The wraps have come off the Samsung Galaxy S4 at a very crowded launch event in New York. We were there to hear the news first-hand, and also had a chance to get our mitts on Samsung’s latest and greatest smartphone. Here are our first impressions, and watch this space for a full review in the days to come.

First off, the Galaxy is visually different than the Galaxy S3, but not by too much. The big change on the outside is that the display has gone from 4.8 inches to 5 inches. While the screen is larger, the actual phone is still around the same dimensions as the GS3 but Samsung has used the space more efficiently by reducing the width of the bezels on the left and right of the display.

The Galaxy 4 is in the middle, brother Galaxy Note II to the left and sister Galaxy S3 to the right.

The GS4’s outer casing still uses the same plastic materials as the GS3, but the edges are more squared off, and it generally feels more robust. There are two colours available- white frost and black mist, so it seems that the pebble blue of the GS3 has been dropped. Both colours are attractive, and each includes a subtle pattern, lending an air of quality. The phone is also quite thin at just 6.9mm compared to the GS3’s 8.6mm.

The GS4 at the top is slightly slimmer than the GS3 shown at the bottom. Also notice the squarer edging.

In terms of the screen quality, the GS4’s is at the cutting edge, and is just great to look at. It’s another Super AMOLED screen, like the G3, but this one is Full HD, meaning a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, and has an incredible 441 pixels per inch density. What this translates into is an bright, pin-sharp, highly detailed and easy to view display. Also, when compared to the Note II and Galaxy S3, the GS4’s screen was noticeably brighter and the colours seemed more vibrant.

The GS4 has some impressive hardware beneath its smooth outer shell. Beating at its heart is the mighty 1.6MHz Exynos 5 OCTA  8-core processor, or depending on the region, a 1.9MHz quad-core Snapdragon CPU. The 8-core CPU is the first of its kind on a smartphone, and, while we haven’t had a chance to compare the OCTA chip with other phones, 8 cores will certainly provide a very capable foundation for running many different processes, tasks and apps at once.

Other hardware features include WiFi 802.11 a/b/n connectivity, NFC, Bluetooth 4, and super-fast LTE is on-board too, which will work on Australian 4G networks.

When it comes to taking photos, the GS4 weighs in with a new 13 megapixel camera that offers an incredible amount of photo detail for a smartphone. There’s also a 2 megapixel camera on the front. The phone also supports 1080p video recording.

Can you tell the GS4 from the Note II and GS3 - hint, it's on the right.

And with the ability to shoot such massive photos, the GS4 needs plenty of memory. There are choices of 16, 32 and 64GB of RAM, and if you need more, it supports up to 64GB of MicroSD memory. The GS4 also comes equipped with 2GB of on-board RAM.

With a big screen, fast processor and LTE support, battery life is certainly important. While we weren’t able to test the battery life yet, the GS4 does come with a larger 2600 mAh battery, which, while not as big as the Note II’s 3100 mAh, is more than the GS3’s 2100 mAh capacity and should ensure at least a day’s battery life under heavy use.

Handy features

Apart from the hardware, Samsung has put a lot of effort into the software side of the phone, to help ‘make life more fulfilling’. For example, you can use the Air Gesture feature to browse web pages, look through photos, advance a music track or even answer a call, without touching the phone. All you do is wave your hand above the phone in a swiping motion. This is great for ‘hands-free or hands-full’ times when you might have dirty or wet hands, be wearing gloves or when the phone is in a hands free cradle and you are driving.

The GS4 has a Hover feature like that in the Note II, only you don’t need a stylus for it to work. Now, you just hover your finger over the screen to evoke a particular bit of information. For example, you can hover your finger above an email list to read a short blurb of the email itself. You can use Hover to magnify text, select speed dial contacts, get calendar details or with customised apps such as Filpboard, you’ll be able to see a preview of upcoming articles.

New icons mean new features.

And then there’s the much-hyped Smart Scroll feature. Using the Smart Stay feature originally introduced in the GS3, the GS4 tracks your face to see if you’re interacting with it. While it can still dim the screen when you’re not looking at it, now, if you are viewing a web page, for example, you can tilt the phone towards or away from you to control text scrolling. This only works if you’re looking at the phone, however. Once you look away, it switches off, and when you look back, it returns. There’s also a Smart Pause feature that works a similar way – when you play a video or movie, the system will automatically pause playback when you look away. Once the system detects that your gaze has returned, the video will play again.

There are other clever tricks, such as the Adapt sound and Adapt display which detects if you’re listening to music, reading a book or watching a movie and adjusts screen and audio settings automatically to provide an optimum experience.

The GS4’s S-Translate feature is a handy too for travelling. It can translate between nine different languages, via text, speech to text or text to speech modes. S-Translator is embedded into Samsung’s native applications such as Email and Chat-On and is also available as a native application. While it worked well in the demos, we didn’t get a chance to see how well it worked in real life.

Photo fun

There are some fun photo modes, including Dual Camera, Sound in Shot, Drama Shot, Cinema Photo and Eraser Shot. Dual Camera takes a photo from the front and rear camera at the same time, and puts both pictures together. The idea is to overlay a picture of yourself into a ‘picture in picture’ style frame that forms part of the photo you took from the rear camera. You can adjust how the frame looks, where it’s positioned and how big it is. With the Sound in Shot feature, you can record up to 9 seconds of audio to annotate your pic. Drama Shot is quite fun – it takes a burst of photos and then combines them into a single shot, and is great for fast-action or sports related scenes. The clever Eraser Shot can even delete unwanted people who may have strayed into your family photo, and you can remove them without a trace. The Cinema Photo mode takes a short video and you can then decide what parts you want to show as a still image and which you want to animate. The image is then saved as a GIF file.

Also, some of Samsung’s Galaxy Camera elements have been imported into the GS4. For example, it’s now easier to choose between photo modes such as night shots, fireworks, beach scenes and more.

Healthy living

Samsung has picked up on the trend for using technology to improve your health. The GS4 comes with S-Health, which is an assortment of features to do the same sort of thing. It can track your movement using the accelerometer, and record the temperature and humidity of your environment. You can track these measurements over time and see how you how you progress. There’s also a food tracker that tells you the calories in the food you’ve eaten and adds this to your record. Samsung has also created some specialised accessories such as a heart rate monitor, pedometer and bathroom scale that communicate with the GS4 via Bluetooth to add even more information to your health profile.

The Group Share feature lets you quickly and easily share photos, music, documents or play games with up to 8 other Galaxy S4 owners. We tried it and all it took for a connection was a quick tap and our devices were talking to each other and sharing their content.

It's easy to share your files, music, photos and even play games with a group of up to 8 others.

You’ll also find an IR transmitter placed on the top edge of the GS4, which turns it into a remote control for compatible TVs. With it you can check programming, search through and play your saved videos, and change volume and channels. While it wasn’t specified which TVs this will work on, it’s fairly safe to assume these will be recent Samsung Smart TVs.

Other accessories include the View Cover, which is a snap-on case that has a small viewing window cut-out that leaves a bit of the screen visible, and where a specialised menu shows you things like SMS status, battery status, caller ID and date and time.

Impressions

Overall, our initial impressions of the GS4 were very positive. While it doesn’t look drastically different to the GS3, Samsung has given the GS4 ‘more screen with less phone’, meaning that the 5 inch display hasn’t impacted much on the size of the phone itself. It also feels a bit heavier in the hand, and more ‘premium’.

When asked how it compares to Apple’s iPhone 5, it certainly does have a number of exciting and fresh features that will undoubtedly entice customers. Hardware wise, it lacks for very little and the battery life should be improved over the GS3. How some of the features translate into real-world use, or how often the full 8 cores of processing power are utilised, are yet to be seen. However, there are a lot of background tasks going on with features like Smart Scroll, Smart Stay, Smart pause, etc., so it’s good that there is quite a bit of computing grunt.

The GS4 vs the iPhone 5

One thing that’s still not yet clear is how Samsung will compete with the foothold Apple devices have with iTunes and its App Store, but there will likely be some content-related announcements coming from Samsung soon. Ultimately, Samsung has once again raised the bar by producing a phone that’s packed full of technological innovation and rich in features, and certainly looks to take its place as a top seller around the world.

[UPDATE] While no official launch date or pricing for Australia have been confirmed, we expect the Galaxy S4 to go on sale at the end of April, or very early in May, and will probably be priced just under the $1000 mark for an outright purchase. Australian telcos have yet to confirm their pricing, or if they will be selling the phone.

Valens Quinn attended the Samsung Galaxy S4 Launch in New York as a guest of Samsung Australia.