Blog: The Galaxy S4 – Evolutionary, hardly revolutionary

Allan Swann
March 15, 2013

After the disappointment that was the iPhone 5 launch, the great hope amongst phone nerds for a revolution in the smartphone market was last night’s Samsung Galaxy S4 launch.

Because if Apple isn’t going to do it, the next biggest rival is, right?

Judging by last night’s performance, probably not. The smartphone market has obviously reached a point where it’s just not worth taking any risks – especially not from the two big players.

So far this year we have seen HTC and Sony pull their thumbs out some pretty top shelf devices (The Xperia Z is water resistant, the HTC One has a stunning machined metal case), and while these are decent enough differentiators, it more appears that the market as a whole remains stuck in a evolutionary phase.

Put simply, the advances Samsung put forward last night were just that – advances. The chipset unveiled sure isn’t anything to shrug at, an 8 core Exynos at 1.6GHz (or a quad core Snapdragon at 1.8GHz – depending on your region) – but its hardly revolutionary. Its really just more of what we have already. No one can tell me that 200MHz more processing power will load a webpage faster, play Angry Birds better or show HD films any smoother. Those problems were solved generations ago.

The S4 display? It matches its rivals. Sony’s Xperia Z and the HTC One are both 1920×1080 with around 5-inch screens (both hovering around 440 pixels per inch) – which is exactly where Samsung’s screen sits. Keeping up with the joneses. As Alex noted in her hands on impression, it may not even look as good as Sony’s own screen technology. On such small screens, such pixel density is also a bit silly. These are now the same resolutions as 42-inch HDTVs – can our eyes really spot the difference? I struggled to notice the difference between the (dated) iPhone 4S’s screen and the Sony Xperia Z a month ago.

The one area where I do think this ‘more is better’ is the size of the battery – 2600mAh – this is larger than on Sony and HTC’s newest phones. But, in the quest for insane thinness (7.9mm), could this have been even bigger? How much juice does that giant screen and 8-core processor use up? It could simply be a case of a listed ‘benefit’ actually being a necessity – an advantage cancelled out, if you will.

No one has had a chance to test the camera properly yet (as in, outside of an auditorium), but again Samsung has matched it’s rivals 13MP capability. Now anyone with a passing knowledge knows how absurd the megapixel race is in phones. Even on dedicated cameras, Nikon took a few years off (not bothering to go past 12-16MP on its SLRs for years) – because its not the MP rate thats important, its the glass and sensors that matter. Cramming pixels onto tiny sensors produces little more than noise and wash. Unfortunately, the smartphone world has gotten into a megapixel race where, like processors, the higher number is always better – and consumers have been trained as such.

I have to respect HTC’s sheer balls for releasing the HTC One with its new ‘ultrapixel’ technology – that is, they focused on the sensor and glass (and software behind it) and released a camera with just 4MP. The fact that they’ve had to call it ‘Ultrapixel’ to hide that low number from faux-tech savvy customers is the sad state of affairs we have here.

Given that Samsung spent little time discussing the hard tech of the Samsung Galaxy S4’s camera (they focused for on its software features, and additions such as its ability to take 100 photos taken in 4 seconds – why?). I suspect Samsung’s camera will be no better, or worse than competitors. The industry has stalled here – to be fair, there is little more you need to work on when it comes to outdoor photography (smartphones are all pretty good snappers here) – its more low light, such as at concerts, pubs and out on the town that consumers want updated. Samsung made no statements along those lines.

The S4 will run the latest version of Android Jellybean (4.2.2). That’s good. I’m not entirely sure it is a system seller (or even what the latest version does), but this is expected. All of its rivals will have this too. Samsung will also be using its new TouchWiz interface. While the interface itself is a nice Android skin, let’s hope it isn’t flooded with the junky, spammy apps that plagued the S3 (and couldn’t be deleted). I suspect some hardcore fans may want to root the device, especially if these add-ons start hitting battery life.

So what did Samsung bring to the table that was actually new? A few interesting features that were mooted ahead of the launch. ‘Smart Tracking’ means the S4 will follow your eyeballs and scroll down the page automatically. I’m fine with flicking the screen personally, but it is a nice touch (assuming it works as demonstrated). Whether its a gimmick that actually gets used is another matter. I rarely used a lot of the added features on the S3, for example. Like rivals Samsung has also decided to look after those that live in colder climates, as the S4’s touch screen will now work with gloves. One feature that does seem to be of particular interest is ‘Air Gesture’ which allows you to magnify and preview content by hovering your finger above the screen.

One key feature that Sony and HTC have got (and which Samsung doesn’t appear to have – I reserve my final judgement until we have a review unit) is the ability to use your phone as a TV remote (they have IR capabilities, including the ability to ‘learn’ any TV) and live program guides. This I think is a killer feature, who doesn’t want to get rid of the remote? To be fair, you can buy adaptors and use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to do so, but it is a nice ‘built in’ feature on those two phones.

Ugh. Samsung have stuck with the awful body from the S3. Alex assures me that it is made of a firmer polycarbonate, but I want metal phones (even glass) – something durable. The S3 felt like a childrens toy, a cheap plasticky, flimsy device that would warp and felt fragile. This is obviously personal taste, but nothing feels as solid, expensive and classy as metal – and the stunning HTC One and Apple’s iPhone 5 have a nice one-up here still.

The Galaxy S4 is a product of a slow and steady industry evolution. If you were expecting the heavens to part last night and the chosen one to appear, it didn’t happen. This isn’t meant to be a hit job on Samsung, more a criticism of an  industry that is seeing its two leaders playing it increasingly safe. Revolution may have to come from the smaller market share holders, such as Sony, HTC and Nokia (they’re trying), because Apple and Samsung are sitting in cruise control mode. And why not?  The Galaxy S4 has taken the necessary steps forward – it’s still looks great, has plenty of new features to play with, and some of the best specs on the market.

It will break a shedload of sales records in the weeks to come.

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