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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Review: Samsung Galaxy S4


Samsung's Galaxy S4 is an impressive smartphone with a multitude of features (some practical, others not so much) that put it ahead of many of its rivals, writes Ben Grubb.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't impressed with the S4's software/hardware feature set. There are so many features in this phone it isn't funny. From including an IR blaster so that you can control your TV or DVR when you can't find your remote, to being able to switch between web browser tabs by just waving your hand, this phone actually appears to bring some real innovation to the table.
The S4 is made of polycarbonate (a very strong type of plastic) and uses the latest Gorilla Glass 3 standard to protect its 5-inch, 1080p HD screen, which is beautiful to look at. It has a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch – so if you're a geek like me who likes to try to spot pixels by getting up close and personal with a device, good luck; you'll get dizzy trying to find them on this one.

Although many have long criticised the plastic build quality of the Galaxies as being flimsy, I actually found the S4 much more comfortable to hold than other phones made of aluminum, such as the HTC One and iPhone 5.

The S4 runs Google's Android Jelly Bean operating system and offers 20 per cent more battery capacity than its predecessor, the S3, which is mainly to accommodate the extra features it has. In my testing it actually lasted more than a day, which surprised me considering most phones I've tested can't make it past one.

I must admit that at first I was a little bit overwhelmed when I looked at all the features available, and thought some would be gimmicky, but after a few days' use I actually found practical uses for some of them that could make life easier.

Air Gesture, Air View, Smart stay and Smart scroll are some of the standout innovations on the S4 that you won't find on any other brand's smartphone currently available in Australia.

When turned on, Air Gesture, which makes use of a sensor at the top of the device, allows you to answer calls just by waving your hand. It also allows you to browse through photo albums and web browser tabs by using left and right hand gestures. And that's not all – if you have a webpage open you can scroll up and down by using, you guessed it, up and down hand gestures.

The perfect scenario for this type of scrolling would be in the kitchen when you're cooking something that gets your hands dirty and you need to scroll through a recipe. The waving Air Gesture to answer a call would be of particular use while driving.

Air View is another nifty feature. It lets you preview photos in an album, for example, by hovering any one of your fingers a few centimetres above the screen.

Air View is currently available only within a select few apps, including on the pre-installed social magazine app Flipboard, where you can use it to preview headlines within topic categories.

Smart stay, which is meant to pause things like video when you look away from the screen, is also nifty but didn't work that well during my testing in low-lit environments. It did, however, begin to work much better when in a well-lit environment. To function properly it tries to pinpoint where your eyes are.

Smart scroll, which also uses your eyes, is meant to allow scrolling through content like webpages. But like Smart stay, it doesn't work as well as you might expect. Instead of scrolling when you reach the bottom of a web page, you end up having to lower your head for it to recognise your movements. You also have to stay still for it to work properly, otherwise it sometimes goes haywire and needs to recalibrate where your eyes are.

Overall, Air Gesture, Air View, Smart stay and Smart scroll really give the S4 a point of difference from other smartphones. They're the type of features that tend to wow anyone you show the device to for the first time.

But they're not the only features worth mentioning. The IR blaster, which turns the S4 into a TV or DVR remote, is sure to create a stir in the loungeroom and possibly at the pub. After just two clicks in the pre-installed WatchNow app that lets you control the blaster, I was able to start controlling all of the TVs within Fairfax Media's Sydney newsroom. I can only imagine the TV channel wars S4 users will get into in the loungeroom or at the pub with other S4 users.

Overall, the S4 is a great smartphone with so many features packed into it that will tempt users of other phones to it. If you're an Android user, this is the next phone you will want to consider upgrading to if you like the latest and greatest features. Keep in mind that you might not like the larger screen, though, if you have small hands.

If you have invested in another mobile operating system, like Apple's iOS, then you might want to stay put. But if you really want to scroll through content with your eyes and control your TV with your phone etc then maybe it's time for a switch.

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