Samsung Makes the Galaxy Smarter with the S4 [Hands-on]


This is the year Samsung asserted that they were too cool for trade shows, opting instead to hold their own event, called Unpacked 2013, to reveal the Samsung Galaxy S4. That went down last night, with Samsung revealing their new smartphone with much pageantry. Did the gadget match the bombast?

Well, no. Not really. The Galaxy S4 is still a terrific phone, of course. The screen is probably the most significant improvement – a 5” 1080p Super AMOLED 1920 x 1080, with 441 ppi. Despite having a slightly larger screen, the S4 is roughly the same size as the S3, thanks to a smaller bezel. The S4 does manage to be lighter and thinner. The processor inside will depend on the region, but it sounds like it’ll either be a quad-core 1.9 GHz Qualcomm or a 1.6 GHz Exynos octa-core, backed up by 2 GB of RAM. It’ll run the latest version of Jelly Bean with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI on top. There will be 4G LTE, a 13 MP camera on the back, and a 2 MP camera in the front. There’s also an IR transmitter, so you can use the phone as a remote control. All of this will be powered by a 2,600 mAh battery. The back is still plastic, eschewing the move to anodized metal that most of Samsung’s competition has made.

All that’s great, but doesn’t bring anything especially new or exciting to the table. Instead, Samsung tried to do that with software tricks, and that’s a mixed bag with the S4. Dual Video Call will allow you to stream whatever your rear facing camera sees to the person on the other line during a video call, which is great. Dual Camera takes a picture with both front and rear facing cameras simultaneously, blending the two somehow. The idea is to put your face in the shot that you’re taking, but it doesn’t sound like the results are going to be all that pretty.

There are also some NFC tricks, which enable local multiplayer in certain games and synchronizing of songs, in case you want to get a volume boost by playing the same song from multiple phones, like at a party. I’m not sure what party isn’t going to have a set of speakers somewhere, but hey, having the feature is better than not having it.

S Translator is Samsung’s own translation app, which is also integrated to most other basic utility apps, like Mail and ChatON. Smart Pause pauses video when the phone senses that you have taken your eyes off the screen. Smart Scroll also tracks your eyes, allowing you to scroll up and down by tilting the phone up and down. Air View brings some S Pen functionality to nature’s stylus – the finger. Hovering your finger above the screen will bring up preview screens of whatever apps you’re about to bring up. Air Gesture brings in gesture control from Samsung’s Smart TVs. You’ll be able to scroll, control your music, and accept calls using gestures in mid-air, which seems kind of ridiculous, since you can just do all of those things on the screen with the same amount of effort. It doesn’t seem to make anything more convenient or faster, but it will almost certainly be less reliable than just interacting with your screen like normal. Hopefully, you’ll be able to just disable Air Gesture to avoid accidental gestures.

More useful is S Voice Drive, which will open up new voice commands for messaging, music, and other utility apps while you’re behind the wheel. S Health is a baked in health tracker, complete with pedometer to measure steps taken, distance traveled, and the like.

The S4 will come in 16, 32, and 64 GB models, and will have a Micro SD card slot that can expand storage by up to 64 GB.

The S4 looks almost exactly like the S3, and that’s perfect, because if you have a working S3, there is virtually no good reason to pony up for an S4. The new tricks Samsung is throwing on the S4 seem uneven – Air View, S Health, and S Translator should be useful, while Air Gesture and Dual Camera look to be gimmicks at best. The Galaxy S4 still looks like it’ll be a terrific phone – there’s nothing actively bad about it. Even the most dubious features are positives – taking them out wouldn’t make the phone any better. If they come in handy even once, you win.

What all of these features aren’t are selling points. The strongest selling point here is just that the S4 is this year’s new Galaxy S model. If you have any working smartphone and aren’t currently eligible for an upgrade, there’s little to nothing about the S4 that should make you feel like you need to buy it. If you are in the market for an upgrade and want a high-end smartphone, the S4 clearly should be on your list. That said, there’s not much here that sets it apart from the HTC One, Lumia 920, or iPhone 5, either.

Pricing and availability is unknown, but you can sign up with either T-Mobile or AT&T now to be notified of when the Galaxy S4 will be available.

Press Release