Back in 2007, when the first iPhone was launched, it was common for complete strangers to stop iPhone owners to gawk openly at the shiny new device, ask how they liked it, and sheepishly ask if they could try it out for a minute or two. So great was the iPhone's sex appeal that it became a sort of conversation piece for early adopters, one that could make its owners cool by proxy.
A similar type of interaction has been happening to me recently, but it isn't an Apple product drawing attention. It's the Galaxy S4 – Samsung's much-hyped new smartphone – which I've been testing for several weeks. So far, it's gotten oohs and ahhs in New York and Silicon Valley, and last week, a college-aged friend spotted it on the table. "Is that the S4?" he asked. When I offered to let him try it, his eyes lit up. "Oh, wow, yeah, thanks."
I was surprised at these reactions – Samsung isn't known, to me at least, as the maker of attention-grabbing products – but maybe I shouldn't have been. Because, in addition to (maybe) outselling Apple in the U.S., Samsung has also eclipsed it when it comes to providing a certain kind of social cachet.
During Apple's WWDC event yesterday, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. Sure, the company announced a slew of new products and upgrades to old ones, some of which were quite nice-looking and, I'm sure, entirely functional. But none of them looked like the kind of thing that, once brandished in public, would immediately separate their owner from the technological pack. None of them had the X factor that defined early Apple products, and that can now be found in the Galaxy S4.
I'm not a regular gadget reviewer – so I don't know how the S4 stacks up to, say, the HTC One – but my casual impression is that it's pretty great. I've used it along with my iPhone for a few weeks now, and would estimate that the S4 is roughly twice as pleasant to use. It's got a big, bright screen, a zippy quad-core 1.9GHz Snapdragon processor, good battery life, and a 13-megapixel camera that takes gorgeous photos.
That said, what makes people perk up at the sight of the S4 isn't the technical specs. It's the various vanity features Samsung has jammed into the phone – the ability to control the phone simply by waving your hand over it, the eye-recognition feature that can tell when you look away from a video and pause it accordingly, the smart-scroll feature that can also track your eyes and use it to scroll web pages as you move them. It's the fitness feature that tracks the number of steps you've taken in a day, and the "beauty face" camera feature that pretties up your selfies automatically, taking the shine off your forehead and the zit off your nose.
None of these features are incredibly useful – in the three weeks I've had the phone, I've used each only a handful of times, mostly while showing them off to other people – and the eye-recognition features are still fairly buggy. Those bugs, along with problems related to the S4's bigger size, are part of why the reviews have been positive but not glowing, and why there might still be room for improvement.
But what reviewers tend to miss is that a feature doesn't have to be particularly useful or functional to inspire curiosity and intrigue. If they brighten up the humdrum experience of using a phone, even superficially and occasionally, that might be enough.
I consider my phone a necessity, for both my work and my personal life. But having one hasn't been a joyful experience for a long time. The S4 has changed that, briefly, in a way nothing since the original iPhone has. It makes the basic use of a tool into a pleasure; each interaction gets a smidgen better. And the stares I get from nerds who are jealous of my test unit doesn't hurt.
So I'm not surprised that the S4 is the fastest-selling Android phone in history, or that Samsung is projected to have eclipsed Apple in U.S. sales this month. In my privileged, tech-savvy subculture, Apple products have gone from desirable luxury goods to standard-issue commodities – the equivalent of eating government cheese. And Samsung has filled the status-object void with a phone that is genuinely flashy, that feels like a little chunk of magic in your hand, rather than a mere device, and that imputes to its user a certain amount of mystique.
Of course, it's vain and silly to covet a smartphone based on the anticipated reactions of strangers. And of course, most of the people who see the S4 in the wild won't react to it at all. To the vast, vast majority of people, it will look like any other phone, similar in form and function to those that came before it and that will come after it.
Still. Chances are that if you buy an S4 in the next month or so, and if you happen to live in a city that contains a number of tech-savvy young people, someone, somewhere will ask you about your phone, in a way that betrays the fact that you've been made cooler, or more intriguing, in their eyes by virtue of your owning one. And as fleeting and meaningless as that momentary ego boost will be, it will be there, and you will feel it. And then you will know why you bought the S4 instead of an iPhone. Because sometimes, it's okay for a gadget to make you feel cool.