Android smartphones have reached a plateau. Most of the biggest 2013 phones from most of the big phone-making names have been announced. And yet, we’re finding it hard to muster much excitement for them. Can the Samsung Galaxy S4 change all that?
The problem is that we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns.
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Phone screens of top models are getting 0.2 inches larger than they were last year, and they’ve leapt from 720p to 1080p. Before we couldn’t see the pixels. Now we really, really can’t see them. And since when did incremental increase in screen size count as innovation? This isn't progress, it's fast food style "going large" at best.
This year’s movements in high-scale mobile technology feel like ones geared towards making people feel the need to upgrade their phones, rather than ones that will actually enhance their mobile experience.
Processors are faster, screens more pixel-packed and cameras stuffed with more megapixels than last year’s models. But the real-world benefits of these changes are vanishingly small. And all the big phones have made the same moves, more or less. The one outlier is the HTC One camera, which takes a novel approach to the smartphone snapper. But even this backfires a little, bringing good low-light performance but limited detail capture.
We’re left feeling a little starved of interest in the phones of 2013, if we’re honest - and not just the Android ones. But with just two big names out there still to be unveiled – the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5S – is there any hope for us?
Samsung Galaxy S4 spec-tasrophe
Judging by the rumoured specs, the Samsung Galaxy S4 hardware alone won’t turn things around.
Like every top-end phone of 2013 it’ll have a 5-inch 1080p screen – ok, it’s a 4.99-inch screen, but anyone quibbling over 0.025cm of screen needs a slap.
Like every top-end phone it’ll have a 13-megapixel camera using the Sony sensor we’ve seen so often it’s threatening to invade our dreams. And although the Galaxy S4 has an octo-core processor, only four of those cores are “power” cores. It's a great quad-core processor with a not-great quad-core processor tacked on to help out when it gets tired.
Legendary phone leaker Eldar Murtazin suggests that the plastic-bodied style of the Galaxy series will continue with the Samsung Galaxy S4 too. It is in pretty much every way an iterative update in the much-loved Galaxy series.
TouchWiz, you’re our only hope
With hardware stuck in an uninspiring cycle of predictable, conservative updates, it’s up to software to make up for the shortfall in innovation. And that means TouchWiz.
TouchWiz is the software layer that Samsung uses in virtually all of its phones. It has been around for years and we’ve complained about it more times than we can remember.
However, unlike so many custom UIs, it does try to change the way you interact with your phone a little. This is the sort of innovation we’re after, but will it amount to more than a series of gimmicks in the Galaxy S4?
The first signs aren’t good. Only a few TouchWiz 6 features have been leaked, but they continue the trend seen in the Samsung Galaxy S3.
The Galaxy S3 introduced a bunch of eye-catching features like Smart Stay, which stops the screen from going into standby while you’re looking at it. Its S Beam NFC transfer app too was neat, but is a periphery add-on – and one that we’d wager hardly any Samsung Galaxy S3 owners actually use.
What does the Samsung Galaxy S4 have in store? Top of the list at the moment is Smart Scroll. This will scroll through text automatically as you read. Is it progress or another gimmick? We’re leaning towards the latter.
Another rumoured feature is camera Orb, which is merely a copy of the 360-degree Photosphere panorama mode that’s a standard feature of Android 4.2. Don’t we deserve more than this?
The political problem
Samsung doesn’t need to wildly innovate to make the Samsung Galaxy S4 a commercial success. If anything, doing so would be an incredible risk.
However, the smartphone market needs a serious shot in the arm if its upper echelons are ever to feel as vital and dynamic as they did in the years between 2008 and 2010.
Other than the threat of failure, an issue is that any innovations are going to be subject to politics and patents.
One of the most interesting mobile innovations-in-waiting we learned about at MWC 2013 was from Truphone, which showed off a new way of taking calls. Its Truphone Plus system automatically judges whether a phone call should be made over VoIP Wi-Fi or the standard GSM mobile signal, radically altering the way calling works, technologically.
Not only could a feature like this save you a lot of money, it would also boost phone call quality too. But it’s not something you’d ever see built into the Samsung Galaxy S4 because it’d trample all over a dozen patents and piss off just about every mobile phone network.
Making progress isn’t easy.
This is why it’s often easier to look at the companies a mammoth tech firm has acquired when looking to see where its technological innovation aims lie. Companies’ patents are often just as valuable as their business.
Recently, Samsung bought Neurologica, a medical imaging company. Unless the Samsung Galaxy S4 features an inbuilt X-ray scanner, this isn’t a revelation that’s going to help us. It also acquired SSD caching expert NVELO in December 2012. Again, it’s not really pertinent for the Galaxy S4.
The most relevant of Samsung’s recent buy-outs is CSR’s mobile technology division, which the company bought in July 2012. CSR produced Wi-Fi and Bluetooth mobile connectivity solutions. However, further digging suggests that even this was more of a political move, as arch IP rival Apple uses CSR technology in its devices.
With no fuel to suggest anything more dynamic, we may all have to make do with a Samsung Galaxy S4 that continues the upgrade path of its forebears. More megapixels, more screen inches, more megahertz.
Are we fighting a lost cause in looking for innovations in the Samsung Galaxy S4? Are we hoping for too much from a phone that doesn’t need innovation to succeed?