Samsung's Galaxy S4

Samsung's Galaxy S4

Last night I had the pleasure of attending Samsung's Unpacked Event, Part 1, and watching them pitch the next generation of their phenomenally successful smartphone line -- the Galaxy S4. It was held at Radio City Music Hall, with a simultaneous party at Times Square. And it was an impressive debut, though not one without some important caveats.

Android Central's Phil Nickinson and Andrew Vacca and I went to Radio City, Martin Reich took Times Square. Earlier in the day I spent some time with the HTC One. I've owned several HTC devices, including the Treo Pro, G1, and Nexus One. They make, in my opinion, the best hardware outside of Apple, and the HTC One gives Apple a run for its money. Unibody aluminum with a gorgeous 1080p LCD display and gutsy 4mp, 2 micro shooter on the back, it's a bit big for me personally, but I'm sorely tempted to buy one anyway. Their Sense 5 version of Android is controversial -- some like it, others don't -- and it looks nice enough, though tends to hide as much as it helps. Either way, it set my expectations for Android-based devices in 2013, and what Samsung was competing with.

LG, makers of the Nexus 4 and Optimus series of Android-based phones made the event interesting by placing their own, prominently 4-branded billboards, above Samsung's in Times Square. HTC doesn't have anywhere near the budget of their far more diversified Korean competitors, so they decided to troll the Samsung lineup instead, handing out hot chocolate and chips to the cold, hungry media and guests. Apple, by contrast, had Phil Schiller talk some smack to the papers (sadly, one fairly major point of which would later turn out to be grossly inaccurate).

That by way of pointing out how important this event was not only for Samsung, but how important Samsung has become for their competition -- and that their competition, more than ever, is as much other Android-based manufacturers as it is Apple.

Radio City Music Hall was an impressive venue and Samsung made the most of it. No simple executive or string of executives in jeans and shirts presenting in front of a keynote deck. After a brief introduction of the "Galaxy S4: Life Companion" by Samsung mobile head JK Shin, they had broadway actor Will Chase team up with their head of product marketing, Ryan Biden, and they put on a show. The actor would introduce a narrative and the product guy would explain what features were involved and how they worked, often with the aid of a performance to show it in real-world, if contrived situation. It was, in general, a fantastic idea and much more interesting than BlackBerry's painful CEO + tech demo guy team-ups at events past.

To get it out of the way, yes the show itself was cheesy and sexist. There were, indeed, few stereos left untyped by the end. It was clearly meant to be something out of mid 20th century broadway, where such things were common, but we're no longer in that time, and Radio City aside, were weren't in that context. Samsung is still awkward in their approach to modern, mainstream marketing. They have smart people on their team, however, and they desperately need to listen to them more. In the end, the more cockamamy elements did nothing to help their message, and only distracted from it. Next year, how about Cirque du Soleil?

The Galaxy S4 hardware is a feat of engineering. It manages, in the same footprint as last year's Galaxy S3, to pack in a 5-inch 1080p display, massive 2600mAh (user-swappable) battery, SD-card storage expansion, and additional sensors like IR for entertainment console control, and temperature and humidity sensors. Unfortunately, the display is still OLED-based, and the casing still Hasbro-style plastic. If you hold a Galaxy S4 in one hand and an HTC One or iPhone 5 in the other, the difference in material quality is stupefying.

Everything is a compromise, and Samsung seems to have chosen to add more features while sacrificing material quality to keep the price down -- though OLED is pure stubbornness at this point, given its seemingly insolvable problems -- but I think I could have lived with slightly fewer bells and whistles at this point if it meant a better casing. I use my phone more than anything else in my life. It should feel great all the time.

One area Samsung didn't skimp on was radio support. It has everything you can imagine, including the blisteringly fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi. It also has a big.LITTLE processor that's essentially 2x quad-core, switching between the lighter and heavier cores depending on what it's doing. However, that octocore chip will only be found in some versions. In other markets -- for a variety of carrier-related issues -- they'll use a Qualcomm chipset instead.

So, stacked but ultimately not premium-packed hardware.

Software was even more interesting. I should preface this by saying that I believe it wasn't finished yet, so what you see in the videos may well be much more polished by the time it ships. Also, while some have complained Samsung didn't mention Android enough during the show, as Phil Nickinson has repeatedly said, Android is essentially an embedded OS at this point. How often does Apple mention their UNIX foundation? (Samsung mentioned Android twice, once for their government Android-based KNOX security feature, and once on the spec slide showing the version to be Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean).

That has disadvantages as well. Samsung has so completely paved over Android with their own stuff that, come Google I/O, if a new version of Android is announced, it will take Samsung a long time to release an update that includes the new version for the Galaxy S4. For mainstream users, it won't matter. They bought a Samsung phone, not a Nexus. For geeks, if you want the latest and the greatest from Google, stick to Nexus. For people who just like to point out that Android's licensed business model, one which enjoys a lot of diversity, also results in slower updates for Android-based phones, have at it.

Back to unpacked. Most of the event, through a series of those fourth-wall breaking, often taste-challenging skits I mentioned earlier, was dedicated to front facing user features. A ton of them. It reminded me a little of older iOS events when new features would be announced at an almost machine-gun lined pace. It was a little hard to keep up with, and almost impossible to keep track of, given how many branded terms were used in quick procession. But it was something to see.

Some of the more interesting stuff included picture-in-picture photography and video chatting. Essentially you can include an insert of yourself from the front-facing camera on photos taken with the rear-facing camera. You can do the same for chats, and even screenshare. You can also record a few seconds of audio and combine it to a picture, a feature I've often longed for when covering trade shows -- attached voice notes to jog my memory later. There's even a drama shot mode, where a burst of images are taken and then auto-composited into something akin to those multi-exposure sports posters you sometimes see in bars, or used to erase extraneous people or objects from the background. That last one I'd like to see in iOS.

You can also do device-to-device Wi-Fi direct sharing. For example, if you have 2 people, you can share a song and make it stereo using both of your devices as speakers. If you have 5 or more people, you can make it surround sound. I don't know how often it would actually be useful, but the idea is delightfully geek.

Voice features got a big boost with a new translation assistant that can convert your English text, for example, to Italian audio, and someone else's spoken Italian response back to English for you to read. 8 languages will be available at launch. That's something I'd love to see integrated into Apple's Siri

Air Gestures -- which I'm guessing is some mix of hypersensitive capacitance and Kinect style camera monitoring? -- let you do things like trigger pop up menus or swipe between views without touching the screen. I like the idea for winter, when I'm wearing gloves, or if I'm eating and want to flip pages without getting any food on the display. However, I don't have great coordination and hitting a hard target like a screen is much easier than trying to hover or wave just right. Fitts' law and all that.

The biggest problem with Air Gestures, at least that I could tell, is that they're not really system-level features, so they only work in some apps that expressly enable. They work in Samsung Mail, but not Gmail, and they work in Flipboard, but not many other 3rd party apps. To make something habitual, it needs to be everywhere.

Samsung also showed off a bunch of accessories, including an fitness band, scale, and blood pressure monitor. They were Samsung branded, and if they were also Samsung manufactured, it shows an advantage that Samsung's massive business model provides them. Not many companies make as much stuff as Samsung does, which means their potential for cross-integration is enormous. Scales, fridges, etc. are just the beginning. Smart worlds await.

That's just some of it. There was a dizzying amount of other features as well. If you're interested in a break down of most of them, Phil Nickinson and I recorded an Android Central Podcast immediately after Unpacked.

Again, everything is a compromise, and throwing so many new features at the wall means, like every years, only a few are likely to really stick.Quantity is never as important as quality or coherency. Just like random words are harder to remember than well-told stories, feature blitzes often result in things most people don't use most of the time.

However, I'm happy Samsung is doing it, if only so that they can be tried out, and the good ideas can be distilled faster. Apple usually waits, usually focuses, and it results in great experience, but Samsung is providing balance through sheer audacity. As someone who loves technology, I appreciate the difference in approaches, and the balance.

The only real software negative for me wasn't a new one and remains a huge one -- user interface. Samsung's TouchWiz still lacks a consistently good design language. At best it's usable but utilitarian. There's little unified about their icons, and little appealing about their apps. Given the half-billion dollars they reportedly spent on advertising last year, it's hard to imagine they couldn't have spared a fraction of that amount to hire and empower a world-class design team.

I'm not talking about cool effects, mind you. Samsung has those in spades. Fast, fluid animation, ripples, glows, the whole bit. That's all frosting, though. They need tastier cake.

All told it was an impressive event for Samsung, and the Galaxy S4 looks like a great phone. Some are, sarcastically, calling it a Galaxy S3S, a throwback to Apple's tick-tock S-style updates. It's probably more than that, but let's be realistic -- there's a limit to how far, how fast, we can take phones now. They're already almost all great. Now everyone is trying to make them better.

Later this year it'll be Apple's turn.

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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