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Samsung Galaxy S4 review: It's better than you'll ever notice

When it came to creating a successor to the incredibly popular Galaxy S III, Samsung took the approach of a skilled yet over-zealous pastry chef: If they liked the last treat, they'll love a bigger one this time ... with more icing ... and sprinkles! And that's basically what the Galaxy S 4 is. It bears an incredible resemblance to its predecessor, but is bigger, thinner, faster and stuffed with so many features, you probably won't use half of them — or even know they're there.

So Samsung took what could be considered the best Android device on the market, made it thinner and added a slightly larger (and better) screen to it. It threw in a nice 13-megapixel camera and some snazzy controls. Photos turn out better than they do on the GSIII (though, just like with the iPhone 5, the camera still has a problem shooting in low light). Samsung also upgraded that pesky skin that the company feels compelled to use to hide genuine, actual Android, so even if you don't like it (and we're not saying we do), it's a bit snappier.

The basic result is a phone that's better than the predecessor in all predictable ways. So stop there ... right, Samsung? No. Where the GSIII had a few random whizzy features that nobody — save for actors in ads — really uses, the GS4 has feature bloat to the point of absurdity.

There's an IR blaster (and an app) that allows you to control nearly any television you encounter. This makes for a fairly reliable bar trick, though you might annoy some of your drinking companions if you interrupt the wrong game. However, as a universal remote, the software is not elegant enough for you to use everyday.

You can toggle between browser tabs or flip through photo galleries by waving your hand. Though Air Gesture may remind you of a Jedi mind trick, this is really not the feature you're looking for. It rarely works properly — and is useless in particularly bright and particularly dim environments.

Samsung Galaxy S4

Hovering your finger over certain menu items or messages gives a neat Air View preview bubble — like a glimpse of your email before you open it. The apps have to be designed to work with it, though, so there are slim chances you'll find much use of it outside of Samsung's own apps. (A notable exception is Flipboard, which Samsung partnered with at launch.)

If you don't feel like even lifting a finger, you can scroll around by glancing up and down on a page and even pause video by looking away from the screen. In theory, that is. Sadly, Smart Scroll and Smart Pause are so finicky, you'll likely turn them off.

There's S Translate, which helps you jump between a variety of languages. While things work just fine when you try to translate text, speaking to the phone leads to butchered transcriptions (and, subsequently, useless translations). S Translate is only as good as the S Voice feature that powers it. It would have been nice if Samsung leveraged Google's superior voice recognition, instead of going with its own.

Those who are interested in idly keeping track of their activity levels will enjoy S Health. It's not without flaws — is anything on this phone? — but the pedometer/calorie counter can give you a fair idea of the distance you cover each day.

Samsung Galaxy S 4
Which is which? At first glance, it's tough to tell the Galaxy S 4 (right) from the Galaxy S III (left).

The list goes on — dual-view photos! Two-app multitasking! A more crammed notification shade! Despite detailed notes about the GS4's catalog of tricks, it remains overwhelming. Even Samsung acknowledges this, in a strange way, by allowing for an Easy Mode. This homescreen option essentially hides most features and makes icons bigger and more in-your-face.

This friendlier look suggests that Samsung knows why people really buy these phones — the big screen, the slender body, the email, Web and apps promised by any smartphone and, of course, the Samsung brand itself.

Push aside all of the extraneous features and you have one heck of a smartphone. This will be the one we'll compare against the next iPhone — probably favorably. After all, come this fall, Apple's likely to just unveil a slightly tweaked version of the current model.

The only device Samsung should fear is the all-new HTC One, because of its amazing industrial design and its deft new interface. But since Samsung is the 800-lb. gorilla of Android sales, and HTC these days has been quite the 98-lb. weakling, it would take a David-and-Goliath-style upheaval for the masses to ditch their Galaxy for a One.

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