By Stephen Schenck | March 20, 2013 7:06 AM
I’ll admit it: covering the Galaxy S 4 launch last Thursday, I found myself a little underwhelmed. Maybe it was Samsung spending so much time focused on software features that felt like they’d be just as at home on the Galaxy S III. Maybe it was how little the phone seemed to offer over other just-announced 1080p models. Ultimately, the GS4 just seemed “fine.” Not earth-shattering, but good enough. After all was said and done, and I had the luxury of sitting back and reading what some other minds had to say about the launch, I found myself a little bit surprised; people seemed genuinely unhappy – angry even – with the launch, and apparently were expecting either a whole lot more, or just something wildly different from what Samsung delivered.
I can’t get on board with that kind of thinking, and even if it would have been neat to come away a little more impressed by the phone’s announcement, I don’t think there’s any good reason to be upset with what Samsung ended up sharing. If you were expecting a very different phone than what we got, you just haven’t been paying any attention to Samsung.
There’s a contingent out there that wanted a Galaxy S 4 that wasn’t another cookie cutter copy of every other Samsung Android we’ve seen over the past eighteen months. Earlier this month, I wrote about this rut Samsung seems stuck in, and how it might be nice to see its design language evolve a little, like HTC managed to do with the One.
Don’t get me wrong, that could have been a nice departure, and would have earned the GS4 a little extra attention, but there was somewhere on the order of zero evidence to really suggest any change like this was coming.
We can hope, dream, and speculate all we like, but the evidence is in Samsung’s lineup, and it’s been increasingly clear that the company has found a look for its products that it loves. We heard a little from execs about why Samsung is so into plastic for its phones, and how there are some significant manufacturing reasons it makes handsets the way it does, but there’s more to it than just that: Samsung has found the runaway smartphone success it has in part because its products are so universal.
Unfortunately, that means that they’re a little bland – they hit design notes that don’t blow us away, but also aren’t going to drive us towards another manufacturer. They’re comfortable. They’re easy. And as the sales numbers indicate, they’re exactly what we, as a whole, want from our phones. Why would you gamble a huge product launch on unproven design changes?
The Hardware Split
Who knew what to expect from the GS4′s hardware in the weeks leading up to the launch? We kept seeing benchmark results that seemed to indicate Qualcomm chips, rumors insisted that the Exynos 5 Octa would power the phone, and a few voices of reason suggested that we’d see with the Galaxy S 4 the same thing Samsung did with the Galaxy S III, and deliver the international version with its latest Exynos chip while the US versions got a Snapdragon.
Indeed that’s exactly what happened, leaving me to wonder, why were we so convinced that Samsung might try something different? The Exynos 5 Octa seems as cutting-edge and desirable as the Exynos 4 Quad did a year ago, and while it would have no doubt been nice to see the 5 make it onto GS4s everywhere, we should have known better; it’s just not Samsung’s standard operating procedure.
So Much Software
Androids are flirting with the prospect of becoming commodities, and when so many phones from so many manufacturers share similar specs, they need something special to stand out. Gone are the days when a 3D screen or the presence of an LTE modem could cut it; instead, OEMs are turning to software.
Now, while some of the GS4′s software features seem pretty nice and genuinely useful, it’s easy to see how Samsung’s presentation of them all could be frustrating. For one thing, it really hammed things up with its live scenarios, giving a feature which might have deserved a half-screen mention on a quickly-flipped-through sideshow several minutes of agonizing exposition.
It also didn’t help that some of the features themselves were pretty weak. Group Play seemed fine for what it was, but it also felt like it could have been coded-up by an intern over the course of a long afternoon; hardly the sort of feature worth promoting at a grand launch event.
The thing is, once again, this is just what Samsung does. The Note II, hardware-wise, is a bit of a one-trick-pony (OK, two tricks): it’s big and has a stylus. What made the phone so interesting was all the great software Samsung had put together, not the least of which was Multi-Window View. Samsung’s been headed down this road for a while now, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it place a serious focus on phone software.
The Galaxy S 4 could have been something bolder, it could have offered a single spec profile, been all about the hardware rather than the software, and could have signaled the start of a new direction for Samsung. But when you get right down to it, it’s exactly what was most likely for Samsung to announce, and anything else required varying degrees of self-delusion on our parts.
Don’t be upset with Samsung for what the Galaxy S 4 is. Just realize that if the phone you truly want doesn’t seem like a Galaxy S model, you probably shouldn’t be looking for Samsung to deliver it.