The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a highly anticipated sequel that looks like it will run circles around other phones when it comes to innovation. As expected, the S 4 packs a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen in a thin (plastic) body, but it’s the software features that will really impress. You can capture videos and photos using the front and back cameras at the same time, as well as use hand gestures to do everything from answer calls to skip songs. Plus, the S 4 can translate foreign languages, control your TV and keep track of your health.
Like its predecessor, the Galaxy S4 should really come with a glossary to help you figure out everything you can do. Fortunately, we spent some hands-on time with Samsung’s flagship — coming to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Cricket and U.S. Cellular in Q2. Time to give you a full rundown.
Available in White Frost and Black Mist, the Galaxy S4 has a subtly textured polycarbonate body that’s thinner and lighter than the Galaxy S III, despite sporting a larger 5-inch display. The S 4 measures a very slim 0.31 inches and weighs 4.6 ounces, significantly lighter and thinner than the HTC One (5.04 ounces, 0.36 inches thick), but the HTC is also made of a sturdier and more premium aluminum. The bottom line is smartphone shoppers will really appreciate getting such a big screen in such a compact frame. The bezel is nice and slim, too.
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As the first smartphone with a 5-inch Super AMOLED HD screen, the Galaxy S4 offered richly saturated colors and wide viewing angles during our brief hands-on. We’re talking 441 pixels per inch, so you won’t be wanting for sharpness. The panel also seemed brighter than the S III, but we’ll wait to hit the phone with our light meter to confirm.
The Galaxy S4 will feature one of two processors, depending on the region. In the U.S., the S 4 will sport a 1.9-GHz quad-core Qualcomm processor, while in other regions it will come with Samsung’s new 1.6-GHz octa-core Exynos CPU. If you’re bummed that you’ll only be getting four cores, it’s for a reason: Samsung needed to opt for Qualcomm’s chip in order to support LTE. The S 4 will come with your choice of 16, 32 or 64GB of memory, as well as a microSD Card slot that supports up to 64GB.
Other important specs include a 2,600mAh battery (up from 2,100mAh on the Galaxy S III) and Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. The S 4 also supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Just don’t expect anything close to a stock Android experience — and, in this case, we think that’s a good thing.
Going more than a step further than the LG Optimus G Pro, the Galaxy S4 not only lets you record video and stills using the back 12-MP and front 2-MP cameras, you can use a variety of fun templates. For example, you can use a postage stamp or a heart for framing your face, and you can even move your mug around the screen. There’s also a split-screen view so your face and what you’re shooting get the same amount of real estate. Samsung says dual recording is ideal for sporting events or concerts, and we can think of lots of other uses.
The camera on the Galaxy S4 has lots of other tricks up its sleeve, including the ability to capture 9 seconds of audio with each still and a drama shot mode that takes a consecutive burst of photos and combines them into one image. The HTC One offers similar functionality, but it’s more buried. A separate Eraser mode lets you zap unwanted subjects from your images — provided they’re moving. Last but not least, Cinema Photo provides a Nokia Lumia-like Cinemagraph feature, keeping certain subjects still while animating the background.
We weren’t able to take photos outside with the S 4 (yet), but inside we’d say the images were comparable to the S III. Bright enough but slightly grainy with pale colors. We expect the HTC One to outshine the S 4 in low light.
If you’ve never waved at your smartphone before, the Galaxy S4 will have you doing it all the time with all-new gestures. You can switch between tabs in the browser by waving your hand in front of the camera, jump to the top of a list with an upward gesture and even wave your hand in front of the S 4 to answer a call and send it straight to the speakerphone while you’re driving. Although we noticed a bit of lag, we easily switched browser tabs with a wave of our hand.
The Galaxy S4 also borrows one of the Galaxy Note II’s best features while leaving the pen behind. Air View lets you preview emails, photo galleries, photo tabs and more just by hovering your finger above the display. This can be a real time-saver.
We can’t decide yet whether it’s a party trick or truly useful, but the S 4′s Smart Scroll is guaranteed to make your friends jealous. Building on the Smart Stay feature in the S III, which uses your eyes to determine if you’re still using the device, you can tilt the device while you’re staring at the screen to scroll up and down when reading content.
Samsung presses your peepers into service in another cool way with Smart Pause, which will auto pause video when you look away from the screen and resume playback when you return.
If you’re worried whether any of these gestures or features will drain battery life, you can always toggle them on/off right from the notification menu via a drop-down box. This is another area where Samsung pulls ahead of HTC.
One feature that came as a surprise to us is S Health, which uses sensors inside the Galaxy S4 to track everything from steps and calories to your dietary habits. It’s kind of strange, but the S 4 will also tell you how comfortable it is around you by measuring the temperature and humidity.
Samsung isn’t stopping here. It will be selling a Fitbit-like accessory in the S Band, as well as a Body Scale and Heart Rate Monitor. All of these items will sync with your phone via Bluetooth.
A useful tool for travel, workers who have international colleagues or anyone trying to learn a new language, S Translator brings language translation to email and the ChatOn app, and there’s a standalone S Translator app. We spoke a phrase in English and almost immediately saw the Spanish translation. S Translator supports nine languages, and it supports both speech to text as well as text to speech.
Another way the S 4 translates things for you is with business cards. The Optical Reader app promises to scan business cards and suck the info right into your contacts. The app also reads QR codes.
Like the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, the Galaxy S4 leverages an IR blaster, Peel software and some of Samsung’s own software smarts to control your TV and find good stuff to watch. You can check programs at a glance, as well as look up On Demand content from Web services, including Samsung’s own.
Speaking of entertainment content, the S 4 now aggregates music, video, books, games, learning content and more, complete with a unified Zune-like interface.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Samsung phone without new sharing features. The Galaxy S4 delivers with Group Play, which Samsung is really excited about. With this feature, you should be able to play the same music at the same time on multiple S 4 devices. Group Play uses Wi-Fi.
Samsung is also hoping to catch up to Apple in the gaming department. “Asphalt 7″ and “Gun Bros.” are two of the first titles that will let you compete or collaborate over Wi-Fi.
Like its predecessor, the Samsung Galaxy S4 feels a little overwhelming given everything it can do. But Samsung is also trying to reach a broad audience, so the fact that there’s something for everyone isn’t a bad thing. It’s really going to come down to execution.
To us, the dual-shot camera and gestures almost sell the phone themselves. The health and translator features seem like nice bonuses, although S Health can become more valuable if you spring for the related accessories. WatchOn for controlling your TV is similar to the HTC One’s Sense TV, but it’s welcome nonetheless.
As for the design and performance, those hoping for more premium features will be disappointed, but you also wind up with a handset that’s very slim and light for a device with a full HD 5-inch screen. We’ll have to see how long this flagship lasts on a charge — and how much you have to turn off to get through a full day of use. Overall, the S 4′s sheer wow factor should win it many, many fans.