As much as I enjoyed making fun of Samsung for the train-wreck of a media event they held in March to announce the new Galaxy smartphone, I have to admit that for a while now, the Galaxy line has easily outperformed virtually every other Android device on the market. I liked the S3 a lot better than the iPhone 5 and the BlackBerry Z10. Even the Samsung Note, which I had a hard time taking seriously at first because it is, without hyperbole, the size of a living room table, eventually grew on me.
That's why I can't recommend the Galaxy S4 without reservation. It is a great phone – the best all-round Android phone on the market right now. But it is great only because the S3 was terrific, and Samsung, in building the S3's successor, pulled off one of the all-time achievements in not rocking the boat. The majority of new features on the S4 are either rushed, arbitrary or graduates of the Siri School Of Cool-Sounding But Ultimately Useless Gimmickry. If you want an Android phone, you should absolutely buy a Samsung Galaxy – by which I mean you should wait till the S4 comes out and then try to get an S3 at a discount.
Visually, the S4 looks like a fusion of the S3 and the Note II. Like the vast majority of touchscreen phones, it is a flat pane of glass (if you're the sort of person whose purchasing decisions are influenced by this sort of thing, you should know the S4 has curved corners and a smooth steel border). The phone's back cover – and, indeed, the entire phone – feels a lot sturdier than previous Galaxys, although I'm too scared of breaking my review unit to really smash it against the concrete. It did survive one five-foot fall onto the hardwood, and a couple of trips to the climbing gym, for what that's worth.
The button setup is largely unchanged, with a physical home button at the bottom of the screen, a physical power button on the right border and volume controls on the left. The back and settings buttons, on either side of the home button, are virtual and hidden, only lighting up and buzzing when you touch them – this is something I find annoying, but you'd probably get used to it pretty quickly if you actually owned one of these devices and used those buttons all the time.
Because it is one of those areas where nobody really objects if you crank everything up to 11, Samsung has loaded the S4 with superlative processing power and other hardware specs. The Gorilla-Glass-protected, five-inch HD screen is as sharp as anything else out there (although I'd still take the Note II for watching movies, not only because the screen is bigger, but because the widescreen format feels far less wonky on the Note's dimensions). The 1.9-gigahertz, quad-core processor is, to be honest, overkill. But the good news is that there's probably not much you can do to make the S4 feel sluggish – for all intents and purposes, the bottleneck now becomes your network connection speeds. The S4, oddly, also packs a well-made on-board speaker. I don't know anybody who listens to anything on their smartphones without using headphones, but if you are that person, you'll be pleasantly surprised with the S4.
Of all the hardware upgrades, the new, larger battery was the most welcome. Like the iPhone, the S4 will still conk out after two-thirds of a day of heavy usage (give or take, obviously), but with light usage, you'll get a lot more out of it than you'd expect for such a burly, fuel-hungry processor.
Oh, and you also get a 2-megapixel camera up front and a 13-megapixel camera out back – the latter being probably the highest-resolution phone camera out there right now. There's a lot to say about smartphone cameras (more on the S4 camera later), but keep in mind that megapixels are to picture quality as horsepower is to driving quality – after a certain point, you just look like you're compensating for something. One day, history will look back on the megapixel arms race of the early 21st century with the scorn it rightfully deserves.
The user interface on the S4 hasn't changed much from previous models, and really isn't that different from most Android devices, except for the additional Samsung software. The default lock screen now lets you know, in friendly-looking font, that the S4 is not a phone, but a "life companion." This is the marketing angle Samsung is taking with its new phone and, like most slogans, it means nothing.
(Helpfully, there is an option to use your phone in a simplified mode that strips away many of the settings and apps, leaving you with a phone that just performs its core functions. This is a brilliant idea, especially for smartphone novices, and more phone-makers should copy it).
My review unit also came bloated with a gaggle of carrier-installed flabware, which I won't dignify with detailed decriptions. Carriers, please stop pre-installing garbage software on the phones you sell.
Where Samsung tries to differentiate the S4 from its predecessor is where things start to go ... well, not wrong, exactly, but inexplicable. There's nothing wrong with experimenting, but keep in mind these features are supposed to give you a reason to shell out 200 bucks and lock yourself into a three-year contract (or somewhere between $650 and $700 without a contract) for a new phone.
Perhaps the most bizarre and intriguing S4 feature is "Hover Touch." This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The phone now recognizes when your finger is hovering above the screen, which basically gives you a new input mechanism. The hover touch feature has all kinds of potential, such as previewing or scrolling through videos. Samsung explores some of this potential in the S4 (and previously, with the Note II stylus pen). But it is not yet a polished experience. While using the S4 browser I quickly found that if you keep your thumb too close to the screen, it activates the hover touch function, which on the browser is a floating zoom. One day, Samsung will perfect hover touch; today is not that day.
Then there's the feature that was most hyped in the lead-up to the S4's launch and most immediately forgotten afterwards – Crazy Eye-Powered SuperScroll (Not its real name, I don't think). This is the feature that would let you pause videos and scroll through web pages simply by looking away from or at certain parts of your phone. There's a good reason the Samsung rep who walked me through the S4's features spent a grand total of 30 seconds on this one: it just doesn't work very well, and often not at all. One day, Samsung will perfect Crazy Eye-Powered SuperScroll; today is definitely not that day.
The 13-megapixel camera is very good, edging out the iPhone 5 in most conditions and blowing away anything on a BlackBerry. But for some reason, Samsung decided to include a whopping 12 photo modes with its camera software. These include night-mode, sports-mode, panorama-mode and a few others that are pure Samsung originals. "Beauty Face," for example, purports to enhance facial features automatically. I'm not entirely sure what this means, but I can confirm that, despite multiple attempts, this mode did not make me any prettier, although that cannot reasonably be called the software's fault. "Drama" mode takes multiple pictures of someone moving, and lets you stitch them together into a somewhat neat-looking still/action shot. "Sound and Shot" lets you add up to nine-seconds of audio to a photo to create a kind of talking postcard. You're experience may vary, but I found Sound and Shot to be creepy in a "this photo is haunted" kind of way.
I don't criticize Samsung for adding all these photo modes to the new phone. In fact, many people might enjoy Eraser mode, which lets you take photos in rapid-fire and use them to get rid of moving objects. But if you have a reasonably new smartphone – and certainly if you have an S3 – these features are not good enough reasons to switch or upgrade devices.
However there are a number of other features on the S4 that, at least, show great potential. Primary among these is "S Health," Samsung's Fitbit-like activity monitor. By now you've probably heard of health-monitoring devices, which use accelerometers and other such data-gathering technology to quantify just how lazy you really are. Samsung realized that much of this technology already exists on your smartphone, and built a health-monitor of its own. This is a very savvy business move, and if it works, Samsung and other phone-makers could do to standalone health monitors what smartphones previously did to standalone GPS navigators. Unfortunately, the auxiliary accessories you need to make S Health really useful have yet to hit the market, so I can't tell you exactly how effective it is.
Speaking of features other companies should be worried about, the S4 also comes with something called "Samsung Hub," which is a prettier-looking version of the Google Play software store. Hub is slimmed down and looks a little like one of those heavily-curated, good-looking apps you find on Windows 8. Its real significance, however, is as an indicator of where the Android platform is going. For years, Google gave its operating system out for free, content to make money as an advertising-revenue middleman. Now, companies such as Samsung and Facebook are starting to heavily modify Android in ways Google probably never intended, and Google is largely unable to do anything about it without totally ruining the open-software, we-just-want-everyone-to-get-along persona it worked so hard to cultivate.
The suspicion that Samsung sort of rushed the S4 to market (probably to cash in on the window before Apple releases a new iPhone) hit me again as I considered the company's "Knox" software. Knox is basically a rip-off of BlackBerry Balance, in that it lets corporate IT departments create a church-state divide between an employee's personal and business worlds on the S4. Enterprise is a market Samsung is heavily focused on this year and, as a business decision, Knox is a great idea that Research In Motion should be very worried about. Except, again, the full version of Knox has been delayed. This is a bigger problem than S Health because, if you're trying to convince major corporations – who usually loath Android – to trust your phone as a business device, you don't want to start off with a series of delays.
If you have the money, don't have a relatively new phone, and are looking for a top-of the line device, the S4 is probably the best Android phone on the market. It might even be the best all-round smartphone, period. But it speaks to the reality of the current touchscreen industry – there's just not much more that can be done to really improve these things, but companies such as Apple and Samsung are generating so much revenue off the basic smartphone format that there's also no incentive to do something truly innovative. The next revolutionary device is either coming from an entirely unexpected company, or from Apple – once the iPhone stops making money.