Editors' note, September 14, 2012: On September 12, Apple announced the iPhone 5. CNET compared the iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3, and Nokia Lumia 920 spec to spec, and threw in some of our own predictions and analysis. We'll have more when we review the phones in full.
This is the kind of question we CNET editors are asked all the time, and with good reason. Given the breakneck pace of the smartphone world, there's always something good now, but something better around the corner -- and you want your investment to last.
In some ways, the answers are obvious if you prefer one OS over another, have a Mac at home, or need a phone right now. However, if not, there's a lot to like about each platform's superphone (we surmise; one of them hasn't even been announced yet), and we can't make your decision for you. So here's what we'll do. We're going to break it down by some of the phone features that we think could sway your decision.
When it comes to first-class materials, Apple has Samsung beat. That is, if you like glass on both sides of your handset, and an industrial look and feel. With the Galaxy S3, Samsung unabashedly sticks to its plastic preference, but has managed to make it look and feel sleeker and more desirable than on past Galaxy S devices. The GS3 also features a Gorilla Glass 2 cover, which we expect Apple to announce as well on its mystery iPhone.
Size is the other issue. Rumors point to an iPhone 5 with a larger screen, but an only slightly taller profile. Apple's phone would still fit in the hand about the same way. Compare this with the Galaxy S3, which dwarfs the iPhone 4S. We like its smooth, comfortable feel, but some people will simply find it too large.
Apple has made it abundantly clear that it's obsessed with screen quality. And now that the MacBook Pro is sporting a Retina Display, it's safe to assume the next iPhone will be equipped with the same technlogy. Though the iPhone 4S has the brighter and sharper display of the two phones, the Galaxy S3's HD Super AMOLED display has richer color contrast. Some argue that the S3's AMOLED screen technology oversaturates, and in some cases we do find that to be true.
However, the human eye can only register so much. As displays get sharper in high-end devices, getting into the minutia of screen comparisons won't say as much about user experience as size does. And as we previously stated, the Galaxy S3's 4.8-inch screen may seem like overkill for some, but it'll definitely feel less cramped than the iPhone, even if the iPhone 5 does get the expected 4-inch screen.
If the camera specs for the new iPhone remain in line with the current model (as in it'll still have an 8-megapixel lens and an A5 chip), then we'll let our shoot-out shots between the S3, the iPhone 4S, and the HTC One X speak for themselves. We found that the cameras had their specific strengths and weaknesses under certain conditions.
However, Apple is never one to pass up a chance to lift smartphone camera standards and some rumors about an interchangeable lens and a high-definition front-facing camera would call for another camera showdown.
For now, the Galaxy S3 and the iPhone 4S offer the same amount of megapixels, high dynamic range, and zero shutter lag. But if you want something featured-packed, the GS3 has a lot of options. True, we don't know what sort of services the new iPhone will offer, but the GS3 already has panoramic shooting, burst shot, two sharing modes, and other fun shooting settings like "cartoon" (a la "A Scanner Darkly") and "beauty" (a la this-is-not-real-life).
Samsung and Qualcomm teamed up to put a dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor in the Galaxy S3, which makes it one of the fastest phones in the U.S. Apple is all about advancing its processors with each succeeding model. Rumor is that Apple will promote the 4S' A5 chip to a faster A5X chip. We'd expect the same quad-core graphics processor that's in the iPad 3. However, don't get too caught up in processor specs (after all, quad-core prowess is still shrouded in myth). Both phones' internals will impress.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 and Apple iPhone 5 will be evenly matched once the iPhone comes along with its expected (and anticipated!) 4G LTE support. Just keep in mind that not every carrier supports LTE (like Sprint and T-Mobile), and some networks are faster than others.
Both the Galaxy S3 and iPhone 5 will be easy to get. The Galaxy S3 will be available on T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, U.S. Cellular, and even C Spire (a regional carrier.) Apple will surely let its carrier-partner gravy train keep rolling with the Big Four, and (way later) down the line, it could also pass the iPhone 5 to Cricket and Virgin Mobile, following by taking the iPhone 4 and 4S prepaid.
In the U.S., the Samsung Galaxy S3 is starting on-contract at $199.99 for the 16GB and $249.99 for the 32GB model (it'll differ by carrier.) As for the iPhone, the 4S on a designated network has a retail price of $199.99 for the 16GB model, $299.99 for the 32GB model, and $399.99 for its 64GB model. And, if the rumors prove true, the newest generation won't be any cheaper. With luck, Apple will remain steady on price, which would make a 32GB Samsung SG3 more cost-effective.
Whether or not a phone is right for you depends on a whole bushel of personal values, but the bottom line is that when you compare the main features and specs, the Galaxy S3 is good enough to recommend on its own against the iPhone 4S.
However, if you're open to either OS (as we are) and you're in no rush to buy a phone, here's what we'd do. We'd go ahead and wait until Apple's announcement this autumn. If the iPhone 5 fails to impress you, the Galaxy S3 has proven itself a worthwhile device with plenty of bells and whistles. And if in your estimation it falls before Apple's charms, you'll be fully informed and clear from any pangs of buyer's remorse.