After this week’s presentation of the Galaxy S4, members of the press were allowed to spend a little time with the new device. My general impression was that this is a solid upgrade but also a missed opportunity for Samsung.
If you follow Apple’s upgrade cycles, 2013 is slated to be the year of slight upgrade. Apple has been known to release a major upgrade every couple of years and do minor updates in the in-between ones. 2013 is slated to be one of those minor upgrades year, giving competitors a chance to come out with something mind-blowing.
When one considers the 12 to 24 months cycle of mobile phone releases and updates (12 months for a new phone to be upgraded, 24 months for the user base to fully move to the more recent models), the Samsung Galaxy S4 will be competing with its predecessor, the Samsung Galaxy S3, and with the iPhone 5 and its modest update, slated for the fall.
So this was Samsung’s year to come out with a phone that would place it far ahead of what the competition offers, and dominate the news cycle for months to come with all new devices being compared to the S4.
The Galaxy 4 is a powerful package when it comes to hardware: a faster processor, larger screen, better camera, and bigger battery. But hardware tells only part of the story. The success of companies like Apple and Samsung has not been predicated on their hardware. There are, after all, many Android phones with better hardware specs than the Galaxy S3 already in the market and that did not seem to stop Samsung’s progress in the Android world. Success hinges on the tight integration of software and hardware.
Much of the S4 unveiling, in fact, focused on the software features that launched with the device. Photo manipulation, automatic translation, health sensor integration, even face-tracking were all presented as top innovations for the new device. And in the presentation, they looked fantastic.
The challenge will be when those devices are put in the hands of consumers. Testing out the device, the hardware felt quite responsive and the phone was light while appearing to be all screen. The software, however, was a disappointing bundle of half-baked features that will need to be upgraded if they are to succeed.
Take translation, for example. The basic idea here is that you can pick a language, have a speaker speak into the phone and the phone will perform some magic allowing you to read or listen to the translation in your own language. For people who travel a fair amount, this sounds like a wonderful thing, the kind of software leap that would make companies like Apple jealous. In practice, however, the software is wanting.
I have the advantage of being fluent in French but I can tell you that most of the translations for everyday tasks like asking for directions, requesting a restaurant menu or asking for the check failed in my own testing. Wondering if this was only an issue with the French version of the software, I asked a German journalist who was standing next to me to try the same with the German to English version of the software. Much hilarity ensued as we tried combinations of French to English, French to German, German to French, and German to English.
Photo software far from picture-perfect
Photo and video manipulation were other areas the company touted as important improvements on the device. Such features as “Eraser,” which is supposed to allow you to remove people who walked into a picture you were trying to create. In testing, the feature had a hard time focusing on what you were trying to erase. The user interface for it was relatively easy to use once you had been trained with it, but it was far from intuitive.
The same interface problem came up when using the camera feature that includes the photographer in the picture being taken. Once again, the feature worked well after some training but the interface to get it launch was not something that was easy to guess. A number of testers failed to figure it out until a Samsung representative showed how it worked.
The devil is in the details
Smartphones are at a lifestage where incremental changes are the tools of disruption. With things like NFC, wireless charging, large camera sensors, and speedy processors becoming more common, modest tweaks to existing features can present great improvements over competitive offerings.
Samsung’s Air Gestures feature is an example. The S4 lets you manipulate what’s on the screen without making physical contact with it (some of the use cases Samsung presented included women with an unfinished manicure, sticky fingers, or someone wearing gloves). While it seems like a small thing, it’s the kind of improvement that makes you wonder why this isn’t standard on every phone. In testing, this worked quite well when it came to interacting with apps, though the lack of sensory input was a bit bewildering at first.
Other software integrations feel like upsells to Samsung services. HomeSync lets you synchronize pictures and videos with a server back at home. An app called S Health uses the phone’s sensors to share steps walked or stairs climbed or climate data with Samsung provided scales and other health monitors, but fails to integrate with more popular devices like the Fitbit or Nike Fuel Band. [/entity] HomeSync only works with the Samsung server and not with any other form of storage a user may have at home.
A decent upgrade, not a revolutionary product
All in all, the Galaxy S4 is a decent upgrade. It feels relatively solid and the software will probably be improved over several releases. The sad part, though, is that could have been the year Samsung owned the cool factor. The company will still sell millions of those phones (the S3 recently passed the 50 million mark) but one can’t help but feel that the release of the S4 represents some missed opportunities. We may have to wait for the inevitable release of the Samsung S5 for those hopes to be fanned again.