Samsung Galaxy S 4 hardware was expected, so did the software wow us?
The Samsung Galaxy S 4 had absolutely nothing to really surprise us with on the hardware side when it was finally announced, because everything there was to know about the hardware was leaked before the event, all the way down to a complete teardown of the device less than an hour before Samsung's live event. So, we knew exactly what to expect on the hardware end, but as usual, the software was the star of the show, and so we want to talk about all of the new additions.
When it comes to hardware in a smartphone, the best a manufacturer can tend to hope for is something evolutionary. The Galaxy S 4 has a screen similar to what we're seeing on other flagship devices. The processor will rock benchmark tests, but probably won't translate to any real-world difference in performance compared to say the HTC One's Snapdragon 600. Even at its best, we don't expect the camera quality to be leaps ahead of the competition. The real key to the experience is in the software, and Samsung has quite a few very interesting new features on the software side. Of course, the Galaxy S 4 also has a number of silly gimmicks as well (you know, for marketing purposes). Overall though, Samsung did an amazing job of trying new things and adding multiple features that could turn out to be quite good.
Let's just hit the gimmicks first, because these are the features that sound cool when you're explaining your new phone to someone, or sound interesting in a commercial, but don't really add anything as far as functionality that people are likely to actually use (think FaceTime, or Face Unlock).
S Translator: Don't get us wrong, for the right person in the right place and time, this is a very useful feature. In addition to allowing your phone to essentially act as, well, an audio translator, it can also use OCR to translate texts on signs and things to help you along your way. There are two reasons why we're putting it in the gimmicks section though. First, Google Translate has been offering the translator features for a while in over 30 languages (S Translator supports just 10). Second, as we said, it's only for someone in the right place at the right time. Unless you live in Europe, chances are you aren't traveling enough to get somewhere they don't speak the same language as you. So, while S Translator is cool, it's nothing new, and it won't be used by the majority of users.
S Health: With this one, Samsung realized that there are a ton of sensors in a smartphone, and if you add in an extra accessory (or three: the S-band, body scale, and heart rate monitor), you can generate a huge amount of data about a person... if they want it. Of course, if you're someone who really wants this data, you probably already own a FitBit (since the Nike FuelBand is still iOS only for some awful reason), so we're not sure why you'd want to buy a whole new phone and new accessories to get the same info. The functionality is cool, but the potential audience is very small, and there's been no confirmation that S Health would support other Bluetooth fitness trackers like the FitBit.
Air View and Air Gestures: The idea here of course is that you can control your phone without touching the screen, and you can get extra info and previews similar to a mouse hover action on a traditional computer. Again, these aren't completely useless features, but we can't see them being used all that much. Air View (aka mouse hover) is likely something that will only be available in Samsung apps, and will not become widely used in other apps, so the usefulness will be severely limited. And, while it will be handy to use Air Gesture controls here and there, we can't see that being used all that much (as we once ranted about.)
SmartScroll: We were on board with SmartStay in the Galaxy S III, but SmartScroll just seems unnecessary, because its functionality that is not just doubling existing options, but tripling because you can already scroll through both touch and touchless controls. But, just in case you don't want to lift that arm at all (which S Health should be encouraging you to do), you can have pages scroll through a combination of your head angle and the angle of the phone.
(There are a couple other gimmicks, but we want to put all of the new camera features together, so we'll hit those later.)
SmartPause: We're not totally against SmartPause, because it is a cool idea in theory, but we're also not totally for it, because it can easily be a bad idea in practice. The trouble here is a simple one that cable companies have been fighting for a while - people like to multitask, so our eyes don't stay on one screen. Imagine you're showing a video to a friend, and you turn your head to comment on something. It seems like a good idea that the video would pause so you can make your point, but what if you're on the train watching something and you just glance around the car. Do you really want the video to pause every time you turn your head or look away? It doesn't strike us as a totally yes or no answer, so we're having a hard time saying the feature is really worth the hype it gets when people hear about it.
Samsung Group Play: We're a bit on the fence about this one, for a couple reasons. The idea of being able to tap Galaxy S 4 phones and have the same song playing in sync on each one doesn't sound all that useful, we can say for sure that the gaming side of group play could get a fair amount of use in the right setting (like a McDonald's in Japan), assuming enough games offer the functionality. The trouble here is that it requires all your friends to have the same device, or at least another compatible Samsung device. We understand that Samsung wants to be Appley and lock people into the Samsung ecosystem, and we don't really appreciate that. We'd prefer an approach that's more inclusive.
S Voice Drive: Extending the functionality of S Voice to S Voice Drive wasn't a big leap (since Vlingo, which is what S Voice is built on, has offered Drive Mode for a couple years now), but it's a welcome one nonetheless, and one that should prove to be quite useful. Nothing wrong with offering options to have texts read, or to reply via voice, and find nearby places all through voice command. We can get behind that idea.
Samsung Knox: Just because it isn't a feature designed for consumers doesn't mean it's not a good idea. Even if BlackBerry has lost the ability to make much that excites people any more, it still has good ideas and Samsung Knox is essentially the same idea as BlackBerry Balance. The idea is simple: give options for personal data and secured business data to co-exist on a smartphone. Samsung didn't go into depth tonight because Knox was shown off in detail at MWC, but it looks like a good set of features, and could help Samsung take some enterprise market share.
Adapt Display: We need to see this in action, but this sounds like a really nice new feature. Adjusting the brightness is something that's always been done to adapt to different lighting conditions, but Samsung claims to have a more advanced system for the Galaxy S 4, which will also adjust contrast and color along with brightness. All of the settings will not only be adjusted based on environmental lighting, but based on what is on the screen. Games, video, and text will all get different settings, and if done right that could make the display even better than it already looks.
As is usually the case, the camera software gets the most new features for the Galaxy S 4. We wanted to put them all together in one section for easy access, but we'll also note if the feature falls into our "gimmick", "maybe", or "good" categories, starting with the gimmick.
Sound & Shot (gimmick): Let's keep this simple - we'd rather have HTC's options of taking pictures while recording video than have Samsung's "Sound & Shot" feature. We just don't see the value in having a still picture attached to sound. If you want visual and sound, that's called video, and it works wonderfully.
Dual Camera (maybe): The first instance that Samsung showed for the dual camera usage was not impressive. Sure, we can all relate to the idea that one person is never in pictures because they're always the one behind the camera. But, the answer to that is not dual camera, because all you have then is a group picture and another self-shot that you already see so much, that sometimes you want to punch Instagram in the face. However, the second usage, which allowed for sharing both the front and rear cameras during a video call was definitely a cool idea, and one that we've wanted to have in a camera for a while.
Drama Shot (maybe): It's an artsy thing, but not completely useless. Could be fun, but won't be life-changing. 'Nuff said.
Story Album (maybe): There's nothing inherently bad with the idea of creating a photo album and filling it with the story behind the photos. That's a great idea, and one that we can totally get behind. It's also pretty cool that Samsung has added in options to order physical printed albums when you're done. Our hesitation with the idea is - what happens other than that? If these Story Albums can be shared on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter, and can be easily organized and edited in a web browser, we could bump this up to a good idea. But, if the Story Albums have a limited life outside of your phone and a physically printed book, we're not as impressed.
Eraser (good): Everyone loves a good photobomb, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have the option to erase the photobomber from your pictures. If it works well, and looks natural, there's nothing wrong with this feature, and could be quite handy.
The final tally puts us at 5 gimmicks, 5 maybe good features, and 4 legitimately good features. That's a solid showing for Samsung. Ultimately, the software on the Galaxy S 4 doesn't have any terrible additions, just some that may never really get any use. Even if none of the features really speak to you as a user, Samsung should get credit for pushing so hard on this update. There are a lot of new features with the Galaxy S 4, and they cover a wide range from interaction controls, to camera modes, accessories, and more.
It all adds up to an impressive announcement, and what looks to be a solid all-around device. We're looking forward to playing around with the Galaxy S 4.