So I unwrapped a spanking new Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone the other day. It’s Samsung’s most popular handset, earning iPhone-level sales in the first two weeks on sale, and I had to wonder whether I had a mobile gadget, or a doorway to a magical world with all the publicity it has received.
Well, I have to tell you that it’s a really good product, but it doesn’t quite match the manufacturer’s hype.
Now Apple has made a huge deal of the user experience that begins when you first open the box in which the unit ships. Well, Samsung has gone the route of a wood-grained finish cardboard, with the design motif carrying through to the tiny booklet that covers the initial setup and basic features. The charger and earphones, however, are white, same as Apple. In fact, from a distance, you may not see much of a difference, except for the fact that Samsung uses a micro USB connection for recharging (as opposed to mini USB). Apple, as you know, went from one proprietary connection scheme, 30-pin, to yet another proprietary connection scheme, Lightning.
Regardless, my review sample, a 16GB black mist model, came roughly half charged. So I connected the charger plug to a wall socket, and went on with my business. A couple of hours later, I opened the plastic cases on the S4 and S3, and transferred the SIMM card from the latter to the former. I had a chance to put the two side by side, so I could see how Samsung managed to cram a 5-inch display into a case that’s slightly smaller, thinner, and lighter than the S3. The rounded corners, for example, are less rounded, but I don’t know how round it has to be to avoid notice by Apple, although it has been added to one of those ongoing patent lawsuits. The screen bezel is narrower at the bottom and the sides.
Inside, the square 2600mAh battery seems to take up about half of the available space on the chassis, which demonstrates that Samsung’s efforts at parts miniaturization have been extremely successful. I’ve always found battery life to be subpar on the S3, at least in comparison with an iPhone 4s. The iPhone always managed to stay charged for an entire night, while the S3 routinely beeped in protest in the middle of the night, signifying that battery life had fallen below 15%. I’ll have more to say about S4’s battery life after a few days of real use, but it seems that current isn’t consumed nearly as fast.
The AMOLED display is noticeably brighter. The S3 failed in bright sunlight; the S4 is decent under those conditions at maximum brightness.
So far so good, but I wasn’t so pleased with Samsung’s standard method of transferring your stuff from an older smartphone, which can be blamed on Google. Remember that a new iPhone can, with iCloud or iTunes, completely restore a new handset to be near identical to the one it replaces within a relatively short period of time.
So after entering my Gmail account info in the S4’s initial setup assistant, I was pleased to discover that all my downloaded apps were present. But system settings, even the ones that seemed identical to the older model, had reverted to default. I also had to reenter all of my email accounts. Worse, my subscription to the Antivirus Free security software wasn’t supported, so I had the choice of either ordering a new subscription, or asking for help. Since my 90-day subscription was near expiration anyway, I oped to start from scratch.
And, yes, you want security software on an Android device. That’s where the vast majority of malware is found. Most of the rest lies with Nokia’s fading Symbian OS.
The downside of the lack of a complete restore meant that I had to waste a few hours going through all the settings to match what they were on the S3. Yes, I am aware of Android backup apps, but I wanted to treat the setup process the same as the typical owner of Android hardware who wouldn’t consider a third-party alternative.
After playing with it a while, I noticed that an email bug I discovered months ago involving IMAP accounts was still there. So evidently using a later OS, Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2, compared to 4.1.2 on the S3, didn’t make a difference. The problem? When checking a message I’ve sent on the S4 while on another device, such as my iMac running Apple mail, the text of the email would be displayed twice. This is a bug that I had reported to a Samsung product person a few months ago, and I hope they will work on a solution. You’ll see this artifact on mail sent via Android’s own Email app, plus any app that overlays Email, using its basic engine with a different theme.
Now Samsung touts loads of flashy apps and features that are designed to make the S4 appear unique. Some of those features, such as eliminating an unwanted person from a video, may actually be useful. Some, such as scrolling through a page with the tilt of your head (or the handset) seem to be needless fluff. But all that stuff, and I suppose you can call some of it junkware, ends up filling nearly half of the storage capacity of the 16GB model. Samsung is actually promising to slim the apps so they don’t take so much space, but you may want to buy the 32GB model instead. Google promises to sell a pure Android version of the S4 unencumbered by such sometimes needless extras.
Now there’s one other annoying feature. Supposedly the S4 can serve, with the WatchON app, as a universal remote control. But in my limited testing, it only seems to support a TV and a set top box. What about Blu-ray and a separate sound system? I’m still waiting for answers.
However, the S4 is a perfectly good phone. This is something not often mentioned, but calls on the AT&T network were crystal clear in both directions. Both Samsung and Apple support an enhanced audio feature, HD voice, which is only supported on T-Mobile right now, and requires using HD voice-enabled hardware at both ends of the connection. So I wasn’t able to test the feature (AT&T will add it later this year), but there was nothing to complain about. The S4 was also easy to pair with the hands-free Bluetooth system on my Honda.
Of course, making and receiving phone calls is something rarely mentioned, although a smartphone that fails at the fundamentals is a loser in my book. All in all, however, it’s clear Samsung has ample reason to be proud of the Galaxy S4, but I’m saying that ahead of actually playing with the gee-whiz features. I’ll have more to say in the days to come.
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