Is Apple's svelte, skinny iPhone 5 strong enough to fend off the challenge from the big, bold Android muscle phone?
If you're a fanboy (about 5 million of you qualify), you've already ordered your iPhone 5. But for the rest of the world waiting for Apple to replenish its stocks so that they can get a better look at one of the most overhyped products ever, there's a choice to be made.
The iPhone 5 is the new standard-bearer for Apple, the company that invented the modern smartphone, but Android smartphones have made great leaps in the last year. The Samsung Galaxy S III is the first Android device to break into the "Very Good" rating in the InfoWorld Test Center's smartphone reviews, and it's the only non-Apple smartphone to score that highly. Apple's iPhone line has worn that "Very Good" rating for years.
[ See how the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III compare to other Android, iOS, and Windows Phone smartphones. | Also on InfoWorld: "Google's Nexus 7 douses the Kindle Fire" and "Why the new iPad doesn't deserve a '3.'" | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]
They're very different smartphones. The iPhone 5 is the skinny model in the understated Chanel dress, whereas the Galaxy S III is the musclebound jock. Compared to the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 isn't that dramatic of an upgrade, whereas the Galaxy S III is heads and shoulders above the Android offerings of two years ago. On the other hand, the iPhone has been way, way ahead of Android, so Android smartphones needed big improvements to catch up. Apple has had the luxury of solidifying its offerings after making its great leap years ago.
Unless you're already committed to either the Apple cult or the Android cult, the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III are the two smartphones you're likely comparing if you're aiming for the top of the line and need to be meet the security requirements of most businesses. (If you insist on a physical keyboard, then your only real option is the Motorola Mobility Droid 4.)
Read on for what you need to know to choose:
Smartphone deathmatch: HardwareThe big changes in the iPhone 5 revolve around its hardware, since its iOS 6 operating system is also a free upgrade for iPhone 3G S, iPhone 4, and iPhone 4S owners. (You can still buy the iPhone 4 and 4S.) What's new is a taller, 4.0-inch screen -- 640 by 1,336 pixels versus the previous 640 by 1,024 -- that basically adds a fifth icon row and lets you watch 16:9 widescreen movies at a larger size than the previous iPhones could.
The iPhone 5's screen (top) shows widescreen movies at a larger size than the iPhone 4 (bottom).
I don't like the look of the iPhone 5 as much as I did the iPhone 4 and 4S. The iPhone 5's all-black and all-white models simply have less character than their steel-banded predecessors. The iPhone 5's design is boring, simplicity taken to a cliché extreme. The black model looks like the slab from "2001: A Space Odyssey," but that was 44 years ago -- a time when people thought a solid-yellow canvas was a work of art, too. Does the world really need another all-black phone? No. The white version is a little better looking, as there's contrast between its bezel and the black screen. Either way, the sameness of the color makes it harder to properly orient the iPhone when you pick it up.
The Galaxy S III has an even bigger screen (4.8 inches, providing 720 by 1,280 larger pixels) -- one that dominates the curved and coolly embellished plastic bezel. Its design is also simple, but unlike the iPhone 5, it's very bold. An iPhone 5 has the vacant feel of a runway model's facial expression, whereas the S III is the life of the party. The S III's screen is also brighter, its colors more vibrant. The iPhone 5's screen has a yellowish colorcast that makes whites look dingy when its brightness is set to medium or low. (The iPhone 4's colorcast is bluish, providing whiter whites, but making browns and oranges duller.)
I prefer the S III's screen. If you have middle-aged or older eyes, the bigger text of the S III (due to the fact its screen is bigger, as are its pixels) is easier to read than the sharper but smaller text of the iPhone. If you're in your 20s or 30s, the readability difference probably won't be apparent. The iPhone 5's Retina display does present text more sharply, which is helpful when reading the tiny text in so many apps.
The S III's larger size comes with a price: It's hard to use one-handed. Not only does iPhone 5 fit better in your hand, but its screen is accessible by your thumb. For the S III, only the Hulk's hand is big enough for the thumb to reach the full screen.
As you'd expect, the iPhone 5 sports a faster processor -- Apple's own A6 -- compared to the previous iPhone, as well as faster graphics processing. The speed advantage is hard to notice in practice, but various benchmarks show there is a difference. The S III also has a beefy processor and graphics subsystem, but it's hard to compare to the iPhone 5, given that the applications are different. The bottom line: Both are fast enough.
The iPhone 5 camera's optics have also been improved, resulting in finer detail, especially in low-light conditions. But the new lens has apparently caused lens flares under some circumstances. The S III's camera is unremarkable. Both are fine for most snapshots, but if you want your smartphone to replace your digital camera, you'll prefer the iPhone 5.
The iPhone 5, like its predecessors, has no removable storage. You choose 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of internal storage when you buy it (with no-contract prices of $649, $749, and $849, respectively), and you must live with that choice. The Galaxy S III, by contrast, comes with either 16GB ($630) or 32GB ($680) of internal storage, but it can take an SD card of up to 64GB capacity as well.
The iPhone 5's speakers are more powerful than those in previous models, so audio is much louder for movies and music. But for some reason, alert sounds (such as for text messages) on the iPhone 5 are harder to hear than on an iPhone 4 in a noisy store, restaurant, or bus. I often couldn't hear them at all, though I could hear the calling tone, which was louder even when using the same ringtone as the other alerts. The iPhone 4 didn't have this volume difference, and I could hear its tones in the same places I couldn't hear the iPhone 5's. The Galaxy S III's speakers are as loud as the iPhone 5's, but its sound is tinnier and less rich than the iPhone 5's (or iPhone 4's).
Some people have complained that the iPhone 5's anodized aluminum back and edges are easily scratched or scuffed. I didn't find that to be true, nor did several other people I know who bought the new smartphone. It's possible that some iPhone 5s didn't cure correctly after the finish was applied. I prefer the feel of the previous iPhones' glass backs, which warm nicely to the touch. The new aluminum back gets very warm when you're using one of the radios and after you charge it -- similar to how the third-gen iPad heats up more than the iPad 2 -- but not annoyingly so. It also gets cold easily. The glass-backed iPhones had less temperature variation. The Galaxy S III's plastic case (available in slate blue or white, as well as in dark red at AT&T only) is pleasant enough, though not as nice as either the old iPhone's glass or the new iPhone's aluminum.
The most meaningful hardware change is the support for LTE 4G cellular networks. Much of the world is only now starting to deploy LTE, so most people will get no immediate benefit from this technology. But you will notice faster downloads and application updates (such as in the browser or in news apps) where it's available -- usually. The speed can be two to three times that of 3G networks in well-served areas.
I've complained before that when I got the LTE-equipped third-gen iPad this spring that I rarely noticed a speed advantage compared to my previous iPad 2 or my iPhone 4 -- at least not in the San Francisco area where I work and live. People in other parts of the country have noticed a real difference. But when the iPhone 5 debuted in late September, I did see faster LTE performance in San Francisco from my carrier, Verizon Wireless, which like AT&T and Sprint has been rolling out LTE in many markets. It appears Verizon has also been reworking slow LTE in places like San Francisco. But LTE coverage is still spotty, and even 3G service is not universal here.
The S III also sports LTE support. Do note that the S III has both 3G and LTE radios, so even on CDMA carriers such as Verizon and Sprint, you can access data and voice services simultaneously (voice goes over 3G, and data over LTE). For the iPhone 5, there's just one radio; if voice is on, data stops if you're using a CDMA network. Ultimately, Verizon and Sprint will have to make the fix on their networks through the introduction of VoLTE (voice over LTE) technology; until then, CDMA-connected iPhone 5 users will notice that apps and services like Find My Friend stop updating when you're talking.
On the other hand, the iPhone 5 is a true worldphone. Even the CDMA models support 3G GSM networks globally, so you can pop in a SIM abroad and get service on your iPhone 5. (Verizon lets you do this in the United States with competing domestic carriers, but AT&T and Sprint do not.) The S III's CDMA models don't have SIM slots, so you can roam only in the few other countries that use CDMA -- at high prices.
The S III and the iPhone 5 are available on nearly all the first-tier carriers in the United States. The iPhone 5 is not available for T-Mobile, though you can use an unlocked or Verizon model on T-Mobile's network -- or you will be able to once the new NanoSIMs that the iPhone 5 is the first to use become available. If you have a MicroSIM from a previous phone or your iPad, it won't fit in the iPhone 5.
The iPhone 5 uses a new connector called Lightning for charging, syncing, and peripheral access. The cable has an embedded chip that assigns functions to each of the eight pins based on what it is connected to. That saves space and will let Apple add capabilities not anticipated today, which the old 30-pin Dock connector could not so easily do. But it also means the end of the cheap-cable era because the new connector is no longer solely a set of physical wires and pins. Also, the $29 adapter for existing 30-pin cables doesn't work with many peripherals, including anything that uses video-out, such as projector and monitor cables, or tries to control the music player, such as some stereos. Until new cables become available, the iPhone 5 is less connectable than previous models. Basically, you can't use an iPhone 5 to give presentations or do screen sharing today, but it will gain that capability in the future.
The Galaxy S III has just a MicroUSB port, which is fine for syncing and charging. But it doesn't support other kinds of peripherals, such as video-out connectors and musical instruments (two areas where the Apple iPad is often used). Although there's no MiniHDMI jack in the S III to connect to monitors and projectors, Samsung's proprietary MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) cable lets you connect to an HDMI device such as a TV to mirror the smartphone's screen or relay video. But you can't connect to VGA or DVI displays this way. The S III is limited to screen sharing with just HDMI devices, which rules out most projectors.
Both the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III support wireless video streaming, but the S III's support for DLNA streaming over Wi-Fi does not work with non-Samsung peripherals, rendering it essentially useless. The iPhone 5 can stream to an Apple TV via its AirPlay service when on a Wi-Fi network; an Apple TV connects to any HDMI device, and through an adapter to VGA devices.
Speaking of Wi-Fi, the iPhone 5 now supports the 5GHz 802.11n spectrum, which is faster than 2.4GHz 802.11n and allows for connections over greater distances. The S III also supports 5GHz Wi-Fi, as well as near-field communications (NFC) short-range wireless connections and Wi-Fi Direct sharing -- useful when you don't have an access point to connect through. For data sharing, the NFC works only with other Android users, as well as a very limited number of payment terminals, building access readers, and the like. Wi-Fi Direct is also not commonly used.
Finally, the iPhone 5's battery lasts much longer than the Galaxy S III's. You need to charge the S III daily, even if you hardly use it. By comparison, an idle iPhone can go days without a charge. My tests of battery rundown rates while idle (with Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth all on) showed the iPhone 5 consumes 4 percent of battery capacity per hour, whereas the S III consumes 8 percent -- draining its battery twice as fast. An S III that gets heavy usage often can't last the day, while an iPhone 5 can. This is one hardware issue that could be the Galaxy S III's Achilles' heel for many buyers. The good news is that if you turn on the S III's two power-saving options for the screen, the battery consumption rate then matches that of the iPhone 5.
All in all, the iPhone's hardware is better for a business or professional user. But you're more likely going to need your reading glasses with it.
Smartphone deathmatch: Web and Internet supportThe iPhone 5's iOS 6 is a little Web-savvier than the previous iOS 5. You can now upload images from your Photos app to websites via a site's standard Upload button -- a boon for uploading photos to sharing sites, for example. Otherwise, the iPhone 5 surfs like the previous iPhones, with the capable Safari Web browser and the strongest support for HTML5 and AJAX of any mobile browser, which lets you use more interactive capabilities on an iPhone, including common facilities such as the Word-like TinyMCE editing widget.
The stock Android browser is quite serviceable, but it's less compatible with AJAX tools than Safari is, so it doesn't work with as many websites. For example, I cannot use an Android device to access InfoWorld's Drupal-based content management system beyond working with plain-text-only fields, while I can use most of our Drupal functions in Safari on iOS.
In the HTML5test.com tests of HTML5 compatibility, the iPhone 5's Safari browser scores 360 points out of a possible 500, whereas the Galaxy S III's stock Android browser scores higher, at 380 points. Google's optional Chrome browser scores 369 points. Thus, for the first time since the InfoWorld Test Center began running these tests two years ago, Android browsers score higher than iOS's Safari.
The free Chrome browser is a bit more elegant than the stock Android browser, so I recommend you install it on a Galaxy S III. It also lets you sign in to your Google account, so all of your devices' Chrome bookmarks and state information are kept synced across the devices -- similar to what Apple's Safari 6 browser does in iOS, OS X, and Windows. But Chrome doesn't overcome the HTML5 and AJAX limits in Android.
Apple's iOS also integrates Twitter and Facebook in Safari and other messaging services, making it easy to participate in these common Web activities. Android is weak here, relying on the various social networking apps, which you must switch to to use.
Smartphone deathmatch: Business connectivityApple's iOS has long provided better business applications and better support of Microsoft Exchange servers than Google's Android has. But Google has been chipping away in this area in each Android update, and Samsung has gone beyond Google's own efforts by enhancing some of those apps in the Galaxy S III.
I prefer Apple's Mail app over Android's Email app because it's a little easier to navigate accounts and folders in Mail, and you can easily customize the accounts list, mark messages, and more easily move through messages. But the differences are minor. My only real beef with Android is the separation of Gmail from the other email accounts; Gmail email is accessed in a separate app than the rest.
Samsung's custom version of the Android Calendar app has a nice pullout feature to switch among calendar views, freeing more screen space for your calendar but keeping it easy to change views. On the S III's larger screen, you get more detail in the month view than on an iPhone. Plus, Samsung's calendar supports more types of repeating events than Apple's. In short, Samsung's calendar is better.
Samsung's custom Contacts app is also better than Apple's, thanks to its ability to add and edit groups -- and to let you send emails to all members of a group by using the group's name. Even in iOS 6, the iPhone still can't do any of those. Apple's Contacts app does let you assign more attributes to your contacts, but that doesn't make up for its backwardness about groups. Both the S III and iPhone 5 let you assign custom ringtones and vibration patterns for calls received from a specific person.
Both smartphones support Microsoft Exchange contacts, emails, tasks, and calendars, as well as email in IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts. (Android supports iCloud email, as iCloud uses IMAP.) iOS does not support Google contacts directly, but it does support Google calendars. Android of course does not support contacts and calendars in Apple's closed iCloud service, though you can get apps that bridge the two.
Where iOS really shines is in its support for Gmail and IMAP (including iCloud) notes, a feature I rely on immensely. If I add a note on my iPad, Mac, or iPhone, it's available to every device immediately. Android doesn't even have a notes app, much less a cloud-connected one. The Galaxy S III does include Samsung's own S Note, which lets you create text and graphics in your notes. But it's more work to use than Apple's very simple Notes app.
iOS also offers the Reminders app, which is frankly too primitive (no shared task view, for example) for serious use. It does have the ability to set an alert based on when you arrive or leave a location. Android has no tasks app.
All in all, the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III are close in this category. iOS holds a slight overall edge due to its notes and task support, but if you're an appointment junkie, you'll prefer the S III.
Smartphone deathmatch: Application supportAnother area where Android has come a long way is apps. The selection in Google Play is now quite large, especially for content-oriented apps and gaming. It's also easier now to buy an app on your desktop and send it to your Android devices. But some apps aren't compatible with all Android devices, given the wide range of Android versions and other customizations in the Android universe. Version compatibility is an issue with iOS, as well, but much less so. If you buy an app for iOS, you can get it instantly on all your devices -- no need to install on each independently.
There are more, better apps on iOS related to business productivity. For example, Android has just Quickoffice and the weaker Documents to Go. iOS has those two plus Apple's solid iWork. (The productivity app selection for the iPad is even better.) There are many great apps for photo editing, drawing, music editing and creation, and so on in iOS than in Android.
Both the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S III support dictation, as long as you have a live Internet connection, and both have a voice-based assistant. Apple's Siri service on the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, and (if you're running iOS 6) third-gen iPad responds to questions and can take actions based on your voice commands.
The stock Android OS has long offered simpler voice command support, but Samsung has augmented it with the "Siri light" S Voice feature. Samsung's S Voice has been improved since its launch to be more like Siri, able to answer questions such as "What is 2 plus 2?" and "How do I get to San Jose?" But in the InfoWorld Test Center's tests, Siri is faster, more accurate, and more contextual in its responses than S Voice is. Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" promises to improve Android's voice features, and Samsung says the Galaxy S III will get "Jelly Bean" by January.
Apple's AirPrint protocol is reliable and widely supported in apps and many printers, and AirPrint is easy to add to your network even if your printers don't support it. Android has no such simple printing facility.
Apple's big app gap is in maps and navigation. iOS 6 replaced Google Maps with Apple's own service, and it doesn't work very well. CEO Tim Cook last week apolgized for the mess and recommended that iPhone users switch to competing services until Apple fixes the problem. One of his recommendations matches mine: the free Waze. It's even better than the built-in navigation app in Android.
The iPhone both legitimized and popularized the whole notion of mobile apps, and five years later, no one yet does it better.
Smartphone deathmatch: Security and managementAnother area where Android has historically lagged is in business-grade security and management. iOS 4 in 2010 swept aside the limitations that kept most organizations wedded to the BlackBerry; as a result, the iPhone has become the de facto corporate standard at most businesses. Meanwhile, IT folks who now accept iPhones as legitimate business devices want nothing to do with Android.
That prejudice is a bit unfair. Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," which the Galaxy S III uses, put in the basics that businesses want: on-device encryption and support for the most-used Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies. Samsung and Motorola Mobility both produce business-capable devices using these features as the norm.
iOS does have better VPN compatibility than Android does, and many Android devices have difficulty connecting to PEAP-secured Wi-Fi networks. The Galaxy S III isn't one of them, but it shares the more limited VPN compatibility of other Android devices, especially with Cisco IPSec VPNs. Fortunately, Cisco has a free AnyConnect VPN app in the Google Play market that overcomes those compatibility issues for its VPNs -- but you need to pay for a client license for it to work.
The Google Play market is full of malware, unlike the Apple App Store, so Android devices are inherently riskier to bring into a business environment. But the major mobile device management (MDM) vendors offer Android clients to provide secured apps for business email and related information, and there are efforts afoot to create a highly secure version of Android that the U.S. defense agencies could use. Samsung provides strong security in the Android context, and with the right management tools, the Galaxy S III can be safely used and properly managed.
Still, the iPhone 5 -- like any iPhone -- is business-ready without the uncertainties and variabilities of Android. Apple is good about adding management hooks for iOS's new capabilities, as it has done again in iOS 6.
Smartphone deathmatch: UsabilityAsk any Apple fanboy which mobile OS is easier to use, and without hesitation, they'll tell you iOS. Samsung has made serious efforts to close that gap, and its UI enhancements to the Galaxy S III add up to a much more pleasant experience than the stock Android UI, such as found in the Galaxy Nexus.
For example, Samsung has added the Smart Stay feature. If enabled, the Galaxy S III uses the front camera to monitor whether you're looking at the screen (it searches for eyes) so that it doesn't shut off or dim the display while you're reading. That's a smart idea, as most mobile OSes rely on detecting button presses and touch actions to know you're still engaged -- which doesn't reliably detect someone watching a movie or reading a book.
Other UI enhancements include what Samsung calls smart motions. Some of these are copied from iOS, such as tapping the top of a screen to jump to it or lifting the phone to your ear to answer a call. Others are unique, such as scrolling through a list by tilting the screen or holding your hand on the screen to mute the sounds. You enable the specific motion "gestures" through the Settings app, so you can avoid unwanted motion-based behaviors.
Then there's the ability to set the LED indicator to show any or all of the following statuses: battery charging, low battery, and missed event (such as a call or notification) -- an enhancement over the stock Android indicator's focus on alerts. Samsung has paid attention to little details, such as streamlining the Settings app and making the Calendar app easier to use through some simple changes.
The Galaxy S III also uses the stock Android widget capability, which lets you keep widgets on your home screens for not just quick access to apps but current views of the services you care about such as the current weather, recent tweets, and your calendar. Widgets let you maintain easy awareness of what's going on without jumping among apps. iOS has a pull-down Notification Center tray modeled on Android's, though Android's version shows more information, such as network status, and it lets you quickly turn on Airplane Mode, which in iOS requires several steps.
iOS has its own areas of better fit and finish, of course. For example, on an iOS lock screen, you slide a notification's icon to jump straight to the alert, whereas the Galaxy S III only lets you snooze or dismiss the notification. When the S III shows that I have a conference call, I'm always frustrated that I can't just jump to the details to see the dial-in number, as I can on the iPhone. Instead, on the S III, I have to go to the Calendar app or widget and open the appointment.
I do find it easier to navigate within iOS apps than within Android apps. Android's use of the Menu button seems a throwback, and the Back button's role in navigating within an app and across apps confused me. iOS's multitasking tray is simpler to use than Android's running apps list, and iOS's richer gestures and accessibility support also outclass Android.
But when all is said and done, the usability pros and cons of the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S III even out. They're different, and you may prefer one over the other, but they're both very good overall.
Smartphone deathmatch: And the winner is ...When you weigh all the factors, the iPhone 5 is the winner in the InfoWorld Test Center comparison. But it's no more a winner than the iPhone 4S was, especially if LTE is not a factor where you are. Although Apple has upped the hardware quotient, it hasn't really moved the needle. The Galaxy S III really has moved the needle for the Android platform -- just not quite to the level the iPhone already occupied.
The iPhone 5 is not a must-buy iPhone; if you have an iPhone 4 or 4S, you could happily stick with it. The iPhone 5 is a logical refinement in a skinny black (or white) dress. But the iPhone 5 is an exceptional smartphone, especially if you have an older iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, or older Android smartphone.
The Galaxy S III should be at the top of you
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