Samsung’s next big thing, the Galaxy S 4, finally entered the spotlight Thursday evening after weeks of rumor and speculation. While the hardware is impressive, it seems Samsung barely broke a sweat over delivering on that front; instead, the company focused heavily on adding software to stock Android 4.2 Jelly Bean in the form of TouchWiz features, some new and some ported from Samsung’s Galaxy Note devices. Some features are sensible additions that seem like they add decent functionality without a lot of effort; others are almost the exact opposite.
When we finally got to hold the thing, it felt nice and solid in our hands and the shape is a little more appealing than the Galaxy S III. We brought an S III along for comparison, and noted that while the S 4 has a larger screen by a fraction of an inch, the body is actually narrower due to a slimmer bezel. The only downside of the hand-feel is that the phone is too light and has little gravity to it; we wouldn’t mind it being weightier if only to make it feel more sturdy.
The screen on the phone looks beautiful and didn’t have any "off" tints to it. The 13-megapixel camera, likewise, looks like it can produce great shots. For kicks, we tested out the new dual-camera mode that shoots out the back and front of the phone. Dragging and resizing the second-camera screen seemed to work without a hitch. While we can’t say we often find ourselves wishing for this feature, it seems nifty both for videos and photos—both cameras are there, so why not?
The crowded environment didn’t seem prime for heavy testing of S Voice, let alone its new language translation features. We gave it a couple of quick commands, and it seems to have improved from the last time we interacted with it. Even though there were plenty of people talking around us and the noise level was high, the phone seemed to hear every word perfectly.
Samsung added some new functionality to the touch screen as well, including the ability to use it by not physically making contact and instead hovering your fingers or hands over it, and the ability to use it with gloves. Gloves-on, we found the phone worked without a hitch, and even typing on the keyboard was easy.
The contactless interactions, though, we had a bit of trouble with. In order for gestures to activate anything, they needed to be just above the surface of the phone, about the distance your younger sibling might hold a finger from your arm when they are “not touching you.” Both swipes and taps required this near-touch not-touch. Activating a tap also didn’t seem to respond to a near-touch tapping motion as well as a stationary hover over the icon we wanted to select.
We may have also had a couple of misfires on selections by hovering too close when we didn’t mean to, but we’d have to do more extensive testing to know whether this is really a problem. Even if it is, users are able to turn the “AirGesture” feature on and off in the settings.
We tried to take a quick browse through the new Samsung Hub, which appears to be a challenge to Google Play’s content store. Some sections, like movies, oddly wouldn’t let us browse without being able to read and use our location, but the music section loaded without issue; it appeared like a generic, if pretty, digital music store.
The phone has still more features we have yet to test out, including S Voice translation, the Knox security settings, eye tracking to pause and play video, and some content manipulation features like Story Album for photos and Group Play to feed music through up to eight Galaxy S 4s at once. We're not sure all of Samsung's additions will be home runs, but the core functionality and design are better than ever. Samsung has stated that the phone won’t be out until the second quarter of this year