Samsung Galaxy S4: Size matters, but isn’t everything

The Samsung Galaxy S4′s tagline — “The next big thing is here” – is a telling pitch. The Galaxy is the world’s second best-selling phone, behind the iPhone.  And the latest version unabashedly claims that bigger is better. But considering the S4 in a different light, maybe we shouldn’t think of it as a big phone. Maybe we should treat it like a very small tablet and leave our real tablet home.

While narrower than Samsung’s Galaxy Note by about a half-inch, the S4 strongly evokes a miniature but very serviceable tablet. And since making calls is one of the things we seem to do least with our phones, marketing a connected device like the S4 as a very small tablet that also makes calls might not be a bad idea.

As a “tablet,” the S4 delivers. Screen resolution is amazing.. It runs fast and smooth, which is not a given when you don’t own both the hardware and software. The S4 runs the latest version of Google’s Android mobile operating system, Jellybean 4.2.

The S4 has a larger screen — 4.99 inches versus 4.8 for the S III. The case is narrower by .03 inches. But that push to increase screen size without increasing the footprint makes it a more sensitive device. The context menu and “back” below the screen are just too easily tapped inadvertently while merely holding the phone while doing a task, like typing. These buttons were vexing in another, smaller way as well: They light up whenever you touch the screen.

The S4 also prompts reflection on the range of devices and how they’ve positioned themselves five years into the smartphone revolution. One of the biggest dividing lines is whether a mobile device is optimized for consumption or production — whether it’s a good working tool or a media hub.

As a productivity tool, the S4 left me wanting more. It fared poorly while typing, which is the baseline for me. For all the screen space the keyboard feels cramped. There is too much space around the keys. Auto-correct — offering three predictive word choices above the keyboard as you type — seemed almost out of reach. I got better at it but it never felt natural.

But the S4 is a playful device, resplendent in bright colors inside and out, with all the features you’d expect when it comes to taking pictures and enjoying media. In fact, I had three — count’em three — stores from which to choose: Google Play, of course, but also Sprint (the carrier) and Samsung itself.

Most phone picture taking is serendipitous. Check your Facebook or Instagram feeds if you have any doubt. So any feature that needs to be accessed before you take a picture is won’t get a lot of use. One that should never be used is picture in a picture — a way to photobomb yourself into the shot, which seems especially hedonistic. For all the potential to jazz up your future memories, even the trained demonstrators showing off advanced features for reporters found do-overs necessary. Not many of those in real life.

The S4 has taken some guff for its plastic — Samsung calls it polycarbonate — case. I’m not in the chorus that finds “cheap” materials a problem. Indeed, it’s a benefit because so much of the weight is in the case. And face it:Your phone is disposable. We never keep our smartphones for as long as they will work. There is always a $200 alternative and all of your data is in some cloud somewhere. But the S4 does not have a cheap feel. There is more than enough heft and balance to know you are not handling a toy.

With the S4, Samsung is outdoing Apple at Apple’s game: a modestly improved piece of hardware that loyal users of the SIII will want as an upgrade. The question is whether they can capture any new business from the business set. Doubtful.

The S4 is a fine consumer-oriented phone, delivering a familiar and robust Android experience. But even though it might find its way into a road warrior’s home, I doubt many will end up in any road warrior hands.

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