The Samsung Galaxy S III is the kind of device that reminds you that someone is still taking the "smart" part of the word smartphone seriously. Yes, this sequel to the hugely popular Galaxy S II steps things up in the specs department with a bigger and sharper 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display and a swift quad-core Samsung Exynos processor. But it's what you can do with all that power that have us excited about this device, which made its U.S. debut here at CTIA Wireless 2012.

Here's our hands-on impressions of the Galaxy S III. Keep in mind that the U.S. version of this phone will offer some important feature differences, although Samsung isn't yet ready to share those details.

Design and Display

With its smooth lines and rounded corners, the design of the Galaxy S III  is meant to evoke nature. The international version will come in Pebble Blue and Marble White. We prefer the blue because the finish is made to look like brushed metal. The white version looks attractive from the front but a little cheaper than the blue model on the back. Alas, versions pick up fingerprint smudges.

Despite the fact that the Galaxy S III packs a huge 4.8-inch screen, it doesn't feel that huge in the hand. The device measures less than .4 inches thick and weighs a very manageable 4.7 ounces.

Beneath the display sits a physical home button along with two capacitive buttons for back and menu. You launch the recent apps menu by pressing and holding the Home button; we prefer a dedicated Recent Apps button, but we got the hang of it pretty quick. Double pressing the home key activates the S Voice feature.

During our hands-on time the Super AMOLED HD screen (1280 x 720 pixels) delivered vibrant colors and wide viewing angles. We prefer the Super LCD 2 display on the HTC One X, which is brighter and crisper when held up close, but we don't think Galaxy S III owners are going to complain about this panel.

S Voice 

The Galaxy S III can respond to spoken commands with S Voice (powered by Vlingo). The app successfully looked up the weather in New Orleans and displayed the upcoming forecast when we asked this voice-powered assistant. We were also able to set up an appointment for the next day just by speaking it allowed. We noticed some lag in S Voice processing our requests, but the Wi-Fi connection wasn't super fast. 

Voice recognition hooks into other apps as well. For instance, you can wake up your device with the sound of your voice. The setup is a little involved because you have to say the same phrase four times to train the phone. We had some trouble getting this feature to work, but we are dealing with early software here.

Other voice options include saying “snooze” when your alarm goes off and saying "cheese" to take a picture. 

Smart Gestures

Say you want to fire up the camera from the lock screen. Yes, you can use a dedicated shortcut but there's a more more natural way to do it. Simply press and hold the screen and turn the phone on its side to open the camera app. This is just one of many gestures Samsung has integrated into the Galaxy S III to make the device easier to use. 

And here's a gesture we wish the iPhone 4S had. When you're texting someone and want to switch to a voice call, all you have to do is lift the handset to your head to enable the Direct call feature. 

Pop Up Play

Is it a feature just for showing off or does it have real value? It's a little bit of both. Pop up play lets you start playing a video and then press a button to have that clip follow you as you open other apps. It's like picture in picture on a phone instead of your TV. This feature could come in handy for when you want to continue watching a flick while you're texting someone. However, we'd like Pop up play even more if it worked with web videos and third-party apps like Netflix. For now, it's Samsung's video player only.

Easier Sharing 

Sharing content is a major theme of the Galaxy S III, which applies to multiple applications. The coolest feature we tried is Share Shot, a setting you can activate in the camera menu. Activating this feature lets you share photos you take with other Galaxy S III phones that are nearby via a peer-to-peer connection. You'll know it's working when you see a little wireless icon at the top of the screen. When you snap photos, they'll automatically be pushed to your friends' phone. It's a neat way to share pics at events like a birthday party or concert.

AllShare Cast lets you easily beam content between your phone and a DLNA-equipped TV with just a couple of taps, while S Beam combines NFC with Wi-Fi Direct to making sharing huge files between two Galaxy S III’s as simple as putting them back to back.

A Camera That Remembers Faces

The Galaxy S III's 8-MP camera starts up fast and fires off multiple continuous shots in burst mode. The low-light performance looks to be pretty stellar, though we noticed some blur while panning the phone while shooting. Like the HTC One X, the S III lets you pick one photo from a burst and discard the rest but goes a step further with its Best Photo feature. The phone automatically puts a thumbs up next to the image it thinks is best. We'll have to test this feature more to see just how smart this camera is.

What really stands for us is the facial tagging feature that's built in. When you look at photos in the gallery you'll see a yellow square that appears around the faces inside the frame. Once you identify that person with Buddy Photo Share, the phone will automatically recognize that person next time you snap a shot of them, giving you the option to share that pic just by tapping their mug.

Performance 

Samsung won't confirm that the version of the Galaxy S III coming to the U.S. will have its quad-core Exynos processor like the international version. But for now we can say for sure that the phone is fast. Swiping between menus was smooth, and there's little hints here and there that this is a very powerful phone. For instance, when you're in the video gallery you'll see that all of the clips are already playing in the background. If the S III comes to the U.S. with a Qualcomm S4 chip like the One X -- in order to better integrate LTE -- we won't be disappointed. But we like the idea of having quad-core power, especially for gaming.

Outlook

On the surface, the Galaxy S III doesn't look like Samsung has evolved its flagship that much. But once you start using the device, you discover a host of features that add up to the smartest phone the company has ever created and certainly the most intelligent Android handset yet. While some will always prefer a pure Android 4.0 experience like the Galaxy Nexus, little things like having a news ticker option on the lock screen make this device feel more dynamic than the competition.

From the gestures and sharing features to the improved voice recognition, the Galaxy S III has the makings of a huge hit. But we'll have to wait to get our hands on the U.S. version to definitively say just how well the device performs and how much Samsung has moved this category forward.