Samsung Galaxy S4: Jack of all trades, still master of just one

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Review

The king is dead, long live the king. The Galaxy S4 helped Samsung keep its impossible promise and unlike most products that see the kind of hype this one did ahead of its debut, the S4 actually delivered. This new handset is an improvement over its predecessor in every way and we loved it when we reviewed the Galaxy S4 last month. But after spending some time with Samsung’s new flagship phone, I also see a worrying trend emerging in the Galaxy S4 and it’s one that could potentially get Samsung into trouble down the road.

I have been using Sprint’s version of the Galaxy S4 for a while now and apart from the anguish of having to deal with painfully slow 3G data speeds — Sprint’s 4G LTE network is not yet available in New York City or the surrounding area — I have definitely been enjoying this phone. The new design is sleek and a bit more refined than the Galaxy S III, the S4′s performance is as good as it gets, and the new display is simply spectacular.

The phone still falls into my “diamond in the rough” category. The display is an absolute gem, but it is surrounded by materials that just aren’t on par with other flagship smartphones. The HTC One is all aluminum and glass, as is Apple’s iPhone 5. LG’s Optimus G has glass panels on the front and back with sturdy hard plastic wrapped around the edges, and the Lumia 920 is a plastic phone but the fit and finish are much better than anything Samsung has produced.

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In terms of build materials and feel, Samsung is always outclassed by its rivals. While the S4 is likely Samsung’s most solid showing yet in terms of hardware, it still doesn’t approach flagship phones from other leading vendors.

But the show goes on. Samsung obviously knows many people think its phones feel like toys, but it doesn’t seem phased. And why should it be? Consumers at large certainly don’t care. Samsung now ships almost twice as many smartphones as No.2 vendor Apple, and that was in the quarter before its new Galaxy S4 launched. In the current quarter, the disparity will likely grow even larger since Apple apparently has no plans to launch a new iPhone until sometime this fall.

Despite its cheap feel relative to other leading phones and fingerprint magnet of a case-back, the Galaxy S4 actually looks and feels much better than the Galaxy S III that came before it. The front and back of the phone now feature a subtle diamond pattern that adds great texture to the device, and the fake brushed aluminum that surrounds the outer edges of the handset has a much better feel to it than the plastic surrounding the edges of the S III.

But trouble arises when we move on to the phone’s software, where the phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” takes on a whole new meaning.

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Practically every notable feature any and all Samsung phones have ever included is stuffed into the Galaxy S4, along with just about every noteworthy feature rivals phones might have. Then, Samsung also introduced several new features in the Galaxy S4 like Air view support without the need for a stylus, Smart scroll, Smart pause and new touch-free gestures.

It’s a bit overbearing.

Some of the new features Samsung included in the Galaxy S4 are basically useless. For example, one option allows the user to flip forward and backward through photos in the gallery by waving his or her hand in front of the phone’s display. A wave to the left flips to the next photo and a wave to the right moves to the previous picture. Even ignoring for a moment that the phone fails to register waves from time to time, in what world is this an improvement over moving your hand one inch closer to the phone and just touching the screen to swipe photos from side to side?

Adding features to a smartphone is obviously not a bad thing. Trying to innovate is not a bad thing. Adding features that serve no real other purpose other than to allow you to say “look at this other thing our phone can do” is a bad thing.

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This type of feature-stuffing clutters the settings, which were already beyond cluttered in earlier versions of Samsung’s software; it confuses the user, who will never be able to remember all of the swipes, swoops, taps, tilts and other gestures the phone supports; and it results in an overall experience that is not as good as it could be. I would hate to think that some users might not take full advantage truly great and innovative features like Air view because they get lost in a sea of clutter.

And while Samsung is busy dumping effort and resources into these sometimes-nifty, sometimes-useless new features, it isn’t always putting enough effort into other important things like user interfaces and services.

Apple, Samsung’s biggest rival, has a huge head start where software and services are concerned, and Samsung should be laser focused on catching up — especially while Apple is forced to devote a good deal of resources to fixing messes like the iOS Maps app and iCloud instead of just pushing forward.

Several aspects of Samsung’s apps and services are confusing. Starting with user interfaces, there is almost no continuity across Samsung’s various offerings.

First, take a look at Samsung’s WatchOn interface. This is Samsung’s version of the HTC TV app I loved so much on the HTC One, and it’s based on Peel just like HTC’s app. Apart from the fact that the recommendations don’t seem to work very well (as much as I love Steve Harvey and Martha Stewart…), the UI looks like something you might find on a Symbian phone 10 years ago.

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But not all Samsung apps have bland user interfaces. Just take a look at the company’s Samsung Hub media app, which has a gorgeous modern UI… that is completely and unabashedly ripped off from Microsoft’s Windows Phone interface.

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Here is Samsung’s handy translator app:

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Here is the company’s great S Health app, which potentially does away with the need for stand-alone devices from the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone:

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And here is the Samsung Link app that makes sharing media across multiple devices a breeze:

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It’s not just that none of these apps look alike, at all, but that they have next to nothing in common. Some Samsung apps look sleek and modern while others are boring and dated. Some are easy to use while others require that the user dig through menus for various settings. It sometimes seems as though the various development teams within Samsung simply don’t communicate at all.

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So in the end, Samsung has mastered one aspect of the smartphone and only one: the display.

The Galaxy S4 does just about everything you could ever want a modern phone to do within the confines of currently available technology, and it does it all quite well. It also does many things you don’t really care whether or not a phone can do. And it even does a few things you’ll never even know about, because it has so many features that you’ll probably never discover them all.

Samsung has arrived. It’s the top-selling smartphone vendor in the world. Samsung simply doesn’t need these gimmicky features to sell phones, and its smartphones don’t have to be stuffed to the gills with half-baked apps and services just so it can make sure that every possible base is covered.

Please, Samsung. Slow. Down.

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My sincere hope is that Samsung takes advantage of its success and focuses its resources on refining the hardware, software and service experiences it presents to users. I want a more cohesive experience across Samsung apps. I want better services that lock users into the Samsung ecosystem for years to come. These are the things Samsung might consider working on as it develops the Galaxy S5 and other upcoming phones.

Great devices get customers in the door. Great software and services keep customers coming back for more.

The Galaxy S4 is easily the most impressive smartphone Samsung has ever released. It’s one of the most impressive smartphones any company has ever released. Tens of millions of people will buy it and love it. But Samsung has gone overboard with the bells and whistles. It’s too much, it’s distracting and it’s simply not necessary.

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Displays aside, Samsung is becoming a jack of all trades at this point, but the company isn’t mastering any of them. There is significant room for improvement across the board. Samsung has the resources and the talent to make great strides where software and services are concerned, but it is doing itself and its users a disservice by seemingly stretching its designers and engineers too thin. There is no lock-in right now. There is nothing preventing a Galaxy S4 owner from jumping ship and buying a Lumia phone, iPhone, Optimus handset or any other device.

“Good enough” won’t be good enough forever. I think Samsung has the tools to make products and services that are great from start to finish, but it won’t get there without rethinking its strategy in several key areas. The difference between “great” and “good enough” could mean the difference between a bell curve that peaks in 2013, and a nice long slope that climbs upward as Samsung continues to see solid growth for years to come.

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