Galaxy S4: the tiny dragon slayer  

The pace of mobile innovation, both hardware and software, is slowing at the moment. This doesn’t mean that the number of features announced in each product has been reduced. In fact, it’s the opposite. Instead, it’s the user benefit that’s waning and this is easy to see in most recent flagship products from Apple (iPhone 5) and Samsumg (Galaxy S4). It’s true that we’re still slaying dragons in mobile, but these dragons are tiny and almost insignificant.

With the iPhone 5, it was Maps. Even if Maps was a perfect clone of the Google Maps app that preceded it, what would have been the real benefit to the user? Ultimately, it was a technical and strategic decision that was played off as a major user benefit; it wasn’t.

With the Galaxy S4, announced on March 14, the trend continues. Here is a list of the features announced and my quick thoughts on each - rating them on a 3-star system, with 3 stars going to those features which carry significant benefit to the user.

Air Gestures: “Refers to hand movements made above the phone’s display, without coming into contact with the display, that controls the phone.” I think this could have a time and place. Living in Canada means that I quite often wear gloves to avoid the blistering cold while repairing my igloo. During these times it would be great to have air gestures. I also love to use my tablet in the kitchen and would benefit from not touching my screen with chicken juice on my hands. ★★☆

Air View: “Like the stylus on the Galaxy Note 2, you can hover over the display with your finger to view information about certain pieces of content.” I like the idea of adding an analogue to the hover gesture we get with a mouse. If implemented well, I could see this being helpful if the browser mapped it to the mouse hover. Limited utility, but useful on occasion. ★★☆

Drama Shot: “Camera feature that shoots 12 photos at once and shows you a time-lapse of all the action in those photos combined into one picture.” Sounds cool, but comes down to implementation. Personally, I want my Camera app to be dead simple, so as long as these novelty features don’t get in the way of point, shoot & share, then I’m happy to have them. Though the level of happiness this feature provides, is limited. ★☆☆

Dual Camera: “Activates both the rear camera and the front camera, so that the photographer can superimpose himself or herself into the subject of the photo.” Really? This is a gimmick that is more appropriately offered by a 3rd party camera app, not the OS. ☆☆☆

Dual Video Call: “While video-chatting with someone, you can show them both your face and the view from your rear camera while you chat.” I can’t see using this. Not sure video calling is even that popular, but calls with two cameras being operational is really slicing the use case thin. Also, doesn’t this require that I’m calling someone who also has an S4? If so, I see very limited use. ☆☆☆

Group Play: “Allows multiple Galaxy S4 owners in close proximity to join a private network in which they can, among other things, play a game.” Nice idea, but again concerned that not many people with have a network of friends also using an S4. ☆☆☆

S Health: “New app that acts as a fitness tracker and food diary. The Galaxy S4 has a built-in pedometer to count your steps, and you can take photos of your meals each day to keep count of your calories and eating habits.” I think this is a great idea for OS-level integration. Also has a great lock-in effect for Samsung, giving users a reason to buy the S5. ★★☆

S Translator: “An app in which you can input any of 10 languages and receive a translation, either spoken or in text.” This seems like a great idea, but will come down to execution on the feature. If the feature requires a data plan, then it cold become an issue for most travelers who won’t have cost effective roaming options. ★★☆

S Voice Drive: “New hands-free function for drivers that allows the driver to operate the phone with his or her voice.” Kind of neat, but all hinges on the accuracy of the voice recognition. I still think Google is the best of breed when it comes to voice recognition. It’s certainly not Apple/Siri. ★★☆

Samsung Adapt Display: “The Galaxy S4 "learns” what you are viewing and adjusts the display’s brightness accordingly.“ Useful to be sure, but hardly a platform differentiating feature. ★☆☆

Samsung Adapt Sound: "Similar to Adapt Display, your audio can adapt to the content you’re listening to (video, music, etc.) and optimize itself to that content.” Similar to my thoughts on “Adapt Display”… nothing ground breaking. ★☆☆

Samsung Optical Reader: “Camera feature that can snap a photo of a business card and import that information into a new contact in your phonebook.” Interesting, but this functionality is really edge case material. I’ve had access to this in Evernote for a few years, but have only used it once. ★☆☆

Samsung Smart Pause: “When watching a video, the front camera can sense when your eyes move away from the screen and pause the video automatically if you aren’t looking.” I can’t imagine that I’ll always want the video to pause when I look away. This feels like a convenience that might get in the way more often than it saves me time. ☆☆☆

Samsung Smart Scroll: “When you are reading an email or article on the web, you can scroll up and down by tilting the device up and down rather than swiping with your finger.” Again, I think this is a convenience function which assumes it knows how I want to use my phone. Perhaps this will work without flaws, but I’m betting it’ll be more annoying than it will be time saving. ☆☆☆

Samsung WatchON: “A built-in IR sensor lets you control your television set with your smartphone.” This is starting to feel more like a ‘kitchen-sick’ phone. Using my phone to control my TV might be useful, but I don’t find it to be a flawless solution even with the iPhone/Apple TV combination. I doubt this will be the fastest way to control your TV… though it will be a fun way to control your friend’s TV. ☆☆☆

Share Music: “When linked with Group Play, multiple Galaxy S4s can work as surround sound speakers, all playing the same song at once.” This is just weird. Almost seems like a joke - especially in the Samsung demo. ☆☆☆

Sound & Shot: “Allows you to record up to nine seconds of audio at the time of taking each photo.” Not sure why I would want to do this. ☆☆☆

Story Album: “Templates that allow you to create a digital photo journal or scrapbook from a certain event. You can also then order and print out that story album for a fee.” This seems like a nice idea and one which I enjoy using on my iPhone. ★★☆

Overall, I think the S4 feels like a phone in which the software engineers ran wild and drove the product with “what’s possible” - maybe the product managers were allowed to come along for the creative ride. The features don’t feel in anyway cohesive, or driving toward a common vision, or strategy, for the device. That said, some of them do certainly push the technology forward, and will have the intended effect of locking users into the Samsung platform for releases to come. It’s very interesting to watch Samsung widen their proprietary moat around the already stellar Android operating system. As good hardware becomes table stakes, Samsung is using software to keep users coming back. However, I’m not sure this collection of features will provide many with a compelling reason to upgrade. At least not from the S3.


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