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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Touchless gestures, eye tracking, and other gimmicks that don't really work
Other new features are cooler in theory than in practice. For example, the Galaxy S 4 includes an infrared sensor on the front face that can detect gestures taking place above the screen, a feature Samsung calls Air Gestures. For example, you can scroll a Web page by moving your hand up or down above the screen in the stock Android Internet browser, though you can't do so in the Chrome browser, in Email, in Calendar, or pretty much any other app. I also couldn't get the S 4 to respond to the hand-waving Air Gesture that's supposed to open the Quick Glance status screen for alerts and messages.

Air Gestures works at the app level, not the OS level, which means it's rarely available. To be honest, scrolling above the screen really is no easier than scrolling on the screen. Air Gestures could be useful if its gestures were universal and if it did more than scroll. For example, pausing playback would be a good use for Air Gestures.

Shooting simultaneously with the front and rear cameras in the Galaxy S 4
Shooting simultaneously with the front and rear cameras in the Galaxy S 4

Air View is another hardware feature that rarely works. It's supposed to let you hover a finger over an email message to open it or over an area in the Internet browser to magnify it. I could not get this feature -- taken from the Galaxy Note II's pen-hovering feature -- to work even in the very few apps that support it. Even if I could, holding my finger over an area a few millimeters from the screen would be more work than simply tapping the screen directly.

The eye-tracking feature that is supposed to pause videos when you look away did not work in either video app that comes with the Galaxy S 4; I tried it with several people.

Likewise, the panoply of wireless technologies carried over from the Galaxy S III to the Galaxy S 4 -- Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA screen mirroring, and NFC (near-field communication) -- have very little utility as few apps and devices support them. The S 4 promotes the screen mirroring as an easy-access setting in the notifications tray, but unless you have all Samsung devices (such as TVs and Blu-ray players), it's essentially a useless capability.

To get video via DLNA to the Galaxy S 4, I had luck playing videos from my DLNA-compatible Netgear R6300 wireless router's attached hard drive, but the S 4 didn't see my LG Internet-connected Blu-ray player, which also supports DLNA. There's no simple box like an Apple TV to convert existing devices to DLNA readiness for assured streaming but there should be, or Samsung should switch to the emerging Miracast standard.

The Galaxy S 4 does have an 11-pin MHL port (which is what your MicroUSB charger/sync cable also uses) for a wired connection to an external display's HDMI port. Just keep in mind that the S 4's new, 11-pin MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) Version 2 port will not work with the 5-pin MHL Version 1 cables used by many other (older) Android devices. Get Samsung's S 4-specific cable.

For now, Air Gestures, Air View, eye tracking, and screen mirroring are proofs of concepts that have only gimmick value.

Something borrowed
Samsung's version of Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" in the Galaxy S 4 is nearly the same as in the Galaxy S III, with the same pros and cons for stock apps such as Email and Calendar. But you'll appreciate a few new capabilities.

One is the application tray you can pull from the left side of the screen. It opens a dock of apps very similar to the app dock in the forthcoming Ubuntu Touch mobile OS and to the long-standing multitasking dock in Apple's iOS (at the bottom of the screen). The pull tab does overlap any active app and sometimes obscures text or images beneath it.

Where Samsung does more than copy others is in making its app tray editable. It's not just a list of recent or running apps as in Ubuntu Touch and iOS; you can drag apps in and out of it to have a consistent quick-access lineup, similar to the OS X Dock or the Windows 7 taskbar. (The Galaxy S 4 continues to provide the standard Android 4 running-apps preview tiles view as well.)

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