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Hands on with the Galaxy S4

The Samsung Galaxy S4, unveiled in New York on Thursday night, will be released at the end of April. Meanwhile, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK spent time with the device at the launch.

The smartphone already touted as the phone of the year, the Samsung Galaxy S4, will be released around the world at the end of April. For once, ‚”around the world‚” also means South Africa.

At the unveiling of the phone in New York on Thursday night, JK Shin, president of Samsung’s IT and Mobile Communications division, announced that it would go on sale in 155 countries, through 327 network operators. And South Africa will be one of them. The announcement of a local launch date is imminent.

JK Shin, president of Samsung’s IT and Mobile Communications division

The hype around the New York launch was so intense, it is easy to imagine the phone cannot live up to the expectations created. In particular, it will probably startle anyone familiar with the S3 by just how ‚Ķ familiar it looks. The body of the S4 is almost identical to that of the S3, although the screen takes up a little more of the front, extending its diagonal size from 4.8‚” to 5‚”.

Its pixel density matches that of the Sony Xperia Z 441 pixels per inch (ppi) versus 400 on the Z. The Apple iPhone 5, despite boasting ‚”Retina Display‚”, has a far smaller screen, at 4‚” which would suit many better but also lower ppi, at 326. Samsung’s answer to Retina Display, Full HD Super AMOLED claimed to be the world’s first is dazzling on the bigger screen.

At the same time, however, the S4 is thinner and lighter 7.9 mm thick and weighing a featherlight 130g. Among the leading phones, only the much smaller iPhone 5 is lighter, at 112g.

A rear camera comes in at an eye-opening 13 megapixels, complemented by a 2 megapixel front camera. Again, only the Xperia Z matches these specs, although all the top-end phones offer 1080p HD video recording.

It is here that the first clues emerge that the S4 is not merely about bigger, better, brighter and lighter hardware. Rather, it is the software and the interplay between applications that raises the bar for the competition.

For example, the camera control allows for combining images from the front and back camera into single images, in effect overlaying the photo taker’s image on the photo being taken. The possibilities extend to video-conferencing and group chats which also allows users to see multiple participants on the same screen.

An application called Group Play adds another dimension to interaction, by allowing music, video and photos to be shared across eight devices simultaneously. A group of family members finding themselves in different cities, for example, could watch the same images at the same time and share their thoughts and feelings about the content.

The real stand-out application is one that will take some getting used to, and may well turn out to be a novelty. It’s called Air Call-Accept, and allows you to answer the phone with a gesture. It’s ideal for when your hands are wet or your fingers too dirty for a touch-screen. Think kitchen work, think shaving, think hand cream. And that is just the start of gesture control. It can also be used to move between screens, images and applications. Air Jump lets you hop from the top to the bottom of a long document or message with one hand gesture.

These features are evolved versions of the gesture functionality of the Samsung Note. The Note’s S-Pen introduced Air View, which let you hover the stylus above an application to expand its file library. Now, you can do the same with the hover feature on the S4, using only your finger.

The much-vaunted Smart Scroll, an eye-control technology that allows you to scroll down a page merely by moving your eyes and tilting the handset, is probably the App Most Likely to Confuse. The sensation of using it is uncannily like playing gesture-controlled games like the Wii and Xbox Kinect when they refuse to pick up your movements. It feels clunky and, when the eye recognition does kick in, it’s a little uncertain which specific movement did the trick.

Smart Pause, which pauses a video when you look away, does work, but sometimes you do just want the video to continue while you’re not looking. There’s a setting for that, of course, but the settings do pile up for basic requirements.

There is an almost perverse pleasure in finding something on the S4 that does not operate as advertised: in the absence of such flaws, it is easy to come across as having sipped too deep of the marketing nectar.

Sadly for the critics, there are not too many such flaws.

The phone is fast and instantly responsive, thanks to a 1.9GHz quad-core processor. Of the main competitors, only the HTC One comes close, with 1.7GHz. The One is also the only competitor offering Infrared control, which allows the S4 to become a universal remote control. The S4’s WatchOn infrared extends to controlling air-conditioners a rare example of Samsung’s phone technology linking to its home appliance range.

Cutting-edge integration of hardware with content is exemplified by the S Health software, which links with sensors and the accelerometer on the device to monitor health, exercise and sleep. The same applies to weather: with a built in barometer, temperature and humidity guage, the phone becomes a personal weather station.

The battery life is likely to be market-leading, with a Li-Ion 2600 mAh battery monster, almost double the capacity of the iPhone 5’s 1440 battery, and well ahead of the second-placed HTC One’s 2300. But it has one more serious advantage over both: the battery is removable and replaceable.

It wasn’t possible to test connectivity in the half-hour spent with the phone, but it offers HSPA+ at 42Mbps and 4G LTE, supporting up to 6 different band sets meaning a specific device will be compatible with most of the different versions of LTE globally.

Will this be the phone of the year? It has stiff competition from the Sony Xperia Z, but the sheer number of new, proprietary applications will probably give it the edge.

The iPhone 5? In comparison, using the S4 is like being in a sports car when turbo mode kicks in and the rest of the traffic vanishes into the distance of the rear-view mirror.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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