The new Samsung Galaxy S4 has launched, but savvy wireless customers looking for a bargain may still want to consider last year's Galaxy S3.
In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help a reader decide if the newly upgraded flagship Samsung smartphone is worth the hype. There's no question the device is a marked improvement over its predecessor the Samsung Galaxy S3. But the upgraded specs and added bells and whistles might not mean as much to the average consumer, who will likely be just as happy with last year's model, which costs less money.
I also offer another reader my perspective on whether I think smartphone cases are necessary or not.
Galaxy S3 vs. Galaxy S4
Dear Maggie, I have never owned a smartphone before. And I have been considering getting a Samsung Galaxy S3. But now that the Galaxy S4 is coming out, I am wondering if I should get that device instead. I've been considering getting a Galaxy. Is the S4 enough of an upgrade or should I just stick with the S3? I read an early story you wrote that said the price on the S3 is likely to come down. So I was wondering what you think now that the S4 has been announced.
The Galaxy S4 is a terrific phone. And it's a decent upgrade to the Galaxy 3. But Samsung has not revolutionized the smartphone with this new device. In fact, side by side the Galaxy S4 looks very similar to the Galaxy S3. Samsung has used the same sturdy plastic for the S4 that it used in the S3. The home screen button and other buttons are in the same place on the S4 as they are on the S3.
That said, there are some hardware differences between the devices. While the devices look the same, the S4 is actually a tad lighter and thinner than the S3. And the guts of the phone are different as well. As my CNET Reviews colleague Jessica Dolcourt said in her first-take review of the product, Samsung seems to have taken every feature to an extreme on the S4.
"The screen is larger (5 inches vs. 4.8 inches), the resolution greater (1,080p vs. 720p), the battery capacity higher (2,600mAh vs. 2100mAH), the processor faster (1.9GHz quad-core or 1.6GHz octa-core vs.1.5GHz, dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 (U.S. version); proprietary 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos), and the rear-facing camera stuffed with more megapixels (13 megapixels vs. 8 megapixels.) But, once you've gone through the features checklist (which also includes lots of internal and external storage space and RAM), it's the software extras that Samsung continues to lean on to keep its phones one step ahead of the competition."
(For a full comparison between the two phones, check out this story by Lynn La, a CNET Reviews editor.)
More from Ask Maggie
Some of these new software features include a TV control app, a built-in translation tool, and an app that tracks your eye movement so that you can control the device. One example of how you'd use this is that you can pause a video simply by looking away from the screen. There are also some gesture capabilities and a hover feature that lets you wave your finger over something on the screen to preview an item.
Jessica points out in her review that these software additions are nifty, but they aren't likely to sway consumers when they're deciding which device to buy. And I would agree with her. In fact, I talked to Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart at the Samsung event and he thinks that users may show off some of these "gee whiz" features to their friends when they first get the new device, but they'll likely never use them again.
What's more, even though these software updates were shown off on the Galaxy S4, it doesn't mean that they will be limited to the S4. Drew Blackard, director of product planning for Samsung Mobile in the U.S, said that many of these software features will also make their way into other Samsung devices, such as the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy Note phablets.
"The goal is to bring as many features as possible down to the other flagship devices," he said. "Of course, it will be dependent on hardware requirements. But we will definitely bring some of these functionalities to other Samsung devices through software upgrades."
Which device is right for you?It's a really tough decision. As I said before, the Galaxy S4 is a terrific device. And it's clearly a step above the S3 when it comes to the overall specifications. But you have to ask yourself if that's what is most important to you. Are you the kind of person who buys the top-of-the-line car? Do you need the latest and greatest TV, laptop, camera, or other gadget on the market? Or are you more concerned with getting the most bang for your buck and paying a reasonable price?
There are plenty of people who need to have the latest technology, whether that's in a car, sporting equipment, or gadgets. If you're that kind of person, get the Galaxy S4.
But if you are like me, and you're a bit more frugal, then I'd consider the Galaxy S3. Here's why: For the average wireless consumer, the specifications available on the Galaxy S3 are more than adequate. And because it's last year's model, you're going to be able to get a really terrific price on it.
Prices have already started falling. A couple of weeks ago when I advised a reader to wait for the Galaxy S4 announcement, you could get the Galaxy S3 on AmazonWireless for AT&T for $79.99 with a two-year contract. Now that price has already dropped to $49.99 for a new device with a two-year contract on AT&T.
CNET's video hands-on with the S4:
Introducing Samsung's Galaxy S4
Unlocked Galaxy S3 phones are selling for about $350 on eBay. Factory unlocked Galaxy S3 devices on Amazon are priced at $500. When the device was first introduced last year, an unlocked version was about $700 and carriers offered it for $200 with a two-year contract.
Samsung hasn't announced pricing for the new Samsung Galaxy S4 yet, but I'd expect it to be in the same ballpark as other high-end smartphones, which typically cost $200 with a two-year contract and around $700 without a contract.
But there are couple of things to keep in mind. For one, there is a chance that the Galaxy S3 won't get operating system software upgrades as quickly as the newer Galaxy S4. Still, that might not matter much. Keep in mind the S4 will ship with the newest available Google Android software available today Android 4.2.2, but in May Google is expected to announce a new version of the software at its Google I/O conference in San Francisco. This means that S4 customers will also have "outdated" software only a month or two into sales of the device.
For the average consumer, these upgrades often aren't significant enough to make a major difference, especially for people who are using a smartphone for the first time. In fact, some of those consumers would probably rather have fewer software upgrades than more since software upgrades sometimes change the look and feel of a device.
And for the more tech-savvy subscribers who are concerned about having the latest Android software update, there is always the option of "rooting" the device and installing the upgrade yourself.
Now, I realize that to some people who look at this they will say that a price difference of $150 is not that much, when you consider that no matter what you pay for your device, you'll still be paying on average $2,160 to $2,400 for your wireless service over the life of a two-year contract.
Those folks have a point. But also I don't think that $100 or $150 difference on a device is insignificant. When you consider that many people upgrade devices every 18 months to 2 years, it adds up. I don't know of any other gadget in my life that I am willing to repurchase and replace every two years for $200.
Still, the real cost difference between last year's model and this year's new phone can be seen when you think about buying an unlocked and unsubsidized phone. As I mentioned previously, the Galaxy S3 was around $700 at full price when it was first introduced. And now you can find a new one for $350 on eBay or about half the price.
The bottom line is that I think you should go for the older Galaxy S3 over the Galaxy S4. You'll save some money, and I don't think you'll ever notice that you are sacrificing performance or functionality.
The great smartphone case/no-case debate
I own a Galaxy Note 2. My question is this. Now that high-end phones are being built with high-quality glass and other high-end materials, is it really necessary to put a cover on the phone anymore?
I have always thought that cases for smartphones were largely "unnecessary." Why? Your phone already comes in a case. And it should be strong enough to withstand basic wear and tear. What's more, as manufacturers do their best to make devices lighter and thinner, it makes little sense to slap on a heavy, thick case that will just bulk it up.
In the five-plus years that I have owned a smartphone, I have never had any problems with a screen getting scratched or any other major damage to my phone. Keep in mind that I also have never dropped my device on the sidewalk, run into wall while holding my device, nor have I spilled anything on it either. I guess maybe I have been lucky and I really need to find a wooden table to knock on before I jinx my good fortune.
But I've always felt like putting a cover on your device is like wrapping your furniture in plastic to make sure it doesn't get stained. I'd rather just enjoy the device I have instead of worrying about the damage that actually using it will incur.
To answer your question, I think the improved materials that many companies are using with these new devices is great. Corning Gorilla Glass is a big step forward. And now there's talk of a new material, laboratory-grown sapphire glass, which is supposedly two to three times stronger than Gorilla Glass. I applaud these efforts. And I think whatever can be done to improve the materials to make smartphones more durable is important.
There are also tons of devices that are now being developed that are water-resistant or waterproof. There are companies that specialize in providing waterproof coating on the inside and outside of devices to keep moisture out. I expect these technologies will be used more often in devices in the future.
Of course, my strong stance on going coverless is just my opinion. And there are plenty of people who disagree with me, including many of my own CNET colleagues. I did a very informal poll the other day in the office to see what others thought about whether it's still necessary to have a case on their devices. And almost everyone disagreed with me. CNET Reviews editor Jessica Dolcourt and CNET TV correspondent Bridget Carey told me that they prefer to have their devices covered. They claim that many of the new phones are slippery, which makes them harder to hold onto and more prone to drops.
Another reason they like cases is to protect their investment. Bridget said she has a case on her iPhone because she expects to resell it when she wants to buy a new phone. CNET Reviews editor Brian Bennett said that anyone with kids should definitely have a cover since it's often those little hands that end up dropping your device.
Even though I still feel pretty strongly about going without a case for my smartphone. I do see their points. So my advice is that if you think you might want to resell your device in the future, or you think it's too slippery to hold onto, or you live in a house with little kids who may throw your smartphone across the room, then investing in a case is probably a good idea. Otherwise, forget spending your money on a case and just enjoy your phone.
Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.