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Product Reviews by Edgar Dworsky

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Samsung Galaxy S 4 Smartphone

Samsung Galaxy S 4 The latest and greatest smartphone from Samsung is the Android-based Galaxy S 4. It follows in the footsteps of the Galaxy S 3, which reportedly has sold over 40 million units worldwide. Samsung was kind enough to provide Consumer World with an S 4 review unit.

MrConsumer currently owns a lower-end Nokia touchscreen phone that really can't be called a state-of-the-art smartphone, so the S 4 is a completely new experience.

Immediately one notices the large five-inch screen, with brilliant brightness and clarity. It is full 1920 x 1080 HD resolution. Watching a news clip in HD is as sharp as you would see it on a big screen HDTV. However, in bright daylight, it almost completely washes out.

The unit is extremely slender, and relatively light, so even having it in a man's front pocket, does not create a bulge. Other critics have complained about the body of the phone feeling "plasticky." It feels absolutely solid even without an aluminum body like the much-touted HTC One.

The touchscreen is very sensitive… so much so that an inadvertent touch here or there on it may change the screen or start an app.

Getting used to a smartphone is not easy for first timers, so Samsung has created an easy mode just for folks like that. It simplifies the screens and controls - in essence it dumbs down the smartphone. After a few days in easy mode, MrConsumer took off the training wheels, and enabled all the features the phone comes with.

There are new-fangled features like "Air Gestures", where supposedly you can wave you hand over the screen, like you are shooing away a fly, to answer the phone or perform various functions like flipping from one picture to the next in your photo gallery. I could never get it to work. Seems to me that it is not exactly difficult to use your finger to swipe the screen to move from picture to picture, so making an air gesture instead doesn't save much time or effort.

Also new is "Air View" - a feature that let's you hover a finger over the screen to perform certain functions. For example, if you are looking at your list of emails that have just come in, you can hover over the subject of any particular email to see a pop-up box displaying a preview of the content of that email. I guess if you were in a restaurant and had sticky fingers, this might be a useful feature.

The phone has a built-in remote control to operate your TV and your cable box that allows you to change the channel and raise and lower the volume. With the included "Watch On" app, you can scroll through program schedules, and even select a show and set a reminder to alert you when it on.

The S 4 has two cameras - a 13-megapixel back facing camera and a 2-megapixel front facing one. MrConsumer took several pictures of the New York skyline recently, and was wowed by the sharpness of the pictures, both night and day shots. (The night shot did have noticeable noise in the picture due to the dark conditions, however.) Even without flash, some indoor pictures render remarkably well. While there is some way to use the up-volume button on the side of the camera as a shutter button, touching the onscreen button sometimes results in a slight delay before the picture is actually taken. MrConsumer also has not mastered the light touch necessary to keep the camera from moving when touching that button.

As to the primary functions of any smartphone -- calling, texting, surfing the Internet, and using apps - the S 4 does a fine job in most respects. MrConsumer however, is a stickler about call quality. Trying two different S 4 phones, those he called reported that the volume was low, and that voices sounded muffled or tinny. Samsung indicated this problem had not been reported by others, nor was a fix offered. Even indoor calls were judged not to be of corded quality to those receiving calls from the S 4.

Surfing the Internet is a breeze because the S 4 uses LTE technology to make speedy data transfers. On the AT&T network, both upload and download speeds were clocked at 17 megabits, for example. That is amazingly fast. Where you just have plain old 4G available, on the AT&T network, transmissions seemed much slower. Because T-Mobile uses some of the same bands as AT&T, we were able to test the S 4 on the T-Mobile network (replacing the AT&T simcard with a T-Mobile one). In areas with good LTE reception with T-Mobile, speeds were similar. In areas of bad reception, however, LTE was non-existent and even making a phone call was a challenge. With some sophisticated trickery, it is also possible to enable some hidden network radios on the AT&T phone to allow it to better utilize the T-Mobile network.

With respect to texting, something that MrConsumer has really never done on a smartphone, it became clear early on that this kind of typing on a glass screen is a learned skilled. Holding the phone vertically, the keyboard is relatively small, and even with small fingers, MrConsumer could barely type two consecutive words correctly. Holding the phone horizontally, however, provides the user with a much larger keyboard (maybe even a hair too wide) to see one's mistakes even larger. Although the default Samsung keyboard is based on Swiftkey technology, buying the real Swiftkey app on sale for $1.99 is a great improvement and investment. It completes words for you as you type, saves a bunch of keystrokes, and helps catch typing errors.

As an Android device, the S 4 has Google's voice recognition software built-in, which can amazingly turn your voice into accurate text in emails, texts, and word documents.

Its built-in assistant is a very distant cousin of Apple's Siri, and that function was promptly turned off. Google Now, also built-in, allows you to set date-based or time-based reminders orally, but is no Siri.

No one will reasonably use all the nifty (or some might say needless) functions built into the S 4, but they can be fun (or frustrating) to play around with.

The battery is 2600 mAh, which is a pretty powerful one. But, keeping the unit on all day with battery-draining GPS, app updates, etc., will surely drain it by day's end. Samsung claims you can do up to eight hours of 4G web surfing.

The S 4 periodically makes little dings and dongs, and it is not always clear what those sounds signal.

All in all, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 phone is a wonderful device. Except for the sound problem that recipients of calls say exists, no wonder Consumer Reports picked this phone as their current top choice for smartphones. ========================================================



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