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Tech Lab

Galaxy S4 is designed to dominate

For smartphone fanciers, the past couple of weeks have been better than Christmas. First came the One, HTC Corp.’s elegant new Android phone. Now comes the Other — my nickname for Samsung Corp.’s big-screen superphone, the Galaxy S4.

Which to buy? You can’t go wrong. They’re both sensational. I prefer the lovely design and smart screen interface of the One. But with its superb camera, immense video screen, and almost overwhelming array of geeky extras, the S4 is a gadget freak’s delight.

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The Samsung phone is available from all four major carriers, though Verizon Wireless won’t get it till the end of the month. You’ll pay $199.99, along with a two-year contract. T-Mobile US Inc. offers it for $149.99 plus $20 a month for two years, or you can pay the full price of $629.99.

The S4 is basically a refreshed version of last year’s S III smartphone, with a better camera, bigger screen, and faster processor. It’s almost exactly the same size as the One, but manages to squeeze in a significantly larger video screen. It’s a 5-inch display, compared with the One’s 4.7-inch screen. And while most phones still use liquid crystal technology, Samsung employs organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, technology, which delivers richer, deeper colors than LCD screens.

Samsung’s phone has a quad-core processor with plenty of muscle, but it’s a little light on internal memory. The one I tested had 16 gigabytes of flash memory built in. But only about half of that is available for your photos, music, or documents. The rest is used for the phone’s operating system and massive library of software extras. Some of these are welcome, but many others are useless gimmicks.

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Ever feel the burning desire to control your phone with your eyeballs? Me neither, but I might take a liking to the concept, if it worked. The S4’s vaunted Smart Screen feature does not work, at least not for me. In theory, the phone’s front-facing camera is supposed to track the position of your eyes. Glance away from the screen while a video is running, and the movie’s supposed to pause. Move your eyes up or down, and text should scroll up and down on the page.

But for some reason, the S4 refused to look me in the eyes. I’m thinking it was my rather thick eyeglasses.

I had better results with the phone’s gesture control. You can scroll through Web pages by waving a hand across the screen. Also, you can activate many features by hovering your finger above the screen, without actually touching it. Trouble is, your hand must be so close to the S4’s screen that you might as well just touch it. So why bother?

At least the phone’s speech control, a holdover from last year’s S III phone, is both effective and useful. Say the phone is on the other side of the room when it rings. Just yell “answer.” The S4 puts the call on speakerphone. I especially like the voice-controlled camera function. Just say “shoot” or “smile” or “cheese,” and the camera takes a shot.

The S4’s camera, by the way, is outstanding, with more accurate color balance than its HTC rival. The One’s camera software does have plenty of options; but the software on the S4, on the other hand, is downright Byzantine. When you shoot a group photo, for instance, you can have the camera capture multiple images of each individual face, pick the best for each person and stitch them into a finished photograph. Another setting captures a few seconds of background sound and plays it back when you look at the picture. And, of course, you get a bunch of Instagram-like visual filters for customizing your favorite images.

Battery life for the S4 seems decent, but unimpressive. After my usual test — streaming four hours of video via Netflix — the phone was down to 27 percent battery life. Compare that with the HTC One, which had 42 percent of its battery after the same treatment. But you can’t swap out the battery in the One. Samsung’s phone lets you pop in spare batteries and add flash memory cards for supplemental storage.

The One has a metallic solidity to it, while the S4’s removable plastic back gives the Samsung phone a plasticky, flimsy feel.

If I’m spending my own money, I’d go with the HTC, mainly due to its sheer gorgeousness. But I’d probably be in the minority. In smartphones, Samsung’s the one, with the world’s most popular brand. And the S4’s more than good enough to keep it on top.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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