Samsung tonight took the wraps off its new Galaxy S 4 smart phone, the new flagship for its innovative S brand line whose other models have scored very well in our tests. While the new phone falls short of being revolutionary, it brims with clever capabilities.
A few of them are truly new, like some gesturing features, while a lot are deftly adapted or upgraded from S brand-mates or inspired by those found on other leading phones.
The phone's 5-inch Super AMOLED display, for instance, is bigger than that of its predecessor, the Galaxy S III. And at 136.3 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm, the new phone even thinner.
At an event held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Samsung announced that the new phone will hit the market in the second quarter of 2013 from all four major wireless carriers as well as Cricket and U.S. Cellular. No price was disclosed.
Before the event, I received a preview of an European version of the S 4. Here are highlights from that demo session:
Touch-free control. You can do a lot with the Galaxy S 4 without ever touching it. For example, the Air View feature lets you preview e-mails, calendar appointments, videos, and more by just hovering your finger about an inch above them. And if you forgot which contact is stored on speed-dial #2, just hover your finger over the phone's virtual keypad.
The only other phones that can do this are Samsung's jumbo-screen Galaxy Notes, but those require you use an S Pen Stylus, which the S4 does not have.
Also new is Air Gestures, a feature that lets you accept or turn down a phone call, or skip to the next song on your playlist just by waving your hand in front of the screen. Why would you need Air Gestures? To avoid soiling your phone if your hands are dirty. But you'll have to touch the phone with those dirty hands at some point, because Air Gestures doesn't work once the screen has timed out.
Smart Stay gets smarter. This feature, which is found on other S phones and which keeps the phone's display from timing out while you're reading something on it, has been enhanced in several interesting ways. It now pauses a video if you should momentarily look away from the screen. Even more interesting: When you're staring at the screen, Smart Stay activates a feature that allows you to scroll up, down, or sideways on a page by tilting the phone in the appropriate direction.
While the ability to scroll by tilting a phone is a feature we've seen on some earlier Android models, its automated activation is new. I found this capability worked better than I thought it might, engaging quickly whenever I stared at the screen. I was also to control the rate of scroll quite easily with subtle wrist movements.
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Cool camera. The Galaxy S 4 comes with a number of intriguing ways to capture everyday events. In Dual Shot mode, for example, you snap a picture or shoot video using both front and rear cameras simultaneously so that your face will appear in the corner of the frame. The box can be resized and relocated onscreen, and you can frame your face differently using any of the cameras eight vignette templates.
Another feature, called Drama Shot, takes a burst shot of a moving object—a person walking across the room, say—and makes a composite picture showing that person in multiple stages of crossing the room, creating an image with an army of clones. And Cinema Photo, like Nokia's Cinemagraph feature, lets you add a bit of animation to still images (GIF format).
The Galaxy S 4's 13-megapixel camera can fix photos marred by bad poses, bad timing, and even bad luck. For example, Erase Shot lets you delete a person or any other undesirable object that may stray into your otherwise perfect photo. There are 12 effects in all, which were easy to access from the camera's main screen.
And in Sound & Shot mode, the camera simultaneously takes a still picture and runs the voice recorder to capture the sounds of that moment. It then splices the two elements together so that you'll always hear that recording when viewing that picture on the phone or other digital device.
Wireless sharing. Samsung Galaxy phones were the first and best at using an NFC-initiated Wi-Fi connection to share large files: Just bump two compatible phones together, and NFC (near-field communication) technology will set up a Wi-Fi bridge so you can wirelessly transmit photos, videos, and other large documents to other Galaxies across large rooms.
The S 4 upgrades this capability with Group Play, which adds music streaming and gaming as well as a collaborative dimension to sharing. You can stream a song on your playlist, say, to other Galaxy S 4s, or share documents, including annotations, with others in the group. But when the connection ends, so does the access for others to your music and documents. As for gaming, the Galaxy S 4 will come preloaded with Asphalt 7 and Gun Brothers 2, so you'll be able to play with up to several other people in your vicinity with just a bump of your phone.
Changing channels. The Galaxy S 4 comes with an IR blaster, and like a universal remote, it can be easily programmed to control HDTVs and set-top boxes (even make DVR recordings) from a host of different makers. What's more, like the HTC One, the Galaxy S 4 will have local cable listings, including program details and search options optimized for its 5-inch screen.
Sophisticated video chats. The phone supports three-way video chats and video calls in dual-camera mode, so that your face can remain in the picture while you're pointing the main camera on the back of the phone at something else.
Could you repeat that in English? The Galaxy S 4 can translate e-mails, and text messages on the fly into several languages. You can summon this feature, called S Translator, at any time; for example, when you want to order a meal in French without embarrassing yourself.
Top-notch hardware. The 5-inch HD display offers an impressive 441 pixels-per-inch of detail, and both the main 13-megapixel camera and front-facing 2-megapixel camera can capture video at 1080p. The 2,600mAh battery, however, is on the small side when compared with the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx's battery, but that's likely part of how Samsung managed to make the new phone slimmer than the Galaxy S III.
Other noteworthy features include an optical reader that scans pages and converts their content into digital text; Story Album, which attractively presents pictures and videos linked by an event or theme and adds interesting facts gleaned from TripAdvisor based on their geotags; and several health-focused apps and accessories that leverage the phone's GPS features and wireless connections to determine the miles you've run, the calories you've burned, and the weight you've lost.
Bottom line. The Galaxy S 4 may not offer the dramatic leaps we've come to expect from each new generation of Samsung smart phone. It does, however, cram a remarkable number of tech-forward features into a relatively svelte package. I anticipate it will do very well in our tests once we get it into our labs.