Samsung Galaxy S4 Review: Good, Not Best

Since it arrived last year, the Galaxy S III has been the world's best-selling, non-Apple smartphone. An impressive feat, but of course, this only builds expectations for the sequel, as does Samsung's Megatron-sized hype-machine. Our first impressions of the S4 left us a little cold, but we just spent the last week in constant contact with the thing. Let's see if we've warmed at all.

Note: You'll find that this US review (AU review coming shortly) leans heavily on comparing the Galaxy S4 to the HTC One, our current pick for Best Android Phone. For context, we recommend you read that review too.

What Is It?

Samsung's next great hope of a superphone. It has a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen, a superfast quad-core 1.9GHz Snapdragon 600 processor, 2GB RAM, 4G, NFC and a 13MP camera. It also has a beefy 2600mAh battery and an IR blaster for controlling your home entertainment system. It comes running Android 4.2.2 with Samsung's heavy TouchWiz skin on top of it. It is soon to be available on every major Australian carrier.

Design

It's not much of a departure from the Galaxy S III. It retains the same rounded-rectangle look, with metal edges and a plastic back. While that plastic back doesn't exactly make it feel like a super high-end device, and it feels a bit slippery and fingerprint magnet-y, it's really a point of function over form. The back is removable, so you can swap out the battery, or expand your storage capabilities with a micro SD card. A lot of people prefer that added utility over the more solid feeling, and more beautiful unibody design of the HTC One.

One of the major design coups is that Samsung managed to grow the screen from 4.8 inches on the Galaxy S III to a full 5.0 inches on the S4 while making the phone thinner, narrower, and feel easier to hold. The side bezels are shrunk down to nearly nothing, and the screen takes up almost the entire front of the device. Speaking of the screen, it is easily the nicest screen Samsung has ever made. The colours (especially blues and greens) really pop, and the 441 pixels per inch ensure that text is super clear. It's also bright enough to be clearly readable on a bright, sunny day, and the Super AMOLED screen makes the blacks like staring into the abyss. That said, we still slightly prefer the screen on the HTC One. There's something about it that looks matte, like a magazine, and colours are more accurate.

While Nexus phones are moving away from physical buttons for navigation, Samsung has opted to include three. There are capacitive buttons for Menu and Back, and a physical, clickable button for Home. At this point, this feels like wasted space. But worse, the capacitive buttons don't light up until you actually touch them, so if you forget which side is Menu and which is Back you might end up closing out of something unintentionally. Annoying. On top of the device is a super tiny IR blaster for controlling your TV — you'd never even notice it if you weren't looking for it. The phone comes in at just 130 grams, which feels very light.

Using It

As we noted in our original hands-on, the S4 comes packed full of "features".

There's Air View, which allows you to hover your finger over the screen to see some information without actually clicking. There's Air Gestures which allow you to wave your hand over the phone to change between tabs or photos. There's Smart Scroll which allows you to tilt your device to scroll, instead of using your finger. There's Smart Pause, which will pause a video when you look away from the screen. There's Group Play which allows you to play a couple selected video games with friends on the same Wi-Fi network, or use several S4 phones as Sonos-like speakers.

You will never use any of these features. Ever. Never ever. Nerver.

Air View only works in Samsung's customised apps — not Gmail, not Chrome — and it doesn't work very well. Air Gestures are less accurate and less convenient than just touching the screen. Smart Scroll is totally unreliable, and Smart Pause is totally useless. The only, ONLY justification for any of these features is that you can wave your hand over the phone to answer a call while driving, or, again, maybe if you're addicted to greasy foods and have an aversion to moist towelettes. These "features" are nothing more than gimmicks. Attempts at differentiation which only serve to convolute the user experience.

The good news is that you can turn off and/or totally ignore most of the "features," and when you do, there's a very good phone underneath. It's generally very fast, HD games run pretty smoothly, and the camera app is really easy to use. The sliding keyboard, which has nice spacing between the keys and a dedicated numbers row, is among the better manufacturer keyboards out there, though the autocorrect isn't great, and we still prefer Jelly Bean's native keyboard or SwiftKey 4.

It has a really good camera on it, and the shape is smooth and slim enough that it fits comfortably in your pocket, even in reasonably tight jeans.

There will be a lot of additional accessories available (TV adapters, and such), but the only one available at launch is the S View Flip Cover. It's a good looking cover that adds almost no thickness to your phone by completely replacing the back. The phone can sense when the cover is closed, and it will only light up the little (plastic) window on the front, which should save you a little battery power (when an AMOLED pixel is black it doesn't use any power). You can swipe to accept or dismiss calls even when it's closed.

Unfortunately, it makes the phone more cumbersome to use. It means you have to use two hands when you first pull your phone out, and when it's folded back, there's an extra piece of plastic your camera has to shoot through. It also makes the volume rocker way harder to access. In general, not worth it.

Like

Battery performance on the S4 is among the best we've seen from smartphones in the last year, though it's still not anywhere near the RAZR MAXX HD. Now, it's important to note that we were not able to test the phone on an LTE network, which are typically more power-hungry, so we will post an update in the future when we test another version.

It didn't out-perform the HTC One by much on battery, but it did make it to the end of the night without additional charging, more often, thanks to both the larger battery (2600mAh vs. 2300mAh on the One) and the more economical AMOLED screen, but then balanced somewhat by the S4's faster clock-speed.

In decent lighting, the camera is among the best shooters out there. Images are very sharp and there's a surprising amount of depth of field. colours are rich (though they border on over-saturation), and video quality is excellent (though there isn't quiiite as much details as video on the HTC One). The camera app, which was stolen from Samsung's own Galaxy Camera, is extremely intuitive, and it has a lot of fun features such as Drama Shot (below).

The screen really is leaps and bounds better than the one on last year's S III. It's very sharp, pretty, and easy to read. Overall, the S4 is definitely a sizable upgrade over the S III.

But...

No Like

Big surprise to nobody: the software is not up to snuff. Let's ignore for a moment that all of the "innovative" banner "features" (mentioned above) are at best, useless, and at worst, annoying, the rest of the UI ain't much better. For example, there's a "feature" that gives you access to a little drawer of favourite apps on the left side of your screen. Just tap the little tab, and the drawer slides up. The problem? That tab does not go away. Not unless you hold the back button down until it completely disappears, and who's going to know to do that straight out of the box? Samsung doesn't tell you this. You'll accidentally click it when scrolling through your email or web pages.

Or there's the Watch ON app, which is a combination of a program guide and a universal remote. Aside from the fact that it's hard to navigate, it gets your TV's inputs all mixed up, despite the fact that I was testing it with a Samsung TV. The phone is full of little face-palm things like this.

But the worst offence the software makes? It makes the phone slow. Well, not slow, exactly, but much slower than it should be. The Galaxy S4 has a 1.9GHz Snapdragon 600 processor. The HTC One has the exact same processor, but it's only clocked to 1.7GHz. So the S4 should be faster, right? Wrong.

Despite that fact that the S4 benchmarks better, the HTC One leaves the S4 in the dust in every practical way possible. The One boots up three times faster, navigates the UI quicker, scrolls smoother, opens apps quicker, and most importantly, takes photos with no shutter lag, where as the Galaxy S4 generally takes about a second to fire off a shot. The result is that that HTC One just feels much better to use.

Sound on the S4 is another problem. It still has just one tiny, tin-can-sounding speaker on the bottom back of the phone. It's quiet enough that I often missed a call or text even when I was just one room away (with no door in between). This problem is exacerbated if you put the phone down screen up (as one usually does), especially on something soft like a cough. Here, again, the HTC One blows the S4 out of the water, with its dual, stereo, front-facing speakers which are both very clear and loud enough to give you a heart attack in the morning if you set your alarm too loud.

And while the camera on the S4 edges out the HTC One in bright day light (and not by much), the HTC One absolutely stomps the the S4 in low-light. Spot much of a difference in the photo above? The phrase "it's like night and day" has never been more apt. In terms of design and build quality, the One just feels like it's one or two tiers above the S4. There's simply an "Oooh!" factor that the S4 lacks, and all of Samsung's bells and whistles can't hide it.

Should I Buy It?

The S4 is a good phone, but there are very few compelling reasons to buy it over the HTC One. Let's list them.

You Should Buy the S4 Over the HTC One IF...

  • 1. You absolutely must have expandable storage and/or a removable battery.
  • 2. You really need that slightly better battery life (maybe an extra hour).
  • 3. Uhhhh... Nope, that's pretty much it.

HTC One aside, the S4 would be the best Android phone out there, but as things stand, it's a very strong second place. The problem is that Samsung poured all of its innovation into features that are ultimately useless, whereas HTC spent that energy on practical user experience. Most of the Galaxy S4's problems would be solved by rooting it (which many will do), but that takes a certain combination of brains and guts that your average consumer doesn't have. So, for the most of the world, the HTC One remains the best smartphone you can buy.

Samsung Galaxy S4

• Network: All major Australian carriers • OS: Android 4.2.2 with TouchWiz UI • CPU: 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 • Screen: 5-inch 1920x1080 Super AMOLED (441PPI) • RAM: 2GB • Storage: 16GB or 32GB + microSD up to 64GB • Camera: 13MP rear / 2MP front • Battery: 2600mAh li-ion • Price: $899 or on-contract.


Comments

    I'm not surprised by Samsung's inability to write a decent interface. Where does this put the Sony Xperia Z? Third, or worse?

      Yeah I was wondering that, I bought one a couple of weeks ago and so far I love it, although the screen is a bit of a let down (viewing angles with text, although doesnt bother me the way I use it) and its not the most comfortable to hold, but other than that I think it stacks up well against these two, and its shock, water and dust proof.

        I had a galaxy note 2 and decided I wanted an xperia z

        I have already sent the xperia z back to kogan in exchange for store credit...its complete shit

          what didnt you like about it?

            screen, user interface and battery life were my biggest gripes
            I was hoping for a UI close to a Nexus.

            The wifi signal strength was also crap
            The flaps to cover each port also got very annoying...when i realised that a waterproof phone is nothing more than a party trick

              The flaps on the ports are definitely annoying, I'm getting a dock for charging and don't use headphones so that fixes that.

              I guess if you wanted stock andriod the Nexus is your only choice or a custom rom. I use Smart Launcher app which runs really fast, swiftkey for my keyboard as the default one was a bit laggy.

              As for wifi and battery, I get 2 days out of the battery so happy with that, even flogging it all day I managed to have 20% left at midnight, wifi I've never had a problem and I'm getting close to what my laptop gets on speed test so you might have gotten a defective unit.

              My biggest gripe is definitely the screen, it seems there are 4 top-tier androids (HTC one, Xperia Z, S4 and Nexus 4) and none seem to tick every box. But we're getting closer every year lol

                TBH I have been chasing the dragon, the HTC One X I had was the best android phone ive ever had untill I lost it in a nightclub...I reckon the One is going to be the shit! Just need to wait for Kogan to stock it now

      I just bought an Xperia Z... I would have bought the HTC One (the Galaxy series and TouchWiz have never excited me, and the new stuff on the S 4 always looked super gimmicky to me - the equivalent of a carmaker putting chrome fins on a car to make up for the lack of real innovation) but regardless of this review the vast majority of reviews and test shots I've seen have panned the One's camera. I needed a camera on my phone that can take more than just blurry social-media quality shots when I get caught without a "real" camera on me (or, God forbid, when the real camera's battery is dying on me and needs to be conserved). If the HTC One had a quality camera inside instead of the 4MP ultrapixel gimmick it'd probably be the indisputable best phone on the market, but it doesn't so it isn't.

      I think that the Touchwiz UI is fine, it's the added features that haven't been optimized properly that seem to slow it down.

      I know Giz AU editor Luke is in love with the Xperia Z: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2013/03/sony-xperia-z-australian-review-the-magic-is-back-at-sony/

      He's spent a lot of time with it, the HTC One and wants to spend a week with the GS4 before posting his full review/thoughts next Monday. Super curious to see what he thinks.

    I call this phone the Samsung Galaxy S3 S because it's the S3 with a 5inch screen, new cameras, new CPU and mimimal updates other than Android 4.2.2. It's a three horse race for flagship Andorid phones.

    I currently own the Xperia Z and it's a alright phone but it does have its flaws. The HTC One (Why couldn't HTC put something after the One since there was a One X/X+ and One S) was going to be my second choice with the S3 S (S4) in third

      No one cares what you call the phone. It's called the Samsung Galaxy S IV.

        actually its the Samsung Galaxy S 4. They don't use roman numerals.

        I don't normally comment on things just to correct people, but you've set the tone here.
        It's actually officially called the Samsung Galaxy S4.

        I know it's called the Galaxy S4 but it's what I personally call it.

      I took the piss out of Apple when they released the iphone 5, calling it the iPhone 4 mk3, so to be fair, this really does just feel like the Galaxy S3 mk3 as well. (Galaxy S3, S3 with 4g, now the S4).

    To be honest, none of these new phones really wow'd me. The Xperia has 2 screen versions of various quality, while the HTC has gaps on it (well my friend has it), Samsung, same old same old.

    Might wait for the Note 3 or the Iphone 5S

      100% with you on that. Waiting to see what happens with the Note 3 or the 5S / 6. Also to see if Apple will pull their finger out and bring out a 5"+ screen iphone.

    This review is definately biased, you love the HTC One so much you can't even shut up about it and really? There are tons of features here that beats the One. Before I say anything else, Sense is horrible. Me and the missus played with it at Voda and it's just too complicated compared to Stock android OR TWiz. Gimmick or not, some of these are useful to some where HTC One doesn't give you any new features other than a copied Flipboard and dual speakers. Anything else?? yeah exactly

    And, that premium feeling you love so much.. what's so good about it? It's like holding a can of coke? not saying the plastic/polycarbonate feel is any better. One more to point, Removal storage is a plus, pictures and videos these days takes tons of space. Thank you 64gb microSD cards!

    Enjoy the gap between your dual speakers. In the end, the S4 will sell 30x more than the One and probably the Two(lol at their naming schemes)

      Your comment seems to be biased, how much has Samsung paid you for that

      to complicated? you must be retarded. if you want to compare holding a can of coke compared to a $700 phone it just goes to show you are just a biased idiot. Coming from TW to sense there was barely any learning curve, its just as simple as TW and a hell of a lot smoother

      Your only valid point is the expandable storage, for some they don't care, for you its the only thing which is good for you but not everybody needs so much storage.

      Last edited 26/04/13 4:49 pm

    The drawer of favorite apps is on the S3 now. Anyone upgrading would know about it...

    I got the Galaxy Note II recently (finally) and love it...thought the S4 was going to kill it, but got to play with the S4 recently and it didn't do anything (useful) that the Note II couldn't do and the Note II seemed to be as good at it, if not better (plus I've grown to like the pen).

    "You will never use any of these features. Ever. Never ever. Nerver."

    While I agree on most counts, I am seriously looking forward to being able to use air gestures to control music on my phone whilst driving. I mount my phone on my dash, just outside my line of sight and think the idea of being able to swipe my hand left/right to skip tracks is an awesome idea!

      I was just thinking this myself.

      To be honest, I found this review comes across as very whiny, especially with things like "You will never use any of these features. Ever. Never ever. Nerver" and "big surprise to nobody: the software is not up to snuff. "

      And this: "and slim enough that it fits comfortably in your pocket, even in reasonably tight jeans." has more than a whiff of hipster in it...

      I wonder if he doesn't like the Galaxy S4 because it's too mainstream (and not cool and alternative like the HTC One)... /s

    I wouldn't normally comment just to correct someone, but you've set the tone here.
    It's actually officially called the Samsung Galaxy S4.

    Uhh, try and do your research or read the manual before making statements like "For example, there’s a “feature” that gives you access to a little drawer of favourite apps on the left side of your screen." That is in fact the multitasking bar also present on the Galaxy Note 2. You slide it out and the apps present in the bar can be dragged into the top or bottom half of the screen for true multitasking. The windows can be resized up and down too.

    Otherwise though, I do agree with most of your sentiment, although simply because "you" can't find any use for certain features does not mean others won't make use of them.

    I think it's fair to compare the industrial design of the HTC One to the Samsung's as the HTC simply owns the Samsung in that respect but as for comparing the "in your face" UI treatments, yes, the Samsung jams a lot of stuff down your throat but at least it can be turned off. You cant turn off HTC's Blinkfeed, only stop it from being your default home screen.

    I swear Samsung is beginning to attract rabbid fanboys all of a sudden. It's like the new apple. Samsungs are great phones, so are HTCs, so are iPhones. My god it's like children in the school yard fighting over nintendo and sega.

    But worse, the capacitive buttons don’t light up until you actually touch them, so if you forget which side is Menu and which is Back you might end up closing out of something unintentionally. Annoying.

    How often do you forget this that it is an actual concern of yours?

    For example, there’s a “feature” that gives you access to a little drawer of favourite apps on the left side of your screen. Just tap the little tab, and the drawer slides up. The problem? That tab does not go away. Not unless you hold the back button down until it completely disappears, and who’s going to know to do that straight out of the box? Samsung doesn’t tell you this.

    Anyone moving from an S3 would know this, and it is a feature you can turn off completely.

    I had a play with the HTC One today, and I went to scroll through the screens, I automatically flick to the right (that might just be me?) The screens don't loop back around, so If I have 8 Home Screens and I want to get from 8 to 3, I have to scroll right back, as opposed to flick forward a few. To me thats one of those little nit picks that made me not want a HTC One.

    The reason I am getting an S4 is that I like the Samsung Galaxy range, personal choice, and thats what it should come down to, personal choice. Some like iPhones because they are basic and simple to use, others like the Xperia because of its camera, some like HTC and some like Galaxy.

    The fact that you have expandable memory is one big plus for the GS4, but ontop of that, to have a user replaceable battery is a bigger plus. I know after 2 years of using a phone how the battery life turns to crap. Buying a new cheap battery after 2 years will only extend the phones life, like it has with my Galaxy S1. I dont want to have to spend hundreds of dollars on a new phone every 2 years. But with my GS1 coming upto 3 years and my business needs increasing, I need a more powerful phone so I will definately be getting the GS4.

    Pity in this review they didnt mention much about the fact that you can have a personal and business function split in the phone - something that'd be really useful for me and many others who dont want to carry around two phones but want to keep these two areas of life seperate on their mobiles as well. Overall the review sounded like a person who really likes the HTC One was forced to review the GS4. The bias, or the hate for the GS4 shone through pretty well.

    HTC's never have the full battery life they suggest.

    their phones heat up easily/quickly and drain extremely fast when they are hot. literally 30 minutes on a game will drain 20% of your battery.

    Not sure how this review can be taken seriously when the entire Gizmodo site is drowning in HTC One ads. The review itself sounds like an advertisement for the HO (which I agree is a better phone in a number of ways) - The HO is mentioned in this review almost more than the S4.

    I just think being impartial in a review gives it more credibility.

      We are impartial in our reviews. Ads and reviews are completely separate from each other on an editorial level, and any implication to the contrary is both wrong and insulting. Don't be dense.

        So now I'm accused of being thick from a site Mod for voicing my opinion? Now I absolutely love this site, my favourite tech site on the net!

        If you're not able to accept fair criticism then don't post articles for public consumption.

        Re-read your article, I can't even count how many times the HTC One is mentioned, when the heading clearly says "Samsung Galaxy S4 review" - if you were truly being impartial you'd compare it to other phones like the IP5 and Sony Xperia Z. Instead you continuously chose to mention how the HO is drool-worthy.

          Glad you like it, but we compare devices all the time when we review. It's part of the process. You can't review products in a vacuum because at the end of the day, people want to know which product is better in a densely populated market.

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