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Samsung Galaxy S4 and the boredom of 2013 Android phones

Andrew Williams by

Samsung Galaxy S4
Samsung Galaxy S4

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?

Go to comments


March 5, 2013, 4:32 pm

Much better battery life, that alone would be a real innovation!

sohiab rehman

March 5, 2013, 5:22 pm

If it's the same plastic build I'm buying a one S, no matter how many megapixels the camera is...


March 5, 2013, 5:49 pm

What a terrible article!

What the hell do you want your phone to do?! Shoot laser beams?

My God, people don't need such unthinkable things on smart phones in this era of technology. People are interested in exactly what Apple and Samsung/Google are putting into their phones; a clean, high performance, quality piece of technology that makes it easy and fun to communicate. Plain and simple.

Most smart phone users have basic needs such as good camera, high speed, good battery life, abundance of apps, and overall phone reliability. I don't know about you, but I don't need my phone to drive my car. I just need it to last through a night at the bar...


March 5, 2013, 6:26 pm

samsung phones have large upgrades every single phone they make, the s2 and s3 was named phone of the year for a reason, no idea about the s1 but i did own a s1 great phone for its time, the s4 will probably have a hard job looking like a must have upgrade but id be very surprised if the s4 was a sub par product, i can imagine it coming with built in wireless charging (which most people dont have but you can have in the s3 for about £60 with a attachment), soon phones are going to be paper thin that will come in the s4 or the s5. this reviewer is a bit simple in the brain if he thinks the S brand of phones just offered "More megapixels, more screen inches, more megahertz"


March 5, 2013, 10:08 pm

Doesn't help that almost every innovation requires a "network effect" and user critical mass, even the potential for advanced functionality of the cortex A15 architecture won't be seen for a good 12 months at least


March 5, 2013, 10:23 pm

Well put, Stu. This is indeed a big part of why "ordinary" upgrades can leave new phones seeming a bit uninspired to those not all that impressed by the pure numbers of new specs.

Nate Ebner

March 5, 2013, 10:28 pm

Think you are neglecting a few things.

Sony and Huawei have bought water-proofing.

There is a general move towards smaller/no bezels, to minimise wasted space.

And the HTC One is innovative in more ways than just the camera. Software wise, Zoes and automatic 30 second video highlights from your photo gallerys, actually make me think I might use the Camera on it. The Blinkfeed also brings something new to Android, with instant digestible news, as well as more gesture support. Add in the promised future support for these, and they may really start to take off in some form.

Then the biggest innovation is the long overdue change to having their software add ons as apps, rather than a whole new interface, so it can be updated easier and hopefully quicker.

So all in all, it does look like there is still innovation going on, and primarily in the software department.


March 6, 2013, 8:29 am

Agree water/dust-proofing is a true innovation for high end smartphones and should have more fanfare surrounding them.


March 6, 2013, 8:38 am

Rubber bungs? Not quite rocket science, eh?

Also, Zoe strikes me as 95 per cent gimmick.


March 6, 2013, 10:05 am

Looking on uTube some of Zoe's features seem rather nice. You might call them gimmick's but I think I would find some of them useful. eg. Taking 1 second before & 2 seconds after you pressed the shutter, and then been able to remove somebody who walked in shot, and then picking the best expression from this 3 second clip. Also not innovative, but it's nice also the HTC put an IR blaster in, unfortunately the waterproof Sony Z doesn't and, so then you need the ZL that might or might not come here.


March 6, 2013, 10:14 am

I think Andrew has written a very good article here. He's actually pointing out what I've been feeling, mobile phone's don't seem to be as exciting as they used to be. And hardware alone is not going to get people excited as it used too. Saying that, I am getting excited about getting my HTC, and I didn't think I would. Also I do see were your coming from, packing all this technology into these small devices, is innovative and constantly amazes me too.


March 6, 2013, 10:17 am

If you don't like plastic build, try going into phone4u or similar and get a hold of the HTC One, it feels very premium indeed, I'd say even more so than my IP4. They also had a Sony Z, and although glass, kind of felt plastic. If you go into a store and hold one then the other, you'll see what I mean.


March 6, 2013, 12:31 pm

"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?"
Yes, because once again, everybody keeps forgetting Nexus devices!


March 6, 2013, 1:42 pm

Each generation doesn't have to excite you. A lot of people can't afford to get the latest and greatest as soon as it comes out and have to wait a generation or two, or even longer. Upgrading then is pretty exciting.

Phone have increased in processing power so much that they now equate to mini pcs. Just like PCs, hardware vendors and OS companies haven't come up with anything new or exciting in a long time. Too much power and no idea what to do with it. Phones have now hit this space.


March 6, 2013, 3:36 pm

I agree - I like the HTC One for the hardware and wouldn't mind if it just ran stock Android.

We were talking about it in the office today - wouldn't it be better if Google told manufacturers that you can't customise the OS but you can make apps for them. So for instance, the beloved Weather App that HTC produce could be installed free for HTC owners and paid for by owners of other devices. It might open up a revenue stream for manufacturers.

Back to your original point - yes, there isn't really anything innovative about a water/dust proof phone. It's nice to see it in a none rugged phone which is dressed in a sharp suit like the Sony. And the same goes for the split screen stuff or S-beam from Samsung.

The real innovation is coming from Google at the moment, hence why we thought stock builds would be good - perhaps the manufacturers are waiting to see what Keylime does. Isn't it rumoured to have a new UI?

Good editorial btw, I enjoyed this one as it's relatively objective (well, as much as you can be when the nature of an editorial is kinda subjective anyway).


March 6, 2013, 5:14 pm

Totally agree with you - not sure what Olliver is thinking about really.

What's looking innovative in the future is flexible screens, a standard for wireless charging and your phone effectively becoming your PC (thank you Ubuntu!). That's what people want these days I reckon (the latter especially).

Nate Ebner

March 6, 2013, 5:19 pm

Although there is some truth to things being a bit less exciting than they have been over the last few years, there has still been some recent innovation, and as mothergoose says below, there promises to be more coming.

It is unsurprising that innovation has slowed, as this is a market sector that has grown and developed enormously over the last 6 or so years, and a slowing down is inevitable.

Nate Ebner

March 6, 2013, 5:22 pm

Good points.
I think Goggle should figure out a way to make Android easily skinnable, and allow OEMs to put their own skin on it, and add functionality by providing apps (which they can choose to make available to others for purchase or not).

This should mean that all that needs to happen to upgrade to the latest version, is someone to optimise the handset for the latest version. Then the skin is automatically overlaid, and the apps kept.

Nate Ebner

March 6, 2013, 5:25 pm

Good point. I am only about 5 months, from the end of my last two year contract. I got the Google Nexus S then, pretty much straight after it came out. Since then I have been biding my time to make the right upgrade, and have gone for the HTC One.

Over those two and a bit years, that's a whole lot of improvement in my handset, even if it isn't a whole lot different to last generations best.


March 6, 2013, 5:31 pm

I guess this is a similar manner to HTC allowing users to have different colour schemes for their skins (or at least they did on Sense 3).

To be honest I don't OEMs should be able to skin Android - the time where the stock UI needed tarting up has long since gone and Android is now accepted as a smartphone platform (remember, HTC's Sense UI was styled after the the Sense themes they had on the Windows Mobile 6 phones so they could tempt people away and gain market penetration. It worked as well!)

On the other hand, Samsung add in a few features and make it look similar to iOS (now not so much after the law suites).

Neither of these positions are really valid any more and I thoroughly believe the best Android experience you can get these days is a Nexus device. My friends got a rooted S3 running a hacked Android 4.2.1 install and it finally makes the device desirable in my opinion.

This is why I'm a fan of apps made by the manufacturer. Samsung's tech that stops the screen from locking if the user is reading it is a nice touch, but does it really need to be baked in to the OS? After talking to one of the Android devs is that theoretically no it doesn't, it just needs the hardware support!

Nate Ebner

March 6, 2013, 5:42 pm

I agree. And am a fan of Nexus devices, but felt the Nexus 4, was underpowered compared to the competition.
Android's greatest strength is it's flexibility and opportunities to customise it. If it was coded to especially support skinning, then it allows the user to chose the look of the phone.

the main point behind my idea for making it natively skinnable, is that the OEMs won't be happy otherwise, you need to let them feel that they can offer a USP. Now if they could do that only by apps and a skin, then that would be ideal.

Nate Ebner

March 6, 2013, 5:42 pm

Edit: 5 Months past the end of my two year contract

Nate Ebner

March 6, 2013, 9:54 pm

A very substantial and robust defence!

What do you class a innovation? It sure isn't hard to think that faster processors with more cores, and bigger screens with higher resolutions are better. What is all this great innovation from the handset manufacturers that we've seen over the last year?

Previously handsets and water were a bad mix, now some of them can survive for half an hour. Long enough to flush the loo plenty of times, and put on rubber gloves to fish out the phone. I'm also sure that there is a tad more to it than just rubber bungs. You have speaker and mic grilles, any joins etc.

Zoe is a bit gimicky, but the ability to edit the faces on your photos (I know Nokia and Blackberry's can also do this) is pretty neat. And the 30 second highlight clips auto generated, but still editable, makes me think I might actually use the camera. And even share the videos with friends who were there at said photographed event.


March 7, 2013, 11:24 am

The problem with the Nexus 4 was Android 4.2.1 - it was entirely the software that caused the performance issues, it is now what it should be with 4.2.2 (which is nice as 4.2.x was a disaster after the slickness of 4.1)

Perhaps another option is that OEM's can skin the OS how they want but all OEM's have to allow the users to install stock Android if they wish? Then they'd get good metrics on whether it is worth them investing so much money and effort in custom skins.


March 7, 2013, 1:16 pm

I'm waiting for something to end iOS boredom. iPhone 3G was the quickest bored-of smartphones in my collection, stopped using it after 4 weeks.
Back to Android devices, at least they add new features like eye-tracking, wireless charging, quick charging (that actually works) or stylus (for those who like to use a stylus).

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