I'm fortunate to have several smartphones to choose from. For work reasons, I need to keep up with the Android, iOS, and Windows Phone platforms, as well as specific devices from particular makers. Usually, I take two with me when going out. But on the rare occasions that I take only one, it's the iPhone that's must-have. Must-have, that is, until the Samsung Galaxy S4 came along.
I didn't expect to like the Galaxy S4, when the review unit from Samsung arrived a few weeks ago. I never took to the Galaxy S3 when I tried it last year. Believe me, I tried. Plenty of others seemed to love it. But the predictive text always seemed to suggest the wrong things, plus I found the unit was pretty hard to see in bright sunlight. These and other factors never pulled me to the phone, or away from the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy Nexus that I was regularly using then.
It's been much different with the Galaxy S4. I love it. Below are some of the reasons I've found it compelling. Bear in mind this isn't meant as a formal review. If you want that, see CNET's Galaxy S4 review here. Rather, it's more a personal take on what I've liked and haven't.
Swiping to type
When it comes to inputting text, maybe Samsung did some tweaking with the text predictions, because they seem much improved from what I found before. But another big change happened. I shifted to typing text with the Swype method, and now I never want to go back.
With Swype, you slide your finger around the keyboard without lifting it up, to spell words. Swype guesses at the word you were likely to want and fills it in. For ages, I'd heard people tell me I should try it. Those who had the Galaxy S3 and saw my complaints about it on Twitter encouraged me to shift. So I did when starting with the S4, and it made a world of difference.
It's also one of those differences that makes me want to use the S4 over the iPhone. The iPhone doesn't have Swype. The few iOS apps that purport to do swipe-typing seem to require writing within those apps, then copying your text into your destination app, such as Twitter or Facebook. That's a pain.
That big screen
How do you beat the iPhone's crisp Retina screen? You make it bigger. My iPhone 5 has a 1,136x640-pixel display resolution, at 326 pixels per inch, on a 4-inch screen. The Galaxy S4 has a 1,920x1,080 display resolution, at 441 pixels per inch, on a 5-inch screen.
To turn those numbers into human speak, the display resolution is how much you can see on the screen. Bigger numbers mean you should be able to see more. The pixels per inch, or PPI, is how sharp the quality is. Again, bigger numbers are better. The last is the physical size of the screen, how large it is.
The Galaxy S4 beats the iPhone in all the numbers. But in practice, I found it really about equal except for the physical size. While the Samsung supposedly should display much more on its screen, I didn't find the differences that great. For example, I didn't see much more information when looking at Twitter (the iPhone image is on the left, the Galaxy S4 on the right in the following examples):
Keep in mind that the example above and the next two below don't reflect the images in relation to physical size. They're only showing how much you can see within a particular app or Web page, not how large or tiny the information appears because of the physical size of the screens. I'll get back to that. But here's another example, where I could read a little more of a Los Angeles Times article:
Here's one last example, where the higher display resolution of the S4 meant I could see just a bit more of the CNET home page:
The sharpness of what I saw on both screens felt to my eyes about the same. It was the physical size that really made the S4 the winner. Seeing the same information on a physically larger screen meant, for me, a more comfortable viewing experience. I wasn't squinting as much. The example below is a side-by-side where you can better understand how the same information, with the same quality display, is larger and easier to read with the Samsung:
There's a trade-off, of course. That bigger screen makes for a bigger phone to carry around. This was another surprise for me. It didn't feel that much bigger. In fact, I've written in the past of my distaste for the supersizing of smartphones. I guess I've changed. Or maybe I've gotten used to a larger-size phone as a longtime Galaxy Nexus user. The S4 isn't that much larger than the Galaxy Nexus. Whatever the reason, the iPhone 5 -- despite being taller than its siblings -- now feels too small.
Maybe Apple will surprise us in a few days with a larger phone. There's even a rumor of a 6-inch "phablet" size phone in the works. After using the S4, I would certainly appreciate the extra space on the iPhone.
But a bigger screen doesn't always been better viewing, at least in bright light. The same problem I had with the S3 continues with the S4. On a bright day, I'm seeking shade to see my phone. That's something I never have to do with the iPhone.
The many camera options
Sometimes, it feels like Samsung has lost its mind with some of the many camera modes it offers. Do I really need the ability to make an animated photo? Or store sounds with my picture?
I've played with some of these options, then quickly dismissed most of them. Yes, the "Eraser" feature really does work to get that person who moves into your photo removed from the image. The problem is, did you set that mode in advance?
But some are keepers, such as the easy access to shooting modes for sports or a night shot. I especially appreciated "Burst Shot," the ability to hold the shutter button down and have a stream of pictures taken, all in a row. Oddly, you have to dig into the settings to enable this, rather than select from the "Mode" options:
For me, this was an ideal mode for when my son was in a karate tournament. It's also something you don't get on the iPhone, not natively, not without hunting down a third-party app for support.
I also appreciated the video recording quality. For concerts, my iPhone has been amazing in capturing not just the video but also great sound. My other phones have sound all washed out. But with the S4, I got great sounds plus the ability to even zoom in on my subject, such as Billy Idol at the Google I/O event. Sure, he's a bit grainy. But he sounded great:
Unfortunately, I found that the phone, like several others I have (including the iPhone), did a poor job with the exposure of performer's faces. Their faces get washed out.
The unneeded add-ons
The S4 is also packed with features that almost feel like Samsung was desperate to make up something just to seem different. Air Gestures are supposed to let me answer a phone call with a wave, or flick through pictures by waving over my phone. Air View means I can just hover my finger over things like a day on my calendar, to get more information.
I played briefly with such things, found them gimmicky and haven't gone back to explore. Maybe I will, but actually touching the screen works every time, and works well.
WatchON is supposed to let my phone control my TV. I played with that on another review device that Samsung sent, the Galaxy Note 8. After ages, I got it to work to control my Samsung TV but not my DirecTV. I could have kept playing with it more, and maybe I will -- but in the end, I found using my old-fashioned dedicated remote was better.
One thing I loved was the built-in Walking Mate app. It tracks your steps, felt like it was working pretty accurately compared with some of the other pedometers I've used, and even worked when the phone was inside my backpack:
Walking Mate has a widget that shows you your daily total, and you can drill down using that to see week, month, and year views.
There's also the Samsung Hub, which lets me rent music or video. I never bothered with it. Since I already use Google Play when I'm on an Android device, that's access to all my music and video needs.
The non-Android Android
Samsung, of course, has its own interface on top of the stock Android, called Touch Wiz. For the most part, I didn't find this a problem. Sure, sometimes I was confused figuring out where configuration settings were hiding, compared with my Galaxy Nexus or my Nexus 4, both of which run stock Android. But it wasn't that big of a deal.
Only three things really bothered me. First, that Google Now wasn't available by a press-and-swipe-up from the Home button. But that's because, in part, the Home button on the Galaxy S4 is a physical button. You can't swipe it up. Instead, press, then select the Google icon -- or tap on the Google search box, and you get to Google Now that way.
Second, Android File Transfer wouldn't work on my Mac, causing me to use the awful Samsung Kies app instead or pulling images off via Mac Preview. As it turns out, Kies itself may be the problem. It's on my Mac in order to update other Samsung phones, and it may be blocking Android File Transfer.
The last was the lack of Photo Sphere for the camera. As a couple of readers told me after my last column, there are options, if you want to install a different Camera app from the "Google Edition" of the Galaxy S4. I just wish it were native.
I'm actually very tempted by the Google Edition of the S4, which keeps all of Samsung's add-ons off the device. But some of those enhancements I do like. I know I'm a weird case, but I'd like an edition of the phone that allowed me to add on the add-ons selectively.
A keeper, for now
In the end, there's plenty more to the phone I've yet to explore. CNET even has its own Mastering The Galaxy S4 guide, which I might pick up so I can learn how to use the phone better. But I always like phones for what they make obvious to me without having to be studied. With the S4, there was plenty to like that way.
In the end, what I found most remarkable was how "safe" I felt with the phone. That's the best way I could describe it. With the iPhone, I know I'm ready for anything, from shooting pictures at a school event, to recording video at a concert, to just reading e-mail or sharing things on social media. It was going to work, flawlessly. That's why if I had to take only one phone, the iPhone would have been it.
The Galaxy S4 gave me all that but with a much larger screen. It's the first time in a long time I've felt like another phone kept me just as all-around "safe" as the iPhone. Oh, one exception. The S4 can't help with my Clash of Clans addiction. That's helped the iPhone return as a device I think of as "must-carry," if I know I've got something to build in the game coming up!