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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Samsung Galaxy S4 hands-on: we test the S3's successor

Ahead of its official announced here in New York, I got to spend time testing out Samsung's new Galaxy S4 smartphone.
When you first pick up the device you'll notice one thing: it's almost just the same as the S3 in its aesthetic; a smooth plastic rear casing rounds off at the edges of a large Gorilla Glass display, which is now a full five inches when measured diagonally.
This full HD 1,920x1,080-pixel panel is stunningly bright and vivid, as is typical of Super Amoled. Increased from the S3 though is its pixel density, which has rocketed up to 441 pixels-per-pinch. This is as close as identical to the HTC One, and comparing the two revealed no discernible difference in sharpness. It really is ludicrously crisp and bold, and text is sharper than you'll see on an S3 or an iPhone.
Specs and features

Inside Samsung has made every effort to push the boundaries on specifications, and in the UK the S4 features a CPU with eight processing cores that run at 1.6GHz, making the S4 the first octal-core smartphone we've seen. The result, as probably comes as no surprise, is a very snappy implementation of Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean). It'll take some time for apps to really take advantage of this, and as there was no discussion of capturing 4K video -- something that wouldn't have come as a huge surprise within the S4 -- it's hard to say whether eight cores are really needed at the moment. Read: don't get too hung up on it when choosing to buy or not.

The 2GB of RAM is a welcome upgrade (the S3 had half that) as it opens the door to more efficient multi-tasking, and one of the many new photographic features that take some advantage of this is picture-in-picture video recording. 4G LTE is included and is support up to 100Mbps down and 50Mbps up. EE has confirmed it will support the S4's 4G in the UK.
The S4 can record video simultaneously from the front and rear cameras, which is a simple but fun feature. In my hands-on time it meant I could (pretend to) record a hands-on with a gadget using an S4, but could keep my face visible in a smaller overlaid video window so viewers could see me talking while I showed of the gadget's features. The same goes for still images: holiday snaps no longer have to be absent of one family member who drew the short straw to take the picture of everyone else. You can also record up to nine seconds of audio with a photograph.
Another neat feature was Smart Pause. Using the front-facing camera, the S4 knows when you're paying attention to it. It's only implemented when playing back video, but it means if you look away while watching a movie, the phone will kindly pause playback. When your eyes return to the screen, the video resumes. It worked flawlessly when I tried it out.
It was rumoured that this eye-tracking feature would also be used to automatically scroll text -- say, on long webpages -- when your eyes hit the bottom of the screen. This isn't true; instead, the device scrolls when you tilt it, but uses the eye-tracking tech to understand when a tilt is a tilt relative to your face.
It's not just eyeballs getting tracked -- I was impressed with the S4's new use of finger-tracking technology, too. A modified capacitive touchscreen lets the phone know where your fingertips are without you needing to place them on the screen. It's similar to how the S Pen works on the Galaxy Note 2, but without the pen: hover your finger around two centimeters from the screen and the S4 can "see" them. This enables it to bring up previews of emails in an inbox, for example. In my demo, it worked as intended, but perhaps too well. I naturally find myself leaving my thumb a couple of centimeters from the screen as part of natural habit, and so I found myself bringing up lots of preview windows that I didn't actually want to see.
Other gestures I got to try include waving my hand (as if to say hello) at the phone, which the camera detects and uses as a way to answer incoming calls; waving your hand left or right over the screen will swipe through webpages or music tracks; and waving up and down lets you scroll through menus or long emails, for example.
Translation, chat and health
A new S Translate feature was very interesting. It's a standalone app for translating text, but its also built into many native apps, such as email and messaging. If you get an email from a friend, or land on a webpage in a foreign language, an option in each app's menu lets you translate it on the fly. Similarly, you can speak to the S4 in your native language and it'll translate it into one of a number of others -- including English, German, Japanese, Korean and Spanish -- in text form, or using a synthesised voice. It worked well in my demo, although it does require a network connection. This may limit its real-world usefulness thanks to the ludicrous cost of using international 3G, but if that's not a problem then it could make overseas translation a lot simpler.
New features in Samsung's ChatOn messaging app are going to be exclusive to the S4 for the time being. These include the ability to make voice and video calls, including three-way video chats. There's also a new feature in the S4 called Group Play, which essentially lets one S4 play music through up to eight others simultaneously. I wasn't entirely convinced this was a good idea (largely because all I could see in my head were kids on a bus being able to pipe Justin Bilbo Baggins louder than ever before). Maybe I'm just too old.
I was more excited by Samsung's foray into the "quantified self", with its S Health selection of utilities. I fired up the app and began pacing around the meeting room I was being briefed in. "1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10" went an on-screen counter tallying up my footsteps: I had discovered the S4 has a built-in pedometre. It also records temperature and humidity, and logs everything in a database so you can monitor your activity and surroundings over time. Samsung will also release a Nike+ FuelBand-like product that can be worn on the wrist for times when exercising with a five-inch phone isn't convenient.
Initial conclusion
There are a number of aspects to the S4 that are left to be discovered: performance with 3D gaming and battery life being two important ones my initial time with the phone didn't allow me to evaluate. The S4 does come with a 2,600mAh removable battery, so it's promising.
But in a nutshell it's clear that the S4 will appeal to anyone who likes the S3. It's not significantly different at face value, but the many new features under the hood make it interesting compared to other phones on the market. It's also a powerhouse under the hood, which makes it a promising platform for next-gen mobile games development.
We'll have a full review in due course before its Q2 UK release date (which I've heard is April for the UK), so in the mean time get a closer look at the Galaxy S4 in our gallery.


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