Review: The Samsung Galaxy S 4 shows more is not always better

Samsung's new Android flagship is easy to hold and view, but many new software features are only partially baked gimmicks

By , InfoWorld |  Mobile & Wireless, android phones, Galaxy S 4

The Samsung Galaxy S 4 (at left) packs a larger screen than the same-sized S III (at right).

Samsung's Galaxy S III is a very sweet Android smartphone, arguably the best of its generation. So you have to wonder what Samsung could do to meaningfully push the envelope in the Galaxy S 4 now available at some carriers (Sprint and AT&T) and soon to be offered at others (Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile). After all, Apple's last two models, the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5, haven't changed the world, even if each version had nice additions and changes. For Apple, the iPhone 4 was the game-changer, just as the Galaxy S III was for Samsung.

The Galaxy S 4 is a better device than the S III, but it too is no game-changer. There are nice enhancements to the S 4, as well as less-than-fully-baked additions. It's easy to recommend the S 4 to any Android user who wants a large screen, but not a mini-notebook like the Google Nexus 7 or even the Samsung Galaxy Note II. However, I don't recommend breaking your current contract to buy it at full price.

[ What Google needs to fix in Android. | Review: The Samsung Galaxy S III versus the iPhone 5. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with InfoWorld's Mobilize newsletter. ]

The hardware capabilities you'll enjoyWhat I liked most immediately about the Galaxy S 4 is its refined hardware. The straighter sides (more similar to the iPhone, ironically) make it easier and more comfortable to hold than the S III's rounded and tapered edges.

Although the body is essentially the same size as the S III, the S 4's screen is larger within that expanse, providing even more display area but without the bulkiness. For me, the S 4 is as large as I would want a smartphone to be.

The Galaxy S 4 has boosted other hardware aspects compared to the S III -- as you would expect to happen a year later. Yes, the processor is a bit faster, as are other processing components. And the rear camera is now rated at 13 megapixels, which means more pixels per image and larger file sizes. The image quality is comparable to that of the iPhone 5's 8-megapixel camera. Keep in mind that the quality of the lens and light sensors matter more than the number of pixels captured.

What you'll really notice as a user is the ability to use both the front and rear cameras simultaneously, a cool trick for documentary-style photo essays and videos called dual-shot mode. Plus, the editing tools available are quite sophisticated, turning the Camera app into powerful photo-manipulation software. Shutterbugs will love it.

Touchless gestures, eye tracking, and other gimmicks that don't really workOther new features are cooler in theory than in practice. For example, the Galaxy S 4 includes an infrared sensor on the front face that can detect gestures taking place above the screen, a feature Samsung calls Air Gestures. For example, you can scroll a Web page by moving your hand up or down above the screen in the stock Android Internet browser, though you can't do so in the Chrome browser, in Email, in Calendar, or pretty much any other app. I also couldn't get the S 4 to respond to the hand-waving Air Gesture that's supposed to open the Quick Glance status screen for alerts and messages.

Air Gestures works at the app level, not the OS level, which means it's rarely available. To be honest, scrolling above the screen really is no easier than scrolling on the screen. Air Gestures could be useful if its gestures were universal and if it did more than scroll. For example, pausing playback would be a good use for Air Gestures.

Shooting simultaneously with the front and rear cameras in the Galaxy S 4

Air View is another hardware feature that rarely works. It's supposed to let you hover a finger over an email message to open it or over an area in the Internet browser to magnify it. I could not get this feature -- taken from the Galaxy Note II's pen-hovering feature -- to work even in the very few apps that support it. Even if I could, holding my finger over an area a few millimeters from the screen would be more work than simply tapping the screen directly.

The eye-tracking feature that is supposed to pause videos when you look away did not work in either video app that comes with the Galaxy S 4; I tried it with several people.

Likewise, the panoply of wireless technologies carried over from the Galaxy S III to the Galaxy S 4 -- Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA screen mirroring, and NFC (near-field communication) -- have very little utility as few apps and devices support them. The S 4 promotes the screen mirroring as an easy-access setting in the notifications tray, but unless you have all Samsung devices (such as TVs and Blu-ray players), it's essentially a useless capability.

To get video via DLNA to the Galaxy S 4, I had luck playing videos from my DLNA-compatible Netgear R6300 wireless router's attached hard drive, but the S 4 didn't see my LG Internet-connected Blu-ray player, which also supports DLNA. There's no simple box like an Apple TV to convert existing devices to DLNA readiness for assured streaming but there should be, or Samsung should switch to the emerging Miracast standard.

The Galaxy S 4 does have an 11-pin MHL port (which is what your MicroUSB charger/sync cable also uses) for a wired connection to an external display's HDMI port. Just keep in mind that the S 4's new, 11-pin MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) Version 2 port will not work with the 5-pin MHL Version 1 cables used by many other (older) Android devices. Get Samsung's S 4-specific cable.

For now, Air Gestures, Air View, eye tracking, and screen mirroring are proofs of concepts that have only gimmick value.

Something borrowedSamsung's version of Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" in the Galaxy S 4 is nearly the same as in the Galaxy S III, with the same pros and cons for stock apps such as Email and Calendar. But you'll appreciate a few new capabilities.

One is the application tray you can pull from the left side of the screen. It opens a dock of apps very similar to the app dock in the forthcoming Ubuntu Touch mobile OS and to the long-standing multitasking dock in Apple's iOS (at the bottom of the screen). The pull tab does overlap any active app and sometimes obscures text or images beneath it.

Where Samsung does more than copy others is in making its app tray editable. It's not just a list of recent or running apps as in Ubuntu Touch and iOS; you can drag apps in and out of it to have a consistent quick-access lineup, similar to the OS X Dock or the Windows 7 taskbar. (The Galaxy S 4 continues to provide the standard Android 4 running-apps preview tiles view as well.)

Samsung Link is a new app designed to let you access content from a Windows PC (but not a Mac) or a compatible Samsung device for playback, sort of a variation of Apple's Bonjour and AirPlay networking.

The Galaxy S 4's application tray

In the Sprint version of the Galaxy S 4, the stock Internet browser also displays a new icon in the lower-right corner. Pull it in to reveal a tray of sharing widgets, such as for Facebook, email, and Twitter. It's clearly "inspired" by the Share widget in OS X Mountain Lion and iOS 6. This widget bar is called the Lumen Toolbar, and it's essentially a browser plug-in for the Internet browser (sorry, not for Chrome or other browsers) that adds both sharing widgets and various lookup apps such as Wikipedia, IMDB, and a shopping-suggestion site.

I'm leery of this toolbar as it tracks you to sell your behavioral data to others, but the notion of adding a sharing widget to Android makes a lot of sense, just as it did for iOS and OS X. Samsung or Google would do better to copy Apple all the way on the sharing portion and embed it at the OS level. Keep in mind that several apps, such as Gallery and My Files, use the standard Android sharing tool, which is quite good and should be expanded to other apps such as browsers.

Samsung has also added the Samsung Hub, essentially its $10-per-month mashup of iTunes and Spotify (or maybe Amazon's Kindle services), providing a store for streaming music, videos, books, and games. Everyone wants to be the new Apple in the content business -- why not Samsung too? As a streaming service, Samsung Hub is great way to burn up your cellular data plan and home broadband caps as well. Plus, I found the download speeds for everything but music to be excruciatingly slow.

Another borrowed change you may not like is the new Settings app, which now is broken into several panes, similar to iOS's Settings app. The goal is to make settings easier to find by categorizing them, but it doesn't work. The categories are too broad and overlapping to really help guide you to the setting you seek. In fact, I find it much easier to deal with the Galaxy S III's long, scrolling settings list than to maneuver through the S 4's various categories, through which you still have to scroll.

Finally, there's the promised Samsung Knox security system, and the Galaxy S 4 is the first Android device to be compatible with it. It's supposed to offer iOS-level security APIs and the ability to create separate personal and business workspaces, like BlackBerry 10's Balance feature. That sounds great, but Samsung has delayed Knox's release, and it's unclear what mobile management tools will support it. Right now it's just a promise to copy Apple and BlackBerry -- not a reason to commit to buying an S 4.

The frustrations of duplicationChoice is usually a good thing, but in the Android world choice often becomes confusion. The Galaxy S 4 comes with two browsers, Internet and Chrome (the Internet browser is superior, though it lacks Chrome's nice cross-device syncing capability); two music players, Play Music and Music; two video players, Play Video and Video; two language translators, Optical Reader and S Translator; two voice-recognition search engines, Voice Search and S Voice; two VPNs, VPN Client and via the Settings app (neither works with my company's Cisco IPSec VPN, a longtime Android issue); and two email clients, Email and Gmail. Only that last duplication is imposed by Google.

Depending on your choice of carrier when buying the Galaxy S 4, you may get even more duplication. For example, the Sprint version of the Galaxy S 4 that I tested had its own music player, its own music streaming service, and a bunch of bloatware.

Not all of these apps duplicate the functionality 100%. For example, Samsung's S Voice offers Apple Siri-like device-control functions that Google's Voice does not, though both do Siri-like Web searches. The duplication is both confusing and annoying. It's one thing to choose to download something you believe is better than what comes with the device, but the me-too competition among Google, the device makers like Samsung, and the carriers like Sprint is another -- competition via cloning.

Still, the Galaxy S 4 is easy to likeMost of the shortcomings in the Galaxy S 4 are the same as in other Android devices -- such as the issues with its VPN client and its tendency to carry bloatware. Most of its software, UI, and hardware work just like they do in the Galaxy S III. That means, unfortunately, the battery life is still low. I didn't even get 24 hours in mostly standby use on a full charge. Be sure to enable all power-saving modes in the Settings app to stretch the S 4 to run a full workday.

It's too bad that most of the S 4's cool features are limited to a scant handful of apps that don't work all that well anyhow -- but that means you won't get in the habit of using and being frustrated by them.

The larger screen, the better holdability, and the advances to the camera and its image editing are what will attract you to the Galaxy S 4, not the partially implemented software gimmicks. They're good enough attractions on their own for any Android user out of contract and eligible for a carrier subsidy on a new device. In this way, the Galaxy S 4 is much like the iPhone 5 -- a modest but welcome update that makes for a natural replacement model when your contract is up. But a cheaper Galaxy S III will also have strong appeal, just as the cheaper iPhone 4S does today for many iOS users contemplating an iPhone 5.

The Galaxy S 4's internal storage capacity is anemic at 16GB, and there's no 32GB model available as there is for the S III. Although you can add an SD card of up to 64GB in capacity, note that not all apps and content can be stored on the SD card, so the S 4's 16GB of storage could still limit you.

The Galaxy S 4 is available in two colors (white and black). It costs $630 without a contract at carriers such as T-Mobile. At carriers that provide subsidized phones in return for a two-year contract, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and U.S. Cellular charge $200, and Sprint charges $250. It's available now at all of these carriers except Verizon, which will release its version on May 23.

This article, "Review: The Samsung Galaxy S 4 shows more is not always better," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Read more about mobile technology in InfoWorld's Mobile Technology Channel.

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