The Samsung Galaxy S4: When more is more

The Week
Samsung isn't following the trend set by popes and Super Bowls, opting to drop the roman numerals from the name of its new flagship phone, the Galaxy S4.
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Samsung isn't following the trend set by popes and Super Bowls, opting to drop the roman numerals from the name of its new flagship phone, the Galaxy S4.

A glitzy new Android smartphone was unveiled Thursday night with unprecedented fanfare. Here's what you should know about it

Samsung spared no expense at Thursday night's launch event for the Galaxy S4 smartphone. There were multiple, free-flowing open bars to booze up live-bloggers; an entire orchestra literally rising out of the stage at Radio City Music Hall; a big, Broadway-style production with elaborate backdrops, giant screens, and dozens of well-rehearsed actors (including our friend Little Jeremy Maxwell); and several smiling, well-groomed dudes giving away tiny, cold slices of steak.

The whole production was theatrical, a little sexist, and rather grand — an exercise in excess if there ever was one. Samsung's message to the press and consumers was clear as day: Bigger is better, especially when it comes to us.

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The diverging philosophies of Apple and Samsung have never been clearer; as TIME's Harry McCracken said on Twitter last night, if the iPhone is "still the best less-is-more phone," Samsung wants the Galaxy S4 "to be the best more-is-more phone." The grandiosity at Radio City Music Hall was merely an extension of Samsung's bold new ethos.

The S4, which I got a brief hands-on with after the event, is a remarkable piece of engineering. It's every bit as thin and light as advertised, with a big 5-inch screen that smacks the eyeballs with bright vivid colors, packing an ultra-sharp pixel density of 441 ppi. It's crammed with super-fast processors, 4G LTE, and other advanced innards. It runs Android 4.2.2. From a pure aesthetic standpoint, it isn't as well-designed as the HTC One, but that's just nitpicking.

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However, the Galaxy S4 does come pre-loaded with a few bloated features of questionable utility, which we'll dispense with here first:

* IR blaster, which effectively turns your phone into a TV remote. (I guess this makes sense on some level. But it still feels strange cramming an old, dying technology into a forward-looking gadget.)

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* One-of-a-kind ability to sync a song across eight different Galaxy S4s, transforming them into what Samsung called a surround sound system. (The catch: You need eight friends with Galaxy S4s.)

* A multi-channel video chat feature that lets you run the 13-megapixel rear camera and front-facing camera simultaneously. (An actress pretended to talk to her fiancé, who was playing golf, and her bridal party simultaneously. How that's fun for anyone, I haven't a clue.) 

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That's not to say there weren't a bunch of genuinely exciting new features; there were plenty:

The display works while wearing gloves! Why this took so long is anybody's guess.

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Air View, which allows you to hover your finger over the screen to preview information. For example, you can hover your finger over a calendar date, and a pop-up will appear showing you your appointments.

Air Gestures work like an Xbox Kinect, which let's you move your hands to change music tracks or accept phone calls without having to touch the phone. (It sounds like a great feature to have in the kitchen.)

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* The S4's camera can capture multiple frames to combine into a single photo. If a photo-bomber jumps into your shot, for example, the software can automatically edit that person out.

Smart Stay, which uses the phone's camera to track your eyes. If you look away from a video, it will automatically pause; look back, and the video resumes.

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* My favorite feature was S Translate, which uses text-to-speech or speech-to-text to translate other languages on the fly. A huge boon for travelers, obviously. But it could also mean that speech-to-speech translation devices are that much closer to being everywhere. 

The Galaxy S4 is a top-notch device. It's innovative, bold, loud, and daring. Maybe even best in class.

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Samsung didn't release pricing details or a release date (the Galaxy S III was $199 for a two-year contract), but expect the phone to launch sometime between April and June.

And don't worry about possibly missing it. You'll certainly hear about it.

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