Samsung stumbles with soulless Galaxy phone

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Does a phone need a soul?

That's what's missing from the Galaxy S4, Samsung's boldest effort yet to supplant Apple's iPhone as the pace- and trend-setter among mobile devices.

Certainly the S4, which arrives in the US this week, is loaded with enough high technology to send the geeky hipsters who populate Samsung's commercials into spasms of ecstasy.

At the same time, it includes an "easy mode" that hides much of that technology -- in case your granny is just moving up from her old Motorola StarTAC -- as well as a business-users mode that seems designed to lure disgruntled BlackBerry customers.

Lost somewhere in this no-consumer-left-behind device, though, is any sense of personality. With its quad-core processor, 16 or 32 gigabytes of storage and 13-megapixel camera, it's state-of-the-art powerful, but several of its advanced features don't work very well, and it feels more like a collection of functions than a smoothly integrated experience.

Physically, the S4 bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor, the Galaxy S III. It's the same height and width, but at less than a third of an inch thick and 4.6 ounces is both thinner and lighter.

Dazzling display

Most important, its skinnier bezels allow for a larger screen -- five inches, compared with the S III's 4.8 inches. And what a screen, with Samsung's Super AMOLED technology and a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. As is common on Samsung devices, it's dazzling.

The same can't be said for the rest of the phone. It isn't nearly as handsome as the iPhone 5 or HTC's gorgeous One; the outstanding characteristic of its plastic body is its removable back, which both allows access to the battery and accommodates Samsung's new extra-cost S-View cover.

The S4's identity crisis isn't helped by what feels like an intensifying struggle for dominance between Samsung and Google, whose Android operating system powers the phone.

With whom do you want to back up your phone's contents -- Google or Samsung? You're prompted to sign up by each of them. What's your preferred source for movies, TV shows and apps -- the Google Play store, or Samsung's Hub? Each is jockeying for your business, with different video players and separate libraries depending on where you acquired the material.

Dueling e-mail

The competition even extends to how you check your Google e-mail and calendar and surf the Web.

One of the S4's coolest features is Air View: When you hover your finger above the screen it opens a preview of a message or calendar item, or a magnifying glass for Web material. I found it particularly useful for rapidly going through my inbox.

But it doesn't work in the familiar Gmail and Google Calendar apps, nor in Google's Chrome browser. Instead, you'll need to configure Samsung's own apps to check your mail and calendar. (The company says it may eventually allow third-party apps to take advantage of the feature.)

My experience with several of the other new technologies bundled into the S4 was decidedly mixed.

The Air Gestures feature, which lets you move between browser tabs or flip through photos by waving your hand, did work but was of limited value. Touching the screen isn't much of a hardship unless you spend a lot of time surfing the web with, say, barbecue sauce on your fingers.

Lame functions

Meanwhile, I had a hard time getting several of the other whizzy features to work properly. One, which is supposed to scroll through web pages and the like by following your gaze, was of limited use; it didn't always work, and when it did, it was much better at scrolling down than scrolling up.

And I never could get Smart Pause, which is supposed to stop playing a video when you look away from the screen, to work properly. Sometimes it would stop while I was looking directly at the screen, but most times it wouldn't stop even when I turned my head away.

More successful is the new interface for the camera, which is largely borrowed from Samsung's Galaxy Camera point-and- shoot. It does a bunch of neat tricks, like letting you shoot simultaneously from the front- and rear-facing cameras, putting yourself into an inset in the photo.

Another mode is supposed to take multiple-exposure pictures to let you capture a progressive event like a baby's steps in a single frame, but I got it to work only sporadically.

TV remote

The S4 also includes a built-in infrared blaster, so it can double as a universal TV remote. It worked well on both Samsung and Panasonic TVs in my home, and comes with an app that learns what you watch and helps you locate content you might like.

Battery life seems adequate to get you through a full day of use, though I wasn't able to test it on an LTE network, the fastest and most power-hungry type of connection: The company only made available the Sprint version of the phone, and the carrier doesn't yet have LTE coverage in most of the country.

Sprint is charging $250 for the 16 gigabyte model on a two- year contract, while AT&T is charging $200 and Verizon Wireless, which isn't launching the phone immediately, hasn't yet set a price. T-Mobile, which is doing away with the practice of subsidizing the cost of phones, is charging $630 but isn't requiring a two-year service commitment.

The Galaxy S4 is by no means a bad phone, but after the over-the-top marketing blitz surrounding it, the reality is a let-down.

By Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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