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Hands-On: Samsung Galaxy S 4

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Mar 14, 2013, 6:30 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Samsung's new Galaxy smartphone makes minor improvements to the hardware but massive innovations with the software. There's no doubt it will be another winner for Samsung.

The Samsung Galaxy S 4 may not look all that different from the S 3, but Samsung has taken extraordinary measures to improve the software and applications. The S 4 is an evolutionary step in terms of the hardware and software, but it's a big evolutionary step.

 

Body

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Hardware

The S 4 has almost an identical footprint to the S 3, but brings with it some welcome changes. Notably, it is slightly narrower (side-to-side) and slightly thinner (front-to-back), but still manages to include a larger display. The S 4 weighs less than the S 3, and has a somewhat squarer shape. The smaller footprint and reduced weight make the S 4 a much more comfortable device to hold and use.

 

S 4 Versus

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The materials are only slightly improved over the S 3. The S 4 is made of plastic, like all Galaxy S devices to date. There is a polycarbonate band that encircles the outside of the S 4. It looks convincingly like brushed metal, but Samsung assured us it is, in fact, fancy plastic. You can sort of tell by the feel of it. The back cover of the S 4 is a thin plastic cover, but fits snugly and doesn't feel quite as flimsy as that of previous Galaxy S generations. The front, of course, is a solid piece of glass covering the display. It's Gorilla Glass 3.

Speaking of the display, it is flat-out fantastic. The screen measures 5 inches across the diagonal and includes 1920 x 1080 pixels, giving it a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch. It uses the same Super AMOLED technology that Samsung has used for years, and looked bright, sharp, and vibrant. Viewing angles were good, though the display was somewhat dimmer when viewed from the side.

The device has the normal physical attributes found on most phones. The volume toggle is on the left edge. It has a metallic feel to it and is somewhat sharp along the edges. This makes it easy to find and use. Travel and feedback were quite good. The same can be said of the lock button, which is on the opposite side of the device, though it is a bit smaller. The S 4 features a headphone jack on top, as well as an IR blaster for controlling TVs and other home theater gear. The microUSB port is on the bottom edge. The home button on the front is a physical button, which is always nice. It's flanked by two capacitive buttons; Menu on the left, Back on the right. Both worked well and offered haptic feedback. They're really only visible when illuminated, though, and they tend to go dark quickly, even when the device is awake.

Under the battery cover you'll see the removable 2,600mAh battery. The microSD card slot can be accessed without pulling the battery (thank goodness.)

Though I would have loved to see Samsung really step up the materials and perhaps move to a metal design, the S 4 is by far the highest-quality S device from Samsung. It feels good to use, has a great screen, and is (nearly) light as a feather.

Basic UI

The home screen treatment from Samsung is another evolutionary step in the TouchWiz design. The home screen panels and app drawer look almost identical in terms of icons, fonts, and overall layout and feel. One of the coolest features is a new drop-down tool in the notification shade that shows all the S 4's software on/off toggles in one spot (think Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC, Bluetooth, etc.) The multitasking screen now lets users jump to the app settings tool, start Google Now, as well as close all the running applications at once.

 

Menus

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The home screen widgets are the same as they ever were, and can be added and pulled at will, as well as resized. The number of included widgets from Samsung is generous, so say the least.

Camera

The camera application is one place to which Samsung paid particular attention. It's loaded with new features that will be sure to delight some users.

 

Camera

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

For example, Dual Shot and Dual Record. Both features are similar in that they use both the main and user-facing cameras to shoot images or video at the same time. Dual Shot lets you see a picture-in-picture view with the user-facing camera showing up in a thumbnail laid over top the main camera image. You can set different frames around the thumbnail, swap it with the main camera, and do all sorts of creative stuff. Dual Record works pretty much the same way. The software controls for accessing Dual Shot and Dual Record are pretty straightforward and easy to use.

The camera has a slightly easier-to-use interface for controlling scenes/modes. It has a carousel that shows up so you can get a better idea of what mode/scene you're selecting.

Other camera features include Sound & Shot, Drama Shot, Cinema Photo, and Story album. Sound & Shot lets you attach up to 9 seconds of audio to a still image. Drama Shot is used to merge a burst of images into a single image. Cinema Photo is like Nokia's Cinemagraph, and allows you to create GIFs on the device (and can also be used to delete background photo-bombers if you wish). Last, Story Album is an on-device photo album creation tool that not only allows you to make the albums, but also to order prints or publish online.

Messaging

Samsung made some key improvements to the messaging apps. First and foremost, they all have a translator built in. The translator can read (via the camera) 10 different languages to start, as well as translate incoming messages or emails on the fly. The translator is embedded into email, ChatOn, SMS, and other apps.

 

keyboard

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ChatOn has been improved with a number of cool features, including 3-way video calls and screen sharing. Samsung said this were added due to customer demand.

Email and SMS both work with another new feature called Air View. Air View originally debuted on the Galaxy Note and Note II. On that device, it allowed users to see content by hovering the stylus over certain things. On the Galaxy S 4, this now works with your finger (see video demo). For example, when in the SMS app, you can hover your finger about 1 cm above the display, and a preview of each SMS will pop up on the screen as you pass over that message. It's meant to help save time. Air View does the same thing in the email inbox, as well as with links in the browser.

Air (and other) Gestures

Separate from Air View is something called Air Gesture. Air Gesture works with several apps, including the phone, browser, photo viewer, and media player.

 

Air Hover

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When using the browser, for example, waving your hand over the display will switch to the next open tab in the display. When viewing photos, waving your hand over the display will advance to the next photo in the album. When listening to music, it will advance to the next track. In practice, it didn't work all that well, though Samsung did warn us that we were using pre-production hardware and software.

As for the phone, Samsung said that when in a car, waving your hand over the display when there's an incoming call can answer the call and send it to the speakerphone. We didn't get to test that particular feature.

The GS4 also has what Samsung calls Smart Pause and Smart Scroll. Smart Pause will stop a video if the phone senses that you've looked away from from the screen. It will resume play when it sees that your eyes have returned to the screen. Smart Scroll can be used to pan through photos or web sites by tilting the device. These features were buggy when we checked them out on the sample units in hand.

Media / TV

The GS4 has an all-new version of the Samsung Media Hub. It's Samsung's content store that dupes what Google offers with the Play Store. The widget for the hub is enormous, but lets you control and/or access music, movies, books, and games from one spot.

Perhaps the coolest media feature on the GS4 is an IR Blaster. Using Samsung's remote TV app, the IR blaster can be used to control your TV guide, control the TV, and discover on-demand content. It uses the same software that will be on the upcoming Galaxy Note 8 tablet. It's pretty cool stuff that I am happy to see Samsung port to its smaller phone. The demo of the content discovery app looked great, but we didn't get to test the TV remote control.

S Health

Believe it or not, Samsung wants you to be healthy. It made a big deal about some new health and fitness-related apps and services that are baked into the GS4.

 

S Health

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

For example, the GS4 has a pedometer. It will measure the steps you've taken each day and can be used to set or monitor fitness goals. The S Health software also includes a dietary app to help manage caloric intake and other food-stuffs. It can be used to set and maintain a diet and tie it all back to the pedometer, and accessories that will be sold separately.

Some of those accessories include a heart-rate monitor, a scale, and a wristband. These all work via Bluetooth with the GS4 to send/receive health-related data that can be managed with the S Health app.

Wrap-Up

In all, the Galaxy S 4 is an impressive device; if not for the hardware then for the new applications and services. I like the hardware, there's no doubt it is the best Galaxy device yet, but it still doesn't meet some of the standards set by Apple and HTC with their metallic hardware.

The software goes completely over the top. I can imagine the vast majority of GS4 owners will never scratch the surface of the apps, services, and features found in the GS4. Samsung did some really neat stuff, no doubt, and much of it is innovative and appealing. If the final software for features such as Air Gesture, and the Dual Shot/Recording works flawlessly, I see a lot of people waving their hands over their devices in the future.

For fans of Samsung devices, the GS4 is a no-brainer. For fans of Android devices, the GS4 sets a new bar in terms of capabilities. For users of competing platforms, the GS4 is the type of device that could make you think twice about your next purchase.

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Subject Author Date
Voice Command Activation bootsboy Mar 15, 2013, 12:10 PM
Woohoo! tjobrien21 Mar 15, 2013, 1:06 PM
  • Re: Woohoo! by skywalkershawty   Mar 17, 2013, 11:08 AM
CDMA/GSM Blackmitch1 Mar 14, 2013, 9:15 PM
METRO??? smg1062 Mar 15, 2013, 7:15 AM
 
 
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