I don’t criticize Samsung for adding all these photo modes to the new phone. In fact, many people might enjoy Eraser mode, which lets you take photos in rapid-fire and use them to get rid of moving objects. But if you have a reasonably new smartphone – and certainly if you have an S3 – these features are not good enough reasons to switch or upgrade devices.
However there are a number of other features on the S4 that, at least, show great potential. Primary among these is “S Health,” Samsung’s Fitbit-like activity monitor. By now you’ve probably heard of health-monitoring devices, which use accelerometers and other such data-gathering technology to quantify just how lazy you really are. Samsung realized that much of this technology already exists on your smartphone, and built a health-monitor of its own. This is a very savvy business move, and if it works, Samsung and other phone-makers could do to standalone health monitors what smartphones previously did to standalone GPS navigators. Unfortunately, the auxiliary accessories you need to make S Health really useful have yet to hit the market, so I can’t tell you exactly how effective it is.
Speaking of features other companies should be worried about, the S4 also comes with something called “Samsung Hub,” which is a prettier-looking version of the Google Play software store. Hub is slimmed down and looks a little like one of those heavily-curated, good-looking apps you find on Windows 8. Its real significance, however, is as an indicator of where the Android platform is going. For years, Google gave its operating system out for free, content to make money as an advertising-revenue middleman. Now, companies such as Samsung and Facebook are starting to heavily modify Android in ways Google probably never intended, and Google is largely unable to do anything about it without totally ruining the open-software, we-just-want-everyone-to-get-along persona it worked so hard to cultivate.
The suspicion that Samsung sort of rushed the S4 to market (probably to cash in on the window before Apple releases a new iPhone) hit me again as I considered the company’s “Knox” software. Knox is basically a rip-off of BlackBerry Balance, in that it lets corporate IT departments create a church-state divide between an employee’s personal and business worlds on the S4. Enterprise is a market Samsung is heavily focused on this year and, as a business decision, Knox is a great idea that Research In Motion should be very worried about. Except, again, the full version of Knox has been delayed. This is a bigger problem than S Health because, if you’re trying to convince major corporations – who usually loath Android – to trust your phone as a business device, you don’t want to start off with a series of delays.
If you have the money, don’t have a relatively new phone, and are looking for a top-of the line device, the S4 is probably the best Android phone on the market. It might even be the best all-round smartphone, period. But it speaks to the reality of the current touchscreen industry – there’s just not much more that can be done to really improve these things, but companies such as Apple and Samsung are generating so much revenue off the basic smartphone format that there’s also no incentive to do something truly innovative. The next revolutionary device is either coming from an entirely unexpected company, or from Apple – once the iPhone stops making money.