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Samsung Galaxy S4 hands-on: Some gimmicks are useful, others are just silly

The Galaxy S4 is now available for AT&T and Sprint customers and is an improvement over the popular SIII. However, I still prefer the design and core features of the HTC One compared to software gimmicks of the S4.

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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 46 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

AT&T Samsung Galaxy S4 retail package

My local AT&T PR rep was kind enough to loan me a Samsung Galaxy S4 to take for a spin. You have likely read reviews all over about this phone, including the one from CNET, and this gallery and post just focuses on my thoughts and experiences with the Galaxy S4, as compared to my experiences using the Galaxy Note II and HTC One for a few months.

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Attractive retail packaging

It is nearly universally agreed that the HTC One design is much better than the Galaxy S4, so if hardware quality is important to you, then take a look at the HTC One at your local AT&T store. However, the Samsung is still a solid smartphone and has refined its popular Galaxy S3 to come out with one of the top Android smartphones available today. Samsung offers incremental hardware improvements in the Galaxy S4 over the Galaxy S3, with a focus on adding in more software enhancements.

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Everything is included

You will find documentation, a charger, and even a wired headset in the Galaxy S4 package.

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Quick Start Guide

The user guide is well designed, and given all the software enhancements, I recommend you actually browse through this guide.

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Galaxy S4 in hand

I would never buy a 16GB Android device again given that games are pushing 1-2GB in size, and think that no high-end models should launch with less than 32GB, even with a microSD card slot.

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Physical home button

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Front facing camera and sensors

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Back of the S4

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Plastic back cover detail

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Top of the S4

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MicroSD and removable battery

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Bottom of the S4

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S4 next to my Note II

 

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Back of the S4 and Note II

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Back of the S4 and HTC One

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Front of the HTC One and S4

The AMOLED display is very nice, but side-by-side, I find my HTC One to have a brighter display with better performance outside in the sun.

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S4 on top of the HTC One

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S4 lock screen

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AT&T apps

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App launcher

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Multi-window mode in portrait

I love using this on my Galaxy Note II, and now that the Galaxy S4 has a 5 inch display, it is a useful function on the device. 

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Multi-window mode in landscape

I like using Twitter or Facebook in one window, with my Gmail in the other, and I think people will appreciate it.

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Notifications bar

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Look at all those Samsung features

Compared to the previous Galaxy S III, you will find features from the Note II and additional enhancements in the Galaxy S4. My experience with these include:

Smart scroll: Designed to scroll through select apps using recognition of the tilting of your head or tilting the device. Despite the rumors of eye tracking, it doesn't appear that this is how movement is controlled. It is a slick feature to show people, and seems amazing at first glance, however beyond the "wow" factor, I don't see people using this for more than a week.

Smart Scroll works with the web browser, I found that with my glasses on, a more pronounced head tilt was required, and it seems that the facial recognition aspect isn't as sensitive with glasses on. It was annoying to tilt my head up and down to stop and continue scrolling, and I found no benefit to using this method compared to simply swiping up with your finger.

Smart PauseThis feature is designed to pause video when you look away. However, I tend to watch movies and videos when I am in not-well lit environments, and Smart Pause doesn't appear to work at all unless you are in a bright location where the front facing camera can clearly "see" you. Again, it is much easier for me to just tap the display, and I don't look away on a regular basis when watching videos on my phone.

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Customize the feature shortcuts

It seems to me that the hand and head waving gesture functions are rather lame with limited reliability, while the other advanced features and software enhancements are quite useful. I talked to one of my soccer moms who was first in line for a Galaxy S4 last week, and she loves the devices, but said she hasn't used any of these advanced features yet.

I personally find features on the HTC One, such as BlinkFeed and BoomSound, to be features I use on a daily basis, while many of the advanced features on the Galaxy S4 are fun and interesting, but not essential for daily use. I have a better appreciation for my Galaxy Note II after using the S4, and plan to keep using it on T-Mobile.

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Home screen with Samsung Hub

I used the Samsung Hub a few times on my Note II to rent movies, but find the new version on the S4 to be a bit confusing and unnecessary. With Google Play now supporting music, video, and books, there really is no need for a duplicate Samsung experience on the device.

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S Health and step count for the day

I took the Galaxy S4 on a mountain hike and hoped it would capture the event. With my reliable Jawbone Up on my wrist and the Galaxy S4 in my pocket, it turns out the Galaxy S4 S Health app captured only half the steps of the Up, and after verifying with GPS, the S Health app was way off in steps counted. 

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S Health plot

I don't always have my phone in my hand or pocket, so the usefulness of S Health is limited. Get yourself a Jawbone Up or Fitbit One if you really want to track your health and fitness.

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More S Health info

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S Translator

The S Translator app seems quite useful, with the ability to translate written or spoken words I make in English to other languages. 

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S Translator languages

I used an application like this on my Windows Mobile device in France many years ago, and find these translators to be very helpful while traveling abroad.

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Story Album app

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WatchON IR app based on Peel

The HTC One was first to launch with an IR port to control your home media devices, and Samsung followed suit with WatchON on the S4. I can never find remotes in my house, and find these IR utilities to be useful since I do know where my phones are.

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Galaxy S4 camera app

I am very pleased to see Samsung include the camera software from the in the Galaxy S4, and think users will appreciate the options. 

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Camera app options

The Galaxy S4 is a solid camera phone with many advanced functions people will enjoy, including drama shot, 360 photo, eraser, best face, beauty face, and much more.

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More camera filters

 

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Camera settings

I just wish Samsung would add something like HTC's highlight video functionality.

 

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Dual shot includes FFC image

When I saw this feature at the Samsung launch event, I thought it was great to see Samsung using both cameras at once. This function simply includes a shot of you from the front facing camera in a virtual stamp that you can move around the display. Pretty cheesy to include yourself in the shot at parties and events, but may be fun when traveling where you want to share a photo with family back home.

It seems to work well, and I do like that Samsung is at least thinking of more ways to use the front facing camera. I personally like the wide angle FFC on the HTC One that lets me truly put myself in the photo.

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Mountain view from Galaxy S4

I compared a few photos taken with the S4 and HTC One and think megapixels still do mean something and like what I see from the S4. The difference in camera technologies was clearly evident when comparing a landscape shot, where I zoomed in to look at some details. 

 

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Mountain view from HTC One

 

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Backyard view from Galaxy S4

 

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Backyard view from HTC One

 

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Backyard view from Galaxy Note II

 

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Side yard view from Galaxy S4

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Side yard view from HTC One

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Side yard view from Galaxy Note II

I have now spent three days focusing on using these software features, and ended the weekend in a clear understanding that some features are silly gimmicks that may be used during the first couple of weeks and then never used again, while others actually do offer value. One good thing about some of these gimmicky features is that I have a better appreciation for my , where a stylus is a much better device for using many of these software enhancements.

The Galaxy S4 is a solid upgrade to the Galaxy S3, but I still think that the , and have yet to meet a single person that hasn't been pleased with their HTC One.

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