As is the mantra of every Galaxy device, the GS4 uses Samsung's TouchWiz skin atop nearly every possible aspect of the firmware. And whether you love the proprietary UI or not, its overall layout is nearly identical to what you'll find on the GS3. You can still use up to seven home pages, and you're treated to the same app menu, options and gestures. Even the standard notification bar looks exactly alike. Samsung is a fan of consistency, and many TouchWiz enthusiasts will appreciate the minimal learning curve required to make the jump to this device. Simply put: if you enjoyed the firmware on the GS3, your experience with its successor will be just as rapturous, if not more so. If you're hoping to run custom ROMs in place of TouchWiz, you may have to wait for a little while since Samsung has confirmed to us that the bootloader is locked.
With another flagship Galaxy device comes yet another wave of brand-new software
gimmicks perks. This shouldn't stun anyone who's already familiar with Samsung; the company's been cranking out onslaughts of new gesture- and motion-based features -- alongside a variety of other apps and services -- with each new version. Some are useful, but even more are simply party tricks that seem to be designed for their wow factor.
The feature that has arguably received the most attention is Smart Scroll. The front-facing camera detects your eyes and then tracks the movement of your head, in much the same manner as most other Smart features. If you tilt your head down, the page you're looking at scrolls down; tilt your head up and the screen scrolls up as well. It's a great idea, in theory, but we ultimately found it frustrating for several reasons. First, it only works in specific apps. For instance, the stock internet browser supports it, but Chrome does not, and we couldn't scroll through Samsung's menus using this method, either. (There's no word on whether this feature will be incorporated into an SDK eventually for third-party developers, but we're optimistic about it.)
Second, it won't work in a dimly lit area since it has to pick up your eyes. Third, your face can't be too close or too far away -- you'll get the best results from between two and three feet away. We also grew quickly tired of bobbing our head up and down to do an activity we can easily do with a flick of a finger. Lastly, it doesn't always work as promised. In some cases, tilting your head up offers no results, regardless of how smooth or jerky your facial movements are. Other times, the screen scrolls down even when your face is out of the camera's line of sight. On several occasions, even, the screen simply stopped scrolling mid-page, despite the fact that we hadn't moved or blinked. (In full disclosure, we have only reviewed the T-Mobile model, so it's possible that the experience may vary on the unbranded GS4. We will update this review if we find differing experiences with other models.)
Right up there amongst the highly touted GS4 services is a feature called Group Play, a P2P networking tool that expands on the features introduced in Group Cast last year. In this mode, your phone establishes an ad-hoc WiFi hotspot. When one or more GS4 devices are within range, all of them can be connected to each other, giving them the ability to share music, photos, docs and even games with each other. While sharing photos and docs in this fashion are par for the course, Group Play adds some interesting twists to the music and games arena. Instead of simply sharing the song with a friend, this feature lets each phone act as a different surround sound speaker, with the master unit in charge of which songs to play. For games, the feature gives you and a friend the chance to go head-to-head against each other, though this isn't anything we haven't seen already.
Since GS4 units are a bit of a rarity these days, we didn't get to test this particular feature much aside from a few minutes when we first received our device at a press briefing. During that experience, everything functioned exactly as advertised and we had no trouble sharing music. Given that you probably won't have a lot of friends picking up GS4 units right away, Group Play is a difficult feature to recommend; once the flood of excited consumers start pouring in -- not to mention devices like the Note III that seem like locks to receive the service when it launches -- it will become infinitely more functional. Until that happens, however, it's no better than vaporware.
The next "smart" feature Samsung boasts on the GS4 is Smart Pause. The phone pauses the video or movie you're watching any time your eyes look away from the screen. This is another feature that doesn't appear to be universal: it worked well in the pre-loaded YouTube and Samsung Video apps, but it didn't register in Play Movies and third-party players downloaded from the Play Store. This feature performed fine in regular light, but if you want to (or have to) watch a full-length movie in the dark -- you know, the preferred setting for watching movies -- it's probably not going to work out so well. Of course, we aren't smitten by the idea of having the video stop anytime we close our eyes or briefly take our gaze away from the screen, so it's nice that the feature is turned off by default.
Lastly, an app called S Translator could be the most useful of the bunch. Speak a phrase in one language and the phone is able to translate it and rattle off the translated phrase in a completely different language. If the app is having trouble understanding what you're saying, you can choose to type it in text to get the same outcome. If that doesn't work either, the program has a large library of preset phrases already stored. Pick the category you're interested in -- say, you need to get to the airport -- and the app can teach you how to ask for a taxi (or you can just have it do the asking for you, if
you're lazy that's your preferred style). Have a specific question or phrase you ask a lot throughout your travels? Why go through the trouble of learning it when you can just favorite it for quick access later?
Other notable features
We're not done yet: there are still a few more special features worth highlighting. IR appears to be making a huge comeback, and the included transmitter found in the top of the GS4 transforms the smartphone into a remote control. The HTC One and LG Optimus G Pro do the same thing, and just like the former, Samsung is partnering with Peel -- not a huge surprise, as the two companies have teamed up before on products like the Galaxy Tab 7.7. The app they've created is WatchON, which acts as a universal remote, entertainment guide and Netflix portal all wrapped up into one. Those last two features will vary in usefulness depending on cable provider and equipment (hint: Netflix doesn't seem to do much good if you don't have Google TV). We were able to use the remote function to connect to multiple entertainment systems without our fingers breaking into a sweat; in fact, we got a family member's system set up and working faster than it would've taken us to figure out their own mess of remotes.
We'll make brief mention of the next feature purely on account of its cleverness, despite the fact that it won't be available in any US models at launch (meaning, we couldn't test it). The app we're referring to is called Safety Assistance, a tool that you can break out if you find yourself in an emergency and need to broadcast your whereabouts (without using GPS, of course). Activating the service, which is done by holding down volume up and down for three seconds, will prompt the phone to take a picture from both cameras and automatically send them to a pre-determined contact. This will allow that person to see exactly where you're at. Hopefully it'll never have to be used, but something like this should be included on a large number of phones.
The Galaxy S 4 has another unique capability that we've yet to see elsewhere: compatibility with Mobeam. Never heard of it? No sweat. The startup makes it possible for any standard bar code scanner -- grocery stores are the most popular examples, but this could extend to any scenario -- to scan digital coupons stored on your smartphone. How is this done? It utilizes the proximity sensor built into the handset to bounce light into the scanner, mimicking the pattern of your coupon in the process. It's quite possible that we'll begin seeing this capability show up in more new devices (legacy phones can't be programmed with this feature), but the GS4 is the first to offer this particular functionality.
Finally, the GS4 includes a pair of features called Adapt Display and Adapt Sound which function exactly as the names imply: Display is a fancy auto brightness tool that figures out what you're viewing, as well as the environment you're in, and adjusts the screen brightness to fit your needs. Naturally, Adapt Sound is the audio equivalent of this feature and is capable of adjusting your music or audiobook volume as you change songs or videos, making the sound consistently optimized to your preferences.
Look ma, no S Pen!
One of the unique aspects of Samsung's Galaxy Note series is the S Pen, a stylus-like device that gives you new ways to interact with the screen. Thanks to the GS4's ultra-sensitive display, however, S Pen features are beginning to trickle down to more devices without actually needing to use the pen at all. The best example of this is Air View, which does many of the same things already accomplished on the Note 2, but with your finger acting as the S Pen. Hold one of your digits above the calendar to get a pop-up screen of the day's appointments, above your emails to see the first few lines of text (Gmail not included, sadly), above the browser to make the text larger and above the progress bar when watching movies to preview a scene.
Samsung's been adding fancy gesture- and motion-based tricks to its flagships for several years now, thanks to the large array of sensors made available to Android devices. In the case of the GS4, the company has incorporated a set of features called Air Gesture. We first saw a glimpse of this in the Note 2 with Quick Glance, but it's been greatly expanded this time around. Air Jump lets you do page-up and page-down scrolls by waving your hand up or down, while Air Browse will switch you from one browser tab to another when you wave your hand from side to side. And Air Move helps you relocate icons (namely, apps and calendar appointments) to other pages by holding them with one finger and waving your free hand left or right.
Finally, one last feature that's gained popularity in the Note series is Multi Window, and it's fully functional in the GS4. Press and hold the back button and a tab will magically appear. Tap on it to behold a sidebar of apps that support the feature. Since third-party developers have been doing an amazing job of hopping on board, plenty of applications are already compatible.
Samsung has been mass-producing 8-megapixel camera modules for its flagships ever since the Galaxy S 2, so it almost comes as a shock that the company is ready to push ahead with a 13-megapixel model. As our experience with the HTC One confirmed, megapixel count does not a great camera make, but it certainly can't hurt (in theory). And let's face it: potential buyers are more likely to see 13 megapixels as favorable to Samsung's previous 8MP modules -- especially when you compare it to the One's 4MP count, Ultrapixels or not.
Additionally, the GS4 rear camera lens uses an f/2.2 aperture, 4.235mm focal length and a 69-degree angular field of view; the 1/3.06-inch sensor offers a pixel size of 1.12 microns (compared to 2.0 microns on the One). Its 13MP resolution is set at an aspect ratio of 4:3, so 16:9 fans will need to go down to 9.6 megapixels for a widescreen option. On paper, the specs indicate a pretty solid setup for a flagship, but performance doesn't always match up with the specs -- especially now that we've used the One extensively and found it to be a bar-raiser in terms of its low-light results.