Samsung Galaxy S4 review

In terms of design, Samsung haven’t strayed very far from S4’s predecessor at all. On top is the 3.5mm headphone jack along with an IR blaster, with the microUSB port on the bottom.

The power button is on the right, while the left has the volume rocker. There may not be much difference in the button layout, but for some reason both power and the volume buttons were hard to press, and it felt like they were positioned too high for my liking. Maybe I was just holding it wrong.

To our dismay, the button layout on the front hasn’t changed at all (left to right: Menu, Home, Back). Samsung insists on keeping the Menu button on the front, obscuring the existence of menus. To add to that, the default button backlight timer is set incredibly low, so it doesn’t even look like the buttons are active or applicable to whatever app you’re currently in.

The Home button also has 3 different functions: a short press will take you home, a long press will open up recent apps, and a double tap will bring up S Voice – that’s two too many options in this reviewers opinion. We also found that it takes a little too long to go back to the Home screen after pressing the Home button.

Though it may seem like there isn’t any change on the front, the screen size has increased to 5-inches and the resolution has been bumped to 1080p – more on that later.

Around back, in the top middle, is the camera with its flash directly below it.

In keeping with what by now has to be Samsung tradition, the S4 has a removable plastic cover. We had a bedazzled black and silver cover which could almost double as a mirror. It’s slippery, feels weak, picks up fingerprints, and generally exudes all the bad things about plastic. Considering the remarkable products that OEMs like Nokia and HTC have been able to make with plastic, this is more than a little sad.

Copying the design from the S3 and adding minor tweaks to it wasn’t the best idea Samsung’s ever had. The S4 feels slimy and wholly unsatisfying.

Samsung Galaxy S4 in hand
Samsung Galaxy S4 in hand

Samsung Galaxy S4 Internals and performance

Internally, the S4 is an interesting beast. It features an Exynos 5410 chipset with an 8-core CPU in a big.LITTLE architecture. Essentially this means that the S4 has 8 cores in two sets – 4 cores (clocked at 1.2GHz) are for when you’re doing lighter tasks and want to conserve power, and the other 4 (clocked at 1.6GHz) are for when you need to do the heavy lifting.

The S4 also has a healthy 2GB of RAM and 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of base storage, though it’s worth noting that on our 32GB review unit only about 23GB of that was available to us. Of course, the storage is expandable by microSD card if need be.

There’s WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and HSPA+ (up to 42.2Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up) to keep you connected.

In our HTC One review we remarked that the S4 would probably have something to say in the benchmarks, and it hasn’t disappointed. In answer to the One’s 19950.2 average in AnTuTu, the S4 presents its own 27582.4 – a healthy increase from the S3 LTE’s 16099.2.

Though lag didn’t rear its ugly head very often, we did notice it occasionally in the camera app. Other than that, we had nothing to complain about.

Samsung Galaxy S4 press shots
Samsung Galaxy S4 press shots

Samsung Galaxy S4 Screen and responsiveness

Manufacturers have been doing their best to impress us with ever-improving displays, each one trying to outdo the other. Samsung’s no stranger here, though their use of Pentile displays have inspired many column inches, forum posts, and debates.

The S4 features a 5-inch display, which is just about bordering on the tablone (or the more crass term, phablet) range of devices. However, the S4 isn’t unwieldy, with Samsung being able to fit in more screen in about the same amount of space as the S3.

The S4 also increases its resolution to 1080p, keeping trend with all the other manufacturers who have decided to give you more pixels than you’d need (that’s 441 PPI if you’re counting) – and yet we’ll probably never be satisfied.

But pixels only say so much. The S4 is bright and vivid, though the colours were sometimes oversaturated, giving things a cartoonish look.

As can be expected from a Super AMOLED display, blacks were deep, though whites tended to have a warm tinge to them.

Viewing angles were excellent, with only a hint of discolouration appearing at very extreme angles.

The problems that we faced in terms of responsiveness weren’t because of a lack thereof. For the first time we can say that a screen was slightly too responsive, leading to hovering fingers being detected as swipes or gestures. Turning off the high sensitivity did seem to improve things.

Other issues we had were that the lock screen took slightly too long to actually unlock, causing us to gesture again with no visible effect. Samsung’s feedback on the lock screen is perhaps slightly too subtle.

Overall, we’re quite happy with the S4’s display. It’s a tough landscape to compete in, but the S4 is more than capable of holding  its own.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Sound and call quality

It’s tough to take smartphone speakers seriously, and even more so after spending time with the HTC One. The S4 didn’t exactly blow our minds, but the tiny rear speaker was at least loud. The bundled earphones, lacking in bass and detail, also left us unimpressed.

Worth mentioning at this point is that the S4 has a feature that can adapt the sound according to your hearing. When activated in the Sound Settings menu, it will play you a series of high, low, loud, and soft tones and ask if you can hear the tone being played. This information is then used to tailor the sound output to you. We liked the outcome of our experimentation with it.

Call quality was good – we didn’t run into any major problems during our time with the S4.

Samsung Galaxy S4 camera HDR test of Lions Head
Samsung Galaxy S4 camera HDR test of Lions Head

Samsung Galaxy S4 Cameras

The S4 has a 13MP rear-facing camera and a 2MP front-facing camera. The 13MP rear-facing camera is capable of 4128 x 3096 still shots and full 1080p video recording. It’s a great camera overall that takes good, clear shots with lots of detail, while generally managing to keep the colours balanced and the noise low.

Dimming the lights a little did cause us some frustration though, as it seemed that the camera had some trouble focusing.

The camera software also has loads of settings and a small truck full of modes, which can range from those that take a bunch of photos and let you select the best ones, to a mode that lets you create animated GIFs by selecting which part of the photo should be animated. It’ll take you a while to play around with all the options and to figure out what you like and what you don’t.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Battery life

With a big, high resolution screen, and some powerful specs, we expected the S4 would struggle with up-time. We’re happy to report that our expectations were inaccurate.

With heavy use – taking lots of photos, watching videos, playing some games, browsing, social networking – the S4 managed to easily get through the day leaving it with about 20-30% battery life. Giving it slightly more idle time and fiddling with the power saving mode could net you multiple days on a charge without too much trouble.

Samsung Galaxy S4  Software

When it comes to software, Samsung like to throw as much as possible at you – even the kitchen sink if they can. The S4 carries on in their tradition.

Once the dust has settled a little, and you’re done switching on and fiddling with all the Smart screen tweaks and motions and air gestures, you realise that most of them are really just party tricks.

Of the five air gestures, we only found Quick glance to be of any use. Of the seven motions, we only found two or three worth our time.

The Smart rotation functionality may sound extremely useful, until you realise that it increases the screen rotation time from around 1 second to almost 3 seconds. Smart scroll also seems like a great idea, but it’s flakey at best, meaning that you have to make wildly exaggerated head movements or you have to bend the device over backwards, when you could have just swiped the screen.

And while a super sensitive screen does make for some fun playing with light beams on your lock screen with a hovering finger, it also increases the number of erroneous touches.

There are 17 motions, gestures, and/or smart actions, and I found 5 of them useful while the rest were either pointless, half-baked, or actively detrimental. It’s fairly clear that these aren’t game-changing, must-have features.

Samsung may be the first OEM to ship notification power toggles, but since then they’ve gone a bit overboard. On the S4, there are 20 notification toggles.

At this point, I want to sing the praises of TouchWiz, and to say that it has come from nowhere to being the best non-default Android UI – but I just can’t.

Most of the default apps have designs that look like they belong somewhere between Android 2.2 and 2.3 – Holo design guidelines aren’t even a consideration. Then, of course, there are apps like S Memo and S Planner with their fake brown pleather textures.

Samsung Galaxy S4 animated photo test (squirrel!)
Samsung Galaxy S4 animated photo test

Some of the apps also have some strange default behaviours. Messaging, for instance, will by default display a notification with the app name as the title and the message will be “New message” – exactly the intention of receiving a notification in the first place. You have to actually go into the app’s settings and turn on the Preview message option to receive a preview of the message that you’ve received.

Music (which I’ve raged about before) is a full screen app for some reason, but if you go in and out quickly enough, and if Voice actions are enabled, you see a notification telling you how to use Voice actions in the app.

A few apps stuck out in a good way, including S Health and, oddly enough, Story Album.

S Health lets you track your exercise (or lack thereof), eating habits, comfort level, and a couple of other things that relate to your overall health – stats that you probably should be spending some time caring about.

Story Album lets you create albums of photos that tell a particular story. What’s really nice about it, is that it will detect when you’re taking a lot of photos and automatically suggest that you create an album.

There’s a lot of software to go through with the S4, and most of the “features” are things that you don’t actually want on or will never end up using anyway. In between all of that you can find a few good things, but Samsung’s hit to miss ratio is awfully low.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Conclusion

At the end of it all, the S4 gives you better internal hardware (by a decent margin) which helps power an improved, ultra sensitive, higher resolution display and a slightly better camera. All of this is packed into a shell that’s showing its age, and it’s given a bunch of new software features, to add to the laundry list, that are mostly just gimmicks.

The S4 keeps pace with the rest and it excels in many areas. S3 owners don’t need to stare lustfully at it, though, as they’re really not missing out on much.

With solid offerings from Samsung, HTC, Sony, Apple, and even LG, it’s basically impossible to declare any one phone as the best. It’s certainly a good time to be a consumer and, if you are on the upgrade path, the S4 is worth considering.

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Samsung Galaxy S4 review