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Samsung Galaxy S4: ‘Like the S3, only more so’

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Updated: March 15, 2013 8:14PM

It’s not wrong to refer to the Samsung Galaxy S4 — the sequel to the world’s first certified Cool Android Phone — as the “Galaxy S3 S.” It sure seems like an Apple-style odd-numbered-year update: “it’s the same phone as last year, except we upgraded the components.”

Like the iPhone 4S, the S4’s styling is practically identical to its predecessor’s. The screen is a hair larger (4.99” instead of 4.8”) and it’s negligibly thinner and lighter. From the front, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the two. The back is a textured polycarbonate that I’ve seen on previous Samsung Galaxy phones. It sure doesn’t scream out “Hey, look, everybody! It’s that hot new phone everybody’s talking about!”

Nobody ought to care whether or not a flagship phone gets a style makeover. We’re all hoping for “same price, better performance” at the very least, and transformative new features at best.

But it’s hard for me to offer a substantive reaction to the Galaxy S4. I’m waffling because of Samsung’s profoundly weird announcement last night, held at Radio City Music Hall.

I can’t really call it a press event. The hourlong presentation didn’t appear to be designed for an audience of savvy tech journalists who are critical thinkers by nature, and who came to New York to understand the thinking behind the product and the engineering behind the hardware. What unfolded last night was really more like a live infomercial, with a full orchestra, and dancing, and a series of set pieces played out by actors. Radio City Music Hall has a published seating capacity of roughly 6000 and the space seemed to be about a third to a quarter-full. In retrospect, it seems like a focused, technical presentation was never going to be in the cards.

So I feel as though I can’t do much more than relate what I saw. I don’t think I’ll really understand much about the S4 beyond “like the S3, only more so” until I get one in my hands for review. It ships to consumers next month.

Two numbers truly stood out: 441 ppi and 13 megapixels.

The S4’s 1920x1280 441 ppi screen is a killer on numbers alone. It’s a huge bump from the S3 (306) and the iPhone 5 (326). The super-density makes one hell of a strong impression. During my time in the demo area afterward, it became clear that there was just no point in even looking for pixels. S3 and the iPhone 5 so crisp that they operate at about the upper limits of what 20/20 vision can perceive. The increased density of the S4 becomes an advantage during those situations when no sensible designer would expect you to read what you’re seeing, like when you’re looking at a webpage that was designed for desktops. I’m keen to see how good a full HD movie looks on the S4.

I’m also keen to see how much of a hit this super-high-density display inflicts on the battery. The S4’s capacity has been bumped 25 percent, to 2600 mAh.

Regarding the 13 megapixel rear camera...I’m more concerned than keen. 13 is a higher number than the 8 megapixels that most flagship phones deliver. But Nokia and HTC have impressed me with their willingness to abandon the largely-meaningless “the phone camera with the most megapixels” battle, and chase after the title of “the phone that takes the best pictures” instead. The Nokia Lumia 920 has an f2.0 lens that utterly humiliates all other phones in low light situations.

Phones have crumb-sized image sensor that has to sit just a few millimeters from the surface of the lens. More megapixels usually invokes a battle between physics and marketing. The EXIF data of the S4’s photos might say “13 megapixels” but the human eye might say “Yuck.” I shall test this feature carefully.

The front-facing camera is a spunky 2 megapixels, which is a nice recognition of the number of times people want to take a photo of themselves with friends. If you have no friends, you still might want to take a vacation photo of yourself in front of The World’s Largest Marshall Amplifier. Either way, you’ll have enough detail for a nice print.

The S4’s camera app also allows you to use both the front and the rear cameras simultaneously. Go ahead and parse that sentence again. Yes: you can take a picture of yourself as you take pictures of something else. But, well, why not? I can see the upside when you’re in a video chat with someone; the person you’re chatting with can see your newly-remodeled kitchen, as well as your face as you explain why in God’s name you thought you needed a $5,000 refrigerator.

Samsung did an onstage demo in which Dad took a photo of Mom and Kid hugging. Dad’s face was superimposed into the photo, inside a little box isolated from the rest of the family. It reminded me of one of those sad little scenes from a movie directed by Alexander Payne, which leaves the middle-aged men in the audience with a determination to try to be more emotionally available to their loved ones.

I spotted some interesting sensors in the S4’s specs. In addition to the usual gang, there’s temperature, humidity, and ambient air pressure sensors. Most devices track their internal temps so that they can, you know, shut themselves down before they go all Human Torch in your hands. When I see “temperature, air pressure, and humidity sensors” on a spec sheet, though, I can’t help but think “electronic weather station.” Which would be a pretty cool app.

Samsung had nothing to say about that. But the company proudly showed the features of the G4’s proximity and gesture sensor. It lets your finger and hand interact with the screen without actually touching it. You can hover over an image thumbnail to reveal a magnified view, or over a user interface element to reveal a tooltip. You can turn pages and scroll just by waving your hand.

Good stuff, particularly the “wave to scroll” feature. It’ll come in handy during the winter, when you’re wearing gloves and waiting for a bus outside. Speaking of that: Samsung claims that the G4’s touchscreen works even when you’re wearing gloves. But this tidbit was revealed by an actress in thin opera gloves. She moved on to the next page in the script before she could address the question “I’m a 40-year-old male and I almost never cosplay as the Scarlet Witch. Will the S4 work through gloves that are thicker and warmer?”

There’s also an an infrared LED...aka “what you would need if you wanted to use the S4 as a remote control for your TV and other devices.” Interesting. As are a promised series of health and fitness-related accessories that allow the S4 (and, presumably, other Samsung phones) to track everything from heartrate and blood pressure to blood sugar.

Early on, the presentation strongly stressed the international features of the S4. It supports most every international LTE protocol. Samsung (through yet another bit of stage drama) also showed off a spiffy translation feature. Say it in one language, and the S4 will perform speech-to-text and translate it to a second language. 9 European and Asian languages are currently supported. The translator also works on printed material (just aim the camera at a subway sign in Beijing to see what it says) and the feature is integrated system-wide; it can also translate your text messages, for instance.

I’ll abort the play-by-play S4 feature dump. Suffice to say that the phone ships with a bunch of interesting ideas in software. All more: the video player has a “Smart Pause” feature that can automatically pause the movie when you look away from the screen. It’s a neat concept, but is it maybe just a gimmick that you’ll show your friends during your first two weeks with the device, and then never use again?

“Keep throwing features out there and see what sticks” is a signature of Samsung design. Like Apple’s “We don’t care if all of the other kids on the block are doing it; you’ll get cut-copy-and-paste when we’re ready to give it to you, and not before!” philosophy, that’s neither a bad thing nor a good one. Apple’s approach gives the iPhone clarity and polish; Samsung’s gives the world the Galaxy Note, long before anybody had any idea that a huge phone was actually a great idea.

On the surface, it seems odd that Samsung wouldn’t even mention the Galaxy S4’s CPU at all — not even a token “X% faster than the S3 and it’s a screamer for gaming” — and would instead spend nearly the whole hour showing off built-in features that seem like little more than Cool Third-Party Apps. But the intent is clear after a little thought: Samsung doesn’t want the world to think of the S4 as an Android device. “Android” is a Google product, available on any number of handsets.

Instead, Samsung wants the world to think of the S4 as a Galaxy device, with software and features and even tweaks to the user interface that can’t be obtained anywhere else. Not even from Google. “Remember that guy I saw on commuter rail the other morning who was flipping pages just by tilting his phone? What kind of phone was that? A Samsung? Gonna get me one-a-them maybe.”

The Galaxy S4 will ship with the latest stable release of Android (4.2.2) preloaded. How do I know? I got it off the spec sheet. The word “Android” came up exactly once during the whole presentation, during a passing comment about enterprise security.

Should Google really care? I don’t suppose so. If Samsung and HTC are selling tens of millions of phones that get users to buy apps and music and video on the Google Play store, and to continue to use Google Maps (thus enhancing the value of its traffic, route, and POI database), and use a handset that exposes more of their lives to Google (thus allowing it to capture more data about them and target ads to them more effectively), they ought to be happy.

All the same, it underscores why Google wants to increase awareness of their own Nexus brand of consumer electronics.

Samsung sent me back onto 50th Street with a lovely sack dinner, an opportunity to see a gorgeous performance space I hadn’t been inside since my junior-high social studies club field trip to New York City, and many questions.

Overall, I’m inclined to be optimistic, if not actually excited, about the Galaxy S4. I liked the S3 enough that I switched from my iPhone 4S. If the S4 is pretty much the same thing, only with components that are a year fresher, is that a bad thing?

Maybe. Remember that the Android market is huge. When Apple released the iPhone 4S, it was cosmetically identical to its predecessor. But the older iPhone 4 suddenly had a killer differentiating feature: Apple dropped the price to $99.

How long will it be before Samsung can purge the Galaxy S3 from the retail channel? And will Android buyers — who are legendary for loving the most affordable option — even care about the S4’s features, if there’s a cheaper alternative with the same name and styling? Let’s see.

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