Samsung has thrown so many new features into the Galaxy S4 that it's reached the point of absurdity. Does a smartphone really need an eight-core processor, or a screen that responds to Minority Report-style gestures, or a camera that lets you shoot picture-in-picture photos and videos? Absolutely not, but the fact that it has these capabilities is impressive in itself. It shows Samsung is capable of driving innovation rather than simply 'borrowing' features from other vendors' phones – something the company has been accused of with past phones.
The eight-core processor officially makes the Galaxy S4 the most powerful smartphone on the planet. Samsung hasn't been shy about making the most of that extra muscle, either, with a bunch of neat tricks for photography and video, touchless operation, and a new Group Play feature that lets you connect up to eight Galaxy S4s together for gaming and sharing music and files.
The half dozen or so new camera features are where the Galaxy S4 really flexes its biceps. The Eraser Mode detects when someone ruins your shot by walking past, and with a single tap you can remove them from the photo. It's impressive to see this feature work in practice, but it assumes users have had the foresight to switch it on in the first place (sadly, it doesn't kick into gear automatically), and this is probably one step too many for most people taking casual snapshots.
Drama Shot is another nifty feature that shoots 100 consecutive photos in four seconds, automatically combining them into a single composite photo that freezes the action into multiple frames – an impressive feat that used to require you had an expensive camera and advanced Photoshop skills. The Galaxy S4 is pretty quick to spit out results, too, taking only a few seconds to generate each different camera effect.
The touchless operation, which lets you do things such as answer calls, scroll through pages and navigate between open browser tabs using hand gestures (not unlike the ones in Minority Report), is a little hit-and-miss. Since it uses the front-facing two-megapixel camera to capture gestures, it's dependent on good lighting; in the fluoro-lit meeting room we used for testing, it had trouble distinguishing between the gestures for scrolling up and down and moving between browser tabs.
Smart Pause is more reliable, and it's likely to be one of the features that gets the most usage, as you don't need to do anything extra to take advantage of it. It uses the front-facing camera to detect your eyes while you're watching a video, and as soon as you look away, it automatically pauses it. And vice versa; when you look back at the screen, it starts playing the video again.
As far as specs go, the Galaxy S4 is up there with the best of them. It has a 5-inch 1920x1080-pixel HD Super AMOLED display, a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, 4G LTE and built-in Near Field Communication (NFC). It also runs the latest Android 4.2.2 operating system, Jelly Bean, customised with an updated version of Samsung's TouchWiz interface. Even though the screen's a bit bigger, Samsung has managed to shrink the S4 down so that it's just a smidgeon smaller and lighter than the S3. The two generations of Galaxy phones look very similar at first glance, but there's a marked difference when holding the S4 in your hand – it feels like a grown-up, classier version of the S3 thanks to the flatter edges and slight texture on the polycarbonate casing.
We're a little concerned about how the S4 will fare for battery life – something we weren't able to test during our short time with it. Between the eight-core processor, 5-inch full HD display and various gestures and features that use the front-facing camera, we can't imagine that it will be a strong point for this phone, even with its relatively large 2600 mAh replaceable battery.
Is the average punter likely to use even a fraction of these new features? Probably not, but brushing the gimmicks aside, the S4 is nevertheless a solid upgrade based on the pin-sharp screen, powerful performance and updated camera. Provided the battery life doesn't stink, we'd say Samsung has yet another sure-fire winner on its hands. An Australian launch is expected toward the end of April on the Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and Virgin Mobile networks. Pricing has not yet been announced.
What do you think of the Samsung Galaxy S4? Let us know in the comments.
Jenneth Orantia attended Samsung Unpacked 2013 in New York as a guest of Samsung Australia.