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Where did the Samsung Galaxy S3 go wrong and what must the Galaxy S4 do better?

It may not be to everyone’s personal taste, but few phones have ever received as much acclaim as the Samsung Galaxy S3; the handset that catapulted Samsung into the highest smartphone division, once populated solely by Apple and its iPhone.

Thanks to the Cupertino firm’s monstrous fan base, sales of the iPhone 5 held resolutely firm last year but tech commentary remains obsessed with the notion that the pendulum is swinging away from Apple, with Samsung’s Android darlings ready to capitalise. At the heart of debate is the feeling that upgrades to Apple’s leading products have been too marginal, lacking the wow-factor on those all-important launch nights. The key to Samsung driving home its advantage therefore lies in its ability, or indeed audacity, to produce a phone that represents a radical and exciting improvement over the Galaxy S3.

As such, the S4 must address each weakness of its predecessor and offer a brand new or significantly enhanced feature in every area. There may not be a luxury of faults to pick from on the previous model, but no device is perfect and S3 users have still reported their fair share of gripes and frustrations over the past 10 months, so let’s see what the Samsung Galaxy S4 must do to secure the smartphone crown.

Leave plastic for premium

Few could argue with the spec sheet of the Galaxy S3 - particularly as features like its quad-core processor carried the added novelty factor at the time - but the design became a major point of contention as soon as the phone was revealed. In every department we had a premium device - apart from the body. It’s still baffling that Samsung packed so much quality into the S3’s interior but decided to wrap it all up in a shiny, bendy, plastic shell.

Of course there are arguments to be had for the plastic’s durability and its role in making the S3 an impressively lightweight device in spite of its large form factor, but the average consumer is shallow and fickle, and wants the money they’ve paid for a pricey handset to me more visibly apparent. The glossy plastic just didn’t give that impression compared to the glass of the iPhone 4S before it, or the aluminium of the iPhone 5 and HTC One after. But while many will put this at the top of the improvement wish list for the Galaxy S4, we’re not banking on Samsung playing ball. Aesthetic qualities have to be balanced against manufacturing issues, the company’s VP of mobile said last week, and rumours (and indeed picture-previews) suggest we’ll be seeing another plastic-coated Galaxy on Thursday.

Sharpen S Voice and Smart Stay

A less superficial disappointment in the Samsung Galaxy S3 was S Voice, which went head-to-head with Apple’s famed assistant, Siri. Early signs suggested we had a strong addition to the fledgling voice-control category, not least because S Voice enables a totally hands-free experience on the Galaxy S3, with the user being able to activate it with a customised verbal command in addition to a familiar button-tap, but its overall intelligence falls some way short of Siri. Users have reported difficulties with S Voice performing more complicated tasks beyond opening apps, playing and pausing music, and dialing numbers, so the S4 needs to serve up some serious improvements if its voice-assistance is to become a genuinely valuable tool.

Another significant feature pushed on the Galaxy S3’s interface was Smart Stay, which theoretically enables the device to stay lit without prompt, as it detects whether the user is looking at the screen or not. Yet the fact that so much fuss has been made about the possibility of the S4 now including eye-tracking technology, to the extent that Smart Stay seems to have been altogether forgotten, speaks volumes about the success of Samsung’s first foray into sight-based controls.

Its introduction was intriguing and commendable, and not every new feature is going to work perfectly straight out of the box, but there is nevertheless plenty of room for Samsung to enhance Smart Stay on the S4. Notable deficiencies include its lack of effectiveness when you’re not in a well-lit situation, as the S3 generally struggles to detect anything if a shadow is cast over your face, while others report that it does not work when the device is laid flat on a table. Should the S4 address its disappointing overall performance, a whole host of power-saving and user-friendly functions could spin off from Smart Stay, so Samsung has a promising platform to work from.

Rev up the engine

Speaking more generally, the Samsung Galaxy S4 will need to tighten up on the overall speed and performance of its predecessor. Ten months is a long time in the fast-paced world of smartphones, and since the Galaxy S3 we’ve had a host of new powerhouses enter the fray – the iPhone 5, Nokia Lumia 920, Sony Xperia Z, and HTC One to name a few – making the S3 essentially one of the pack rather than a stand-out speed merchant in the current climate.

Moreover, Galaxy S3 users often report a significant slowdown on their device when running multiple applications; something that’s becoming increasingly hard to forgive seeing the amount of activities and functions we’re constantly encouraged to undertake on smartphones. Reducing lag and keeping a spring in the S4’s step will be crucial, as you can guarantee both punters and reviewers will be keeping a close eye on the difference in performance between old and new models.

In all honestly, Samsung has a pretty unenviable task on its hands with the Galaxy S4. Few major criticisms were levelled at the S3, and because the Galaxy line is becoming an increasingly exalted and recognised collection, the firm would be loath to totally reinvent a successful brand. But at the same time, doing something radical with each product upgrade could be the very strategy that's needed to dethrone Apple – ramming home the main gripe many have with its US foe – that Apple’s innovation is faltering and its products are less exciting.

Realism and evidence suggests we won’t see anything too shocking with the Galaxy S4, but producing tangible improvements on these weaknesses identified in the S3 cannot fail to produce a great phone because a lot of the hard work has already been done with the existing flagship. But just how much pressure will Samsung pile on Apple in New York on Thursday night? Stay with ITProPortal for the answer – we’ll be reporting the event live and of course giving you all the action and reaction afterwards.

Image credit (top): Samsung Tomorrow