Samsung Galaxy S4: Hands on with the hot new phone

Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone

To say expectations are high for Samsung's Galaxy S4 would be a massive understatement.

Like the Galaxy S III before it, Samsung's latest flagship phone has inspired Apple-like levels of hype and devotion. (Hey, that's what happens when you have a product line whose sales top 100 million.) So does the device actually deliver?

I've been using the Galaxy S4 -- launching on AT&T and Sprint this weekend, T-Mobile next Monday, and Verizon on May 30th -- in place of my own personal smartphone for several days. I'm not ready to write a full review of the phone just yet; the Galaxy S4 has a lot going on in terms of both hardware and software, and -- as I often like to do -- I want to spend more time living with it and getting a meaningful feel for how its features work in the real world before reaching any final conclusions.

After a week with the device, though, I do have some general thoughts and impressions to share:

Samsung Galaxy S4 Black

• The Galaxy S4 looks and feels pretty much like the Galaxy S III. The phone shares the same basic shape and size as its predecessor as well as the same plastic-centric design language present in most Samsung devices.

Whether that's a good or a bad thing is subjective, of course: If you're among the many adorers of the Galaxy S III, you'll probably be pleased with the Galaxy S4's form. In and of itself, it's an attractive enough device that feels nice in the hand. That said, next to an all-aluminum phone like the HTC One or a (more fragile) glass-centric device like the Nexus 4, the Galaxy S4's plasticky build does make it look and feel a little cheap in comparison.

• The most prominent visual difference from the Galaxy S III to the Galaxy S4 is the screen: The Galaxy S4 rocks a new 5-in. 1080p Super AMOLED display with 441 pixels per inch. Smaller bezels allow the screen to fit in the same space as last year's model, so you're getting a larger display without gaining any extra bulk (the GS4 is actually ever-so-slightly narrower and thinner than the GS3).

Size aside, the Galaxy S4's screen looks good; though the phone packs fewer pixels per inch than the recently released HTC One, the difference at this level isn't really noticeable to the human eye. What you can notice is the difference in AMOLED vs. LCD technology: The Galaxy S4's AMOLED screen has deeper blacks but less pure-looking whites than the One's LCD display. It's also significantly harder to see in sunny or otherwise glary conditions.

• Remember how I said the One made me optimistic we were nearing the point where perfectly snappy performance would be a given with high-end devices? Yeah -- the Galaxy S4 puts a bit of a damper on that dream. The phone's certainly no slouch, but while the One was near-flawless in performance, I've seen subtle but noticeable signs of imperfection while using the Galaxy S4.

To be clear, we're talking about a degree of imperfection that won't be bothersome to most typical users -- an occasional jerkiness in a system animation, for instance, or a lag that's a little too long between tapping a Gallery folder and having it open -- but still, for a phone of this caliber, it's surprising to see.

Interestingly enough, the Galaxy S4 (U.S. version) and One both use a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM -- and the GS4's chip is clocked slightly higher than the One's, too, at 1.9GHz compared to 1.7Ghz -- which makes me suspect software is to blame for the differences in real-world performance.

Galaxy S4 Quick Settings

• Speaking of software, Samsung has taken its typical "more is more" approach with the Galaxy S4's operating system (as I've noted before, subtlety isn't in the company's DNA). That means the subdued visuals of Google's Android 4.2-level interface are traded for a busy and often overwhelming menagerie of colors and elements. Interface aside, it feels like Samsung tried to jam every possible feature it could think of into the phone, regardless of whether it'd actually be useful to users.

To be sure, some of Samsung's added features are just plain gimmicky, like the option to attach audio of your voice onto a still photo or to advance through Web pages by waving your hand in front of the phone. But others are legitimately innovative and valuable -- or sometimes just cool -- like the ability to view two apps side-by-side on screen or to scroll through a Web page simply by tilting your head. Those two features alone could probably sell this phone.

And that, my friends, is barely scratching the surface. There's a lot more to be said about the Galaxy S4's software, not to mention its hardware, performance, and -- oh yeah -- let's not forget that camera

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Rest assured, I'm looking at each area thoroughly and will explore it in great detail soon. Stay tuned for my full review, and be sure to join me on Google+ for more GS4 discussion in the meantime.

[UPDATE: Samsung Galaxy S4 deep-dive review]

SEE ALSO:

Samsung Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One: Camera shootout!

4 key takeaways from Samsung's Galaxy S4

HTC One: To buy or not to buy?

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