Advanced Galaxy S4 features may overwhelm some users

Analysts question whether some of Samsung S4's new features like eye-tracking will be used

For Samsung, the new Galaxy S4 smartphone is full of promise with its spectacular hardware and software features, and the company hopes to sell millions of units of the phone.

Analysts equally were impressed with the new smartphone, but questioned how often users would actually use some of the richer features. Some of the new technologies included in the 5-inch smartphone include language translation, a dual-camera function to simultaneously use the rear and front cameras, and a technology that tracks eyes to pause a video or to automatically scroll down an email or web page.

Samsung is packing many features into mobile devices to see what sticks, said Jack Gold, principal analyst of J. Gold Associates.

"Will I use a camera that follows my eyes to see where I'm looking. I'm not sure," Gold said.

The Galaxy S4 was announced at a glitzy, but sloppily organized event at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Thursday evening. In the vein of Broadway musicals, many of the new smartphone features were explained on stage through performances by professional actors and dancers.

The Galaxy lineup, which includes smartphones at different prices, have helped propel Samsung to become the world's largest smartphone vendor in 2012. According to Gartner, Samsung sold roughly 206 million smartphones in 2012, outpacing Apple, which sold 130 million units, and Nokia, which was a distant third with sales of 39 million smartphones. In 2011, Samsung was the world's second largest smartphone vendor behind Apple.

The new LTE smartphone is considered a vast improvement over its predecessor, the Galaxy S III. The S4 has a super AMOLED display with density of 441 pixels-per-inch, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 2-megapixel front camera. The smartphone weighs 130 grams and is 7.9 millimeters thick. Depending on the market, the smartphone will come with a 1.9GHz quad-core processor or a 1.6GHz Samsung Exynos 5 eight-core processor. Other features include up to 64GB of storage, 2GB of low-power DDR3 RAM and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

The phone will be available from 327 operators in 155 countries starting at the end of April, though no specifics on its price or shipping were provided.

Everybody wants "whizbang" gizmos, but most of the fancy features in the S4 may go unused, Gold said. Smartphone usage still revolves around e-mail, apps, phone calls and light web browsing.

The S4 will still sell millions of units, and will please discerning Android smartphone users seeking bragging rights for some of the latest and greatest features available today, Gold said.

"To a large extent, the mobile market has turned into a game. It's more about upmanship," Gold said.

But it won't do much to attract Apple iPhone users.

"In the end does it really pull competitive users across ? I'm not sure it will," Gold said.

Samsung's development philosophy is very different compared to Apple, which has the forte to keep things simple, said Will Stofega, program director for mobile device technology and trends at IDC.

"There are two different philosophies. Samsung is clearly cutting-edge stuff and appeals to first movers," Stofega said. "They certainly are trying to out-feature everybody."

Apple's iPhone attracts buyers because it is simple and usable, but the company's stubborn exclusion of certain features has hurt some consumers, Stofega said.

"Apple doesn't want to have simple features like SD cards," Stofega said. "That's to the detriment of their user base."

Many of the advanced features in Galaxy S4 may be used down the road, if not instantly, Stofega said. He provided the example of the Galaxy S-Pen stylus, which was dismissed by critics when introduced a few years back. But the accessory is now important to users of Galaxy Note products, which mix tablet and smartphone features.

Some of the advanced S4 features may ultimately trickle down to Samsung's other lower-priced smartphones, said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner, who attended the event.

"It's going to be more and more about the features and approach. The hardware is [getting] incrementally better," Milanesi said.

Samsung sells many smartphones at different price ranges using multiple operating systems including Android, Bada, Windows Phone and in the future, Tizen.

The gaggle of features provides more usage options, but they need to work seamlessly in the device. For example, Milanesi took a while to figure out the simultaneous use of the dual-camera feature during a hands-on test of the device.

"The features today had wow in them, but do they work flawlessly?" Milanesi asked.

Nevertheless, Milanesi was impressed with the S4, saying that Samsung is great with technology and is pushing the edge in smartphone development. But the company will need the help of developers to push some of the new features into its other smartphones that use non-Android operating systems like Tizen.

"They can't do that by themselves," Milanesi said. "They still need other developers to adopt Tizen and write [applications]."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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