Samsung has officially unveiled the Galaxy S4 — but looking at its hardware and software specs, I wonder if the Korean chaebol should’ve instead taken a leaf out of Apple’s playbook and called it the Galaxy S3S. Beyond its larger, 1080p screen — which by all accounts is a wonder to behold — there is almost no difference between the Galaxy S3 and S4′s hardware. At the presentation in New York, various Samsung execs spent a couple of hours detailing the S4′s new features — and, really, with almost no exceptions, they were all software-based.
The thing with software is that, except for features that are dependent on specific hardware being present, it can be installed on other devices. This led to the curious revelation that, according to a Samsung exec at the New York launch event, many of the Galaxy S4′s features will come to “all our flagship devices,” such as the S3 and Note 2. Much in the same way that you can install Angry Birds on both the Galaxy S3 and S4, it should be possible to install most of the S4′s features on the S3.
Why, then, should you buy the S4? Let’s break down the hardware differences, and then see where we stand. The Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch 1920×1080 Super AMOLED display, which equates to a rather insane 441 ppi (far beyond “Retina” classification, which is around 300 ppi at 12 inches from the eye). Hands-on impressions of the screen are good, as they always are with AMOLED (“the colors really pop!”), but don’t forget that OLED displays tend to eschew realistic color representation for crazy amounts of contrast. The display does use an RGBG PenTile subpixel arrangement, but the ppi is so high that you won’t be able to see the difference.
There’s a new SoC, too, of course — either an Exynos Octa 5410 or a Snapdragon 600. It isn’t clear which markets will get which SoC, but it’ll probably break down as before: Asia and Europe will get the Exynos and the US will get the Snapdragon. Now, the Exynos Octa is one heck of a chip — it has four Cortex-A15 cores and four Cortex-A7 cores in a big.LITTLE setup, and it really should blow all of the competition away. In terms of raw performance, the Cortex-A15 is the fastest chip in the mobile space — and if Samsung/Android make good use of the four A7 cores, the SoC’s power consumption should be manageable. The Exynos Octa also has the SGX 544MP3 GPU, which is one of the fastest GPUs on the market. The Snapdragon 600, though, is essentially a quad-core version of last year’s dual-core Snapdragon S4, with an updated Adreno 320 GPU. The four Krait cores will provide a boost in some multithreaded scenarios, and the GPU is a nice bump, but it’s no where near as exciting as the Exynos Octa. In short, if you end up with the Snapdragon variant of the Galaxy S4, you might notice slightly faster games performance, but that’s about it.
The last of the somewhat-exciting hardware features is a 13-megapixel backside-illuminated rear camera. If you only count megapixels, this sounds impressive — but didn’t Samsung get the memo that we’re in a post-megapixel world now? More megapixels, especially when they’re crammed into a small space, generally equates to poorer image quality and low-light performance. Both HTC and Nokia seem to have realized this, but Samsung seems content on steaming ahead with mo’ megapixels, image quality be damned. There’s also an IR LED, barometer, and humidity sensor, which might find interesting use cases. (See: The Galaxy S4′s full hardware and software specs.)
On the hardware front, then, the Galaxy S4 is simply a faster S3 — a lot like the iPhone 4 and 4S, in fact. The Galaxy S4 does have an upgraded display, but the S3′s display was already Retina-class. It still remains to be seen if a 5-inch 1920×1080 display is actually better in real-world use than the S3′s 4-inch 1280×720, or if it simply sucks more juice and provides relatively little in return.
Most of the reason for buying a Galaxy S4, then, is the software — again, just like the iPhone 4S and Siri. The S4 comes with features such as Dual Camera (pictured below), which lets you use both the front- and rear-facing cameras at the same time when shooting photos and videos, or when making a video call. There are also tons of camera filters and helpers (360 Photo, Beauty Face, etc.), and other camera-related features, such as Sound & Shot and Story Album.
Smart Scroll, which automatically scrolls pages with a flick of the wrist, and Smart Pause, which pauses video when you look away, are both neat features, too. S Voice Drive automatically switches the S4 into driving mode when you connect a Bluetooth headset, automatically enabling voice commands. And who can forget Air Touch, which lets you interact with the screen by hovering your finger over something, rather than touching it. No longer must you avoid greasy food!
All of these features combine to make the Galaxy S4 a very desirable and feature-rich phone. Android purists won’t be happy — TouchWiz has almost superseded Android, it seems — but consumers will be over the moon. Power users will sneer derisively at the S4′s smorgasbord of cutesy features, just as they did with the S3 — but let’s not forget that the S3 went on to become the biggest-selling Android handset ever. The Galaxy S series of phones is aimed squarely at consumers who want to do lots of stuff with their phones and have fun in the process — and the S4 delivers that in spades. At this point, Samsung has as much momentum behind its smartphones as Apple; I wouldn’t be surprised if the S4 outsells the iPhone in Europe and Asia, and possibly in the US as well.