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.
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.
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.
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.