I was a bit underwhelmed when Samsung first announced the Galaxy S III. It just seemed so much like HTC’s One X, which had already been out on the market, and I didn’t see a lot of differences between the two phones. Both would eventually ship to the United States with Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processors, both are gorgeous and both support 4G LTE networks. What incentive did I have to want the Galaxy S III over the super thin One X? Then I received my review unit and all of that changed. The Galaxy S III now sits in my pocket as my favorite smartphone ever and, arguably, the best Android smartphone yet. Let’s dive into why.

Editor’s Note: Many parts of this review were taken from our review of the Samsung Galaxy S III on T-Mobile (and vice versa) since the two phones are nearly identical save for the color and the internal radios. The main differences in the two reviews can be found under battery life, call quality/data and in the conclusions.

Hardware

Samsung says the Galaxy S III is inspired by nature. I guess I’m not quite sure what that means but its rounded edges make the phone feel absolutely comfortable and natural in my hand, even with its large display. My AT&T review unit is “ceramic white” and it’s extremely glossy but doesn’t attract fingerprints as much as I would have expected. Any small smudges I’ve made on it were quickly wiped off, too. The phone’s back is beautifully contoured and it’s accented on the sides with a metal-colored streak that, combined with the phone’s slight heft, makes it look and feel like a high-end smartphone. The Galaxy S II, by comparison, felt a bit cheap. On the contrary, the back cover is still a bit flimsy when it’s removed from the phone, but that’s one bonus that the Galaxy S III has over the One X: you can remove the back cover to add memory via a microSD card slot or replace the battery on the fly. There’s also a microSIM slot under the cover.

The front of the phone is dominated by a huge and ravishing HD Super AMOLED display with a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution. It is nothing short of a pleasure to look at; the colors are vibrant and text is super sharp. The entire phone measures 5.38-inches x 2.78-inches x 0.34-inches which may seem a bit big to those used to smaller handsets such as the iPhone, but it definitely didn’t feel too big to me. My only gripe with the screen is that it can be hard to read under direct sunlight.

There’s a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera on the top-right face phone for video chat and for the phone’s eye-tracking feature, which I’ll go into later. Samsung didn’t tweak the industrial design from the original international model, which means there’s also a hardware home button and two capacitive touch buttons for home and menu. Those two buttons are invisible unless the phone is on, as is the alert LED that softly glows in the top left corner. The back of the Galaxy S III is home to an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash and a speaker. There’s also a microUSB charging port on the bottom of the device and a 3.5mm headphone jack up top. The power button sits in easy reach on the right side of the phone and the volume controls are just as easy to tap. I wish Samsung also added a camera quick-launch button. Thankfully, there’s a software feature for quickly launching the camera instead.

Software

The Galaxy S III runs Android 4.0.4 with Samsung’s custom TouchWiz user interface. I know most of you already know a great deal about Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich so I’ll stick to what’s different.

I used to like TouchWiz a lot, then I gravitated towards preferring Sense and stock Android Ice Cream Sandwich, but now I’m back to digging TouchWiz all over again. Samsung added a host of features that make it enjoyable. For one, you can watch a video at any time on any screen in a small window. Another great feature — you can customize the lock screen with the weather, four different apps and even a news ticker. To its credit, HTC’s Sense UI also offers a ton of custom homescreens and I prefer its weather option to Samsung’s offering.

The homescreen is a bit ugly; Samsung’s widgets aren’t particularly attractive and the folders look like Gingerbread folders instead of the new circular ones in ICS. Thankfully, there are third-party applications such as Apex Launcher that can fix that.

There isn’t too much bloatware installed on AT&T’s Galaxy S III. In fact, I love that it comes with Flipboard pre-installed, a product that’s only currently available to Galaxy S III owners and beta testers. It’s great for viewing the news and the Flipboard widgets are beautiful. My device also came with AT&T Navigator, Media Hub, S Suggest, S Memo, S Voice, AllShare Play pre-installed, all of which will be useful to at least a few users.

There are small niceties tucked throughout the operating system. When you open the video gallery, for instance, each of the videos begins playing in a small loop so you can see which movie or clip without having to open and close each one. It’s both useful and awesome looking. Additionally, the phone occasionally activates the front camera to check if you’re still looking at the screen or not. If you are, it will leave the screen on. If you’re not, it will turn it off. There’s a neat little eyeball indicator at the top of the display when this feature is active, but it only lasts for a split second. There are several other software features that Samsung has added to the camera and photo gallery applications, and I’ll cover those in the camera section. For now, let’s move on to Samsung’s Siri competitor, which is called S Voice.

S Voice

S Voice is Samsung’s voice assistant that is clearly a copy of Apple’s Siri software. It doesn’t work that well, but it’s good at performing a few tasks. Just like with Siri, you can ask S Voice whether or not you’ll need an umbrella and it will provide the weather. It worked well for quickly adding notes to the S Memo application. You can also ask it to send a text message to anyone in your address book and it will scan, pull up the numbers for that person and ask which one to use. I found that it wasn’t very good at understanding the content for my text messages, however. It was able to understand me when I said “what do you wanna do for dinner” but provided an “unexpected error” when I asked it to text my brother and ask him if he “caught the score of the basketball game last night?”

Like Siri, S Voice pulls in results from Wolfram Alpha. It provided an elevation chart and the exact elevation when I asked how tall Mount Everest is, but it crashed when I asked how tall the Empire State Building is. It can also search for nearby points of interest. When I asked it to “find a sushi restaurant” it quickly returned six nearby restaurants complete with their phone numbers, reviews and the option to search for each on a map.

S Voice is also crazy buggy if there’s any background noise. I once asked S Voice to “text Ryan” and it asked “which one?” but didn’t pop up a menu. So I turned it off and tried again. The next time it just kept looping through the command and search request over and over and didn’t provide any answer. Then, about 30 seconds later, it took every one of my responses and tried to execute them all at once. It turned out that my air conditioner that was running in the background was throwing it off.

S Voice needs some work, but if you want to quickly check the weather or find a restaurant it’ll do the trick… sometimes.

NFC TecTiles

Samsung’s trying to take NFC mainstream with the Galaxy S III.  The AT&T variant can’t take advantage of Google Wallet — mobile payments will instead be offered later through the carrier’s ISIS partnership with Verizon and T-Mobile USA — but Samsung has decided to sell special stickers called “TecTiles.” The stickers will be available in AT&T stores in packs of five for $14.99. I was able to program each sticker easily using Samsung’s TecTiles application. All I had to do was open the app, tap the phone to a TecTile and then choose what I wanted that TecTile to do. Each can be programmed to change a phone’s settings, make a call, send a text message, show a contact, check-in on Facebook or FourSquare, post a Tweet, launch the camera or more. I left one on my kitchen wall and tapped it when I came home to automatically activate and connect to my home Wi-Fi network, but I was also thinking about how fun it would be to leave a sticker under the table at one of my favorite restaurants so that I could quickly tap it and check-in each time I visited. I’ve been pretty bummed with the number of NFC smartphones that can’t really use NFC for much other than Android Beam for media sharing, so it’s refreshing to see Samsung push it further. Other companies, such as Sony, offer similar solutions.

Camera / Photo Buddy Sharing

The 8-megapixel camera on the Galaxy S III snaps amazing photos. Most were clear and sharp, even when viewed back on my my television set using an HDMI adapter. I love Samsung’s camera options, too. You can tap and hold icons to drag and organize the different features within the camera app to suit your liking. So, if you want the “effects” feature on the main camera screen, you can replace the auto-focus or any other option with it.

There are tons of shooting modes, too, including burst shot that snaps 20 photos in rapid succession with zero shutter lag as you hold down the camera’s shutter button. There’s also a “best shot” option that allows the camera to automatically decide which shot is best. Both features are available on HTC’s One X and perform just as well. An HDR option takes several photos and grabs the most colorful of those options and combines them into one single photo.

The phone’s 1080p video capture was also top-notch. I captured a few clips outside of my apartment and then played them back on my TV and each was clear and wasn’t too pixelated. Samsung even added an option t0 lock the auto-focus feature while you’re recording so that you can keep one object in focus.

My favorite feature is the Photo Buddy Sharing option, which allows you to link up several Galaxy S III devices and have every photo saved to each phone. It’s amazing for sporting events or parties. My fiance and I walked around the city (she used the T-Mobile variant) and snapped several photos each — all of them were available on each of our devices.

Finally, there’s a face tagging feature that worked quite well. It can automatically detect who-is-who in each photo you snap and labels them with their name. If you tap a face, it even suggests a lists of names of who it thinks the person in the photo is. This feature does get a bit annoying when the name tags cover the faces of the people in the photo, however, so I left it off most of the time.

Call Quality / Data

ATT_GS3

I have absolutely no complaints when it comes to the Galaxy S III’s call quality. I didn’t have a dropped call in New York City — which is insanely rare for me — and I could always hear my callers just fine. There were a few times when background noise was an issue, but in general my callers were able to hear me just as well I could hear them. I also appreciated the phone’s loud speakerphone. I used it several times during office conference calls and our own Sean Aune said he could hear me just fine.

My data speeds on AT&T’s 4G LTE network in New York City and in New Jersey were also solid. I found that it dropped out in the usual places, such as midtown Manhattan, but that the data was generally reliable and fast. I averaged 11.24Mbps down in my apartment and 5.38Mbps up, with peaks as high as 15.26Mbps down and 8.11Mbps up. Those speeds were excellent for streaming Netflix and Spotify on a 2.5 hour train ride to the beach without too much of a buffering issue.

Battery Life

Probably one of my biggest gripes with 4G LTE smartphones is that the battery typically runs dry on me (I’m a heavy user) by 3:00 p.m. or so. The radios just suck a phone’s battery dry. That hasn’t been my experience with the Galaxy S III. I’ve regularly been able to make it to about 6:00p.m. with the phone’s 2,100mAh battery. Again, I’m a heavy smartphone user, so I think most people will see better mileage. AT&T promises up to 8 hours of talk time and 8.3 days of standby and I have no doubt you’ll be able to reach those marks.

Wrap-Up

The Samsung Galaxy S III is the best phone I’ve ever used. It’s now my favorite smartphone on the market and has replaced the HTC One X in my pocket. I love the One X and I still think it’s perfect for consumers, but I prefer the Galaxy S III for its expandable storage, removable battery, customizable and deeper camera options and its solid battery life. Samsung and AT&T have a real winner in the Galaxy S III and I can’t recommend it more to any Android fan — or any smartphone buyer, for that matter. If you’re in the market for a new phone hit up AT&T now and check out the One X and the Galaxy S III; my guess is you’ll walk out with Samsung’s flagship.

Rating - Mobile - 9.5 - Editors Choice

AT&T Galaxy S III Gallery