Review: The Samsung Galaxy S 4 shows more is not always better

Samsung's new Android flagship is easy to hold and view, but many new software features are only partially baked gimmicks

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Samsung Link is a new app designed to let you access content from a Windows PC (but not a Mac) or a compatible Samsung device for playback, sort of a variation of Apple's Bonjour and AirPlay networking.

The Galaxy S 4's application tray
The Galaxy S 4's application tray

In the Sprint version of the Galaxy S 4, the stock Internet browser also displays a new icon in the lower-right corner. Pull it in to reveal a tray of sharing widgets, such as for Facebook, email, and Twitter. It's clearly "inspired" by the Share widget in OS X Mountain Lion and iOS 6. This widget bar is called the Lumen Toolbar, and it's essentially a browser plug-in for the Internet browser (sorry, not for Chrome or other browsers) that adds both sharing widgets and various lookup apps such as Wikipedia, IMDB, and a shopping-suggestion site.

I'm leery of this toolbar as it tracks you to sell your behavioral data to others, but the notion of adding a sharing widget to Android makes a lot of sense, just as it did for iOS and OS X. Samsung or Google would do better to copy Apple all the way on the sharing portion and embed it at the OS level. Keep in mind that several apps, such as Gallery and My Files, use the standard Android sharing tool, which is quite good and should be expanded to other apps such as browsers.

Samsung has also added the Samsung Hub, essentially its $10-per-month mashup of iTunes and Spotify (or maybe Amazon's Kindle services), providing a store for streaming music, videos, books, and games. Everyone wants to be the new Apple in the content business -- why not Samsung too? As a streaming service, Samsung Hub is great way to burn up your cellular data plan and home broadband caps as well. Plus, I found the download speeds for everything but music to be excruciatingly slow.

Another borrowed change you may not like is the new Settings app, which now is broken into several panes, similar to iOS's Settings app. The goal is to make settings easier to find by categorizing them, but it doesn't work. The categories are too broad and overlapping to really help guide you to the setting you seek. In fact, I find it much easier to deal with the Galaxy S III's long, scrolling settings list than to maneuver through the S 4's various categories, through which you still have to scroll.

Finally, there's the promised Samsung Knox security system, and the Galaxy S 4 is the first Android device to be compatible with it. It's supposed to offer iOS-level security APIs and the ability to create separate personal and business workspaces, like BlackBerry 10's Balance feature. That sounds great, but Samsung has delayed Knox's release, and it's unclear what mobile management tools will support it. Right now it's just a promise to copy Apple and BlackBerry -- not a reason to commit to buying an S 4.

The frustrations of duplication
Choice is usually a good thing, but in the Android world choice often becomes confusion. The Galaxy S 4 comes with two browsers, Internet and Chrome (the Internet browser is superior, though it lacks Chrome's nice cross-device syncing capability); two music players, Play Music and Music; two video players, Play Video and Video; two language translators, Optical Reader and S Translator; two voice-recognition search engines, Voice Search and S Voice; two VPNs, VPN Client and via the Settings app (neither works with my company's Cisco IPSec VPN, a longtime Android issue); and two email clients, Email and Gmail. Only that last duplication is imposed by Google.

Depending on your choice of carrier when buying the Galaxy S 4, you may get even more duplication. For example, the Sprint version of the Galaxy S 4 that I tested had its own music player, its own music streaming service, and a bunch of bloatware.

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