Samsungcalls its new Galaxy S4 (or, technically, "S 4," with a space) a "lifecompanion." Whatever you choose to call it - life companion, domestic partner,tool, toy - it's a great smartphone. I'm a happy T-Mobile customer, so that'sthe version I bought (16 GB memory, in black; also available in white). Thephone is also available for ATT (black,white),Sprint (black,white),US Cellular and Verizon, and in an unlocked international version (16 GB black and white). It supports4G LTE where available, which means the highest current data speeds.
Now,let's get the one real downside out of the way: the phone's industrial designis boring and plastic-y. No sleek metal here as found in the iPhone 5 or theHTC One, this unit's principal rivals. But, hey, you're going to put the thingin a case, aren't you? If so, the physical design that matters is that of thecase and screen, not the phone's body. In later installments of this multi-partseries, I'll highlight some cases, speakers, headphones and other gadgets tocomplement the S4.
And,oh, that screen. It's a beauty, a 5" diagonal 1920 x 1080 bright Super AMOLEDscreen boasting 441 pixels per inch and supporting full 1080p HD video. That'sa larger screen than the S4's two rivals, a higher pixel density than theiPhone and nearly the density of the HTC offering.
Translation:this screen rocks. Colors are vivid; pictures and text are crisp. As with mostcellphones, the screen is difficult to read in strong sunlight. On the otherhand, as with many but not all phones, digits are reasonably large in thecontact manager and quite large on the keypad. The screen is made of GorillaGlass 3 - apparently the only one that is - for shatter resistance. It'ssensitive enough that you can operate it with gloves on.
Whatabout sound? It's almost déclassé to talkon a smartphone: some people use them only for texting, email, music,video, games, web surfing and almost anything else except making calls. Soundquality is great on the handset (earpiece) and, conversely, people on the otherend of a call could hear me clearly through the mic. The one sonic weak spot isthe speakerphone speaker, which is tinny and perhaps a tad too soft. It's not adeal killer by any means though.
Ifyou do receive calls on your phone, visual voicemail will display the caller'sname or number and let you play your messages in any order desired. Speech totext is also available for voicemail, at an additional monthly fee.
Speakingof sound, let's speak of speech, so to speak. The phone features speechrecognition anywhere you can type something, since the virtual keyboardincludes a mic key. Press it and the kb disappears, replaced with a screen thatprompts you to "speak now." As long as you speak a bit slowly, the accuracy isfantastic. Sending emails and texts this way is a pleasure if you hate typingon smartphone keyboards.
Thosewho don't mind typing on virtual keyboards will be pleased to know thatSwiftKey comes standard. It offers great predictive text capabilities and alsoallows you to flow your fingers across the keyboard for typing. These featurescan be turned on or off in Settings. Another little-noted feature, alsoactivated in Settings: you can swipe left or right across the keyboard to movethe cursor.
Textingto someone who speaks a different language? Turn on automatic translation, andyour texts get translated on the way out; his/hers get translated on the wayin. This isn't a perfect science - "¡muy fresco!" is not a good equivalent for"very cool!" - but it seemed to do a generally good job, at least when I testedEnglish to Spanish.
Wouldyou like to speak to your camera? Sure you would. Frame your shot and then say"shoot" - and the camera will do just that! That means you won't jiggle thecamera pressing the shutter button. You can even say "cheese" and it will fireoff a shot. Very clever, Sammy.
Thatcamera takes 13 megapixel images and 1080p 30 fps video. It's got a brightflash and all sorts of modes you'll probably never use, so I won't bother todescribe them. Camera boot up takes about a second, while shot-to-shot timewith flash off is just under a second by my estimation. There's also a 2megapixel front-facing camera for video chat.
Thephone has the latest Android OS, version 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, and the SamsungTouchWiz interface, which gives a huge array of customization - including agrid of 18 feature toggles accessible via the pulldown window shade.
Thelock screen is customizable with apps and widgets. The lock screen is optional;if you have it activated, you can unlock the phone with your choice of a swipe(no security), face (it worked well for me), face and voice, pattern, PIN orpassword.
Connectivityoptions include cellular (4G LTE), Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/e,WiFi Direct (device to device communication), DLNA, NFC, hotspot (for up to 10devices; no extra charge on T-Mobile), USB tethering, VoWLAN (Voice overWireless LAN) (available on T-Mobile, at least; routes your phone calls overWiFi and is great if you don't have good cellular coverage at your house) andan IR blaster for using the phone as a universal TV/device remote (inconjunction with the included WatchOn app).
Sensorsinclude an accelerometer, digital compass, barometer, temperature gauge,hygrometer, RGB light sensor that can adjust the display according to theenvironment, an infrared sensor for air gestures and a magnetic sensor fordetecting smart covers. In addition, the front facing camera is used to senseyour eyes for some "Smart" features.
Severalmuch touted Smart features and related capabilities struck me as a bitgimmicky, however, and were somewhat glitchy: these include Air View and AirGesture (which let you preview content and control certain apps by waving yourhand or hovering your fingers over the screen), Smart Scroll (allows you toscroll content in certain apps using your eyes and/or tilting the phone) andSmart Pause (allows the video player to pause videos if you're not looking atthe screen). Also inconsistent in its response was Quick Glance, which allowsyou to wave your hand over the phone while the screen is off in order to makethe phone briefly display the time, number of missed calls, number of new textmessages, etc. Smart Stay, which prevents the screen from turning off whenyou're looking at it, seemed to work better than the other features.
Moreuseful is a simpler feature: you can silence a ringing S4 by just turning itover onto its face.
Belowthe screen, pressing the home button turns on the screen if the screen is off,takes you to a home screen if you're in an app and takes you to the main homescreen if you're already looking at a different home screen. Press and holdshows a visual menu of running and recently loaded apps. Double press launches Samsung'sS Voice app.
Pressthe menu button (a soft button to the left of the home button) to display acontext-specific menu. If you're on a home screen, the menu includes theability to add apps and widgets to the screen, create folders, set wallpaper, createand delete home screens (the menu item is "edit pages"), call up Google Searchwith Google Now (tries to predict what might interest you) and manipulate phonesettings.
Pressand hold the menu button to launch Google Search with Google Now, withoutneeding to go through the menu.
Theback button (a soft button to the right of the home button) takes you back tothe previous screen or dismisses a menu. Press and hold the back button todisplay a tab of applications that you can run in split window mode (i.e., twoapps displaying at once). You have to first enable this in Settings / My Device/ Display.
Poweringall this is a 2600 mAh battery. That's a lot of juice, which the phone needs tokeep that big display lit up. I've read that wireless charging is supportedusing the Qi and PMA standards, but the manual makes no mention of this. Thephone's battery is removable, unlike those of its key competitors, the iPhone 5and HTC One.
Alsoinside is a micro SD card slot, supporting a maximum of 64GB. It's a good placeto put your music so you don't eat up main storage, especially if you have the16 GB version of the device. That's the only one currently available fromT-Mobile. I'm not sure if other carriers have the 32 GB and 64 GB versions yet.
Astunning 57 apps are preinstalled and most (probably all) cannot beuninstalled. Before you get your knickers in a twist over this, note that manyof these apps, such as Email, Phone, Internet, Settings, etc. are necessary forthe S4 to be usable at all. Some of the others are likely to be consideredbloatware by most people, such as Samsung Hub (Samsung's app store), whilestill others will be useful to most people. In this latter group, one that'sparticularly noteworthy is Polaris Office 5, which lets you view and createdocuments compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Inany case, here's the complete list, per the T-Mobile website: Calculator,Calendar, Camera, ChatON, Chrome, Clock, Contacts, Downloads, Dropbox, Email,Flipboard, Gallery, Gmail, Google search, Google settings, Google+, Group Play,Help, Internet, Local, Lookout Security, Maps, Messaging, Messenger, MobileHotspot, Music, My files, Navigation, Optical Reader, Phone, Play Books, PlayMagazine, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, Play Store, POLARIS Office 5, SHealth, S Memo, S Translator, S Voice, Samsung Apps, Samsung Hub, Samsung Link,Settings, Story Album, T-Mobile My Account, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV,Talk, TripAdvisor, Video, Visual Voicemail, Voice recorder, Voice Search, VPNClient, WatchON and YouTube.
Afinal thought: can you unlock the phone so you can use it overseas? Thatdepends on the carrier and their policy. Most foreign countries use GSM; of thefive U.S. carriers that offer the S4, GSM is used only by ATT and T-Mobile.That means that only their versions of the S4 will be generally usable overseas- and only if the phone is unlocked. T-Mobile says it will send you an unlockcode at no charge after you've owned the phone for 20 days (which a rep tellsme is the return period if you don't like the phone). I don't know ATT's policyon unlocking.
Lookfor my next installment, where I examine cases for the S4. Afterward will comescreen protectors, Bluetooth speakers, power banks (external batteries), Bluetooth keyboards and mice, USB chargers, USB cables,and miscellaneous accessories. You can find all this at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-handel/.