I own no smartphone. Every so often, a company sends me their phone to review and for a few weeks or months, I live the dream again. From Samsung to Sony to Apple to BlackBerry and back again, this is my story. I live with the phones so you don’t have to. This is my story of the Samsung Galaxy S 4.
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My first impressions of the Samsung Galaxy S 4 weren’t good. I actively hated it because I thought it was just a lazy upgrade. I’m here to tell you what you already know: that the Galaxy S 4 is a great if not excellent phone. It’s just not that original. But it does exactly what it sets out to do and that’s provide an easygoing home for Android Jelly Bean, keeping you in contact with the world and lasting for two solid days without a charge. I really, really wanted to hate on the S 4 but it’s endeared itself to me, especially when its mighty impressive vibration woke me up from an alcohol-induced coma. Why is the S 4 an outstanding phone for a relatively low cost? It’s down to a light shell, a gorgeous screen and a lightning fast CPU. Here’s why the S 4 should be your new life companion.
Look and feel
The S 4 is a collection of plastic, circuitry, cameras and chutzpah. It’ll also be the phone that will bury BlackBerry as the adoption rate of the device is startling. There’ll be well-over 60-million of the blighters by the end of 2013 and it’s simply the phone that will become the default handset to get in the eyes and hearts of those looking to upgrade or grab a new device. The S 4 weighs a meager 130-grams which is next to nothing. It’s always light and comfortable in your hands, thanks to the new shape which invokes memories of the Galaxy S 1.
It’s down the to the metal band that runs around the circumference of the S 4. For once, a Galaxy device is light and looks the business. It’s amazing actually how a subtle difference like this can change my opinion of a phone. But it does, and it has. The rear cover which hides the microSD and micro-SIM slot lurk under the rear of the phone, which is accessed by almost peeling off the flimsy back cover. It feels like it would possibly snap but the rear plate of the S 4 is oddly strong.
A volume rocker that’s separate from the power button (and is located on the left side of the S 4), is a design flaw that Samsung better correct in the S 5. Either the power button, or the volume rocker will be in an awkward position for your fingers. Having each core function separate from each other is senseless. The home button has definitely been improved though and feels more tactile and less loose than before. To the sides of the home button is the Menu and Back touch key and the responsiveness is spot on.
Located on the bottom is the single speaker which is underwhelming to say the least. But this is an NFC phone so I paired it with Sony’s excellent wireless speakers and the tinny music situation was quickly abated. Stick with supplied headphones and wireless audio for the best possible aural experience with the S 4.
Samsung’s really worked its magic on camera flash placement for the S 4. Instead of it being to the side, as it was with the S III, it’s now located directly under the camera and the images are richer for it. The flash snaps faster and images are more fleshed out thanks to the brighter LED light.
Finally, the S 4 is a phone that feels not only great to hold, but safe to drop from short distances. The new Gorilla Glass 3 screen is tough as old boots. I like to test phone screens by punching them as violently as possible and happily the screen held up to my patent-pending methods. Seriously, I hit the phone as hard as I could. All I damaged were my knuckles. Gorilla Glass 3 turns the screen into a combination of steel and glass. If the S 4 is going to be a life companion, then it needs protection like this.
An interesting note: the S 4, when placed next to the S III, looks nigh-on identical. But don’t let that fool you as the S 4 is a superior product and an actual upgrade that’s worth the strips of gold-plated latinum. While the older model and the S 4 are both excellent phones, Samsung’s latest gets top marks for improving on what many (including myself) thought to be a perfectly designed phone.
The S 4’s design is less about nature now, and is more concerned about the practical nature of our lives. How do we hold the phone when it’s placed next to our ears? What does it feel like when we write on it for extended periods of time? Why so serious? Samsung’s dug deep and it struck design gold. For a phone to initially feel cheap, and then transform into a smart piece of tech through virtue of use alone is a design miracle. The more you use the S 4, the better it looks and feels.
The 5-inch, 441 ppi, 1920×180 Super AMOLED screen challenges Sony’s Xperia Z for the hottest display of the year. It’s a tough call, but the S 4 wins thanks to the practical application of modern screen technologies. Simply put, Samsung designs better screens than Sony. While Sony has a crisp display, the S 4’s screen is lightyears ahead of anything else on the market. It’s a sight to behold, full HD content on a 5-inch screen is no joke: it’s an evolution.
I began with a helicopter chase scene that on the S 4’s screen, glimmered and moved with the fluidity of a Russian ballet dancer. No lag, ghosting, pixelation or over-saturated colours to be seen. It was as if the phone vanished into my hands what was left was pure HD content.
It’s the lifeblood of the phone and from the moment you magically wave your hand over the S 4 to turn it on, to the second you switch it off, the screen holds up to even the most stringent of standards. The screen is another reason why I was initially so underwhelmed with the S 4, as it was just another display in my eyes. What set it apart were other gadgets with low-res screens. I would swap to tablets, laptops, other mobile phones and at the back of my mind I knew something was wrong. Only when I got back to the S 4’s beautiful display was my mind set at ease.
Android and Samsung’s Sense UI have had a troubled history. Whenever a company tries to make Android in its own image, failure is inevitable. The best skinned version of Android yet is on the HTC One, but the S 4’s near-pure Android 4.2.2 is a treat for the soul. I’ll discuss this in detail later on.
The hidden component, the black heart of power, the brains behind the Galaxy S 4 is the hardware. Like with Sony’s Xperia Z, this is one of the fastest, most powerful phones ever conceived. The CPU is a quad-core 1.6Ghz chipset paired with another quad-core 1.2Ghz processor. So in theory it’s an octo-core phone, but you won’t notice it until it comes time for gaming.
So gaming: it’s a flipping treat on the S 4. I tested the very best of the best. So that’s Grand Theft Auto Vice City, Modern Combat 4, Final Fantasy 3 and Candy Crush Saga. GTA ran better than it did on my Playstation 2, MC 4 looked as good as the console-only Modern Warfare games and Final Fantasy 3 (a full 3D remake of the 90s classic) ran as smooth as butter. As for Candy Crush Saga, the brilliant colours of the S 4 made it the best looking version of this maddening game yet. I didn’t have the S 4 gamepad but I can imagine that pairing Samsung’s latest with a proper controller would create a sort of handheld gaming nirvana.
Think about it, the S 4 is way more powerful than any handheld on the market and in countries where OnLive is possible, the S 4, paired with the (optional) HDMI out cable becomes an Android console. Bad news for Ouya, good news for you. So it’s fast, what else?
Battery life, that’s what. It’s exceptional. The 2600mAh battery keeps the S 4 running for close to three days with medium usage. Medium means playing little to no video content, or games. If the S 4 is used primarily for social media, running time drops to two days give or take. Either way, it’s like the energizer bunny on crack. The S 4 just keeps going and going. It doesn’t even get that hot, which is an issue I had with the iPhone 5.
Overheating in smartphones, especially LTE devices is a major issue. Samsung should be gently hugged for getting heat dissipation right. On the subject of LTE, my S 4 never really reached the dizzying heights of wireless speed that 4G internet promises us. I tested with the Speedtest.net app and clocked in a cool 6.7Mbps download rate. I’d wager that in countries with a healthy network infrastructure, the wireless speeds would be an easy 40-60Mbps.
What I really want to discuss though is the vibration of the S 4. It’s ridiculous to the point of extreme. Turn vibration intensity down if you value your sanity. I think the boffins at Samsung wanted to scare us with every notification and as an earthquake simulator, the vibrator succeeds.
And then there’s the camera. You’d think that a 13MP camera would be good, and it is. While smartphone cameras will practically never (yes, I’m looking at you Nokia) be able to reproduce the depth, richness and quality of an SLR, the S 4 at least negates the need for a standard digital camera. It’s a fine camera, with standout extras that give a fun quality to what would be a boring feature on any other phone. Samsung’s included almost twenty filters such as Beauty Face, Sound & Shot, Drama and Animated Photo. Gimmicky, yes. Fun, hell yes. I fell in love with Animated Photo: this animates a certain section of a still shot, simply by “painting” the animation section on the screen. It sounds nuts, but it works flawlessly and creates some intensely funny moments.
Samsung’s got some pre-baked examples on its official S 4 site, and the video below also features some of the photo filters you’ll come to know and love. Video recording is the now standard 1080p full HD offering and is near perfect, so no complaints there. And for some odd reason, swapping to the front-facing 2MP camera means you have to endure a 2-4 second wait which for an 8-core phone seems like a cruel joke.
Less impressive is how often the S 4 crashes on me. As in, daily. I couldn’t replicate the crash, but if I strain the phone enough, the screen locks up and I’m forced to restart. Even after upgrading to the latest version of Android the S 4 would still crash on occasion. Perhaps it’s my model but I wasn’t pleased to use a flagship phone that crashes for no good reason at all. The cover is an absolute nightmare to remove, so hard resetting (removing the battery) is not something you’d want to do often.
The gestures, the hands-free air hovering nonsense that Samsung is keen to push is an absolute pile of crap. Anything to do with SmartView, or SmartStay or any eye-related gimmick on the S 4 never worked for me. The S 4 for instance, is supposed to automatically detect if you’re looking at the screen or not, and pauses video when you’re not watching, or keeps the screen on if you’re still reading. All lies. If it works, it won’t work with my eyes, or the eyes of anyone else who tested the phone out.
Then there’s the air gestures. Flipping through photos, hovering over apps for further info and everything else the mighty Samsung has included might as well be turned off. First generation software, who needs it? Think of these gimmicks like Siri. Siri is quick and responsive now thanks to millions of updates from Apple, but was a pile of festering garbage when it first came out — it was also overhyped. It’s the same with the air gestures of the S 4. It’s cool to show it off to your friends, but not so cool when it comes to getting some actual mileage out of it. In fact, the only air gesture that is both cool and functional is Quick Glance. With Quick Glance, you hover your hand over the S 4 for a few seconds and any notifications, plus the date, charge and time will appear. It’s very handy, but that’s about all there is to it and Air Gestures for now. Gimmick be gone.
It’s Android 4.2.2 at its best. Obviously, the Nexus 4 and 7 are still the best home for stock Android, but the S 4 does its best and for once, that’s good enough. Samsung packs the S 4 with so many apps that the need to download the usual suspects is practically negated. Top apps such as Facebook and Flipboard are installed by default and the rest are a tap away on the Google Play store. Setting up my S 4 took five minutes, if that. Once I had logged in with my Google account, the apps I purchased automatically downloaded from last Android (Xperia Z) and off I went on my merry way. The process is now so seamless and hassle free that iOS should worry. I’m not saying that migrating from one iPhone to another is difficult (it’s not in the slightest), but Android’s user migration is as easy breathing.
Everything you know and love about Jelly Bean is here. Pinch to zoom in and show all apps/home screens, the functional pattern-lock screen (Apple should really invest in this software), the widgets, the really average keyboard and the buttery animation, Android 4.2.2 loves the S 4. You’ll love it as well.
Verdict: The S 4 is not the perfect phone, but it’s a damn fine improvement over the S 3. I haven’t even mentioned that Samsung now has a two-year water damage warranty which comes free with every S 4 – the phone really is your life companion and Samsung wants to ensure that nothing happens to it. Thinner, lighter, faster and with an excellent screen, this is a phone you’ll be happy to upgrade to.
Here are the full tech specs of the Galaxy S 4 via GSMarena.com