In Praise of the Samsung Galaxy S4

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The key worldwide smartphone trends over the last year have been these: Android keeps rising above 70% market share, Apple ( AAPL) stalling around 21%, and Microsoft ( MSFT) slowly winning over BlackBerry ( BBRY) in the sub-9% market share residual.

With Android at 70%, however, it becomes important to examine two questions:
  1. Why is Samsung dominating Android's 70% market share?
  2. Why has Apple's meteoric iPhone rise 2007-2012 stalled?

As a smartphone reviewer, I have the luxury of spending a lot of time with pretty much all available devices. Over the years, you have heard me complain about most of them -- there is always something that's not good: Too slippery, bad button placement, too slow, terrible software -- you name it.

To whit, in recent reviews and comparisons I have complained about:
  • Windows Phone: It's missing some of the critical apps that I -- and many others -- use.
  • BlackBerry 10: Poor contacts synchronization with Google ( GOOG), having lost that superior "fast action" experience with email, contacts and other basic communications needs that the old BlackBerry 7.1 has.
  • Apple iOS: Too small iPhone screen, less optimal for users of Google services.
  • Other Android smartphones: For example, I found the HTC One to be slippery and difficult to repair if damaged.

In other words, there has always been something to complain about: Either the hardware is too small, too slippery, wrong button-placement or has bad battery life, or the software is of the wrong kind, or in Android's case skinned with something inferior to Google's own reference Nexus OS.

For the first time since I started using the original GSM BlackBerry -- the 5700 -- in April 2002, however, I have now found a device where I have no meaningful complaints: The perfect hardware, with the perfect software, with decent battery life, all the right buttons in the right places, with removable battery and expandable storage. It sits steady in your hand and can be repaired if you have an accident.

This smartphone is the Samsung Galaxy S4, and it's the simultaneous answer to why Samsung dominates Android as well as has become the strongest competitor against Apple's iPhone, Microsoft's Windows Phone and BlackBerry.

Let me explain how it all comes together in this device, which in turns explains the high customer satisfaction and meteoric sales success:

1. The hardware:

The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a five-inch 1080x1920 screen, which is housed inside a plastic shell. This plastic shell is perfectly curved to be both comfortable and enable you to hold the phone without dropping it.

I can't emphasize this point enough: Especially with bigger phones, approaching five-inch screen sizes, it's critical the device isn't slippery. With these high-end phones costing mostly around $600 (unsubsidized, cash price), you don't want to drop them.

Of all the phones in the market, the Samsung Galaxy S4 passes this test. It feels secure in the hand. You can now use a five-inch high-resolution (1080x1920) screen in your hand without worrying where you are or how you hold it. The need for a tablet is reduced. It is a most liberating feeling.

I hope that in future generations, Samsung doesn't succumb to pressures to produce metal-based phones. They tend to be slippery and prone to dings. It's okay if they are tiny, such as the iPhone 5 with its four-inch screen, but that's not a really a match for a larger smartphone that can reduce your need for carrying a tablet.

On the hardware side, Samsung nails all the remaining parts of the equation as well, and then some:

1. The on/off button: It's on the side, not on top. So you can actually press it without having to change your grip. This is crucial on a large phone.

2. The battery life: Thanks to the 2,600 mAh battery, which almost twice as large as the iPhone, it's got decent battery life despite the huge screen with 1080x1920 resolution.

3. Removable battery: This is becoming increasingly rare. Just as with the BlackBerry, you can at least carry an extra battery if need be. You can't do that with the HTC One or iPhone.

4. Expandable storage: It's going out of fashion, as with the iPhone and HTC One. Samsung's got your back.

5. Home button: Unlike the Nexus smartphone -- and BlackBerry -- the Samsung Galaxy S4 has a hard home button, just like the iPhone. Hey, sometimes copying isn't such a bad idea.

But wait, there's more! You can replace the whole back of the phone with one that hinges a protective "leatherette" front to the device as well. It makes the device into a "book" in terms of how it opens up to reveal the screen. No other smartphone has anything this elegant and practical. It's an unnecessarily expensive accessory at $70 (ought to be $20), but it's a huge winner for men and women alike.

So the hardware is an unequivocal winner: On every conceivable metric, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has made all the right hardware choices to create a device that fits comfortable in your hand, doesn't slip out of it, has decent battery life, the buttons in all the right places, and has the best large high-resolution screen in the business.

What about the software? You can buy the Samsung Galaxy S4 in two ways:

1. Buy it from the carriers: AT&T ( T), Verizon ( VZ), T-Mobile ( TMUS) and Sprint ( S).

These versions will have Samsung's own versions of Android 4.2.2. There are three things to be said about this:

A. It's not as good as pure Nexus version of Android. This is true. It takes up more storage, isn't as beautiful and just looks too busy if you turn on all the Samsung-specific functionality.

B. There are two useful areas where Samsung has actually improved on the Nexus software: keyboard and quick settings. The Samsung keyboard is the best non-BlackBerry keyboard in the business. It shows the numbers and letters without having to switch between the two. The quick settings for WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, etc. are also the best.

C. You can ignore it! Basically, once you have used the Samsung Galaxy S4 for a while, you can disable the most annoying parts. The performance is still great. It's still a cutting-edge Android.

2. Buy it directly from Google: Google Play Store, online.

Google has partnered with Samsung to create smartphone nirvana: The best hardware, together with the clean Nexus Android software. This gets rid of all the ugly bloat, and saves a lot of storage/space. All the crapware is gone.

You can buy the "Google Play Edition" of the Samsung Galaxy S4 for $649. That's the same price as the iPhone and competitive with most other high-end smartphones. At that price, you are eligible for the lower monthly rates from T-Mobile, where you pay only $50 per month, or $100 for four lines.

At those prices, a user would save $40 per month compared with AT&T and Verizon for just one phone. Multiply by 24 months and you have $960 in savings over two years. For four phones, you would save much, much more.

In other words, $649 isn't expensive at all. On a two-year basis, it's a bargain compared with, say, buying an iPhone through AT&T or Verizon.

Conclusion: Smartphone nirvana has arrived.

There is a reason Android keeps sailing to market share heights, and there is a reason the iPhone, while lovely in many respects, has stalled in the market share game.

This reason is the genius of the Samsung Galaxy S4. It dominates Android flagship sales, it's available with clean Nexus software for those know the difference and it has lifted Android's attractiveness in terms of competing with the iPhone.

As things go, the smartphone evolution has not stopped. We will see better devices soon, whether from Motorola, LG or Samsung itself. Apple will eventually launch a larger phone too. But for now, it's clear that on essentially all fronts, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the first smartphone in history to have hit the nirvana stage.

At the time of publication the author was long GOOG and AAPL, and short MSFT.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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