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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The 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 connectivity

Apple'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 support

Another 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 management

Another 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: 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.

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 your list if you're looking for an Android smartphone or simply a large smartphone. It may be too spacious for many, though, and the relatively short battery life is a red flag. It's a big, bold phone with earnest appeal but a few rough edges.

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