The highly anticipated followup to last year’s Galaxy S3, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has some big shoes to fill. Samsung has spent their time honing a device built on that foundation, and the result is a powerful smartphone that looks to blow away the competition. So, did Samsung really craft “the next big thing,” or does the Galaxy S4 fall short of the hype? Read our full review to find out!
Galaxy S4 Design
In my week spent walking around with the phone, I was really hoping for more people to stop and say, “Wow, is that the Galaxy S4?” But not once did this happen, and that perhaps sums up the design of the phone succinctly. Without a closer inspection, the latest Galaxy simply fades into the hoard of GS3 handsets already floating around out there (side note: my time with the Galaxy S4 opened my eyes to just how popular, in fact, the Galaxy S3 already is).
But Samsung meant it this way. They didn’t set out to design a phone that re-imagined the look of their flagship, rather they set out to create a phone that was at once smaller, more powerful, and smarter than last year’s model while at the same time increasing the overall display size by 0.2 inches. The 5-inch display of the GS4 is noticeable, but the size in your hand is not so much.
The Galaxy S4 measures in at 5.38 x 2.75 x 0.31 inches. Compare that to the Galaxy S3, which features a 4.8-inch display and measures measures 5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 inches, the iPhone 5, which features a 4-inch display and measures 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 inches, and the HTC One, which features a 4.7-inch display and measures 5.41 x 2.69 x 0.37 inches. The Galaxy S4 weighs a paltry 4.59 ounces, a little over half an ounce heavier than the iPhone 5 and 0.10 ounces lighter than the GS3.
A removable backplate serves a two-fold purpose: access to a removable battery as well as SIM and microSD card slots and as a means to attach a variety of accessories, from wireless charging plates to flip covers and more. It’s nice to see a company thinking of the benefits of retaining a removable rear plate design, but with increasing battery life and the decreasing cost of internal storage, there is a reason why many manufacturers have moved on. In the end, we wouldn’t have faulted Samsung for keeping the Galaxy S4 sealed, but having the removable battery cover was a small plus.
But all of this beauty in design falls victim to one flaw, and it’s the same that Samsung has been dealing with for the past several years. Build quality and materials simply do not feel as premium as the phone really is. It’s a bit misleading. The Galaxy S4 definitely operates as a world-class smartphone, but in your hand and pocket it feels plastic-y and a bit cheap.
We would have loved to see Samsung take some initiative in this area and upgrade to aluminum casing or perhaps a more innovative material like ceramic or polycarbonate, but alas, maybe that will come with the Galaxy Note 3 or Galaxy S5. For now it seems Samsung is set in its current design language.
Galaxy S4 Hardware
The Galaxy S is Samsung’s bread-and-butter handset, so as expected it doesn’t lack in the hardware department. Just like the editions before it, the Galaxy S4 features a stellar hardware package that starts with its 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display and goes all the way down to a beefy 2,600 mAh battery. In between you will find either Samsung’s octo-core Exynos 5 Octa 5410 or the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, 2GB of RAM, and a 13MP rear camera with 2MP front-facing camera.
We checked out the Snapdragon model clocked at 1.9GHz, specifically for Sprint’s network. This means the handset included full LTE support on top of standard CDMA connectivity, but Samsung has thrown in radios to support virtually every major wireless standard and service provider. The hardware gets a few nice touches with additions like an infrared blaster as well as NFC. The phone also sports Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac.
Given the fact that the Galaxy S4 is crammed full of just about the nicest components you will find in the current generation of smartphones, you can expect the handset to be a monster of performance. The Galaxy S4 sizzles, and the hardware does what it should do: makes the experience simply about the user and the user interface. The hardware stays out of the way and handles just about anything you can throw at it.
Samsung has always put an emphasis on display quality, and with the Galaxy S4 things are no different. The GS4 is the first device to get a full 1080p HD Super AMOLED display, which features an eye-searing pixel density of 441ppi. That’s over 100 pixels better than the 326 pixels per inch found on the iPhone 5’s Retina display, but still shy of the HTC One’s 469 ppi. We doubt your retinas will miss the difference.
The 5-inch display is manufactured using Corning Gorilla Glass 3 technology, so it is plenty durable. It fits snugly into the design of the phone — bezels are kept at a minimum, providing a near edge-to-edge experience and an even greater emphasis on the beauty of the screen. It’s pretty amazing that Samsung was able to push the screen’s size beyond that of the Galaxy S3 while simultaneously decreasing overall device size.
Image quality is rich in color and contrast and plenty bright. Multiple times did I flip open the flip cover case adorning my GS4 to be almost quite literally blinded by the amount of light being emitted from the screen (and this was in broad daylight on a sunny afternoon). That’s right, the screen is almost too bright, if there is such a thing (but an easily accessible toggle in the notifications shade can make a quick adjustment of that).
Viewing angles are superb and there shouldn’t even be a question about picture quality. Given the 1080p resolution and high pixel density, it goes without saying that the Galaxy S4 features sharp and clear images. The Super AMOLED display is excessive in a good way. It gives us more than we probably need from a 5-inch screen, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to want it just a finger tips touch away.
As the above results demonstrate, the quad-core Snapdragon CPU and Adreno 320 graphics can run with the best of them, if not absolutely obliterate the competition. We suspect the Galaxy S4 that outperformed our own in the AnTuTu benchmark was one possessing Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa chipset as opposed to the 1.9GHz Qualcomm chip found in our Sprint model.
This is all to say, expect big performance from the GS4. There were a few moments where the interface lagged (namely in launching larger applications), but for typical tasks you can forget about the frustration of an underpowered device.
Though many a manufacturer and consumer get caught up in the hype of hi-def displays and multi-core processors, it’s refreshing to see a renewed focus on improving battery life. A phone is nothing without power, but balancing battery size and portability has long been a struggle for manufacturers.
Luckily, Samsung was able to squeeze a 2,600 mAh battery into the Galaxy S4 without adding much to the overall size of the device. What’s more, they did it with a removable power cell. This means should the allotted capacity run dry, users with a spare battery can easily swap out the drained one.
But the good news is most won’t need to worry about that, as the Galaxy S4 on normal use is more than capable of surviving a full day on a single charge. After about 15 hours of messaging, web surfing, and taking some photos and videos at the ball game I was left with a 16 percent charge.
On days where I threw in a good chunk of gaming and media viewing, mileage varied. As you can see from the above screen grab, it’s possible to get close to 24 hours of use without the need to go hunting for a power outlet. On average, a single charge is all you will need to get you from sun up to sun down.
The Galaxy S4 ships with Android 4.2.2 and Samsung’s proprietary TouchWiz user interface. The overall look and feel hasn’t changed much since the Galaxy S3, but the phone does come with a host of new features and experiences including Smart Scroll and Smart Pause, AirView, and TV remote control functionality.
Of course, older TouchWiz enhancements such as multi-window apps (long-press the back button) and Smart Stay are still present, as are Android Jelly Bean standards like Google Now (accessible by long-pressing the settings soft key) and multi-tasking (hold down the home button).
One interesting addition is a revamped Easy Mode. Samsung introduced this feature on older models, but it mostly consisted of simplified widgets laid out on a traditional Android homescreen. With the GS4, Easy Mode is a separate launcher designed to emulate a feature phone interface while giving access to basic smartphone functions. The idea is to ease older folks or first-time smartphone users into the new ecosystem. Easy Mode can be enabled at setup or easily toggled via the Settings menu.
While much of the hardware and software feels iterative compared to the Galaxy S3, Samsung did a great job in terms of enhancing the user experience. Better yet, many of the features debuting with Galaxy S4 will find their way to late model Samsung devices by way of over-the-air updates.
Smart Scroll and Smart Pause
In previous TouchWiz versions, Samsung introduced Smart Stay, an “eye tracking” technology that determined when a user was looking at the display and smartly prevented it from turning off automatically. WIth the Galaxy S4, two new features have been introduced based on the same concept, Smart Scroll and Smart Pause.
In reality, all three of the features function using the phone’s front-facing camera and rely more on facial recognition than eye tracking. With Smart Scroll, the GS4 determines the position of the users head and will scroll a web page or other content up and down accordingly. Smart Pause will automatically pause a video when a user looks away from the screen.
The concepts are novel, and when they work they create a fluid, intuitive way of interacting with your phone. The problem is, the new tech is not without its hangups. Sometimes it doesn’t react at all to eye or head movements. Other times it only works in certain lighting conditions. In general, the services were spotty at best. With some refinement, however, they could be killer.
AirView and Air Gesture
In addition to eye-tracking features, Samsung has introduced two other “hands-free” ways to interact with the Galaxy S4. The first takes AirView, first introduced with the Galaxy S4, and extends it beyond the S Pen. With the Galaxy S4, users can simply hover their finger over certain fields to access pop-out content. It’s especially apparent in the calendar app, where hovering over a date will provide a quick glance at scheduled events, no need to leave the main calendar view.
Air Gesture takes the touch-free concept a step further, using a dedicated sensor located near the Samsung logo above the display to detect hand movements corresponding to certain actions. For instance, waving your hand over the sensor when receiving a phone call will answer the phone in speaker mode, perfect for taking a hands-free call while driving. Air Gesture can also be used to scroll and navigate web pages in the browser.
But just like Smart Scroll and Smart Pause, responsiveness varies. The features are also hurt by a lack of integration into more services and applications, but hopefully Samsung will work with developers to allow others to take advantage of the features. FlipBoard is one third-party app featuring AirView support. The app comes pre-installed on the Galaxy S4.
Group Play is Samsung’s all-in-one service for sharing photos, document, and presentations with a group of other Galaxy handset owners. With the Galaxy S4, Samsung is touting a feature that allows you to you play a song across a group of phones (think back to the commercial Samsung launched showing a basketball team getting hyped up for a game by syncing an Icona Pop tune across their devices).
The feature allows you to either send a stereo stream of the song to all devices or the person initiating the Group Play session can assign each device to act as a left or right speaker. It works, but the feature seems a bit gimmicky. It’s main downfall is that it is limited to users with a Galaxy handset, which could create some awkward moments when someone in a group is left out because they don’t own a Samsung phone.
Group Play, though, is probably best served for sharing a PowerPoint presentation or something along those lines (though again, the platform limitation detracts here).
The Galaxy S4 is the first Galaxy handset to feature a built-in infrared blaster, and Samsung puts it to good use. We have seen the functionality offered in previous Samsung tablets, alongside a combination of Samsung’s WatchOn app and the third-party Peel. With the GS4, the experience is refined to create a single service that allows users to navigate their TV guide and control a television or set-top box all from within a single app.
Setup is extremely simple. Enter some information about where you live and what TV service provider you use, go through a simple dialog to pair the Galaxy S4 with your home entertainment hardware, and you’re ready to go.
The app allows you to find currently playing shows based on a recommendation system or through a full TV guide. You can also search directly for content, and anything that isn’t available via your cable provider can be rented or purchased as part of Samsung’s video on demand service. This also includes tying into your Netflix account. If you have a newer Samsung TV, you can even bounce video back and forth between your phone and television.
If the service suffers at all, it has more to do with the amount of control it provides over TV hardware. Remote functionality is a bit limited. You can’t set up DVR recordings via the WatchOn app, and it’s a bit disappointing that streaming between devices is limited to Samsung’s WatchOn-enabled line of devices. But for folks without a dedicated smart TV solution already in the living room, WatchOn offers a similar experience using the hardware users already own.
Galaxy S4 Camera
Perhaps one of the most impressive features of the Galaxy S4 is its camera. Not only did Samsung up the ante with a 13MP camera capable of capturing some gorgeous shots, but they also fleshed out the phone’s camera software further, adding new shooting modes that create some interesting photo possibilities.
The camera isn’t perfect in all situations, but those situations are few and far between. Not only does it provide 13MP of clarity and 1080p video capture, but functions like Eraser Mode might just make you look like a better photographer than you really are. Samsung based the camera interface off of their Galaxy Camera, and it’s clear that things have taken a big step forward.
The Galaxy S4’s camera offer 13 shooting modes to match its 13 megapixels. You get everything from HDR photo capture to a new Drama shot, which takes sequential photos and stitches together a compelling action shot. If still photos aren’t cutting it, there is also a new animated photo mode that allows you to selectively choose a portion of the shot to feature live movement.
While Samsung left out the 360 PhotoSphere functionality of the most recent Android version, you do get a 360 panorama mode to make up for it, and it works quite spectacularly. Sound shot can also spice up a photo by adding an audio element to your picture. A personal favorite is the aforementioned Eraser mode, which will delete unwanted subject moving through your frame. Let’s call it anti-photobomb mode.
Then, of course, is dual camera mode, which allows you to simultaneously capture photo or video using both the front and rear cameras. It’s useful for adding yourself to a shot, and there are several methods of doing so (all of which can be resized, moved, and adjusted), but other than being a neat trick, we wonder how much purpose it will serve.
The Samsung Galaxy S4’s 13MP camera left me feeling nothing but impressed. Colors were vibrant even in poorer lighting conditions and resolution and clarity were outstanding. Spending enough time, the Galaxy S4 is definitely capable of some truly professional results.
Samsung has been spotty on cameras in the past, often falling behind HTC and Apple when it comes to pure image quality, but that isn’t the case with the Galaxy S4. Video was equally pleasing, but we’ll let the results speak for themselves.
- The 1080p Super AMOLED display is simply gorgeous.
- Battery life is one of the most impressive we have seen from a top-tier smartphone.
- Upgrades the Galaxy S3 in every way imaginable while managing to get smaller.
- 13MP camera could give the standard point-and-shoot a run for its money.
- New features like AirView, Smart Scroll, and Air Gesture really add to the user experience.
- Samsung continues to go with plastic as the main build material, resulting in a device that feels less premium than it really is.
- Though proprietary TouchWiz features add to the phone, some kinks still need to be worked out.
- Compared to the Galaxy S3, feels like an iterative release.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is everything we expected it to be: a stellar combination of hardware and software that builds upon the already framework built by previous entries in the Galaxy lineup. For those already owning the Galaxy S3, however, the changes and enhancements really don’t warrant an upgrade at this time. For those that don’t fall into that category, the Galaxy S4 is a fine choice if you are looking for a brilliant display and excellent photo capture capabilities. For many it will come down to a decision between the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, and you really can’t make a bad choice between the two.