Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T and Sprint

Each summer the world celebrates a time of warmth, fun and relaxation. For the tech community, however, it's traditionally the season in which Samsung unleashes the latest version of its Galaxy S flagship. But the now time-honored tradition is actually more of a one-two punch: first the unlocked international model is revealed, and later it's followed up by a litany of worldwide variants. US carriers intent on offering the "value" of differentiation to their customers have been the worst offenders in modifying Sammy's magic formula, ranging from motley form factors to egregious bloatware to clumsy naming schemes (Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch quickly comes to mind).

But Samsung's brand cachet has grown year over year, so much so that the company is starting to wield more power over carriers. No weird names, no exclusive agreements and no changes to the form factor. That's right, six carriers have signed up to carry the Galaxy S III so far, and every single one of these devices looks exactly the way Samsung intended, with the only major exceptions being the processor and memory allotment. So far we've had the opportunity to play with two of the six: AT&T's and Sprint's. How close to the original GS III (also known as the GT-I9300) do these devices come? What advantages and disadvantages does each bring to the table? Can you expect comparable performance? Stay with us as we break it all down.

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Samsung Galaxy S III overview (AT&T and Sprint)

AT&T

Samsung Galaxy S III (AT&T)

Pros

  • Fast LTE speeds
  • Top-notch performance
  • Very few carrier customizations

Cons

  • Only a 16GB model is available
  • Free Dropbox storage not included
  • Google Wallet isn't offered
Summary

AT&T's version of the Galaxy S III is a great alternative to the global model, offering the same features and benefits with few carrier alterations.

Sprint

Samsung Galaxy S III (Sprint)

Pros

  • Google Wallet is available
  • 16 and 32GB options are offered
  • High level of performance that's seldom matched

Cons

  • Embedded SIM
  • Lacks GSM roaming
  • Stuck on slow EVDO speeds until LTE lights up
Summary

Sprint's iteration of the Galaxy S III stays true to the spirit of Samsung's international model, but lack of GSM roaming and LTE will make it a tough sell.

Hardware

We'll address this from the get-go: the hardware section of this review may look a little... scarce. And there's a reason for this: aside from the obligatory logos (which only appear on the back, incredibly enough), AT&T and Sprint have made very few changes to the hardware that we had the opportunity to review a few weeks ago. How can this be? What happened to the halcyon days when US carriers came up with their own interpretation of the Galaxy S look and attached silly titles like Captivate, Vibrant, Epic and Fascinate? Believe us, we're not complaining; in fact, it makes us feel like our carriers are somehow one step closer to the old-fashioned European model in which mobile operators are simply dumb pipes and the OEM actually has some say in its own design. Sure, we don't expect this to happen with every phone from here on out, but it's a welcome change nonetheless.

AT&T and Sprint have made very few customizations to the original Galaxy S III.

The AT&T tester phone that arrived on our doorstep was metallic blue, just one of three colors Ma Bell will offer. These include white as well as a red version that's said to be coming sometime this summer (not that we've seen any images or read an official announcement yet). While the GT-I9300 can be purchased in storage options of 16, 32 and 64GB, AT&T has opted to sell only the 16GB flavor. That can be yours for $200 on contract. Sprint, meanwhile, will have blue and white models with your choice of 16GB ($200) and 32GB ($250) of storage. In both cases, those prices come with the condition of a two-year service agreement. In case you're wondering, (and why wouldn't you be?) we're testing the white version here.

Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T vs Sprint

If you look at the front of either device, there's virtually no way of telling which one belongs to which carrier (unless the screen is turned on and displaying the network's name on the status bar, that is). As we mentioned earlier, the only writing on the front is Samsung's logo, with carrier branding pushed to the top-center portion of the back, just below the device's 8-megapixel camera.

It doesn't get much different underneath the cover either. Upon thorough investigation, we determined that the AT&T and global variants are identical -- even down to the screw placement and antenna positions. We were quite impressed to see that the carriers barely meddled with the phone in this regard. Heck, even the covers are interchangeable. To boot, it was a cinch to switch them around to our liking: the international version fits on the Sprint and AT&T bodies, and vice versa.

Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T vs Sprint

Both models retain the same 4.8-inch Super AMOLED HD (PenTile) display as the global version, and offer a pixel density of 306ppi. And yes, it's just as gorgeous on US soil as it is across the pond. The colors are slightly more saturated here than on the 4.7-inch LCD panel used on the HTC One X, but it loses the battle on viewing angles and pixel density by just a tad. It's still easily visible in sunlight, fortunately. Overall, the One's display is still just a tad lovelier to behold, but this small disparity shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Both are amazing screens, and we think you'd be content to sit and stare at either of them for hours on end. The use of PenTile on the GS III isn't noticeable unless you're going out of your way to prove that the jagged edges are evident at that resolution. (As a footnote, this extra 0.1 inch is mainly vertical, so despite its larger size, the GS III is just as comfortable to hold.)

As we said, the main differences you'll see between these US-centric models and the original version are the processor and amount of RAM used: the American variants all make use of a dual-core, 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 chip and 2GB of memory, while the I9300 runs on quad-core Exynos silicon and one gig of RAM.

Performance and battery life

Because of this change in the chipset, you'll see a few differences in how these phones rank in benchmark comparisons, though unless you have super-discerning taste you'll be hard-pressed to notice a material difference. We came away impressed by the Galaxy S III's performance in everything from gaming to web browsing to general multitasking. Granted, graphics turned out to be the major differentiator here, as our tests show the Exynos quad-core chip is much more adept at handling popular gaming titles.

AT&T Galaxy S III (SGH-I747) Int'l Galaxy S III (I9300) HTC One X (LTE)
Quadrant 5,084 4,454 4,784
Vellamo 2,153 1,751 2,259
AnTuTu 6,713 11,960 6,956
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,926 1,460 1,453
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 54 99 56
CF-Bench 9,439 13,110 9,479
Battery life 9:10 (LTE) 9:02 8:55
SunSpider: lower scores are better

The above table shows how AT&T's version of the Galaxy S III fares against the likes of its global counterpart as well as the AT&T-branded HTC One X. Judging by the scores, you should get a general feel for how the Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 processor performs, since AT&T's GS III and One X deliver comparable results (with the exception of SunSpider, though even then, you'll get different numbers simply by using other browsers). Also, the GS III's extra gigabyte of RAM doesn't get equated into the overall scores -- in fact, the One X actually notches slightly higher marks in everything but Quadrant.

Thanks to the extra gigabyte of RAM, both phones handle multitasking like champs.

In the same light, however, the EVO 4G LTE -- which also has a single gig of memory -- comes reasonably close to Sprint's and AT&T's Galaxy S III handsets. In fact, the only other test in which Samsung's model comes out on top was CF-Bench, and even then, it only pulls ahead by a five-point margin. All things considered, that difference is negligible -- so much so that if we ran the tests again, the phones could easily flip positions in the rankings.

So what about that extra gigabyte of RAM? The main advantage this gives the Galaxy S III is in multitasking. With heavy use, we noticed some minor pauses when switching back and forth between multiple apps. Overall, though, both AT&T's and Sprint's versions handle multitasking like champs.

Sprint Galaxy S III (SPH-L710) HTC EVO 4G LTE
Quadrant 5,130 5,036
Vellamo 2,117 2,347
AnTuTu 6,536 6,942
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,882 1,649
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 54 56
CF-Bench 9,567 9,562
Battery life 9:20 (EVDO) 8:55 (EVDO)
SunSpider: lower scores are better.

As for network speed, both the AT&T GS3 and HTC One X are fully capable of delivering fast LTE throughput. The best score we've recorded on the One X, however, was considerably better than what we saw on AT&T's version of the Galaxy S III. As a disclaimer, these record speeds were not recorded at the same time (we've been using the One X for a much longer period of time) so it's possible we'll see faster speeds as we continue using it on a longer-term basis. And here's something else to keep in mind: when we ran tests together at the same time from the same location, we noted eerily similar speeds -- for instance, with four bars of service, the two phones were both able to push out 13Mbps side-by-side.

AT&T Galaxy S III (I747) AT&T HTC One X Int'l Galaxy S III (I9300)
HSPA+ Testing in progress Testing in progress 4.94 / 1.1
LTE 19.9 / 15.7 35.7 / 23.5 N/A

What's more concerning, however, is the performance of Sprint's network. Given that its LTE service isn't live anywhere in the country, flagships like the GS3 and EVO 4G LTE are going to top out at 3G (EVDO) speeds for the time being. In the heart of San Francisco, at least, this means rates under 1Mbps. Consistently. We hope to put these two phones to the test on a proper LTE network in the very near future, but this is a sacrifice you'll have to make if you want either of these two devices now.

Sprint Galaxy S III (I747) HTC EVO 4G LTE
EVDO 0.54 / 0.9 0.33 / 0.88
LTE N/A N/A

As for battery life, we've had the opportunity to take the pair through our usual exhaustive rundown tests, which consists of running video on a continuous loop with the screen at 50 percent brightness, audio on, WiFi on (but not connected) and push notifications enabled. From our initial tests, it appears that the 2,100mAh juicepack on both phones just barely best the unlocked model. Sprint's was just a wee bit better, but this likely was due to the fact it was running on EVDO rather than LTE. What this means is that power users will be able to get through a standard eight-hour workday with no problems and everyone else should easily make it to the end of the day without needing a charge. Moderate users should enjoy roughly a day and a half of regular use before heading for the nearest outlet.

Moving onto call quality, we had a blast using the Galaxy S III on both AT&T and Sprint. Our calls always came in crystal-clear, and we could even listen in on conference calls using the external speakerphone without straining to understand what was being said. We didn't notice any signal degradation, nor did these two networks ever cut out on us.

Call and audio quality was amazing on both devices.

Both models lock onto GPS very quickly -- AT&T's is slightly faster at about three seconds, while Sprint's grabs your position within six to seven -- but we find Sprint's version offers up more precise coordinates. Sure, AT&T's will get you within the blue circle of life and told us we were within 60 meters of the dot, but it would waffle for a good 30 seconds or so trying to pinpoint our exact location (we were in the seventh story of a hotel with large windows). Sprint's positioning was more accurate and did a better job of figuring out our precise location.

The audio quality on both phones is terrific. The external speakers (when placing calls and listening to multimedia) were more than sufficiently loud, and we were impressed by the fact that we could hear many of the music's little nuances -- bass and treble tones came out quite clear. Plugging in the headphones offers a very similar and equally pleasant experience, giving us wonderful clarity in our favorite tunes.

Software

Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T vs Sprint

In case you're concerned, hardware isn't the only arena in which the US-centric versions of the Galaxy S III have remained close to Sammy's roots. Indeed, you'll find the same heavily skinned TouchWiz user interface on board, each model blessed with bloatware from its respective carrier. This can't come as much of a shocker to anyone who has used a Samsung device in the past few years -- if it's an Android handset and the manufacturer's logo is stamped somewhere on the exterior, then you've come to expect the TouchWiz experience (Galaxy Nexus and rooted devices excepted). We're not going to go into a rant on how it's been applied to Ice Cream Sandwich (we did our fair share of venting in our original GS3 review), but let's just say that you won't notice very many commonalities in user experience between this and stock ICS.

We were pleasantly surprised by the scarcity of bloatware, and how easy it was to disable.

One thing that did surprise us was the scarcity of bloatware on the AT&T model. Of the 43 apps already hanging out on the GS3 when you first fire it up, only five are there specifically to further the AT&T agenda. Amazed? There's more: of those five, four can be disabled. Yes, Virginia, if you don't find Mother Bell's contributions helpful, you can free yourself from the pain of having to look at most of it. What about the Now Network? The pre-installed software load has been reined in here, too, though Sprint decided to exert a little more influence. With a grand total of 47 preloaded icons in the app tray, Sprint is responsible for nine. Two of these cannot be disabled. Curious to know what's on each device? Check the handy list below to get an idea of what to expect.

Both Sprint AT&T
AllShare Play Dropbox AT&T Navigator
ChatON Game Hub Device Help
Flipboard More Services AT&T Messages
Kies Air Sprint Hotspot YP Mobile
Media Hub SprintZone myAT&T
My Files Voicemail
S Memo Google Wallet
S Suggest Music Hub
S Voice
Voice Recorder
YouTube

As you may notice, Google Wallet is indeed listed amongst Sprint's apps. From what we can tell, this will be the only Galaxy S III model with any sort of NFC-related mobile payment service built in. This may change as soon as ISIS is ready to kick off, but we won't hold our breath just yet. If NFC is on every version of the GS3, however, how in the world is it going to be used? Fortunately, mobile payments will just scratch the surface of NFC functionality; there's plenty more to take advantage of, such as S-Beam and as TecTiles (more on that later).

S-Beam is a clever feature, but its proprietary nature makes it a tough sell.

Starting with S-Beam, this feature uses NFC in conjunction with the phone's built-in WiFi Direct feature, giving you the ability to share movies, music, web pages and plenty of other information from one phone to another. It works nearly the same way as Android Beam, but the main difference is that you don't have to leave the two devices touching as you finish transferring a file -- you touch to initiate the process, and then you can set the two down. Samsung claims that it only takes three minutes to push a 1GB file from one phone to another; in our tests, a 400MB movie made the journey in roughly five. Still, this concept is worthy of a nod; emphasis on the word concept. In other words, it's a great idea, but the feature has essentially taken two open source standards and combined them into one proprietary piece of programming that won't do you much good if your entourage of friends and associates don't use Galaxy S IIIs. Despite the fact that HTC's One X has both features, you won't be able to use it to do S-Beam's bidding. Another key point when deciding between these two devices could well be the amount of gratis Dropbox storage. On AT&T, not only are you deprived of a 32GB internal storage option, you also will not be able to take advantage of the additional 48GB of space that the global counterpart promises. (For reference, Verizon has also opted out of this.) Sprint and T-Mobile, on the other hand, are sticking to a more generous policy. This may be a factor to consider when comparing the AT&T Galaxy S III with the HTC One X -- which offers 25GB memory -- or the Sprint version versus the HTC EVO 4G LTE (Sammy's 50GB versus HTC's 25).

Camera

Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T and Sprint

Samsung fans definitely aren't strangers to the company's reputation for pushing out camera sensors with a high amount of quality. We loved the 8-megapixel rear camera on the Galaxy S II, and we're treated to even a better deal with its successor -- not when it comes to quality, per se, but certainly when it comes to speed. Shutter lag is completely negligible and equals, if not barely edges out, what we've seen on the One X. As we mentioned in our original review, this means what you see on the screen as you take the picture is what you'll get in the end result.

As we have already covered the camera's performance ad nauseam, we won't take much extra time to focus on the ins and outs here. We can say, however, that in comparing the two devices with the international iteration, we couldn't find any disparities in UI or performance. We've compiled a gauntlet of sample images for you below to take a look at and compare, in order to offer some assistance in the difficult purchasing decision (GS3 vs One X) that lies ahead. Feel free to peruse our pictures and videos taken by both Galaxy S III units as well as the HTC One X from AT&T.

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Samsung Galaxy S III sample shots (AT&T)

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Samsung Galaxy S III sample shots (Sprint)

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HTC One X camera samples (AT&T)

While we didn't see any changes in still image turnout between the pair of Galaxy S III units, there was one curious observation we made in the camcorder arena. In comparing between the two, we noticed that the Sprint version has a difficult time staying continually focused indoors and in areas with a high dynamic range; it seems to require more adjustments to the autofocus in these situations. Aside from this, we found the level of clarity and smoothness of motion to be top-notch.

TecTiles

Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T vs Sprint

Samsung pulled out a full suite of accessories on stage in early May as it announced the original Galaxy S III: the AllShare Media Player, a wireless charging station, flipcase, HDMI adapter and S-Pebble MP3 player all got their time in the limelight. One particular accessory that didn't get announced until this past week, however, should be given its own proper time in the sun. If it's done right, it may actually bring more purpose to the Galaxy S III's built-in NFC functionality aside from S-Beam, Android Beam and the promise of mobile payments in the future (Sprint excepted). We're talking about TecTiles, which are essentially NFC tags that can be programmed to perform certain functions with your phone. They can be used to change settings, send messages, update your Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn status and even check-in on Foursquare. We welcome the idea of having one of these small stickers on our nightstand to automatically put our phone in silent mode, one in our car to turn Bluetooth and Car Mode on, and even one to quick dial significant others or important colleagues. While it may sound blasé, it can certainly add convenience and efficiency to your life by shedding precious seconds off an otherwise menial task. Granted, Samsung isn't the first to think of such a thing -- Sony and LG have both cranked out their own versions, and rewritable NFC tags have been around since the tech showed up -- but the company is hoping to have the strongest presence.

We love the convenience of TecTiles, but we aren't infatuated with its cost.

We took a few tags for a test drive and we had mixed feelings. While we loved the convenience, the programming process is honestly the most cumbersome part. Fortunately it's only confusing the first few times you use it (but isn't it that way for just about everything we use?) Head to the Play Store and download the free "Samsung TecTile" app. Once you're in, you're greeted by a menu with four options: Settings and Apps, Phone and Text, Location and Web, and Social. Each one does exactly what you'd expect, and picking one of the four selections grants you access to another few screens where you decide which specific actions you want your tag to trigger. After this, it's just a matter of scanning the TecTile, and it's all ready to go. Then, when it's time to actually use it in real life, you see another screen after it gets scanned, telling you exactly which actions it's initiating.

Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T vs Sprint

You can pick up a pack of five tags for $15, which we hope is just an introductory price that goes down in the near future. We love the idea of using TecTiles in everyday situations, but shelling out three bucks a pop will simply be too steep for most users. To play devil's advocate, each tag is said to be reprogrammable up to 100,000 times, so you can't really complain you aren't getting your money's worth out of it. To put it in perspective, if you reprogrammed a single tag once every hour, it would take 11.5 years before the tag finally gave up and quit -- in theory, at least. Even better, TecTiles can be used by more devices than just the Galaxy S III. We gave it a try on our AT&T HTC One X... and it works without incident. We reached out to Samsung to make sure this wasn't just a weird fluke, and were told that indeed any NFC-enabled device should be able to take advantage of the tags.

Wrap-up

Samsung Galaxy S III review shootout AT&T vs Sprint

We don't envy the decision you have ahead. Taking a look at the first two Galaxy S III units to grace our US offices, the differentiating factors (not counting color options and internal storage options) are network performance, monthly billing and miscellaneous carrier-specific perks. And that's exactly how it should be. At least in the case of the GS III, we no longer need to fret about choosing the carrier that currently offers the strongest smartphone lineup. It should always be the other way around, and we're happy to see this trend slowly change in favor of the manufacturers (and consumers, too).

If you're already sold on AT&T or Sprint, the decision may be a little more difficult because you have a top-notch Samsung handset contending with a best-in-class HTC device, the One X. Sammy and HTC each have an amazing flagship to offer at the moment, and we suspect you'll be happy with either. What's more, we don't see any far-reaching differences in performance, so your purchasing decision is mainly going to come down to your preference in hardware and software design. We're staying true to the conclusion we reached in our original review: we prefer HTC's Sense UI over Samsung's Gingerbread-like TouchWiz and we have a sweet spot for the One X's inventive design, as well. If you enjoy the tried-and-true aesthetics put forth by Samsung and crave that external storage slot, then the Galaxy S III is the way to go. And as tricky as these mental acrobatics can be, we can't think of a happier dilemma.