updated 06:52 am EDT, Fri March 15, 2013
The Galaxy S 4 is a technical marvel, but I won't be switching from the iPhone 5
So the Samsung Galaxy S 4 has finally launched with nearly all the major leaks and rumors about the device proving true. There can be no question that Samsung has put everything it could possibly fit into its extra-large ‘Galaxy S IIIS’ as some are referring to it, because it looks much the same as the Galaxy S III. However, as much tech as Samsung has packed into its new flagship, it simply doesn’t tempt me to switch from my iPhone 5.
The Samsung Galaxy S 4 has the iPhone 5, its biggest competitor, beaten in just about every piece of the hardware department. Yet, despite its hardware advantages, Apple will continue to sell tens of millions of its iPhone 5. If buying a smartphone is all about the hardware, Samsung should have Apple dead in the water. But it doesn’t, and it won’t. Not today, not tomorrow and not in the foreseeable future.
If you take a look at the raw specifications of the Galaxy S 4 and compare them with the iPhone, it is clear that Samsung has taken a distinct lead over Apple’s iPhone 5. It is an amazing piece of hardware, coupled with some distinctive Samsung software customization of Google’s Android 4.2.2 ‘Jelly Bean’ operating system. Let’s start with its 5-inch display, which leaves me, and many others, cold as it is simply makes the device too big, even if Samsung has managed to shave 3 grams off the weight of the Galaxy S III in making the 4.
Not that it isn’t a technological marvel with its 1080p, full high definition, OLED display with a mind boggling 441 pixels per inch (the same pixel density as other 5-inch 1080p displays on devices like the Sony Xperia Z). The iPhone 5, by comparison has a much more usable 4-inch IPS LCD display with a more than acceptable (but no longer cutting edge) pixel density of 326ppi. However, I also own a Nexus 4 (to keep abreast of Android developments) and find that I can get around its 4.7-inch 720p display with one hand (with some thumb gymnastics involved) - which is why I think HTC made the right decision with its new One, packing a 1080p display into a 4.7-inch size achieving a record 468ppi in the process.
The next most notable aspect of the Galaxy S 4 (depending on region) is its Exynos 5 Octa processor. On paper, it makes the dual-core A6 processor in the iPhone 5 look anemic, although anyone who uses the iPhone 5 will attest to the fact that it remains a blazing fast piece of custom Apple engineering. Further, while the Exynos 5 Octa has eight-cores, it does not utilize all cores simultaneously. Instead, it uses ARM’s big.LITTLE processor architecture mating a quad-core Cortex-A15 (big) processor with a quad-core Cortex-A7 processor on the same die.
ARM’s Cortex-A15 architecture is very similar to the ‘Swift’ architecture underpinning the A6 design (and the ‘Krait’ architecture underpinning Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 chips). This is where the power in the Exynos 5 Octa lies even if it is an ‘off the shelf’ ARM design. But how well it is optimized for the Android operating system remains a point of contention. Apple, on the other hand, has complete control over the design of its A6 processor as well as its iOS operating system – there is no more optimized combination of software and hardware in the smartphone segment.
And then there’s the all-plastic build of the Galaxy S 4. I just can’t bring myself to buy plastic products, especially when there are beautifully crafted devices out there made from aluminum like the iPhone 5, of course, and the HTC One on the market. It’s the same with my notebooks. I will gladly pay more for a device, as long as it is not plastic. While I won’t be buying the HTC One either, I would choose that over the Galaxy S 4 if I was miraculously converted into to being an everyday Android user. Again, it is not the hardware or the specifications that is really the issue. It is everything else.
As I mentioned earlier, I own a Nexus 4. It is an excellent device and runs a stock version of Android, which remains the least ‘affected’ version of the OS on the market. However, for all of its customizability and quick update capability, my iPhone 5 remains my go to device and will continue to be my go to device until Apple releases its next iPhone. The Galaxy S 4 uses the latest version of Samsung’s Android operating system, TouchWiz. Even though Samsung has been good enough to push it out the door with the very latest version of Android on board, its UI is not superior to stock Android, nor will it be updated quickly either. Samsung’s track record of software updates for previous devices speaks for itself in this regard.
Where TouchWiz trumps stock Android is the addition of features such as ‘Smart Scroll,’ ‘Air View,’ and ‘Air Gestures.’. All of these functions are futuristic and help to define the Galaxy S 4 as being a cutting edge, if not bleeding edge, device. Yet, do they really do anything to enhance the user experience? Is it such a chore to actually touch the screen of a device to scroll or navigate it? These ‘features’ have the whiff of being nothing more than pure gimmickry. In fact, it can be argued that it is the touching of the device that has helped users become more connected, and indeed attached, to their smartphones.
Which brings us to iOS, which by comparison, doesn’t have the same level of overall features as TouchWiz, or even stock Android. Apple has incrementally built upon its near neutral UI choosing to add functionality when it is properly tested and refined, while focusing on maintaining the purity of its user experience. iOS has evolved considerably from version 1.0, but its UI has not been changed simply for sake of change. While it could do with a refresh in look, Apple has always focused on letting the apps do the talking on the iPhone making for a simple and clean user experience.
Beyond all of this, is of course Apple’s incomparable iTunes ecosystem. Even now, neither Samsung or Google has been able to beat, let alone match, Apple on this count. The deep integration between iOS and Apple’s A-series processors is hard to beat, but the underlying iTunes ecosystem is all but impossible to beat. As much as some users complain about the iTunes desktop application and Apple’s ‘walled garden,’ it exists not because of a tyrannical desire to exact control overs its users, but to maintain the most seamless user experience when it comes to installing and enjoying content, whether it is apps, movies, music, TV, podcasts or books.
Despite what some people claim, you can also use the iTunes application to install your own media content on your iPhone, while you can also install music purchased from iTunes on Android and other devices. Apple also serves tens of thousands of free apps, free podcasts, free TV shows costing a users nothing more than their monthly Internet connection. Or you can now also completely by-pass the iTunes desktop application thanks to iCloud and iTunes Match.
By comparison, Google Play is a marked improvement over the Android Market since launching one year ago, but it is still no match for the seamless combined power of the iTunes web application and its desktop companion. Further, Google has not struck the same licensing deals that Apple has inked in nearly as many markets around the globe. Samsung has also worked hard to launch additional services to support its customers, but still these still do not offer the seamless end-to-end user experience that Apple offers. As Phil Schiller recently said, signing up to Android means signing up to around nine services with different vendors to get the equivalent user experience as is built directly into iOS and the iPhone.
If you want the flashiest piece of technological wizardry that you can just about cram into one hand, the Galaxy S 4 is for you. I have no doubt that millions of users will buy it and love it as is their right. Specification-wise it is objectively the best piece of smartphone hardware on the market (although HTC might have something to say about that) – but that does not necessarily make it the best smartphone experience on the market. Not by some margin.
I could also put it another way. If the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and the HTC One ran iOS, and I had to choose between them and the iPhone 5, I would choose the HTC One. Right now, that would be my ideal combination of design, hardware, software and ecosystem. Whichever way I look at it, though, there is nothing that would make me want to buy the Samsung Galaxy S 4. And seriously, what is with that cheesy ‘Life companion’ nonsense…? I’ve got one of those already – she is my wife Leanne!
By Sanjiv Sathiah