Published on May 16, 2013 10:42 AM

TouchWiz on the Galaxy S4: What's Useful... And What's Useless

TouchWiz on the Galaxy S4

Last week we reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S4; now we thought we'd take a deeper look into the various features Samsung introduced with the new version of TouchWiz: Air Gesture, Smart Scroll, S Health...

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is more than the totally awesome combination of a 1.9 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S600 processor, 2 GB of RAM and a Full HD Super AMOLED screen. It's also the latest version of TouchWiz for Android (4.2.2 Jelly Bean, to be precise) and all its headline-grabbing, techie-salivating software features. Here we take a look at the GS4's mobile innovations and try to decide what's useful... and what's useless.

Before we get started, we should mention that all these features such as Air Gesture and Smart Scroll have small, easily recognisable icons that appear at the top of the screen whenever they're available for a particular task. You can turn them on or off as you please, and the icons let you not waste time trying to use the features with applications they don't interact with.

Air Gesture

When the GS4 was announced, Air Gesture was one of the biggest hooplas in the press and advertising. It allows you to control a number of actions by making hand gestures in front of the display without ever touching the screen. You can do all sorts of things, such as scroll up and down web pages, documents and emails by gesturing an upward/downward swipe; scroll through photo galleries by gesturing left/right; skips songs in the music player; move icons; answer the phone or look at messages.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Touchwiz - on the table

Unfortunately, as is the case with most of these features, Air Gesture doesn't work with any web browsers other than the default browser.

Samsung Galaxy S4

After messing around with the different air gestures, the one we found most useful was Quick Glance. When the screen is off and you swipe your hand above it, a special lock screen comes up with the date and time, telling if you've received any new e-mails, texts or phone calls. Air Gesture is also handy for flipping through photos.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Touchwiz - gesture

But all the other uses we found rather superficial; you pretty much have to be holding the GS4 perfectly stable every time you do a gesture, and you have to do it just right in order for it to work. Air Gesture is cool, but it's somewhat of a novelty feature. You can do more things by just touching the screen, and it's frustrating when it doesn't work.

Air View

With Air View, the GS4 senses when your finger is hovering above the screen. With photos and videos, when you point your finger at a thumbnail without touching it, a larger version of the thumbnail pops up. This works just as well when you do it with your index finger as when you nonchalantly hover your thumb over the screen while holding the phone, as shown below. With videos, the movie even starts playing in the thumbnail. Air View works flawlessly, but as for how necessary it is, that's open for debate.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Touchwiz - view

When you're online (in the default browser only), if you point to something on the screen, it automatically zooms in to the spot you're pointing at. That's a great idea, but again, just touching the screen and doing the standard two-finger zoom is simpler and more intuitive.

Here are some of these features in action:


Smart Scroll

With Smart Scroll, the phone tracks your minute head movements as you read web pages and automatically scrolls up and down so you don't have to do it yourself. You can also do this by tilting the phone, since the sensor basically reads it as the same thing. The key with Smart Scroll is to keep your eyes fixed on the screen and move your head, instead of just lowering your gaze. It reacts in a split-second, and you can decide how quickly it scrolls.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Touchwiz - eye

In practice, Smart Scroll is quite an impressive feature—as long as you're standing more or less still. If you're walking down the street, or if there are people in the background, it doesn't work as well. When the conditions are just right, Smart Scroll is a pretty cool gimmick, but it isn't particularly revolutionary and certainly isn't something you can't live without.

Smart Pause

With Smart Pause on, when you're watching a video, every time you turn your head and look away, the video automatically pauses. When you look back at the screen, it starts playing again. This is mighty practical; in fact, it's too bad it only works in the video player. It would have been nice if it also worked on, I don't know, say... YouTube.

S Health

The iPhone has hundreds of third-party apps for sports, fitness and health that work with various accessories like watches, scales, bracelets, and so on. On the Galaxy S4, Samsung decided to integrate its own fitness features directly into the phone. S Health is basically a set of notifications that you can choose to have appear on the homescreen or elsewhere, giving you health stats for things like jogging, weight lifting, calorie intake and your environment (the Galaxy S4 has a built-in thermometer and barometer). Just like all sorts of apps that already exist for iOS and Android, S Health allows you to set goals for yourself, such as how many steps you'll walk in the day, how long you work out your abs or how many calories you consume, and the GS4 kindly reminds you of your progress each step of the way.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Touchwiz - S Health

We like S Health. It's extensive, well designed and fun to use. Samsung will also be releasing a number of fitness-related accessories to go with the app this summer.

S Translator

Samsung's translate function for its Galaxy S products works with written and spoken words in nine languages: English (UK and US), German, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese. Unfortunately, the translations are not entirely accurate and not all of the languages are "inter-translatable"; most only translate into English. You can't go from German to Korean, for example. So to translate from Spanish into Chinese, you have to go from Spanish to English, then English to Chinese, which will only muddle the translation further. (Korean, Chinese and Japanese are the only exception to this rule.)

For every phrase you input, the GS4 gives you the written translation and a voice also speaks the phrase for you. That's handy for shy non-polyglots on vacation, and it's especially good if you don't know how to read Chinese, Korean or Japanese characters. But remember, S Translator requires an internet connection, so your roaming charges may skyrocket.

There's also a visual translator for things like signs and menus. You just take a photo of the sign and the GS4 does its best to translate the words. This works for individual words only, no phrases. S Translator is a neat tool that could get you out of a bind while you're travelling, but it isn't perfect and there's still a lot of room for improvement.

Drama Shot

Samsung's answer to the strobe effect in the HTC One's Zoe mode, Drama Shot allows you to take composite photos  that contain multiple successive shots of any subject.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Touchwiz - Drama Shot

The camera films a three-second video clip from which it extracts several shots that you can choose between and have the subject appear two to six times over the same background, showing the subject's "static movement". It's a cool effect, a little gimmicky, but effective enough to justify it being here.

> For the design, handling and everything else about the Samsung Galaxy S4, check out our main review here