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A New Galaxy

March 15th, 2013

OK, the Galaxy S IV has been announced.

Among the useful features:

  • Micro-SD expansion slot (Apple should have done this from the start but is way too controlling)
  • 13-megapixel rear-facing camera (nice, but we’re kind of reaching limits on micro-camera usability—not to mention costs in file size)
  • Samsung’s HomeSync 1TB data cloud (nice, but everyone has a cloud now, and there are private solutions if you need more space)
  • 5" 441 PPI Full HD Super AMOLED screen (hard to go wrong with a hi-def screen of that size)
  • An upgrade to its S-Voice digital assistant (could be good, if it’s done right)
  • IR blaster (can use as remote control for other devices)
  • S Health: health tracker (good for many people, not for all)
  • 2600mAh battery

That last point is a question mark; Samsung poured so many new things that could eat up battery life that a better battery may not be able to compensate for.

However, when you review the list, one fact kind of pops out: most of this is like before but only more so. Better screen, better camera, better battery. As Henry Ford once said, “a faster horse.” Some people might adore some features, but nothing seems to be a game-changer.

Samsung also touted a slew of new features which are less obvious as crowd-pleasers:

  • Add audio to photos: actually, I seem to recall having this feature on a digital camera I had years ago. I found it pretty useless.
  • dual-camera view to take photos with both of the front- and rear-facing cameras at the same time: ummm, why? That’s nice for video calls, though that feature has been around for a while. As for photos and movies, do you really want your own mug in a frame stuck into the photo or movie? What for?
  • “Eraser,” to cut people or things out of photos: perfect tool for the jilted girlfriend! Seriously, this might be useful at times (if it works well and is not too hard to use), but I cannot image using it often. I can imagine it leaving obvious artifacts which scream “photo alteration” though.
  • S Translator, which translates messages in nine languages, including French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish: Meh. I live in Japan, and probably wouldn’t use it too much. Not to mention, Western-to-Asian translation is usually so terrible as to be useless.

Then there are highly touted features that could present more problems than solutions:

  • “Smart Scroll”: tilt it up or down to scroll
  • “Air Gestures”: hover fingers above the handset to scroll
  • “Air View”: finger hover to see additional information
  • “Smart Pause”: pauses video if it realizes that the user is no longer watching what is currently playing on screen

These sound cool, but I have the feeling most people will eventually turn them off, or will want to before very long. “Smart Scroll” seems like something I would forever be cursing, like the iPhone’s “shake to undo.” “Air Gestures” is probably only useful if you have greasy fingers and don’t want to wipe them before touching the phone. Otherwise, actually using the touchscreen will afford greater control and precision. The potential for accidental scrolling seems way too high, and people who have used it report both oversensitivity and under-sensitivity.

“Air View” sounds like something that will mostly happen when you don’t want it to. And as for “Smart Pause,” there is, of course, the potential for it to work when you don’t want it to, or to not work when you do want it to. But more important is the question, do you want the feature at all? We do not often think about what our eyes are doing while a video is playing, but I’m willing to bet we look away more than we imagine, and do not want the video to stop when we do that.

So while there are some nifty features, nothing really jumps out and grabs you, and some things could even be a step backwards. I am reminded of the Japanese cell phones before the iPhone, which had tons of features… which you mostly could not or did not want to use. There would be cool-sounding bells and whistles which might make you buy the phone, but you would use them so infrequently that you would forget they were there, or be frustrated by having to learn the feature all over again when you want to use it.

The real question is, did Samsung look at the context of the whole user experience? That’s what Apple does: it tries (usually too hard) to create a smooth, seamless experience which makes everything feel natural and obvious. This often leaves the more controlling and techy amongst us to feel like we’re in a straitjacket, but for most users, it’s a good thing: just use it, be pleased with it, and otherwise forget it. With Samsung’s new features, it seems like so many things have the potential to get in the way of the user that one would have to carefully tune and adjust the thing to get it to work just so, and never perfectly.

That seems to be the consensus amongst reviewers. Gizmodo:

There has been a ton of hype and build-up to this device, and ultimately, it left us feeling cold. The S IV feels uninspired. There are small spec bumps from the previous generation and there’s a ton of software which will largely sit unused. There’s just no wow-factor here.

And ABC News:

The list of user interface innovations goes on, but they don’t amount to a coherent new way of interacting with the phone. Nor do they turn the phone into something that’s intelligently aware of what goes on around it. It’s more like Samsung is throwing a bunch of technologies into the phone to see what sticks. Sometimes, that’s how progress works, but consumers might not appreciate being guinea pigs.

We’ll see what the buying public thinks. My guess: Android users will mostly be happy with a new handset with some new features—exactly like iPhone users would be. But it probably will not make anyone who prefers an iPhone to suddenly start loving Samsung’s offerings.

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  1. Troy
    March 18th, 2013 at 06:56 | #1

    >441 PPI Full HD Super AMOLED screen (hard to go wrong with a hi-def screen of that size)

    actually the trade-off with that is more work (heat/power/battery) to render scenes.

    220PPI would have been good enough for my eyes, and for interactive games they could render at 440PPI and downsample to the 220PPI display to get better anti-aliasing.

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