Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy S4

Today we had a brief hands-on with Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S4 smartphone, which launches in New Zealand at 10:00 AM on 27 April.

NameSmartphone: Samsung Galaxy S4
At a glance:Polycarbonate plastic body,5-inch, 1080 x 1920-pixel screen,13MP rear-facing camera, 2MP front camera,Quad-core, 1.9GHz CPU,2GB RAM, 16/32/64GB storage,Runs Android 4.2.2 ‘Jelly Bean’
Summary:Feels like a refinement of the Galaxy S III rather than a completely new phone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
RRP:$1,149 (Telecom NZ RRP, unknown whether 16/32/64GB capacity)

Today we had a brief hands-on with Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S4 smartphone during a one-on-one session with Stefan Lecchi, head of telecommunications at Samsung New Zealand.

The S4 shares almost the same dimensions as the previous Samsung Galaxy S III, though the S III has a slightly-smaller 4.8-inch screen compared to the S4's 5-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel full-HD display. We were able to put the S4 side-by-side next to the S III, and the two appear indistinguishable in size. The S4 is a fraction of a millimetre thinner than its predecessor, and I could sort of tell that when Lecchi reminded me of the fact. However, it's not the sort of thing you'd notice even if you were upgrading to an S4 from an S III.

The S4 has much flatter sides than the S III, somewhat like Apple's iPhone 5, though it's flat surface is worked smoothly into the polycarbonate case, which is distinct from the starkly defined metal 'band' around the iPhone 5's edge. The S4 has a rounded rear edge, where the sides meet the removeable plastic backplate. Altogether it's comfortable to hold, which we were uncertain about when we first saw the slightly less contoured design.

While we had the backplate off, Lecchi emphasised the user-replaceable 2600mAh (9.88 Watt/hour) battery, up from 2000mAh in the Galaxy S III. We also noticed a Micro-SIM slot: Samsung aren't following Apple into Nano-SIM territory just yet. The microSD card slot is also hidden beneath the rear cover, oriented in such a way that you can insert and remove the card without removing the battery.

We only had a half-hour session with Lecchi and the S4, but we did get to try out a few of the phone's key features.

Samsung's S Translator has both speech-to-text (speech recognition) and text-to-speech (speech synthesis) capabilities. This means you can enter or speak a sentence in one language, and read or listen to a translation in one of the other supported languages. Unfortunately both Lecchi and I are unilingual, so I was unable to test the feature to its fullest. I did try supplying a phrase in English, which was recognised with the same sort of accuracy as Samsung's existing S Voice speech recognition. That is to say, not perfectly, but close enough to be useful.

Smart Stay detects whether you are watching during video playback, and pauses the video if you look away from the phone's screen. When you look back at the screen, playback resumes. The feature is integrated into the Galaxy S4's own video player, so it will work with content played on the phone or via DLNA (e.g. from a home media server). It doesn't work with third-party video players or browser-embedded players such as YouTube.

Smart Stay worked surprisingly well when I tested it, both with and without my glasses. I takes a second or two for the phone to realise you've looked away, or that you've looked back, but that's ideal. If it was on a hair-trigger, you'd probably end up with the video starting and stopping constantly as you naturally move around. The only time it didn't work was when I looked up - looking left, right, or down all paused the video reliably. Looking up, I had to tilt my head right up to the ceiling before playback paused, and even then, it restarted.

Smart Scroll has been widely publicised and speculated upon. The common understanding seems to be that it's scrolling by eye-tracking, but this isn't entirely accurate. Smart Scroll uses a combination of the Galaxy S4's eye-tracking and its conventional accelerometer - you can scroll by tilting the phone slightly, while you're looking at the screen.

There seems to be slightly more to it than that, but I had real trouble getting it working. After a few minutes of use I could scroll up and down a website, with the phone doing what I wanted most of the time. When it did what I intended, it did feel amazingly intuitive and more convenient than scrolling through long pages by finger. However, periodically the scrolling would stop for no apparent reason and the phone would show its little 'finding your eyes' icon, even when I hadn't looked away from the screen. A couple of seconds later the icon would turn green, the phone having apparently redetected that yes, I do have eyeballs, and scrolling would resume.

At first I thought the issue was caused by my glasses, but the same issue occurred with equal frequency after I removed them. It's a really neat idea, and perhaps it just needs more than five minutes to get used to. But if it's as unreliable as it seems, I'd be sticking with 'old fashioned' finger-scrolling.

Air View seems gimmicky, but is amazing when you actually get to use it. You know how often on a website, or in a PC application, you can hover your mouse over something to get extra information? Samsung's Air View is essentially that. Hover your finger about half a centimetre above the screen - far enough that it's easy even if you don't have the steadiest of hands - in certain applications and you'll get tooltip-style popups.

Lecchi demonstrated Air View in the phone's message app, where 'hovering' over the short summary of a message would display the whole thing on screen, without actually opening up that conversation. We're not sure how widely it's available throughout the operating system, but it's a neat feature that adds an extra dimension of interactivity to the traditionally 'flat' touchscreen user interface.

Finally, the S4 is purportedly usable if you're wearing gloves, which smartphones with capacitive touch interfaces usually aren't. In fact, it's such a shortcoming of smartphones and tablets that products have been created to make those devices more accessible in colder climates where gloves are often a necessity - look at the silver-threaded Agloves we reviewed last year. I didn't think to bring gloves, but the S4 did work flawlessly through my thick denim sleeve, which no other touch-device I own can manage.

It's certainly got some nifty features. However, the phone itself feels much like an evolution of the Galaxy S III, rather than radical redesign. That's not necessarily a bad thing - we awarded the Galaxy S III a five-star, PC World Platinum rating. We'll be able to say more when we get a review device in our labs next week.

The Galaxy S4 launches globally at 10:00 AM on 27 April, which means New Zealanders will be able to get their hands on the device two hours before consumers anywhere else in the world.

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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