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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.

Fritz Nelson

April 24, 2013

13 Min Read

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. 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. 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.

About the Author(s)

Fritz Nelson

Vice President, Editorial Director InformationWeek Business Technology Network

Fritz Nelson is a former senior VP and editorial director of the InformationWeek Business Technology Network.

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