Cutting Room: Galaxy S4 launch – worth the hype?

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Alex Walls was in New York to see the follow up to the manufacturer’s record-breaking Galaxy S III unveilied and find out if it lived up to expectation

Jet-lagged and with freezing hands after losing my gloves in transit, I arrived at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on March 14 to watch the birth of Samsung’s new baby.

I had been flown to New York by Samsung with a bunch of other journos from the UK to witness the launch of the successor to the popular Galaxy S III, the imaginatively named Galaxy S4, and launch it did, with a fair few DOA jokes and a lot of tap dancing.

The launch had a Broadway musical-type theme, with the starring role in the company’s teaser videos going to Jeremy, a tap-dancing child entrusted with looking after the S4 prior to the launch. While he might have been a tad nauseating as the device’s caretaker, he was a pretty ferocious tap dancer.

While many of the jokes were laboured and the cheese level was through the roof, I have to give Samsung credit for doing something different with their product launch. There were odd demo choices, such as a woman who could use the Galaxy S4 while wearing gloves at the opera, but in all it was engaging and fairly entertaining – and it sure beat watching a chief executive drone on about exciting new opportunities.

Mystery processors
As for the Galaxy S4 itself, the UK press contingent snatched half an hour or so with the device to run through its features and have a play. While it packs some impressive hardware, the real differentiator seems to be the on-board capabilities Samsung is pushing,  given the Xperia Z and HTC One are running many of the same specs. The real question will be whether these capabilities are actual differentiators or just gimmicks.

Speaking of specs, there was much mystery concerning just which processor the S4 will ship with, with Samsung saying it was ‘region-dependent’ as to whether you get the new Exynos 5 CPU at 1.6GHz or a Snapdragon quad-core processor at 1.9GHz. While you might feel left out not getting Samsung’s new chip, which it has billed as more energy-efficient and better at multi-tasking, it will of course depend on how well the processors perform. The device I played with – processor unknown – ran tasks smoothly without lag, and it handled multi-tasking pretty well.

Samsung has packed a large battery into a phone which is even lighter than its predecessor and the S4’s outsides are an improvement on the S III’s, which felt fragile and a bit plasticky. The screen res on the five-inch S4 was also impressive – the same as the Xperia although slightly less good-looking, perhaps owing to Sony’s display software.

New capabilities
Samsung debuted a number of new capabilities extrapolated from devices such as the Note 2 and the Galaxy S III. The more interesting features included Smart Pause and Smart Scroll, both of which sense when a user isn’t looking a the screen and pause activity.

While Smart Pause worked well, it seemed a little pointless  – why not just rewind? – and could get annoying if you’re glancing down but don’t want the video to stop. Smart Scroll didn’t work well on testing – it was difficult to get the tilt-to-scroll action to, well, scroll.

They felt more like a demonstration of Samsung’s technology than really useful features.

Another offering was Air Gestures, which includes a hover function whereby holding your finger above an email, message or Flipboard icon gives a preview of it, and a waving scroll, where waving your hand in front of the screen skips music tracks or switches browser tabs.

I have a lot of time for Air Gestures because they worked well on testing and also because when you’re juggling trying to cook, wash vegetables and skip a music track, these kinds of options could be really handy.

Samsung also amped up its camera, which weighed in at 13MP, with capabilities like Dual Camera, allowing the user to take a photo of themselves as well as their subjects, in one photo, which is neat but also a bit Billy No Mates – although handy for not getting your camera stolen by randoms à la Mr Bean. A more interesting camera feature was Eraser, which removed perceived ‘heavy movement’ from a picture, such as people walking past in the background, and worked well.

Unfinished article
Samsung unveiled a number of other features, such as S Translator (no prizes for guessing what that does) and S Health, the latter of which seems like an add-on to appeal to the rapidly expanding market, rather than anything revolutionary.
From a capabilities point of view, I liked the ideas Samsung brought to the table, but to some extent it felt like they were first iterations of what could be useful technology. The firm is on the right track, but whether the applications on offer are genuinely useful as yet remains to be seen.

Samsung did a pretty good job on the night, but it didn’t blow anyone away. The presentation may not have been five star, but it was something out of the ordinary and interesting. The device specs were a solid offer for a flagship model, and the technology evidenced in its capability developments was interesting. We’ll just have to wait for the launch and more hands-on time to see whether  this technology, and the device itself, was worth the hype.

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