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Review: Samsung's Galaxy S4 is top notch but ho-hum for a flagship phone

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TORONTO - The arms race to build the world's most powerful and cool smartphone wages on, but from the consumer perspective, it's beginning to look like a stalemate.

After years of breathtaking innovation from Apple and its rivals, the recent incremental advances in mobile technology are starting to make even the most tech-obsessed observers a little blas� about the latest and greatest devices.

Samsung's new Galaxy S4, which is available now for pre-order and is expected to hit stores on May 3, probably won't inspire much excitement from jaded tech enthusiasts.

This device does have more processing power than its predecessor, the Galaxy S III, its screen has been stretched out by a couple tenths of an inch and it packs a lot more pixels for a sharper display.

Impressive improvements on paper, no doubt, but in the real world they don't feel like a huge upgrade over the top phones already on the market, particularly others that run the same Google Android operating system.

So it's not surprising that there are no technical specifications listed on Samsung's promotional website for the Galaxy S4. The site instead focuses on a suite of software features under the banner "life companion," with ad copy suggesting "each feature was designed to simplify our daily lives."

But in my experience, the features don't simplify the user's daily interactions with the phone and in some cases create more work.

Among the features that sound cool but aren't really that handy — or aren't perfectly executed — are the no-touch gestures and eye-tracking options that offer new ways of controlling the device.

When the phone's screen is off, users can hold their hand over the screen to quickly check the time and whether there are any emails or social media messages waiting for them. But is this feature called Quick Glance all that useful? During testing it sometimes took two or three attempts to get the feature to activate and even when it did, the process took longer than simply pressing a button to wake the phone.

Air Gesture allows users to scroll through web pages or browse through photos by waving a hand in front of the phone. Like Quick Glance, sometimes it works and sometimes — if you don't wave just right — it doesn't. Unless you're on your phone while eating and your hands are messy from eating saucy chicken wings, I can't imagine wanting to regularly use these hands-free gestures.

Other features work by tracking your eyes with the phone's front-facing camera. Smart Stay senses when your eyes are looking at the screen and keeps the phone from engaging the screensaver — this feature is useful. Smart Scroll allows you to move down a long web page by looking down. It doesn't always seem to work, and even when it does, it can feel a bit dizzying to use.

There are many more software features packed into the phone (see http://www.samsung.com/global/microsite/galaxys4 for a complete list) but most are forgettable and are bound to be used once or twice at most.

Some are really peculiar, like the ability to wirelessly pair your Galaxy S4 with a friend's Galaxy S4 to output music in stereo sound, with each phone's speakers playing one channel of the stereo signal. Or if you had five friends that each owned a Galaxy S4 you could wirelessly link them together to listen to audio in surround sound. It's bizarre that Samsung would take the time and effort to design such an esoteric feature and difficult to imagine it ever being used by consumers.

One key feature that most smartphone users will use is the camera, and Samsung put a lot of work into beefing up its photo app. The rear-facing 13 megapixel camera takes great photos, 1080p high definition video and there are a few fun features to play with. You can record a snippet of sound to attach to a photo (think waves crashing to tag on a beach snapshot) and create animated GIFs to share online. Another gimmicky feature engages both the front- and rear-facing cameras at the same time to insert a small image of the photo-taker into the picture. It creates a pretty cheesy final product but some users will have fun with it.

Samsung no longer promotes its use of the Android operating system, but one of the benefits of choosing the Galaxy S4 over an iPhone, BlackBerry or Windows Phone is the early access to new innovations from Google, including new features in Google Maps, Google Now and Google Translate. It's puzzling that Samsung doesn't do more to highlight that advantage for consumers who are considering an iPhone.

To be clear, the Galaxy S4 is a top-of-the-line phone well suited to most consumers who are looking for their first smartphone, or need an upgrade from an aging device. But anyone who bought a new smartphone within the last year or so probably won't find many compelling reasons to upgrade to Samsung's latest. The Galaxy S4 is better than the model that came before, but it isn't remarkable enough to get too excited about.

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