(CNET) – If you’re looking for Samsung’s new Galaxy S4 to define a novel new era of smartphone greatness, it’s time to temper your expectations.
The brand-new flagship smartphone, which runs the latest Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, improves hardware significantly and it piles on the features. Compared with the extremely successful Galaxy S3 that came before, it’s a firm stride forward rather than a giant a leap, but it raises the bar again for Samsung’s competitors. And by super-sizing the screen and packing in so much specialized software, the GS4 sets itself even farther apart from the iPhone.
The Galaxy S4 handset steadily draws from the same design language as the S3, but takes almost every spec to an extreme — the screen is larger (5 inches), the resolution greater (1080p), the battery capacity higher (2,600mAh), the processor faster (1.9GHz quad-core or 1.6GHz octa-core), and the rear-facing camera stuffed with more megapixels (13, to be exact). But, once you’ve gone through the features checklist (which also includes lots of internal and external storage space and RAM), it’s the software extras that Samsung continues to lean on to keep its phones one step ahead of the competition.
The problem is, based on my brief time with the Galaxy S4, very few of the extensive list of enhancements stood out as a killer, must-have, cannot-possibly-live-without feature. The TV control app that works with the IR blaster is perhaps one exception (the HTC One has this, too), as are a handy translation tool and eye-tracking and gesture capabilities that allow you to pause a video when you stop paying attention and let you hover your finger over an item to preview what it is. Many other software additions are semi-interesting ideas that some power users may enjoy once they’ve figured them out, but which will hardly convince a prospective buyer to pick the GS4 over, for instance, the HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, or iPhone 5.
After using the device at a briefing (along with several other journalists), I do think that Samsung has accomplished what it’s set out to do in pushing its Galaxy brand forward. Fans will find a familiar, appealing smartphone that’s packed with hardware and software features — albeit more than one person would ever use.
Editors’ note: This analysis is based on my first impressions after using the phone. I’ll continue to update this section as I get more time with the handset after the official launch event, and in the coming weeks and months.
Design and build
At first glance, the Samsung Galaxy S4 looks like a cookie-cutter copy of the GS3, but larger. It has the same rounded edges and narrow physical home button as its predecessor, but at 7.9mm deep (0.31 inch) and 130g (4.6 ounces), it’s also a little lighter and thinner. Part of the slim look and feel is a result of Samsung creating sharper, straighter lines with the phone than the GS3′s subtle curves (the Galaxy line is apparently inspired by nature no more).
Standing at 136.6mm tall by 68.9mm wide (5.4 inches by 2.7 inches), the Galaxy S4 fits right in between the GS3 and the Galaxy Note phones. It’s large, to be sure — very large — but since I’ve grown used to holding big handsets, it didn’t feel overwhelming in my hands. A more dimpled finish on the white version I held reminded me of the Galaxy S2, in contrast to the GS3′s silky brushed feel. The GS4 also comes in “Black Mist.”
While visually appealing, I’ve never seen a Samsung phone that wows me with its finely crafted build quality or materials. The GS4 doesn’t reach the same caliber as the beautiful, all-metal HTC One, nor is it as polished as the iPhone 5. To be fair, that isn’t Samsung’s goal; after all, Samsung has stuck by plastic for a few good reasons, including durability (it won’t smash like glass), manufacturing benefits, and price.
As the rumors and leaks foretold, the GS4 has a 5-inch HD Super AMOLED display with a 1,920×1,080-pixel screen resolution. While it isn’t exactly edge-to-edge, the smaller bezel makes the screen feel more expansive. At full brightness, the display’s 441ppi pixel density looked rich and crisp, but I’ll need to compare it with the BlackBerry Z10, iPhone 5, and others to really get a lock on just how sharp it is. Also, like you’d find in Nokia’s Lumia line, the GS4 uses a highly sensitive screen that lets you navigate with long fingernails or even gloves (a must for cold-weather climates.)
Above the display you’ll find the usual array of sensors and the 2-megapixel front-facing camera lens. There’s no front-facing flash on the GS4 as I would have liked, but that was mostly wishful thinking anyway. Below the screen, you’ll find the solitary physical home button, flanked by capacitive menu and back buttons. On the top of the phone is where you’ll find the IR blaster, which shoots out infrared light to control your TV directly from the handset.
What I really like about this blaster, other than the accompanying app, is that Samsung promises it works for all televisions, not just Samsung TVs. The app will let you control channels and volume, and also play on-demand content through a partner.
On the back, there’s the 13-megapixel camera, a jump up from the GS3′s 8-megapixel lens. Even though the number of megapixels isn’t everything, Samsung has had a good track record with images so far. The shooter has an LED flash and records 1080p HD video.
Beneath the back cover, you’ll find a microSD card slot that can store up to 64GB in external memory, to go along with the 64GB internal storage. There’s also a 2,600mAh battery.
OS and apps
The Galaxy S4 runs none other than Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, the most up-to-date version of Android you can get right now. Riding on top of it as usual is Samsung’s Touch Wiz overlay, a customized interface that I, for one, think is getting a little long in the tooth. Also, keep in mind that the next Android OS, Key Lime Pie, should appear when Google I/O opens on May 15. That’s not far away, so I hope that Samsung and the carriers fast-track the Galaxy S4 for an upgrade.
However, Samsung does use TouchWiz to add a bevy of software enhancements, like gestures, and a beefier notifications tray that offers a ton more toggling options to quickly turn settings on and off. In addition to your usual toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS, you’ll also see toggles for call-blocking mode and eye-tracking gestures.
To Samsung’s credit, several functional tools carry over from the Galaxy Note 2, including the multiview mode that lets you split the screen to interact with two apps, say the browser and notes.
Once again attempting to out-Google Google, Samsung introduces the S Translator tool, embedding it into e-mail, the ChatOn messenger app, and letting it stand as its own tool. Speaking of ChatOn, the Samsung-built chat app adds three-way video calling, screen-sharing, and video calls that make use of both cameras.
I also like the idea of another new collaborative feature, Group Play. As with some of the GS3′s photo-sharing features, this one rewards GS4 owners by letting them connect (via NFC or Bluetooth) to other Galaxy S4 devices to share music, photos, documents, and even engage in multiplayer games. For the music aspect, envision a whole room full of people playing the same song from their phones: instant surround sound!
As for Group Play games, Gun Bros 2 and Asphalt 7 have been specifically adapted for the GS4. Samsung will release an SDK for other game developers to jump on board with simultaneous, social game play. Good idea? Sure. But without knowing how practical it is to set up and use, the jury is still out.
Although I didn’t get a chance to try this next feature during my briefing, I like the idea of an integrated optical reader that can scan QR codes, turn business cards into text, and translate with S Translator. Nothing here is new to smartphones, and OCR (optical character recognition) doesn’t always work, but it’s good to see this sort of behavior brought to the surface.
Now, when Samsung spots a trend, it pounces. Thus the birth of S Health, a calorie-counter/pedometer in one that uses phone sensors like the accelerometer and barometer to track your steps, jogs, hops, jolts, snacks, and perspiration. Combined with one of its new Samsung-branded fitness wrist bands, Samsung is attempting to replace specialized third-party apps that do these functions already.
The problematic S Voice assistant and S Memo note apps are returning programs, along with settings that automatically adjust screen brightness based on the app you’re in. Samsung presents this as a benefit to you, making reading or viewing more comfortable. In the GS3, a dimmer browser window threw me off, and made me think that the screen brightness was severely limited. I assume that, as with the GS3, the GS4 will let you adjust your preferences in various settings menus. The GS4 does the same for audio.
Samsung also announced a new feature for the S4 called Galaxy S Voice Drive. Designed for in-car use, the voice command feature will let drivers use the handset’s built-in navigation system as well as make calls, send messages, and check the weather. I didn’t have the opportunity to test the feature in a Manhattan hotel conference room, but Samsung says that Voice Drive will start when you get into your car.
Conflicting rumors painted a scenario where you’d scroll the screen with your eyes using eye-tracking software within the GS4.
Turns out, that’s somewhat true. Smart Pause and Smart Scroll are two features that build off the Galaxy S3′s optional Smart Stay feature, which kept the screen from dimming when you looked at it. In the GS4, tilting the screen up or down while looking at it scrolls you up or down, say if you’re reading a CNET story, of course. As a daily commuter with one hand on the phone and one on a hand strap, this could be a more convenient way to catch up with news while on the train or bus.
I really like the idea of Smart Pause, which halts a video you’re watching when your eyes dart away, then resumes when you start paying attention again.
Both features worked better in theory than they did in practice, though I should mention that the GS4 I was looking at is (obviously) preproduction running prefinal software. Still, response time was a beat slower than I wanted, taking a little time to pause and resume the video, and scroll the screen. A minor delay makes sense. You wouldn’t want to start and stop again every time you’re distracted for a second. Instead, the software seems to track longer periods when you’re away, like if you stop what you’re doing to order a cup of coffee, talk to a friend, or climb a set of stairs.
Air View and gestures
While you can make googly eyes at the GS4, most gestures are still reserved for your fingertips. Hovering features known as Air View make their way from the stylus-centric Galaxy Note 2 andGalaxy Note 10.1 tablet to the Galaxy S4, but replace the stylus with your digit.
Hover your finger and you can preview a video clip or image from the photo gallery, glance at browser tab thumbnails, find your place on a video timeline, and check out an e-mail. You’ll also be able to magnify calendar events and get a closer look in speed dial. Flipboard has built a customized app to work with Air View, which lets you hover over a tile to see which articles lie beneath.
In addition to hovering with a fingertip, you can wave or wipe your whole hand in front of the screen (and camera sensor) to navigate around. For example, enable this gesture and you can agitate your palm to pick up the phone or switch songs in a playlist. Steadily sliding your hand back and forth can advance photos in a gallery, or browser tabs. You can also scroll up and down in a list.
The feature was a little jerky and jumpy when I tried it, but it did work. As with eye-tracking, you’ll have to wait a half-second to see results.
Cameras and video
If the promise of the GS4′s 13-megapixel images doesn’t wow you, Samsung is hoping that its refreshed interface and enhanced features will. Perhaps the most out-there is the dual-shot mode, which takes photos and video from both the front- and rear-facing cameras, and combines them into one.
The background shows the capture from your main camera, while the foreground — whatever you take from the front-facing camera — lays on top. You can choose to change the window size and shape on top, say a postcard stamp, an oval, or a simple window. You can also swap camera positions so that rear-facing gives you the inset and the front-facing image forms the background. As to why, the answer, like some of Samsung’s many features, is more correctly: why not?
Even more new modes include Sound & Shot, which takes a picture and captures up to 9 seconds of audio (sounds like HTC’s Zoe mode to me), and Drama Shot, which combines all the actions from a burst shot into a single frame. If someone is jumping, for instance, you see all stages of the leap in one shot (P.S. HTC has this, too in the One.)
Then there’s Cinema Photo, which lets you animate just one portion of a video and keep the rest static (it creates a GIF), and Eraser mode, which can erase an unwanted person from a shot. The Samsung team and I tried this out five or six times on the demo device I got to hold, but it didn’t work; chalk it up to a prerelease software bug.
You’ll also find Story Album, which gathers friends into a single photo album. Integration with Trip Advisor lets you add more location-based detail, and you can print any album through self-publishing platform Blurb.
While the Galaxy S4 will look the same everywhere in the world, it won’t necessarily have the same motor under the hood. Your future GS4 handset will either thrum from a 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon Fusion Pro processor, or from a 1.6GHz eight-core chipset,Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa silicon.
We’ll need to set the two bad boys side by side in the lab to see real-time performance differences, but in the meantime, the Octa-curious can get a load of CNET editor Eric Franklin’sOcta 5 benchmarks from Mobile World Congress.
Data speed freaks can rest assured that the Galaxy S4 will support LTE in expected markets (these haven’t yet been announced), and LTE roaming will be possible for some geographies (very nice).
As for battery life, the phone has a large, 2,600mAh ticker, but also a larger screen and even more features to compromise performance. Smart Stay and S Voice both drain the battery more quickly, which just means that, as always, potential buyers should adjust their expectations. The more video and games you play, the shorter your life per battery charge. (Read more on battery life here.)
In terms of storage and memory, the Galaxy S4 has 2GB RAM, 64GB internal storage, and another 64GB available through the microSD car slot. In today’s market, you can’t get more than that.
Pricing and availability
If this phone sounds like something you want to get your hands on, you won’t have to wait too long. Samsung plans to stagger releases worldwide in April and May. In the U.S., Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Cricket Wireless will all get the Galaxy S4 (along with Sprint MVNO Ting). Samsung hasn’t yet shared plans for other countries.
Samsung also hasn’t shared pricing yet, since it differs by region and by carrier, but you can expect comparable pricing structures to what you saw in your area for the GS3.
While the Galaxy S4 hits expectations square on the head, there are still a few small areas that competitors can crow about. As I mentioned, premium build materials are one. After my briefing, it also isn’t exactly clear where the Galaxy S4 comes down on wireless charging. When asked, a Samsung representative said that the presence of wireless charging “depends on market requirements,” which I read as a soft “yes.” This strikes me as a strange feature to skip mentioning, especially since we know that you can rig a Galaxy S3 to wirelessly charge.
How it compares with the competition
The Galaxy S4 is a high-end, fully featured smartphone that’s meant for almost everyone. Samsung has made sure to include every salient hardware spec and enough new and interesting software features to hold your attention, if not constant use.
Although the handset’s hardware isn’t exceptionally beautiful and software isn’t particularly inspiring, it has every essential feature and then some. Right now, the best way I can describe it is as the Gap clothing of smartphones. While you may not use or even like every item on display, it’s long on basics, represents a certain high standard, and you’ll be able to get it anywhere.
Stay tuned for many more details, impressions, photos, and videos in the upcoming hours, weeks, and months.