It's deja vu all over again in the smartphone world.
Around a year ago, the Galaxy S3 smartphone from Samsung was starting to make a big impression. It eventually led Samsung to be in a neck-and-neck battle with the latest iPhone for domination of the smartphone marketplace.
This year, it's very similar, with the Galaxy S4 coming out the gate first to gain some headlines and market share in advance of the inevitable new iPhone arrival later in 2013.
Samsung gets a bit of an upper hand with this timing, and I recently got a chance to test out a Galaxy S4 from Verizon Wireless. Here are my first impressions of the latest Samsung superphone.
Phones keep getting bigger, and this is no exception.
The GS4 comes in at 5 inches, a boost from the GS3's 4.8 inches. This size is great if you want to view videos and other media, but may be too large for some users. I would hope they cut it off at 5 inches, as any more infringes into Galaxy Note “phablet' territory.
The phone does drop a bit in weight, down to 4.59 ounces due to slimming down a bit to just .31 inches in thickness.
The screen quality is also improved, up from 720p HD to full 1080p HD, a difference that is definitely noticeable when you are watching media or playing games on the phone.
The only knock you can have on the GS4's looks is the plastic build and feel of the phone. But it's still a sturdy device protected by the latest Gorilla Glass.
There are some interesting new features on the GS4.
One of them allows your eye movements to control the flow of text on the screen when reading, and another will pause video when you look away from the screen. Another allows you to browse media without even touching the phone, just by hovering your finger above the item you would like to preview.
Some of these are kind of novelty additions, but it's always nice to see innovation of this sort.
This is one area where gains were made from the GS3.
Photos were pretty spectacular from the 13 megapixel rear-facing camera, which might well be the best I've used on a smartphone.
In front, you get a 2-megapixel camera capable of full-HD recording.
There is the usual bevy of editing and quick-sharing options with photos and videos on the GS4, as well as features like Dual shot which lets you use both front and rear cameras at the same time.
This is, as usual with most fancy new smartphones, an area where I find some concern. Having all this cool stuff and using it means your battery is going to run down quicker than you'd like. I would recommend adjusting your settings so not all features are on at all times, or you will need to charge the GS4 at least once a day and possibly more if you are an avid user. This is disappointing and works in favor of phones like Motorola's Razr Maxx, which has tremendous battery life. You can carry a spare battery for the GS4 if you choose to do so, to help avoid running dry.
Operating System, processor, etc.
You get the very user-friendly latest Android OS, Android 4.2 (aka Jelly Bean) along with the overlay of Samsung's TouchWiz user interface.
Multi-tasking is a breeze on this, it is easily customizable and not difficult to learn how to use. And you get access to the hundreds of thousands of apps available in the Android marketplace, where pretty much anything you want can be found — some free, some paid.
In other specs, you get a powerful 1.9 GHz quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM so everything runs smoothly even when multi-tasking, and then there's the storage, which is a bit questionable on the Verizon option. There is only one version with 16 GB on onboard memory, of which only 9.1 GB is available to the user. Other carriers offer larger storage versions, and I would like to see Verizon do the same. Sure you can expand the space yourself via microSD card up to 64GB, but it would be nice to have other options to choose from.
Call quality, 4G LTE
Phone calls I made on the GS4 sounded loud and clear, with no major issues on either end. Downloads and uploads were also lightning fast via Verizon's 4G LTE network.
One feature that is fun to use is S Voice (the Samsung version of Apple's “Siri'). The voice will answer all your questions very well, sometimes even with some snark.
One feature I really liked was S Health. This was a very cool interactive feature that you can use to track your health in every aspect.
It counts your steps and calories burned during workouts. You can take pictures of your food and it will count the calories, etc.
Interesting apps like this are one area where phone makers can continue to improve their offerings even when the spec improvements start to become less necessary.
Other details on the GS4:
— It's global: Supports calls, messaging and web browsing in over 200 countries.
— S Translator: Instant translations via text or voice in nine different languages.
— Can be Mobile Hotspot for a fee (Connect up to 10 Wi—Fi enabled devices in 4G or 5 in 3G)
— Integrated Google Mobile Services (Gmail, Google+, Latitude, Google Maps, Google+ Messenger, Navigation, Local, Play Books, Play Movies, Play Music, Play Store, Google Search, Google Talk, YouTube)
— S Beam, S Health, S Memo, S Translator, S Voice, Samsung Hub, Samsung Link, Samsung Video, Samsung WatchON
— Air Gesture: Simply motion your hand at the S4 to accept calls, change music or browse the web & view your photos
— Erasure Mode: Erase the person who walked through your shot
The Samsung Galaxy S4 will cost you $199.99 out of pocket with a 2-year contract. There is only the 16 GB version available, though there are rumblings of a 32 GB version in the works.
The Galaxy S4 overall is another home run for Samsung and they are smart to again blanket the smartphone market with their phone offered on all the major carriers. Other than battery life I had no major concerns, and this phone will no doubt be another big hit just like the GS3 last year. Samsung's impressive rise in recent years via its Galaxy line has let other phone makers know they have to step up their game, which can only lead to better things in the future for the smartphone buying public.
Not everyone will be a fan of this phone, as there are plenty of folks loyal to Apple, other Android phones, even some Windows Phone or Blackberry devotees. But for those with an open mind going in to buy a phone, there's a good chance the GS4 will be the one that choose to take home due to its overall impressive package of offerings.
Matt Myftiu can be reached at email@example.com or 248-745-4617. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu or become a fan of the Facebook page “OPTechTime'. Check out his blog at realtechtime.blogspot.com.