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4/24/2013
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Samsung Galaxy S4 Oozes Innovation

Samsung Galaxy S4 may be today's best smartphone, with solid hardware and software tricks such as eye tracking and a gesture UI.

I'll test S Health in more depth when accessories are ready.

--> Grab Bag

I tested a variety of other key features worth noting. First the OCR Reader application. This lets you scan and convert paper documents, scan QR codes, or even detect and process business cards (yes, people still have those) into your contact database. It will even translate languages, say from a menu, a book or your mom's new Kanji face tattoo.

I tested a few business cards with the OCR reader app, and while it was a good way to start putting business card information into the contact database, it still requires some cleanup work. It didn't distinguish mobile numbers from office numbers, spelled names wrong (like mine), and made a variety of other errors. The ability to transform business cards into your Google, Exchange or on-device contacts database is extremely promising.

S Translator is also promising. It lets you translate spoken (or written) words between several mainstream languages. I did some very limited testing, due to my very limited foreign language skills.

Finally, the Galaxy S4 is the first Samsung device to get the company's Knox capability. Introduced in February, Knox is Samsung's newest mobile security and device management technology. Knox, like Samsung's SAFE, goes beyond the standard (or sub-standard, as it were) Android management APIs. Essentially Samsung has created its own security and management layer on top of Android.

One of Knox's key tenets is the ability to allow end users to have both a personal and work profile, keeping apps and data segregated depending on defined policies and roles, protecting the consumer from draconian business measures, and the corporation from negligent personal endeavors. While Knox is technically available, Samsung was unable to set up a test service, or allow me to run this on my own (our company is in the process of rolling out an MDM solution that supports Knox). We'll try to provide a look at this when it is available.

Camera Tricks

As smartphone cameras have moved to replace run-of-the-mill handheld consumer cameras, companies like Samsung have been busy making the best of the little physical real estate they have, and the S4 is no different. Samsung's rear-facing (main) camera is a whopping 13 megapixels; its 2-MP front-facing camera is also very good. Like smartphone cameras from other manufacturers, the S4 cameras can take both still and video images, and can do both simultaneously -- that is, you can take still images while you're shooting video.

But the Galaxy S4 can go much further. You're forgiven if some of these features make you marvel and scratch your head at the same time. I found way too many answers looking for a problem.

Take, for instance, the ability to shoot a picture with both the front and rear cameras at once. You can superimpose the front-facing camera image on top of the other, change its size, move it around, put it into a few different frame formats (heart shaped, postage stamp, or none at all). Samsung representatives talked about the fun you could have putting one person's face on someone else's body, and I did have some initial fun playing around with it, but in the end it just seemed silly.

There's the Drama Shot feature, which lets you capture a series of motion images and put them all together in a single shot. Or the Animation capability, which lets you carve out one portion of a photo as a still, and animate a different part -- again, to what end I have no idea. The output is an animated GIF that can be viewed without a Samsung device. I'll try to post a few on my Facebook page in the next few days.

One useful feature was the camera's Eraser mode: if someone walks into your shot (if done on purpose, it's apparently called Photo Bombing), it detects and automatically removes them.

There's a panaroma mode, best shot mode (it picks, or lets you pick from the best in a series of snapshots it automatically takes) and so on.

Many other phones have some of these features as well. It seems pixel quality is no longer the only end game, and smartphone manufacturers are tossing out lots of ideas to see what sticks.

Indeed, there are many similar aspects to the Samsung Galaxy S4 overall. In some ways, Samsung may have tried to skate to where the proverbial puck was going, only to find it may have arrived there a bit ahead of schedule.

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