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Samsung Galaxy S 4 hands-on shows nice hardware but software is the star

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After months of leaks, rumors and general gossip, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is finally here. On Thursday night, Samsung unveiled its new flagship phone and I was able to spend a short amount of time using a pre-production model. While some may find the hardware improvements to be incremental, it’s difficult to argue that Samsung’s software is the star of the smartphone. In the 15 or so minutes that I used the handset, it became clear to me that nobody — not even Google(s goog), to a degree — is pushing Android software ahead.

Obviously, I’ll have a full review of the phone after getting a loaner device and putting it through paces. So consider this to be my first impressions.

The hardware: better but not a design departure

At 130 grams, the Galaxy S 4 is barely lighter than its predecessor. And yes, it’s mostly plastic and looks similar to the Galaxy S 3  and Galaxy Note 2. But at 7.9 millimeters thick, it is thinner and a little more polished than the prior model: If you don’t mind the Galaxy S 3 design and build, you’ll be happy with the look and feel this handset.

There are also some solid component upgrades: A next-generation, 1.9 GHz quad-core processor with integrated LTE modem (for the U.S. market), a 5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display with 441 ppi density and Gorilla Glass 3, 2600 mAh battery, 2 GB of memory, 13 megapixel rear camera and 2 megapixel front facing camera. All flavors of Wi-Fi — including the new 802.11 a/c standard — are supported as is Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS/GLONASS, HSPA+42 and LTE. The Galaxy S 4 also has an IR blaster in it, so you can use it to control any television set that uses an infrared remote.

With this hardware the device seemed peppy and responsive, even though it doesn’t yet have the final software version installed. The phone easily handled a burst of 20 camera shots without breaking a sweat. And the display is outstanding from every angle; colors aren’t over-saturated as they were on some Samsung phone displays over the past few years.

If you’re on the fence with hardware, the software may win you over

Samsung has packed so many new features in the phone that I have five handwritten pages of notes covering them all. I say that in a good way, because first and foremost, the Galaxy S 4 software is build on Android 4.2.2. Yes, this phone is actually introduced with the most current version of Android. That alone is nice, but then you have TouchWiz, Samsung’s software interface.

TouchWiz itself is really no different than before. Instead, Samsung has baked in more features to the phone through TouchWiz. There’s a new Settings option in the notification shade to enable or disable all of the features. So what are they? Here’s a run-down, brief description and thoughts on just some of the major ones:

  • AirView. You can hover with your finger over the display — about 1 to 1.5 centimeters in my quick tests — to interact with the phone. This works for video previews, calendar event or email information and a custom version of Flipboard: Hover a finger over the Technology tile, for example, and the tile expands to show the first three story titles.
  • AirBrowse. Another gesture function that I think will get more use than AirView. Waving your hand over the phone flips through gallery images, songs or browser tabs. You can also answer your phone with this gesture and the call will immediately initiate speakerphone mode. In the browser, waving up or down over the phone actually scrolls the web page; handy for reading while eating lunch! I’d love to see this feature in the Kindle app, but Samsung told me that Amazon would have to include it.
  • Smart Pause. This uses facial recognition, not quite eye-tracking, to tell when you’re looking at the display. If you’re watching a video and turn your head away from the screen, the content will pause.
  • Dual Camera. This feature uses both camera sensors at the same time and provides 8 ways to combine the images. It seems a little gimmicky, but I could see a few interesting use cases, such as interviews, gadget reviews or presentations.
  • Drama Shot. An interesting use of burst mode that combines multiple images into one. This is good for action shots: One example I saw was someone diving off a cliff. Using Drama Shot, you can see the diver at multiple points of the dive in a single image.
  • Eraser. Another camera mode and one I think can be really handy; especially if you live among photobombers. This mode takes multiple images in burst mode and detects any movement in the frame. The assumption is that you didn’t want that object or person in the image; think of someone walking in between you and a landmark. The Galaxy S 4 in Eraser mode lets you easily remove the unwanted bits from the picture and restores the background from the other images. Clever.
  • S-Health. Samsung is getting into the health tracking business with custom software and accessories. The app works with an integrated pedometer, optional heart rate monitor or pedometer band. Your activity data is then synced up to Samsung for storage and analysis.
  • S-Translator. Samsung has integrated a translation app in many of its own native software, helping to translate communications to one of 10 languages at launch. Email and ChatOn are two apps that support S-Translator.
  • Text reader. This app will scan a picture of text and then convert it through Optical Character Recognition. If it detects contact information, it can even smartly auto-populate a contact record; great for scanning business cards instead of manually entering the data. It also works with QR codes.

There’s plenty more tucked inside the Galaxy S 4 but again, in my limited time, these were what I felt were the most interesting use cases and experiences. Other than a revamped design, I’m not sure what people could have expected Samsung to do from a hardware perspective. Even with technology cycling faster all the time, the components in the Galaxy S 4 are surely enough to carry the device out for a year or so. And most new flagship phones use the same, or nearly the same components.

That’s why I think Samsung’s software improvements and features will help the Galaxy S 4 appeal to a widespread audience when it becomes available. We’ll see in the second quarter when all four major U.S. carriers, along with Cricket and US Cellular start sales.

17 Responses to “Samsung Galaxy S 4 hands-on shows nice hardware but software is the star”

  1. James M

    Do we know if they finally put in a voice recognition in a real calendar that we can have alarms go off months ahead? Maybe there’s a 3rd party one now, if so I’m unaware of it. Do we know about when we can expect the software upgrade to my Jelly Bean OS??

  2. Frank A NYC

    Samsung’s approach is to pack as many “features” as possible into their phones. It’s obviously worked for them seems as if they are putting every ingredient in the cupboard into the phone. What does that do to the time between android updates? I think we will prbably see Key lime pie on the S$ a year or more after it comes out. This may not matter to some folks, but it is why I only buy nexus devices.

  3. You guys are funny. Here’s how I see it. Samsung was never good at innovation, so when we force them to innovate, “nice-to-have” features like they have on GS4 (rather than must-have features) are the best they can do. Cant blame them, there is no one to follow. Apple on the other hand, cannot innovate fast enough to maintain the distance from Samsung, so it does not have any must-have or nice-to-have features to offer that can make significant dent post Siri. As a result, you have 2 competing neck to neck without a lot of innovation to wow us.

  4. Way to keep it balanced Kevin. Not a SINGLE downside to the product right? If software is considered a “star” because you can attach audio to a picture then you must be living in 1999. Is this like the “revolutionary” stylus from Samsung?

    Even if you choose to review products with Google blinders on, at least have the honesty to say that this phone is downright sad compared to HTC One.

  5. The Gnome

    Most of these software features are already done via apps on other phones. Same for accessories. Do they have to mask ho hum hardware upgrades with a bunch of junk? Sorry but the other Android makers just found the door wide open to take top spot…

  6. Michael Will

    Impressive, especially if the display fixes the terrible oversaturated false color look of the S3, that is why I decided for an iphone5 instead of the S3 (apart from miserable android experiences for my last two htc android phones in regards to battery life/charge times and stability). I’d love to play with the S4 and see for myself :)

  7. In Galaxy S 4, you can really see the impact of Apple pulling all its production from Sammy. Innovation. Ha. Lets see now poor sammy can innovate on it own.

    • Ok, lets see, LTE, Wi-Fi on ac standard, internationally an octa-core processor, temperature & humidity sensors, better screen, bigger screen, sharing between up to 8 devices, hover, tilt, eye scrolling, health stuff, expandable memory. Just to name a few things that is innovative on the S4. Apple’s innovation thus far …. a cheaper phone, but definetely not a bigger screen. Yeah, pulling their production from Samsung really did hurt Samsung’s ability to innovate!

      It used to be fun to tease the iPhone owners bout their premium product without features, now actualy I’m starting to feel sorry for them. Enjoy your new “innovative” iPhone when it eventually comes out :)

    • Don’t mind him…… he’s obviously a demented and jealous Apple fan. Reality of the Samsung cutting off Apple’s parts supplies will be known after this next two quarters. Where Apple will first feel the sting of Samsung taking away their 20% parts volume discounts to the tune of almost $2 Billion in Extra Profits going into SAMSUNG’s pockets!

      Top that off with this little known information about the SAMSUNG Apple dying partnership. SAMSUNG making the only parts in Apple’s devices to be made in America will eventually deprive Apple of SAMSUNG’s FTZ (Foreign Trade Zone) TAX and DUTY FREE Benefits. Benefits that TSMC can’t offer Apple! ;-p

      Then we’ll be seeing Apple’s profit margins decline even more (come down to 30% like other phone makers). After they can no longer claim any parts in their devices are made in America…. along with this simple fact;

      Samsung themselves will still be getting those TAX and DUTY FREE benefits here in America and…. since they have already been spending record amounts on CAPEX (factory and Fabrication Plant Expansion and Upgrades)…. they’ll be the next phone manufacturer to break 40% Profit Margins! lol…. meaning they’ll be changing places in the food chain with Apple and then it’ll be SAMSUNG’s share prices that will take off like a Rocket to another GALAXY!!!