Samsung's Galaxy S 4 is a No-Touch-Touchscreen, Not-Quite-Android Android Phone

Samsung's new smartphone contains multitudes.

The Galaxy S 4's touchscreen doesn't need to be touched to respond to your actions. Its software looks less like Android than almost any other phone running Google's operating system, but the thing ships with a newer version of it, 4.2, than almost all others. And its 5-inch screen outsizes the 4.8-in. display of the earlier Galaxy S III, but it's smaller and lighter than Samsung's flagship phone of last year.

And like its best-selling predecessor, the S 4 invites an assessment from multiple perspectives.

(Purchase and service costs over two years start at $2,069.75 with Sprint--add $100 if you're not porting your number over--then $2.069.99 at T-Mobile, $2.359.75 at AT&T and potentially 2.599.99 at Verizon.)

Samsung's hardware may be the best end of the deal. Not only did the company cram a 5-in. screen into a device just small enough to allow one-handed operation, it also squashed the phone down to 7.9 mm thick, barely more than an iPhone 5, while keeping a user-accessible battery and microSD Card slot.

The S 4's 2,650 milliamp-hour battery beats the capacity of anything close to its size, but the performance I saw didn't match that spec. After 24 hours sitting idle on a desk, a loaned Sprint model on 3G service (the carrier has yet to activate LTE near me) showed 78 percent of a charge left--worse than the S III, much less the iPhone 5.

The 13-megapixel resolution of the back camera represents another number that overstates this device's capabilities. It can take some amazing outdoor shots and can do surprisingly well with indoor pictures, but it's not much better-suited to photos of moving objects than other phone cameras.

The goofy picture-taking modes included may help you cope with some of these situations and open up some creative possibilities.

On the flip side of the phone, the front camera can track your eyes to see if it should scroll up or down for you. That fascinating option is disabled by default, and I'd keep it off; I found it too jumpy in practice.

An infrared LED can also issue commands to a TV or cable box, but this WatchOn software doesn't seem to have advanced much beyond the limited, confused app I tried on a Samsung tablet last year.

The phone can even detect when your finger is just above an item--say, a calendar entry--and provide a thumbnail preview of its contents. That, however, only works in apps that have been rewritten to respond to this "Air view" option, and it's not on by default either.

So about Samsung's software--if you've never used Android before or are coming from an older release, the S 4 just might look great.

Launching and switching between apps takes no more steps than on an iPhone. The keyboard refrains from the pushy auto-correction of the S III's software, uses the larger screen to include a dedicated row of number buttons and incorporates Swype gesture typing. And a setup screen makes it a little more obvious that some of these input and control options exist.

But Samsung's treatment of Android can also appear an exercise in annoying users who know the unadulterated version of Google's operating system.

Samsung rearranged Android's core system buttons to remove the recent-apps item (to see active programs, you press and hold the home button, as if you were invoking Siri in iOS) and then put the back button on the wrong side. It fragmented the Settings app into four columns, with detailed battery data buried a level deep. Widgets advertising other Samsung apps and sites eat up most of the space in the five home screens. Even just turning airplane mode on and off requires an extra tap in a confirmation dialog.

And yet for many users, the S 4's forked interface will be the only flavor of Android they know. Google must be so pleased.


          1. Profit is where it’s at for the company. If you’re the customer, knowing where the profit’s at but still buying into it makes you the sucker.

  1. >$2,000 for 24 month ownership? Crikey! I think this is the first time I’ve discovered consumer goods that are actually cheaper here in the UK. 24 months for an iPhone 5 comes in at about £750 here. It’ll be about the same for an S4.

    1. Wow, that is cheap. How did you pull that off? (FWIW, the cheapest hardware-independent service in the States comes from T-Mobile, at $60 a month–but there’s no break on the phone price.) 

      1. That’s just the price. Currently a Galaxy S3 costs around £20 a month including handset on a two year deal in the UK. Why is it so pricey there?

        1. There are a lot of weird things about the U.S. wireless market, but I’d start with the lack of one open, standard that everybody works with:

          1. i dont get it, in centrally controlled economies resources are not efficiently allocated. Market economies are also not allocating resources efficiently because one particular micro component (tastes and preferences) of demand is all screwed up!!

        2. That’s not including the service right? The $2000 number is the total cost to own an S4 and have data and voice on T-mobile for 2 years I believe. 

          1. Correct. At T-Mo, it’s $150 upfront, $20/month in phone payments for 24 months, and $60/month for service. The total’s almost the same at Sprint, courtesy of a subsidy-padded $80 service fee plus a $150 price for switchers.

            AT&T and Verizon charge more, but you can also warp the math if you assume a much lower data budget or zero interest in texting. And all of these carriers offer employer, college-student, college-alumni and other discounts.

          2. I’m only guessing what you mean by “service” but the prices I quoted include calls, text, data etc for 2 years. Plus the handset.

          3.  I think it is down to the fact, thatn they had to give mobile phones way for free in the uk, to get people to buy them in the 1st place, so mobiles are a “free” product you get with your mobile serivce in the uk, I paid £30 a month for 5000mins talk 4000 texts and unlimited data on “three” and that came with a free phone thou only a htc wildfire, but that was becuse it also came with a free xbox 360.

            the market is much more competive in the uk, added to the fact that phones are something you get for free, we just get a better deal.

      2. Mmmm…  We pay around $1200 (Nexus 4) to $1600 (iPhone 5) for 24 months unlimited everything here in Israel.  If you bring a phone from abroad to avoid the 34% taxes on the handset and jump ship between the different providers every six months you can pay less than $1000 for the iPhone.

      3.  I just called my provider and negotiated unlimited data, 5000 texts & 200 mins for £12.90 a month… monthly rolling contract no 2 year tie in… how on earth can it cost so much for you folks? Come to England, life is good here…

  2. I tried one of these (along with a Nexus 4) at a cell phone shop last week (a place I normally avoid, but I was with someone who needed to do something there). I’ve handled the S2 and S3 briefly in the past, as a few friends have those, and thought they were OK but nothing special (other than the size). This felt like a much bigger step.

    So – I like the way the technology is improving, especially the quality of the touch recognition (and the hover recognition on the S4), as well as general speed and usability. I’m using my good old unlocked Nexus One and what once felt amazing now feels like an utter piece of junk, even after (or perhaps because of…) all of the custom modifications I’ve made. 

    But I agree that Samsung’s take on what Android should be like is often bizarre, and Google themselves still do it best (as they always have) – and notably, Google’s current version of Android is almost unrecognizable compared to the first couple major versions. They’re not stuck in the mud merely doing basic or behind-the-scenes stuff by any means.

    Along those lines, this is not the first time Samsung and the other Android manufacturers have put the back button on the right-hand side (and otherwise rearranged the buttons). I remember a couple years ago looking at someone’s new phone (not sure which model) and being completely baffled at that – it makes no sense. 

    And the recent apps button was never originally an Android thing – on my Nexus One I hold the home button to bring up the recent apps selector, just like on the S4. I was once again baffled when I discovered that there was a dedicated button for that when I tried the Nexus 4 (which otherwise I quite liked). It’s better than the search button, which was eliminated a while ago, I guess (with custom ROMs you can customize that button to do something else, thankfully).

    1.  i’m currently waiting for the HTC one on ting (sprint).  the hardware looks so much better with regards to industrial design, and really only missing a few small things relative to the gs4.  i had a gs2 on at&t.  i got really tired of it feeling and looking like a cheap calculator. 
      in either case i will install cyanogen on it ASAP

  3. I love technology. I work in technology. And yet I’ve held out from buying a “smart” phone all this time because of money reasons. 

    I’ve contemplated finally getting a smart phone. But man, $2.069.99 for 2 years of “ownership”. If I turn off my toy wanting part of my brain, I find it really difficult to tell myself it’s worth it.

    1. It’s got to be vastly cheaper if you just buy the phone outright to start with: the handset will be around $600-700 and I can’t believe it’s impossible to find a suitable tariff in the US that costs less than $50/month.

      1. That’s what’s on the table at T-Mobile. But $630 for the phone itself–either all at once, or $150 upfront and then $20 a month for 24 months–plus $60 a month for 2.5 GB of high-speed data and unlimited talk and text still gets you to $2,000 and change.

        1. So what’s stopping you, say, buying the handset for $630 from AT&T then going to someone like Virgin Mobile and paying $35/month with no contract?

          1. Yeah, I don’t get this part. Not everyone needs 2.5GB of data. If you have wifi at home and at work, and you don’t talk or text like a maniac, you can get a decent plan for $30/month (and that’s in Canada, where there’s no competition!).

          2. When I was in Canada I bought a Wind SIM card. $30 a month; unlimited data, unlimited local calls and text, no contract; but very expensive to call from the states or to call mobiles that weren’t “Toronto” numbers. I never understood that part of it. In Australia, a mobile is a mobile, it will work where it gets coverage, and it won’t cost more to call a Perth number than a Melbourne number no matter which city you’re in (despite similar distances between Toronto and Vancouver).

          3. T-mobile also has a 30 dollar a month plan. Though you’re limited to only 100 minutes a month talk (I use Google Voice for calls), though you get 5 GB’s of un-throttled fake 4-G and unlimited text. Its what I use for my unlocked Nexus 4, which I am rather happy with.

          4.  In the U.S., Virgin Mobile is little more than a Sprint brand and they probably won’t activate a phone that does not have their branding on it (by probably, I mean they won’t).

          5. In anticipation of debunking a lazy, cynical assumption I checked on the Virgin Mobile US site. First up on the FAQ:

            Does Virgin Mobile support devices from other carriers?
            No, you cannot use a mobile phone from another wireless carrier, or any unlocked device. But it’s the perfect excuse to get a new phone.

            Unbefuckinglieveable. The US telecoms regulator may as well turn up to meetings with telcos in a gimp suit.

          6. People have addressed Virgin Mobile specifically–but the real way AT&T et al. incentivize you not to do this is cancellation fees. That $350-a-line business is meant to cover what’s left of the phone subsidy (among other purposes). 

    2. the cheaper “feature phones” do everything most people use their smart phones for- Facebook, texting, messaging, taking pictures of food, navigation, some calendar functions, and making a call.

      have you looked at pre-paid plans?

    3. Don’t you already have a non-smart phone?  Of course you do, that was rhetorical.  So $2k isn’t the number you should be focusing on, it’s the delta between $2K and what you pay now over two years for your dumbphone service.

    4.  Paying for this phone would be like paying several grand for a flatscreen tv that will just be a few hundred in a couple years. You can go to Virgin and get a good enough “smart” phone for like $150. The nerds here will mock me for saying that, but if you’re using a “dumb” phone, one of these decent, cheap smart phones will feel like you went from dial up to DSL. In the meantime you can enjoy the 1k or so you saved and watch as smart phone prices fall.

  4. The hardware seems great, but the reason why I’m reluctant to go all Android and ditch my iPhone despite being both an iOS and Android user (iPhone 4 and Nexus 7 tablet) is that still, the apps available  for Android just aren’t as good and while basically every decent Android app has an iOS equivalent (or more likely started out as an iOS app and was ported to Android), there are tons of iOS apps that have no Android version  — I don’t understand why — all the stats say there are more Android devices than iOS devices, and Android developers don’t have to deal with Apple’s often capricious decisions as to what’s a permitted app this month, but it just doesn’t feel that way from the app perspective.

    1. Are your lack of apps more academic or professional oriented? Apple has done a great job selling hardware into those markets, “forcing” entire bodies of employees and students into Apple’s garden. This leaves Android with very small market penetration and no reason for developers to port over.

      1. Well, there are certainly the iOS-only scientific apps, which I understand from that argument, but even the entertainment/personal apps have an iOS bias. 

        For example, I am interested in the strategy game Go. iOS has a port of the well known SmartGo program from Windows, and also the SmartGo Books app, where you can buy Go strategy books where the the books have been enhanced so that the illustrations of games aren’t just pictures but allow you to cycle through the moves leading up the position shown. Android just doesn’t have anything comparable — yes, there are Go programs (and I’ve purchased several), but they aren’t  anywhere near as professional as SmartGo. A year or so ago they announced that they were considering an Android port, but now apparently that has been abandoned.

        I’m interested in cooking as well, and have a $5 iPhone app of Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”, which takes the cookbook of the same name and makes it a nicely navigable app. There isn’t an Android version — I can buy the e-book from Google Play for $20, but it wouldn’t be an app.

        And there’s the whole problem of Android fragmentation too, which causes problems even if there is an Android port. Apparently, there are Android apps for The New Yorker and The Economist, but not on my Nexus 7.

        1. There is a gap, especially among apps built first or primarily for tablets. (And I have something of an economic stake in it: I’m working on a piece for an iPad publication called The Magazine, which has added a Kindle version but still isn’t available for Android.) I own an iPad mini in part because of that, but also because as a tech journalist I need to keep my feet in both worlds.

          This doesn’t bother me as much when it comes to phones. One of the apps I use most often, Google Maps, is so far ahead on Android that it outweighs a slower release schedule for many other things. 

          Oh, and I guess I’m too old to care that much about not being able to shoot six-second videos on Vine.

    2. One theory (speaking as an employee of a games studio who make games for mobile devices) – (a) people with iPhones and iPads are perceived as more likely to pay for games, so you get your app out on iOS first; and (b) because iOS apps are locked to a specific device, you can do closed beta tests without copies of your software escaping into the wild prematurely.

      Another thing is, you can build Android apps on a Mac, but you can’t build iOS apps on a Windows or Linux machine, so you will buy Macs for cross-platform development, and then it’s easier to get the iOS build done first and fight with cross-platform issues later.

      1. You can build iOS apps on Windows and Linux. You either run a VM with OSX and Xcode or you develop without the benefit of the Xcode IDE and iOS simulator and possibly a limited set of the cocoa framework. 

    3. There are more IOS developers for one thing. Secondly, android has only recently become a pretty good OS. Developers simply haven’t caught up. There is a good article about it here:

    4. I think it has to do with the hardware perhaps.  An iPhone is an iPhone.  Look at some app ratings in the Google Play Store some time.  The same app that will work fine on the GS3 may not work on a Nexus, or it force closes on HTC One X or something like that.  I see it all the time.  It’s probably much easier to develop for iOS because if it works for one phone, it will work for all of them I imagine.

  5. My last buy was the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, deciding I wanted the large screen more than the clean Android OS of the Nexus. I also prefer Samsung’s interfaces over Android’s, but maybe that is only because I have been with Samsung for 3 generations now.

    I agree that the mass of crapware Samsung jams on the phone is entirely disappointing. But whenever I’m ready to buy, the Nexus hardware just doesn’t excite me.

    1.  The technology that’s foisted on us by megacorps stopped exciting me about 10 years ago. I think the problem is that I have a vision of technology, and the tech falls short. As a technologist, I’m likely forever doomed to find consumer tech a little bit crap. Basically, I don’t buy gadgets any more unless I have a clear need for them (and even then I’m normally happy with a second hand widget).

  6. I’ve been waiting for months to upgrade from my old iPhone 3GS to one of these.   And it’s killing me now, because I really want a 32GB one, but only 16GB ones seem to be available.

    1. Just pop in Micro SD card with whatever capacity you desire. That really seems like a non issue to me.  I have a 16gb sgs3 and use the internal storage for apps and the SD card for everything else. That way when I upgrade to my next galaxy I simply pop in my SD card and all my data is instantly transferred.

  7. I wouldn’t want one of these over an HTC One; I’m waiting for the One to arrive at Ting and I’ll be getting it. I really wish Google would put out a Nexus device made by HTC so I don’t have to deal with crapped-up Android at all… doubt that’ll happen…

    Anyway, see Brian Klug (an optical engineer by trade!) review the One over at AnandTech here:

    lss: best hardware & industrial design outside of Apple, best camera for low-light operation on any phone but not-stellar for outdoor shots, not too much unbearable crapware tacked on top of Android like with Samsung devices.

  8. Do people really still not know how to root their devices and install bloatfree versions of Android?  Anyone willing to drop all this money on the smartest of smartphones should be willing to get their hands dirty and make the device your own, and take control out of Samsung/AT&T/Verizon/Whoever’s hands.  My GS3 had the worst battery life until I did a little research and learned how to root and install another ROM.

    It’s nowhere near as difficult as it was years ago and the chance of bricking the device is very slim.  And it can always be put back to stock just as easily.

  9. Samsung Galaxy S4 is smaller and lighter with a smart display screen. However, HTC One is more economical than Samsung Galaxy S4 with 32GB looks cool offer.

  10. My job gave me a free iPhone5. I was really looking forward to it, but after using it for a bit I’m pretty much using my old Galaxy s2 full time again. The old Galaxy actually feels much more advanced. I can’t stand how Apple doesn’t allow apps to affect the system, for instance there’s some Swype-like apps, but they aren’t allowed to replace the standard iOs keyboard, so not very practical. Of course my Galaxy is rooted with a great mod installed. I wouldn’t mind the s4, but I think the HTC One is cooler.

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