The Samsung Galaxy S4 is finally here, and we have been spending some time with it. We put it through its paces and pushed it right up to the limit, and as a result, we can finally emerge from our lab (read: dungeon) to tell you what it's like. Can it beat the HTC One at its own game? (Hint: not really)
What Is It?
The Galaxy S4 is Samsung's latest Galaxy-branded flagship, and it's packing some really impressive hardware under its familiar-looking exterior.
It's a 5-inch, quad-core 1.9GHz-packing monster with 2GB of RAM, expandable storage and a 2600mAh battery. It comes in either white or grey like the Samsung Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II and it will cost you $899 outright, or less on a 24-month contract with Australia's big-four carriers.
Ever seen a Galaxy S III? Good. You've pretty much seen the Galaxy S4, then. No joke, I have had Samsung people tell me they have gotten confused between the S III and the S4.
The similarity comes from the same plastic construction and finish, same removable back cover, same logo placement, camera placement, speaker placement; same everything. The only real differences come when you inspect it a little more closely.
It's lighter for a start and remarkably, Samsung have managed to pack a larger, five-inch screen onto the Galaxy S4 while still keeping the footprint virtually the same. It did that by adopting a similar design principle to the Galaxy Note II: smaller bezel, thinner profile and tiny, oval home key centred on the bottom of the device.
The other changes come from a few more tiny black holes around the top of the device for camera and sensor equipment. That's for stuff like Smart Motion which lets you wave your hand over the phone to swipe between photos, for example, as well as Smart Scroll which ensures the screen scrolls down based on your head-position and Smart Stay where the screen stays active when it knows you're looking at something while you're like a video.
There's a slew of other S-branded features in there, but we'll get to those.
The screen on the S4 is bigger and brighter than ever on a Galaxy S handset. It's a five-inch display with a 1920x1080 SuperAMOLED display, packing in 441 pixels per inch. It's brighter and more gorgeous than ever, and we expect nothing less than this new benchmark from a manufacturer who makes the best screens in the industry.
The only other subtle physical change on the S4 compared to the S III is the crosshatch pattern on the rear of the device. Which you can't feel it with your fingers, it adds a nice visual texture to the device that the S III didn't have.
There can only be one word for the way TouchWiz/Nature UI interacts with Android on the Galaxy S4: obnoxious. Oh. My. God. You have no idea. It's so annoying to use day-to-day.
I'm not the biggest fan of any manufacturer-built Android skin to start with, with the least favourite on that list being TouchWiz, but this time, Samsung have come up with a whole new way to annoy you by making you do everything differently, rather than how you know how to do stuff on every other Android operating system. There are more clicks than ever to get basic stuff done.
Instead of just dragging a widget slightly to trigger the resize tabs, you actually have to press the Menu soft-key on the home screen, tap Edit and then start resizing stuff and moving it around. You can't even move apps around by holding your finger on them and dragging them around without telling the device you want to Edit the home screen. How frustrating.
In fact, the only thing that doesn't require three button clicks where one would suffice is dumping stuff into folders, but the process has been reworked, so don't expect to be able to do it without engaging your brain for the first few goes.
Samsung is also desperate to cram all it's stuff in front of you to get you to use it.
Out of the box, you're bombarded with the sign-in screens for S-Travel, TouchWiz-customised Flipboard, S-Planner, Samsung Hub, S-Fitness, Story Album and the Samsung App Store. Phew. First thing I wanted to do is actually get rid of most of that, because let's face it: you and I will use it once — if that — and then never use it again because it's gimmicky. But no: customising your home screen now takes work as we've discussed. You and I will be able to get rid of it because we can understand what dialogue boxes are telling us to figure out how Samsung wants us to do things, but people who aren't as well-versed in technology might struggle.
It's not all bad, though. Some of the better S-features Samsung has loaded onto the device include an upgrade to S-Motion that lets you wave your hands over the phone to scroll through stuff like photos without touching the screen, Air View that lets you hover your finger over stuff like days on the S-Planner (read: calendar) to expose what you're doing on that day without touching the screen like on the Galaxy Note II, and S-Health, which pairs with a Fitbit-style wristband to tell you all about the steps your doing. Some of the other features are use-once, forget-forever kind of things though. If you don't love stuff like S-Travel, Story Albums and Samsung Hub straight away, it's a fair bet you'll just trash them from the home screen and never use them again.
Other great features include support for every catch-up service you can think of, as well as Watch On: a feature that lets you schedule stuff to watch and/or record on your Samsung TV. Watch On will be upgraded in June to have on-demand streaming of movies and TV programming too. There's also the upgraded Samsung Music Hub, which is nifty and gives you a month of free, premium-tier access for new Galaxy S4 owners. Would have thought that would be a longer free-access period but whatever.
The Galaxy S4 also supports multi-screen apps so you can take advantage of that screen real-estate. Apps like Chrome, Messages, Email and other Samsung applications work in multi-view beautifully, and throwing the device into landscape mode gives you the best of two screens at once. It's also infinitely adjustable, so you don't have to have your screens split straight 50-50, you can customise it. The annoying quirk about multi-view, however, is the persistent drawer it puts on your screen, but you can get rid of that by holding the Back soft-key on the home screen until it disappears. If you don't, it'll stick around for everything, including games and video playback. Learn that tip early.
Much like Brent said in his review of the S4: this thing should run rings around its competition. It has a 1.9GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. That equals a GeekBench 2 score of 3231. Simple translation? It could power an Iron Man suit without breaking a sweat, yet it feels sluggish, dull and unresponsive when you try to zip around it. Benchmarking the HTC One under the same tests gives you a score of 2634, so why does the S4 feel slow where the One doesn't?
I feel that Samsung's crapware is at fault here. There's only so much weight you can put on the shoulders of a giant before it starts to become a burden. The HTC One is designed in such a way that the new version of Sense gets out of your way completely when you tell it to. That means both in visual and performance terms. When you're not using BlinkFeed, it doesn't chew resources trying to keep itself alive, for example.
On the Galaxy S4, however, you have Smart Stay, Smart Pause and Smart Scroll constantly watching you, S-Voice always listening to you, Air View waiting for your finger to hover over the screen and Air Gestures waiting to see if you wave over the screen to wave your hand over the device like a Jedi. It's too much for the Trojan to take, and the weight really shows.
Even when you turn all that crap off, the One still runs laps around the S4, and that shouldn't be happening. It's a disappointment. The S4 has already been rooted, which means you can get Samsung's Nature UI off the device if you want to and actually install a launcher that does the hardware justice. It all comes down to your level of expertise, though.
In less disappointing news, however, the S4's battery is really excellent. When we say that a battery will give you a day of usage here at Gizmodo, we mean it will last you from when you leave the house to when you arrive home after a nine-hour workday. In-between you will have been listening to music, downloading apps, playing a game or two for about an hour and doing some social networking. That's heavy usage. Give it about 10-hours of that, though, and you'll be scrambling for a charger. The S4, however, is different. It takes about a day-and-a-half of punishment before you need a charger, and while it may not seem significant, it's actually a pretty big deal when it comes to how you use your phone.
Say you're looking to go out for drinks after work, for example. If you're a geek like me, you're on your phone in-between rounds, Instagram-ing mates, finding somewhere to grab a bite to eat and calling your significant other to slur to them that you'll be home some time in the wee-hours. With a phone that lasts you only nine hours, you won't be able to do any of this after-hours fun without actually recharging your phone in the middle of the day.
The Galaxy S4, however, lasts longer, meaning that while it might not get you through to the light of the next morning, it will help you call yourself a cab when you're fall out of your mate's place at 1AM.
The only way you're really going to know how the Samsung Galaxy S4's camera performs is if you see it in action for yourself. We got a hold of an Apple iPhone 5, an HTC One and a Nokia Lumia 920 for a smartphone camera deathmatch.
The first thing you notice about the S4 when you pit it against the competition is the width of the lens. It's a narrower field of view compared to the competition, which means you won't be able to cram as much in. Unfortunate, but it can't be helped.
There are also a few little software quirks in the Galaxy S4's camera that make it really obnoxious to use. Telling the device to flip the camera from the rear-facing to the front-facing camera, for example, took about four clicks and about as many dialogue boxes before it would respond. Conversely, messing with the features is also really finnicky.
Speaking of the bells and whistles, Samsung has jacked its camera full of them to make taking photos fun. To be honest, the whole thing is reminiscent of the frankly-excellent Samsung Galaxy Camera we tested a while back (and are giving away in our Shooting Challenge).
It also goes toe-to-toe with the features in the HTC One's Zoe camera, with Drama shot grabbing sequential photos, Best Face grabbing five consecutive photos to let you choose where the subject looks best, and a weird feature called Beauty Face which can strangely make you look better. The only area where the S4's camera loses a bit of ground to Zoe is in the three-second video functionality.
Zoe lets you snap three seconds of video, rather than taking sequential photos and choosing the best one. That way, you can manipulate it to remove subjects from the final frame, increase the brightness on an individual subject's face or create funky effects like the action shots we mentioned earlier. It's great because it saves that three-second video, as well as whatever you pulled out of it. It then creates moving albums around them. The Galaxy S4 has the Story Album feature which makes animating your photos on the home screen a breeze, but it lacks the three-second video feature. The closest it gets is letting you take a snapshot while recording 10-seconds of audio around it. That's called Sound Shot, and it's a nifty idea, but not really current. I had an LG flip-phone that could do that in 2005, and it was kind of rubbish back then, too.
I went down to my garage and commandeered myself a Hyosung GT-R 650 motorcycle. Resting the cameras on the top of the fuel tank and using two steady hands, I snapped the bike's speedometer at night and away from the lights of the garage.
Both the HTC One and the iPhone 5 produce solid light where there is barely any to speak of, but the Nokia Lumia 920 still produces great low-light shots with barely any noise or blur by comparison to the other three. Atrocious performance from the S4.
We shot the low-light sample shots in full Auto mode for fairness. It's worth noting that the Galaxy S4 performed better when it was shifted into Night mode, but not by much. The noise is unbearable and it took what felt like an age in smartphone-time to actually find and focus on the subject. Poor marks all round.
Because everyone's going to Foodstagram stuff, right? We took the cameras in to a distance of about 15- to 20-cm away from this delicious cup of coffee (taken outdoors in high-light) to see the results.
As we can see from the image comparisons, the HTC One and the Galaxy S4 turn in fine performances, giving us great tones and colour in our caffeinated art. The iPhone 5 tends to overexpose the frame, somewhat, while the Lumia 920 does the opposite, and seems to be bucketing in contrast to make up for it.
The S4 and the One are a dead-heat here, as far as I'm concerned.
Ideal conditions for smartphone cameras, here: we took it into Sydney Park to shoot around the duck pond, and found these great subjects just waiting to be snapped.
The iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S4 are the star-performers here — both rendered crisp, beautiful images. The only thing that puts the S4 slightly over the top is a better result in the highlights of the image. The light looks better on the top of the sleeper when captured on the Galaxy S4, even if it's slight.
The HTC One caught glare from somewhere (each photo was taken in the same position within seconds of each other), meaning that the some of the colour and detail is washed out, but still impressive. The Lumia 920 had a few focus issues, constantly grabbing the scenery behind the subject. It's still the most vivid of the four, however.
Here are the rest of our comparisons:
Click to enlarge...
Samsung Galaxy S4
Should You Buy It?
That question really depends on how much you love Samsung.
If you're a massive fan and love everything the gadget giant does, then the S4 is for you. You'll be happier in the Samsung ecosystem with your S-everything than you will adjusting to something else like Sense 5 on the HTC One. If you're just someone looking for the best Android phone you can get, however, the phone for you is still the HTC One. If you can forgive the terrible pun, it's still the one to beat.
What's interesting to note about the Galaxy S4 (ok, I'll stop with the product puns) is who it seems to have been built for. It's incredibly similar to the Galaxy S III to the point that anyone who owns one would be mad to spend the almost $1000 upgrading, but when you look at how it sits compared to the Galaxy S II, the S4 is a no-brainer.
This is almost Samsung's own S III S: an incremental, Apple-like upgrade to a product line it wants to keep customers buying into every second year. In the same vein as the iPhone 5 isn't for people who have the iPhone 4S, it's for people who have the iPhone 4. Samsung is carving itself a new upgrade path with this product that is distinctly Apple-esque, and that's only a good thing. It means we get an incremental upgrade to the Galaxy line every year.
Snap back to the present, however, and we're still left with the same conclusion: unless you're neck-deep in the Samsung ecosystem, need to upgrade from your Galaxy S II or even just want something to compliment those Samsung tattoos you have, there's no fathomable reason to buy the Galaxy S4 above the HTC One.
The One is faster, better looking, smarter and has more features that you'll actually use like Boom Sound, Zoe and BlinkFeed. Unless you want a removable battery and expandable memory, the S4 is pipped at the post, sitting on the Android podium in second-place to the aptly-named One.