review Over the past several years, Korean manufacturer Samsung has evolved as Apple’s eternal rival. Constantly, in my extended family and friend base, I hear people comparing and contrasting these two brands and asking themselves which should win their smartphone budget. This year’s attempt from Samsung is the fourth model in its popular Galaxy line. We already know the GS4 is good. But does the Galaxy S4 do enough to be considered the best smartphone on the market? Read on to find out.
If you’ve played with Samsung’s previous Galaxy S III model (see Delimiter’s review here), then you’ll already be largely familiar with the overall design of the S4. You get the same large screen, the same rounded rectangle button beneath that screen, similar on/off controls on each side of the screen, and the same metallic rim with a smooth, grippy, shiny plastic casing. You get the same 3.5mm headphone jack on top and the same microUSB port beneath. As with the S III, the back cover of the S4 is removable, giving access to its SD card slot, battery and SIM card. It’s all pretty similar.
However, as with Apple’s iPhone 5 handset compared with the previous iPhone 4S model, the more you use the S4, the more you realise how different this model is to its predecessor, in subtle but powerful ways.
The first is the size and quality of the screen. The S III’s screen was quite large at 4.8″, and it featured a solid screen resolution at 1280×720, delivering a pixel density of 306PPI. The S4, in comparison, has a slightly larger screen at 5″, but it really amps up the resolution to 1920×1080 (or ‘Full HD’ in Samsung speak), as well as the pixel density to 441 PPI. What this means is that you will probably feel that the S4 is very similar to the SIII, until you switch on its screen, and that brilliant, large screen with its incredible clarity starts to dominate everything around it.
There are also other elements to the S4’s physical design which are a little different than that of the S III. The S4 is ever so slightly lighter (130 compared with 133g), and it’s ever so slightly thinner (7.6mm compared with 8.6mm). Given that the S4’s length and width are basically the same (but that it has a larger screen), what this all adds up to is a subtle but powerful refining of the S III, placing a greater focus on its screen and refining its construction.
I’ve heard some other reviewers bemoan the physical casing of the S4, which you can get in either a whitish light shade or a darkish black shade. Quite a few people, apparently, prefer the metallic finish found on the HTC One and the iPhone 5, compared with the S4’s plastic material. And there is some validity to this complaint, if you prefer things that way.
However, personally, I felt that the S4’s finish represented surpassing build quality, and I had absolutely no problem with it. This is one smartphone which felt lovely in the hand and very grippy, which can be a problem with both the One and the iPhone 5 (they tend to slip a little in the hand). You’re not going to easily drop the S4. The lighter plastic material of the S4 may also have contributed to its weight, compared with the One. The HTC model is a full 13g heavier, and we preferred the feeling of the S4 in our pocket.
One design aspect which we would like to see go away soon is Samsung’s insistence on maintaining a physical hardware button below the S4’s screen, along with one capacitive button on either side. These work fine, but your writer owns a Nexus 4, and we have to say that the on-screen buttons found on that device feel better and make more sense than physical buttons, even capacitive ones. Physical buttons are so 2010.
Overall the design and build quality of the S4 is superb. We are sure you won’t be able to find fault with it (unless, perhaps, you have small hands).
When it comes to features, the S4 really is generally unsurpassed by its rivals; although it also suffers a little from bloat. There’s a lot crammed in here; and sometimes the sides bulge a little.
At the heart of the S4 is a powerful 1.9GHz quad-core CPU (Snapdraon 600 model). This is not, it should be noted, the CPU which ships in the S4 available in some other countries, which features eight cores. CNET’s got a better detailed evaluation of this situation, but what it boils down to is that Australia’s 4G/LTE frequency (generally 1800MHz) requires a different chipset to some other countries.
However, four cores at 1.9GHz are more than enough to make the S4 one of the most powerful smartphones on the market, and we had no problems with the unit’s speed in the tests we ran.
You get 2GB of RAM included, and either 16GB or 32GB of on-board storage space, plus an SD card which can take up to 64GB. The SD card slot is, however, located behind the back cover, which makes it a little annoying to remove if you have to do so often. The S4’s screen is a 5″ Super AMOLED model running at 1920×1080 for a pixel density rating of 441 PPI, which is amongst the best on the market (for comparison, the iPhone 5 does 326 PPI, with other recent Android releases such as the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z at or a little higher than the S4).
The main camera is a 13 megapixel model, while the front model is a 2 megapixel model. Both of these specifications place the S4 out in front of most other smartphones on the market. The S4 comes with Bluetooth 4.0, an NFC chip for mobile payments, and all the normal sensors such as an accelerometer, a gyrometer and so on. In addition, it supports the normal Wi-Fi standards as well as (theoretically) 802.11ac, a new standard which has not yet gained popularity. It also comes with 4G support on the networks of Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.
Then we get to the rest.
The S4 comes with an absolute plethora of software features which, very simply, dwarf the featureset of other smartphones currently on the market. It would be too much to go into all of them here, but let’s go through a few of the more high-profile ones.
Some of these features relate to the way you use the S4’s camera. For example, a Dual Camera function allows you to take photos with both the front and back cameras simultaneously. A Dual Video Call function allows you to make and receive video calls, while showing what you are looking at during the call. The camera software comes with a large number of shooting modes (for example, one that also stores sound), as well as editing functionality.
One of the more eye-catching features of the S4 is how it detects the user’s motions around it. For example, a feature named Smart Pause automatically pauses videos when you look away from the screen. A Smart Scroll feature tracks your face and scrolls the screen up or down (for example, when reading an email) when you need it.
A feature named Air View allows users to preview content such as a calendar entry or email by hovering their fingers over the screen but not actually touching it, while another feature named Air Gesture opens up a range of options such as accepting a phone call, changing the music track playing, or scrolling up or down a web page by literally passing your hand over the screen.
And there’s still more. The S4 can act as your TV’s remote control and also output the content of its screen to a TV, you can play the same song on multiple phones in sync, you can translate text when travelling, and so on. The list of the S4’s ‘special’ features seems endless, and this isn’t even getting into specialised Samsung apps bundled on the device such as S Health, which tracks your health in order to deliver a better quality of life.
Do all of these features work? We’ll get onto this in a second in the ‘performance’ section of this article. But what we can say here is that when combined, they contribute to the impression that the S4 is simply un-matched in its featureset by any other smartphone on the market. When using the device, we were routinely interrupted by friends and family who would ask us how we had done something, and opening the S4 presents the user with a dazzling array of options, the like we haven’t seen elsewhere on the market.
Tying all of this together is the S4’s implementation of Android. The model comes with the latest 4.2.2 (‘Jelly Bean’) version of the Google operating system, but also implements Samsung’s TouchWiz interface.
TouchWiz is not as intrusive as the Sense UI found on HTC’s One smartphone, and at least in the version found on the S4, feels a lot more like the stock Android experience that many people, including the writer of this article, prefer. In addition, the default theme used by Samsung with the S4 is quite beautiful to look at and use. However, don’t be fooled: This isn’t stock Android, and there are many, many customisations here which Android purists will hate. The settings section is particularly convoluted, and you’ll need to hunt around to find relevant options if you’re coming from a stock Android device like the Nexus 4.
What all of this adds up to in terms of the S4’s featureset is something pretty incredible. Not only are the S4’s base features top of the market, but they are also well-integrated. However, the sheer number of the features found in the S4 also contributes to a sense of complexity and clutter in the device. You’ll need to invest significant time in learning how to use them all, and not all are well-implemented. What your writer ended up doing is keeping the ones we found useful and turning off the ones we didn’t — which Samsung has thankfully provided settings options to do.
You won’t find a smartphone with better features on the market at the moment than the Galaxy S4. This thing is packed to the gills with goodness.
There’s a lot to go into here, and it wouldn’t be feasible to provide a detailed overview of all of the GS4’s features from a performance perspective. So for the purposes of this review, I’ll focus on a few key areas: Camera, battery life, user experience, and “the rest”.
From a camera perspective, the S4’s performance was great. The shots we took by and large were amongst the best we’ve taken with a smartphone, and we’d rank the S4’s camera easily up with top of the line models such as the iPhone 5, the HTC One and even the model found on Lumia’s flagship 920. The only thing you’re missing out on here through not having the One’s ‘Ultrapixels’ is that you won’t get quite as good shots under low lighting conditions. But we don’t really mind. In addition, the extra software features found with the S4 really push the whole smartphone camera market forward, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these make their way into Android or iOS as standard.
The following shots were taken at the same time and place with the listed devices. No modifications were made — they were merely resized in Photoshop and saved as moderate quality JPGs. Click for a bigger view of each image.
Samsung Galaxy S4:
In terms of its battery life, the S4 is one of the first 4G high-end smartphones we’ve seen in Australia that has quite solid endurance. It’s got a slightly larger battery than the HTC One (2,600 mAh compared with the 2300 mAh model found on the One), and in general we found the S4 outlasted pretty much all of the other 4G models we’ve tested recently, despite the fact that it has a huge screen, a powerful CPU and a stack of features.
Perhaps the best way to describe the S4’s battery performance is that it’s getting back to ‘normal’ in terms of 3G smartphone battery life. Most 4G phones we’ve tested last through one day but little more — ideally you’d need to recharge them every night. The S4 reminded us a lot more of a high-end 3G model like the Nexus 4, in that we could usually just charge it a couple of times a week but not really pay a lot of attention to the battery for a few days until it started beeping at you. This, to be honest, is great. We’re tired of 4G battery suckers, and it’s good to see Samsung innovating in this space.
In terms of the S4’s user interface, there’s good news and bad news in terms of its performance. The good news is that everything works and is relatively consistent internally. Once you’ve learned the quirks of where things are and how things transition in Touchwiz on the S4, you’ll find the whole thing pretty natural. This is a better Android experience than we’ve seen from any other Android manufacturer recently — less clutter, less confusion and more user choice — apart from the default Android experience found on the Nexus 4.
Plus, the skin/theme on the S4 is beautiful; and we found others on different tables at a pub, for example, looking our way to check out the S4’s screen. This smartphone is an eye-catcher. Its screen is large, vibrant, beautiful, and grabs attention.
However, it’s still way more confusing than stock Android, and there’s a lot of clutter in the S4 UI due to the extreme number of features and extra apps which Samsung has packed in here. One particular aspect to this is that the quick settings menu (accessed by pulling down the top of the screen) is incredibly cluttered — and not ‘quick’ at all to navigate. Occasionally we got lost trying to find a basic setting.
The good news, of course, is that Samsung is bringing out a version of the S4 with the stock ‘Nexus’ Android experience. We view this as likely being a better model than the S4 currently on sale in Australia, as long as the model arriving locally supports 4G, and probably close to the perfect smartphone that we could imagine. Samsung’s power and featureset combined with Google’s clear and simple UI? Heaven.
Lastly, there’s the ‘extra’ Samsung features here — features such as Smart Pause (which pauses videos when you look away) or Air Gesture (which lets you swipe your hand over the screen, without touching it, to issue a command to the phone.
These features, which by and large are not found on any other smartphone currently available, are a mixed bag. Some, such as Air Gesture, are just fricking awesome. It’s great to be able to swipe your hand in the air to change music tracks or even answer the phone, and we found ourselves using it often and reliably. The same can be said of the Smart Pause feature. It is no exaggeration to say that rival companies such as Apple will be examining these options closely to see how they can similarly be integrated into their own products.
It all does sound quite gimmicky when you read the marketing material. However, in practice, our friends and family were amazed when we demonstrated how looking up from a YouTube video with the S4 would automatically pause it, or how we could swap back to the previous web page we were browsing by swiping our hand over the screen. In real life, these features are game changers for the S4, and as they get refined, we expect them to become a fundamental part of using a smartphone.
Other features, however, came across as raw and undeveloped. Air View (the contactless preview function) can be a bit hit and miss, and of course the TV integration isn’t perfect yet. The same with the automatic scroll function. And even some of the camera features on the S4 came across as gimmicky or ‘beta’ rather than functional and finished.
If these features had been developed by Apple, you know they wouldn’t have all made it into a finished product for sale. Apple, with its strict quality controls, would have ensured they came to their final, polished, developed form, before launching them. At times the S4 comes across as an experimental sandbox, because Samsung has just thrown all the options in there, without polish at times.
However, it says a lot about Samsung at the moment that it’s quite literally the only manufacturer on the market right now which is innovating in these areas, or at least the only one which has brought these kinds of features to market. The S4 does some quite amazing things which other smartphones — especially the iPhone, with its increasingly clunky iOS interface and relatively static featureset — just aren’t even attempting to do. And some really work. Because of this, we really have to praise Samsung for its innovation here.
Look, we can’t possibly go into all of the performance which a massively specc’d smartphone like the S4 delivers. However, in conclusion: It’s hard to find fault with the S4’s performance on any measure. The S4 does all the fundamentals really well and most of its additional features perform well. It comes across as a bit cluttered and over-featured at times, and will no doubt be improved by the ‘Nexus’ stock Android experience. But it’s hard to fault the S4’s overall performance.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.
In mid-2013, the best high-end smartphone available in Australia is clearly the Samsung Galaxy S4. It delivers well on all of its fundamentals, features top-class build quality, and not only delivers a top of the market featureset, but also many useful and innovative features which no other smartphone currently offers. We suspect the S4 will be vastly improved by the addition of Google’s ‘Nexus’ stock Android experience, but even so, this is the king pin. The iPhone 5, the HTC One and even the Lumia 920 are great smartphones.
But we have to say: The Samsung GS4 has them all beat. This is the gold standard right now and we commend it to you.
Image credit: Samsung