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.
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.
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.
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.
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 1920×1080 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.