Deathmatch: Apple iPhone 5 vs. Samsung Galaxy S III

Is Apple's svelte, skinny iPhone 5 strong enough to fend off the challenge from the big, bold Android muscle phone?

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Smartphone deathmatch: Usability
Ask 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.

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