Samsung Galaxy S4: Lifeless Companion
Have you ever seen those novelty weather rocks that you find at humour stores?
You know the ones: it’s a hanging rock and there’s a label telling you that “if the rock is wet, it’s raining”, “if rock is moving, it’s windy” and other helpful forecast revelations.
I mention them because it’s the first thing I thought of when I discovered that the Samsung Galaxy S4 has a humidity sensor included in its vast array of features. Ostensibly, its purpose is to inform you of whether or not you are currently comfortable. If that’s a joke on Samsung’s part, I’m not in on it either.
In reviewing the Galaxy S4 - Samsung’s current flagship phone - I found myself encountering this feeling frequently.
I’m about to tell you that, like most other tech reviewers you read, I think the Galaxy S4 is an unlikeable device to hold.
But that opinion matters very little to the smart folks at Samsung. After all, they have a good thing going, selling millions of phones, being thought of as the Android smartphone.
Nevertheless, the fact remains: this phone is slimy. From the moment you pick it up to the moment you either put it down or watch it ooze out of your hands onto the floor, you won’t mistake this for a premium device.
This is true even with one of Samsung’s S-View cases attached. Like with all official flip cases, you actually remove the phone’s original back and clip the case on instead of it, meaning that you never end up with a bulkier phone: a neat perk.
The downside is that the case is made of the same cheap-feeling plastic. I found the cover to be a hassle in general, flopping around awkwardly while I was using the phone and never quite sitting in place when closed.
While the view port is an informative way to get glanceable information from your phone without unlocking it, it pales in comparison to Motorola’s Active Notifications on the Moto X.
To be clear: I have no issue with plastic. Plastic is a fine material. Sturdy, cheap to produce…fine. But given that plastics can be developed in so many ways, and given Samsung’s tremendous power, it baffles me that they portray the S4 as a flagship and then build it like a budget phone.
Evidently, it does not bother the majority of Samsung’s customers that their phones feel this way in the hand. People may prefer them to the sleek HTC One look, or the pristine iPhones, but I do not share that opinion.
Once again, Samsung reminds me that I am not its target audience.
The S4 has two things going for it that I admire tremendously, the first of which is its screen.
While many detest AMOLED for its unnatural colour portrayal and checkered past, modern AMOLED screens are a sight to behold - especially when they’re at a stunning 1080p resolution like on the S4.
Photos, text, and web pages look unbelievably good, and the screen’s size makes it a pleasure to look at. Comparing it to the S3 before it, Samsung have maintained the form factor even as they increased the screen size a bit.
Smaller bezels are always a good thing in my books, and AMOLED’s singular ability to activate only the pixels it requires to display an image ensure that looking at the S4 is almost always a pleasing experience.
In ancient China, a notorious torture method was devised that required the victim to be immobilized while drops of water were steadily allowed to drip onto their heads. For hours. This would eventually drive the victim insane.
Samsung has devised a similar system for driving people insane, complete with dripping water sounds for every single touch.
They call it TouchWiz.
If the Samsung Galaxy S4 were a practical joke, its creators would be having their best laugh watching me stumble through their interface, cringing, doing double-takes, and marvelling at the sheer lunacy of its design.
At nearly every turn, Samsung has sacrificed elegance and simplicity in favour of gimmicks.
TouchWiz is an insane cacophony of redundant, unnecessary, poorly-implemented, and sluggish features barfed together by a team that I can only assume hates smartphones and their users.
Want to send some information to a nearby phone? You could use Android’s NFC, or you could use Android Beam, or you could use S-Beam. That’s three ways of accomplishing the same task—very sleek. In fact, there’s an S-app for nearly everything, and one of TouchWiz’s few consistent points is that they’re universally inferior to the stock Android equivalents.
How about texting someone? Do you like your SMS app to look like the ones running on Android phones from 3 years ago? So does Samsung!
Do you manually change your brightness settings all the time? Samsung has you covered with a non-removable brightness slider stuck to the top of your notification shade. Right underneath the non-customizable toggles that help you turn off all the gimmicky features of the phone.
How many of these toggles could there possibly be? Twenty one. That’s two full rows of stuff that’s always visible in the area of the phone you’re supposed to be able to see notifications in. Good use of space there.
But at least you have easy access to the settings from the shade. That’s good. Except TouchWiz arbitrarily splits up the phone’s settings into a series of tabs, meaning that unless you’ve memorized their organization choices, you’ll spend time flicking between tabs and scrolling just to find the place where you can check for system updates.
The most basic of tasks aren’t safe either, like creating a folder of apps. Drag and drop one app on top of another - as you would on any other phone - and what happens? Nothing! If you want to make a folder, you have to drag the first app onto the folder icon that appears, then go from there.
Even Google Now is unnecessarily clunky to access, requiring you to hold the home button and tap the icon from the task switcher. Luckily, you can skip that step with the provided Google widget - not the beautiful one on all other Jelly Bean phones, mind you, but the ugly one from Ginger Bread.
Even with the best of intentions, it’s difficult to use this phone without smacking into design problems. If this were a 1.0 release I could easily forgive some of these UX blunders, but Samsung has been polishing this turd for years.
Being an Android phone, I can do nice things like root and install alternate launchers and so on to circumvent these problems, but I shouldn’t feel the need to do so.
I struggled, but here’s a useful feature of TouchWiz just to show that I’m not deliberately trying to be negative: if you’re texting someone in your contacts and you raise the phone up to your ear, the S4 will automatically initiate a call to them. That’s smart.
See? It’s not all bad.
The second thing about the Galaxy S4 that I enjoy is its camera.
With 13 megapixels, the S4’s camera elbows its way to the top tier of smartphone spec sheets here too, though that means less and less these days.
The camera software is very extensive, offering modes that range from useful (an animated mode for making GIFs on the go) to idiotic (two-way camera for superimposing a picture of your face on the beautiful landscape in front of you).
Shooting feels generally quick and responsive, though the feedback for successful shots is a little unclear. This isn’t helped by the strangely unstable Samsung gallery app, which is prone to hanging and even crashing.
Also worth mentioning is an eraser mode that allows you to selectively remove elements of a photo. Bye bye, photo bombers! Needless to say, it doesn’t always give great results, but it can help you save a shot here and there so I appreciated its presence.
The photos themselves need to be examined from two perspectives. Firstly, the way they appear on the phone. Thanks to the AMOLED screen, the shots you take will look simply superb on the S4’s screen. You’ll wow your friends, and sending them to anyone else with an S4 will make for happy people all around.
Problems begin to appear when you look at the photos on a calibrated computer screen. It isn’t that they’re bad, by any stretch, but you begin to see processing artifacts, dull colours, and general signs of cut corners as you’d expect from a smartphone.
This doesn’t make the S4 bad, but it does mean that while your photos will look better than your iPhone friend’s when everyone’s looking at their phones, theirs will look better on Facebook and Instagram. Apple simply has this area covered better than anyone else outside of Nokia and its Lumias.
Compared to my Moto X, I also dearly missed the gesture for activating the camera with a simple wrist flick. It’s a subtle thing, but often makes the difference between getting a shot or not.
I won’t waste time describing to you all the S-this and Smart-that features that the S4 unleashes upon its victims because others have already done that.
Instead, I’ll zero in on the core of what bothers me about these features: they’re not better.
A feature, by definition, is supposed to help me accomplish a task better than I was able to without it. Almost none of the S4’s do.
Let’s take Air View as an example. Ideally, it would allow me to have contextual hover actions across the OS, accessible simply by hovering my finger above the screen.
Not a bad idea, but one that falls flat in practise because of the proximity required to activate it - I may as well touch the screen at that point. And since it only works in some apps, it’s not even worth getting used to.
Smart Scroll is likewise something that should have never left the drawing board, despite being a “cool” thing for salespersons to show consumers in a store. If you’re reading an article, you can essentially nod to scroll.
When it works (which is not consistently), Smart Scroll is imprecise and sometimes makes me lose my place as I try to get it to cooperate. Not to mention the fact that it makes you look like an idiot, playing one of those Magic Eye games and trying to bob your head and look at things from another angle to reveal the hidden message.
Again, I wouldn’t mind there being so many gimmicks if they were at least improving my experience of using the phone, but instead they are simply confusing (you can use this here, but not there!) or annoying (you’re not nodding properly. Nod better).
When your phone is so gimmicky that you need to add an easy mode to it to help people cope, you can probably stop adding new things and start streamlining and optimizing what you’ve got.
The closest the S4 comes to being helpful is with the S-Health app, which purports to be an all-in-one centre for managing and tracking your eating, steps, and exercise.
I love this idea, and think it is full of potential, especially on phones like the Moto X and iPhone 5s with dedicated co-processors for collecting this kind of data, but S-Health needs work.
For now, even the most basic of tasks like tracking steps requires your input. Unlike wearing a Jawbone Up or some other fitness band, you’ll actually have to open up S-Health, go to the walking section, and ask it to start tracking you every time you want it to observe your steps.
This is a minor complaint, and one that is offset by the promise of having a “Life Companion” built into your phone. Samsung will build on this idea, and improve upon it, and I admire them for it.
All over the world, legions of Samsung fans are enjoying their S4s. It is undoubtedly a flagship on paper (though you’d never know it holding one in your hand). I don’t see what they see, and I don’t want what they evidently want, but that’s just another reason to admire the diversity of choice available to smartphone buyers these days.
In the meantime, remember that humidity sensor? Well, according to this Life Companion here, I’m not in my comfort zone.