Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone is finally here and it is inarguably one the year’s hottest mobile releases. Following on the cosmic success of the Galaxy S3, the Galaxy S4 boasts a deluge of new features and upgrades. But can it live up to the very high standard set by its predecessor? Let’s find out.
Seeing the Samsung Galaxy S4 for the first time can be a somewhat confounding experience. That’s because it doesn’t look a great deal different from last year’s model, rocking a very similar look and feel as the Galaxy S3, but with some minor differences like a flatter chassis and curves that aren’t as rounded.
Despite its somewhat off-putting size at first, the Galaxy S4 is remarkably light when you pick it up, with a balanced weight distribution that makes it great to hold and carry around. Even though it’s still made from plastic, it looks very much the part of a high-end mobile.
Although I had to give the phone a good wipe almost every time after prolonged use, eventually it just becomes part of the ritual, so you shouldn’t notice it after a while.
Still, it would have been nice to see Samsung introduce some new coating wizardly to make its latest, greatest bit of kit less of a smudge magnet.
Measuring 136.6mm tall, the Galaxy S4 is exactly the same height as the Galaxy S3 and is only marginally narrower at 69.8mm (vs. 70.6). However, at just 7.9mm thick, it is also substantially slimmer and weighs a positively featherweight 130 grams, which makes it superbly comfortable to carry.
In terms of design, the Galaxy S4 retains the minimalist, ‘inspired by nature’ aesthetics that made the Galaxy S3 such a cosmic success. Still, the differences are noticeable enough in the handset’s bezel, which is thinner and makes room for a more capacious display, and curved edges that aren’t as accentuated, giving the handset a more unisex look.
Like its precursor, the Galaxy S4 is fashioned from polycarbonate plastic. So if you were expecting it to feature more ‘premium-feeling’ materials, you’ll be left wanting.
This is not a criticism of the S4, mind you. Samsung has clearly made a choice in sticking with plastic to meet the swelling demand for its phones and to its millions of fans around the world, this won’t be a deal breaker at all.
Moreover, despite the perceived inferiority of plastic, the Galaxy S4 actually feels quite sturdy in the hand and it boasts Gorilla Glass 3 for even tougher protection against scratches on its shiny new display.
The crosshatch texture and brushed faux-aluminium band that wraps around the handset do a decent job at enhancing the S4’s P-factor, though it’s still some way off to match the iPhone 5 or the HTC One in the design stakes.
If you can live with plastic, you’ll have absolutely no qualms with the S4, because it genuinely is a very well designed kit that’s easy on the eye and feels very nice to hold and carry too.
Samsung has spared no expense in cramming the S4 with all the bells and whistles of a flagship smartphone.
Standout among these is a five-inch, full HD Super AMOLED display with an impressive 441 pixels per inch density that’s amazingly sharp and vibrant, boasting rich colours and fantastic viewing angles.
The touchscreen is amazingly responsive and the framerate on video playback is staggeringly smooth, making the S4 perfect as a portable movie player.
Naturally, the display’s massive real estate also makes it superb for surfing the web and working on the move.
Samsung’s also done a great job at minimising the gap between the AMOLED panel and the glass substrate, bringing images even closer to the surface.
Sadly, the screen doesn’t fare so well under direct sunlight, even with the brightness cranked up to full, which it is disappointing to see considering how gorgeous it looks in the dark.
However, this minor niggle aside, I am genuinely blown away by the Galaxy S4’s screen, which sets the bar really high for what a smartphone display should be: capacious, buttery smooth and supremely pleasing to use.
Depending on where in the world you live, the Galaxy S4 either comes with Samsung's in-house eight-core Exynos 5 Octa chipset or - a Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor clocked at 1.9GHz.
Sadly, the version available in the UK (and most places except the US) packs the latter, chiefly because Samsung was unable to produce its silicon in enough volume for a global roll out.
That’s not to take anything away from the Snapdragon 600, which is still one of the best processors of any high-end smartphone currently out there, offering superior performance over its closest rival, the HTC One, and twice the speed of the iPhone 5 as well as the Galaxy S3 based on Primate Lab’s Geekbench 2 benchmark.
And it’s just as powerful in the graphics stakes thanks to an Adrendo 320 GPU with 2GB of RAM, which again outperformed the competition to offer the fastest gaming graphics of any smartphone (as of May) on both 3DMark and GLBenchmark 2.7 tests.
All this is evident the most when actually using the Galaxy S4 and seeing the consummate ease with which it handles multimedia, gaming and running dozens of applications at once.
Every action feels zippy and amazingly responsive, and in the several weeks of regular use, I have not come across any freezing or lag with the S4, which is not something I can claim for some other high-end smartphones in the market.
While HTC has seemingly done away with megapixels in its latest flagship, Samsung has stuck to a safer, more familiar 13-megapixel camera on the Galaxy S4.
As with most high-end kit these days, this captures stills and videos in full 1080p HD. Photos generally offer accurate colour reproduction and are high in contrast, while the extra pixels mean the S4 handily outperforms Apple’s iPhone 5 in overall sharpness and clarity.
Noise reduction is respectable in dimly lit conditions, but in enclosed spaces, you’ll be better off keeping the flash on. The autofocus also stumbles at times in the dark. However, it’s not hard to get around with practice and you can adjust the exposure and ISO in the settings.
Where the S4’s camera really triumphs is its shutter speed and the array of options the camera app is loaded with.
Snaps are taken as quickly as you tap the button, ensuring you don’t lose that precious moment. Alas, there isn’t a dedicated shutter release, but you can select the volume button for that purpose in settings.
The camera app itself has been substantially streamlined and is much easier to navigate thanks to an interface that looks almost similar to that of the Samsung Galaxy Camera, featuring a carousel-like menu to select from a host of shooting modes.
Among these is Sound & Shot, which lets you the record the sound when taking a photo, thus preserving the moment as it happened.
Drama Shot is a burst mode that takes up to 100 shots in four seconds and combines them into a single frame, so you could effectively take some very interesting images of moving objects, say a person doing a cool skateboarding move.
Eraser mode, meanwhile, attempts to remove unwanted objects in photos, such as moving vehicles or a pesky photobomber.
Samsung’s also thrown in a few novel modes that are intended more for fun than any practical use I could think of, namely Dual Camera and Animated Photo.
The former uses the front facing camera to superimpose your self-portrait on top of snaps taken with the main camera – handy if you’ve got no one to take a photo of you. The latter is essentially a clone of the popular Cinemagraph that you lets you animate only parts of a photo and then save it as a gif to be shared with the world.
The camera app is also crammed with a range of Instagram-style filters, such as vignette, greyscale, fish eye, etc. to give your snaps the hipster treatment they deserve.
While it certainly won’t replace my DSLR, as a camera phone at least, the Galaxy S4 is right up there among the best.
Interface and Software
While hardware is king when it comes to most smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S4’s real claim to fame is inarguably its dizzying array of software features.
Among the highlights is Smart Scroll, which lets you scroll content by tilting your handset up and down. Smart Pause, meanwhile, automatically pauses videos when you look away from the screen.
Air Gesture is another great feature that allows you to scroll web pages, emails, etc. by just waving your finger over the screen. You can also wave sideways to switch between browser tabs, which is rather neat. This should come in real handy of you have wet hands or are wearing gloves.
There’s also Air View, which lets you get a preview of items, say your emails or photos, by simply hovering your finger over the screen. This also works with the Flipboard app, which comes preinstalled.
The Galaxy S4 also comes loaded with some great exclusive apps, namely Samsung WatchON.
This serves you up-to-date TV schedules and suggests programmes you might like. Better yet, it uses the built-in infrared transmitter on the S4 to transform it into a universal remote for almost any Smart TV or projector, as well as set-top boxes such as Virgin, Sky, Freeview and Freesat.
Then there’s the S Health app, which is best described as a personal fitness trainer in your pocket.
S Health employs the S4’s eight on board sensors to track your workouts and activities, such as the speed and distance of your runs and shows your ‘comfort level’ based on the temperature and humidity in the surrounding environment using the built-in thermometre.
It also offers a food diary to log what you’re eating and boasts a wide selection of exercises to help you get into shape. You can also purchase accessories that S Health can use to measure your blood pressure, heart rate and weight.
ChatOn, Samsung’s proprietary cross-platform instant messenger is back too, now with video calling. The Dual Camera mode I mentioned earlier is available here too and lets you to bring another person into the conversation, or simply show what’s around you, which I found to be a more useful than when taking stills.
The Galaxy S4 is also compatible with Samsung HomeSync, a personal cloud storage device that sits in your home or office and offers 1TB of storage for up to eight users.
Android Jelly Bean comes installed out of the box, overlaid with the all-new Nature UX 2.0 interface, which brings a number of improvements.
These include an expanded list of toggles such as Power Saving Mode and Screen Mirroring (previously known as the ridiculous AllShare Cast) accessible from the notifications bar to turn on or off virtually every system-wide feature on the S4.
Samsung’s also included a standard mode that strips away all the bloatware and customisations and leaves you with a very basic interface that’s perfect for novice users.
Samsung’s phenomenal rise from its humble beginnings in mobiles to the world’s leading smartphone manufacturer is a success story that continues to amaze and inspire the tech industry.
There is no doubt that it will continue on its path to global dominance with the Galaxy S4, but does being successful necessary makes it the best smartphone money can buy? Well, it kind of does.
While I can’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed by the plethora of features Samsung has stuffed into the S4, it is still very refreshing to see it taking the fight to Apple and being more avant-garde, if not innovative, than rivals in recent years.
For all its tacky naming conventions and novel features, the Galaxy S4 is a brilliant, powerful handset that deserves respect and your full consideration when picking out a new, high-end smartphone - whether you’re a first time buyer or a seasoned user.