Galaxy S4 seems less than sum of its parts

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Galaxy S4 seems less than sum of its parts

The Galaxy S4, Samsung’s latest and greatest, has a cute feature we’ll probably see in a lot of phones soon: You can shoot both yourself and your surroundings at the same time, using the front- and back-mounted cameras. It’s a bit like having a two-camera film crew following you around.

But other than that, it’s hard to point to anything that will set the world on fire in the phone revealed Thursday at an event in New York. The S4 has what you’d expect from a new smartphone: a bigger screen and faster processor. Other than that, the phone has a grab-bag of features that don’t come together as a pleasing whole.

Samsung provided some hands-on time with pre-production units, which revealed the S4 to be, in terms of hardware, a solid successor to the S3. The screen is slightly larger, at 5 inches on the diagonal compared to 4.8 inches for the S3 and 4 inches for the iPhone 5.

The bigger screen is in a chassis that’s actually a hair narrower and thinner than the S3’s. Samsung shrank the frame surrounding the screen to make room. Shrinking other internal components allowed it to make the battery 20 percent larger, but Samsung isn’t saying whether that translates into longer battery life.

The body is still dominated by softly molded plastic, and the S4 doesn’t really advance the aesthetics of its predecessor the way competitors Apple, Sony and HTC have done with their latest phones. Samsung does care about trying to push the envelope on what the phone does, but it may have gone too far. It’s probably not a disaster, because most of its features can be turned off, but first-time users could be confused.

For one thing, Samsung is taking the whole “touch screen” thing further by sensing when the user’s finger is hovering over the screen. In other words, you don’t need to touch the phone to make it react.

The idea is similar to the “mouse hover” feature on a PC, which sometimes reveals things before the mouse is clicked. Implementing it on a smartphone is trickier, though. On the PC, you have to use the mouse, so you’ll discover the hover functions in the normal course of use. But since the feature is new in a smartphone and there’s normally no reason to have your finger hovering over the screen, users are likely to discover this feature by chance. That wouldn’t be so bad if all applications responded to hovering in a consistent manner, but very few do it at all.

On the S4, the “E-mail’’ app will show previews, but the “Gmail” app won’t. The built-in “Gallery” app will show picture previews, but other photo apps won’t. I suspect users will get tired of trying to hover with their fingers and give up on the whole thing.

The hovering feature also sets the phone up for another problem. In my testing, I found that the phone sometimes registered a close hover as a touch. The screen was overly sensitive, thinking I was touching it when I wasn’t. This may be fixed, but it’s potentially an annoying issue.

The S4 tries to divine your intentions in two more ways. It has an infrared sensor that looks for hand movements up to about 4 inches away, and it uses the front-side camera to figure out if it’s in front of the user’s face.

Thanks to the IR sensor, the phone’s browser responds to an “up swipe’’ in the air above it with by scrolling up, and to a “side swipe” by jumping to another tab. This could be useful when the smartphone is the lunch companion and you don’t want to grease it up with foody fingers, but again, the “up swipe to scroll’’ shows up in only a few applications.

The list of user interface innovations goes on, but they don’t amount to a coherent new way of interacting with the phone. It’s more like Samsung is throwing a bunch of technologies into the phone to see what sticks. Sometimes, that’s how progress works, but consumers might not appreciate being guinea pigs.

The S4 presents an interesting contrast to the BlackBerry Z10, which is coming out in a few weeks. Research In Motion jettisoned the old BlackBerry software and rebuilt it from the ground up. The phone’s hardware isn’t as impressive as Samsung’s, but the software is easy to use, and it’s based on a strong idea: taking the pain out of communicating across e-mail, text messaging and social networks. The S4, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same clarity of purpose.


By Peter Svensson
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