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Originally published April 28, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified April 29, 2013 at 11:22 AM

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Galaxy S4 puts the moves on its competitors

Samsung has packed its new flagship phone with a dizzying array of unique features. But even with the gee-whiz features aside, the S4 is a remarkable phone.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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Using Samsung’s potent new Galaxy S4 smartphone, I kept thinking about an awkward incident involving my mother-in-law.

It was back in 2006, after Nintendo launched the Wii console and brought motion control technology to the mainstream.

Looking across the street one evening, my mother-in-law saw the profile of a neighbor standing in his living room window, madly pumping his arm back and forth.

Of course, he was playing with his Wii, but at the time most people weren’t familiar with the unusual gestures required to operate the latest gadget.

That came to mind as I tested the boggling array of interface technology that Samsung packed into the S4.

For instance, when viewing a Web page or email on the phone, a sensor detects your eyes and scrolls the page as your head moves. It also pauses a video when you look away from the screen.

This worked sometimes for me, particularly the video pausing. Scrolling was hit or miss. I found myself jerking my head around and rolling my eyes up and down as far as they’d go, trying to trigger the scroll.

People on the bus left me space last week. They must have appreciated that I was exploring the bleeding edge of consumer technology.

Gee-whiz features aside, the S4 is a remarkable phone. It’s a hair thinner and nearly 2 ounces lighter than the wildly successful Galaxy S3 that went on sale last June and helped Samsung lap Apple and every other phone manufacturer.

Yet the S4 has a larger, better screen — 5 inches diagonal and 1080p, compared with the S3’s 4.8-inches and 720p. It also has a longer-lasting battery — I had to charge up after a day and a half — plus those new sensors.

Inside there’s a quad-core, 1.9 gigahertz processor with 2 gigabytes of RAM and 16 gigs of built-in storage. The phone uses Google’s Android software, version 4.2.2, also called Jelly Bean, and runs on 3G and 4G LTE networks.

The S4 went on sale Friday and Saturday at AT&T, Verizon and Sprint for $150 to $200 with a two-year contract. T-Mobile stores will be begin selling it unlocked on May 1 for $630, or $150 with a two-year payment plan.

Outside, the phone is easy to hold, with a slightly curved plastic back that’s not too slippery. It fits the larger screen into a case the same size as the S3, roughly 5 inches by 3 inches.

Yet the S4 is also more conservative looking, lacking the curves of the jazzier S3. Perhaps that’s because Samsung is making a big push for business customers, highlighted by a new enterprise security feature called Knox, which wasn’t ready in time for the S4’s launch.

The smorgasbord of features and advanced controls may also reflect Samsung’s sensitivity about being labeled a borrower of technology and not an innovator. The S4 was developed as Samsung fought a nasty patent battle with Apple in Silicon Valley, which initially resulted in a $1 billion penalty.

Apple won that battle but lost the war. Samsung shipped almost twice as many smartphones and grew nine times faster than Apple during the past quarter, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

Samsung also responded by packing its new flagship phone with that dizzying array of unique features.

Samsung simultaneously is taking the fight to Google. It’s gearing up to release its own operating system, reducing dependence on Android. Several key Google apps are duplicated by Samsung on the S4, which gives users the choice of buying music, movies and apps through Samsung or Google.

I particularly liked the translation app Samsung built to rival Google’s. It doesn’t support as many languages but has a better interface that makes it easy and fun to speak or type phrases and have them spoken back in a different tongue.

The phone includes a program to share photos and other content between PCs, TVs, Wi-Fi cameras and other devices, all of which are made by Samsung.

You can use the S4 as a universal remote control and, if you have a Samsung Smart TV, stream content from the phone to the big screen. It worked well as a remote on my Sony TV, with a free local program guide provided by Samsung.

Still, the S4’s most intriguing tricks are its gesture controls. Launching them is like seeing a middle-aged guy in a suit start break dancing; amazing to some, ridiculous to others. Fortunately, you can easily turn them off and just use it like a regular phone.

Samsung does even more to appease traditionalists. It lets S4 users switch to a simplified display, with larger icons. This is for newbies and older users, but others may choose this mode for its cleaner design.

I preferred doing email in this “Easy Mode” and found it refreshing to get rid of the default home screen, which is dominated by a newsfeed app that works only with a handful of content providers.

You can start simple with gestures, waving your hand to answer the phone or scroll through photo galleries, similar to using Microsoft’s Kinect sensor.

Samsung also gave the S4 “Air View” gesture controls. You can hover over the screen to “peek” at a message, calendar entry or small portion of a Web page, but I couldn’t get this to work.

There are also a series of voice commands and phone motions to control the device. There’s not enough room to describe them all here, so I’ll just share a few of my favorites.

When you have someone’s contact info displayed on screen, you can bring the phone to your ear and it automatically dials the person’s number. During a texting session, you can just pick up the phone and make it a real conversation.

Voice commands can also be used with the S4’s terrific, 13-megapixel camera. For instance, with the camera app running, you can point the phone at someone, say “cheese” and it takes the picture. This one makes sense because it’s easier to hold steady if you’re not pressing a shutter button.

Smartphone makers are racing to outdo each other with camera features. The S4 also does tricks like record sound clips when still photos are taken, so a snapshot from the piano recital includes a snippet of music, for instance. You can also include a thumbnail image of the photographer in pictures, by taking shots with the front- and rear-facing cameras simultaneously.

Despite its crazy feature list, the S4 faces tough competition from a wave of new phones such as the new BlackBerrys and the HTC One, another quad-core Android phone that has a more distinct aluminum case and dual speakers.

By the end of the year, LG and perhaps others will be selling phones with flexible displays. Apple is working on its next iPhone, and Nokia is gaining momentum with Windows Lumia phones.

In the meantime, millions of people around the world will be trying to figure out all the tricks they can do with their handsome new Galaxy S4 phones.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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