Samsung's new Galaxy S4 smartphone is an excellent device from a hardware standpoint. Measuring 5 inches diagonally, the screen is slightly larger than that on its predecessor, the Galaxy S III. Yet the S4 is a tad lighter and smaller overall. The S4's display is also much sharper, at 441 pixels per inch compared with 272 on the S III. The S4 has one of the sharpest screens out there.

The Android operating system it runs is excellent, too, and in recent years the Google-made system has become a healthy competitor to Apple's iOS system for iPhones. Like most Android phones, the S4 comes with a suite of useful Google apps, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps and the voice assistant Google Now. Because Google lets device makers customise Android to suit their needs, Samsung and others have been adding their own distinguishing features. And that's the source of the problem. Packed with bags of tricks, phones have become way too complicated for many people to use. In some cases it's because these custom features work only some of the time. In other cases, you're confronted with too many ways to do similar things.

Has a depth of 7.9 mm

Has a depth of 7.9 mm

As much as Apple can be criticised for exerting control over what goes on its iPhones, it wins on simplicity. There are no competing agendas — just Apple's. By contrast, Android has turned into a free-for-all. For instance, the Sprint version of the S4 phone has at least four different ways to watch video, one that comes standard with Android, one added by Sprint and two added by Samsung. Some content works with one but not the others.

And to watch video on one of the Samsung apps, the one called Samsung Hub, you have to navigate through two screens trying to sell you video that I couldn't get to work on the other apps. As much as it adds to the clutter, Samsung would rather you use its service and not the standard Android one. That way, Samsung rather than Google gets revenue from video sales. Samsung Electronics Co. has its own app store, too, to rival Google's own Play store on the same device.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't consider buying the S4.

Another highly-praised phone, the HTC One, has a lot of clutter as well. The display on the One is slightly smaller than S4's, but it has a higher pixel density. The One sounds better, too, with front-facing speakers, while the S4 has a speaker on the back. The One might be the one for you if you watch a lot of video and listen to a lot of music. But the One feels heavier and bulkier, and its battery holds less charge than the S4.

The next big thing?

The 5-inch Super AMOLED full HD display

With all the new add-ons on the S4, some of them do show promise:

  • Easy Mode. It's not entirely new, as the S III and the Galaxy Note 2 have it, too. But Samsung makes that option more prominent when people set up the S4 for the first time. Icons in Easy Mode are larger, so you are less likely to hit the wrong one and have to figure out how to go back. You also get fewer choices for customizing the phone and using its camera, so there's less confusion about which to pick.
  • Multi Window. It allows you to run two apps side by side, the way you've long been able to on traditional computers. That means you can keep up with Facebook on the top half of the screen, as you send email from the bottom half about all the dumb things your friends are saying on Facebook. Unfortunately, it works with a limited number of apps. Foursquare and Instagram aren't among them.
  • Air View. When you point to an email or calendar entry with your finger, you see contents pop up in a bubble. That way, you don't have to open the entry and find the back button to return to what you were doing. Samsung has this feature on the Galaxy Note 2 phone, but that's designed for use with a stylus. On the S4, you simply hover over the entry with your finger.

And then there are some features that many may find gimmicky:

  • Smart Pause automatically pauses video when your look away from the screen. The phone's front camera detects your eyes. Smart, but the feature also pauses the video when you cover your eyes, say, to avoid a gory scene in a horror movie. It's as if the phone is forcing you to look.
  • Smart Scroll detects the tilt of your head or the phone to automatically scroll text, such as when you're reading a long article on a Web browser. Smart, but it sometimes scrolls past what I want to read. It's difficult to move the text back without touching the screen, something Smart Scroll is supposed to eliminate.
  • With Air Gesture, you wave your hand over a sensor for such tasks as browsing a photo album or scrolling through text. It can be useful when you need to answer a call while driving (not that you should).
The Misty White version of the Galaxy S4

The Misty White version of the Galaxy S4

The S4 has plenty of other features that too could be termed gimmicky.  Some might like the camera's ability to erase a stray individual out of photos or to combine several images of motion into a single shot. And the feature for using the phone as a TV remote control? That's what remote controls are for.

The S4 can be a great phone to use, but first you must figure out how to look past all its gimmicks.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,