Samsung’s Galaxy S4 event is over and what do you know: the handset looks the same as the S III. “If it looks the same, how will people know I upgraded?” you may ask yourself. It’s not like Sammy didn’t try. Actually, the features of the S4 were a decent reflection of their absolutely bizarre presentation, illustrated by staged vignettes that had the emotional resonance of an aluminum bat whacked against a flagpole, perfectly encapsulated in Samsung’s new tagline for the device: Life Companion.
On the software side, the S4 is taking a very similar approach, vomiting an array of gimmicky “featurettes” which, while they may distract the average raccoon for 15 seconds, will have the user adhesion of a wet post-it, soon-to-be defaulted to “off” in Settings.
First though, I want to address the presentation.
What the hell is wrong with Samsung? The ugly kid with the box reading from a script that was rejected from a Bollywood B-film, the too-glib emcee handing off the mic to the incoherent Samsung executive that segues into some kind of series of live performance commercials? If Apple orchestrates an event like Spielberg, Samsung may rate Michael Bay. Maybe. The only thing the whole cornucopia of shiny, sucky things tells me is how desperate Samsung was to distract people from the actual quality of the phone they were introducing.
And speaking of pushing something in through an exit-only door, one of the most glaring omissions of the presentation was the word “Android”. I heard it once the whole time. Yet the S 4 will be released with the latest version, Jelly Bean 4.2.2, the only current device to offer it. Next to zero mention of Google’s contribution to Samsung’s product, yet Samsung still manages to extort the latest-and-greatest from them. That’s power. I hope Andy Rubin remembers to pack the ball gag and latex gimp suit in the box of office supplies he’ll be handing off to Sundar Pichai. Maybe he can just leave it in one of the desk drawers.
Once onlookers recovered from Samsung vomiting an assortment of specs and features all over them, the tech press got to go hands-on with the S4. I’d like to go over a few of the things that Samsung thinks is going to differentiate the S4 from other devices:
Eye Tracking, Air Gestures and Air View
So get this: you have a 5″ device in your hand, but if for whatever reason you don’t want to touch the…touchscreen, Samsung has some features for you. Smart Scroll will scroll a webpage based on your eye movement and Smart Pause will freeze a video if you look away from your phone and restart it if you move your head back. Not your eyes; your head. So if you divert your attention, make sure you turn your head away from your smartphone in an definitive motion. From The Verge’s hands-on of these features:
From our limited testing, “Smart Pause” and “Smart Scroll” skew more toward gimmick — they’re supposed to detect your eyes, and either pause your movie when you look away or scroll when you reach the bottom of a page, but neither worked much at all in our time with the GS4.
Of course they didn’t work. Anyone who knows anything about how people actually interact with handheld technology could deduce this sight unseen. Why do you think they had a fucking 8 year old on stage tap dancing?
Air Gestures allow you to wave your hand inches away from your smartphone to move through a series – like moving from one photo to the next in an album, for example. Instead of grabbing your phone one-handed and using your thumb to side-scroll, now you can use 2 hands. Maybe because the 5″ screen (a whopping .2″ improvement over the S III – or is it S3 now?) is bordering on the phablet zone. Back to The Verge’s David Pierce (yes, that one):
“Air Gestures” let you scroll through pictures or scroll a webpage by literally swiping with your hand, without touching the screen — you just sweep from left to right over top of the phone, and it responds. It looks ridiculous, but it works (original emphasis).
At least “it works.” This is The Verge’s Android apologist dissing a feature in italics. Think about that for a second. Two of Samsung’s headline features don’t work and one makes you look ridiculous as you treat your phablet like a Kinect.
Last but not least is Hover Preview, which allows you to preview content – such as enlarging a photo – by hovering your finger just above the screen. Picture yourself about to tap on a photo (that your fingers are already inches from anyway) and holding it there to affect a preview when you could move it another inch and just tap it. After watching all of these features get manhandled by tech blog writers, all I can think is what is the fucking point? These aren’t motion sensors rigged to a plasma TV where you’re sitting a few feet away. This is a device you hold in your hand. Did Donald Trump design this thing?
Keeping with Samsung’s inane habit of sticking “S” in front of every feature it rips off of Apple, Samsung went in an entirely new direction and stuck “S” in front of a feature it copied from about 100 motion sensing apps available on iOS. But they did shoehorn temperature and humidity sensors into the S4 (because you could never get that from the 10,000 geo-locating weather apps), so at least you’ll feel a twinge of guilt before never using them.
Samsung also introduced some social features. Group Play lets you sync up a song with other S4s – because nothing is quite as impressive as a 7.1 system comprised of 8 smartphones. No word on whether or not “touching dongs” would be required to activate the feature.
The Galaxy S4 represents an impasse for Samsung. No longer able to rip off Apple’s features – as much – and not being able to do anything with the hardware beyond what the tech press has ubiquitously referred to as “evolutionary”, Sammy is left to pack shit features and a couple of useless sensors into their kit. But jacking up specs that have little bearing on the actual usability of a device and pumping it full of sensors that enable features no one will ever use – and are available in abundance in Apple’s superior iOS ecosystem – isn’t stoking any reviewerati fires. Putting on batshit insane off-off-off Broadway quality performances to launch these products won’t distract consumers from Samsung’s building desperation.