On Thursday night in New York City, Samsung held an over-the-top coming-out party for its latest piece of tech-wizardry, the Galaxy S4. The Galaxy line of phones (previous iterations include the S3, S2 and S) have consistently been best-in-breed among their Android smartphone competition. Indeed, since the Android’s beginnings in 2008, only the Galaxy phones have truly presented competition to the iPhone, both in sales and public awareness. This is partly due to the fact that unlike most Android phones, they are simply named, and their generational numbers are easily understood. Mainly, though, their success is attributable to Samsung consistently delivering high-quality devices loaded with unique Samsung-specific features.
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The S4 offers a few genuine upgrades over the S3, but is also packed with gimmicky gewgaws that may or may not find traction in the market. Some of the most welcome upgrades involve its entertainment options. The S4’s screen is slightly larger than the S3’s at a full 5 inches. Samsung has had great success pushing the boundaries of size with its Galaxy Note phones (which clock in at a whopping 5.5”), and the extra size is definitely welcome. Even more welcome is the device’s stunning Super AMOLED screen, which offers full 1080p HD resolution. An upgraded processor will enhance performance on games and video. Another favorite new feature is a built-in IR blaster that lets you use your phone as a universal remote control for your entire entertainment system. This one may seem minor, but it’s one of those smart additions that can really change they way you interact with your TV, especially if Samsung uses apps to optimize second screen experiences in conjunction with your various entertainment choices.
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What has a lot of the tech press buzzing about this phone, though are more esoteric features, including the ability to sense when your finger is hovering over the screen, as well as track your eyeballs. Frankly, hovering over the screen sounds like more work than tapping and swiping. Thus far, the eyeball tracking is being used to pause video when you look away from it, but the pause button has always felt completely sufficient for this purpose. The option of looking away without playback stopping seems like one we want to keep (the phone also tracks your eyeballs for its tilt-to-scroll function, of which we’re similarly dubious). It also packs a 13-megapixel camera, but more megapixels don’t always equal better quality if you’re still using a dinky cellphone sensor to do the initial capture.
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On the more useful front, the phone has built-in language translation features as well health-oriented features: a pedometer and activity tracker that can hook up to Bluetooth fitness devices like heart monitors and blood glucose meters. These are specific use-case features, however, and it’s hard to say if they will move the needle with consumers.
It’s easy to imagine that Samsung is packing a lot of this stuff in there (along with Dual Camera) just to have something new to talk about. The phone looks very good, don’t get us wrong. But like the iPhone, these days each successive model is a little faster, a little slimmer, and looks a little better — however we’re past the days of new phones rewriting all the rules with each successive iteration. And that’s ok. Though Samsung has not announced it officially, it’s likely this phone will cost the same as the Galaxy S3 when it came out, only it will have more features. It’s a consumer win, even if you don’t use half of this stuff, and it’ll certainly be one of the year’s top new entertainment devices.
As a small reminder, it can also make phone calls.