Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds.
Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
ExpertiseContent strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Update: This story was originally published 09/12/2012 and updated on 9/18/2012 to reflect our full iPhone 5 review, and on 10/2/2012 to add more Lumia 920 launch details. We will update the story again after we review the Nokia Lumia 920.
This holiday season, smartphone shoppers have a tough decision to make. The Apple iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3, and Nokia Lumia 920 are all titans in their space, and competition is fierce. We'll help you break down each phone's strengths and weaknesses to help you make your choice.
Keep in mind that since the Lumia 920 isn't yet available, we're limited to educated speculation, rather than to the side-by-side, in-the-flesh evaluation. However, we have now fully reviewed the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3. We'll still have to save the final showdown of the three for later, when we have all devices in-house. Until then, we offer up our winners so far for each major category. You don't have to agree with us, and we certainly reserve our right to change our minds when we see the phones in full, but going on the specs, here's how we feel.
4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED; 1,280x720 pixels, 306 ppi
4.5-inch PureMotion+ (IPS LCD); 1,280x768 pixels, 332 ppi
$199.99, $299.99, $399.99
$199.99-$329.99, depending on carrier
Sept. 21: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon
Now: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon
8-megapixel, 720p front-facing
8-megapixel, 1.9-megapixel front-facing
8.7-megapixel, 1.2-megapixel front-facing
Proprietary A6 CPU
1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
16GB, 32GB, 64GB
16GB or 32GB; 2GB RAM
32GB; 1GB RAM
Up to 64GB
Capacity TBA (Talk time up to 8 hours on 3G); embedded
2,100 mAh, removable
2,000 mAh, embedded
Weight and thickness
3.95 ounces, 0.3 inches
4.7 ounces, 0.34 inches
6.5 ounces, 0.42 inches
White, blue, red (AT&T); Also, globally: black, brown, gray
Black, white, yellow, red, gray
Design and build
Apple's aluminum-and-glass iPhone 5 retains its super-industrial aesthetic, metal buttons and all. Its new, all-metal backing still looks luxe, even more so than the iPhone 4S thanks to its two-toned design, but with much less glass on its back surface, the iPhone 5 will survive far more drops without shattering. Still, for absolute assurance, we'd recommend a case.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Nokia Lumia 920, whose yellow, red, white, black, or gray polycarbonate body and rounded edges produce a punch of pop sensibility in an otherwise staid design world. It's a good look for the phone, and a smart one that really helps Nokia stand out; however, distinctiveness and the nevertheless plastic body aren't everyone's cup of tea.
We find the GS3's design appealing, but shiny, glossy plastic doesn't scream "quality." That isn't to say that the GS3 is more prone to breaking or shattering than the other two; in fact, plastic has the benefit of scuffing rather than shattering. However, we do really love the GS3's in-hand feel, which is comfortable despite its much larger size.
Our winner so far: Based on looks alone, we're digging the iPhone 5's familiarly crisp, yet elegant lines most, but we also love the Lumia 920's colorful unibody statement.
Screen size and clarity
The iPhone 5's 1,136x640 pixels on its 4-inch screen still yields 326 pixels per inch and gives the phone a 16:9 aspect ratio, wider than the iPhone 4S. However, Apple boasts that its sRGB display delivers 44 percent more color saturation and cuts down on glare. It certainly looked terrific during CNET's weeklong tests, but we'll need the Lumia 920 in-house to test them side-by-side.
Samsung's Galaxy S3 has the largest screen of the three, an 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED, which yields a 1,280x720-pixel resolution and a pixel density of 306 pixels per inch. Its size offers the most expansive real estate for watching videos, reading, and composing messages, but there are three minor drawbacks: the lowest pixel density of the trio, high reflection, and a dimmer maximum brightness than the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X.
Nokia's Lumia 920 has a 4.5-inch Nokia PureMotion HD+ display, which is a fancy name to describe its LCD screen technology. Its WXGA resolution (1,280x768 pixels) is a little higher than the standard HD (1,280x720 pixels). Combined with the screen size and the 332 pixels per inch, resolution could be tighter than on the GS3 and iPhone 5.
Nokia has also brought its ClearBlack Display filter to the Lumia 920; it definitely cut down glare on the Lumia 900, and Nokia claims that this version is even better.
Our winner so far: The GS3 offer the largest screen, but in terms of clarity, the Nokia Lumia 920 theoretically takes this round for its high pixel density and antiglare properties, followed by the iPhone 5, which we already know is excellent.
This is a tough call since all three phones bring their A-game here. The iPhone has set the benchmark in terms of camera phone performance for quite a while and the improvements to the iPhone 5's imaging system will no doubt cement its lead agains the Lumia 920 and the GS3. These include improved low-light performance and a new panorama shooting mode that catches up to Android.
Of course, Android devices in many cases surpass the iPhone. Samsung's Galaxy S3 has a sensor that offers the same 8-megapixel resolution as the iPhone 5, plus it features tons of fancy shooting modes like panorama and multishot burst mode. Apple's new iPhone lets you take photos while you're shooting video, a feature Google introduced in Android 4.0 9 months back.
The Nokia Lumia 920 is the real dark horse in the smartphone camera race. On paper, its 8.7-megapixel camera and PureView technology challenges the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S3 with sharper photo resolution and processing. It also will be able to run special apps within the camera application itself, allowing you to upgrade its functionality greatly over time -- at least that's the theory.
Watch this: Apple iPhone 5 vs. Samsung Galaxy S3
Our winner so far: We've seen the iPhone 5's camera in action, but we still haven't had a chance to compare its camera to either of the other two phones. The automatically-adjusting low-light capabilities of the iPhone 5 especially trumped those of the iPhone 4S, which was already the industry standard. We have yet to see how they all perform in different lighting scenarios. Yet if previous shoot-outs are any indication, each phone will persevere over the others depending on the category. Because Nokia's Lumia 920 is still unproven and the Lumia 900's camera wasn't awe-inspiring, we're tempering our hopes with doubts.
LTE and network promise
A this point, LTE on the iPhone 5 was an inevitability, and a feature that's been in the hopper for some time. Verizon has already sworn that all its new smartphones will have LTE, and AT&T and Sprint are expanding their respective networks.
Our winner so far: Samsung phones have long been LTE-capable and the Nokia Lumia 920 will be Espoo's second LTE phone. Apple is just now catching up.
Nokia plans to equip its Lumia 920 with a 2,000 mAh battery, which should provide a good amount of run time, especially considering that Windows Phone has traditionally been a very economical operating system. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S3 comes with a slightly larger 2,100 mAh battery that lasted for well over 9 hours playing video. Apple is coy on the iPhone 5's capacity, but promises that its will offer 10 hours of video playback and 8 hours of Web surfing over LTE.
Of course, if you're constantly using battery-draining features like S-Voice on the Galaxy S3, or streaming video, no phone will last as long as you'd like.
Our winner so far: It's hard to say since we haven't put the Lumia 920 to the test, but the Galaxy S3 is a sure bet for most, plus it offers a removable battery. So far, the iPhone 5 has also lasted a full day on a single charge. We'll conduct formal battery drain tests on the iPhone 5 soon.
Apple's iPhone 5 needed a few features to shore up some weak spots: a larger screen, LTE, and, to a lesser extent, NFC. It got the first two, but Apple didn't mention anything about NFC for the iPhone 5.
NFC, which makes it possible to share content across phones and pay for purchases, might not be a big deal to you, but it is an entire category of software capability that's closed on the iPhone 5.
Our winner so far: Samsung, which was the first to market with file-sharing over NFC, and has been aggressively marketing its S Beam feature.
Siri in the iPhone 4S and Google's Voice Actions are evenly matched, but Samsung is standing behind its own S Voice assistant, which falls far behind. (We haven't been able to test Siri on the iPhone 5 yet, due to our NDA.)
Nokia phones stick with Microsoft's integrated, much more subtle voice command software, TellMe, but in Windows Phone 8, Microsoft will let third-party app-makers work in their own commands, so you can bark at individual apps like Audible, to read aloud, pause, or stop.
Our winner so far: Among these three phones, Siri takes the voice command cake.
If we had to recommend just one handset of the three right now, based on these specs and experience we would (narrowly) choose the iPhone 5 as an all-around phone.
Here's why: Out of these three phones, the iPhone 5 isn't the most innovative, but it is a reliable, intuitive package that earns top points for software and hardware reliability. Solid, strong, beautiful design, LTE speeds, and a proven camera that just gets better and better meets iTunes and app store robustness and the new iOS with turn-by-turn voice navigation and 3D flyovers. It lacks NFC, yes, but the hardware feature isn't yet ubiquitous; the majority of casual users won't notice, or even register, its absence.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 has a ton of really neat, innovative new features, but it also has far more trip-ups, which make for a less smooth experience overall. We still love the GS3, but the rich, highly customizable Android 4.0 interface is too much for some users, and many of Samsung's innovations, especially in content-sharing, are more complicated to use and not very universal.
We're also very excited to review the Lumia 920, which offers NFC, wireless charging, and promises of a gorgeous display. However, we're less enamored of Nokia maps, getting multimedia still isn't as robust as iOS or Android, and there's a question hanging over the camera, a major selling point for us. We'd also like to see how well wireless charging works; a stumble here would be a major stumble indeed.
The original Lumia 900 camera fell short of expectations, so until we see the Lumia 920's 8.7-megapixel PureView lens in action, we're much less certain about its real-life performance. Nokia's recent camera kerfuffle certainly doesn't instill unquestioning confidence.
This isn't by any means a blow-away verdict, and the results will be very much up for debate when the Lumia 920 comes into our offices for scrutiny and we can get all three phones in our hands at once.
The iPhone 5 is an excellent, proficient, and stylish smartphone with few stumbles, yet it faces its stiffest competition yet. If you're at all on the fence about the iPhone 5, it's worth waiting for the Nokia Lumia 920, or weighing the characteristics you value most against the Samsung Galaxy S3. If you're already leaning toward the iPhone 5, do yourself the favor and buy it.
Which phone do you back, and why? Share with us in the comments.
Updated 10/3/2012 to correct the Lumia 920's display technology.