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Samsung Galaxy S4 - Features for features' sake?


Samsung Galaxy S4 - Features for features' sake?

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is here and it comes, as Samsung's head of Mobile Communications JK Shin put it, with "So many features that were inspired by the people of the world."

Some of these new features are undoubtedly impressive and one or two could prove great enough to persuade even a die-hard iOS fan to switch. Other, though, feel less crucial. Its not that they aren't innovative, but rather that they seem a bit unnecessary. Is Samsung just adding new features for their own sake?

Piling it On

This may seem like a silly, even churlish thing to say about the launch of a new phone. Shouldn't we just be pleased that our new toy comes packed with cool new tricks and abilities? Isn't more always better?

The fact is, every feature added to a phone comes at a price - either literally or the opportunity cost of choosing one feature over another. The rather elaborate Broadway production at Samsung's launch event for the Galaxy S4 was designed to show us how useful these features are but there is no guarantee that all of them will prove to be so outside the confines of a product demo.

Smart Scroll? Smart Fail

Take the much-rumoured eye-tracking features - Smart Pause and Smart Scroll. The latter turned out to be somewhat less impressive than we were led to believe. Essentially, rather than letting your scroll the screen by tracking where you are staring on the page, the phone simply detects that you are looking and then lets you scroll by tilting the phone up or down. Early reports imply this works rather better on paper than in practice.

Smart Pause on the other hand appears to work exactly as advertised. The Galaxy S4's eye-tracking again detects when you are looking at the screen while watching a video and will then pause the action the moment you look away.

This works fine, but is it a feature you would actually want? Quite often when watching a movie or TV show on my phone I look away for a moment if what is happening on screen is less than compelling. Smart Pause removes the ability to dip in and out of viewing and instead turns watching a video into something that you MUST DO AT ALL TIMES. Imagine if you couldn't look away during the adverts on your TV without pausing them. Now imagine shouting "You're not the boss of me!!" at your phone and the other passengers on the train staring at you, piteously.

Rotten to the Core

One of the headline features of the S4 even before it launched was its Octa-core processor. Adding extra cores should make the phone perform extremely well but one has to ask just what we are meant to need all that processing power for. Games seem like the obvious answer, but until there are more phones on the market that are similarly equipped, it simply is not worth it for developers write games targetted at such high specs. This is not to even mention the numerous articles suggesting that current versions of Android can't really do much with more than a couple of cores anyway.


Several of the new features seem particularly processor intensive - almost as though they have just been included as something for the 8-core CPU to do. If there was no compelling need for these apps then why couldn't Samsung have focused on less showy features that consumers do want? Battery life is still cripplingly short on most smart phones and an Octa-core processor twinned with a tri-core GPU and that enormous screen is going to eat into your charge like a toddler in a sweet shop.

It was telling that although the very first feature mentioned in the main Galaxy S4 presentation was the 2,600mah battery, at no point did we hear how long that battery was meant to last. That the presenter then enthused about the fact that the battery was removable (and thus swappable for a second, pre-charged spare) does not exactly inspire confidence that Samsung has cracked that particular nut.

If Samsung had decided to use a less powerful processor in the Galaxy S4 - and been forced to leave out flashy, marginally-useful features like Smart Pause - could we have traded that speed for a few hours longer between charges?

When Features Become Gimmicks

Some of the S4's features seem particularly out of place - almost as though they are intended for an entirely different device. Gesture controls, eye tracking and the physical monitoring of the S-Band all seem like ideas that are being tried out in public with an eye to fleshing out a future wearable computing project.

This wearable device might feature a heads-up display that uses a combination of eye tracking and subtle gestures to operate its UI. It could monitor your heart rate and log the calorie count of food it spots passing in front of your face. It probably won't be a phone.

There is one final danger with Samsung's feature-packed approach (and it is not just Samsung - this applies to all the major Android phone vendors.) Every new feature that they build into the OS of your Android-derived phone takes it slightly further away from stock Android. Conventional industry wisdom is that consumers don't care about the 'purity' of the Android OS and this is broadly correct.

However, the Android ecosystem is very important to them, whether they realise it or not, because ultimately what they love about smartphones is the apps. If Android is weakened and Samsung (or whoever) is able to pull away, then it remains to be seen if developers will follow in the numbers required to keep the all-important apps flowing.

Samsung is locked in a head-to-head fight with Apple for smartphone dominance. Both companies are trying to cram in as many new and innovative features as possible in order to tip the balance and convince users to switch - but that approach may not be sustainable. Rather than simply trying to jam as many tech buzzwords together as possible and turn the resulting madlibs into product features, Samsung and its competitors might do better to focus on simply making the better phones that customers actually want.


March 15, 2013, 10:10 pm

Good article, which I whole heartedly agree with. Apart from the horrendously gaudy presentation, the main put off for me as a potential buyer, is the endless gimmicky software that I simply do not want cluttering up my phone. 99% adds no practical value at all. It's just annoying eye candy that I wouldn't want to pay for. Oh, and that sea of plastic. Enough with the plastic. I'm so over plastic. And don't tell me it's a 'wonder material'. I know. I don't care.

And as for Samsung's services - forget it. Samsung hub, app store, airplay, voice assist, chat on, S-Health, Eye Tracking etc... I mean come on, no one uses this junk longer than the first 10 minutes out of the box. There are better Google Apps in the Play store that offer cross platform support. Especially since you know very well that in 12 months time all the software will be obsolete and not supported by anyone else and Samsung will want you to then sign up for yet more awful services on their next 'hit' handset!

And as for hardware... Well, I've been using a Motorola Razr I for the past 6 months that I bought as a stop gap after my GS2 fried itself. A single core Atom CPU, 1 GB RAM, 8GB storage (plus Micro SD card), NFC...and it has completely won me over. Battery life is over a day's hard use. It's as fast as anything i'll ever need. Sound quality is great, screen is great, it's tough as old boots, water resistant and I like the HDR camera AND it's a usable size - 4.3" screen yet smaller than my GS2. In short, it's the best touch screen phone I've ever used. People should stop chasing useless benchmarks, these mean very little in day to day use. Okay, the design's not to everyone's taste :)

I'd appreciate manufacturers differentiating their products more by quality hardware (HTC One) designs & efficiency of functionality rather than with a barrage of messy software add-ons. I want a 2 or 3 day hard use battery life, (even at the expense of them fitting a 4000mAh battery), an optimised OS, (preferably the unskinned Android experience), a long term commitment to releasing at least 2 future generations of the OS to each top end handset...and sticking to their time tables *I'm looking at you Motorola*.

I'll have a look at the upcoming Google Motorola X because the pricing might be very competitive and I like the build quality & materials. Also, it'll probably be running stock Android without much of the baked in annoyance that the S4 comes with.

Gavin Martin

March 15, 2013, 11:20 pm

Well, to me it looks like a big plastic slab like the S3, doesn't inspire me to get my wallet out (Smart Scroll/Smart Pause sound like battery-draining gimmicks to me, I agree on looking away from a video if there's a dull moment). And why can't the manufacturers leave Android naked without adding a laggy bloatware-laden UI skin on top (or at least give the option to boot pure Android and get the regular updates without rooting the device). The HTC One looks a lot more desirable. People will buy this thing in droves though (if iPhone owners are iSheep, are Galaxy owners G-Sheep? :o) ), and subjective looks aside it does sound like a pretty good bit of kit.

But in reference to the above article section "Rotten to the Core" - I think you may be doing Samsung a slight disservice. It is my understanding that despite the marketing headline of "8 Cores!!!" which Samsung want everyone to go wild about, it's actually a 4 + 4 core processor. Meaning 4 low-power cores for everyday tasks like email etc, to conserve battery, and then 4 higher power cores for doing big grunt work like video, gaming etc, switching between high and low power quad core processors depending on the load? So the inclusion of this processor may in fact be a contributor to battery life, rather than an outright drain (of course, the prementioned gimmicky features in TouchWiz may well cancel out any battery gain, but still....). Am I mistaken?

Gavin Martin

March 15, 2013, 11:46 pm

Wow, sounds like a fellow loather of gimmicky marketing razzle-dazzle. From what I've read about the S4 so far I agree with your post. Friends of mine who have naked-Android Nexus devices say they're great. I don't have a tacky UI skin between me and Windows 7 on my PC, because Windows is a UI as well as an OS (or an OS with its own built-in UI, whichever way you want to look at it). Laptop manufacturers have to differentiate themselves on hardware, phone manufacturers should too. No doubt these days they're all trying to come up with their own paid-service channels too, since none of them gets revenue from the app store in the way that Apple do.

Smart Scroll/Pause sound like they could be annoying as well as a drain on battery life. A dual-shooting camera mode that lets you take a picture of yourself taking a picture of something in front of you.....why the hell do i need to take a picture of what I look like whilst taking the picture of whatever is in front of me?!? I'm sure someone out there has a reason, but sounds like another silly processor intensive battery-sucking gimmick to me. Just seems like Samsung have thrown a load of marketing guff in our faces, which is a shame because it distracts from the fact that dull plastic aside it's pretty nice hardware in that phone.

As for size, it's great that they've squeeze a bigger screen into a unit no bigger than the S3, but the prevalence of jumbo-screened flagship phones lately...well I can see why they'd appeal to a lot of people, but since I have neither long thumbs nor giant palms they just seem too big to me. If someone released a premium flagship phone with no UI skin and a 4.3" form factor, I would have my wallet out before you could say 'comfortable in the hand'. As it is, the HTC One is the first 'big' phone I've seen that has made me consider ditching my cracked and beaten iPhone 4...as it is, if Apple actually made iOS a bit more interesting and allowed widgets etc, I might stick with them, but the iPhone has got pretty boring of late. (it works, and works well, but sometimes you just need a shiny new toy, after all, and they're just not innovating any more. Incremental updates aren't shiny enough to justify the cost). The HTC One looks a bit like the phone the iPhone 5 wants to be when it grows up and has taken up some new and interesting hobbies. (if only it came in a 4.3" version!)


March 16, 2013, 7:33 am

I have a Galaxy S III and it suits me just fine. My wife has an Apple S4 and is trying to talk me into a trade. No way! Getting on to the Samsung S4, I think they simply, shot themselves in the foot. Surely the Samsung S III is more than adequate. Need I say more?


March 16, 2013, 9:40 am

Hi Gavin, the rotten sub head was my addition, not stu's. Yes probably a little harsh, will see if I can come up with something equally snappy.


March 16, 2013, 11:21 am


Go to minute 30 for the Bugle's take on the Samsung S4!


March 16, 2013, 12:50 pm

Gavin's right; the four slower A7 cores are like Tegra 3's companion core. Presumably they'll be able to do more though and therefore the high-power A15 cores will only kick in if you're doing something pretty meaty.

As it stands I think you need to edit your article. In theory the S4 should have better battery life than the S3 for most tasks.

Regarding the new features I agree with most of what you say. However in the S3 all of those things could be turned off (in fact they were turned off by default) so they aren't a reason not to buy the phone. Most of the whizzy bits in my S3 got tried and disabled; about the only one that's survived is Smart Stay, which is genuinely useful. It's still a fantastic phone nevertheless.

And how about a shout-out for the one great new feature, finger-hover (and the associated glove compatibility)? S-Pen hover was great in the Note II but too much of a niche for 3rd-party software to support. The S4 will bring it into the mainstream and it has a lot of potential. Just as an example, there are websites my gf can use on her Note II that no other phone can use, because the sites rely on (mouse) hover for certain things. Yes those sites should be updated, but they haven't been.

Gavin Martin

March 17, 2013, 8:28 am

I do think that the focus on marketing all these "great features" which most will use for 10 minutes and then switch off is a real shame as it draws attention away from the core fact that the hardware is really good. But then I'm one of those people who isn't a fan of big slick marketing. It would be nice if Samsung/HTC/Whoever released their hardware with a native Android version for those who wanted it, or an option to completely disable the UI skin (and keep up to date with Android updates instead of waiting for the manufacturer's slow release schedule).

I still find these flagship phones too big though, guess I need to research the best 4.3" phone (wonder if there will be an HTC One Mini :o) )

Gavin Martin

March 17, 2013, 8:33 am

Seems like they've gone for the Apple "incremental update" route, presumably most of the software features will get put on the S3 with an update so I can see a lot of people seeing no reason to upgrade. Evolution not Revolution. Although in a way it's nice that the tech has reached that level.

John James

March 17, 2013, 9:02 am

Idiot, saying that 8 cores is not worth it for game developers. Why wait for other slow companies to catch up when you can lead ahead. Leading is always good.

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