By Michael Fisher | May 6, 2013 12:58 PM
There is a zone, somewhere between the initial review frenzy surrounding a brand-new smartphone and our After The Buzz re-review, where a followup is called for. A check-in period. A built-in hold to allow the reviewers to catch their breath while they pass the mic to the buyers for their impressions on a brand-new device. Not just any buyers, either, but that special class of customer that tells a critical part of any device’s story: the early-adopters.
The Samsung Galaxy S 4 started shipping last month. It’s been available on all four U.S. national carriers for about a week now, giving the early-adopter crowd ample time to pick up their own devices and get to tapping, tinkering, and talking. And they’re doing quite a bit of the latter, with discussion forums at sites like XDA-Developers overflowing with Galaxy S 4 chatter. As usual on message boards, some of that chatter is positive and some isn’t – there’s certainly no shortage of user opinion surrounding Samsung’s latest Android flagship.
Having spent the better part of three weeks poking and prodding various incarnations of the Galaxy S 4, culminating in one of our largest reviews ever, you could say I’ve had my fill of the device. Some fresh eyeballs are needed to lend a different Pocketnow perspective on the phone, which is why you’ll soon be seeing additional S 4 coverage from our own Anton D. Nagy and Taylor Martin, among others. But my time with Seoul’s newest jewel has given me a few early-adopter takeaways of my own. They’ll be no surprise to listeners of the Pocketnow Weekly or those who joined us for the pilot episode of the Pocketnow U-Review – but for the benefit of the rest of our audience, let me briefly expound on these first Galaxy S 4 impressions.
It’s Not A Trading Card
One of my favorite things to do when unboxing a brand-new smartphone is to examine how its UI is laid out. It’s a window into what services the manufacturer and carrier want to foist upon users via bloatware – and as an extension of that, it’s a snapshot of what someone considers “the ideal user experience” for that smartphone’s software. On the Galaxy S 4, that means widgets on all homescreens for everything from S Health to the Samsung Hub, and half the new device’s bells and whistles disabled by default.
Here’s the thing, though: as valuable as the initial configuration is as insight into designer and operator wishes, it’s not concrete. As a user (not a reviewer), the very first thing I do after an unboxing is to wipe all of that stuff off my home screens. I replace it with a layout I’ve grown accustomed to over years of using smartphones, a configuration that best suits my needs. Where possible, I bring in some of the new device features, filling the occasional gap in the layout with a fresh widget or a new shortcut. In the end, though, my newly crafted software playground barely resembles the out-of-box arrangement.
That customizability is something most veteran smartphone users understand, but it’s something new adopters can easily forget. You’re not stuck with the device in its from-the-factory configuration. You don’t need to maintain it in pristine condition as you would a Roger Maris rookie card. You can and should stretch it, tweak it, and mold it to your heart’s content. That’s because it’s an Android device and not (contrary to what the manufacturer would have you believe) a Samsung device. Customization is inherent to the platform. It’s a crucial part of what sets it apart from its competitors.
That Goes For Hardware, Too
The glory days of cellphone hardware modding are behind us. No longer does every third person trick out his or her mobile device with superclear casings and flashing antennas or battery doors. It’s getting harder even to augment your smartphone’s power supply and storage capacity, as sealed-up devices like the HTC One demonstrate.
But the Galaxy S 4 does offer opportunities for hardware customization, not just in the tried-and-true category of removable battery and expandable storage, but in accessory support as well. The S View Cover so captivated me that I whipped up a video singing its praises, despite its ridiculous SRP of $69.99. Don’t worry – you can find it for much cheaper at third-party retailers like Amazon, meaning you don’t need to shell out the big bucks to reap all the benefits of a flip cover that finally makes sense.
There’s more coming from Samsung in the hardware arena, including a wireless-charging battery cover – which some of us are pretty amped on and others couldn’t care less about, but I think we can all agree it should have been built into the device from the beginning. That aside, the point is that there’s customizability in the Galaxy S 4′s physical embodiment in addition to its virtual one – a good thing considering how underwhelmed we were by the device’s glossy, easy-to-scratch coating.
Sometimes, Spaghetti Sticks For A Reason
One of the most-talked-about aspects of Samsung’s approach to smartphone design is the company’s propensity to “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.” That is: Samsung likes to bundle every imaginable feature into a smartphone, regardless of the effectiveness of each, in the hopes that at least some will catch on with users.
I have a pretty big philosophical issue with that tactic, in that I don’t think it’s right to incorporate and advertise features that don’t really work properly, but I covered that in our full review. Thankfully, there’s a bright side here: even in a scattershot approach, you’ll usually land a few hits. And amid all the half-baked nonsense taking up room inside the Galaxy S 4, there are some really incredible features too. Most of them are in the camera.
But enough of my jawing; it’s time to hear from the readers. Are you a newly-minted Galaxy S 4 owner with opinions to share? Whether you’re ecstatically singing the praises of your new device or reluctantly bemoaning a purchase that’s not delivering on your expectations, we want to hear from you in the comments below. Let us know what you love, what you hate, and what you couldn’t care less about regarding the Galaxy S 4, and try to keep the cross-device debates to a minimum. We’re looking forward to vicariously experiencing your unboxing excitement, so get to writing!
Title image via Mashed Thoughts