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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.

But here come the quirks and shortcomings: The channel guide didn't show premium channels, like HBO, and the DVR controls were suboptimal. I was lucky if I could play something on my stored TV show list (and I did get lucky once).

The WatchOn menus were very confusing -- at publication time, I still hadn't received a full explanation from Samsung -- and the full set of capabilities, which include the ability to switch content from TV to phone and back, require a Samsung SmartTV. (I will update this if I get a better explanation.)

--> Gesture UI

I anticipated the S4's gesture controls most of all, and while I find them impressive, I'm a little less enamored of them from a practical standpoint.

Air View borrows from the Galaxy Note phone/tablet hybrid, where users can hover with the S Pen to pull up things like the initial text of an email message; the Galaxy S4 uses the phone's new infrared proximity sensor to detect your finger hovering a couple of centimeters above the display. Handy, I suppose, for those who like to eat and read (the example a Samsung spokeswoman gave), but also just a handy way to scan deeper into email without actually opening them, I found. I'm not sure I can live without this, now.

Air View can magnify text within the browser, which I found more annoying than helpful. The feature also works with a special version of Flipboard, where you can hover and explode a few stories' headlines at a time.

The S4 provides simple (up and down, left and right) hand-waving gestures as well (here the gestures can be inches, not centimeters away), which was a fun way to move between pictures in the photo gallery, between tabs within the browser, or even to scroll through text on a Web page. The waving worked reasonably well in my testing, and I found it handy at times, but no easier than touch gestures. (And it earned me a few odd stares out in public, although that can tend to happen anyway.)

The gestures sometimes worked when I didn't expect them to -- sometimes I would inadvertently move my hand while reading and suddenly lose my place, or swipe to another tab.

And finally there's Smart Scroll and Smart Pause, which track head and eye location. Smart Scroll detects how you're reading a Web page, for example, and as your head tilts slightly as you reach the bottom, the page scrolls down. I could very easily control this and it was a very good way to read. Don't be concerned: you're not going to be committing violent head nods while reading; it's quite a bit more subtle than that.

Smart Pause stops a playing video when you turn your face away from the screen -- other smartphones have adopted this feature as well. Smart Stay leaves the screen on as long as you're looking at (avoiding the annoying need to re-enter your password when the display timer elapses). And Smart Rotation changes the orientation of the screen as you need it to.

All of these features work only with a very small handful of applications (browser, email, photo gallery), and all (except for Flipboard) native to the S4. I assume there will be an SDK for third parties, but a Samsung spokesman would only say the company is working to extend these capabilities to more native (first party) Samsung apps as well as to third-party developers.

Keeping all of these sensors on (most are off by default, and easily found and enabled) naturally will impact battery life. A Samsung spokesman was checking on details regarding just how much. (Again, I'll update here when I have more details.)

--> S Health

Samsung has updated S Health, which may not immediately replace apps like MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal or FitBit just yet, but it should put some healthy fear into all of them. Just by way of comparison, the new Food Tracker utility within this app looks up food and found many of the things I ate, even by brand name; I've always found MyFitnessPal exceedingly good at this, but now to have it integrated into an overall health-related set of utilities is more compelling.

S Health includes an Excercise Mate and Walking Mate, which track calories burned and steps taken (using a built in pedometer). Samsung is planning to add a line of accessories, starting with S Band, which will serve as a pedometer when you don't have the phone. (Um, why would you ever let that happen?) Finally, S Health also includes the ability to detect ambient temperature and humidity, using new phone sensors.

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