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SG3, HTC One prove Android can challenge iPhone

In this phoreleased by Samsung Electronics Co. models display Samsung Electronics' newest smartphone Galaxy S III during its world tour

In this photo released by Samsung Electronics Co., models display Samsung Electronics' newest smartphone Galaxy S III during its world tour in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, June 25, 2012. Samsung Electronics, the world's top mobile phone maker, said Monday it expects global sales of the latest Galaxy smartphone to surpass 10 million in July even as it struggles to keep up with demand because of component shortages. (AP Photo/Samsung Electronics) NO SALES

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Updated: August 7, 2012 6:29AM



What a great year 2012 has been for Android phones. With Android 4.0, the OS finally feels like a polished, complete OS, as opposed to a mixture of Good Intentions and things that just work OK, and bits that made me wonder if the Android team actually uses Android phones on a daily basis. And the current generation of Android handsets are top-notch work. Recently, HTC and Samsung each introduced new phones that are powerful, sophisticated, and downright beautiful.

I’ve spent over a month now with HTC’s One S, available exclusively through T-Mobile for $199 on a two-year contract. I’m going to start out by calling out its extreme fondleability. That’s a lovely quality in any consumer product. But it’s actually an important feature in a device that spends most of your waking day in your hand, and being moved into and out of pockets. It’s super-thin -- just 7.8mm -- and it feels even thinner, thanks to its soft, complex curves and aluminum case. Meanwhile, the occasional hard edge gives your fingers something to lock in on and makes the phone more manageable.

Despite its thin profile, it isn’t a small phone by any means. I didn’t actually appreciate how large the One S was until I actually stacked it on top of the Jack Black-scale Samsung phone that shares this review. It’s a little over five inches tall and it periscopes a little bit out of pockets of my summer shirts.

But its 960x540 4.3” AMOLED display is narrow enough that I can sweep my thumb across the whole screen, which means that you can easily operate the One S single-handed. The screen itself is sharp and easy to read from multiple angles. Colors pop, and it’s bright enough to compete with most outdoor lighting situations. Like many displays that use pentile technology, though, it has a slightly grainy look. That characteristic is less likely to be noticed by a user than by a reviewer, who must obsessively light up two or three different devices side by side in his tireless pursuit of things to complain about. But yes, that’s a factor. Put it this way: an ebook is easy to read on this display if it uses a font that’s been optimized for phone screens...and all of them do. A great screen, like what you’d find on an iPhone 4, works with any font.

Inside, the One S has a dual-core processor. The phone is fast enough for most mobile apps, though (like many dual-core Android phones I’ve used) when you’re hammering the CPU with multiple apps, tapping and scrolling isn’t 100% liquid.

One larger disappointment is the One S’ lack of internal memory expansion. It comes with 16 gigs of storage and that’s it. If you’re living a cloud-based lifestyle, that’s fine, but if you prefer keep a variety of music and podcasts and games at on the device, you’re going to have to economize a bit.

The One S from T-Mobile doesn’t have an LTE mobile broadband chipset and thus, it’s data speed is just 4G (aka “the wicked super fast version of 3G”). It’s zippy enough. But LTE speed in a metro area tends to be so fast that you want to call up your cable company and chew them out about the speeds you’re getting with your home Internet service.

The One S has an 8 megapixel camera with an f2.0 lens that lets in plenty of light. It’s one of a handful of cameraphones that can take actual photographs, as opposed to just capturing throwaway snapshots for your Facebook and Twitter streams. The camera can’t compare to the output of a cheap conventional point-and-shoot, but the fact that it lands punches in that weight class is worthy of note. The One S’ camera app is also exceptional. All Android cameras offer a commercial-grade range of features, but the One’s layout of controls is intuitive and practical. And the interface is fast and responsive, with quick focus and zero detectable shutter lag.

It also shoots 1080 HD video. A front-facing camera shoots stills and video at VGA resolution.

My major complaint about Android used to be that it’s a fine operating system when it leaves Google’s factory floor, but then device makers and carriers get their mitts on it and they do awful, awful things that their pastors wouldn’t approve of. HTC and T-Mobile have managed to not screw up Android 4.0. It uses HTC’s Sense UI, which tends to make Android more consumer-friendly (which is very good) at the cost of making some of Android’s tweakability a little bit harder to access.

But it does have Swype text input. You have the option of tracing a path between the letters of a word instead of tapping the keys individually. The technique quickly becomes second nature and it’s by far my favorite method of phone text input. It’s fast, it’s accurate, and unlike speech input (which is rarely both of those things at the same time) it’s private.

Battery life on the One S is excellent. A charge lasted the whole day in typical usage. It only tanks when you’re shooting lots and lots of photos and video (another thing that’s more likely to be noticed by a reviewer than a user).

If we can say that HTC was inspired by Apple to produce a beautiful phone (and we can) we must sadly acknowledge that they’re also a big fan of Apple’s habit of permanently sealing the battery inside, like a victim in an Edgar Allan Poe story.

The One S is a great phone for what I feel is the typical smartphone user: someone who wants a device that provides entertainment, communication, and information throughout the day, as opposed to a workhorse that will partially displace a notebook or a tablet. For that kind of user, the Samsung Galaxy S III is utter catnip. It’s available from almost all US carriers for $199 and up.

The first thing that hits you about the S3 is its sheer presence. This is a big mammer-jammer. It’s only about a quarter of an inch longer than the One S but it’s a full 2.78 inches across. It’s a Pop Tart Phone.

It’s so big, in fact, that when I hand it over to friends, their eyes pop a little bit. But they get used to it. It’s size, with benefits: the S3 sports a 4.8” AMOLED 1280x720 screen at 305 pixels per inch. The S III isn’t as ridiculously big as Samsung’s Galaxy Note. It might be at the maximum limits of what could still be reasonably called a phone, but it doesn’t cross the line.

And what a difference that extra size makes. It makes you appreciate just how much time you spend reading things on your phone, and how cramped a conventional display can be. The larger screen improves the whole experience, border to border...not just that of reading books and email and websites. The keyboard is much easier to type with (and: yes, the SG3 has Swype input as well). The user interface of a poorly-designed app becomes far more functional. And the UI of a well-designed app becomes that much more elegant. If you use your phone in your car, as a dashboard navigator and entertainment system, it’s a hell of an upgrade over any smaller device you might already own.

The Galaxy S III an interesting test case for the ongoing shakeup in how society defines the word “computer.” I’m always a little surprised to hear someone tell me that they don’t even own a notebook because their phone handles everything they need. Well, I can certainly see those people gravitating towards the S3. It could even be seen as a “bridge” device between a conventional phone and a tablet. It delivers just enough of the secret sauce of a 7” tablet, while remaining a device that you can take with you wherever you go.

After lavishing the Galaxy S III with such high praise, I feel like I need to bring the temperature of the room down a bit by complaining that the screen, as much as I like it, is rather dim. I need to keep the brightness cranked up to maximum when it’s sitting on my dashboard during a morning drive. And after walking around all day with it in bright sunlight, I got an idea for a Samsung Galaxy S III case that incorporates a thick velvet blackout drape, like what you’d find on an old-timey glass plate camera.

(I should start a Kickstarter for that, because the screen really is that hard to read in direct sunlight, and the S3 is currently the fastest-selling phone in the world.)

Internally, the S3 hits the right notes. The US version sports a dual-core processor that somehow supports a clean, liquid, super-responsive interface despite the large screen. I’d describe its performance as even iPhone-like. No lag at all. It seems as if my finger is connected right to the interface.

(Though I didn’t exactly need to read iFixit.com’s teardown to find out where the CPU is located. The S3’s size and power lends itself to sitting and using it for long periods and after a while, its bottom gets noticeably warm.)

There’s a big, replaceable battery. After two weeks of daily use, I’ve learned to expect a severe low-battery warning near the end of the day. More than once, I’ve come home with a dead device. It’s a power hungry phone. But I also notice that the big screen entices me to spend more time reading and working with it, compared to smaller phones.

I had two samples of the S3 to try out: one that used T-Mobile’s 3G/4G network, and an LTE-studly AT&T model. Both phones had roughly the same battery life, despite the AT&T one’s ultrafast mobile broadband.

An internal microSD slot lets you expand the S3’s 16 or 32 gig internal storage by as much as 64 gigabytes, thus underscoring its tablet-ey aspirations. There’s a mechanical Home button, centered under the screen. It’s a big win for usability, and I wish more makers would tempt the wrath of Apple by copying it from the iPhone. There are many scenarios (such as when the phone is in a car dock) where a physical button that can be located by feel is an important advantage. Other mechanical buttons (power and volume) are well placed, and they fall naturally under your fingers when you hold the phone. Underneath, there’s a micro-USB port that also accepts an HDMI adapter, for external video. Edge connectors accept desk/AV docks and car cradles.The phone can also send video and audio wirelessly to compatible TVs and AV devices.

Yup, the S3 has a nifty 8 megapixel camera that takes photo-quality photographs, along with a 1.9 megapixel front facing camera for video chat and boozy Facebook photos.

The Galaxy S III has gone all-in on near field communications. NFC is one of those evergreen Technologies That Will Change Everything, One Day. It’s terrific, absolutely. The idea is to allow two devices to communicate, with almost zero configuration or contact. If I’m having lunch with a friend, and he asks me what’s so damn funny, I can tap my Samsung Galaxy S III against his and POP...the URL of the YouTube video I’m watching opens in his browser. I can share all kinds of media this way. It works great, but only after the first time you use it. For security reasons, and to extend the battery a bit, the S3’s NFC features remain off until you switch them on.

Someday, hopefully, stores and vending machines will support Google Wallet and other NFC-based electronic payment systems. And when that happens, you can tap your Galaxy S III against a Coke machine and be rewarded with a fresh, frosty beverage.

NFC offers one benefit to the S3 owner that doesn’t require him or her to live in the future, or to associate only with other S3 owners: TecTiles. These are postage stamp-sized stickers from Samsung, with embedded NFC chips. You can program them to make your phone perform specific actions when it’s tapped against the sticker. I get in my car and tap: presto, my phone reconfigures itself for dashboard use (WiFi off; Bluetooth on; volume and brightness all the way up; Car Mode on). I get back home, tap: the ringer is turned off and the WiFi is turned back on. A small but interesting library of actions is available. You could, for instance, put a TecTile on your dog’s collar (ideally, sealed inside something that’s waterproof and chew-proof). Tap your phone against it when you take him out, and your spouse receives a text informing them that Buster’s already been walked.

The Galaxy S III is filled with interesting little features. It shares a neat one with the HTC, as a matter of fact. If you leave your phone face-up on a table during a meeting and it starts ringing, flipping it face-down makes it shut right the hell up. Nice. If you’re listening to music and someone comes over for a chat, you can also mute the phone temporarily just by holding your hand over the screen.

Not all of these clever features work so well. Take, for example, the conceptually brilliant “Smart Stay” feature. The front-facing camera occasionally takes a look around and if it senses that a shape with two eyes is facing the screen, it’ll prevent the screen from turning off.

“Brilliant!” I enthused. “So you can watch a video or read a book without always having to wake the screen!”

Mmm...yeah. But you’d probably be turning pages often enough that the screen would never dim. And the video player app is smart enough not to sleep the display during the movie.

Still, an interesting idea. Other “interesting” features, such as scrolling by tilting the screen, and taking a screen capture by waving your hand, are twitchy enough that I’ve never used any of them successfully.

Now let’s talk about S-Voice, the speech-powered personal assistant inside the S3 that totally isn’t a ripoff of Siri, oh my god, really, you think it’s a ripoff, it’s so weird that you think that Samsung copied that from Apple in any way.

Yeah. I had to look up the term “S-Voice” just now, because for the past couple of weeks I’ve been calling it “Samsiri.” It works and looks exactly like Siri. Double-tap the home button (with Siri, it’s press-and-hold) and make a request. Samsiri will ponder for a bit and then reply with the information you searched for, or by adding an appointment to your schedule, or with the location of a nearby movie theater that’s still showing “Prometheus.”

The real Siri is by no means perfect (it’s just a beta), and its current menu of features is limited. So perhaps I can forgive Samsiri for being a bit slower than Siri, and for being more ragged. It’s supposed to be able to launch apps, for example. It works fine with built-in Android apps but it gets weird when I try to launch anything third-party.

“Open Kindle.”

“Which app do you want to open?”

“Kindle.”

“Which app do you want to open?”

“Amazon Kindle.”

“Which app do you want to open?”

And then I let Samsiri take a personal day for the rest of the afternoon.

S-Voice also has the annoying habit of running off to try to do something well before I’ve finished speaking. It needs lots of fine-tuning. Android’s built-in speech systems -- the stuff built by Google -- work just fine.

Otherwise, Samsung has made some nice additions to stock Android. There’s a coherence and style to the UI that other carriers often horsewhip out of the OS. The standout strength of all Android phones is their customizability. After a week of intermittent tweaking and adjusting, you’ve got the device fined-tuned specifically for the things that you value. And the S3 makes it quite easy to fix whatever you don’t like.

The HTC One S and the Samsung Galaxy S III are head-and-shoulders my favorite Android phones.

I like the HTC One S for its svelte size, and because it’s a damned pretty object. The HTC is a great choice for someone who wants something discreet for occasional use.

I love the Samsung Galaxy S III for its bigscreen, tablet-ish experience. I snickered a little during Apple’s rollout of the third-generation iPad, when Apple CEO Tim Cook suddenly included the iPhone in Apple’s definition of “post-PC devices,” along side the tablet. C’mon. It’s a phone. It’s an immensely useful and powerful phone, no doubt, but even an ardent user like me never interacts with it like it was anything other than a smartphone.

The S3 is...well, okay, sure: it’s post-PC. It feels like a new sort of computer. The S3 encourages me to immerse myself in a task (even if it’s just reading a book) to a degree that the iPhone never has.

I’ll conclude this review with two statements that might seem provocative to my fellow iPhone-loving friends:

First, that the HTC One S and the Samsung Galaxy S III are manifestly every bit as good as the iPhone.

The iPhone’s camera still kicks all other phone’s butts. But otherwise, there’s absolutely nothing about the iPhone 4S that I find functionally superior. These two are great phones packed with fantastic features. Android 4.x deserves its own column and it’s going to get one, but for now, modern Android not necessarily harder to use, nor less reliable, than iOS.

And there’s a huge, rich library of Android phone apps. Over the past couple of weeks of using the Samsung Galaxy S III, every time I found myself pining for a specific iPhone app, I searched for it on Google Play. I found either the exact same app, or one that worked just as well.

Today, the difference between an iPhone and one of the best Android phones is now a matter of personal taste...and absolutely nothing more.

Secondly: I didn’t miss my iPhone one bit while testing the S3. On the contrary, when I use my iPhone, I miss the Samsung. I miss that big screen. I wish that I could configure my iPhone’s desktop so that each page was a desktop customized for different tasks. I wish I could turn Bluetooth on and off without having to dig through fifty damned layers of preferences.

And yes: I rather enjoyed tapping my phone against the dashboard to configure it for car use.

I don’t miss the S3 so much that I’m willing to ditch my iPhone over it.

Umm…

...Well, not right away, certainly.

But when Apple introduces its next iPhone this fall, and releases iOS 6.0 to accompany it, I’m going to do what I think every out-of-contract iPhone owner should do: I’m going to examine the new device and OS carefully, point for point, and ask myself “Is this one better than the S3?” and if it isn’t...I might be ready to switch. At minimum, I’ll investigate how much it would cost for me to add an S3 to my existing service, as a second phone.

Speaking of OS upgrades: Google is shipping their Nexus-branded phones and tablets with 4.1. Will these two phones receive upgrades to the new operating system? I spoke to T-Mobile and to Samsung: both companies spoke of their commitment to Android 4.1, but neither would commit to a timetable for an update to existing devices like the One and the S3.

Well, that’s the story with Android. Personally, I believe that both phones will receive updates by the end of the year, but you can’t ever count on that sort of thing. That’s one of Android’s signature costs. One of iOS’ signature costs is the tremendous difficulty in conducting part of your phone experience outside of the Apple ecosystem. Just consider each cost carefully.

In 2012, scientists at CERN found the Higgs boson and I found an Android phone that’s good enough that I there’s a good chance I’ll ditch my iPhone in favor of it. I don’t know which outcome seemed less likely. Stephen Hawking wagered a colleague $100 against the former. A year ago, I would have bet a thousand bucks against the latter.

I guess Hawking and I both turn into dopes when we gamble.



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