Galaxy S III: Good Phone, Troubled Android

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I thought the plus-sized screen on Samsung's new Galaxy S III would bother me, but I'm more concerned with what that company put on this 4.8-inch display.

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This smartphone represents Samsung's most ambitious attempt yet to put its own stamp on Android. In pursuit of that goal, Samsung persuaded all four nationwide carriers to sell essentially the same phone: Sprint and T-Mobile shipped two weeks ago, AT&T's version arrives July 6 and Verizon Wireless's comes July 10.

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I reviewed a T-Mobile model loaned by Samsung–the priciest option, at $329.99 before a $50 rebate for new or renewing subscribers, while Sprint, AT&T and Verizon charge $199.99.

It will also be the only model in that bunch not to support LTE, since T-Mobile will use different frequencies for its upcoming service. But the "HSPA+" 3G upgrade T-Mobile sells as "4G" got close to LTE speeds on the GS III, with downloads ranging from 7.5 to 16.7 million bits per second.

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In the bargain, this LTE-free phone also delivered some of the best standby battery life I've seen in an Android phone: after 24 hours idling, it had 83 percent of a charge. Its active life wasn't as good: Nonstop Web-radio playback with the screen lit almost full-time drained it after 5 6 hours and 37 minutes.

The 8-megapixel camera, like most on phones, can have trouble dealing with high-contrast shots but does good work otherwise — helped by smart Samsung software that can automatically assemble a panoramic shot or take a portrait only when the subject smiles.

And yes, that high-definition screen doesn't make the phone feel too big — unlike Samsung's uncomfortably large Galaxy Note.

But the GS III's system buttons feel wrong after trying multiple phones running last fall's Ice Cream Sandwich update. The back button is on the wrong side, and the reward for getting a real menu button back is having to hold down the home button to see what apps are open. And the back and menu buttons disappear until you touch them, which doesn't help the re-education process.

The departures from standard Android continue as you explore the GS III's software. Samsung's onscreen keyboard isn't as pushy as the horrible software on the Note but still auto-corrects even when you're backspacing over errors.

Pressing its home button twice invokes S Voice, a speech-recognition app that offers little of Siri's understanding and none of its wit. It heard me ask "What was the score of yesterday's Nationals game?" but had no answer; earlier, it responded to "What's the meaning of life?" with my agenda for the next few days.

Kies Air app puts a dashboard for the phone on your computer's browser over a shared WiFi network, allowing you to read and answer text messages, upload or download photos and edit bookmarks. Neat idea, but the page didn't work in Safari and requires Oracle's often-insecure Java software for major functions.

Some of GS III's more fascinating (and most-advertised) features hide in the Settings app. You can, for instance, have the screen stay on if the front camera detects a face looking at it, then call a contact just by holding the phone to your head with that person's entry open. But with most of these options off by default, many users may never discover them.

All of Samsung's changes to Android give rise to larger worries. One is that shipping updates for future Android versions — like the Jelly Bean release announced last week — will be even harder. (T-Mobile spokeswoman Danielle Hopcus said the carrier will ship JB "in a timely manner.") The other is that Samsung increasingly sees Android as a platform on which to write its own interface.

Photo credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery