Sharing is a big part of Samsung's products (just think of all those ads in recent months, like the one with a woman giving her husband a secret video). Now the Korean electronics giant is taking that a step further with the Galaxy S4's improved Group Play.
Galaxy S3 users will recognize this as the feature that lets them share documents and photos with others in close range. I recently got some hands-on time with Group Play on the S4 and found some nice updates to the program. In particular, future S4 owners can share music and games along with photos and documents, and the group leader's device acts as the Wi-Fi access point connecting all the other devices. That means you don't have connect to any Wi-Fi or cellular data network -- a big change from the Galaxy S3 version, which relied on all devices being connected to the same Wi-Fi network.
Setting up and connecting to a group is so simple that people might actually use the feature (once they realize what it is). Samsung crams tons of capabilities in all of its devices, but few consumers know they even exist, let alone how to use them. One of the company's biggest pushes this year is to make its products easier to use. With the Galaxy S4, many features such as NFC are automatically turned on instead of defaulted to the off setting. And the device has an improved notification/settings screen that's easier to navigate.
For Group Play, you launch the program by clicking an icon on the phone. The group leader has to choose "create group," which automatically turns on the Wi-Fi access point.
All other devices joining a Group Play session will recognize the access point the same way as any other Wi-Fi network. When you launch the program, you choose "join group" instead of "create group." The program then automatically searches for available Wi-Fi networks and connects when it finds one called "Group Play XXX." If there are multiple networks with "Group Play" in their name, the program gives you the option to choose which to join.
Samsung is working to let you pair your phone with NFC, so instead of seeing a list of available Group Play sessions, you can tap your phone against the leader's device to automatically join the session. I didn't get to test that feature out, and it's unclear whether U.S. GS4 owners will be able to do that at launch.
Whoever creates a group has the option to set up a password, which makes sharing a little more secure. A box in the top-right corner will indicate how many people have joined the group, allowing people to keep track of each other. Hovering over that number will show the names of the devices that are connected.
Once you've joined a group, you see a list of possible information to share -- music, pictures, documents, or games -- and multiple files can be shared in one session. Everyone has control over the Group Play content, so you can move through slides in a presentation and make notes on the material using your finger or a stylus on the Note devices. Each person's comments/doodles shows up as a different color to avoid confusion.
You can advance or rewind through the presentation not only on your own device but on everyone else's device, as well. For the music feature, it also means you can control the volume on another user's Galaxy S4.
Photos and documents are holdovers from the older version of the program, but the updated Group Play sorts images based on the new shooting modes such as "Sound & Shot," "Drama Shot," and "Dual Shot."
Music and gaming
As I mentioned before, music and gaming are a couple new features for Group Play. The music feature is pretty interesting. It synchronizes whichever song is currently playing, so everyone can rock out to the same tune or have a silent disco, those parties where you have to wear headphones to hear the music. You can set each phone to act as a different speaker, so one will be the left, another the right, and so on.
It's unclear exactly how many users can access the other sharing features; Samsung says it depends on the content being shared. PowerPoint and PDF documents can handle more users than photo sharing. Music sharing supports even fewer. The company notes that it has seen more than 20 people sharing the same PowerPoint presentation.
Because the leader generates the Wi-Fi access point, the session ends when that person leaves the group. Everyone else is then kicked out of Group Play, and the shared content disappears from your devices.
I got to see Group Play's new features and setup in action when I went to Samsung's U.S. mobile headquarters in suburban Dallas to get briefed on the company's retail store strategy. There, Samsung execs showed a small group of journalists how Group Play operates. We shared photos and played music, and both features worked well in the demo.
I had a chance to try setting it up myself. It was easy with a coach in front of me, but I'm not sure I'd know what the feature was or how to do it on my own if I'd never seen a demo. That's part of the reason Samsung has formed its partnership with Best Buy: after brief instruction, users should pick it up pretty easily. And while the improvements from the older version are nice, it's hard to imagine people using Group Play all that often. I could see it most commonly used in business for doing tasks like sharing PowerPoint presentations.
Sharing via Group Play isn't limited to the Galaxy S3 and S4. The feature is also available on the Galaxy Note 2, and certain tablets such as the Note 10.1 and Note 8. Samsung has said most GS4 software features will make their way to the S3, but it's not clear right now whether that device and other older Samsung gadgets will be able to share music and games or whether people can join groups using NFC. I wasn't able to test out how Group Play on the GS4 interacts with other Samsung devices.
And it's important to note that not all features of Group Play and the GS4 are set in stone. Some capabilities could change by the time Samsung launches the device, and features may vary depending on region. Samsung isn't sharing specific details yet, but we'll check back after the device has launched to fill in some of the question marks.