The Galaxy S 4, Samsung's latest and greatest, has a cute feature we'll probably see in a lot of phones soon: You can shoot both yourself and your surroundings at the same time, using the front- and back-mounted cameras. It's a bit like having a two-camera film crew follow you around.
But other than that, it's hard to point to anything that will set the world on fire in the new phone, revealed Thursday at an event in New York. The S 4 has what you'd expect from a new smartphone: a bigger screen and a faster processor. It may prove to be unfortunate that didn't stop there when it presented the successor to its hit Galaxy S III, because the phone has a grab-bag of features that don't come together as a pleasing whole.
The phone will go on sale sometime between late April and the end of June, from Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA, US Cellular and Cricket, Samsung says. Expect this phone to start at $200 with a two-year contract.
The S 4, in terms of hardware, is a solid successor to the III. The screen is slightly larger, at 5 inches on the diagonal compared to 4.8 inches for the III and 4 inches for the iPhone 5. It sports a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, as much as you'd find on a high-definition TV set. This should mean that the resolution chase is over in the smartphone area: the eyes just can't discern any more pixels on these small screens.
The bigger screen is crammed into a chassis that's actually a hair narrower and thinner than the S III's. This is quite a feat. Samsung shrank the frame surrounding the screen to make room. Samsung does care about trying to push the envelope on what the phone does, but it may have poked through the envelope. It's probably not a disaster, because most of its features can be turned off, but first-time users could be confused.
Samsung is taking the whole "touch screen" thing further by now sensing when the user's finger is hovering over the screen. In other words, you don't even need to touch the phone to make it react. Hovering over a thumbnail of a picture in the Gallery will reveal a bigger thumbnail, and hovering over one email in a list will show a preview of its first lines.
The idea is similar to the "mouse hover" feature on a PC. Implementing it on a smartphone is trickier, though.. On the S 4, the "Email" app will show previews, but the "Gmail" app won't. The built-in "Gallery" app will show picture previews, but other photo apps won't.
The hovering feature also sets the phone up for another problem. In my testing, I found that the phone sometimes registered a close hover as a touch. The S 4 tries to divine your intentions in two additional ways. It looks for hand movements up to about 4 inches away from the phone, and it uses the front-side camera to figure out if it's front of the user's face. Thanks to the IR sensor, the phone's browser responds to an "up swipe" in the air above it with by scrolling up, and to a "side" swipe by jumping to another tab. This could be pretty useful when the smartphone is the lunchtime companion and you don't want to grease it up with foody fingers, but the "air swipe to scroll" shows up in only a few applications.
The camera is supposed to engage when you're watching a video, pausing playback if it thinks you're looking away. This didn't work in the preproduction unit I tested, but it's hard to imagine that this is a feature to die for.
The list of user interface innovations goes on, but they don't amount to a coherent new way of interacting with the phone. Nor do they turn the phone into something that's intelligently aware of what goes on around it.
It's more like Samsung is throwing a bunch of technologies into the phone to see what sticks. Sometimes, that's how progress works, but consumers might not appreciate being guinea pigs.