Samsung Galaxy S4 hands-on

If you’re looking for an improved Galaxy S smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S4 will not disappoint.

It has a faster processor; more RAM; better cameras; and newer operating system.

It boasts a bigger screen, despite not being physically much larger than its predecessor, and the display resolution has increased to full 1080p HD from 720p and the device is a few grams lighter to boot.

As one might expect, Samsung has also put a bigger battery in the Galaxy S4 to keep all these upgraded components juiced up.

Samsung Galaxy S4 press shots
Samsung Galaxy S4 press shots

Design showing its age

Sticking with the tried and tested means that Samsung didn’t deviate from its basic design either.

The casing still has a glossy, plasticky finish that’s not particularly nice to look at or to hold. As ever, when peeling off the back it feels as though you might snap the cover at any moment.

That said, unlike so many top-tier devices, the Galaxy S4 actually has a back cover and removable battery along with a microSD card slot.

A physical home button and two capacitive buttons (menu and back) also still adorn the front of the device, rather than software buttons.

Since Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) Google has let developers put a software button to display the application menu within their app itself, making it easier to discover menu options.

Previously users would have to press a hardware button on their Android device to bring up this menu, which is the dated design that Samsung has elected to stick with for the Galaxy S4.

The fact that the symbols on the capacitive buttons only stay lit for 1.5 seconds by default after waking the phone only further hurts the discoverability of menu options inside apps.

Samsung Galaxy S4 with S View Cover
Samsung Galaxy S4 with S View Cover

Fully featured

If the design choices don’t bother you, or if you’re able to look past them, then there’s little else at fault with the Samsung Galaxy S4.

As with the S3 before it, Samsung has included an excess of software features, including Smart Pause, Air Gestures, S Translator, and S Health.

This means that amongst other things, the device pauses video when you look away from it, lets you scroll through pictures without touching the screen, and translates spoken English to a handful of other languages.

Hardware-wise it includes everything from a 13-megapixel rear camera to NFC. Lack of Long Term Evolution (LTE) support may be counted against the Galaxy S4.

Specifications Samsung Galaxy S4
Dimensions 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm
Weight 130g
Operating system Android 4.2.2
Display 5″ 1080p HD (1080×1920)
Rear camera 13MP
Front camera 2MP
Storage, internal 16GB/32GB/64GB
Storage, expandable microSD (64GB)
RAM 2GB
Processor Exynos Octa 5410: 1.6GHz quad-core Cortex-A15 + 1.2GHz quad-core Cortex-A7 / 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon
Graphics PowerVR SGX 544MP / Adreno 320
Battery 2,600mAh
Cellular data LTE and HSPA+ models
SIM type Micro SIM
NFC Yes

Instead of LTE, the model shipping in South Africa at the moment instead has Samsung’s new Exynos Octa 8-core processor which is meant to improve battery consumption.

The eight cores of the processor actually consists of one high performance quad-core processor and one energy efficient quad-core processor in what chip company ARM terms “big.LITTLE Processing”.

According to ARM: “big.LITTLE can reduce energy consumption in the processor by 70% or more on light workloads and background tasks, and by 50% for moderately intense work, while still delivering the peak performance of the high performance cores.”

Samsung Galaxy S4 big.LITTLE battery use test
Samsung Galaxy S4 big.LITTLE battery use test

A quick test of big.LITTLE

To see whether big.LITTLE delivered, I conducted a rather unscientific test over the weekend in which I tried to maximise the life of the battery without turning off the communication hardware.

With the cellular radio permanently on, 3G activated and Wi-Fi switched on most of the time, the Samsung Galaxy S4 managed around 2.5 days of uptime with minimal use.

Such use included only answering communications (phone calls, SMSes, WhatsApp, and Google Talk), snapping maybe 5 or 6 photos, and showing the phone off a little to friends and family.

Over the course of the 2.5 days of uptime the screen was on for just over 2 hours (which means the device was used for just over 3% of its time of charge).

Although impressive, more testing is needed to confirm whether the uptime seen here could just be attributed to the 2,600mAh battery.

Samsung Galaxy S4 AnTuTu benchmark
Samsung Galaxy S4 AnTuTu benchmark

Summary

Though I have the same complaints about the design of the Galaxy S4 as I had about its predecessor, Samsung has made a number of changes where it counts: to the internals and added software features.

One benefit to not tampering with the basic design of the Samsung Galaxy S device and user interface is that if you liked it before, it’s likely that you still will.

If you’re coming up for an upgrade and you’re looking for a top-end Android phone then as with the HTC One, Sony Xperia Z, and Nexus 4 – the Samsung Galaxy S4 won’t disappoint.

What you’ll like

  • Excellent performance
  • Gamut of software features

What you’ll hate

  • Not very grippy
  • Casing feels flimsy and plasticky

What you should note

  • Large device with a large screen
  • No major UX changes from S3

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Samsung Galaxy S4 hands-on