Samsung Galaxy S 4 hands-on shows nice hardware but software is the star

After months of leaks, rumors and general gossip, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is finally here. On Thursday night, Samsung unveiled its new flagship phone and I was able to spend a short amount of time using a pre-production model. While some may find the hardware improvements to be incremental, it’s difficult to argue that Samsung’s software is the star of the smartphone. In the 15 or so minutes that I used the handset, it became clear to me that nobody — not even Google(s goog), to a degree — is pushing Android software ahead.

Obviously, I’ll have a full review of the phone after getting a loaner device and putting it through paces. So consider this to be my first impressions.

The hardware: better but not a design departure

At 130 grams, the Galaxy S 4 is barely lighter than its predecessor. And yes, it’s mostly plastic and looks similar to the Galaxy S 3  and Galaxy Note 2. But at 7.9 millimeters thick, it is thinner and a little more polished than the prior model: If you don’t mind the Galaxy S 3 design and build, you’ll be happy with the look and feel this handset.

There are also some solid component upgrades: A next-generation, 1.9 GHz quad-core processor with integrated LTE modem (for the U.S. market), a 5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display with 441 ppi density and Gorilla Glass 3, 2600 mAh battery, 2 GB of memory, 13 megapixel rear camera and 2 megapixel front facing camera. All flavors of Wi-Fi — including the new 802.11 a/c standard — are supported as is Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS/GLONASS, HSPA+42 and LTE. The Galaxy S 4 also has an IR blaster in it, so you can use it to control any television set that uses an infrared remote.

With this hardware the device seemed peppy and responsive, even though it doesn’t yet have the final software version installed. The phone easily handled a burst of 20 camera shots without breaking a sweat. And the display is outstanding from every angle; colors aren’t over-saturated as they were on some Samsung phone displays over the past few years.

If you’re on the fence with hardware, the software may win you over

Samsung has packed so many new features in the phone that I have five handwritten pages of notes covering them all. I say that in a good way, because first and foremost, the Galaxy S 4 software is build on Android 4.2.2. Yes, this phone is actually introduced with the most current version of Android. That alone is nice, but then you have TouchWiz, Samsung’s software interface.

TouchWiz itself is really no different than before. Instead, Samsung has baked in more features to the phone through TouchWiz. There’s a new Settings option in the notification shade to enable or disable all of the features. So what are they? Here’s a run-down, brief description and thoughts on just some of the major ones:

  • AirView. You can hover with your finger over the display — about 1 to 1.5 centimeters in my quick tests — to interact with the phone. This works for video previews, calendar event or email information and a custom version of Flipboard: Hover a finger over the Technology tile, for example, and the tile expands to show the first three story titles.
  • AirBrowse. Another gesture function that I think will get more use than AirView. Waving your hand over the phone flips through gallery images, songs or browser tabs. You can also answer your phone with this gesture and the call will immediately initiate speakerphone mode. In the browser, waving up or down over the phone actually scrolls the web page; handy for reading while eating lunch! I’d love to see this feature in the Kindle app, but Samsung told me that Amazon would have to include it.
  • Smart Pause. This uses facial recognition, not quite eye-tracking, to tell when you’re looking at the display. If you’re watching a video and turn your head away from the screen, the content will pause.
  • Dual Camera. This feature uses both camera sensors at the same time and provides 8 ways to combine the images. It seems a little gimmicky, but I could see a few interesting use cases, such as interviews, gadget reviews or presentations.
  • Drama Shot. An interesting use of burst mode that combines multiple images into one. This is good for action shots: One example I saw was someone diving off a cliff. Using Drama Shot, you can see the diver at multiple points of the dive in a single image.
  • Eraser. Another camera mode and one I think can be really handy; especially if you live among photobombers. This mode takes multiple images in burst mode and detects any movement in the frame. The assumption is that you didn’t want that object or person in the image; think of someone walking in between you and a landmark. The Galaxy S 4 in Eraser mode lets you easily remove the unwanted bits from the picture and restores the background from the other images. Clever.
  • S-Health. Samsung is getting into the health tracking business with custom software and accessories. The app works with an integrated pedometer, optional heart rate monitor or pedometer band. Your activity data is then synced up to Samsung for storage and analysis.
  • S-Translator. Samsung has integrated a translation app in many of its own native software, helping to translate communications to one of 10 languages at launch. Email and ChatOn are two apps that support S-Translator.
  • Text reader. This app will scan a picture of text and then convert it through Optical Character Recognition. If it detects contact information, it can even smartly auto-populate a contact record; great for scanning business cards instead of manually entering the data. It also works with QR codes.

There’s plenty more tucked inside the Galaxy S 4 but again, in my limited time, these were what I felt were the most interesting use cases and experiences. Other than a revamped design, I’m not sure what people could have expected Samsung to do from a hardware perspective. Even with technology cycling faster all the time, the components in the Galaxy S 4 are surely enough to carry the device out for a year or so. And most new flagship phones use the same, or nearly the same components.

That’s why I think Samsung’s software improvements and features will help the Galaxy S 4 appeal to a widespread audience when it becomes available. We’ll see in the second quarter when all four major U.S. carriers, along with Cricket and US Cellular start sales.