By Mike Bruno
Updated June 20, 2012 at 10:25 PM EDT
Credit: Samsung

Samsung held the North American launch for the latest iteration of its flagship Galaxy phone in New York today. Sizzle came courtesy of white pleather furniture, lots of blue light, 100-degree heat outside, and basketball-star guests Bill Walton, Steve Nash, and Kevin Love inside — not to mention the speculative buzz about whether the new device will be an “iPhone killer.”

The Galaxy S3 will be available in the U.S. starting Thursday, but it had its worldwide unveiling in London back in May, so the tech-savvy crowd who came today wielding iPhones, various Android devices, and fancy cameras with interactive touchscreens (not a Blackberry in sight, however — sorry RIM!) was already familiar with the storyline: The S3 is a cool phone, probably the best Galaxy yet, but it’s up for debate whether it is awarded the Android crown over HTC’s One X phone.

Oh, and that “iPhone killer” moniker? It will likely remain out of reach for at least another generation. Certainly, the Galaxy boasts a ton of obvious advantages over the iPhone. For starters, though both are priced at about $199 for the 16 GB models, the Galaxy is available on five carriers: Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and US Cellular — a big differentiator from the three-carrier iPhone.

Then there’s the Galaxy’s beautiful 4.8-inch HD screen (iPhone’s is just 3.5). If you’re a specs geek, you know that the Samsung screen technically has less resolution than the iPhone 4S’s retina display. It looked every bit as bright and clear to this iPhone owner — I played with it for about an hour — and the Galaxy’s larger size makes easier on the eyes for watching a video or reading a longer article.

The Galaxy’s plastic casing may be a turnoff for some. The thin, streamlined device is noticeably lighter than an iPhone, but it also feels less durable. Samsung equipped it with the same Gorilla Glass front as on the iPhone, and it’s said to be just as sturdy (no one at today’s event was testing that theory, of course). But there’s no getting around a chintzy feel when you first pick it up.

As for the Galaxy’s unique features, one of the most intriguing was AllShare., which enables seamless sharing of video, photos, or music (without using your data plan). AllShare Play allows the user to stream media to a home theater system over WiFi, and the AllShare group sharing feature enables instant sharing of photos between up to six Galaxy phones.

The eight-megapixel camera was also impressive. Picture quality seemed about on par with most smart phones, but the S3 comes bundled with a bunch of fun photo (and video) editing software, as well as its rapid-fire Burst Shot feature, which enables up to 20 photos per second and claims to be capable of automatically picking the best of the spray-and-pray bunch based on lighting, focus, and other aspects (the feature seemed to work as advertised, based on today’s demo).

One thing I was disappointed to not see today was the Galaxy’s S Voice, Samsung’s answer to Siri. Most reviews have been fairly critical of the technology, saying it is unreliable and fails to consistently understand commands. The feature was completely absent from the presentation today, and I was told it’s because they can’t access the network S Voice needs from the venue where the presentation was held. Considering how highly touted the feature was when the device rolled out in London, this felt like a weak excuse. Perhaps future upgrades will improve S Voice, but for now the feature seems more like a beta version add-on.

The other disappointment was the built-in facial recognition technology, which is supposed to recognize faces in your photos, automatically label them, and assign them to your contacts for one-touch sharing. This feature was also absent from formal presentations, and when I asked for a demo at one of the stations, the software failed to recognize the subject of three almost-identical portraits. On the bright side, you can manually label faces in your photos and later go back and sort by name, similar to the way you can in iPhoto, but it’s a feature that’s not available on the iPhone.

Bottom line: The Galaxy S3 is a nice step forward for Samsung, providing a number of fun, useful features for media consumption and sharing. The light plastic frame may be a deal breaker for some, but the larger screen is awesome and makes the iPhone display feel cramped, even outdated. But with key features seeming not yet ready for prime time, and pricing being about the same as the iPhone, Samsung isn’t likely to unseat the king just yet.