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.
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.