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The Samsung Galaxy S4, and Why We Need a Smartphone Killer

by Adriana Lee | March 17, 2013March 17, 2013 3:00 pm PDT

Samsung Galaxy S 4 Screen

Pack it in, folks. We’ve done it. Humanity has now crammed in every conceivable phone spec and feature you wanted or didn’t want, or didn’t know you wanted, into as big a smartphone form factor as possible (without breaching the phablet threshold, that is). So good job, everybody. We can exhale now, as the Samsung Galaxy S 4 has hit the spotlight.

No one could’ve foreseen this beast a few short years ago. (Though, for weeks now, pretty much everyone knew what would be on the menu. Sheesh, this was the leakiest phone announcement ever.) If there are two words to describe the S 4, it might be “more everything”: More screen, more battery, more processing power, more megapixels, and more features than ever before.

  • Full 1080p HD, Super AMOLED 5-inch 1,920×1,080 display with 441 ppi
  • Size: 136.5mm long, 70.6mm wide, and 7.9mm thin
  • Weight: 0.28 pounds
  • 1.6 GHz Exynos Octa 5 octa-core chip or quad-core Qualcomm 1.9 GHz (U.S.)
  • 3G/4G LTE
  • Capable of up to 100Mbps down/50Mbps up
  • 2GB RAM
  • Built-in storage options: 16, 32, or 64GB onboard
  • External storage: microSD, up to 64GB
  • 2,600mAh removable battery
  • Dual cameras: 13 MP rear, 2 MP front

This is clearly the super-sized smartphone that Samsung hopes will make users wet themselves with glee.

So why am I bored?

Is it because outwardly, it looks the same as the S III? Am I swayed by the analysts who dig into their bag of clichés to call this offering “evolutionary, but not revolutionary“? Or could it be the dampened enthusiasm of staring at a load of interesting new features that have never graced a smartphone before, knowing full well that many of them will go unused?

Samsung Galaxy S 4 VS S III 2

That’s not to say there aren’t some intriguing offerings on deck. I could see Air View and gloved touch input being handy, and the WatchOn IR sensor and remote control features make a lot of sense, considering Samsung’s TV cred. And S Voice Drive? Yes, please. The more devices that have robust voice commands, the better, if only for the sake of road safety.

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But Air Gestures and Smart Scroll eye-tracking are dicier. They look cool on paper and in the demo, but they’d have to be flawless in real-world usage, otherwise people will be racing to shut the nuisances down. And trifles like dual capture mode and “burst” mode of 100+ shots in four seconds will be nice to have for a few specialized occasions, but no one’s going to make this their primary way of snapping pics.

There are other features that have a 50-50 chance of being useful, but only for certain types of users. S-Translator can cover 3,000 common phrases in nine languages, which is great if you travel (especially since it doesn’t require connectivity), but there’s no doubt that this going to sit dormant on a lot of people’s handsets. Then there’s S Health, which is awesome IF you’re a health-conscious user with an active lifestyle. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t.

As far as the hardware’s concerned — the spec lust is getting a bit ridiculous, no? Seriously, a 13 MP smartphone camera? That’s DSLR territory, but with none of the sensors and lenses that make it worthwhile. And there’s ample evidence that this many megapixels could actually saturate and degrade photo quality. But who cares? More is better, right? Then there’s the capacity. With 64 GB built-in and another possible 64 GB via microSD, we’re looking at computer-level storage at 128 GB, all stuffed in your pocket along with a quad-core or octa-core processor. And yet, no one but a fraction of the userbase is ever going to need that much heft.

Granted, it might seem strange to rant about a phone’s tricked-out specs, but that’s not the intent. In fact, I have to give it to Samsung — without having had my hands on the Galaxy S 4, I’ll cautiously say that this looks like it will deliver one of the most advanced smartphone experiences on the mobile scene today. But that says less about the device, and more about the ho-hum mobile scene. The industry badly needs a shake-up. While there may be an incredible load of phone debuts these days, the modus operandi seems to be to super-size everything and cram as much as possible into these increasingly huge phones. But does that qualify as innovation? If so, then Samsung’s incredibly innovative, throwing everything but the kitchen sink in there. However Moore’s Law is not absolute, and it seems we’re starting to hit the ceiling on what we can do, at least with traditional smartphone form factors.

Samsung recognizes this, and that’s partly why it focused so much on software. And yet, it doesn’t control the most important aspect of its mobile devices — the operating system. Some pundits think that Sammie’s handcuffed by an OS that it doesn’t own and can’t develop (and no, TouchWiz doesn’t count. An overlay is not an operating system). There are whispers that this may not stand in its way much longer — Goodbye Android, hello Tizen? — but that’s pure speculation. What we do know is that the company forged ahead with as many new features as it could. Unfortunately, several of these will probably languish on people’s phones. They’re not exactly a carefully honed, thoughtfully curated collection of game-changers — they seem to follow the “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” philosophy. Still, you have to give it to the company for trying.

Even if Samsung ditches Android someday, there’s only so much you can do with a slim box fronted by a touchscreen and tiny cameras. Looking at the Galaxy S 4 — in all its spec’ed out, feature-heavy glory — it has become clear that it’s time to rethink the smartphone category. The company took this as far it could go, at least for now. And a look at the competition doesn’t help. We’ve hit a point when its own competitor gets lauded because it dares to care about build quality, looks and busting the megapixel myth with common sense. Did I miss a memo? These are great things, but they’re not pioneering, are they? 

With this, along with the HTC One and iPhone 5, it seems we’re nearing the apex of this mountain. Maybe there’s not much further up we can go. 

This is not a rant. It’s a call to arms. The time is ripe for a genuine smartphone killer. We know that Google Glass and the Apple iWatch are being developed (or at least probably so, in the iWatch’s case), and there may be others secretly being worked on. But we don’t have them in our grubby mitts just yet. And until we do, no matter how spec’ed out the mobile offerings get, the feeling of “another day, another smartphone announcement” will persist.


Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...

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