On the Samsung Galaxy S4

I missed out on following the Galaxy S4 release event live and by all counts it looks it would have made for an epic comical pastime. The entire show is available here in case you want to have a good time – classy Samsung ain’t. Samsung even put up a new global website for the S4, which looks just as unprofessional as its launch event was. Take a look at the opaque shadows behind that corny text:

Galaxy_S4

To talk about the phone itself, I could essentially rehash my thoughts on the S3 – the S4 too is disappointing. Its got improved specs, a higher resolution screen, is thinner & lighter and has more sensors. Going by sales, Samsung seems to be doing all the right things; but for a technophile and for a person with finer tastes it still isn’t on the right track.

Take the look and feel of the device. Over the past year, I’ve seen countless S3s and each time I’m struck by how discordant the rectangular screen and the round frame are – the two just don’t go together. The S4 retains the same shape as the S4, with ever so thinner bezels – the rectangle sits closer to the circle so to speak. Samsungs new flagship also retains its cheap plastic casing – when you dunk in a thick wad of cash for a phone, it should feel premium in the hand. The S4 misses the mark by a mile.

Samsung has done a great job of marketing the S4 as an Octa-core phone – which it is. What it doesn’t make clear is that at any given time only 4 of those 8 cores will be active. Essentially, the Exynos 5 series chip on S4 consists of 4 pairs of processors – each pair has a fast core(high power requirement) and a slow one(low power requirement). Depending on the workload on the phone – playing a game, surfing the web – either the fast core or the slow core in each pair will be active. Theoretically it should improve battery life, but it all depends on how efficient the software – Android(and Samsungs Touchwiz stack) – is.

Android lately has adopted a clean and understated UI, which is quite beautiful in its own right. Samsung loads its own UI, Touchwiz, on top of this with its garish colors and cartoonish iconography. I don’t understand why. If being a differentiator in the large Android market were raison d’etre, Samsung would do well to go Nokias way – keep stock Android on the phone and have an app store with real quality services which they nurture over time.

Samsung has, since the S3, loaded its flagship devices with a whole bunch of S-features. These are great as bullet points increasing the feature list of the phone, but practically useless. I suspect this is the main reason why Samsung does so well – a lot of smartphone users are first time users. To someone having a feature phone, a smartphone with the longest feature list is likely to be most attractive. It will be an interesting exercise to see how many current Samsung Galaxy owners are second time owners of a Samsung phone.

On the S4, the feature list runs quite long..

  • S-Voice – a Siri clone, introduced with the S3. Just as useless as Siri but with fewer updates, enhancements and lackluster integration with services
  • S-Translator – it could be a genuinely useful feature, but going by their history, Samsung will forget about this by the time the S5 comes out
  • S Health – the S4 is chock full of sensors to monitor your health. Samsung didn’t give much detail on how it works and if it works. We’ll just have to see how this one plays out once the phone gets into peoples hands
  • Smart Pause/Scroll – pausing a video when you look away and scrolling a webpage or ebook when you tilt the phone. Neither does much to improve the smartphone experience and besides a lot of people had trouble getting them to work on launch day
  • Sound & Shot – along with a pic, the phone records an audio clip. I don’t see a use case for this at all and I suspect this will be playable only on the S4
  • Story Album – a clone of iPhoto events; yet another custom format
  • Samsung Hub – Sounds good, but knowing Samsung it will pretty much languish over time. They just don’t have the know how to grow a service
  • Air View/Gesture – hover your fingers over the screen or make motions in front of the screens to interact with your phone. This has to be amongst the dumbest ideas ever, especially gesture.
  • Drama Shot – it captures scenes from both cameras, pretty useless in my opinion
  • Group Play – you can play a song in sync with upto 8 connected S4s. Gimmicky..

In short, the Galaxy S4 is a busy phone with too many features packed in that I suspect very few will ever use. I cant help but think Samsungs fall will be as quick as its rise to smartphone domination.

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