be fairly useless. Netflix and YouTube both look good and run on LTE without any visible buffering. The phone also comes with Samsung's Media Hub music and video store, which has a solid lineup of recent movies and TV shows at industry-standard prices of $4 to rent and $15-$20 to buy.
If you want to play your video on a big HDTV, you need to use Samsung's AllShare system, which like most other wireless video systems rarely works because your home network doesn't have the bandwidth, or a new-style 11-pin MHL adapter. Our old MHL adapters didn't work.
The 8-megapixel camera takes good-looking, saturated photos that are sharp with little noise, at least in decent light. There was none of the softness we saw on the competing Motorola phones. In our low-light test, the shutter speed dropped to 1/40 second, which will cause some softness if you don't have a steady hand. That's still better than many cameraphones. The 1-megapixel front camera also showed solid low-light performance. The video mode captures 1080p videos at 30 frames per second indoors and out with the main camera.
You get tons of gimmicky camera modes. HDR is considerably slower than on the iPhone 4S ($199, 4 stars), and showed a tendency to create "ghost" images when I tried it. Smile detection worked well, and Share Shot lets you automatically stream photos to other GS3s in the area. Buddy Photo-Share tags faces with names based on the images in their social-networking profiles. Those last two are buried in the camera settings and while cool, you're not likely to stumble upon them easily.
The Samsung Galaxy S III and Motorola Droid Razr Maxx are both state-of-the-art phones, but the Galaxy S III gives you more power for $100 less. The Galaxy has a faster processor, higher-res screen, better camera, faster Internet speeds, and a removable battery. The Droid Razr Maxx has the longest-lasting battery of any phone on the market, along with an elegant Android skin with more aesthetic appeal than Samsung's TouchWiz, but the Galaxy S III's better balance of price and performance makes it our new Editors' Choice on Verizon Wireless.
If these phones are just too big for you, go for the HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE ($149.99, 3.5 stars), a high-quality, 4G Android phone with a smaller body. Even smaller, of course, is the Apple iPhone 4S, but you'd have to give up Verizon's speedy LTE network and crawl along at mere 3G speeds.
More Cell Phone Reviews:
• Motorola Roadster 2
• Samsung Galaxy S III (Verizon Wireless)
• HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE (Verizon Wireless)
• Samsung Jitterbug Plus (GreatCall)
• Nokia 808 PureView (Unlocked)
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.