Samsung calls its new Galaxy S4 (or, technically, "S 4," with a space) a "life companion." 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's the version I bought (16 GB memory, in black; also available in white). The phone 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 supports 4G 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 design is boring and plastic-y. No sleek metal here as found in the iPhone 5 or the HTC One, this unit's principal rivals. But, hey, you're going to put the thing in a case, aren't you? If so, the physical design that matters is that of the case and screen, not the phone's body. In later installments of this multi-part series, I'll highlight some cases, speakers, headphones and other gadgets to complement the S4.
And, oh, that screen. It's a beauty, a 5" diagonal 1920 x 1080 bright Super AMOLED screen boasting 441 pixels per inch and supporting full 1080p HD video. That's a larger screen than the S4's two rivals, a higher pixel density than the iPhone and nearly the density of the HTC offering.
Translation: this screen rocks. Colors are vivid; pictures and text are crisp. As with most cellphones, the screen is difficult to read in strong sunlight. On the other hand, as with many but not all phones, digits are reasonably large in the contact manager and quite large on the keypad. The screen is made of Gorilla Glass 3 - apparently the only one that is - for shatter resistance. It's sensitive enough that you can operate it with gloves on.
What about sound? It's almost déclassé to talk on a smartphone: some people use them only for texting, email, music, video, games, web surfing and almost anything else except making calls. Sound quality is great on the handset (earpiece) and, conversely, people on the other end of a call could hear me clearly through the mic. The one sonic weak spot is the speakerphone speaker, which is tinny and perhaps a tad too soft. It's not a deal killer by any means though.
If you do receive calls on your phone, visual voicemail will display the caller's name or number and let you play your messages in any order desired. Speech to text is also available for voicemail, at an additional monthly fee.
Speaking of sound, let's speak of speech, so to speak. The phone features speech recognition anywhere you can type something, since the virtual keyboard includes a mic key. Press it and the kb disappears, replaced with a screen that prompts you to "speak now." As long as you speak a bit slowly, the accuracy is fantastic. Sending emails and texts this way is a pleasure if you hate typing on smartphone keyboards.
Those who don't mind typing on virtual keyboards will be pleased to know that SwiftKey comes standard. It offers great predictive text capabilities and also allows you to flow your fingers across the keyboard for typing. These features can be turned on or off in Settings. Another little-noted feature, also activated in Settings: you can swipe left or right across the keyboard to move the cursor.
Texting to someone who speaks a different language? Turn on automatic translation, and your texts get translated on the way out; his/hers get translated on the way in. 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 tested English to Spanish.
Would you 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 the camera pressing the shutter button. You can even say "cheese" and it will fire off a shot. Very clever, Sammy.
That camera takes 13 megapixel images and 1080p 30 fps video. It's got a bright flash and all sorts of modes you'll probably never use, so I won't bother to describe them. Camera boot up takes about a second, while shot-to-shot time with flash off is just under a second by my estimation. There's also a 2 megapixel front-facing camera for video chat.
The phone has the latest Android OS, version 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, and the Samsung TouchWiz interface, which gives a huge array of customization - including a grid of 18 feature toggles accessible via the pulldown window shade.
The lock 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 or password.
Connectivity options 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 10 devices; no extra charge on T-Mobile), USB tethering, VoWLAN (Voice over Wireless LAN) (available on T-Mobile, at least; routes your phone calls over WiFi and is great if you don't have good cellular coverage at your house) and an IR blaster for using the phone as a universal TV/device remote (in conjunction with the included WatchOn app).
Sensors include an accelerometer, digital compass, barometer, temperature gauge, hygrometer, RGB light sensor that can adjust the display according to the environment, an infrared sensor for air gestures and a magnetic sensor for detecting smart covers. In addition, the front facing camera is used to sense your eyes for some "Smart" features.
Several much touted Smart features and related capabilities struck me as a bit gimmicky, however, and were somewhat glitchy: these include Air View and Air Gesture (which let you preview content and control certain apps by waving your hand or hovering your fingers over the screen), Smart Scroll (allows you to scroll content in certain apps using your eyes and/or tilting the phone) and Smart Pause (allows the video player to pause videos if you're not looking at the screen). Also inconsistent in its response was Quick Glance, which allows you to wave your hand over the phone while the screen is off in order to make the phone briefly display the time, number of missed calls, number of new text messages, etc. Smart Stay, which prevents the screen from turning off when you're looking at it, seemed to work better than the other features.
More useful is a simpler feature: you can silence a ringing S4 by just turning it over onto its face.
Below the 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 home screen if you're already looking at a different home screen. Press and hold shows a visual menu of running and recently loaded apps. Double press launches Samsung's S Voice app.
Press the menu button (a soft button to the left of the home button) to display a context-specific menu. If you're on a home screen, the menu includes the ability to add apps and widgets to the screen, create folders, set wallpaper, create and delete home screens (the menu item is "edit pages"), call up Google Search with Google Now (tries to predict what might interest you) and manipulate phone settings.
Press and hold the menu button to launch Google Search with Google Now, without needing to go through the menu.
The back button (a soft button to the right of the home button) takes you back to the previous screen or dismisses a menu. Press and hold the back button to display a tab of applications that you can run in split window mode (i.e., two apps displaying at once). You have to first enable this in Settings / My Device / Display.
Powering all this is a 2600 mAh battery. That's a lot of juice, which the phone needs to keep that big display lit up. I've read that wireless charging is supported using the Qi and PMA standards, but the manual makes no mention of this. The phone's battery is removable, unlike those of its key competitors, the iPhone 5 and HTC One.
Also inside is a micro SD card slot, supporting a maximum of 64GB. It's a good place to put your music so you don't eat up main storage, especially if you have the 16 GB version of the device. That's the only one currently available from T-Mobile. I'm not sure if other carriers have the 32 GB and 64 GB versions yet.
A stunning 57 apps are preinstalled and most (probably all) cannot be uninstalled. Before you get your knickers in a twist over this, note that many of these apps, such as Email, Phone, Internet, Settings, etc. are necessary for the S4 to be usable at all. Some of the others are likely to be considered bloatware by most people, such as Samsung Hub (Samsung's app store), while still others will be useful to most people. In this latter group, one that's particularly noteworthy is Polaris Office 5, which lets you view and create documents compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
In any 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, Mobile Hotspot, Music, My files, Navigation, Optical Reader, Phone, Play Books, Play Magazine, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, Play Store, POLARIS Office 5, S Health, 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, VPN Client, WatchON and YouTube.
A final thought: can you unlock the phone so you can use it overseas? That depends on the carrier and their policy. Most foreign countries use GSM; of the five 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 unlock code at no charge after you've owned the phone for 20 days (which a rep tells me is the return period if you don't like the phone). I don't know ATT's policy on unlocking.
Look for my next installment, where I examine cases for the S4. Afterward will come screen 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/.
REAL LIFE. REAL NEWS. REAL VOICES.
Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard.