BitDepth#884 - May 07

Putting the new Samsung S4 to work...
Sussing out the S4
A comparison of a quick snapshot of Port of Spain taken in standard auto mode (bottom) and in the new and thankfully subtle HDR mode (top) which merges multiple exposures to expand the dynamic range. Expect more on the advanced photographic features of the S4 in a future column. Photographs by Mark Lyndersay.

With this new release, the fourth in Samsung’s flagship S series phones that I’ve tested for this column the new S4 stands out as by far the best version.
Any consideration of this smartphone line is also, necessarily, a referendum on the state of Android development as well, since Samsung tends to dress the version of Google’s OS it uses pretty lightly on its phones.

Most of the device unique tweaks are user interface flourishes that don’t drift very far from a stock Android release, at version 4.2.2 on release for this new phone.
From its lock screen, Samsung offers its opening salvo of style, replacing the default ripple, already a charming effect on the S3, with a Star Trek style scatter of light that follows your finger as you sweep it across the screen to unlock to your home screen (the ripple is now an option).

What it reveals, though, is pretty standard and in some ways, annoying.
Samsung has ramped up the number of free apps it bundles with the S4, some of which seem useful or at least promising, like SHealth, which uses the phone’s internal gyros to count steps and STranslate, which may well prove to be a killer app for occasional travellers, but there are also five games, at least three of which seem designed to occupy children, but nothing genuinely and immediately useful like, say, QuickOffice.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the software, far more than it’s ever bundled on a phone before, wasn’t hardwired to the device and can’t be removed by casual user intervention.
There seems to be no good reason why a user isn’t allowed to dump these non-crucial apps and then restore them to the phone via a web reset to prepare the device for resale or interfamily pass-along.

I mention this because it now takes me “new computer” time to prepare a smartphone for day to day use, downloading, customising and password activating the small blizzard of apps that form part of my mobile computing experience.
It took me five hours to prepare and organise the 27 apps I run on an Android smartphone, down one now that Samsung bundles DropBox with the S4.

For an iPhone user, this is a laughable number of apps. I’ve seen casual users of Apple’s smartphones with ten screens worth of software icons, after all.
But this is software that I consider mission critical, without which my phone becomes dramatically less useful. The Android system of a holding bay for apps which you then promote to the six active screens on the device goes some distance in helping to organise a large collection, but there’s a part of me that’s just annoyed at seeing so many apps I have no use for and can’t get rid of.

The S4 is a sleek little number, slightly thinner and taller than the S3 with a gorgeous screen that seems to run right to the left and right edges of the device, though there’s a tiny sliver of border actually there. Everything pops on it. Icons, photos, video. Everything.

The phone is light, and even though Samsung still makes the back cover of this premium phone out of plastic, the new finish is more dignified than the barebones, adamantly plastic feel of the S3’s cover.
There’s a new software mini dock that slides out from the left where you can access a pool of Google developed apps (no option for third party software here) that you can turn off if you find it annoying (I did).

Problems were minimal. One widget I use to monitor an analytics package on my website, ballooned graphically on the new pixel rich screen (now 441 pixels per inch) and the mail app has developed a settings quirk which makes it impossible to access my domain’s e-mail server (the software won’t allow me to add my ISP’s username schema).
The S4 is palpably faster at everything. Software launches fluidly and in a curious turn, some user interface flourishes seem designed to make the interface move just a bit more slowly and gracefully.

The S4 is an incremental improvement over the S3. Owners of the previous model may want to upgrade if screen quality and processor speed will improve their user experience, and users looking for a new smartphone will find the S4 to be a robust competitor in a suddenly quite crowded local market for handheld computing devices.
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