Samsung finally took the wraps off of its next flagship handset, the Galaxy S IV, at an event in New York tonight to much fanfare. After we got to spend some time with it, the only question that remains is: is this the next big thing?
The easy, cop-out answer here is yes and no. With some work, the Galaxy S IV really can be a remarkable piece of technology. But as it stands now, many of its biggest features, which have to do with its software, need some tweaks before the Galaxy S IV can live up to Samsung’s “next big thing” claim.
Build and Design
That being said, the hardware is fantastic. The 5-inch (4.99-inch, if we’re getting picky), full HD Super AMOLED display looks incredible, both in terms of sharpness and color saturation. And somehow the Galaxy S IV doesn’t feel too unwieldy in the hand, despite its massive screen size; that could have a lot to do with the fact that it has a very thin bezel, is only 7.99mm thick, and weighs in at a mere 130 grams.
It looks quite pretty too, even if its design is a little on the safe, “traditional” side. Besides being so svelte, a chrome trim runs around the edges of the device, complementing the device’s black or white color scheme. It is, however, made out of plastic; combined with its extremely lightweight build, some may write that off as making the Galaxy S IV feel a little cheap.
In terms of button and port location, it’s all very standard fare. The volume rocker is on the left side, while the power/standby button is on the right, and they’re both very low profile and sit practically flush with the edge of the phone. The physical home button still remains and, like before, is right below the screen. On the bottom is the charging jack, which is actually not micro USB, but an MHL 2.0 port. That just leaves the 3.5mm headphone jack and IR blaster, both of which are on the top.
There are a number of standout software features that lend credence to Samsung’s claim that the Galaxy S IV is a truly “innovative device,” many of which revolve around making it easier to navigate the device.
For users who are familiar with any of the Galaxy Note devices, the Air View feature that has now made its way over to the Galaxy S IV will be familiar. For those who don’t know what it is, Air View previously allowed users to preview certain aspects (think the first few lines of an email or the full view of a picture) by hovering over the object with the S Pen.
Now that it’s a feature on the Galaxy S IV, users can do the same thing by simply hovering over objects with their fingers. AirView not only worked incredibly well, but it was, in fact, one of the few flawlessly implemented aspects we got to try out on the new handset.
Similar to Air View is the new Air Gesture feature, which allows users to navigate their Galaxy S IV without actually touching the phone. While it sounds great in theory – we all know how helpless it feels to have your fingertips covered in something sticky or greasy and not wanting to touch our phones – it was unfortunately hit-or-miss in its execution. The scrolling worked well enough, which required only a simple wave of the hand from the bottom to the top of the phone and vice versa, but moving from side to side (like trying to view the next in a series of emails or pictures) basically did not work. It struck us as especially odd that Air Gesture was responsive for some gestures but not others.
What caused us the most trouble, however, was the Smart Scroll feature. There was a lot of buzz about this aspect of the phone leading up to its launch, which tracks the user’s eye movements and automatically scrolls through pages as their eyes reach the bottom. Despite trying it ourselves as well as asking for a Samsung rep to attempt using it, we never actually saw it work properly. We tried extensively, from a number of angles and different proximities to the screen, but we could never get the page to scroll when our eyes reached the bottom.
Smart Scroll does, however, also incorporate a tilt feature for scrolling, which works…sometimes. It can definitely be spastic at times, either getting stuck and scrolling too far or too fast. While it’s more reliable than the eye detection, it does seem a little excessive to us to have Smart Scroll work with both tilting and eye detection; even if both worked reliably, it seems like the combination of the two would result in a fair amount of accidental scrolling.
There were some other aspects of the Galaxy S IV that we got to inspect, including its S Translate feature. Unlike some of Samsung’s other additions to the handset, S Translate wasn’t hugely innovative, especially considering we just finished seeing a translator feature in action on Asus’s PadFone Infinity at MWC. We could appreciate the fact, though, that any combination of text or voice input and output could be accommodated; for example, users can type in a phrase and the phone can speak it out loud in a different language, or they can speak it into the phone and have the phone output it into text.
The accuracy of the translator wasn’t great, though. Much like an online translator, it generally translated phrases too literally. We tried translating a very simple phrase – “My name is Grant” – to French and it somehow managed to mess that up. But, like many other aspects of the Galaxy S IV’s software, it’s nothing tweaks delivered via updates can’t fix.
The only other feature we had time to try out was the Dual Camera, which allows users to capture pictures or videos with the rear-facing and front-facing cameras simultaneously. Though perhaps not for everybody, it’s a decent idea and it certainly worked well, as you get used to framing up shots with both cameras surprisingly quickly. We especially appreciated how we could move the smaller sub-shot (which can be adjusted to be taken with either camera) anywhere on the primary picture simply by touching and dragging it.
It may sound like we have a lot of negative things to say about the Samsung Galaxy S IV, but it’s really just that we are holding it to such high standards. This has the potential to be the best-selling Android phone this year, if not the best-selling overall smartphone this year. So Samsung needs to take some of the aspects that set its flagship phone apart from the competition – Smart Scroll, Air Gesture, etc. – and ensure that they’re polished. It’s still very much a good phone. We’re just looking for it to be great.