NEW YORK — You get the impression that Samsung is auditioning for a Las Vegas magic act. When it comes to the brand new Galaxy S4, the South Korean electronics giant seemingly has an endless bag of parlor tricks. The smartphone is the highly anticipated successor to the Galaxy S III and I like it a lot, even if some of the new features come off as “look what we can do” as opposed to “look how we can make your experience better.”
Want to answer a call or skip a song with the wave of your hand? Go right ahead. Want to pause a video by looking away from the screen? You can do that, too. Did someone walk in front of your family just as you were capturing the perfect pose? Poof — the interloper can be made to disappear from the picture. You can also use your phone as a remote control for your television — whether the TV is from Samsung or not — and receive recommendations of what to watch.
Samsung’s latest phone is loaded with so many stunts that the company wisely starts folks out with a “learn about key features” wizard. Newbies can also go with a newly enhanced “Easy Mode” home screen, with a simpler layout and bigger icons than the standard screens. An improved notifications panel can also make it a little easier to tame the device.
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Some of the features on the S4 launched on prior Galaxys, and perhaps you even took advantage of them. For example, there’s S Beam, in which you can exchange data with a friend by bumping your Galaxy phone against his or hers.
But the S4 is teeming with fresh capabilities. Some are fun and innovative, such as a dual-shot photography feature that lets you simultaneously snap a picture using the 13-megapixel front camera and 2-megapixel rear camera. You can see your own face beaming in an image that also shows your kid whacking the ball in Little League. But several other “touch-less” features weren’t always functional or easy to figure out. (Samsung has embedded eight sensors on the device.)
That’s not to diminish what taken as a whole is a handset worth coveting. There’s good reason Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones have climbed to the top of the Android charts and emerged as the leading competitor to Apple’s iPhone. Some features may be gimmicky, but this is still a phone you’re going to want.
The S4 hardware is state of the art, even if the plastic-y back, which feels just like the S III, doesn’t quite have the premium feel of another recent new Android rival, the HTC One. The speakers aren’t as good as HTC’s, either.
Samsung certainly has no reason to apologize for the S4’s beautiful 5-inch full HD Super Amoled (1920 x 1080) display, which is fortified by an advanced version of protective Gorilla Glass. At less than a third of an inch thick, the phone is more svelte than the S III and, at 4.6 ounces, a hair lighter.
Even at that, Samsung has been able to pack in a more powerful battery, which, as a bragging point against the iPhone, can be replaced by the user. When the back cover is removed, you can also slide in an optional microSD card to bolster the 16 GB or 32 GB of on-board storage by up to 64 GB.
The S4 has a powerful quad-core processor. It runs Android version 4.2.2 Jelly Bean.
Devices start arriving Thursday and will eventually be available in the U.S. from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, as well as from U.S. Cellular, Cricket and C Spire. Major retailers will also carry it.
AT&T is selling the 16 GB version for $199.99 with a two-year contract. Sprint is trying to lure new customers with an incentive that drops the cost to $149.99. That’s what T-Mobile will charge upfront on top of monthly payments under its new pricing structure. (I tested the T-Mobile version of the phone but couldn’t tap into 4G LTE since that network is not available yet on T-Mobile in and around New York City.) Verizon starts pre-orders on Thursday for $199.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate with availability May 30.
Some of the coolest new features come with the camera. I especially liked the dual-camera mode for combining images from the front and rear cameras into one, though it was sometimes a challenge to frame the image just right. Your mug appears in a small resizable rectangle that you can drag about the screen.
“Drama shot” was also pretty nifty. You can take a picture of your kid running the bases or doing a somersault — the idea is you’re tracking movement. The camera can take up to 100 images in a burst. Once processed, you can choose which of the frames ought to be combined in the final picture, which shows the subject’s progression.
The “eraser” effect can remove people or objects that don’t belong in your final picture. When turned on, the camera takes five pictures in succession with any moving objects highlighted in pink. Tap the pink to erase the distractions. Movement wasn’t always detected, perhaps because this shooter didn’t always steady the camera.
I had a good time playing with other effects, such as those that shoot videos in superslow motion or at faster speeds. A fun animation effect can combine a person who is moving with a person who remains stationary.
Unfortunately, the “air gesture” features that let you engage the phone in a variety of ways without touching it were a mixed bag. When the screen was dark and the phone lay flat on a surface, I was able to wave my hands above it to make it wake up and reveal notifications or to see the name of a song that was playing. I could answer a call that way, too. And I could also wave over pictures in the photo gallery to advance from one photo to another. In each case, though, I found it just as simple to do it the old-fashioned way. Samsung says there may be situations — in the car, for example — where some of the touch-less gestures come in handy.
By hovering over the screen with my finger, I could make certain other things happen, features borrowed from Samsung’s Galaxy Note “phablet.” On the Note you had to use a special S Pen, whereas your finger does the work here. For instance, if you’re on the Web you can magnify text on the page by hovering over the screen. I found it a bit more useful to hover over the phone’s calendar to be able to bring up more details about an event. By hovering inside the Samsung Hub store, I was able to glance at pricing on books, music or videos that were available to buy or rent.
I also had an erratic experience with the “smart pause” feature that is supposed to pause a video when you are no longer facing the screen. It worked at times but not consistently.
Same goes for the “smart scroll” feature that is meant to scroll the screen according to the way you tilt your head. It’s another of those parlor tricks that I can’t see regularly relying on.
I wasn’t able to test every last feature on the phone, including Group Play, which lets you play games or share files with other people nearby who also have the device. Then again, I can’t imagine using every last feature anyway. For all the fancy tricks, the real magic comes from sticking to the basics on what is a very appealing phone.
The bottom line
Samsung Galaxy S4
Pricing varies by carrier
Pro: Thin phone has beautiful screen, quad-core processor, removable battery, excellent camera, memory expansion capabilities and some fun features.
Con. Many of the features are gimmicky or not particularly functional.
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