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The Gear that I Use: The Samsung Galaxy S4

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Gnome (Samsung Galaxy S4)

Though I consider myself, rightly or wrongly, to be technologically fairly competent, my one troglodyte tendency has been my choice of mobile phones.

To me, a mobile phone or ahem, a mobile device,  should first and foremost, be a phone, with features that make it easy to find a contact, and then either dial or text them, perhaps using one hand.  Other capabilities to me are secondary.  I like having mapping software and GPS functionality.  The ability to surf the web is definitely useful at times. But communications is for me such a device’s first function.

3 or 4 phones ago I purchased my first Blackberry.  At the time, this made me quite hip.  My last Blackberry was a Bold 9730, a fairly powerful touch screen device with a physical keyboard. It is very ergonomic and intuitive.  I used it for roughly 3 years waiting to see whether RIM, could gain market share and stay viable.  A new Blackberry operating system was announced earlier this year which looked promising, but has had disappointing sales numbers.  Worried that the Blackberry brand may be fading away, and with my upgrade privileges in hand, I decided this time, to move in a different direction.

I have explained in other articles, my reservations about the iOS operating system.  I dislike the way that Apple limits the usability of their portable devices by strictly controlling access to their interior file structure.  This severely limits the flexibility of adding or deleting files and media within iPhones and iPads.

Long Farm (Samsung Galaxy S4)

Also, over the years, I have sufficiently mocked some of my siblings and their “I” devices, so as to preclude my ever buying anything made in Cupertino.  I went to the local Verizon store, and bought the baddest-ass Android phone in the place: the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Galaxy S4 (Samsung marketing image)

I am familiar with the Android operating system from owning and using an Asus tablet. So it was fairly easy  for me to adapt.  These are my thoughts on the phone after several weeks of use first as a phone, as a computer, and of course as a camera.

First off, this is a big phone. Not as big as the huge handsets we used to carry, but still, to me rather large. This would bother me in a pocket, but in a belt holster, not so much.

Galaxy S4 vs. Blackberry 9930 (Fujifilm X100s)

It’s nicely finished with a bright colorful display. There are volume buttons on the upper left side, and an on-off button on the left. There are two cameras; a 2 MP camera facing the screen, and a 13mp rear facing camera.  That’s a lot of pixels for such a tiny sensor.

Philosophically, Android phones are much different than Blackberries. Blackberries have most of their messaging ergonomics well refined and ”baked in” to the OS. Add a few apps (all the choice you have any way) and you’re ready to go.

Android devices are much more adaptable, but I think clumsy right out of the box. My 18-year-old son “rooted” his Galaxy S3 (wiped out the stock OS) and reloaded and customized his own OS.  I’m not that skilled, so I merely deleted as much irrelevant software as Samsung would allow. As I used the phone, I noted which functions were lacking, and downloaded apps to improve things. It took me several days to optimize the Samsung to my liking.

Clouds and Grass (Samsung Galaxy S4)

Even so, it’s not a Blackberry, particularly when it comes to making phone calls.

Now I understand that actually speaking to someone with a mobile device is passé.  Still and all I persist.

To find a number on my 9730 I merely had to punch the first two or three letters of the person’s name on the physical keyboard, select it with the scroll pad and press. On the Galaxy, I have to select the name using letters on a number pad (I’ve always hated that). The phone is so large that the name selected is generally out of reach of my fingers towards the top of the view screen. It’s an ergonomic mess. I’ve loaded an aftermarket dialer app which is marginally better. Why doesn’t someone design a virtual Blackberry type keyboard for Android? I think it would sell.

Battery life is OK. With moderate usage, if you’re not careful, it will need a charger by mid afternoon. If you are turning the screen off when stowed, and using a more conservative energy usage profile, it will last till bedtime.

Let’s move on now, to the camera. According to Dxo Mark the Galaxy S4 has one of the better cameras offered on a mobile device.  Until now I have never embraced phone photography, given the poor quality of the files from their tiny imagers and mediocre optics. Given the recent improvements touted for mobile phone photography, I was at least hopeful.

Bench with Flowers (Samsung Galaxy S4)

The supplied camera app was frankly awful, with few control options and many functions hidden in menus. I downloaded a well-reviewed app called Camera Zoom FX which is somewhat better, with more controls on the main screen. Despite this, the camera shutter was sometimes unresponsive and would not always predictably release. Plus, like all phones, they’re difficult to hold steadily. I did however like the touch screen focus selection.  The actual zoom function is digital, not optical, and thus basically useless.

That having been said, the images, particularly those shot in good light (i.e. not too much dynamic range to the scene as above) look great on the camera itself and on my tablet.  Actual prints are a different matter.  For casual use (snapshots), 8”x11” prints look pretty good, but 11”x 14”s are definitely pushing it, largely because of lens issues, and sensor noise.

8x11s (Fujifilm X 100s)

Some of you Android fans may be thinking as you read this that I should shut up, and go back to my beloved Blackberry. But hold the phone (pun intended).These Android apps are unbelievable. Apparently no one invests much coding time to Blackberry apps because of the limited market for them. Apps for the Blackberry 7 OS on my previous phone work fine, but tend to be crude. I was unprepared for the increase in quality, appearance, and function of my favorite apps as seen on the Galaxy. It’s honestly a whole different world. Some of this functional improvement is due to the 4G data connection (My  Blackberry is only 3G).

I also liked that Android found my Google accounts, and automatically synched them to my new phone (I know Apple and even to an extent even Blackberry do this also).

So is the Samsung Galaxy S 4 worth keeping?  Yes it is.  But I’ve come to recognize it is a different device, and in some ways not a direct replacement for my Blackberry.  In fact it’s tempting to carry the Blackberry at work where I have easy access to computers most time, but find value in the phone’s excellent phone and messaging functions.  The Samsung is somewhat more useful I think for recreation, where it’s easier to cope with its fussy contact and phone apps, but the bright large screen is extremely useful for viewing for instance the sophisticated mapping and weather apps available for Android.

And though the camera is pretty good, especially for photos displayed digitally, I’m not ready to give up my compact cameras yet.

Plus, I finally have a phone better than those of my kids.

I guess I’m not a troglodyte anymore.



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