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Life with the Galaxy S4
The Galaxy S4 feels a little slow during day-to-day use, I'm sad to say. It's slower than my iPhone 5 at unlocking, at opening apps, and at switching between them. It takes longer to get to the camera from an unlocked state, and even Google Now takes more time to respond to voice searches than the same app on iOS. I expected this killer, state-of-the-art handset to run circles around the older Apple one, or at the very least to be comparably quick, but that's just not the case. The loss in performance got frustrating at times, like when I needed to take a picture or look up something online quickly. Going from a fast phone to a slower one is never fun.

The frustration doesn't stop there. Samsung has made the front bezel extremely thin, which means the gap between the bottom of the phone and the display is very small. That gap accommodates the home button as well as back and menu buttons that are hidden until pressed. If you use the phone one-handed for a little while, I guarantee you'll hit one of those buttons by accident. (It's not just me. TR's biz guy, a long-time Android devotee, has the same issue with his Galaxy S4.) This annoyance is compounded by the fact that each button has a secondary action tied to it. Pressing and holding the back button brings up a "multi-window" tray, which collapses into a little pull-out tab. The first time I brought up the tray by accident, I had no idea how it happened, and I had to Google for a way to turn it off. Ugh.

Not even that gorgeous five-inch screen is a home run for Samsung. It's big, yes, but it's also noticeably dim, even at the highest "auto" setting. I could get the luminosity to match my iPhone's only if I disabled automatic brightness altogether, which is probably terrible for battery life—and even then, the iPhone's maximum brightness was still brighter. On top of that, the S4's screen takes on a blue cast when viewed off-center, and I noticed some ghosting when scrolling down lists. Those may be small kinks in what's an otherwise amazing screen, but my iPhone 5 has no such problems.

Oh, and the default keyboard is terrible. Samsung substitutes the stock Jelly Bean keyboard with one of its own design, which has inexplicably small keys and a baffling lack of autocorrect functionality. I actually made more typos on it than on my iPhone, despite the huge difference in screen real estate. The solution? Head to Google Play and download Jelly Bean Keyboard, which restores the Google default. But that really isn't something one should have to do on a brand-new, $800 smartphone.

Put together, those deficiencies make the Galaxy S4 feel a little hamstrung by the stock software. Perhaps a third-party ROM closer to the Jelly Bean default could make things better. Such a ROM might do away with the drabness of TouchWiz and the clutter of the default widgets. It might take care of the auto brightness problem, too, and it might even resolve the accidental button-press issue, since Jelly Bean is supposed to have software buttons on the screen.

Apparently, a version of the Galaxy S4 with stock Google firmware can be ordered right from the Google Play store in the United States. That model wasn't available to me, though, and I couldn't root the Galaxy S4, since I had to send it back to Samsung at the end of my three-week test drive. Even if that hadn't been the case, rooting has its dangers—like the fact that it voids your warranty. Some folks may have no qualms about cheating Samsung by restoring the stock firmware before getting the phone serviced, but a hardware failure could make that impossible. That means users who can't easily get the stock Google version of the S4 may be better off sticking with TouchWiz and putting up with its flaws. And that's really too bad.

There is a lot to like about the Galaxy S4. It's thin and comfortable to hold, the display is excellent with the brightness cranked up, and the large footprint means the device doesn't slide around in my pocket like the iPhone 5. The performance may be a little lackluster, but it's definitely not terrible. Also, most of the software eccentricities I bemoaned can be resolved by a little tweaking and tinkering.

That said, after spending three weeks with this device, I have little desire for a TouchWiz-infused Galaxy S4 of my own. Rather, I'm eager to try the stock Google version... and to see Apple release a bigger iPhone.

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