Samsung has gone soft. The new Samsung Galaxy S4 is a handsome piece of hardware, no question about it. But Samsung's heart, I feel, is now in the software and what it's doing with TouchWiz to make the Galaxy S4 different from every other Android phone on the market.
The S4's specs keep pace with the competition. The phone is 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm, exactly the same height as the Galaxy S3 but slightly slimmer horizontally and depthwise. I found it manageable to hold in one hand, although I prefer slightly smaller phones. The edges are a bit squarer than on the Galaxy S3, and the phone lacks the tapering effect around the Galaxy S3's body. It's made of high-quality white plastic, although it's the same relatively thin stuff that you'll find on other Samsung phones. More than anything else, the body design reminded me of LG's competing Optimus G Pro (see slideshow below).
The 1080p Super AMOLED HD screen felt very bright for an AMOLED, and the pixel density is so crazily high at 441 ppi that I can't see anyone complaining about the PenTile subpixel layout. I certainly couldn't see any flaws in the screen.
I didn't see any real hardware "wow" items, though. There's no paradigm changer like the Nokia Lumia 920's low-light camera or the HTC One's metal unibody. Rather, Samsung's real passions seemed to be in adding a slew of software features to Android 4.2.2, while maintaining compatibility with other Android phones. It's also bringing together Samsung's various product lines.
Camera + Note + TV = Galaxy S4
Take the camera, for instance. Samsung made clear that the new mode button comes from the Galaxy Camera (though I wish the phone had also taken the Galaxy Camera's awesome shutter speed and aperture ring.) New photo modes include one that records nine seconds of audio along with your picture, one that erases photobombers (seriously!) and one that creates "cinemagraph"-like animated GIFS where part of the image is moving and part is still. They were all easy to use.
You can also now use the front and rear cameras together, creating combined images where one of them is in a little window, postage stamp or heart on top of the other, or a split-screen image. Ditto for video. I immediately saw a use for the dual-camera video feature; when I'm on business trips, I make daily videos to send home for my daughter, and I know she'd love one where she could see my face and what was around me.
I'm disappointed about one camera aspect, though. While Nokia and HTC have gotten smart to the end of the megapixel race, Samsung seems to have just socked a 13-megapixel sensor in there, and I expect it's not going to have the best low-light performance. I'll test that, of course, but I'm tired of this continual run-up in resolution rather than actual image quality.
The phone's new TV remote control feature is from Samsung's tablet line. Samsung's WatchOn app combines real-time programme listings from Peel Remote along with streaming information from Netflix, Blockbuster, and Samsung's own media store, and lets you control or stream to appropriate TVs.
Or how about the ability to "float" your finger over an email message and see a preview of it? That's straight from the Galaxy Note, and it was my favorite of the many geature-related controls Samsung threw in here. While sweeping my hand across the screen to fast-forward music tracks felt like a gimmick, the float-to-preview feature was natural and worked the way my mind does: tentatively thinking, "should I tap on this?" and getting information before I did.
The apex of all of this is the new Samsung Hub, and the name there comes from Samsung's TVs. This is Samsung's ambitious attempt to become Amazon and supplant Google; Samsung will deny this, but why else would you launch your own combination app, music, video, and book store on Android?
I really like how Samsung extended one of my favourite "invisible" features on the Galaxy S3: the ability to custom-tune the audio to your hearing range. It applies to music and video now, not just phone calls. In a similar move on the video side, the screen changes colour temperature depending on the kind of content at which you're looking. That's really neat.
I'm not sure where to put S Health, but it's important: Samsung is now battling Fitbit et al. in the wireless health arena with an app that wraps together a pedometer, environmental sensors, and diet tracker, along with a wearable sensor accessory. The app is bright and clean, and most importantly, it's preloaded.
All this built-in software has a cost, though. The 16GB model I looked at only had 9.62GB of user accessible storage. At least there's an SD card slot.
What I Think
I spent about half an hour with the Galaxy S4, a little less time than I've spent with the HTC One and a lot less than I've spent with the BlackBerry Z10, but a little more than I've spent with the LG Optimus G Pro.
Samsung doesn't need to provide a new wow in hardware to sell millions of these smartphones. With its massive marketing clout and momentum, the S4's hardware just needs to be good enough, and it is. This phone doesn't feel premium the way the HTC One and Nokia Lumia 920 do, but neither did the Galaxy S3, and that didn't cause problems for that phone. Plenty of people will appreciate the removable battery and MicroSD card slot, too. The screen is sharp, the audio clear. The hardware is good enough. Hardware is becoming commoditised.
I kept thinking of ways to use Samsung's little Android feature improvements, though, and that's what will make the difference here. Take that dual-camera trick, for instance. As I said, my daughter would love to get videos made that way. I'd use the hovering email preview a hundred times a day. I'd use S Health when I'd never use Fitbit just because I don't want to have an extra device to carry around. Integrating language translation into email would really help me write to the guy I rent apartments from in Barcelona.
Samsung Hub leaves me cold, though. We don't need another app store. (Now I have Tina Turner singing in my head.) It's obvious that this is just a play to wrest away revenue from Google's stores, with no real consumer benefit. At what point does healthy competition become confusion and the tyranny of choice? I'm not sure.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 embraces and extends a lot of the current trends in mobile phones. It alters Android relentlessly to add a lot of little conveniences, which is going to drive Android geeks nuts. But for the mainstream, this is going to be a rock-solid, usable big phone worthy of its success.