The iPhone 5 is out, but for the first time, Apple’s once-unstoppable smartphone has some serious competition. Samsung’s Galaxy S3 is the first smartphone outside the iPhone to break the control of wireless carriers and be released simultaneously on all four major U.S. carriers, and U.S. Cellular. It has even sold more than 20 million units in its first 100 days of availability, an unheard of number outside of the iPhone. It’s one of the best examples of what Google’s Android operating system has to offer.
So which phone is right for you if you’re struggling to make up your mind?
To help you make a decision you’ll live with for the next two years, we’ve distilled our extensive hands-on time with both devices down into the ultimate iPhone 5 vs. Galaxy S3 comparison. We’ve declared winners and losers in 16 categories that make or break a phone, but don’t think finding the right phone is as easy as keeping score. Which phone belongs in your pocket will ultimately depend on which factors are most important to you. Read on to see how Apple and Samsung’s finest stack up in this battle of the titans.
Make sure to check out our full Apple iPhone 5 review and Samsung Galaxy S III review for more information on each phone. Note that the review scores do not reflect their positions relative to each other, due to timing. The S3 came out months before the iPhone 5, when its primary competition was more dated Android devices and the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5 must be compared to legacy iPhones and newer Android phones, like the S3.
Design and construction
Crafting a beautiful, pocketable, durable phone isn’t easy, and Apple still knows how to do it better than anyone. The iPhone 5 doesn’t change much from the iPhone 4, but it remains the best-looking phone on the market today, and the best built. Apple has improved the scratch and shatter resistance of its glass, and used more aluminum in the frame, making the iPhone 5 much more durable than its predecessors and Samsung’s polycarbonate (a durable type of plastic) Galaxy S3.
The iPhone 5 is also suspiciously lightweight for the materials it uses, weighing only 112 grams, less than the S3’s 133 gram weight. This could be due to the thinness of Apple’s phone, which matches the Droid Razr’s impressive 7.6mm depth, but without any camera bump. The S3 is also an impressive 8.6mm thick. For reference, the iPhone 4 and 4S were about 9.3mm thick, which set a benchmark for its time.
Drop and shatter tests (like this one) seem to be unanimously coming out in favor of the iPhone 5. Even after painful five- or six-foot drops, most iPhone 5 units have only minor dings in the aluminum frame. They somehow escape screen shattering far longer than the S3, despite Samsung’s inclusion of Gorilla Glass, which is known for its durability.
Winner: iPhone 5
Though it’s difficult to argue that Apple’s phone is built better than Samsung’s, when it comes to comfort, the Galaxy S3 puts up a strong fight. Samsung has been tweaking the size, shape, and button layouts of its phones several times a year for several years now. The Galaxy S3 is a result of consumer migration toward phones with larger screens. Despite being significantly wider and longer than the iPhone 5, the S3 is more comfortable to hold and use due to its button placement. By placing the power and volume buttons on the sides toward the middle of the phone, users can more naturally press both buttons, interact with the screen, and reach the Home, Back, and Menu buttons on the device. The iPhone 5 is still a comfortable device, but Apple has not adjusted the placement of its power button to match the fact that it is now a longer (not wider) phone.
Of course, those with Andre the Giant hands will undoubtedly lean toward the S3 and those with more petite digits will gravitate toward the iPhone 5. Still, we’re going to give this one to Samsung for somehow making a phone with a 4.8-inch screen completely usable and comfortable to hold. Perhaps more comfortable than the world’s leading smartphone when it comes to two-handed typing and other select activities.
Winner: Galaxy S3
The iPhone 5 and Galaxy S3 light up an age-old (that’s two years in tech time) debate over which screen technologies offer the best picture quality. Since the introduction of the ‘Retina’ (high resolution) display in the iPhone 4, other smartphone manufacturers have been scrambling to create screens that can match Apple’s impressive 326 pixel-per-inch phone screens, which are based on high-end IPS LCD screen technology. To counter Apple, Samsung has gone with AMOLED, a variation on OLED technology. We’ve already compared the difference between LCD and AMOLED screens. The S3 might be the best implementation of AMOLED we’ve seen yet, retaining the deep blacks possible with OLED (each pixel is lit up separately, so black pixels have no backlight behind them at all).
Though we really love AMOLED’s strengths, those of you with the sharpest eyes might prefer the iPhone 5. According to in-depth tests performed by DisplayMate, it’s better calibrated and gets brighter. We can’t argue. Though OLED may be the future of displays, Apple’s good old LCD takes the crown today.
Winner: iPhone 5
Despite ongoing lawsuits over the similarities between Apple and Samsung products, the differences between the Galaxy S3 and iPhone 5 user interfaces are quite stark.
Visually, it’s hard to argue against Apple. iOS is simple, easy to use, and full of fun animations. No other touch operating system is so pleasant and enthralling (at least, at first) to learn and operate. With the Galaxy S3, Samsung is trying really hard to make Android a more consistent and beautiful experience, but its attempts feel contrived and, at times, misguided. In many ways, the Galaxy S3 might be a better phone if Samsung had left Android alone. Google’s recent Android interfaces may not be as bright as iOS, but they do have some personality. Samsung’s phone does not.
Winner: iPhone 5
Operating system features
Yes, both have app lists, app stores, unlock screens, and Settings menus, but once you dig in, there are a lot of technical differences between Android and iOS, the two operating systems that run the S3 and iPhone 5. On the whole, iOS is a more airtight and stable OS, but Android offers more features. Because it runs Android, the Galaxy S3 can support NFC and has more robust support for apps and syncing than the iPhone. On the Galaxy, apps can run in the background as you permit. Say you want to download podcasts or email every three hours without opening up the app again… you can do that, and the phone has a built-in task manager so you can kill running processes that bother you. Basically, the S3 is able to do a lot more things when your screen is off and your phone is idle than the iPhone. This makes the S3 a phone with more real-time qualities to it. Apps can be open without being on the screen. This is a double-edged sword, as it also makes it easier for people to ruin their S3’s battery life by installing and letting too many apps run in the background at once. iOS doesn’t usually have rogue processes and apps running in the background, and does have a rough task manager (double press the Home button). But this is one example where Android allows more control and features. The ability to install apps outside the Google Play store is another benefit of Android.
Winner: Galaxy S3
There are still differences between the Android and iOS app stores, but both stores are so massive that it almost doesn’t matter. iOS still has more quality-priced apps and games (especially games), but Android has cheaper apps and more free titles with ad-based revenue models. We do like that Android apps have made big strides in auto updating, but both app stores are guilty of promoting a new dynamic where iPhone and Galaxy S3 owners have to download constant app updates to the point of annoyance. Still, both phones have great app stores. Just don’t buy anything from Samsung’s custom app store on the Galaxy S3. Stick to Google Play.
There are two levels to personalization: tweaks to the outside like cases and accessories, and options inside of your phone to manipulate the look of what appears on screen.
The iPhone 5 makes no significant leaps forward in the area of software. You can change ringtones, your home screen and lockscreen backgrounds, and move your icons around or put them in folders. That’s about it. However, when it comes to cases and custom stickers and whatnot, the iPhone 5 already outshines the Galaxy S3 and that won’t change anytime soon. If you love quirky cases, you should opt for the iPhone.
The Galaxy S3, like other Android phones, does not have a robust case and accessory ecosystem, but it does better in the area of software. It comes with seven blank home screens you can customize with widgets — some already on the phone, some you can download — and app icons. You can also run entirely new skins on Android with tools like the CyanogenMod (“like” being the operative word since CyanogenMod doesn’t work on the GS3). Android also lets you customize ringtones, change backgrounds, add animated backgrounds, and all that jazz.
At the moment, this isn’t a contest. With the release of iOS 6, Apple has deleted Google Maps from the iPhone and replaced it with Apple Maps, a new free service that attempts to mimic and outshine Google Maps. The only problem is that it doesn’t, in any way, do that currently, except for its pretty 3D city view mode. There are no transit directions yet and, as we found out, a lot of people are getting bogus directions from Apple Maps. It has placed cities in the ocean and guided people to the middle of nowhere. It’s a buggy, new product. Currently, Android is the best option for those wanting GPS turn-by-turn navigation and a stable mapping solution. Hopefully Google Maps will be on iOS soon, but so far, Google hasn’t yet submitted it to the App Store.
Winner: Galaxy S3
Audio & Video
Enjoy music, video, and radio podcasts? The iPhone, which was born of the iPod, is still your best option. Though we don’t like the way Apple locks purchased content into its own device ecosystem, it still has the best ecosystem out there. iTunes is the most robust digital music store and comes with PC or Mac software to manage your entire collection, something Android has never had. Through the App Store you can access Pandora, Spotify, and countless other apps. Podcasts are also handled by a first-party app by Apple. The only downside is that if you purchase music or content in apps outside of Apple’s content, you’ll likely have to do it on the Web. Companies like Amazon, which sells, books, video, and music, do not allow you to purchase content on your iPhone or iPad because Apple demands a 30-percent cut of the sale. Still, it may be locked down, but getting content on the iPhone 5 is elegant and it works.
The Galaxy S3 is more of a patchwork, and will require some research to find the apps you need. Google has dropped support for Listen, its once-great podcasting app, leaving Android users to fend for themselves when it comes to radio. Meanwhile, its Google Play store does support video, but its music service doesn’t have the freedom of Amazon’s MP3 store. Samsung has its own music offering that seems very cool, combining aspects of iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora, but it has made a stupid deal with AT&T and U.S. Cellular that prevents anyone not on these carriers from using it. Dumb.
(Small extra note: The iPhone 5 comes with a nicer set of “EarPod” headphones, again making it a good choice for music lovers. The audio jack is also now on the bottom, which improves how easy it is to pull the iPhone 5 in and out of your pocket while listening to audio.)
Winner: iPhone 5
The Galaxy S3 has a decent camera. It works better than most Android phones and you won’t be hitting yourself for choosing an S3. But if I told you it was better than the iPhone 5’s camera, I’d be lying. Apple’s camera user interface is incredibly simple, and the phone just consistently takes pictures that look better than what you get from any other phone. The new Panorama mode is also fun to play with and works intuitively. Samsung has packed in a lot of social features into its camera, but most are only usable if you and all of your friends own Galaxy S3s. Video on both devices still comes out a bit dark, though they’re both capable of 1080p recording.
In these comparison shots, the left half of the photo is taken with the iPhone 5 camera while the right side is taken with the Samsung Galaxy S3 camera.
When it comes to front-facing cameras, the iPhone 5 catches up to the Galaxy, but neither phone has a great webcam — or FaceTime camera, if you’re on the iPhone.
Winner: iPhone 5
The chart above shows an overall view of the specs of both phones. We have (or will) discuss most of these specs separately in different sections. Both phones are pretty evenly matched, but we’re giving the hardware power edge to the iPhone 5 based on benchmarking tests by AnandTech and other sites. However, the Galaxy S3 wins out on smaller features with its inclusion of NFC, microSD, a removable battery, 2GB of RAM (double the iPhone’s), a higher resolution front-facing camera, and the size of its screen. Both phones are powerful and in standard use, we haven’t been able to notice much difference.
With the iPhone 4S, Apple introduced us to Siri, its voice assistant. You talk to Siri and ask it a question and it attempts to answer. To compete, Samsung came out with its own “S-Voice” app, which attempts to do its best Siri possible. To be honest, neither Siri nor S-Voice are very good yet, but we have to hand this category to Apple for continuing to add new functionality to its service. I especially like that Siri automatically turns on whenever I lift my iPhone to my ear. I don’t usually have much to say to the personal assistant, but you never know. It’s nice to be asked.
Winner: iPhone 5
Voice & LTE data service
Both the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S3 will supposedly support HD Voice, but where and on which carriers, we don’t know yet. Currently, voice service on both devices is just as crappy as it’s always been. Reception and LTE performance of both on Verizon Wireless here in Manhattan, NYC has been similar. It doesn’t appear that either phone has a distinct advantage against one another in voice or data. However, we highly recommend you get a phone like these that has 4G LTE support.
Charging / Connecting Accessories
Normally, this wouldn’t be an actual category and Apple would win hands down. It’s 30-pin iPod and iPhone connector is so widely supported that some cars come with support for it. There are more than a decade’s worth of speakers, docks, and other peripherals designed specifically for the iPod and iPhone, while there are virtually none built for the Galaxy S3. However, with the iPhone 5, Apple has set the score back to zero by creating an entirely new 8-pin connector that isn’t compatible with any of its old accessories or devices. Worse, Apple is making an adapter so you can connect to older devices, but it won’t be out until sometime in October and it’s going to cost $30. Can somebody say “rip-off?” Apple should have included the adapter with the phone as a thank you for putting up with the transition.
By being a little arrogant with its charging port, Apple gives Samsung the advantage in this area. Though there aren’t a ton of Galaxy S3 accessories, the phone charges on Micro USB, which means you can use a commonly available cable to give it some extra juice. If you lose your single iPhone 5 cable, you’re screwed.
Winner: Galaxy S3
Oh, battery life. The Razr Maxx may be your only true friend. Neither the Galaxy S3 or iPhone 5 make huge leaps in battery life, but if you play your cards right, both phones will last you through a day. In my experience, using the Galaxy S3 and the iPhone 5 Verizon models, the S3 has lasted consistently longer than Apple’s phone. All I do all day is check email, send texts, browse the Web, and spend 60 minutes listening to pre-downloaded music or podcasts. If I use either device more than this, I’m pushing my luck, so if you’re going on a trip, I recommend you find a battery case or portable charger for your iPhone and some extra batteries for your Galaxy S3.
Laptop magazine performed some benchmark tests which indicate that the iPhone 5 may have a slight battery life advantage (20 minutes) while continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, but it definitely depends on what apps you have running on your S3. Other tests seem to be mixed. The Galaxy S3 appears to get around 9 to 11 hours of talk time and Apple claims the iPhone 5 will get around 8 hours.
Winner: Galaxy S3
If you want to make sure your phone is supported and you get updates in the future, the iPhone 5 is currently the most reliable bet. Apple reliably updates its operating system every year and delivers updates on its own schedule whenever it pleases. With the upgrade to iOS 6, Apple brought every iPhone from the 3GS upward to the new version. Though Samsung has recently committed to taking updating seriously, it has no track record yet. It recently released a “schedule” of devices to get Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), but failed to give any dates. In addition, Galaxy S3 updates are run by whatever carrier you happen to be on, or by Samsung itself if you have an unlocked version of the phone. Even if Samsung begins updating its phones constantly, chances are, you will still be four months to a year (or forever) behind Google’s official Android upgrades, which happen twice a year.
Winner: iPhone 5
Overall Winner: iPhone 5
Apple’s flagship phone has some downsides, depending on how highly you value things like screen size, background multitasking, and maps, but it makes up for them by being the best built phone on the market, yet again. If there’s one thing Apple is good at, it’s attention to detail. The iPhone’s design flourishes help it overcome some of its technical limitations. Frankly, to many of you, and sometimes to us too, a phone that works smoothly and simply is better than the one with the most bells and whistles.
Winners by category:
- Design and construction: iPhone 5
- Feel: Galaxy S3
- Screen quality: iPhone 5
- User interface: iPhone 5
- Operating system features: Galaxy S3
- App stores: Tie
- Personalization: Tie
- Maps: Galaxy S3
- Audio and video: iPhone 5
- Cameras: iPhone 5
- Hardware specifications: Tie
- Voice assistants: iPhone 5
- Voice and LTE data service: Tie
- Charging and connecting accessories: Galaxy S3
- Battery life: Galaxy S3
- Future updates: iPhone 5
Here’s how the math worked out: The iPhone 5 had 7 wins, the Galaxy S3 had 5 wins, and a tie was awarded in 4 categories. What should this tell you? These phones are practically an even match. Figure out which categories are most important to you and do your own math. You can’t make a bad decision here. And if you still want to know more, please read our full Samsung Galaxy S3 review or our new Apple iPhone 5 review.