Oh, and you also get a 2-megapixel camera up front and a 13-megapixel camera out back – the latter being probably the highest-resolution phone camera out there right now. There’s a lot to say about smartphone cameras (more on the S4 camera later), but keep in mind that megapixels are to picture quality as horsepower is to driving quality – after a certain point, you just look like you’re compensating for something. One day, history will look back on the megapixel arms race of the early 21st century with the scorn it rightfully deserves.
The user interface on the S4 hasn’t changed much from previous models, and really isn’t that different from most Android devices, except for the additional Samsung software. The default lock screen now lets you know, in friendly-looking font, that the S4 is not a phone, but a “life companion.” This is the marketing angle Samsung is taking with its new phone and, like most slogans, it means nothing.
(Helpfully, there is an option to use your phone in a simplified mode that strips away many of the settings and apps, leaving you with a phone that just performs its core functions. This is a brilliant idea, especially for smartphone novices, and more phone-makers should copy it).
My review unit also came bloated with a gaggle of carrier-installed flabware, which I won’t dignify with detailed decriptions. Carriers, please stop pre-installing garbage software on the phones you sell.
Where Samsung tries to differentiate the S4 from its predecessor is where things start to go ... well, not wrong, exactly, but inexplicable. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, but keep in mind these features are supposed to give you a reason to shell out 200 bucks and lock yourself into a three-year contract (or somewhere between $650 and $700 without a contract) for a new phone.
Perhaps the most bizarre and intriguing S4 feature is “Hover Touch.” This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The phone now recognizes when your finger is hovering above the screen, which basically gives you a new input mechanism. The hover touch feature has all kinds of potential, such as previewing or scrolling through videos. Samsung explores some of this potential in the S4 (and previously, with the Note II stylus pen). But it is not yet a polished experience. While using the S4 browser I quickly found that if you keep your thumb too close to the screen, it activates the hover touch function, which on the browser is a floating zoom. One day, Samsung will perfect hover touch; today is not that day.
Then there’s the feature that was most hyped in the lead-up to the S4’s launch and most immediately forgotten afterwards – Crazy Eye-Powered SuperScroll (Not its real name, I don’t think). This is the feature that would let you pause videos and scroll through web pages simply by looking away from or at certain parts of your phone. There’s a good reason the Samsung rep who walked me through the S4’s features spent a grand total of 30 seconds on this one: it just doesn’t work very well, and often not at all. One day, Samsung will perfect Crazy Eye-Powered SuperScroll; today is definitely not that day.
The 13-megapixel camera is very good, edging out the iPhone 5 in most conditions and blowing away anything on a BlackBerry. But for some reason, Samsung decided to include a whopping 12 photo modes with its camera software. These include night-mode, sports-mode, panorama-mode and a few others that are pure Samsung originals. “Beauty Face,” for example, purports to enhance facial features automatically. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I can confirm that, despite multiple attempts, this mode did not make me any prettier, although that cannot reasonably be called the software’s fault. “Drama” mode takes multiple pictures of someone moving, and lets you stitch them together into a somewhat neat-looking still/action shot. “Sound and Shot” lets you add up to nine-seconds of audio to a photo to create a kind of talking postcard. You’re experience may vary, but I found Sound and Shot to be creepy in a “this photo is haunted” kind of way.