Lauren Goode

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Samsung Galaxy S4: Bigger Display and Bolder Software — But Is It Better Enough?

Can our appetites for new and improved smartphones ever possibly be sated?

Probably not. But Samsung hopes its newest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4, will do the trick (you know, at least until the next Next Big Thing).

The Galaxy S4 was officially unveiled tonight in New York City at the famed Radio City Music Hall, with a Broadway-like display of pantomimed smartphone use-cases. As widely expected, the new smartphone has some notable improvements on the hardware side, including a bigger display and a thinner body.

But as my AllThingsD colleague Ina Fried intuited earlier, a lot of the innovation is coming on the software side.

The global launch for the LTE-equipped smartphone — including the U.S. market — is pegged for the second quarter of this year. As it did last year with the SIII, Samsung has managed to convince a broad swath of carriers, in the U.S. and around the world, to carry the phone.

In the States it will be available through AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, as well as through Cricket and US Cellular. While Samsung declined to put a price tag on the S4, it should be right in line with other Samsung premium smartphones. And in the U.S. that tends to be around $200 or $300 with a new two-year contract.

Here’s what you need to know: The Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch, full HD Super AMOLED display with the most minimal of bezels on the left and right side of the screen. The phone weighs 4.5 ounces, just a little bit lighter than the Galaxy SIII, and is 7.9mm thick — a few hairs thinner than the SIII’s 8.6mm.

It’s running Jelly Bean 4.2.2 (which includes Google Now, the search giant’s version of Siri).

Its processor is Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon S4 Pro, 1.9 Ghz processor. In other words, it’s speedy. The phone is built with 2 gigabytes of RAM and will come with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage, along with a microSD card slot for additional storage capacity.

And the Galaxy S4 has a 2600mAh battery, compared with the Galaxy SIII’s 2100mAh and the iPhone 5’s 1440mAh battery — though, with a bigger screen and new features, real-world battery life remains to be seen.

It also has a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera. But, since we all know megapixels don’t tell the full story — especially on smartphones — consider the other features of the camera: There’s a dual-view mode, so you can see yourself in a small frame within the frame while you’re shooting, and eraser mode, which lets you erase offensive “photo-bombers” from a scene. As with previous Samsung smartphones, filters can be slapped on while shooting.

While the S4 doesn’t include a bendable display, something we know is cooking in Samsung’s labs, it does include two new features that build on top of Samsung’s already-existing Smart Stay feature: Smart Scroll and Smart Pause. Yes, this is the eye-tracking stuff that people were getting all sorts of breathless about.

Smart Stay keeps the screen alive and bright if the phone sensed you were reading or watching something. Now, Smart Pause will pause a video if it senses you’re no longer watching it, and Smart Scroll will scroll your Web page up or down based on your actions — but this has more to do with how you tip the phone than with the movement of your eyes.

The S4 also picks up a trick from the Galaxy Note II “phablet.” When you hover your finger over your email inbox on the Galaxy S4, it will show a few lines of content from that note. (The Note requires the use of a stylus, rather than a finger, to pull off that trick.) There’s also more gesture recognition with this device — for example, waving your hand over the display to swipe through photos, or music tracks.

Last but not least, Samsung is taking a bigger step into the wearable health and fitness market with an upcoming line of fitness bands, scales and heart monitoring devices that will be compatible with the S-Health app on the smsartphone.

Some of these piled-on upgrades in the Galaxy S4 feel incremental, or are simply borrowed from other Samsung smartphones (see my full review here of the Samsung Galaxy Note II, and Walt’s review of the Samsung Galaxy SIII). But the Korean electronics giant’s baby steps and increasingly desirable flagship phones are beginning to set it apart in the high-end smartphone market.

Apple still wins out in terms of smartphone subscribers in the U.S., with reports saying that iPhone is still growing considerably faster than Android here.

But Samsung, with its offerings of both high-end and low-end phones, outsells Apple in the global handset market. Gartner Research showed Samsung soaring from 18.7 percent of the global market to 30.3 percent last year, topping both Apple and Nokia. And Android phones, according to IDC, represented about 70 percent of global handset shipments last year — with Android, of course, appearing on a variety of devices from many different handset manufacturers.

Apple yesterday went on the offensive (with a rare defensive) yesterday, dismissing market analyses and citing the iPhone experience, its thinness and brilliant display as key factors that still set it apart from the pack.

Apple is also rumored to be considering a cheaper iPhone, as well as a wearable, smartphone-compatible “iWatch” product, which could help it keeps its lead in both profits and image.

AllThingsD’s Ina Fried contributed to this report.

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