Technologizer

My First 10 Questions About Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 Smartphone

Here's what popped into my head during and immediately after Samsung's Radio City Music Hall extravaganza.

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Outside Samsung's Unpacked press event at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, March 14, 2013

iPhone partisans may like to mock Samsung as a company incapable of doing anything but mindlessly mimicking Apple, but I’ll tell you this: The event which the Korean electronics behemoth held in New York City on Thursday evening to unveil its Galaxy S 4 smartphone owed little to Cupertino.

Samsung filled Radio City Music Hall to the rafters with journalists, partners, VIPs and assorted other interested parties, and plied them with an open bar. Then it put on a splashy, overblown, frequently bizarre and occasionally offensive Broadway-style extravaganza which included a full orchestra, a tap-dancing little boy, a Real Housewives-esque dramatization of a Miami bridesmaid party, scenes set in China and Brazil, a real convertible sportscar driving on a simulated highway and much, much more. (I kept expecting a chorus line of Rockettes to emerge from the wings.)

It was more or less the exact opposite of Apple’s classic formula: one or two guys demoing a new product on an unadorned stage. Which made sense, because the Galaxy S 4, for all it owes to the iPhone in terms of basic form factor and interface fundamentals, isn’t pursuing Apple’s less-is-more minimalism. With this phone, Samsung is betting that more is more.

[image] Samsung Galaxy S 4

Samsung

The S 4 has the largest Super AMOLED screen (5-inch) with the highest resolution (1920-by-1080) of any Galaxy S phone to date. Its rear camera has 13 megapixels of resolution, up from eight on the S III. It has a processor with eight cores, double those of its predecessor.

And the phone’s list of new software features is, well, rather extensive:

  • Dual Camera lets you embed a little photo of yourself while snapping a picture of something else
  • Story Albums are automatic collections of photos which you can order as real-world photo albums
  • Group Play includes several capabilities, including the ability to tap your phone with one or more others to play the same song simultaneously
  • S Translate does text and voice translation on the fly and can translate signs and menus
  • Air View lets you hover your fingertip without actually touching the screen to preview items like photos and e-mail messages
  • S Scroll and S Pause stop scrolling text and playing video, respectively, when your eyes leave the screen
  • S Voice Drive puts the phone into a voice-controlled mode with a simplified display for use when you’re behind the wheel of a car
  • The wonderfully-named Samsung Knox provides security features aimed at businesses
  • A new version of the Fitbit-like wellness feature S Health leverages the S 4’s ability to measure a room’s temperature and humidity
  • Adapt Display automatically adjusts screen settings for optimal viewing of different sorts of content

I could go on. But instead, as is my tradition, I’ll ask some of the questions that popped into my head during and immediately after all the spectacle:

1. Will anyone be nonplussed by the largely unchanged industrial design? The Galaxy S 4’s industrial design is familiar, not fresh: it looks like a slightly wider, slightly thinner Galaxy S III. To me, that’s a plus: As long as you don’t turn your nose up at its plastic case, the S III is already an attractive handset which feels good in the hand. But Apple is still getting flak on the grounds that the iPhone 5 isn’t sufficiently different from the iPhone 4S, even though it’s a bigger departure from its predecessors than the S 4 is from the S III. If it’s a disappointment, so is the S 4.

[image] Samsung Unpacked

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

The “bridesmaid party” which was part of Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 extravaganza

2. How many of the new features will matter for more than a day or two? It’s always dangerous to judge software from a demo, but Samsung lavished attention on some stuff, such as Dual Camera and Group Play, which looked like technological trickery in search of a problem to solve.

3. How well integrated are they? As good as the best of Samsung’s revisions and additions to Android are, they haven’t rivaled the crisp consistency of iOS, which Apple built from the ground up. The denser the Galaxy S platform gets with Samsung’s own features, the greater the risk that it might feel like a mishmosh.

4. Do 13 megapixels matter? With the teensy sensors used by smartphones, more pixels aren’t inherently helpful; in a worst-case scenario, they can actually hinder image quality. Here’s hoping the new camera is at least as nice as the already-pleasing one on the S III.

5. Are the touch-free interface features a breakthrough or a gimmick? You can control the S 4 by waving your finger or looking — or not looking — at its display. That’s not a landmark advance like the first iPhone’s touch input. But it could be an early step in an interesting and useful evolution of smartphone interfaces.

6. Whatever became of Android and Google? The S 4 is, of course, an Android phone. But I only heard Samsung’s presenters say the word “Android” once during their event, and only in passing during an explanation of the Knox security feature. And I’m not sure if Google got even a single mention. Samsung has plastered over much of Google’s Android interface and added a bevy of its own features; I’m curious whether Google is thrilled that this high-profile phone runs Android, or whether it’s worried about the decreasing relevance of the Galaxy line’s Android underpinnings and Google ties.

[image] Samsung's J.K. Shin

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Samsung mobile chief J.K. Shin, dwarfed by the Radio City Music Hall stage, introduces the Galaxy S 4 event

7. Is this as big as a Galaxy S phone will get? Like every upgrade to the Galaxy S line so far, the S 4 bumps up the screen size. Based on the brief hands-on time I got with a unit at Thursday’s event, I think people who are comfortable with large-screen phones will be comfortable with this phone; it’s still the “small” Galaxy handset compared to the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II. But at some point, Samsung will have to declare that the era of upsizing is over. Anyone want to place any bets on whether the Galaxy S 5, like the S 4, will be a 5-incher?

8. Can Samsung keep the marketing blitz going forever? The single biggest reason why the Galaxy S line is thriving is because Samsung makes fine phones. But the sheer enormity of its marketing efforts surely helps: In San Francisco, at least, it sometimes feels like there’s hardly a flat vertical surface which isn’t covered by a Galaxy ad. I’m positive that the promotion for the S 4 will be enormous; I wonder, though, whether Samsung will be able to sustain the hoopla for the Galaxy 5, 6 and 7 without consumers zoning out.

9. What will the Android competition do? While I was queued up in one of several very long lines to get into the S 4 launch event, a guerilla team from HTC took advantage of the teeming masses of phone enthusiasts huddled outside Radio City by handing out free cocoa and discount coupons for its HTC One phone. Pretty clever. But it also illustrates a dillemma for HTC, Motorola, LG and every other Android-smartphone maker: Samsung is doing so much better than everyone else that the rest of the bunch come off as pipsqueaks rather than peers. Simply making a good phone, as HTC and others already do, doesn’t seem to be enough to change that dynamic.

10. What will Apple do? With Apple, it’s always safest to assume that it’ll continue to follow its own path rather than going into a reactive panic just because another company is successful. So I expect future iPhones to look a lot more like the iPhone 5 than they do like the Galaxy S 4, no matter how well Samsung’s phone does. But it’s also a mistake to think that Apple blithely ignores its competition; in fact, its marketing honcho, Phil Schiller, granted a couple of interviews this week which were apparently designed to preemptively dampen enthusiasm for the S 4. If anyone at Apple ever has nightmares involving a competitor, they probably involve a Galaxy S handset clearly and permanently trumping the iPhone as the market’s preeminent smartphone.

I’ll have more questions as I think more about the Galaxy S 4…and, once I get to try one for more than a few minutes, some answers. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your first impressions of what Samsung hath wrought.

19 comments
TianyuLiang
TianyuLiang

I have been waiting patiently for this phone. Looks awesome. My one concern is radiation. I am intrigued by the feature that can sense when your eyes leave the screen. It also scares me a little bit. Just wondering, do features like this increase the amount of radiation that is getting into our bodies from the device???

 http://www.nlsd113.com/samsung_galaxy_s4.html

Notinterested
Notinterested

Dull design, oversize, bad build quality and too much impractical gimmick features. Just my 2cents.

ThomasBone'II
ThomasBone'II

At&T might be losing my business to Sprint or Vierozon if their prices are cheaper then 250.00.  My contract is expired and i'm just waiting.

JimBenitez
JimBenitez

Someday writers will actually know their subject matter in terms of subject, application, and real world use/ interaction -most of which is missing from this and most every other consumer tech article - they are either apple sycophants or marketplace speculators that don't cover or answer the intended topic - in this case to cover a new consumer electronic device- get with it lad learn about new release tech and practical applications rather than blather on about generic marketing release notes that explain nothing- that is the fault of the media and the manufacturers not engaging in useful interaction...if you've read this far it's obvious these types of articles are mostly useless - more of a social drinking and entertainment event... Wasted space!

ray23223
ray23223

Sammy misses the mark on the Samsung Galaxy S IV event. What the heck was that mess? Soc 600 instead of the 800? 4.2.2 instead of 5.0??? 2600 mah battery instead of 3000 + Release it two months later and get it right.

crestos
crestos

While everybody are running around shouting that the Galaxy S IV is coming, BBerry is getting a good portion of the mobile market because people are getting it by pre-ordering. http://t.co/Obwnx6s3Kd.

Mr.Wallingford
Mr.Wallingford

Not being an Android/ S3 user, my question is if you make an appointment on your phone's calendar, does it automatically show up on the calendar of your other devices? Or if you add a contact on your laptop, does it automatically show up in you phone without having to sync? Just curious, genuinely don't know.

siamason
siamason

why south korea kospi decrease today?

because maybe samsung galaxy s4 don't reach expect? don't show a innovations? i really want to know what happens... i strongly believe that galaxy s4 is one of the best smart phone hmm

siamason
siamason

why south korea kospi decrease? after presantation galaxy s4... That's mean maybe don't reach a lot of people's expect?

TrajanSaldana
TrajanSaldana

"With Apple, it’s always safest to assume that it’ll continue to follow its own path rather than going into a reactive panic just because another company is successful." -- Um...who sued who?

JimmyJack
JimmyJack

I have been waiting patiently for this phone. Looks awesome. My one concern is radiation. I am intrigued by the feature that can sense when your eyes leave the screen. It also scares me a little bit. Just wondering, do features like this increase the amount of radiation that is getting into our bodies from the device???

vedhed21
vedhed21

@Mr.Wallingford Android does this automatically by default, but you have the option to turn it off.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@Mr.Wallingford The answer is basically "yes" -- Android devices are hardwired to Google Calendar. If you use it, your stuff shows up everywhere.

Tino
Tino

@JimmyJack I think they use the front facing camera to track movement, so I cant see it being that dangerous in terms of radiation. They havent released figures yet for the SARS radiation absorption levels though. For me it reminds me that if the cameras watching you, who else could be watching you!! Also, I think its just a novelty - really - has anyone ever said i wish i didnt have to scroll down the page, its probably about as annoying as a slow paced auto scroll!! Apple have their work cut out for the iPhone 6 if this is anything to go by :))

dcannin
dcannin

@Tino @JimmyJack I think the biggest use of the eye movement would be while watching videos.  It would be nice to be able to look away at your spouse and have the video stop.  Maybe you wont get in as much trouble for ignoring her during the game.