Samsung Galaxy S4: What to expect and what really matters

At Thursday's launch, Eye Scroll software, 440 PPI display expected

Samsung's next-generation Galaxy S4 smartphone, to be unveiled Thursday night in New York City, will reportedly have a larger display with ultra-high resolution, a faster processor and trademark Eye Scroll software that tracks a user's eyes to determine when to scroll through pages on the display.

Amid widespread pre-launch excitement over the device, Samsung has also hinted that the GS4 will still have a plastic body and will not be upgraded to aluminum as was done with the recently announced HTC One.

According to various sources, the GS4 will have:

  • A 5-in. display
  • Android 4.2
  • -- Screen resolution of 1080 x 1920 with 440 pixels per inch (PPI)
  • -- A quad-core processor clocked at 1.7 Ghz or faster
  • -- A 13-megapixel rear camera and a 2.2 megapixel front camera
  • -- 4G LTE
  • -- 802.11 ac, a faster Wi-Fi spec.

While Samsung used the roman numeral III in naming its current Galaxy S III smartphone, it seems to favor the Arabic numeral 4 for the next generation, using the figure in an invitation to the event that reads, "Ready 4 the show -- come and meet the next Galaxy."

What Samsung must accomplish with the launch is not only to substantially top its current GSIII in hardware specs and software, but to compete with the next iPhone, expected in June, and whatever HTC and other Android phone makers introduce in 2013, analysts said.

The GSIII is Samsung's best-selling smartphone. Half of the smartphones that Samsung sells are based on Android, the top mobile operating system, with more than 70% of the smartphone market worldwide, according to IDC and Gartner.

"Samsung has been successful in positioning itself as the only alternative to Apple's iPhone, and with that comes a much higher expectation" for the GS4, said Carolina Milanesi, a Gartner analyst.

"This is a big thing for Samsung, make no mistake," added Ramon Llamas, an IDC analyst. "This launch is their own international holiday, and they are once again flexing marketing and smartphone muscle to help maintain their position at the top of the leaderboard."

The hype for the GS4 is much greater than it was for the GSIII last year, "and I think consumers will not be as easily pleased with incremental improvements," Milanesi added. "Samsung runs the same risks as Apple if it enlivens more software-based enhancements versus hardware, which is harder to sell to consumers."

Regarding that eye-tracking software, an unnamed Samsung employee told The New York Times that GS4 users will be able to read articles on the display and when their eyes reach the bottom of the page, the software will automatically scroll down to reveal the next text passages.

The technology behind the eye-tracking isn't known, although Samsung has filed for trademarks to call it "Eye Scroll" in both Europe and the U.S. The GSIII today has Smart Stay, a software feature that uses the front-facing camera to keep the screen lit up when a person is looking at it, instead of dimming after awhile to save power.

Milanesi warned: "Eye-tracking needs to work flawlessly in order not to annoy users. It also might come across as a gimmick versus a real benefit."

Llamas said he didn't think he would use a feature like Eye Scroll, but he predicted the technology would introduce a whole series of facial and hand-gesture tracking innovations from Samsung.

"If Samsung is using the front-facing camera to track your eyes to scroll through an article, that's a pretty neat thing," Llamas said. "The front-facing camera is underused."

He also foresees a time that a user will make a gesture with a hand left to right in front of a smartphone to answer a call, with the reverse gesture indicating the call should go to voice mail.

Regarding the likelihood of a plastic body in the GS4, Milanesi said that as HTC and others "step up their game [with aluminum], Samsung needs to be careful that its devices do not feel cheaper than their price tag. It might be time to look at something other than plastic."

Samsung told CNET recently that bendable plastic makes it easier to open the back cover to remove a battery and to absorb physical impacts. Also, the company considers how quickly and efficiently it can manufacture a product. That factor tends to favor incorporating plastic over aluminum.

While the GS4's screen resolution is expected to be 440 PPI (or higher), according to various reports, Llamas questioned how important that would be, although it seems impressive when compared to the GSIII and the iPhone 5, both at above 300 PPI. (The GSIII has 306 PPI, while the iPhone 5 has 326 PPI.)

"The human eye is only capable of detecting 340 PPI," Llamas said. "Will people notice?"

Much the same can be said for whether the GS4 has a quad-core or an eight-core processor. "Aside from the actual specs, will people even notice?" Llamas said.

Some reports have said the GS4 will have Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa eight-core processor , although some analysts are wondering if that processor might run too hot and burn up battery life too quickly.

A Japanese blog, RBMen, suggested the processor could be clocked at 1.9 GHz, possibly running a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Either processor would probably require boosting the 2100 mAh battery seen in today's GSIII.

The GSIII runs a Samsung Exynos 4 quad-core processor outside of North America, clocked at 1.4 GHz, and a Snapdragon S4 dual core clocked at 1.5 GHz in the U.S. Apple's iPhone 5 runs an A6 dual core, bench-tested by third parties at 1.02 GHz. At 4.99-in. or 5-in., depending on the report, the GS4's display would be a tiny bit bigger than the GSIII at 4.8 inches but noticeably bigger than the 4-in. iPhone 5.

Milanesi called the display and resolution increases "incremental improvements that are important but not necessarily things that will sway consumer purchases."

Whatever hardware and software improvements are in store for the GS4, Samsung's event promises to be a marketing spectacle to draw attention to the smartphone. The event will be held at Radio City Music Hall, and Samsung is promising a live video stream over YouTube starting at 7 p.m. ET.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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