We’re devoting a lot of attention to the Galaxy S 4 these days, and we like to think it’s a pretty fair spread: we’ve got opinions for and against the device in terms of how well it competes against its chief Android rival, the HTC One. Alongside our podcast and hangout commentary, we’ve got reasons to pick it up alongside reasons to wonder if some of its most prized features are outright gimmicks.
It’s that last point I want to address here. Many of the features Samsung rolled into its previous halo smartphone, the Galaxy S III, were pejoratively labeled “gimmicks” by some before its release. Admittedly, some didn’t quite work out: Smart Stay is an excellent idea hobbled by poor execution in low light, and S Voice was a fairly large disappointment in our testing. But some of them, like the gesture-based controls baked into the new version of TouchWiz, did a nice job of enhancing the Android experience.
Amid the sea of whiz-bang gimmicks the Galaxy S 4 promises to bring to the table, there are a few near-guaranteed clunkers; for most buyers, I doubt “Group Play” or “Sound & Shot” are going to see much use beyond day one. But there are a few gems -some subtle, some spectacular- that stand a good chance of adding real value to the S 4’s otherwise-familiar TouchWiz build. Here’s a quick look at my top three.
There was some muffled guffawing in my section of the audience when Samsung touted this Galaxy S 4 add-on as a “new feature.” After all, translator apps of all stripes have been available in the Google Play store since – well, since before it was called the Google Play store. I routinely use services like Google Translate and Bing Translator to perform exactly the functions Samsung is touting with its new app. “This ain’t new, ya’ll,” my slang-heavy inner voice said to no one in particular as the event rolled on.
But those third-party apps, as good as they are, don’t come bundled with smartphones. They force a user to hunt for and download them specifically. That might not seem like much effort to a tech-savvy reader, but to someone newer to smartphones -someone Samsung is very obviously trying to court with this new device- searching for and downloading an app is an extra step. That’s a burden that Samsung has removed by bundling the feature with the Galaxy S 4 right out of the box, making S Translator -which, by the way, understands nine languages and works with both speech and text- possibly the most useful piece of bloatware since Data Sense.
Air View / Air Gesture
So out-of-box translation doesn’t blow your skirt up, eh? Well … how’bout the Force? That do anything for ya?
I know there’s something inherently gimmicky about a feature that lets you hover your hand over a screen to perform a function. It looks weird, and as we discovered in NYC last week, it evenfeels weird – regardless of whether you’ve used Air View with the Galaxy Note II’s S Pen.
But it’s also genius. In this business, we’re always talking about how well or how poorly a display coating deals with fingerprints, how well it does or doesn’t resist the accumulation of skin oils. Smartphones are almost always with us, which means they need to endure our frantic wet-handed notification checking to see if we missed a call from the delivery man while we were showering, and they need to stand up to the oily prodding of our suntan-lotion-covered fingers on the beach, too.
Air View and Air Gesture help solve this problem by eliminating the need to touch the screen at all – at least for some actions. The scope is somewhat limited at this juncture, but simple actions like unlocking the device without touching the screen -and without dealing with the hassle of Face Unlock- will be an enormous help to those of us who can’t keep our digits out of the Dijonnaise.
Smart Pause / Smart Scroll
This is the feature with the most potential for failure, because of the aforementioned difficulties with Smart Stay in low light. But it’s also, in my view, one of the most impressive and useful if Samsung can implement it properly.
Put simply: the Galaxy S 4 watches your eye position to determine what part of the display you’re looking at. If you’re in a browser window and your eyes flit to the bottom of the display, the phone will scroll the page for you. If you’re watching a video and you take your eyes away from the action, the device will pause the video until you return your attention to it. Even if you don’t follow the mobile industry, that’s impressive – from both a technological and a usability standpoint. And for mobile mavens, it’s another reminder that Samsung, contrary to its copycat reputation, actually is capable of real innovation.
Which new aspects of the Galaxy S 4’s feature set stand out to you will of course vary – and we welcome you to share your opinions in the comments, as always. But in my opinion, it’s the three features outlined above, along with their derivatives, that will make the Galaxy S 4 stand out to the widest subset of potential buyers – and it’s those areas around which we’ll see the most discussion. At least, until Samsung’s new home-theater initiatives start gaining momentum. But that, as they say, is talk for another Tuesday.