In a gaudy, sexist, and relentlessly unfunny big-budget pseudo-theatrical production at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, Samsung unveiled a new smartphone that can do lots of things you'd probably never care to do and several things you'd really prefer it didn't.
The hijinks commenced early, as throngs of technophiles braved frigid weather outside the storied venue hoping to be let in to the extended live-action commercial for the vaunted Galaxy S4. This for the company that just a few months ago skewered Apple cultists for doing pretty much the same thing. Eventually the doors parted, and the huddled masses jostled their way to their seats past an open bar and a phalanx of Las Vegas-style cocktail waitresses.
The proceedings opened conventionally enough, with Samsung executive J.K. Shin and marketing director Ryan Bidan taking the stage to wax adjectivally about their latest product's life-changing properties. "Life is a journey," Shin cooed vaguely. "We want to help you experience life to the fullest." (The Galaxy S4, you see, is not a phone, but a “life companion.”) Then came smarmy Broadway actor Will Chase, an ingratiating prepubescent boy, a sideways car, an ear-piercing woman in an opera gown, a troupe of salsa-dancing bridesmaids, and a series of escalatingly elaborate sets, songs, and vignettes that are better left to the imagination, where they couldn’t possibly be as obnoxious as they were in reality. The only props missing were waterskis and a shark.
The Galaxy S4, from what could be gleaned in the brief bursts of information between on-stage histrionics and outbursts from the live orchestra, boasts some admirable hardware, including a luminous 5-inch, 1080p screen, a 13 megapixel camera, and a 2,600 mAh battery. But the fresh uses to which its Android-with-frills operating system puts these capabilities are superfluous at best and downright irksome at worst.
The headliners in the software department are a pair of features that highlight the phone's impressive if slightly unnerving capacity to monitor the behavior of its owner at all times. The more salubrious of the two is S Health, an application suite that can not only track every step you take but combine that information with sensors and Bluetooth devices that measure things like your heart rate and glucose levels. For a minority of smartphone buyers, that could be a genuine selling point.
That's more than can be said for the S4's other big software "innovation," an eyeball-tracking mechanism whose highest use appears to be the ability to pause a video when it notices that you’re looking away. In theory, that might sound nifty. In practice, “Smart Pause” is not only frivolous—how often have you found yourself pining for relief from the pain of pressing a pause button?—but actively annoying. If your eyes dart away momentarily, the video stops just as you return to it, and you find yourself trying to stare at the front-facing camera as intensely as possible in order to jolt it back into action. Touch your face involuntarily and the same thing happens. Fortunately, reports that the phone would also scroll text based on your eye movements proved unfounded. Instead, its “Smart Scroll” figures out the screen’s angle from your face by locating your eyes, then scrolls when you tilt it, which is marginally less vexing.
A third set of features, which include “Air View” and “Air Gesture,” is of so little conceivable merit that it is hardly worth assessing. The basic idea is that you can make certain things happen on the screen without your fingers quite making actual contact with it. Hearty kudos to the Gizmodo blogger who managed to think of a use case: The gesture control could be a boon, observed Brent Rose, “if you find yourself constantly eating buffalo wings and hate moist towelettes.”
The combined effect of the Galaxy S4’s “Smart” and “Air” features is that of a phone that thinks it knows what you want better than you do, and regularly tries to prove it. A previous Samsung device, the Galaxy Note 2, had similar “Air” features, but those at least required you to have a stylus in your hand before it started doing things you didn’t mean for it to do. On the S4, these features have just one redeeming virtue, which is that you can turn them off—provided you can find the settings button without accidentally activating them first.
This was supposed to be Samsung’s time. Last year the company emerged as the first worthy anti-Apple in years, thanks to a succession of capable devices, clever ads, and a patent-infringement case that served mainly to emphasize the striking similarities between Apple’s devices and Samsung’s in nearly every respect but price. The S4 launch was to be Samsung’s coming-out party as the brash new king of the smartphone world. Instead the event was a monument to excess and the phone itself a cautionary tale about what happens when you confuse gimmickry with innovation. (In retrospect, that ad in which Samsung implied that the Galaxy S3 was superior to the iPhone 5 because it had a greater quantity of absurdly named features should have been a warning sign.)
Is this what we all get for living in a world where “pinch-to-zoom” counts as inviolable intellectual property?