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Review: Galaxy S4 decent, but filled with gimmicks

Thursday - 4/25/2013, 3:22am  ET

FILE - In this March 14, 2013 file photo, the new Samsung Galaxy S4 is presented during the Samsung Unpacked event at Radio City Music Hall in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

ANICK JESDANUN
AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- I've seen Android phones get better and more powerful over the years, as Google and phone manufacturers pack devices with more and more features. There comes a time, though, when less is more. I'm afraid we've reached that time.

Samsung's new Galaxy S4 smartphone is an excellent device from a hardware standpoint. Measuring 5 inches diagonally, the screen is slightly larger than that on its predecessor, the Galaxy S III. Yet the S4 is a tad lighter and smaller overall. The S4's display is also much sharper, at 441 pixels per inch compared with 272 on the S III. The S4 has one of the sharpest screens out there.

The Android operating system it runs is excellent, too, and in recent years the Google-made system has become a healthy competitor to Apple's iOS system for iPhones. Like most Android phones, the S4 comes with a suite of useful Google apps, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps and the voice assistant Google Now. Because Google lets device makers customize Android to suit their needs, Samsung and others have been adding their own distinguishing features.

And that's the source of the problem. Packed with bags of tricks, phones have become way too complicated for many people to use. In some cases it's because these custom features work only some of the time. In other cases, you're confronted with too many ways to do similar things.

As much as Apple can be criticized for exerting control over what goes on its iPhones, it wins on simplicity. There are no competing agendas -- just Apple's.

By contrast, Android has turned into a free-for-all. For instance, the Sprint version of the S4 phone has at least four different ways to watch video -- one that comes standard with Android, one added by Sprint and two added by Samsung. Some content works with one but not the others.

And to watch video on one of the Samsung apps, the one called Samsung Hub, you have to navigate through two screens trying to sell you video that I couldn't get to work on the other apps. As much as it adds to the clutter, Samsung would rather you use its service and not the standard Android one. That way, Samsung rather than Google gets revenue from video sales. Samsung Electronics Co. has its own app store, too, to rival Google's own Play store on the same device.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't consider buying the S4.

Another highly praised phone, HTC Corp.'s One, has a lot of clutter as well. The display on the One is slightly smaller than S4's, but it has a higher resolution. The One sounds better, too, with front-facing speakers, while the S4 has a speaker on the back. The One might be the one for you if you watch a lot of video and listen to a lot of music. But the One feels heavier and bulkier, and its battery holds less charge than the S4.

The four national wireless carriers, plus U.S. Cellular, Leap Wireless' Cricket and C Spire, will sell the S4 in the United States. Release dates vary, and some announced Wednesday that they expect delays until next week because of inventory problems. Expect to pay $150 to $250 up front with two-year contracts (T-Mobile calls them installment plans as it markets contract-free service).

Despite my complaints with all the add-ons on the S4, a number of them show promise:

-- Easy Mode. It's not entirely new, as the S III and the Galaxy Note 2 have it, too. But Samsung makes that option more prominent when people set up the S4 for the first time. Icons in Easy Mode are larger, so you are less likely to hit the wrong one and have to figure out how to go back. You also get fewer choices for customizing the phone and using its camera, so there's less confusion about which to pick. Easy Mode isn't as easy to use as I would have liked, though, because features and settings from the regular mode creep in now and then.

-- Multi Window. Again, this feature isn't entirely new, but it's the first time I noticed it. It allows you to run two apps side by side, the way you've long been able to on traditional computers. That means I can keep up with Facebook on the top half of the screen, as I send email from the bottom half about all the dumb things my friends are saying on Facebook. Unfortunately, it works with a limited number of apps. Foursquare and Instagram aren't among them. And I needed an online video tutorial to figure it out.

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