First Impressions of Samsung Galaxy S4

Hands-on the Galaxy S4 (Photo: Larry Magid)

Hands-on the Galaxy S4 (Photo: Larry Magid)

by Larry Magid

After sitting through the glitziest product introduction I’ve ever been to followed by a few minutes of hands-on with the Galaxy S4, I came away impressed but not blown away.

I’ll get into details in a moment, but my overall sense of this phone is that it firmly establishes Samsung as a leading innovator — if not the leading innovator — in the smartphone space.  It’s kind of ironic that Apple won a lawsuit last year after a jury found that Samsung had copied iPhone features and designs. The Galaxy S4 — like the Galaxy S3 — could never be called a copycat.  Samsung came out with specs and features that we’ve never yet seen in a smartphone, including any phone that begins with the letter i.

Hardware specs

Like Apple, Samsung is a hardware company that innovates mainly through software. But the hardware specs are worth noting. The 5-inch full HD Super AMOLED; 1,920×1,080 screen, at 441 pixels per inch, is both bigger and higher resolution than the iPhone 5, although the HTC One has an equally high resolution — though smaller — (4.7 inch) screen.  Samsung also upped the ante with a faster processor and unlike Apple it lets users expand the phone’s storage (internal storage ranges from 16 to 64 GB) to plug in a MicroSD card for up to another 64GB. And the phone has a mega-battery. Samsung didn’t say how long the battery will last, but it does have 2,600 mili amp hours,  which is a lot more than the competition. I refer you to a handy CNET chart comparing the S4′s specs with those of the iPhone, HTC One and the Blackberry Z10 if you want more details.

Innovative software & cool photo features

I expect hardware to keep getting better but what impressed me — at least as a first impression — was the software that Samsung added to the phone.  But full disclosure — there is a big difference between sitting through a presentation and getting a few minutes of hands-on time versus testing a phone under real-world conditions. So anything I say is tentative pending my full review.

Still, I was impressed with the phone’s photo features beginning with its 13-megapixel, back-facing camera. But what I really liked is the camera’s ability to include the photographer in the picture.  I have taken thousands of pictures of my family but I’m not in most of them. With the S4 you can snap a picture of other people and place yourself — albeit in a little window or bubble — in the frame.  The camera also intellegently sorts your pictures into albums based on the background or the date and you can order picture books directly from the phone. There is also an “eraser” feature that takes a series of quick photos and lets you remove images of people who walk into your shot by deleting just those frames.

Multi-lingual voice recognition

The S4 comes with Samsung’s S Translator tool that enables you to speak in one language and have the phone translate to another. At the press event they showed someone typing a question in English and having the phone speak the words out-loud in Chinese.  When someone responded in Chinese, the phone typed out his words in English. It supports several other languages including French, Spanish, Italian and Portugese.

The phone also has Siri-like voice recognition that outclasses Siri. You can ask it to read your email out loud and ask the phone to respond to a text message while you’re driving. It aso handles navigation and other phone features.

Knows if you’re looking

If you’re watching a video and look away, the video will pause automatically and resume when you turn your eyes back to the screen. You can also scroll by looking up or down and by slightly tilting the phone. It’s not the full-fledged eye tracking that was rumored — but it’s a step in that direction.

Another cool hands-off feature is “Air Gestures.” That allows you to control the phone by waving your hand above the screen. You can swipe left to right or up and down. You can even hover over an email or other item to get more information without having to touch it.

I also love the S Health feature that turns your phone into a pedometer without any extra hardware or, when connected to other devices it can sense your blood pressure, blood sugar or other vital signs. There’s an option S Band that measures your heart beat.

The phone will be available next quarter on hundreds of carriers around the world including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. Pricing wasn’t specified.

Cool factor

There’s a great deal more to say about this phone and its features and — again — I’m not yet ready to pass judgement, but I liked what I saw and can say without any hesitation that Samsung — at least for the moment — is a few steps ahead of Apple when it comes to the “cool” factor.

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