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Samsung Galaxy S III shines despite some glitches

Consumer Reports News: June 20, 2012 12:09 AM

The Samsung Galaxy S III is one of the most anticipated smart phones of 2012. After using press samples of the Sprint and T-Mobile versions of the phone (also available on Verizon, AT&T, and U.S. Cellular), I've concluded the buzz is largely justified.

The Samsung Galaxy S III is one of most advanced Android smart phones ever, with a giant, 4.8-inch high-definition display (1280x720); front- and rear high-definition cameras; a Siri-style voice-activated assistant; and an array of gesture- and sensor-based tools to help you access and share the content you create and capture on your phone.

Some of those tools, however, such as the voice-activated assistant and the Buddy Photo Share photo-tagging app, had a penchant for errors that quickly became annoying. But here's more on what are generally laudatory first impressions of this latest Galaxy:

Fine performance overall. The phone comes with 2 GB of RAM and a 1.5GHz dual-core processor instead of the quad-core sported by its European siblings; Samsung insists are no noticeable speed differences between the two models. In any case, this sleek phone seemed ultrafast to me.

Overall performance is top-notch, and I had fun using many of the phone's advanced features I previously previewed at CTIA. But the phone's relatively hefty 2100 mAh battery quickly drained when using the nifty wireless content-sharing apps.

Display. The Galaxy's 4.8-inch SuperAMOLED display was dazzling and sharp, and among the easiest to read in the blazing sun. The tiniest type on Web pages and documents appeared clear and smooth. Photo colors appeared brilliant, but natural. The display was quite responsive, in fact, too responsive on some occasions. For example, when preparing to take a picture, the camera's on-screen shutter release would often snap a picture even before my finger touched it.

The Samsung Galaxy S III comes with a unique feature called Smart Stay, which uses the front-facing camera to monitor your eyes while you're reading a Web page or other document to prevent the screen from timing out. The feature didn't work as consistently as I would have hoped. Often, despite my constant staring, the screen would dim and even turn to black. The glitchy performance was most common in dimly lit rooms, but it also sometimes occurred on bright light, too.

Cameras. The rear-facing 8-megapixel camera had a short shutter lag. It also steals, successfully I thought, several nifty capabilities from recent smart phones from HTC: It can shoot a series of photos in rapid-fire succession while in camera mode, as well as snap a still picture at any moment while shooting a video. A mode I particularly liked was Best Shot, which takes a burst of eight pictures and then suggests the best one to you after filtering them though the phone's smile detector and other sensors. You can also easily edit your movies on the phone. I was also impressed with the quality of pictures and videos taken with the Galaxy's front-facing 1.9 megapixel camera, at least for portrait shots and personal videos.

Photo tagging. The Galaxy has a unique feature called Buddy Photo Share, designed to recognize the faces of people in your photos and link them back to your contacts. You have to tag subjects the first time you photograph them. After that, anytime you take a picture that includes them, Buddy Photo Share will attempt to identify them and give you the option of sharing the pics with those subjects.

Unfortunately, Buddy had trouble recognizing people during my trials, frequently connecting faces with incorrect names, including some of people who didn't remotely resemble the subject. What's more, Buddy Photo Share works even when you're reviewing photos you've already taken in the gallery. As it does, it paints annoying little yellow squares around the heads of every subject in the shot, along with suggested name tags. Fortunately, you can easily turn this feature off in settings.

S Voice. This voice-activated assistant in some ways attempts to be like the Apple iPhone 4S's Siri. That is, it's supposed to be able to follow instructions in plain English. But S Voice often failed to comply with the simplest tasks, including setting up appointments or composing e-mails. I was able to use S-Voice to compose a text messages, but it was often slow and often cut me off after the first sentence, which was a bit frustrating. In short, S Voice has nothing on iPhone's Siri.

S Beam. Many of the latest Android smart phones support a feature known as Android Beam, a technology that uses NFC (near field communication), a wireless technology to beam Web links, contact information, and other small files between devices after you tap the two devices together. Samsung has upped the ante by pairing this feature with a Wi-Fi connection (via a technology known as Wi-Fi Direct) that enables you to wirelessly share much larger files, such as a hi-res photo or video, between two Galaxy S IIIs. The process took only a few seconds to set up, when the two Galaxys meet for the first time. Once they were paired, the feature worked flawlessly time after time.

Share Shot. This feature lets you connect several nearby Galaxy S IIIs, also via Wi-Fi Direct, to share still pictures (though not videos). You might use the feature at a party, for example, to save you the trouble of having to ask friends to e-mail you the pictures they took. Photos shared over Share Shot are reduced in size to about 1 megabyte, allowing them to be quickly beamed between phones. As our video review of the Samsung Galaxy S III (above) shows, this feature worked very well and was quite easy to set up.

TecTiles. My test phones came with TecTiles, postage-stamp-size stickers that can be programmed to have the Galaxy S III perform a variety of tasks when you tap the phone against one. TecTiles use NFC technology to transmit their signals. These tasks range from changing the phone's wireless settings (for example, turning Bluetooth off and Wi-Fi on when you get home) to sending out text messages, such as a programmed confirmation that your kid is home. I'll have more about TecTiles, which also work with other new phones, in a follow-up blog.

Bottom line: With its huge high-resolution display and futuristic features, the Samsung Galaxy S III can be considered the new template for smart-phone design, kinks and all. Best of all, despite Apple's attempt to use legal action to block the phone's U.S. premiere, it should be widely available when it goes on sale tomorrow at AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular.

Pricing at Verizon and Sprint with a two-year contract: $200 for the 16GB model; $250 for the 32GB model. AT&T's 32GB model is a slightly cheaper at $239. Though prices for T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular are yet to be announced, I expect them to be similar. Storage for any of these phones can be boosted by 64GB via a microSD card (about $65 on Amazon).

Mike Gikas

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