A Galaxy (S4) of new features
When Samsung took to the stage in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall last week, people may not have been expecting stilted, awkward and cheesy onstage interactions during the introduction of the phone, but they got them in full force…seriously, just watch the archived livestream. Thankfully, they did get something else that they were expecting: a brand new smartphone.

The new kid on the smartphone block is called the Galaxy S4, which comes with the tag “Life Companion” (based on the assumption that people take their smartphones nearly everywhere). It comes with a 5-inch 441-ppi HD AMOLED screen, a thinner design (7.9mm and only 130 grams), and a bunch of new features added by Samsung on top of the standard Android OS. Some of those features a nice additions but some…well, some are a bit odd.

Dual Camera aims to solve the problem of the photo shooter never being in the image (making a slightly tacky joke about single parenthood during the presentation, no less), by taking a shot with the rear-facing 13 megapixel, and inserting an inset from the 2 megapixel front-facing camera. This works with both photos and video, and can be turned on and off.

In one way Dual Camera is a nice touch, allowing you to add yourself to images you take, a real boon for anyone who always finds themselves left out of family photos because they’re the one usually holding the camera. But at the same time it’s a strange effect, ala the front cover of the Pogues album Red Roses for Me.  To be fair, the dual-cam feature does make a lot more sense when you’re streaming video during a chat, so let’s give this one a thumbs up.

The Sound & Shot feature is another slightly strange one: it lets people record sound to go along with a photo. Maybe I’m just old school, but that seems more to me like a video without motion. When you consider that it’ll require a video format in order to work (or worse, a completely new file format), I’m not sure why you’d actually want to do this…video is much more immediate.

One of the features that’s been getting a lot of talk is the Smart Scroll / Smart Pause feature, which use eye-tracking via the front-facing camera. If you’re watching a video and you look away from the screen, Smart Pause will automatically pause the video for you, and automatically restart the video when you look back at the screen.

As for Smart Scroll, when you’re reading, you just have to tip the phone slightly up or down to scroll the text on your screen. Initial reports from those who have tried these features is mixed, but both of these sound like they’d be potentially useful. But to be honest, I’m a bit creeped out about the idea of a phone that’s always watching me use it.

More useful, potentially, is the S Translator feature, which is designed to do translation in the field. The app supports English, French, Italian, Latin-American Spanish, Brazilian-Portuguese, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, and works in both text-to-speech and speech-to-text.

During the artificial scenario acted out on the stage, an English-speaking backpacker was able to communicate with someone who could only speak Chinese. The big problem with this, however, is that people generally don’t speak clearly enough for something like this to work flawlessly – even when speaking reasonably clearly, speech-to-text transcription almost invariably contains errors, which could make a real-time translation session somewhat frustrating. (The app’s ability to also translate written text captured with the camera is a plus, though: while it says it can translate a book or magazine, it would be much more useful translating signs or menus when you’re in a strange place.)

One new feature that sounds good at a glance is Air View / Air Gesture, which allows you to control the phone’s interface without even touching the screen. While it means, for example, that you can control a slideshow with a wave over the phone, it also makes the phone “glove friendly” (a key benefit for those of us who live in a country that has winter for half the year).

The question will be just HOW sensitive the feature is, and whether it will cause complications when you DON’T intend to actually make something happen on the screen (like inadvertently dialing with your hipbone when you put the phone into your pocket, for example). One can only assume that there are some serious algorithms going on under the hood of the phone that can distinguish between intentional and unintentional interactions…we’ll have to wait for a proper hands-on to know for sure.

On the multimedia side, Group Play links phones together to play the same song on up to eight Galaxy S4 phones without need for WiFi or other Internet connectivity, or to turn a group of phones into a multi-channel surround sound system – think Sonos but without the sound quality, I guess. This could be useful for a small group of people all wearing headphones, but over the phone’s speaker system? It seems a bit pointless to me, to be honest, apart from the novelty value.

The Galaxy S4 is the first phone to ship with the security feature Samsung Knox. Like the Balance feature recently launched in BlackBerry 10, Knox splits the phone into two sections dedicated to business and personal usage, and is designed to keep the two sides from interacting (keeping business data safe and personal usage private). This could be a big plus for IT departments allowing Android devices into the workplace as part of the BYOD program.

The phone can also use NFC to pair with the recently announced Samsung HomeSync hardware, allowing content created on the phone to be stored on the home network, and shared with other devices around the house…even when you’re not at home with the device.
There are a number of other new features on the phone. S Health allows you to connect to accessories that can keep track of your heart rate, blood pressure, and can monitor how much exercise you’re getting through the day. An integrated IR LED allows you to use the phone as a universal remote, like the recent Sony Xperia models. There’s even a temperature and humidity sensor.

So there’s a lot going on with the new Galaxy S4. After watching the entirety of the presentation last week, one thing is clear: whoever wrote the script for the launch event should be stopped. Ow.

As for the Galaxy S4, it looks like there’s a lot of interesting new features, even if some of them will only be used sparingly after the novelty wears off. The phone will start to launch around the world at the end of April, and will be available in 16, 32 and 64 GB models, in either black or white.

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