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4/24/2013
09:06 AM
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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.

Samsung's new Galaxy S4 oozes so much innovation it almost trips over itself.

The good news is you can turn much of it off and you're still left with possibly the best smartphone on the market. The better news is that Samsung has attempted eye tracking and a gesture UI, among other cleverness, and given us all a glimpse of the future.

The trouble is, that future isn't quite now. It's more parlor trick than necessity, and sometimes more trouble than it's worth.

I've been testing the Galaxy S4 for almost a week. My favorite features were the phone's size and display quality, the air gestures (when they worked), S Translator, the additions to S Health, and Smart Scroll (when I figured it out). WatchOn, the universal TV remote app, holds promise, but I'm not ready to throw away my real remotes just yet; and the camera features were mere toys that quickly lost their luster after a little fooling around.

You'll find more detail on some existing key components of the Galaxy device software, like S-Beam, WiFi Direct, Share Shot and AllShare Play, in my earlier review of the Samsung Galaxy S3. Those features are also included in the Galaxy S4. I have not tested the HTC One for comparison, but include some details on it from a specification standpoint.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is available now at T-Mobile, and will become available over the next several days at various carriers (although Verizon still hasn't released details). AT&T is offering the 16-GB version for $199.99 while Sprint has it for $249.99 ($149.99 if you're switching from another carrier), and T-Mobile has it for $149.99 and 24 monthly payments of $20 each. (Sprint and AT&T require 2-year contracts.) The HTC One 32-GB version, for comparison sake, is $199.99 on AT&T and Sprint. These phones are also available at various retailers, like Best Buy. Sprint said unexpected inventory problems will slightly delay its full product launch. It expects to make the Galaxy S4 available in its website on Saturday, with retail stores and other channels receiving devices as inventory becomes available

The Hardware

There's been much hullabaloo over the cheapness of the Galaxy series of phones. The S4, like its predecessors, is made of polycarbonate. The comparable HTC One and iPhone 5 are aluminum, with clean surfaces. Many critics believe the metal and unibody-style designs feel more substantial. It comes down to personal preference, but the S4 felt substantial enough to me, even after carrying around an iPhone for the past two years.

Even for those queasy about plastic, the Galaxy S4 is remarkable. It is slightly lighter (130 grams) and thinner (7.9 mm) than the Galaxy S3 (133 grams and 8.6 mm), and while it retains the same physical dimensions (width and height), the screen size jumps to 5 inches (the S3 was 4.8 inches), and packs in the pixels at 441 ppi on its full HD Super AMOLED display (1080 x 1920). The S3 was 720 x 1280, and about 306 ppi.

The difference is noticeable and stunning. I've never felt as if my smartphone could serve as a place to read the news for an hour in the morning, but I did on the S4, eschewing my tablet for media consumption on most days, just for convenience. I'm not convinced these big smartphones will replace tablets, or even so-called phablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, but they do pretty well in a pinch.

Just for comparison purposes, the S4's screen size is bigger than the comparable HTC One (4.7 inches), but the HTC One packs a few more pixels (468 ppi) in a similar display (1080 x 1920). The HTC One is slightly heavier (143 grams) and a bit thicker (9.3 mm). The iPhone 5 has a 4-inch display, lower resolution (1136 x 640), and lower pixel density (326 ppi). The iPhone 5 is lighter (112 grams) and slightly slimmer (7.6 mm) than the Galaxy S4. Pick your weapon wisely.

The Galaxy S4 uses a Qualcomm quad-core processor running at 1.9 GHz, comes in 16-GB and 32-GB versions, and includes a microSD slot that can accommodate 64 GB of external memory. The HTC One also has a quad-core processor, clocked at 1.7 GHz, and comes in 32-GB and 64-GB versions.

The S4 starts to pull away from its competitors with its sensors. Like most modern smartphones, including the HTC One and the S3, the Galaxy S4 includes an accelerometer, gyro, proximity and compass sensors, but it also adds temperature, humidity and gesture sensors. More on those when we talk about Samsung's software features. (Samsung also includes a barometer sensor in its Galaxy phones.)

The Galaxy S4 includes a 2600 mAh battery vs 2100 mAh for the S3, giving the S4 about 23% more power capacity for all of the extra sensors and high-end display. I didn't do full battery testing, but it's safe to assume the S3 and S4 are comparable. Using the S4 constantly, with screen brightness set high, I was able to drain the battery fairly easily in a few hours, but this is by no means normal use.

The Galaxy S4 Comes in "black mist" and "white frost," or, as we say here on earth, black and white.

Software Magic

If today you can't seem to put your smartphone down because you're checking social networks, exchanging emails and texts, taking photos and Pinteresting and Instagramming and God knows what else, Samsung seems to want to make us even more pathetically hopeless at human social skills.

The Galaxy S4 has enough mind-blowing features to replace your best friend, by which I mean your TV remote of course. For those who can't even be bothered with fancy touch-based displays, the S4 has gesture controls. The health-obsessed will love the additions to Samsung's S Health, and world travelers will enjoy S Translator.

In other words, the Samsung Galaxy S4 demonstrates what the next always-on, personal digital assistant could become, even if this version of it still has too many rough edges. Let's dive a little deeper.

--> Remote Control/WatchOn

The S4 comes with an IR Blaster and Samsung's WatchOn app, which turns your phone into a universal remote for your TV and set-top box/DVR. It was simple to set up: It asked me for my TV manufacturer, my cable provider and the set-top/DVR box brand, and suddenly I was able to turn everything on and off, change channels, access an online TV guide and see offerings from Netflix and the Samsung Media Hub. I could even set reminders for shows. Sadly, the reminder for the next season of Arrested Development still hasn't popped up.

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