4 key takeaways from Samsung's Galaxy S4

Samsung Galaxy S4

If there's one thing you can say after Samsung's Galaxy S4 unveiling, it's that the word "moderation" doesn't seem to be in the company's vocabulary.

Samsung took the wraps off the Galaxy S4 last night, giving the world its first peek at the device in what can only be described as an odd theatrical circus. (Seriously -- if you haven't watched it yet, go scan through the video now. It's one of the strangest tech events you'll ever see.)

Sammy takes a similarly indulgent approach with the Galaxy S4 itself, packing an orgy of features into the device and showing little restraint with its software choices. Depending on your perspective, that could result in an exceedingly exciting or dizzingly dreadful experience.

No matter how you look at it, though, the Galaxy S4 is a significant new phone -- and there's a lot to digest about it. But don't get overwhelmed: Beyond all the marketing glitz, these four takeaways will tell you everything you really need to know.

1. The Galaxy S4 has a familiar Samsung-style build.

Samsung Galaxy S4 (Back)

With the Galaxy S4, Samsung is sticking with the same plastic-centric construction we've come to expect from the company -- the device, in fact, looks awfully similar to the Galaxy S III at a glance.

The Galaxy S4 is ever-so-slightly narrower, thinner, and lighter than last year's model, but you'd have to be paying close attention to notice those differences. For the most part, it follows the same design aesthetic as the S III, with a hard plastic casing, available this time in black or white; a hardware Home button flanked by capacitive Back and Menu buttons; and a familiar shape (though a bit more square-like than its predecessor -- but again, it's a subtle change).

The plastic-based build is a sharp contrast to the direction other high-end phones are taking right now: Next to an all-aluminum phone like the HTC One, a glass-centric device like the Nexus 4, or a Kevlar-and-metal product like Motorola's Droid Razr HD, the Sammy-style casing has a noticeably less premium feel and appearance. It does, however, add the benefit of a removable back cover, which allows you to easily replace the phone's battery if you so desire.

Ultimately, it's a matter of personal preference: If you're content with the Galaxy S III, the Galaxy S4 is no major departure and will likely leave you pleased. If you aren't sure how you feel, you may want to do some hands-on comparisons once the phones are available to see which build style you prefer.

(Samsung says the Galaxy S4 will launch globally sometime in the second quarter, by the way, with U.S. availability on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, U.S. Cellular and Cricket. Neither pricing nor a specific release date has been announced.)

2. The Galaxy S4 has some impressive hardware improvements.

Don't let outside appearances fool you: The Galaxy S4 has a lot of improvements beyond its basic body.

First of all, despite its similar size to last year's model, the S4 has a 5-in. 1080p Super HD AMOLED display -- a step up from the 4.8-in. 720p screen the S III possessed. The S4's screen is 1920 x 1080 with 441 pixels per inch; in layman's terms, that means it's gonna look really good. The screen is also protected by the newer Gorilla Glass 3 instead of the older Gorilla Glass 2, if that sort of thing matters to you.

Under its hood, the Galaxy S4 is a whole new beast. Depending on the region, the phone packs either a 1.6GHz octa-core processor or a 1.9GHz quad-core processor (from the sounds of it, the U.S. models will utilize the latter) along with a full 2GB of RAM.

The phone has a new 13-megapixel primary camera and 2-megapixel front-facing lens. It ships with 16GB of internal storage by default, though Samsung says 32 and 64GB models will also be available in some areas. All models have a microSD slot that supports up to 64GB of external storage as well.

The S4 has a beefy 2600 mAh battery; at this point, however, Samsung hasn't said what we should expect in terms of actual usage time. The device has a few other new hardware-based bells and whistles, like an IR blaster for controlling your TV and temperature and humidity sensors (yes, really) to be used with some integrated health applications (more on those in a minute).

Long story short: The Galaxy S4 may be more evolutionary than revolutionary, but beyond its familiar body, it definitely boasts some cutting-edge new technology.

3. The Galaxy S4 runs a distinctly Samsung-flavored version of Android.

Samsung Galaxy S4 TouchWiz

Sorry, stock Android fans: TouchWiz isn't going anywhere with the Galaxy S4. Samsung's newest flagship uses the same basic interface you've grown to love or hate with the Galaxy line. The company's lack of restraint is very much at play in this department; "subtle" is just not a word you'd use to describe Samsung's approach to UI design.

The Galaxy S4 is based on Google's latest Android 4.2.2 build, but don't expect to see the Jelly Bean interface employed on pure Google phones like the Nexus 4. Samsung is making it increasingly clear that it's creating its own brand within the world of Android (for now, at least), and the S4 follows that tradition.

Whether that move represents brilliance or blasphemy depends entirely on your tastes.

4. The Galaxy S4 has a ton of new software features -- most of which you'll probably never use.

Samsung is really squeezing a lot of new software features into the Galaxy S4, but at first glance, most of the stuff seems more like an exercise in engineering than a collection of practical functions people would actually use.

Some examples:

  • The Galaxy S4 lets you capture an image of yourself with the phone's front camera while you snap a photo with the rear camera -- then insert the image awkwardly into the rear camera's photo. A novel photo booth trick, sure, but would you use it more than once?
  • The S4 has a Sound & Shot feature that lets you attach audio of your voice onto a still photo. Or, you know, you could just capture a video.
  • Samsung has added its Note-esque Air View mode into the S4, meaning in certain apps, you can hover your finger over the phone and move it around without touching the screen to interact with the device. Another cool effect and neat party trick, though I question the long-term practicality: Is it really easier to do that as opposed to just going the extra couple centimeters and touching the display -- especially considering that the Air View mode works only in limited circumstances?

Samsung showed off a host of other new Galaxy S4 features, like a Dual Video Call mode that lets you use both of the phone's cameras during a video chat (but only if you're using Samsung's proprietary ChatOn application for the call), an S Translator language translation service (that appears to serve the same function as the long-available Google Translate app), and an expanded version of Samsung's S Voice voice recognition system (which has traditionally proven to be an inferior substitute for Google's own Android-integrated Voice Search functionality).

Then there's Smart Pause, a feature that can automatically pause videos when you look away from the screen, and Smart Scroll, which lets you move up and down in a Web page by physically tilting the device. These, too, may end up being more gimmicky than anything, but we'll see.

A few of the Galaxy S4's new tricks do seem legitimately useful, like the integrated S Health functionality, which lets you track your daily exercise habits as well as environmental conditions (kind of like Fitbit without the need for a third-party accessory). The phone also has the option to enable a new business-targeted security mode called Knox that allows users to create separate work and personal spaces on the device.

The big picture

What really matters, of course, is what the phone is like to use in the real world -- and that's something we can't determine from a press release, spec sheet, or 15-minute window of rush-exploring the device in a controlled environment.

Samsung does have a history of creating smartphones that resonate with the masses, though, and the Galaxy S4 sticks with what's worked while adding in some significantly upgraded hardware and eye-catching new software flourishes. Those flourishes will undoubtedly serve as the basis for an extensive and effective marketing campaign. All considered, there's little doubt the Galaxy S4 will be a massive sales success.

As for what the device is actually like to use, though -- and how it compares to other high-end Android phones -- stay tuned. I'll be spending some serious time with the Galaxy S4 soon and will share my in-depth impressions with you then.

For now, I'll say this: We've reached a time where there are some wildly compelling choices in the high-end Android market, and that's a fantastic thing. Despite some folks' tendencies to make sensational proclamations of one device being the "king" or end-all "killer," I don't think that's a realistic view.

When it comes to quality and overall user experience, the Galaxy S4 promises to be one of the top Android phones of the season. It also has some impressive adversaries from the likes of HTC, LG, and Sony, each with its own set of interesting advantages.

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The judgment of which is the best boils down to which is the best for you -- and once we have some real-world impressions of each device's strengths and weaknesses, that decision should get a lot easier to make.

Man, it's a good time to be an Android fan.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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