Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy S4
Melissa J Perenson | Published: Mar 15, 2013 at 16:23 UTC135
Samsung launched its flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone to much pomp and spectacle last night at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Often, such over-the-top theatrics could mask a lack of substance underneath. But that's not the case with the Galaxy S4. We went hands-on with the S4 at the New York event, and came away impressed with the innovative and well-integrated software and hardware enhancements that will keep Samsung well-ahead of its competition.
The first thing to note about the S4 is that it's practically identical in footprint and weight to its predecessor, and yet it's thinner and crams a slightly larger display into that space than on the S3. The S4 measures 13.5 by 7cm (5.38 by 2.74 in), just 1mm (0.04 in) narrower than the S3 - and a notable 11mm (0.43 in) narrower than the Galaxy Note II. The S4 is also very marginally lighter than the S3.
Overall, the phone felt comfortable to handle. Where the Samsung Galaxy Note II is nigh impossible to balance in one hand for typing, not so with the S4. It's weight and dimensions make it light enough to hold in one hand without any noticeable impact, yet large enough to get a satisfying display of text and photos.
The phone's design is a little more squared off around the sides than the S3, but it still felt good in our hands. The back remains a polycarbonate plastic material, but it felt more sturdy than the predecessor, with a slight textured patterning that gave the phone a moderately classier look.
One very noticeable dfference is the larger screen size on the S4. The phone's Super AMOLED screen measures a comfortable 5.0 inches, a satisfying 0.2-inch bump over the S3. The resolution is better, too: 1920-by-1080 pixels, and 441 pixels per inch, a notable step up over the Galaxy S3's Super AMOLED 1280-by-720 pixels and 306 ppi. We could see a distinct difference in the image quality between the two: The S4 looked sharper and crisper to our eyes, on text as well as images. But the distinctions were less clear when compared with the larger Galaxy Note II.
The new model uses a PenTile AMOLED display, the same type as on the S3 before it. A PenTile display arranges the display's subpixels as red, green, blue, green, an arrangement that helps counter the fact that blue subpixels often degrade faster on AMOLED displays. It also accounts for the display not appearing as crisp as an RGB display, such as the one found on the Galaxy Note II.
Indeed, we saw this when viewing a photo on the new S4 compared with the Note II. We noticed some minor differences in color and sharpness on our own photo. The Note II's image appeared slightly sharper, but the S4 had more balanced skin tones.
With the new Adapt display mode enabled, the differences were even more pronounced. This adaptive display setting automatically adjusts the contrast and brightness of the display depending upon the content you're viewing, optimizing based on whether you're watching a video, looking at an image, or reading a Web page or book, for example. On the S4, the Adapt display feature is more universally applied than on the Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet. In the Note 8.0's reading mode that mode is strictly optimized for reading apps and also adjusts for color temperature.
Ultimately, further testing will be necessary under controlled conditions and with the final, shipping S4 to determine how the different settings impact how images look on the display. Among the other display options now available are Dynamic, Standard, Professional Photo (Adobe RGB), and Movie.
User interface and software
Gesture navigation first gained mainstream traction with Microsoft's Xbox Kinect. Then gestures moved into televisions and then to PCs, for example Sony's Vaio E-series. Through it all, we've heard talk about integrating gestures into smartphones and tablets - and now that becomes a reality in the Galaxy S4.
We tested the gesture navigation in the Gallery app, where we navigated images simply with the forward or backwards swipe of a hand. In practice, we found the sensors a bit too sensitive, requiring precision and proximity to work smoothly. More often than not it felt like there was lag, or our swipe wasn't registered. Perhaps that will still be tweaked in time for the U.S. launch coming later in April. Ultimately, as nifty as this feature may seem, Samsung's going to have to offer up some training to walk folks through which apps support gestures, and what those gestures are (for example, you can also swipe in the browser to change among open Web pages, and swipe to answer an incoming call, neither of which we tested).
The Smart Scroll feature lets you scroll through content such as webpages by tilting the phone slightly into the corresponding direction. We did not get a chance to test feature yet but it seemed to work well in the Samsung demo. Smart Pause, meanwhile, detects if you've taken your face away from the screen during playback, and if so, it pauses the action for you. Nifty in its implementation, and its function.
Also new is Air View, a feature that first was announced on this spring's Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet. There, Air View lets you use the tablet's S Pen to hover over information in a supported app, gaining a shortcut to paying or getting further information. For example, in Flipboard, you could hold the pen over a category and get a preview of the headlines. On the S4, which also comes with Flipboard, you can now use your finger to do these actions. You can also use your finger to draw directly on the screen using an included app like S Memo, just as you'd use the S Pen on the Note II. For both actions, we found our fingers less precise than using the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 8.0; but, our fingers got the job done without the albatross of a pen.
The S4 phone actually borrows heavily from software elements found in the Note 8.0 tablet, which was only just introduced in February, and will be available in Q2 2013. Multi-window provides a scrollable list of supported apps (apps like email, gallery, Gmail, Internet browser, maps, messaging, S Memo, Talk, and YouTube). Long hold the back button to see the fly-out menu, then tap and drag one app, then the second app. You could technically choose to have three things going at the same time, if you were to overlay the popup player as well.
Entirely unique to the S4 phone are the array of features around health and fitness. We liked how the apps for these features were integrated, taking advantage of the new ensors built-into the phone - including ones for temperature and humidity.
In general, we liked many of the tweaks to the software, and many of the included apps - be they for health tracking or TV viewing or scanning business cards. On the whole, these enhancements collectively appealed; the real proof, however, will lie in how well these features all work with a device in the real world.