How do you follow up the most popular Android smartphone ever? That's the question Samsung had to ask itself after the Galaxy S III became a worldwide sensation, and arguably the only widely-recognized competitor to Apple's iPhone. Despite a less than totally-enthusiastic reception from some critics, the S III was apparently the recipe for success that sent Samsung's mindshare into the stratosphere. That, and the massive marketing budget that successfully plastered its mug on televisions, billboards, magazines, and websites the world over. That probably helped a little.
Anyway, the Galaxy S4 is easily the second-most-anticipated smartphone of 2013, and it's not hard to see why. Samsung hit a homerun with the S III, and so everyone's expecting the S4 to follow suit. Does it?
The S4 is so much like the Galaxy S III in so many ways that it can't not be a hit. It's not like an iPhone incremental update (4 to 4S, for example), but it's also not a total overhaul of the brand in the way the One is to HTC. The Galaxy S4 shamelessly plays it safe. And if you're Samsung and you just released the world's most popular Android smartphone ever, you're probably not too keen on rapidly changing the direction of your smash-hit product.
Samsung very clearly went out of its way to make a Galaxy S III-but-better with the Galaxy S4. Not a Galaxy S III-Plus, mind you. No, Samsung's philosophy feels much more like "if we could do everything again, how would we do it?" Like they started over, knew where they were going, but had an opportunity to incorporate ideas (or technologies) that weren't ready for the Galaxy S III. The result is something that feels like a Galaxy S III on steroids - it's very similar in many respects, but it's also better in a significant number of ways. The display is much improved, and bigger - but the phone is the same size. The camera is outstanding. It's faster. It's slightly less ugly. There are a metric crapton more features. You can tell this is a brand-new phone, but it feels extremely familiar.
So, what's the verdict? If you were keen on the S III, there's no real reason not to love the S4. It's a great phone, though it still has many of the S III's drawbacks (build quality, hilarious abundance of software gimmicks), too.
Galaxy S4: Specifications
- Processor: 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
- GPU: Adreno 320
- Network compatibility: Varies by carrier (all US models LTE-enabled)
- Operating system: Android 4.2.2
- Display: 5" Full HD Super AMOLED
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB storage (9.6GB usable)
- Cameras: 13MP rear / 2MP front
- Battery: 2600mAh, removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / microSD
- Thickness: 7.9mm
- Weight: 130g
- Display: This is a vast improvement over the 720p panel on the Galaxy S III. It's sharper, much brighter, colors are more accurate (especially thanks to the new color mode setting), and it is kind of amazing that a 5" screen fits in the same frame size as the 4.8" one on the GS III did. It has Gorilla Glass 3, too.
- Camera: Outstanding. Samsung did an absolutely stellar job on the GS4's new 13MP camera, and the revamped camera software, too. There are some really neat new photo-taking modes, and the camera itself takes some stunningly detailed photos.
- Battery life: Considering the gargantuan amount of features enabled every time I turned on the screen of this phone, battery life never really gave me trouble. It wasn't great, but it was well within the bounds of what I'd call "acceptable."
- Software: Surprise, surprise - some of Samsung's new software features aren't totally useless. The camera has some great new features, and stuff like S Health and the WatchOn remote give me hope that Samsung is trying to evolve beyond mere gimmicks and get serious about great software products.
The Not So Good
- Storage: 9.6GB of usable internal storage. OK, so you get a microSD card slot, and that's great and all, but I can't put apps or games (or Google Music, or Play Movies, or some other content-heavy services) on that, and there's no sign of an impending 32GB S4 coming to the US. What gives, Samsung?
- Gimmicks: Someone needs to go in and cull some of the unabashedly useless garbage that is festering in Samsung's endless settings hierarchies. I include some of the new features (smart pause, smart scroll) in that statement with no hesitation. Stop the flow of crap, Samsung.
- Build quality: It really doesn't seem all that much better than the S III, apart from the metal power button and volume rocker. My review unit is already creaking and snapping in typical Samsung fashion.
- Occasional stutters: I was really surprised to notice some now-and-again performance hiccups while using the S4. The settings menu consistently has issues loading, hitting the home button sometimes generates visible UI choppiness, and the lockscreen gesture takes far too long to actually unlock the phone. I've generally lauded Samsung for its attention to detail on smoothness, but there are a few rough edges on the S4 that I wasn't expecting.
Design and build quality
Well, this is the part where I state the obvious: the Galaxy S4 is not the prettiest smartphone in the world. It's not the second prettiest. It's probably not the third, either. Top 10? I kind of doubt it. Sadly, the S4 was not the moment Samsung chose to get adventurous with its smartphone design aesthetics, and instead opted for a very light visual refresh of its previous plastic fantastic, the Galaxy S III. While not identical to its predecessor, in front profile anyone but a smartphone geek is going to struggle to notice the differences between the two.
A narrower vertical bezel, a slightly different sensor / camera hole arrangement, and a more rectangular home button are the major landmarks here. And, at an angle, you can see the diamond pattern on the plastic, as opposed to the flat color Samsung used on the white S III, and the sort of faux-metal look of the blue version.
That diamond pattern actually serves a purpose - at least I think it does. As the owner of a white Note II, I can attest to the huge amount of scratches, scuffs, and smudges my phone's rear cover has acquired over mere months. It looks bad. The diamond pattern on the S4 reduces the visibility of things like fine scratches and scuffs. Even fingerprints are less noticeable in forgiving light. I haven't had the phone long to tell if there's actually been any increase in the durability of the plastic itself, but I'm guessing not, as it feels basically the same as the S III. Which is to say kind of greasy or 'oily.'
All that said, the S4 is more comfortable to hold than the HTC One. The One feels sharp and cold, the S4 feels like it was purpose-built to sit between your palm and fingertips. It's also about half an ounce lighter.
One of the main complaints about the Galaxy S III was that it felt flimsy and cheap, and a lot of early reports I read claimed the Galaxy S4 was significantly sturdier. I am more skeptical after actually using it. I spent some time with a Galaxy S III last year, and while it was quite solid when I took it out of the box, that characteristic quickly declined over the weeks as the plastic began to fatigue and flex. I can already feel the same thing happening with the S4 - the creaks and snaps are starting to develop. It feels fairly strong right now, and the large, straight metallic-look plastic band wrapping around the phone does make you feel like it's more rigid, though I'm not sure how much placebo is at play there. That band also extends slightly above the edge of the display glass on the front, similar to the Note II.
On the non-placebo front, though, are an upgraded power button and volume rocker. They're metal! Yes, metal on a Samsung phone. It almost seems like Samsung's trolling us here, though the new buttons offer significantly improved click-feel, and are much easier to locate with your fingers alone. The old plastic buttons weren't bad, but the travel was a bit too short sometimes, and they were just so flush against the chassis. These are much, much better.
The rear cover is just as thin and flimsy as ever, and the phone itself still feels "hollow" when you tap on it, or when it vibrates. I do think Samsung did try to reduce the 'cheap' factor on the S4, I just don't think it was trying very hard. It feels like it's more about Samsung trying to convince you it's better built than actually building it better - the big faux-metal band around the frame, the pattern-embossed plastic, the chiseled metal power and volume buttons. It's meant to seem more premium.
Regardless, the S4's hardware is indeed a substantial refresh from the S III. I just don't think it's substantially better. It also deeply confuses me that Samsung clearly took the time to tool up for a whole new phone design, and then chose to make that phone look almost exactly like its predecessor. Honestly, it sounds like the kind of directive an executive or marketing department would hand down, and I don't think the instinct there was the right one. The look of the S III was never very exciting to begin with, and the S4 has now managed to make stale a design that wasn't great in the first place.
The sobering reality, though, is that 90% of the Galaxy S IIIs I see out in the wild are in cases. So most people really don't care about how it looks, or how much it creaks, because it's wrapped in a big plastic / silicone safety blanket its entire life. Which is a bit ironic, considering Samsung's phones are renowned for their ability to withstand physical punishment without actually breaking. If that's where you stand, just ignore the majority of this section. Well, I guess you already read it, so... sorry.
The notification light is a little smaller on the S4 than it was on the S III, and it is still too dim to see reliably unless you're in a relatively dark place (not to say it's anywhere near as bad as the One's, though). It works, it does multiple colors, but it isn't anything special like what LG's done on the Optimus G Pro, where the home button actually lights up.
It's a lot better than the Galaxy S III's. The most important change for me in the S4's display is that Samsung now includes options to change the color profile (more in the software section on this) in the settings menu, so your Galaxy S4 doesn't have to look cartoonishly oversaturated. The "professional photo" setting is my preferred option, as it definitely produces some very accurate colors. Unfortunately, one of AMOLED's other colorful problems persists no matter which display mode is selected: yellow cast.
While the HTC One's display appears halfway calibrated out of the box, the S4 suffers from the same yellowing of grays and whites that have plagued AMOLED technology for years now. Compare a largely white or gray backdrop between the S4 and the One, and the S4's panel looks yellowed and dull, resulting in less visible contrast. The One looks bright and vivid by comparison.
However, this isn't to say the S4 has a bad display, because it's actually very good. Sunlight visibility is at actually better than the One with brightness maxed out. Interestingly, according to DisplayMate, setting the brightness to auto actually cranks it up even higher than the manual maximum in direct sunlight - I was unable to replicate this behavior in bright sunlight. It's not any brighter in auto. I've also read that the S4 has unprecedented sunlight performance for an AMOLED phone. Compared to the Galaxy Note II, sure, it does. But I did visual comparisons at multiple angles with and without auto brightness (and Dynamic display mode) enabled, and the HTC One was noticeably (and often significantly) brighter in every situation. I've been reading quite a few reviews claiming the S4 has unprecedented sunlight performance because of a low reflectance value, and maybe the science is there, but I'm just not buying the real-world value.
The whole PenTile thing doesn't seem to affect the sharpness of the 1080p display, not as far as my eyes can tell. It's just as visibly sharp as every other 1080p phone. Maybe this was Samsung's long-bet on the PenTile matrix technology - they knew a 1080p panel was inevitable, and that it wouldn't really matter once the pixels were so densely packed. Apparently, the real subpixel density of the S4 is actually slightly below "retina" value, but I can't tell, it still looks very sharp.
Automatic brightness mode on the S4 is essentially broken right now unless you're in direct sunlight. It is extremely moody, often (and rapidly) adjusting brightness when ambient light goes basically unchanged. In most situations, the automatic mode is also just too dark. One thing I do like is that Samsung has finally gotten rid of the 'baseline' auto-brightness scheme, and opted for a fully automatic mode (this has apparently been on Samsung's US phones for some time now). I just wish it worked - I took the S4 out of auto mode after only a few hours of using it and haven't looked back.
Overall, the display on the S4 is big, striking, and sharp. This is easily Samsung's best AMOLED panel to date. While I don't believe it is quite as impressive as the One's S-LCD3 display from a technical perspective, many people may prefer the S4's AMOLED - the large size proportional to the device frame and heavily saturated default color mode make for a very eye-catching fascia. And because AMOLED has far superior black performance, the S4's display will actually probably be more attractive for watching video or gaming.
It's good, though I did expect a bit more. The S4 by no means has poor battery life, but given its 2600mAh Li-ion cell, you'd think Samsung's latest and greatest would keep on trucking well beyond a phone like the HTC One. It just doesn't, though. The battery life seems ever-so-slightly above average, at least for a high-end phone. In fact, it doesn't fare all that much better than the Galaxy S III. The Galaxy S III got pretty decent battery life, sure, but I think most people were expecting the substantially enlarged juice-box in the S4 to go a little further.
The switch to a quad-core Qualcomm chip and a larger display with more pixels to push might be to blame here. It could also be active features like Samsung's Air view, or Smart stay / rotation / pause / scroll. Admittedly, a lot of this stuff is not on by default, but I need to use it, so I haven't really gotten a feel for how much better battery life is with it turned off. Samsung does turn on NFC and S Beam behavior by default, though, and along with the aforementioned SmartAir junk, this does add up to more battery drain. The fact that I basically can't use auto-brightness also doesn't help (it's way too dim). And I was on Sprint 3G a lot, the signal for which is not great in my area.
However, if you turn all the gimmicks off, and have a great network connection (eg, on Wi-Fi and / or not Sprint most of the time), I'm guessing you can achieve better results. The S4 still got me through a whole day of moderate use reasonably well, and I don't think light users will have any complaints about the battery's longevity at all. But if you're the kind of person shooting for 4 hours of screen on time each and every day, you're still probably going to have to get creative with your power management, or buy a second battery.
I will say that idle battery drain was noticeably lower than many phones I've tested - the S4 lost the least juice (89% down to 80%) overnight of any of the phones sitting on my desk except the HTC One (which only lost 5%), though the One goes into a data-off 'deep sleep' mode overnight, so I'm not sure that's a fair fight.
And for the replaceable battery crowd, obviously the S4 allows you to remove the battery and replace it with a second one, or a bigger one, or a potato. That last part may not be accurate.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
It seems a bit odd to me that Samsung is sticking with a 16GB model for the S4, but no doubt it's because the company can easily fall back on the argument of an included micoSD card slot. That's all well and good, but it still does mean that your app and game storage is limited to what's included internally (a rather meager 9.6GB) unless you're utilizing some kind of hack / workaround to force that data onto external storage. And as modern Android games grow ever-larger, this is a bit of a concern to the average person. There's also the fact that service like Play Music and Play Movies store downloaded or cached content only on internal memory, eating yet more precious space.
Strangely, Samsung isn't even launching with a 32GB version of the S4 in the US. It may come later (or who knows, it may not), but it does seem a bit limiting to be stuck with a single, relatively small storage option. However, Samsung and the carriers have also probably done a lot of looking into what average consumers are actually using on their devices, and maybe 9.6GB is enough. That, and they're still able to match the iPhone's entry-level model for gee-bees [on paper].
Wireless signal strength has been my least favorite part of using the S4, but that has little to do with the phone, and much more to do with Sprint's terrible, terrible network. I've now used Sprint's "LTE" in Los Angeles, and when I could maintain a connection to it (not all that often, frankly), the speeds were far from impressive. Anywhere from 3-8Mbps down and 2-5Mbps up (usually on the lower end of those ranges), with AT&T and Verizon's LTE networks blowing past those figures easily and consistently. And Sprint 3G, as most people know, isn't really like a data connection, it's more like a carrier pigeon that sends and delivers your email and social packets every 15 minutes, and sometimes that pigeon hits an office building and dies.
Anyway. The Galaxy S4, like the HTC One, supports the new Wi-Fi AC standard, though I don't have a router (or, frankly, a good enough ISP) to test it. I'm guessing it's very, very fast. Calls were nice and loud, but still within earshot of any other smartphone in regard to quality: kind of crappy, but generally usable. I can't wait for Voice-over-LTE.
Audio and speaker
Noises from the S4's headphone jack are supplied courtesy of Qualcomm's audio hub included on the Snapdragon 600 chipset, the same audio hub used on the HTC One. As far as I can tell, the two sound near as makes no difference identical. To average consumers, though, they'll sound totally different, because the One has Beats Audio enabled by default, adding tons of bass and piercing treble to music. Turn Beats off, though, and both are excellent at relatively flat, nuanced audio reproduction. The S4 is great for music listening, and while I don't have the Exynos version with a Wolfson DAC here to compare, I'm guessing both sound fantastic. When you're getting this high-end in smartphone audio, the difference between best and even tenth best is splitting hairs, especially when a lot of phones are using the same components.
The rear speaker on the S4 is actually pretty decent. It's much better than what shipped on the S III / Note II. It gets surprisingly loud, and watching video is far less cringe-inducing than you might expect. The amount of clipping at high volumes is pretty low, and while it doesn't sound anywhere near as good as what HTC's done on the One with BoomSound (which actually has a bit of mid range), it's quite good in its own right. The size of the actual speaker grille under the rear cover is about four times the size of the hole on the back of the phone, though, so it's a little muffled. I'm not sure why Samsung did it that way.
I'm going to eat my own words and say this is probably the best smartphone camera out there right now from a technical perspective. The One is great, but this is better. Even in low light, the S4 holds its own against the One, and in good light, it really does run away with things in terms of detail. The S4 does saturate colors a bit and soften things slightly more, but most people will prefer this effect to the more balanced and sharp One. And at night (in night mode), the S4 tends to take crisper photos, whereas the One often succumbs to blurrying unless you take multiple shots.
Photos snap reasonably quickly for a 13MP sensor (though the One is significantly faster), and like the S III and Note II, the software works extremely well. White balance, exposure, and ISO all seem to be consistently optimal.
The S4 shines in both macro and landscape shots, particularly because of the impressive amount of detail preserved even at full crop. The f/2.2 lens provides a slightly deeper field of view in macro settings than the One, and that's something that some people may prefer. I actually like the One's shallower field a little more, because it makes the subject in a photo really 'pop.'
Looked at as "social network-sized" photos, though, the One and S4 are much more neck and neck. The S4's photos can sometimes look a little too perfect - contrast starts to feel unnatural, and makes colors seem a bit fake in some situations. But by and large, people are going to love this camera.
Here's a photo taken at night (9:30 PM) in night mode - you'd be hard pressed to tell a difference for quality from the HTC One. I haven't tested macro performance in dark conditions, though.
Performance and stability
The Galaxy S4 is very, very fast. In every practical test I've done it's been almost identical in performance to the HTC One (loading webpages, launching apps, scrolling content-heavy web pages, searches, etc.). Oddly enough, the Optimus G Pro feels slightly quicker than both the One and the S4 in basic UI navigation, though all three use the same Snapdragon 600 chipset, and it makes sense that all three perform comparably.
The S4, though, has a few eccentricities that I think Samsung has failed to iron out. Going back to the homescreen produces noticeable UI choppiness at times. I'm not sure what's going on there, but this kind of behavior doesn't even occur on my Note II. I've seen several other reviewers point it out as well, so I'm not going crazy here. And no, I'm not referring to the built-in delay caused by S Voice's default home button behavior (which I have disabled).
The next one is the lockscreen - it takes way too long after the unlock animation to actually get to the homescreen. Even with the fancy dancing light effect disabled, the delay is still very significant - nearly a second long. The delay is non-existent on the Optimus G Pro and Xperia ZL, and maybe a quarter of a second on the One. Someone goofed. Performance in the new tabbed (but not swipeable!) settings menu is also inconsistent. I've long considered the TouchWiz team the kings of Android UI smoothness, but the S4's little issues really make it seem like they weren't paying attention to the details this time around. Your buttery crown is in danger, Samsung.
Note that I am nitpicking here, though. The S4 is very fast, and even in the ways that it's occasionally a tiny little bit slow aren't actually slow, just slower than you might expect. However, I do hold Samsung to a very high standard on this kind of stuff, and they did seemingly screw up in a few places. And yes, this is the final, retail software.
Stability has been great, though. I've only experienced a couple app crashes, and one odd crash of the Settings menu. I've had no app compatibility issues, either.
TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0 (Yes, that's actually the name. Look it up.)
TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0 (groan) is the first OEM UI layer based on Android 4.2! That's exciting. Samsung, being Samsung, has taken this opportunity to add a whole boatload of new features into its software, but we'll talk about that later. I want to get a little more detailed about the differences between Nature UX 1.0 (or 1.5? I don't know - there's more stuff in it since the Note 2 launched) and the new iteration on the S4, which I'll abbreviate as NUX2 to save us all some sanity.
The truth is, though, that Samsung hasn't changed all that much. But it has tweaked a lot of things, so we're going to get into the nitty-gritty a bit here and figure our what Samsung decided was in need of fixing or overhauling. At this point, I marginally prefer NUX2 to NUX1, but the differences are often so subtle (or merely aesthetic) that using either feels very, very similar.
General UI and navigation
We'll start with the homescreen, because very little has changed here. The little dots between the quick launch bar and the actual homescreen now show a little house instead of a wide rounded rectangle when you're on your default homescreen. Hooray! The default weather/clock widget has been substantially cleaned up and finally no longer has that AccuWeather.com logo blemish. The clock font also no longer looks terrible. The widget is also now animated. Fun! I guess. The widget is much more attractive than it was previously, but I'm not still not exactly a fan. The edge-to-edge weather picture just looks out of place to me.
The homescreen editing UI got a bit of a facelift, and looks considerably less tacky than it did before. The remove icon is now up top and has been relieved of its terrible gradient-look, and most of the UI elements in general have been refined to be less ugly. Pressing the menu button produces the exact same set of options you got in the old NUX, though the way some of those options look can be different.
For whatever absurd reason there is still a "search" option in the homescreen menu that takes you to the Google Now search splash. Because clutter isn't bad, right? I swear, if the TouchWiz team designed Samsung's refrigerators, there would be a vegetable drawer in the ice cube maker for 'added redundancy.' Long-pressing on an empty space presents you the same options as before - set wallpaper, and apps or widgets, make a folder, or add a homescreen page.
The notification bar now blends into your wallpaper, but only if you're using one of Samsung's wallpapers or the two stock Android live wallpapers. The reason for this, I think, is because your notification bar could potentially become utterly illegible if you used a particular busy (or gray / white) background, and so when using a custom image, the notification bar becomes dark gray. The text in the status bar is slightly lighter than before, and for whatever reason, the Wi-Fi icon is now static - it doesn't display download / upload activity. This is bound to piss off some of the more OCD Samsung lovers. Oddly, up / down activity is shown for your mobile connection.
Small aesthetic changes aside, Samsung has kind of adopted Google's whole second notification pane for quick settings thing, except not really. So, you pull down with two fingers on the bar, and you get the settings toggle pane with a bazillion little icons (there are 19). There's also a picture of a pencil next to a menu icon in the top right, which apparently means 'edit.' At this point, you go to a settings menu, and you can re-order the icons as you please. You cannot add or remove icons - you get the toggles Samsung gives you, of which there are many. I'm not going to list them, so just look at the screenshot. Many of them are for Samsung's 'stay' and 'Air' features, which is convenient. So you can turn them off.
Pull down the normal notification bar, and you get a panel of five toggles, which by no small coincidence are the first five in your list on the big toggle page. You can scroll through the entire list of toggles left to right, as well. I'm glad Samsung kept these in the regular notification bar, because really, they're absolutely worth the space. A two-finger drag is all but impossible when you're using one hand, and these quick toggles have always been a nice feature of TouchWiz. You can also hit a button up in the top right that brings up the full toggle menu, but it's an extra step. It's nice to just have them there. The button actually launches a pretty cool animation. The whole notification area of the bar drops down except for the toggles, and all the rest of your toggle icons are revealed, like they were underneath the bar the whole time. Finally, there's a brightness slider with an 'auto' mode toggle. It's useful.
Moving on to the app drawer, it's exactly like it was in the old NUX. No, really, it is exactly like it. The only changes are the color of the overflow menu when you hit the menu button and some slight tweaks the tab UI up top. All menus and tabs like these have had their color and design changed like this, by the way. It does look a bit cleaner. I think that wraps up the general UI kind of stuff. As you can see, Samsung hasn't changed all that much when it comes to navigating around the OS.
The lockscreen gets its own little section, because Samsung has taken the stock Android 4.2 widget-based lockscreen and mutated it into something only somewhat recognizable. It's still widget-based, but it's also kind of weird. Allow me to explain.
When you turn on your Galaxy S4, you are greeted by the lockscreen above by default. No joke: Life companion is scrawled in carefree, casual font across the front of your phone along with a big, whimsical hot-air balloon. Can I get a matching Tommy Bahama shirt with this? What you might not have guessed (or forgotten) is that this thing is a widget. Pull down on it (yeah, that's intuitive...) and you'll get a little edit dialogue in the bottom-right corner. No, just touching or long-pressing it won't do the trick. You can then edit the personalized message displayed on your phone to your liking. Your mom is going to love this. Assuming she figures it out. She probably won't.
You can also delete the the message entirely. In fact, you can delete the widget - pull down on it, then long press, and you can trash it. But unless you've enabled multiple widgets in the lockscreen settings menu, it just comes back. I am not sure what Samsung's logic was here, but hey - there must have been some.
So what about those lockscreen settings? Well, there are quite a few of them. Your average person probably has no fricken clue what a lockscreen widget is, so these settings may as well be in Latin - most people will just kind of a check and uncheck until something happens. Enabling multiple widgets (not enabled by default) allows you to add custom lockscreen widgets, one of the features of Android 4.2. So, you'll probably want to turn that on. Lockscreen app shortcuts (the four quick launch icons along the bottom of the lockscreen) aren't enabled by default. I get that stock Android doesn't have these, but I've always kind of liked them, and they've been a staple of TouchWiz for some time now. I guess I can at least commend Samsung for keeping up with the times.
Turn on multiple widgets, and Samsung automatically inserts a large widget containing a bunch of quick-launch app shortcuts. You can add any app you want to the widget. It really does seem kind of silly, since you're at least one swipe away from the widget when you turn on the display, and you may as well just go to the app drawer or a homescreen for what you want. But hey, it's a feature. And it's a feature you can turn off. Oh, and the widget can't actually be deleted - you have to go into lockscreen settings, go to lock screen widgets, and turn off 'favorite apps or camera.' The widget can be set to be a camera, by the way, similar to stock Android. In this same menu, that god-awful Life companion thing can be set to a clock-only widget.
You can also add your own lockscreen widgets, of course, and Samsung includes several of its own custom options.
The camera quick access (press on the screen and tilt your phone to launch the camera) feature Samsung so vaunted in the original Nature UX is also now gone, presumably because you can have a permanent camera widget in the lockscreen now.
And for one last random, inexplicable tidbit, if you press the back button while on the lockscreen, a big gray box with room for you to perform your unlock action pops up. I'm really not sure why, because when your lockscreen widgets are expanded a padlock icon appears at the bottom of the screen, and dragging it either unlocks the phone or brings up your unlock action of choice.
Samsung features, aka 'S-Stuff' (Including Smart Stay / Pause etc., and Air View / Gestures etc.)
I am going to organize this section into bolded subtitles and bullets, because really, it'd be impossibly dense giving each feature its own subheading.
Air gestures: Air gestures have been a part of NUX since the Galaxy S III, but Samsung has expanded them on the S4.
Quick glance mode is still here - just wave your hand over the phone while it's off, and you get a quick look at the time, your remaining battery, emails, SMS's, and missed called. Regular notifications (icons only) are also now displayed.
Air jump lets you scroll through web pages in Samsung's browser by flinging your hand up or down, but its reliability is pretty spotty.
Air browse lets you swipe left or right in certain apps (gallery, internet, music player, lock screen music widget, S Memo) to perform actions, usually switching between pages (tabs in the browser) or pictures. You can select which apps you want it active on.
Air move lets you drag app shortcuts to different homescreens while they're long-pressed and flinging your palm left or right.
Air call accept lets you wave your hand over the phone to answer a phone call.
They're all pretty useless. Even quick glance. How difficult is it to just press the home button though for a quick glance at your notifications? It's definitely faster, too. I'm sorry, but every single one of these tools serves absolutely no practical purpose whatsoever, especially now that you can use the screen with gloves on. None of them are accurate and reliable enough for me to event want to try to use them consistently. Samsung, please, please just kill this stuff.
Motion: These are more gestures. Hooray.
First is direct call, which I've seen many people vouch for. It's reasonably useful - if you're viewing a contact's contact card, a specific call log, or an SMS thread from them, putting your phone to your ear calls them. Cool.
The same old smart alert thing is in here, too - if an SMS or call comes in while the phone is lying somewhere unmoved, picking it up will vibrate to let you know you have a missed call or SMS. It's potentially useful.
There's a "tilt" action that zooms in or out on a photo when you're in the gallery, but I really can't imagine pinching is all that much harder.
There's also a "pan" action - tilting your phone left, right, up, or down, while zoomed in on an image will pan around the photo. It works, but you will look absolutely ridiculous trying to use it.
Finally, there's an option to mute incoming calls or pause any sound by flipping your phone over on a flat surface. I'm really not sure what the use case is, unless you're the jackass in a meeting who always forgets to mute his or her phone and sets it face-up on the table, but it's there!
Some of these are kind of useful, but as with air gestures, the majority really do land in the gimmick category. Direct call is nice if you make a lot of phone calls, but the rest are so incredibly niche or bizarre that they're best just turned off so you don't confuse yourself by accidentally activating one of them.
Palm motion: Yes, even more gestures.
Palm motion is old news - swipe across the screen with the side of your hand and it takes a screenshot. It's just as halfway-usable as before, and about 50% of my swipes seem to go unrecognized. You really have to focus to get it to work consistently.
There's also mute/pause, which pauses or mutes currently playing media by covering the screen (while it's on) with your palm. It doesn't work with Google Music, and I really don't care enough to test it further.
Palm motion would be useful if it was more reliable and responded more quickly, but I found it difficult to get it down to a science. It's just not consistent enough. This is the kind of behavior that makes you not use something. I quickly went back to the home+power button scheme.
Smart screen stuff: This is the stuff that tracks the movement and orientation of your head using the front-facing camera.
Smart stay is the same as it's been since the S III - the display won't time out until you're no longer looking at it. It works pretty well, except in the dark (which is true of all these features), when the front-facing camera can't really see you.
Smart rotation is the same as before, too. If you're lying in bed on your side, for example, and using your phone, obviously you probably don't want it in landscape mode. You want the screen's orientation to line up with the orientation of your head. Makes sense to me, and it's decently useful.
Smart pause will pause the video you're currently watching if you look away from the screen. Sounds great, right? It's kind of awful (more on that in a moment). It works with YouTube, Play Movies, Samsung Hub movies, and Samsung's stock video player app. I couldn't get it to work with Netflix or Hulu, and I doubt it works with much else.
Smart scroll seems to only work in the stock browser app, but that's probably a good thing, because it's pretty bad. So, Samsung decided it couldn't track your pupils and scroll via the movement of your eyes, and instead has decided to let you do this with your head (or by tilting the phone). Not only will you look stupid, you will struggle to use it at all - it is exceedingly frustrating.
Smart stay has never really made sense to me, at least not on a phone. For example, let's say I'm on the subway reading an article on my phone. The conductor starts talking, and I, being a normal human being, look up and listen. It's nothing important, and I look back down. My phone's screen has turned off (assuming the timeout is set low enough). Annoying! There are myriad similar situations in which you would be using your smartphone momentarily, look away for a few seconds, and then go back to it, only to have it turned off by smart stay. Maybe I just don't get it, but I set my phone's screen timeout to two minutes and use the power button to turn it off, and I am quite happy with that arrangement.
Smart rotation is genuinely a good idea, I think. Except that it doesn't really work very well in the dark, which is kind of a common situation in which I think it would be used (eg, you're lying down in bed and using your phone before going to sleep). Still, the instinct is right here.
Smart pause. Oh boy. Samsung kind of jumped the gun on this idea, I think, and I'm sure some software engineer in Korea was super excited when he thought it up. It's pretty worthless. Allow me to explain. You, being a normal human being, like to watch video in landscape mode on your big, 5" Super AMOLED display, right? And being normal, you hold your phone by the ends when you do so. Well, smart pause doesn't work when you hold your phone this way, because your thumb interferes with it (and no, I'm not deliberately covering the camera - it's the proximity sensor, I believe), either disabling the feature or just unexpectedly pausing your movie. I can't even get it to work reliably enough even when I'm portrait mode for it to be worthwhile. And I really just don't like the experience - it's a bit jarring / weird / annoying to have your video pause every time you look up, because you're expecting the audio to continue. Maybe you just want to look away for a second, but you don't want the video to stop (eg, it's a music video, or something). Sorry, Samsung - this one goes firmly in the reject pile. Even if it worked properly, which it doesn't, it's hard to see someone actually wanting to use this.
Finally, smart scroll. This, as far as I can tell, only works in the stock browser app, which is probably just as well, because you'll need the patience of a saint to get it working reliably. And be willing to look a little ridiculous. First, you have to align your head in the "neutral" position. Smart scroll lets you know it has chosen your current head tilt as neutral by displaying a green eyeball. Tilt your head down, and the page scrolls down. Tilt up, and maybe sometimes it will actually scroll up. Usually, the neutral position gets screwed up at some point, and tilting your head even slightly down will scroll the page, and no amount of chin-raising will scroll it back up. Yeah, probably should have waited for the whole eyeball-tracking tech there, Samsung.
Air view stuff: This is the kind-of-neat tech that allows you to hover your finger over the display and get previews or more information about the content you're hovering over, and a few other things. It was previously limited to S-Pen equipped devices.
Information preview works in the calendar, gallery, and messaging apps (oh, and Flipboard). In calendar, it will display more detailed event info in week, day, or list mode, and it will display a list of events in month mode. In the gallery, you can see an enlarged preview of an album or photo you're hovering over. In the messaging app, a longer preview of the most recent message in a conversation will display when you hover over that message.
Progress preview works only in the Samsung video player app, and from a sheer technical standpoint, is impressive. Hover over the video's progress bar, and you'll get a preview of a previous / upcoming scene (along with the time code). Hover a little longer, and that preview becomes a little thumbnail video about three seconds long. I'm not sure why you'd want this, but it is neat to play with.
Speed dial preview works only in the dialer (duh), and if you have a speed dial key assigned to a contact, hovering over that key will display a preview of the contact's name and number. This is actually a pretty good idea.
Webpage magnifier does exactly what you think it does (... in the stock Samsung browser) - hovering over content on a webpage magnifies it. It's kind of neat, but it's also pretty clumsy to use in practice.
I want to like this idea, but it's just kind of klutzy in practice. You can turn on a sound and haptic feedback option that makes it a little easier to use (when you start an air view action, a small click and vibration occur), but the accuracy makes doing things like hovering over a date on the calendar in month view, for example, kind of difficult. The speed dial preview is neat, definitely, and the progress preview in the video player is pretty cool (even if I can't see myself using it). The gallery previews are pretty handy, too.
It really seems like even Samsung hasn't gotten fully behind these features yet, though. There are no air view actions usable on the homescreen, lockscreen, app drawer, or notification bar - the places where you'll be spending most of your time. A lot of these gesture / motion / eye tracking features are turned off by default, as well, which doesn't exactly scream 'confidence' from the rooftops. That and a total lack of 3rd party app compatibility (aside from Flipboard) makes the air view features pretty narrow in their scope of usefulness. I actually turned off information preview because sometimes it would randomly register an actual touch on a calendar event or picture in the gallery when my thumb was just scrolling through stuff. So, there's definitely room for technical improvement, too.
Multi Window: Multi-window has a new, lighter look. The tab on the side of the screen is smaller and less noticeable (so, less annoying), and the window management UI now has an option to close the currently active app (along with switch apps or maximize buttons). That's really all that's changed there.
Group Play: Group Play is weird. It's a mish-mash of various functions in a single tool that wirelessly shares stuff with other people with devices that support Group Play. Likely, the Note II and S III will get some Group Play support with their Android 4.2 updates. You can share music and documents with one another, for example.
The music feature has been revamped since its introduction as part of Group Cast (now Group Play), and now allows you to assign connected devices a channel for playback (left, right, etc - up to 5 discrete channels). The channel mode isn't really useful unless playback is being achieved via the rear speaker of each device, obviously, and I don't really get why anyone would want to do that. It's kind of complicated, and it requires everyone to have a compatible Samsung phone.
The other new part is games. Yep, you can play multiplayer games over Group Play. Well, some games. Supported games. Two are included on the S4 - Com2usPoker and CanimalMatch. That sounds exciting. I kind of doubt we'll be seeing much developer support for this little feature.
And to clarify: this is not compatible with the Group Play apps currently on the Note II or Galaxy S III. The new version creates a wireless AP on a host device, instead of working through your existing Wi-Fi network. The old Group Play will not see an S4 Group Play AP.
I haven't had a chance to test everything in the camera. Some of the use cases for these things are just not the kind of stuff I encounter in my typical week, so forgive me if I don't provide tons of sample shots for every mode.
The camera app has been totally redesigned, so rather than talk about what's different, I'm just going to talk about the app itself. Samsung says it has taken inspiration from the Galaxy Camera in designing the new camera app, because it includes a carousel mode selector (there's also a grid view). It's easier to choose a mode, so that's good, but I don't really see the resemblance to much of the Galaxy Camera's UI. Anyway, I'm going to skip all the old camera modes, though I'll mention them briefly: HDR, beauty shot, best face, best photo and panorama. Now, let's go through the new ones.
Sound and shot lets you take a photo then records 9 seconds of audio afterwards and sticks the two together into a still-frame video sort of thing. The audio-enabled result is only shareable with other Galaxy S4's at the moment, and only via certain means (I'm guessing S Beam and Group Play). Great. The sound-stripped JPEG can be sent to anyone, though. I have no idea why anyone would possibly want this. I really don't think I need to share a sample (not that I could).
Drama shot is a lot more interesting. Your S4 will take up to 100 photos of a moving object (with a preferably static backdrop) then stitch some of them together into a sort of motion shot - showing the subject advancing in motion from the beginning to the end of the frame. Conditions have to be pretty ideal to get this to work well, I imagine, and I couldn't even think of a simple way to test it.
Eraser mode is something I did get to test (albeit on smaller objects), and it's really pretty neat. Your phone takes 5 photos over 5 or so seconds, and finds objects in the frame that were in motion. It then removes them, using other photos where they were not blocking a given area to "stitch" them out. It works. It's not perfect, but this is a pretty damn good idea.
Animated photo is like the inverse of eraser mode. I did not test it, but the idea is that you take a series of rapid pictures in which people or objects are moving, and you can then select which objects you want to remain stationary, and which you want to move. I haven't seen anyone able to demonstrate keeping objects static, and every sample I've looked at is just a looping animated gif. So think of it like that. No, it really isn't intuitive at all.
Sports shot mode as far as I can tell just bumps up the ISO and sets the shutter to an ultra-high speed so that you can crisply capture fast-moving subjects. Good idea for a mode on a smartphone, where you can't manually adjust shutter speed for some ridiculous reason.
Night mode is Samsung being more confident about what used to be called "low light" mode, and has renamed it night shot. Because now it actually works at night (see camera samples up in the hardware section). It requires extra processing time on each photo, so I'm not sure what exactly it's doing aside from going to a very slow shutter speed.
You'll use auto mode most of the time, though. In the top left is a button to switch cameras, a button for Samsung's weird dual photo thing, and a button for additional settings.
Dual camera mode UI
There are the normal exposure and ISO settings, light metering, etc. The one notable addition is an "auto detect night" button, which turns itself off seemingly every time you launch the camera. It automatically engages night mode when you're using the camera in auto (because auto mode doesn't do that already).
Filters are accessed via the pull-up arrow at the bottom
The dual photo mode takes a picture from the rear and front cameras at the same time, and can only be used when the camera is set to auto (you can still tweak camera settings, though). The rear camera's picture is taken at full dimension, but a small postage stamp-sized photo from the front camera is superimposed on the image. You can adjust the size and position of the superimposed image.
As someone who enjoys taking photos because, well, taking pictures of neat stuff in the world is kind a of fun hobby, I am not in this feature's target audience. But I think normal people are going to go absolutely crazy about it, and not just because it allows you to indulge your sense of vanity whenever you take a picture. People like taking pictures of themselves. People like taking pictures of things. People like taking pictures of themselves with things. Now you don't have to hand someone your camera or do a ridiculous pose in order to accomplish that. I have to admit, as gimmicky as this sounds, people are going to love it. Yes, you could accomplish the same thing with Photoshop, and yes, it is not actually a substitute for photographing yourself with something, but this makes it so much easier. It is definitely a noteworthy feather in Samsung's software cap.
Here are some samples of from Eraser mode's UI. The before-and-after is left to right.
Yep, it actually works. But if you look closely, you can see both photos still have some, um, lost body parts that the algorithm can't parse out from complex shapes, like the fencing around the stairs and balconies in these two samples. Here's a closer look at some of the artifacting in the first 'erased' image.
It's still a really cool feature, though, I've got to say.
Believe it or not, Samsung has actually simplified the gallery app in a few ways. It also just runs a lot better - the old version consistently crashed on my Note II when lots of albums were synced up, and scroll speeds were abysmal. The new version flows like butter.
The rest of the app isn't all that different. You now see a lot more of your albums in the main splash screen with a small tiled view, as opposed to the inefficient two-column UI in the old app. So that's good. The rest of the Gallery app is pretty much unchanged, though you do get a few new album filtering options. The 'Person' and 'Group' views have been merged into 'People' (what an idea!), and the weird 3D spiral view has also been crammed into this drop-down menu (the flowing 3D grid view is gone). There's an 'All' view, too, that just displays all the photos from all of your albums at once, if you want that for some reason.
Tapping the menu button while viewing a photo still produces a similarly absurd number of options as in the last version of NUX, though the order has been totally rearranged for some reason. Edit is now on top, which is probably a good idea. Photo note, which used to be two options - one for front, one for back - is now one (yay simplification). Favorite tagging photos is now done in this menu (the button is gone), and the options for 'Face tag,' 'Buddy tag,' and 'Weather tag' have all been removed. Presumably, these features are now automatic.
Samsung's keyboard has been basically unchanged in NUX2 (Swype is still bundled as well). Oddly, while Samsung's keyboard looks and behaves little like SwiftKey, it's allegedly powered by it, and you're able to use SwiftKey Flow for input by enabling it in the settings menu. The fun stops there, though - Samsung's keyboard doesn't auto-correct, it doesn't do full-word deletion, and frankly, it's just not all that great. I do like having the fifth row for the numerical keys, though.
The keyboard isn't bad, per se, but it also just isn't very good. Lack of auto-correct and generally many settings tweaks at all make this a suitable keyboard for casual users, but even HTC's new Sense keyboard out-features Samsung. The real SwiftKey, of course, is a better option than both if you're serious about your smartphone text entry.
The two settings you'll really want to look for on the S4 are under the Display submenu. The first is color mode, and I talked about that in the display section of the review. The other is high touch sensitivity, which allows you to use the S4 with gloves on, and it's not enabled by default.
There's a power saving mode, it's the same as it's been since the Note II. Samsung has expanded the functionality of 'Easy Mode' apparently, but I really don't have time to delve into it. Just know it's a way to make your phone easier to use if you're an old person or a small child, and that it now goes beyond merely modifying the homescreens.
As for the style of the settings menu itself, Samsung heard the hubbub about tabbed settings menus being all the rage right now, and decided to make its own.
There are two problems with Samsung's tabbed settings menu. The first is easy: it doesn't swipe left to right. Tabs are becoming a part of Android's navigation paradigms because they're swipeable. Having non-swipeable tabs is bad, and it's annoying, because it's not consistent with the direction Android as an OS is going. It's not the end of the world, though - I could forgive Samsung if its settings implementation were otherwise good. But it's not.
So, you have four tabs in the settings menu, and only two of them are actually helpful in finding settings: Connections and Accounts. Connections I can see having a tab for. Accounts? Really? A whole tab for maybe a few menu items for the average individual (except that more are actually hiding there)? It seems like a pretty big waste of space. The other two are ominously titled "My Device" and "More." What in the hell do either of those mean? It's not self-explanatory, and even the submenus aren't logically organized. If you're in the More tab, there's a device manager section. Uh, shouldn't that be under 'My device,' Samsung? And the security and location services options are also inexplicably tucked in here, too. Meanwhile, backup and reset options are under the 'Accounts' tab... because that makes sense. This really is a mess.
If you're going to hide options behind a tab, give some indication as to the what the tab does - it should not be a guessing game. LG, I think, has this set up much better - Connections, Sound, Display, and General. Hey, that actually kind of makes sense! And the tabs in LG's settings menu are swipeable, too.
Visually, I have to say that Samsung has actually taken a step back with the new settings menu look. Especially the toggle switches - they look downright awful.The new settings menu also has some pretty noticeable delays / reflow problems when switching tabs, too. It all just feels really rushed, and I'm not sure what Samsung was thinking when they designed all of this.
Samsung Hub / Samsung Apps
Samsung has put a big effort into generating interest in its own content hub during the S4 announcement, the not-so-subtly named Samsung Hub. The new splash screens are actually really pretty - if this is the kind of UI design language Samsung is capable of following, I can only hope it's going to inspire the next version of NUX.
The selection of content is pretty light, though. Samsung Hub's featured "new releases" are Wedding Crashers, Blade, 10,000 BC, and V For Vendetta. So, you're not exactly getting the iTunes / Google Play library here. Checking out the games section was even more depressing - there are three staff picks. Total. There are thirty-seven titles in the "Indie Games" category. Draw your own conclusions.
Oddly, the Samsung Apps store is still separate from the Hub, for whatever reason. There's a fair selection of apps to be had, but it still pales in comparison to the Play Store or even Amazon. If the Play Store and the Amazon Appstore aren't available in your country, this might be a halfway-decent way to get a proportionally small slice of the most popular Android apps out there. But really, Samsung has a long way to go before it's any kind of threat to Google or Amazon's Android content ecosystems.
This is the answer to Google Translate that no one asked for. I used S Translator for some very basic Spanish translation, and the results I got were almost always different from Google. Google typically opted for a more conversational, readable translations of Spanish phrases. S Translator generally translated things much more literally. This was a limited test, and I'm guessing it will get better over time.
This is all English to Spanish.
S Translator very clearly falls short on the actual speech recognition part, though, and that's not really acceptable. Google Translate never misunderstood me as long as I spoke clearly, S Translator often missed the first word in a sentence and simply transcribed some words or phrases incorrectly over and over ("Excuse me" was a particularly difficult phrase for it). It was not at all a consistently reliable experience. The conversation view in S Translator also only allows for one translated statement to be displayed at a time, while Google Translate actually displays a conversation.
The one benefit Samsung's app provides is an index of pre-loaded phrases, and there are many hundreds of such phrases with TTS playback in 10 common languages. That could definitely be useful.
Otherwise, I'm really not sure why Samsung decided to get into the translator game - maybe because Google Translate isn't installed by default as part of Android? Either way, this is very clearly a first-generation product.
S Health is Samsung's fitness and lifestyle application, and it's actually very well designed. It's pretty, which isn't exactly an adjective I reach for too often when talking about Samsung's software. Right now, it's a calorie counter, workout tracker, and pedometer app. After you enter your physical information, S Health has a bunch of exercise activities that you can set a total workout time for to get the number of calories burned, along with a pedometer that shows how many calories you burn per day walking. The pedometer, unfortunately, is not passive - you have to turn it on (probably because it drains the batter). You can then keep a health diary that tracks your weight, and input the number of calories you consume in each meal per day.
It also has this weird "Comfort level" page that shows the current ambient temperature and humidity using the S4's built-in external temp sensor. Holding the phone (or putting it in your pocket for a long time) does seem to affect the values a lot, though, and I'm really not getting what the usefulness of this is in the first place. You set a 'comfort range' for temperature and humidity and the phone lets you know if you're still inside it. It makes for a great showroom demo, I guess.
Otherwise, it's actually a very nice app. Once Samsung adds in more S Health-compatible accessories (in the coming months), it'll be able to provide you even more information (heart rate, for example). There are already a couple of smart scales that can beam the app your weight data via Bluetooth, apparently, though I can't find the interface for actually doing that as of yet. It's a work in progress, but a very promising one.
WatchOn (TV remote thing)
The Galaxy S4, like the HTC One, has a built-in IR blaster. It sits at the top of the phone, opposite the headphone jack. You can set it up with your TV and your set top box, but oddly not your stereo receiver (HTC's app supports this, and so did Samsung's old one). I set it up with my Samsung TV and U Verse set top box, and it worked fine. I'd still much prefer a real universal remote, but this functions in a pinch (eg, too lazy to get off the couch).
The WatchOn app is powered by Peel... like HTC's app. So you can see what's on TV right now, but in a pretty generic sense (there isn't an actual full-length channel listing, which I find annoying). You can sign into your Netflix account to see what's on Netflix, though it doesn't actually let you watch anything directly from the app, you have to go find that content yourself. There's a search function, so you can see if one of your favorite shows is on TV at a given moment. Full season listings and episode descriptions are included for popular shows and movies. The app isn't bad, but it does stutter occasionally, and it's not exactly attractive.
Like HTC's remote, the controls can be placed in the notification bar. Unlike HTC's, though, you can add a lockscreen widget for the remote control, which makes a lot of sense to me.
You can also purchase Samsung Video / Blockbuster On Demand content directly from the app, which you can then beam to your compatible smart TV (I think it's only the newer Samsung models).
Samsung has totally reworked the aesthetics of its video player app in NUX2, and it looks much better. I think we're also getting a hint at what the next version of Samsung's UI layer will look like here.
All the features, however, are still basically the same as ever. Pop-out video is completely unchanged - hit the pop out button, you're sent to the homescreen with a borderless floating video. Pinch to change the size, tap to play/pause, double tap to return to the player. The in-player settings have actually been reduced - auto play next, color tone, and outdoor visibility are all gone (auto play next still lives in the main UI's overflow menu). A new option has been added, though: a built-in capture button. Enable capture, and a small little camera with a square and some arrows appears in the player UI, tapping it captures the currently playing video frame (not a screenshot). Tapping the arrows advances or rewinds a single frame in the video if it's currently paused. It's a cool little feature, I guess.
The video app is also now heavily integrated with Samsung Hub, and the main UI has been reduced to three tabs: personal and downloaded videos, and nearby devices (DLNA). Downloads are Samsung Hub videos. Rather annoyingly, Samsung has placed a back button in the action bar of the video app when you're in the main splash that takes you to the Samsung Hub app. It kind of bugs me. I want a clean action bar, Samsung!
Calendar / Calculator / Clock / Contacts / Dialer / S Memo
The calendar app, formerly S Planner, got a minor facelift in NUX2. The tab on the right for the view mode is now a permanent fixture, and the action bar up top is now more leathery. The settings menu for the calendar also has received a skeuomorphic makeover to match the rest of the app. Oddly, default reminder time is no longer a setting.
The calculator app has a whole new look, but as far as I can tell is functionally identical to the old one. The clock app uses some of NUX2's new coloring and gradient choices, but is also identical to the old version.
The dialer UI is new, but both it the and contacts app appear otherwise unchanged (again, aside from minor theme elements), though call settings now allows you to disable noise suppression mode as an option, if you're interested in doing that. There's also an "enhanced voice privacy" mode, which I believe encrypts your voice call signal to make eavesdropping more difficult. Contact settings are basically the same as before.
S Memo has received a slight visual refresh, though once again, the functionality looks basically the same as before, and still can be linked to Samsung, Google, and Evernote accounts.
The Galaxy S4 is a phone I would be happy to call my own. Is it the best Android smartphone this year? I think that's tough to call. It's also a personal choice. HTC deserves a lot of credit for the tremendous amount of work that went into overhauling Sense and the absolutely stunning design of the One. The Galaxy S4, by comparison, just doesn't drop my jaw the same way. It is a lot like the Galaxy S III but more and better. Yes, the camera is amazing. Yes, there are tons of features. And yes, it runs Android 4.2 and the One doesn't, not that it really makes much of a difference in any practical sense.
But this also feels like Samsung at its worst sometimes, too. They had a chance to make the Galaxy S4 a more refined, solid piece of hardware. They really didn't even try. They had a chance to cut out some of the more plainly useless software features that debuted on S III and Note II, and they didn't - they just piled more of them on, some of them bizarrely useless, and others halfway-functional. Some of them shouldn't even be allowed to be enabled at the same time, because they actually conflict with one another. It's a little ridiculous. Having to write about so many of the more useless ones has admittedly made me slightly bitter, but I think anyone arguing all this stuff needs to be here is absolutely delusional.
The thing is though, that's Samsung - it's a shotgun approach to software, and with all the bad comes some good, too. Dual photo mode is kind of fun / hilarious in its own quirky way. Drama shot and eraser mode are really quite interesting ideas, and the latter can be genuinely useful. The WatchOn TV remote functionality may not be completely new (Samsung tablets have had it before with Peel Remote), but it's a totally useful addition. And apps like S-Health show Samsung really is trying to get serious about developing a compelling software suite with its products.
The Galaxy S4, as I said in the beginning of this review, is a great phone. It'll keep Samsung relevant, and probably keep it on top for the year to come. But it's also not the showstopper I think some people were hoping for, and it's not the sort of phone that leaves you walking away "wowed" or really excited about what's next. It's progressive, not disruptive. But sometimes that's just how technology is.