Samsung Galaxy S4 phone is loaded with features—and not only for geeks

Consumer Reports News: April 24, 2013 09:38 AM

Samsung's newest Galaxy—available soon from a carrier near you—isn't just the company's new marquee smart phone: It's a one-device showcase for today's most advanced mobile technologies.

With innovations of its own along with many borrowed from other leading phones, the S 4 is so crammed with tech-forward features—from its sci-fi-like hands-free controls to its brainy, mistake-proof 13-megapixel camera—that it could take you a good chunk of your two-year contract to fully explore them.

Not everything on the phone is essential, of course, and a few features, including several hands-free controls, even border on annoying. But after several days of using a press sample of the phone, I'm impressed. The S 4 is one of the most capable smart phones we've ever tested.

And this isn't a phone geared exclusively geared to geeks. Easy Mode, for example, is an intuitive, simplified interface that presents the Galaxy S 4's core features to technically challenged and even cognitively impaired users. A bevy of tools will help you explore its many features during initial setup and subsequent use.

We'll be adding the S 4 to our cell phone Ratings soon after it hits the market. Meantime, here are my observations of the phone's plethora of features:

Top-notch display. The phone's 5-inch HD Super AMOLED display, which has a resolution of 1920x1080, is simply gorgeous. Videos in Super AMOLED displays can sometimes appear a bit fuzzy during action sequences. Not on the Galaxy S 4. The HD copy of "The Avengers" that I downloaded from Samsung's Media Hub looked quite sharp, even during the CGI-saturated mayhem of the alien invasion. The tiny text in the S 4's calendar grid also appeared crisp and very easy to see.

Another Galaxy Note import, Multi-View, splits the screen so that you can use two apps at once, such as Google Maps and Messaging. Just pull the virtual tab on the left side of the screen and drag the second app onto the screen. Also, the Galaxy S 4 has a setting that makes it sensitive enough to use with gloves on—a handy option to have during the cold winter months. (We first saw this feature on the Nokia Lumia 920.)

And while the display is 0.2 inches wider than the Galaxy S III it succeeds, the S 4 is practically the same size, measuring 5.4 inches x 2.7 inches x 0.31 inches—and it's even 0.2 ounces lighter.

Other hardwired high points. The phone's wireless-sharing capabilities have been enhanced to enable wireless music streaming, though it's only between other Galaxy S 4s. Also, the phone has a speedy, 1.9-GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor and is powered by a removable 2,600 mAh battery, which gave me more than a day's worth of juice with moderate to heavy use. The S 4 runs the latest Android operating system, version 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean).

Find the best smart phone for your needs and budget: Check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

Hands-free touch screen. As I pointed out in my hands-on first look, the Galaxy S 4 drips with nifty ways to interact with its touch screen without actually touching it. Air View, for example, is a feature gleaned from Samsung's Galaxy Note smart phones that lets you peek inside, e-mails, calendar appointments, videos, and more just by hovering your finger above them (the Notes require you to use their S Pen styluses for Air View). It worked flawlessly and is one of the best new smart-phone features to come along in a while. And I liked the Web page magnifier, which does just that when you hover your finger over any section of the page you're viewing.

Under certain conditions, I could also appreciate the convenience of Air Gestures, a feature that lets you accept or turn down a phone call, move to another Web page, or skip to the next song on your playlist just by waving your hand in front of the screen. The conditions are that the phone is already parked in docking station that would keep the screen on and in a convenient position for my next wave.

But these and other gestures proved much less reliable than the touch-screen interaction they replace. Often, nothing happens if the room is too dark or your hand doesn't pass close enough over the front-facing camera, which is an important catalyst for most of these features. For example, I found Smart Scroll, which allows you to scroll up or down a page by tilting the phone in the appropriate direction, didn't work unless my hands were almost perfectly still and my eyeballs were perfectly aligned with the screen. Another hands-free app worked almost too well: Smart Pause, which is supposed to automatically pause a video when you looking away from the screen, immediately stopped the video whenever my eyes strayed ever so slightly for just a second.

Camera. In addition to the main 13-megapixel HD camera, the phone has a 2-megapixel front-facing camera capable of recording HD video. That main camera comes with a panoply of ways to capture your subjects with style, and for fixing photos marred by bad poses, bad timing, and even bad luck.

Eraser mode, a still-camera mode that lets you delete a person or any other undesirable object that may stray into your otherwise perfect photo, worked better than expected. It seemed more adept and identifying photo interlopers than the Nokia Lumia 920, which has a similar feature. What's more, Eraser automatically deletes photo interlopers, saving you the trouble of fiddling settings in the gallery. Consumer Reports engineers are currently assessing the camera's image quality, for both still and video images.

TV remote. The Galaxy S 4 comes with an IR blaster and, like a universal remote, it can be easily programmed to control HDTVs and set-top boxes (you can even initiate DVR recordings) from a host of different makers, It also shows you local cable listings, program details, and reminders geared to your preferences, which the app learns from your service provider or Samsung's fledgling content store, called Samsung Media Hub.

One thing I like about the app that does all this, known as WatchON, is that you can program it to control the home-theater gear in up to five separate rooms. Programming the hardware was easy; the IR blaster competently controlled my gear from up to 15 feet away. A quibble, however, is that the default view is a potpourri of program suggestions instead of the program guide, which I prefer. Also, I was bummed that WatchON couldn't find the code for one of my components, an older Panasonic DVR.

Easy Mode. Some of the newer smart phones I've seen recently, including the Pantech Discover, come with an interface that puts core phone features front and center for novice users. This Easy Mode, as it's called on the Galaxy S 4 and Galaxy S III, goes a bit further by also filtering out features within the apps, such as exotic camera effects and messaging options, that less-experienced users my not need or want.

In Easy Mode, the icons and widgets are larger and simpler, and there are Plus buttons users can push to easily add an app to the phone's desktop. Samsung, which makes it easy to toggle between Easy and Standard mode, says the phone remembers your settings in either mode. However, when I jumped back to Standard Mode from Easy Mode, all of my hands-free settings were missing.

Bottom line: The Samsung Galaxy S 4 is a superb phone with a dazzling display and other topnotch hardware that works well right out of the box. Its many advanced features may intimidate some or be ignored by others. But you can count on the phone's thoughtful design and intuitive help menus to help you discover any one of them whenever you're ready.

Availability. The Samsung Galaxy S 4 will be available on April 29 from T-Mobile for $150 down plus $20 a month for 24 months. On April 27, two other carriers launch the phone: AT&T will begin offering it for $200 with a two-year contract, while Sprint will sell it $250 ($150 for new customers who switch their phone number to Sprint from another carrier). Availability announcements are pending for Verizon Wireless, U.S. Cellular, Cricket and C Spire.

Mike Gikas

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