IPhone 5 bar raised by Samsung as Sony lags

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For five years, every new smartphone has faced the same simple question: Is it better than an iPhone?

For a long time the answer was an automatic no. But the newest generation of devices running Google's Android operating system is making it a closer call.

HTC's standout One X landed on US shores earlier this month. Now two more contenders seek to raise the stakes for the iPhone upgrade Apple is expected to unveil this fall: Samsung's new flagship, the Galaxy S III, and the Xperia Ion, the first phone to appear solely under the Sony name.

Of the two, the Samsung is the more ambitious and more successful. In a break from the company's usual strategy of creating multiple, slightly different models under different names, it's launching the Galaxy S III on all four major US carriers: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.

The versions are identical save for some under-the-hood variations to allow them to run on the different networks. Both the AT&T and Verizon versions run on those carriers' LTE networks, which means they're considerably faster than the iPhone at accessing the Web. On the other hand, the iPhone has better battery life.

Comfortably thin

The Galaxy S III, which runs the latest "Ice Cream Sandwich" version of Android, is a big phone that somehow manages not to feel big. Its screen measures a relatively gigantic 4.8 inches -- the iPhone is only 3.5 inches -- but it's so thin (.34 of an inch) and light (4.7 ounces) that it still feels comfortable.

Typical for a Samsung device, the image quality is dazzling. The company's Super AMOLED technology may not quite match the specs of Apple's Retina Display, but to this naked eye seemed every bit its equal.

I was similarly impressed with the eight-megapixel camera, particularly its "Burst" mode. Hold the shutter button down, and the S III will snap up to 20 photos at a rate of almost three per second. A best-picture mode will analyze similar photos and recommend the one most worth keeping.

The Galaxy S III bristles with features designed to stamp it as cutting-edge. A number of them, though, are more impressive in concept than execution.

For instance, "S Beam" lets you instantly share photos, videos and other files merely by tapping the back of your phone to the back of a friend's. Sounds neat -- but it's hard to set up and, oh yeah, it only works if your friend happens to have an S III too.

Challenging Siri

Then there's S Voice, Samsung's answer to Siri, the personal assistant on the iPhone 4S. Here's one typical exchange I had with it:

Me: "Hi, Galaxy." (This is S Voice's wake-up phrase.)

S Voice: "Nice to meet you."

Me: "Where can I find a good burger around here?"

S Voice: "I'm sorry, I don't have the answer. Would you like to search the Web?"

Me: "Yes."

S Voice: "That's good to know."

Nothing happens, and the screen goes dark.

Me: "Hi, Galaxy."

S Voice: "Nice to meet you."

Siri, on the other hand, immediately replied with a list of 15 nearby restaurants, sorted by customer ratings.

The Galaxy S III starts at $200 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage on a two-year data contract. Pricing and configurations will vary depending on the carrier.

Sony Xperia

Sony's Xperia Ion is available in the US only on AT&T. It's Sony's first phone since the company's breakup with Sweden's Ericsson, and you can tell it was designed to make a splash.

For one thing, it runs over the LTE network, so you can expect excellent web speeds as long as you're in an area with coverage.

For another, it's the handsomest Xperia I've seen, a smooth black surface whose sharp corners are set off by a gently curved back. The screen measures 4.6 inches, less than the Samsung but still generous, and the device weighs 4.9 ounces, about the same as an iPhone.

But there are compromises. To get that sleek profile, Sony's designers hid the USB charging and high-definition video ports behind a flimsy, hard-to-open flap. It also comes with an outdated version of Android -- Sony says it will eventually get an update -- and, though the phone is touted as compatible with games for Sony's handheld Playstation devices, none is available yet.

The Xperia Ion does have some other things going for it: a 12-megapixel camera, for one. And then there's price: A 16- gigabyte model on a two-year contract costs only $100, or $50 on special offers from Sony and Best Buy.

With its vast universe of high-quality apps and unmatched ease of use, the iPhone is still the benchmark against which every other phone is measured. But as we wait to see what Apple has in store, for now the margin has narrowed.

Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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