Flashback Friday, Samsung Edition: Spot the Difference

Remember that game you’d play as a kid, where two images would be shown on a page and you’d have to spot the differences between the two? That was my initial impression of the Samsung Galaxy S4. At first glance I was disappointed in its sameness: why couldn’t Samsung have pulled an HTC and changed it up, improved its build materials, done something new with TouchWIZ?

Alas, this is Samsung at its most confident, less willing to mess with a good thing. It’s also once again showing its might against the strong carrier desire for unique products; like the iPhone, the Galaxy S4 will look identical across company and country. While there will be physical differences — black or white, dual-SIM or single, Exynos or Snapdragon — the device will be universally recognizable as a Galaxy.

The Galaxy line has risen so quickly, it’s often hard to recall its trepidatious first years in the industry. Galaxy S i9000 was beset with both hardware and software troubles, plus every variant looked different, too: Bell sold the equivalent of the international version while Rogers sold AT&T’s Captivate and TELUS a 3G version of T-Mobile’s Vibrant. The market was a mess, not only in terms of hardware quality but Android version consistency. It’s easy to see now how Samsung was inspired by the simplified user experience of the iPhone at a time when Android was so lacklustre.

Today’s Android is a different beast: fast, beautiful and versatile. Samsung barely acknowledged the Android legacy on which it has built its seemingly-impenetrable mobile business was no mistake; the underlying code is so altered from AOSP as to be unrecognizable. TouchWIZ adds so many features — some truly innovative, others truly bizarre — that, absent of Google’s own apps, it might as well be a different OS altogether. And that’s just what Samsung wants from you: to eventually buy your apps, music, movies, books, magazines, health bands, scales, cases, shoes, gum, friends from them.

There have been a lot of conversations, on this site and across the ‘net, over whether the Galaxy S4 is “innovative.” That term is so overused and mishandled. Samsung was plenty innovative with the Galaxy S4, regardless of whether the device looks dissimilar from its predecessor — and it does if you examine it closely. It knows that the future is in features, not specs, and though the GS4 is a beast of a phone the company barely acknowledged the feeds and speeds. Instead, it focused on how the phone is a “life companion,” a thing you have with you at all times from which to communicate, learn and enjoy.

It’s the ultimate populist device, encouraging users to engage in group-based activities — as long as they own a GS4. It’s the kind of organic ecosystem lock-in Apple has pushed for years with great success. But many of these features, like the ability to take photos with both the front and back camera at the same time, are curiosities at best. Let’s break down what makes a smartphone great: a nice, responsive screen (check), a useable keyboard for messaging (check — it’s powered by SwiftKey), decent cameras (check and check), diverse and high-quality apps (check and mostly check), a sturdy chassis (hopefully check) and excellent battery life (we’ll see). The Galaxy S3 offered most of these things; the Galaxy S4 just does them a little better.

Obviously we’re going to reserve judgement until we have a review unit in hand. But, based on what you’ve seen, are you excited about the Samsung Galaxy S4? Will you be buying it when it comes out? If so, in which colour?