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Samsung Galaxy S4 review
The Galaxy S4 represents a refinement of Samsung's earlier efforts, but is that enough to guarantee its success in the smartphone market of 2013?
Enter, the Samsung Galaxy S4. Despite the abundance of unique hardware from a wide variety of manufacturers, the smartphone space remains a two-horse race, dominated by Apple’s iPhone andSamsung’s Galaxy series. Arguably a triumph of marketing as much as technology, the Galaxy S3 emerged as the Android king in 2012, selling some 30 million units worldwide. Longtime foes HTC and Motorola struggled to compete with Samsung, and the Korean behemoth cemented its position as the alpha Android later in the year with the pen-toting Galaxy Note 2.
Now, as tick follows tock, it’s time for a successor to the Galaxy S3 -- and the Galaxy S4 is as incremental and familiar as its name might suggest. Rounded edges. TouchWiz. SuperAMOLED. A big clicky home button. At first inspection it seems it’s business as usual for Samsung owners.
On the other hand, the Galaxy S4’s feature list is staggering, bringing new tricks to the table beyond faster hardware and a larger screen. “Air view” can detect your hands at a distance. A front-mounted IR blaster and TV app allow the phone to serve as a viewing companion. The video player tracks your eyes. The web browser scrolls with a tilt of your head. Add to that more new software features than you can shake a very large stick at -- including everything from the Galaxy S3 -- and you’ll see why the S4 could be the most feature-laden smartphone out there. Conversely, the S4’s design -- in both hardware and software -- is essentially unchanged. Of course, not every smartphone upgrade needs to be revolutionary, and those manufacturers who’ve reinvented themselves lately -- HTC, for example -- have arguably been strong-armed into doing so by Samsung’s dominance.
Like arch-rival Apple, Samsung’s new product is all but guaranteed widespread success. The company’s colossal marketing budget and newfound consumer mindshare will take care of that. Expect a relentless advertising campaign and news of tens of millions of sales in the months ahead.
So plenty of other humans will buy the Samsung Galaxy S4 this year, but should you? Does it deserve its inevitable success, or is it all parlor tricks and gimmickry? The one place you’ll find out for sure is after the break, in our extensive Galaxy S4 review.
For all its newness, the experience of picking up and using a Galaxy S4 is steeped in familiarity. Up close, subtle differences come into focus. But if you’ve used any of Samsung’s 2012 line-up, you should already know exactly what to expect when it comes to build quality and external hardware -- specifically, shiny plastic and rounded corners. The front is a covered with a sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass 3, sandwiched between the speaker grille up top and a large central home button down below. Beside the home key sit capacitive menu and back keys. (That’s right, Samsung’s still playing fast and loose with the Android design guidelines.)
The similarities continue around the sides and back. There’s a silvery faux-metal trim circling the edge of the device, punctuated by metal power and volume keys on the right and left sides respectively. The keys have much more of a premium feel to them than earlier Samsung phones, with reflective chamfers on their sides and a firmer click than those of the Galaxy S3. If you look closely, you’ll see similar design cues around the side of the speaker grille and camera assembly.
The battery door is furnished in shiny plastic with a fine reflective diamond pattern. On the “mist black” Galaxy S4 we’re reviewing, it contrasts sharply against the dark grey on the front; on the white version, it’s less noticeable. It’s inoffensive enough, but it does tend to pick up fingerprints and smudges more easily than we’d like. From the front there’s a similar, but less pronounced diamond pattern surrounding the screen, which breaks things up visually, contrasting with the pitch black of the display.
What the Galaxy S4 lacks in looks it makes up for in ergonomics. Its curved chassis makes it easy to palm, and its 5-inch display is packed into a footprint almost identical to that of its predecessor, meaning you get more screen and less bezel in a device of the same size. It’s also incredibly light, weighing a little less than the S3 at 130 grams. Other 5-inchers like the Sony Xperia Z and HTC Droid DNA have struggled to pack such a large display into a hand-friendly package, so it’s a remarkable achievement for Samsung to have crammed so much screen into an S3-sized body.
The overall profile of the phone is a little more squared-off than earlier Samsung handsets, and the flatter trim fits more firmly in the hand, making slippage less likely. Consequently, the Galaxy S4 is staggeringly comfortable to use, proving that you don’t have to sacrifice comfort in the name of screen size. It’s a quintessentially Samsung design, and it’s become clear over the past year Samsung wants to create an iconic look of its own across all its mobile devices. So for better or worse, the S4 is clearly identifiable as a Galaxy smartphone.
Galaxy S4 display
Main: Galaxy S4 screen close-up; Below: iPhone 5, Galaxy S3, Nexus 4, HTC One (click to enlarge)
The Galaxy S4’s 5-inch display is a full HD (1920x1080) SuperAMOLED panel. That means you’ve got a ridiculously high pixel density of 440ppi, and so the irregular PenTile matrix -- the arrangement of little colored dots that make up each of the 2 million pixels -- doesn’t result in any noticeable jagged edges. Color accuracy too is improved compared to early SuperAMOLEDs. In fact, the screen’s overall brightness and color quality is as good as we’ve seen on any AMOLED display, including the Galaxy Note 2, with no yellow or greenish discoloration in white areas.
Despite its bright colors and pitch blacks, the Galaxy S4’s SuperAMOLED panel struggles somewhat in bright daylight compared to modern LCD and IPS screens. Those issues are aggravated by the phone’s poor auto-brightness mode, which doesn’t ramp up anywhere near aggressively enough. The Galaxy S3 suffered from similar issues at launch, and they were later fixed in a software update, so it’s disappointing to see auto-brightness problems surfacing once again. Daylight visibility is an inherent weakness of AMOLED panels, and although the Galaxy S4 outperforms other SuperAMOLEDs in this area, it doesn’t quite match up to the performance of modern LCDs.
Beyond display quality, the Galaxy S4’s screen also incorporates a high-sensitivity touch mode designed for use with gloves. It’s hidden behind a few layers of menu, but it’s there, and it’s a capability you won’t find on the vast majority of smartphones.
When it comes to internal hardware, things become a little more complex. The U.S. Galaxy S4 we’re reviewing (and many other international 4G versions, including models sold in the UK) pack a Snapdragon 600 CPU running at 1.9GHz, compared to the 1.7GHz version found in the HTC One and Optimus G Pro. In some markets, including Samsung’s native South Korea, an Exynos 5 Octa (4+4 core) version will be offered, though we’re not expecting the different CPU to make that much of a difference to overall performance. Both flavors of Galaxy S4 include an ample 2 gigabytes of RAM.
There’s 16 GB of storage onboard as standard -- although in some territories 32 GB and 64 GB models will be offered. Furthermore, Samsung includes a microSD slot to expand the available storage, a rarity among high-end Androids. On our 16 GB model there’s 9.62GB available for your own stuff out of the box -- not an abundance of space, but that’s easily expanded with a microSD card purchase. Similarly, the built-in 2600 mAh bundled battery is removable, allowing a second one to be swapped in during days of heavy use. That also opens up a world of possibilities for higher-capacity aftermarket batteries.
The concoction of high-end silicon bubbling inside the Galaxy S4 produces fairly speedy performance in most tasks. We should note, however, that the HTC One seems just a little more responsive across the board, likely due to software tweaks on HTC’s part (or possibly some of the patents it licensed from Apple in late 2012.) A few examples of what we mean -- the home screen launcher on the S4 seemed more sensitive to background tasks, whereas the HTC One animated its home screen transitions flawlessly every time. Similarly, certain apps like the Samsung gallery app would take a second or so to load up, whereas just about every app loaded instantly on the HTC One. The S4’s suffered from infrequent jitteriness in some of its animations from time to time. Given the similarities in hardware between the two phones, it’s curious to see that HTC’s pulled ahead slightly in terms of perceived performance.
The Galaxy S4 continues the megapixel race with a 13-megapixel rear camera with f/2.2 aperture and BSI (backside illumination) tech. On the software side, Samsung’s rearranged its camera app with a number of special scene modes, inspired by its Galaxy Camera device. The combination of the higher pixel count and re-vamped software makes the Galaxy S4 one of the most versatile mobile cameras we’ve used, though as you’ll see in our comparison articles, it loses out to the HTC One’s “Ultrapixel” camera in low light conditions. On the front is a 2-megapixel front-facer, and both front and rear cameras can shoot video at up to 1080p resolution. Though it lacks the optical image stabilization tech found on some competitors, the Galaxy S4 is nonetheless a great video performer.
Being a modern smartphone, it should come as no surprise to see the Galaxy S4 packing 4G LTE support in most markets in addition to various flavors of 3G -- HSPA or EVDO depending on the carrier. We used the Sprint Galaxy S4 in New York City, switching between 3G and 4G as we moved around Manhattan. As anyone who’s used Sprint outside of its few pockets of great coverage will know, network performance is highly variable. (That's a polite way of saying Sprint’s network is a joke in many locations.) In NYC -- admittedly not yet an official Sprint 4G market -- our speeds averaged at around 3 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up on LTE, which is far from what we’d consider acceptable over 4G. That’s not the phone’s fault, though, and your mileage will no doubt vary depending on your location and carrier of choice.
Call quality too will be network-dependent, but even with Sprint’s variable network quality we didn’t notice any issues in this area. In speakerphone calls and general audio playback, the Galaxy S4’s rear-facing speaker is reasonably loud and clear, though it doesn’t match the insane volume and quality of the HTC One’s BoomSound speaker.
The Galaxy S4 is also one of a small number of phones to support the newer 802.11ac Wifi standard, meaning you’ll get higher data speeds over newer wireless networks based on this standard.
In summary, the Galaxy S4’s hardware is familiar and comfortable, if not particularly exciting. The focus is clearly on an incremental upgrade over previous Samsung products, and the S4’s hardware does exactly what needs to in order to bring this design language forward into 2013. No more, no less. As such, it does little to win over buyers who may have been underwhelmed by the industrial design of phones like the S3 and Note 2. With the Galaxy S4, Samsung takes baby steps forward, as opposed to the quantum leap some may have been hoping for.
Galaxy S4 specs
Samsung is bringing to market a wide range of accessories for the Galaxy S4, including regular plastic cases, flip cases and a new “S View case.” The S View case replaces the back cover of the phone and has a protective front cover attached to protect the screen. Unlike earlier Samsung flip cases, a magnet in the cover can switch the screen on and off, and windowed area up top allows you to view the pertinent data, and answer calls using touch input.
A wireless charging back should be available for the Galaxy S4 in the months ahead, but Samsung isn’t committing to any release date at the moment. An official game pad accessory will be hitting the market too, although there’s no date for that either.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, topped off with Samsung’s latest TouchWiz Nature UX. It’s one of the first non-Nexus devices to ship with Android 4.2, showing Samsung appreciates the value of keeping on top of the latest code from Google. With the latest version of Jelly Bean, the S4 stands in good stead for the rest of 2013, having features like lock screen widgets and “Daydreams” right out of the box, not to mention the latest security and performance updates.