Samsung unveiled its latest high-end phone at an event in New York, starting at 7pm Eastern time today (Thursday).
The Galaxy S IV (also abbreviated as S4) is self evidently the successor to the very successful Galaxy S III (S3) which was released in May 2012 and went on sale in July, and quickly became acclaimed as possibly the best phone in the world. In the third quarter last year the S3 outsold the iPhone, although the newly released iPhone 5 outsold the Galaxy S III in the fourth quarter.
Samsung as a whole has become the world’s largest maker of mobile phones of all types (a title formerly claimed by Nokia) as well as contesting for the title of world’s largest maker of smartphones with Apple as the other contender.
The release of the Galaxy S IV has been eagerly awaited with almost as much excitement as would formerly surround iPhone releases. Clearly the stakes are high – for Samsung and Apple, and the general discussion was not if the S IV would beat the iPhone 5 in terms of features and capabilities, but rather by how much and in which areas.
Samsung did a very good job of keeping the details of the phone secret, and the ‘rumors’ about anticipated features were more guesses than based on true insider information.
Why do we ask if this is the last of the super-releases – high impact, high interest releases of new models of phones? Because we feel that the rapid pace of phone hardware development is plateauing, and that future phone enhancements will be as much software driven as hardware driven.
But that’s not to say that this model phone isn’t an appreciable enhancement over its predecessor. So, now for details of the new phone.
The New Samsung Galaxy S IV
The new phone was introduced by Samsung’s head of its Mobile Communications division, JK Shin. He bravely eschewed what has become an almost mandatory ‘Steve Jobs look’ by executives presenting new high-tech products in self-consciously casual clothing, and instead appeared in a normal suit and tie. Good for him.
The phone’s most significant upgrade is to its screen. The S4 has a 5″ diagonal screen with 1080 x 1920 pixel resolution. This contrasts to the 4.8″ diagonal screen with 720 x 1280 pixels on the S3, and the 640 x 1136 pixels and 4″ screen on the iPhone 5. The S4 has 2.25 times as many pixels as the S3, and 2.95 times as many as the iPhone 5.
Amazingly, this bigger better screen comes in a slightly smaller and lighter overall phone. The new S4 measures 5.38″ x 2.75″ x 0.31″, whereas the S3 was ever so slightly larger, at 5.38″ x 2.78″ x 0.34″. An iPhone 5 is of course smaller, at 4.87″ x 2.31″ x 0.30″, due to its much smaller screen size.
We should point out that the phone also has a higher capacity battery in it too – a 2600 mAh capacity battery compared to 2100 mAh in the S3, making its size reduction all the more surprising. The expected battery life is not yet known, but because the battery can readily be swapped over, its life isn’t quite as vital an issue as it is with, for example, an iPhone 5 which struggles to get through a full day of extensive use.
Weight wise, the phone is down in weight too, albeit again by the most undetectable of amounts – from 133 gm in the S3 to 130 gm in the S4 (4.59 oz). The smaller iPhone 5 is of course also lighter, at 112 gm (3.95 oz).
In case it is important to you, the phone will initially be available with white and grey exteriors, and the phone’s shell is a polycarbonate plastic.
The plastic exterior (but not on the front which is of course almost entirely filled by the huge screen, and covered in the latest Gorilla 3 glass for maximum strength and scratch resistance) is a bit disappointing, perhaps, but it comes with a positive advantage – you can remove the back and then conveniently swap batteries, SIMs, and also – yay! – microSD cards too. Additional color exteriors may be subsequently released.
The phone has a choice of 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage built-in (plus 2GB of RAM); because of its ability to also accept microSD cards we’d see little reason or value in getting the 64GB version and perhaps not even the 32GB version either. Save your money and get the 16GB version then shuffle microSD cards as needed for content such as videos.
It almost certainly has a faster processor than its predecessor, but currently there is some ambiguity about exactly which CPU it will sport, or how fast it will be. It seems fair to assume it will be more than fast enough, however.
The rear camera has been massively upgraded, from 8MP in the S3 to 13MP in the S4. It has some clever new capabilities, including the ability to have multiple images of a scene taken, then to choose parts of each to, eg, remove someone who accidentally intruded into the scene. Other high-end features such as HDR are of course also present.
My favorite feature, one I consider indispensable and which I use all the time with my regular camera, is what Samsung calls its ‘Sound & Shot’ mode. This enables you to attach a short audio clip to a picture. I use it to remind myself of what the picture is of, what is noticeable about it, and other such things so that when viewing pictures months or years later, I don’t find myself thinking ‘What is this picture of, where was it taken, and why did I take it?’. The new camera on this phone is getting closer to truly displacing the need for a separate camera for most casual photographers.
There is also a 2 MP (up from 1.9 MP in the S3) camera that faces you, allowing for applications such as video conferencing.
In addition to the sensors that are common in most phones (both GPS and Russian Glonass, accelerometer, proximity, light, digital compass, and gyroscope) there are some new ones too – a barometer, a thermometer, a hygrometer, and also an IR sensor for detecting gestures. These new sensors make for some exciting new capabilities that will doubtless start appearing in new apps soon enough.
As well as an IR sensor, the phone also has an IR transmitter. These used to be omnipresent in phones and personal organizers many years ago (for printing and ‘beaming’ contact details between devices), but have largely disappeared in recent years. They are now starting to reappear, and the IR transmitter, together with appropriate software, enables the phone to be used as a very capable and flexible multi-function multi-device remote controller.
The phone has extensive fast Wi-Fi support (a/b/g/n) plus also an implementation of the new ac Wi-Fi specification too. It has all four regular GSM frequency bands, plus some combination of up to six different 3G/4G/LTE data bands as well. It also offers the latest 4.0 Bluetooth, MHL 2.0, and NFC.
Making everything into a usable useful phone is the latest version of Android (4.2.2) and with extra Samsung software extensions layered on top. Some of the Samsung software is gimmicky, some is complicated and confusing, but some is probably of use and value to many people.
We’re not sure which category to put the new S Translator program into. It is a translator function that gets us still closer to the ‘universal voice translator’ function that is the ideal dream of travelers in foreign countries. In theory, you can type or speak phrases and sentences into the phone and have them translated into eight different languages (in addition to English) and to have the phone again use speech recognition to understand spoken responses and translate them back to your base language (ie, for most readers, English). Some phrases work offline, others require a data connection.
How usable and useful this will be remains to be seen. And there’s one potential problem – when dictating into a speech recognition engine in our own language, it is easy to check for errors and correct them. But if you’ve passed your phone to a local and he/she says something into it, how do you know if the English text the phone displays as a translation is correct or not?
Recognizing the growing restrictions on using phones while driving – matched only by the growing desire of people to do so, it seems, S Voice allows extended voice/Bluetooth (ie through a headset) control of the phone, for example when driving. The phone also has a text to speech function so it can read emails to you (again for example when driving) and you can dictate email replies.
In a clear move to directly compete with what remains of any market for Blackberry devices on the basis of their once fine enterprise security capabilities, a new program – S Knox – provides a bevy of enterprise level security features somewhat similar to the new Blackberry Balance software. Plus the latest Android OS allows you to have multiple user accounts on the phone in any event.
S Health can provide information on your body’s functions, calorie burns, and suchlike while exercising when combined with an S Band and other external devices (even an electronic scale) to monitor things like pulse rate.
Probably gimmicky is the program called Group Play. This allows the same music to play on eight nearby S IV’s simultaneously. You could use it to create an ad hoc party – perhaps if you were on a Travel Insider tour and a group of you wished to party the night away! In addition to the same music playing through each phone, you could also use the phones to create a 5.1 surround sound system with different phones supporting different channels.
Group Play also allows for multi-user games and for file/photo sharing, and Samsung also showed a new type of add-on accessory game control that can be used with the phone for the lovers of computer action games. Other sharing software allows for pictures to be shared among multiple people in a home network, and for them to be displayed on a video monitor, or for video to be sent to be shown on the phones.
Air Gesture allows you to control the phone by gestures without actually touching the phone itself. Maybe this might be useful if you were in the middle of cooking or something like that, with dirty hands? Talking about hands, the phone will also respond if you touch it with your hands while wearing gloves.
The phone can sense when you turn away from looking at it, and in such cases will pause a video, and not restart until you look back at it again. You can also control the phone’s scrolling rate by tilting it up or down.
The new phone will become available at the end of April, becoming available initially in only three countries (we guess the US plus two other lucky countries), but within a week or two it will have gone worldwide and be available in an incredible 155 different countries and on 327 different mobile wireless companies. That very broad initial release should help it quickly climb up the sales charts.
In the US, it will be available with T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, US Cellular and Cricket.
Strangely, pricing information has not yet been released. One wonders how Samsung expects to sell a phone when pricing has not yet been set, and one doubly wonders why it has not yet been set.
However, although not confirmed, we expect it will probably lead off with a more or less industry standard $200 price (with a new two year contract) for a unit with 16GB of built-in storage. The iPhone 5 also opens at a $200 price for a 16GB model phone.
Is Phone Hardware Becoming Less Relevant?
I’m as excited as you may also be about this new super-phone, and the only two impediments to my rushing out to buy one the first day they come available is the unexpired period of my current iPhone 5 contract and a desire to see what the next generation of Google Nexus phone may offer. As soon as I understand what the next Nexus phone will be like, and as soon as AT&T will allow me to get a new phone with minimal cost penalty, I’ll be turning my back on my many years of iPhone usage.
But am I alone in sensing a shifting of the market forces out there? The first iPhone was as much about its software capabilities as it was about its hardware, but then the industry went through a period of extreme focus on hardware, with software as a secondary consideration. Screen size. Pixel count. Cameras front and back and their capabilities. 3G, 4G, LTE. International roaming for data as well as voice. Other fancy features such as near field communication and wireless charging. Internal memory and external memory options. And so on.
Now, it seems that the differences between all high-end phones are diminishing (which is just as well for Apple, because its iPhone 5 is the weakest of the bunch in terms of hardware specs). All the latest ‘super phones’ have ‘retina’ type high pixel count screens. Sure, some are only 4″ on their diagonal (ie the iPhone 5) while others are 5″ or larger, blending in to the ‘phablet’ types of devices which are mid-sized between a large phone and a small tablet, but all screens are now more than adequate in size for most normal functions you’d wish to do on a phone.
All support fast data, all have sophisticated cameras, all have high-powered CPUs. All have GPS receivers. And so on.
Something that was noticeable in the Samsung release today was that it featured new software capabilities and end-user applications more than it did new hardware. Sure, the phone does have some great new hardware too, but our sense was that at least two-thirds of the almost exactly one hour presentation was to do with the phone’s software and ultimate uses, rather than talking about the ‘bits and bytes’ of its hardware.
This points to a related problem for the phone manufacturers. As the rapid pace of hardware innovation and improvement starts to level off, it is reasonable to expect that we’ll see a slowdown in the speed at which users update/replace their phones.
This is the same as we’ve seen in regular computer hardware and software; in my case I used to ‘need’ to update my hardware every year, and my software every time a new release came out. Today I’m using a three or four year old computer (I don’t even remember how old it is) and none of the software on it is the latest version; most is one or two versions back.
The new Samsung Galaxy S IV crams about as many features into its small size as is humanly possible, and gives us ‘something for nothing’ – in the sense of a larger screen with more than twice as many pixels on it as on the S3, and a battery with 25% more capacity – in a smaller lighter overall package size.
Some of the new hardware features presage exciting new capabilities. I particularly like the thermometer, and also the IR transmitter for controlling audio/video gear.
If you don’t already have a fast 4G phone, this would be a great phone to consider, although if you can wait, it would be interesting to compare it to whatever new Nexus phone Google may announce. We don’t know when a successor to the very popular Nexus 4 may appear, so that makes for a difficult wait. On the other hand, it will be six weeks or more before the Galaxy S IV goes on sale, so we can all wait and see what the next few weeks may bring.
With the nowadays very sophisticated Android 4.2 and above operating system, and extended with unique-to-Samsung additional software, we can’t see any remaining benefit or value to an Apple iPhone, and will be switching to Android ourselves.