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Galaxy S4: Smart Software Featured In Our Hands-On Test, part 1

Loie Favre (translation)

The Galaxy S4 comes with the best hardware that Android smartphones have ever seen. However, when Samsung presented its flagship in New York, lots of people were at a loss for words. The main focus of this new headset should in fact be concentrated on its software, which has transformed the cold piece of metal into a personal assistant. There are really so many that it's difficult to lose track. Today I will present the most important and interesting functions and help differentiate the useful ones from the ones that you can quickly forget.

IMG 8049
© AndroidPIT

For beginners, the feature-packed S4 is above all very confusing. Many of the functions were featured in the S3, but many are new. Now there's Smart Stay, Smart Scroll and Smart Pause, Air View, Air Browse, Air Check and Quick Check. The good thing is that you don't have to memorize anything, many of these things are like toys and aren't use that often. On the other hand, there are some functions that really are useful. In this first part, I will explain how to use the S4's gestures, languages, views and head movements and how they function.

galaxy s4 void commmand
Look mom, no hands! The S4 listens to its owner with voice controls. © AndroidPIT

Voice Controls

Many features of the S4 can be controlled by voice control. One example of this is the alarm. If you say ''stop'', it will stop ringing. If you want to keep on sleeping, say ''remember''. But who really talks like this in the morning? I usually can't muster more than a grumble. And if after the fifth time, you still need to yell ''stop'', it could get a little frustrating.

In practice: Low. It could definitely be worked on. For example, it would be cool if you could choose your own command, like ''Mhgrhghrrrrrrr off!''

Photos can also be taken using voice control, like when you say ''click'' or ''smile''. During our test, it worked well, though there was a 1 second delay. That's OK for self-portraits with the back camera, but for normal pictures, it's a little too long of a wait. When the shutter is released, the photographed people's smiles might have already turned upside down.

In practice: It's works when a group of people are asked to smile and it directly takes a picture. Though manually snapping a photo is more precise and faster.

S4 my device voice command

When you have an incoming call, you're also able to use voice command to either accept or reject it and then use the speakerphone function. This worked inconsistently during the course of my test. Even my college Nico couldn't get it to work, albeit his loud voice. Yelling ''answer'' five times isn't the most practical way to complete get such a simple task.

In practice: very very meager for the time being, since the voice command is in no way dependable.

Music player can also be operated by the voice command, but unfortunately it didn't listen to me when I tried telling it what to do. ''Pause'' and ''Repeat'' only worked after multiple tries, while ''next'' and ''previous'' were solid fails. ''Louder'' and ''quieter'' also finally worked after yelling myself hoarse.

In practice: again, very mediocre. Voice command for the music player is, for the moment, a very trivial feature, especially when it doesn't work.

PS: Voice command is deactivated when your phone is put on vibrate.

Motions and gestures

You'll find the sensor for gesture recognition in the top right side of the display. According to Samsung, it recognizes ''normal gestures'' up to about 2.8 inches away. Device and position sensors activate other functions.

galaxy s4 2
The S4 sees all with its sensors. © AndroidPIT

Calls will also work with motion recognition. Once a contact has been chosen or a number has been entered, the call will be launched once you place the headset to your ear. A short vibration signals the function's activation. By flipping the phone upside down, this will mute the noise. This is ideal for when you get a call in bad situation. Simply flip the phone over and place it on its display.

In practice: this is useful in day-to-day use. You'll quickly get used to it and then it will become a useful and ingrained action.

Samsung galaxy s4 mute
This isn't a slight of the hand, placing your hand over top of the screen will mute the noise. © AndroidPIT

Back to music commands, if you want to pause, simply place your palm above the display. This only works when the screen is turned on. It's also very practical that you don't actually need to be in the music app to do this. If you want to start the music up again, you need to tap on the play button again, which for me slightly defeats the purpose.

In practice: i<>n this round, this feature scrapped by with just passing grades, since it only worked with a turned-on screen and only in one direction. Though this could be helpful from time-to-time, it's definitely not a killer feature.


S4 music player mute pause

Quickly glancing at your most important status information is now made available by Quick Check for when your screen is shut off. By placing your hand over the sensor, it presents the date, time, missed calls and messages, as well as remaining battery. The information will appear after about 2 seconds, which is actually quite slow for a quick check.

In practice: this idea is good, but it could be better implemented and faster.

A hand swipe gesture will take a screenshot. This is a new feature, though it didn't really give me that ''wow'' effect. The old power/home button combination still works.

In practice: It's great for those who actually need to take a ton of screenshots.

S4 quick settings screenshot

By holding your finger at a certain distance away from the display, while in either the gallery, mail app or an email, you'll get a small preview of the content. This function is called ''Air View'' and at first, is something really out of the ordinary. After testing it out for a while, you finally get the hang of this touchless navigation. The user receives the haptic feedback with a short vibration. There's only one flaw: Air View only works with Samsung apps

In practice: first off, you'll need to get used to it, but it might just save you some time by skipping a few steps. I can see a lot of potential here.

When using any of the Samsung apps (Gallery, Browser, Music Player, S Memo etc), Air View permits you to flip from page to page, jump to the next picture or skip to the following song. All you do is swipe your hand over the sensor. This might look a little dumb, but it actually doesn't have to be your entire hand; it could also just be your finger. During the course of my test, the sensor didn't always react right away.

In practice: though it did actually work, the problem was that it wasn't consistent and was only applicable with Samsung apps. Overall, it proves to be a good idea, but definitely has room for improvement.

S4 air view

For moving around symbols, like from home screen to the S Planner or to the app overview, Air Move will do the trick. Simply hold down on the symbol and with the other hand, swipe over the sensor. This will move the element in the direction of your swipe.

In practice: Actually not too shabby! The only thing is that this necessitates a combination of two movements simultaneously, which might require a little bit of getting used to. This is more of an extra gimmick than a something incredibly useful.

If you're smartphone is lying on the table and you get a call, you'll be able to ''Air Call Accept'' when you move your hand over the sensor. When speaker-phone has been switched on, you don't even need to touch the phone to carry on a conversation.

In practice: It's useful for when the speaker phone has been turned on, but that's pretty much it.

galaxy s4 screenshots
No, this isn't karate, it's simply how you take a screenshot. © AndroidPIT

When your screen is turned off and you pick up your headset, ''Smart Alert'' notify you of missed calls or messages with a vibration. The screen will stay off.

In practice: it's not to bad, because you'll be notified whether you've missed something by a simple vibration, though you'll probably still turn on the display out of sheer habit.

Some of the functions, which are activated with gesture controls, are more useful than others, which are basically fancy gimmicks. All require a certain time to get used to. When the motions eventually become intuitive and part of your smarpthone routine, it's at that point in time that they will really become useful.

Eye controls and head movements

The sensors also pick up eye and head movements. Samsung created the Galaxy S4 in hopes that it would become a life companion, which fulfills its users every wish by a look or a nod. That being said, they still have a steep road ahead in this ultimate goal.

galaxy s4 eye
Look deep into my eye: the S4 connects with its user on multiple levels. © AndroidPIT

When you're watching a movie and look away to watch a girl/guy walk by, your S4 will automatically put whatever you're watching to a standstill. This is called ''Smart Pause''. During the course of my test, it didn’t really work 100% of the time. At first the S4 didn’t react at all, even though I was really careful to make my eye movements really sharp by looking directly at it and then directly away. That being said, my Russian college Farida had no problem with this function. When I tried it out again, it worked! It's cool that Smart Pause also works when you close your eyes. The not-so-cool side is that the video will stop every single time you look away. This is practical, yet a tad annoying.

In practice: Meek at most, though I see a lot of potential in the technology. I can see this being particularly useful at home in front of the TV.

You don't even need to lift a finger to scroll, now that ''Smart Scroll'' performs this function simply by tipping the device or by moving your head up and down. These two options can be activated within the settings. Contrary to what we believed, this doesn't work with eye movements, only with head motion. What's more, it only works with Samsung applications, like the pre-installed browser. Chrome doesn't support this function.

In practice: like many of the other ones, this function is currently in its very humble beginning, though the technology has a bright future ahead. Smart scroll doesn't work with your eyes and was really annoying when tried out, since it was hard to control it with head motions. The scroll would just start rolling up and down out of control. Completing this action by tilting worked quite well. At the end of the day, the absolute best solution is simply using your touch screen and scrolling with your finger.

S4 smart screen smart scroll

Flipping over present smartphones will switch the display from portrait to landscape mode. This is practical but can get rather irritating when it's place down flat on a surface and switches to a viewing mode that you don't want. Now Samsung has come out with its ''Smart Rotation'', where your viewing angle is recognized and makes sure that your display will stay in portrait mode to avoid situations like mentioned above.

In practice: worked extremely well, even if this function won’t find its way into every day use. It's a small, yet very practical feature.

Bottom Line

The Galaxy S4 is a beacon for the future. Its intuitive and touchless controls will become a part of your daily smartphone routine where you don't even need to think about it. But it's still clear that this is only the start of something bigger; we are only a the threshold. The functions are in part not very developed, especially those controlled by voice command.

This was part 1 of getting-to-know the Galaxy S4 and its incredible laundry list of new software features. In the second part, we will be discussing the camera functions and presenting further practical features and applications. Do you have any questions or requests? Is there something that really interests you?

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  • David L. Apr 29, 2013 Link

    I'm going out on a short limb here... if these were new features in the next iPhone, Apple fans would be having a parade down Broadway regardless of how well they did or didn't work. Let's see how they react to less than perfect features not on their phone. I bet they just classify them as useless prototype features until Apple includes them.

  • sebastiao cassule Apr 30, 2013 Link

    É interessante as funcoes do s4 sobre os filmes o contacto com os olhos no screan o uso diurno e noturno. Sera q no futuro nao teremos problemas d saude com estas novas tecnologias?

  • User picture
    Loie Favre Apr 30, 2013 Link

    @ Sebastiao Cassule:
    Here is the Spanish website's take on the Galaxy S4. They might be able to answer your questions.

  • Randy Walsh May 1, 2013 Link

    The 16 GB model has less than 10 GB's usable storage. That's not nearly enough for me. And you can no longer put App's on SD cards. And also the fact that many are reporting lag on this new device that should not be in such a high spec device. I'll pass.

  • David Baron May 2, 2013 Link

    Life companion ... until the S5 is released, maybe 6 months. These phones are approaching one night stands ... overpriced ones at that!

    Phonecall features: App "intelliring" has most of them and no false moves.
    "Chop" screenshots? Expect to see on Play soon if not already.
    Airborn stuff? Sometimes screens are too sensitive and activities are launched almost spontaneously. I think most users will turn it off.
    Head controls? Is the person next to you acting strangely? Bet he has an S4 :-)

  • John NHT May 2, 2013 Link

    Ok, Mr. Baron, since you're not really contributing anything useful from hands on experience with the S3 or S4:

    Overpriced?? yet most new high end phones including the Iphone costs around $200 with a contract. everyone knows that. big deal. if it's too expensive, don't get one. simple.

    An app for phone call features?? The whole point of mentioning them here is that they are built into the phone: S3 currently has most of them and always has. S4 improves & builds on this with a few more features. BUILT IN. You don't have to buy an app for it. If your phone doesnt do it, then YES, buy an app for it. Yeah, that's a great selling point, lol!! The app is for every other phone that doesn't have SOME of those features, NOT the S3 and S4. Does Intelliring do everything the article says the S4 does?? No. Never ever heard of it until today. Why?? Built in. And besides Intelliring reacts on events after the phone rings (or new notification) is detected. Samsung's Smart features are much, much, than that.

    No, it's not called Chop Screenshots. It's a simple swipe of your hand. It's a shortcut, yeah you can use Power + Home, and it wasn't put there to WOW you. Simplicity. Not everything has to WOW you to useful and functional.

    Airborne stuff?? Sounds silly until you realize that you can use your phone without getting the screen dirty. Note 2 users already do it. And of course an iPhone user would say: "Sometimes screens are too sensitive and activities are launched almost spontaneously." Funny comment when it's not the screen sensitivity that effects NOT touching the screen. The sensors works in context to what you are doing on the phone. Up to 2.8" from the screen, doesn't matter how sensitive the screen is.

    Head controls: Do you not already move your head and eyes when you read left to right and top to bottom on a page of a book or whatever??? How is that strange?? Is the person next to you not moving his head and blinking?? Bet he's a robot (or some kind of sheep) :-)

    And it's ok, if you turn a feature off. That's your choice on the S3 and S4. It's encouraged to customize features as you feel it. However, you don't have any idea what most users will do.

    @David L.: I think me and my S3 just paraded ourselves down Broadway, LOL!!

  • David Baron May 2, 2013 Link

    John, you take me tooooo seriously :-)

    Except for the prices. Here (in Israel) we do not get subsidies for subscribing to plans but get financing which makes things even worse. One can switch plans and carriers at will now, keep paying for phone. In six months when I upgrade to S5, I am still paying for that S4 in addition.

    I still use my LG optimus (cheapo) and am running (most of) 4.2 on it.

  • Barney May 2, 2013 Link

    The hand swipe screen shot method has been in the S3 since it's launch, so nothing new there.