Samsung Galaxy S4 review

Pros

  • A blinding number of features
  • Incredibly fast
  • Ships with Android 4.2.2
  • Relatively small for its display size

Cons

  • Plastic body
  • Low light photo performance isn't so hot

Samsung has something for everyone in the Android-powered Galaxy S4. It's this year's no-brainer: The phone to get if you don't want to worry about which phone to get. No matter what you want to do, the Galaxy S4 – which goes on sale tomorrow – can get it done.

Design

The Galaxy S4 looks like a refined Galaxy S3 at 69.8 x 7.9 x 136.6mm (WxDxH) and 130 grams. It's still plastic, in white or black with chrome trim, and it has a subtly patterned, smooth back.

The edges are squarer, forgoing the "pebble in your hand" metaphor that ruled the S3. It doesn't taper, but it's almost exactly the same size as the S3, with the new phone's larger screen made possible by a smaller bezel.

On the front, a 1,920 x 1,080, 5in Super AMOLED HD display boasts a spectacular viewing angle and shimmering colours. The physical Home button, below it, joins the traditional Android Menu and Back buttons. I like this setup a lot more than the perplexing two button approach on the HTC One.

The Galaxy S4's back is removable, giving you access to the battery and microSD card slot. You can also replace the back with an optional flip cover that sports a window near the top; when the cover is flipped closed, you see the time and alerts through the window. I had trouble getting the flip cover to stay closed when the handset was sitting on a desk, though. The front just wouldn't lie flat.

An excellent voice phone, the S4 is really, really good in terms of call quality. In my tests, call quality was unusually sharp and clear, and the earpiece and speakerphone both got quite loud. Transmissions were sharp, too, with excellent noise cancellation that doesn't damage the quality of the voice. Transmissions from the speakerphone were a touch tinny, but very clear. Just as with the Galaxy S3, you can personalise the call sound profile to your own sense of hearing, which is one of the phone's best hidden features (see the first entry in our tips article here for more details).

Incidentally, if you want to see exactly how the Galaxy S3 and S4 compare visually, see the side-by-side image below – the new S4 is on the left, the old S3 on the right.

Basic performance

The Galaxy S4 is the fastest smartphone we've benchmarked so far, thanks to its 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor. Yes, some territories across the globe will get S4 models with the Samsung Exynos octo-core CPU, but that processor isn't necessarily any faster or better, it just takes a different approach to a low power mode.

Along with the processor, Samsung gets props for running Android 4.2.2, the latest version of Google's mobile OS. Some of the newest features aren't available here, though: Multi-user mode is for tablets, and Samsung's custom camera app omits Google's Photo Spheres.

The 1.9GHz Snapdragon torched the processor-dependent Antutu benchmark, but it also did unusually well on Basemark OS, which launches real applications, and on the GLBenchmark graphics benchmark. Even pushing all the pixels on a 1080p screen, this is the fastest Android phone available. I topped off performance testing with the hideously heavy duty Need for Speed: Most Wanted game, which ran like butter on the S4.

This is a fast handset when it comes to networking, too. The Galaxy S4 is an LTE phone, so offers top of the line surfing speeds if you sign up with EE’s 4G LTE plans, and it supports HSPA+ 42 for those not in a 4G area (or not willing to fork out for 4G). The S4 also supports GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, and NFC. I connected a Plantronics Voyager Legend Bluetooth headset, and both media playback and voice dialling went off without a hitch.

Battery life isn't extraordinary, but it's good. I got 10 hours and 50 minutes of talk time, and 4 hours and 48 minutes of streaming constant video over HSPA+ with the screen set to maximum brightness. As we've seen with these 1080p phones, that high-res screen really takes a toll.

S everything

Let's get all of this out of the way first. The Galaxy S4 is far from a stock Android phone. It's practically encrusted with Samsung-exclusive features. If you're a purist, you'll run screaming over to the Nexus 4. But there's still a lot here to love and a lot to play with, even if some of the stuff doesn't quite work.

Already exhausted by the thought of all this stuff? Well, the S4 comes with an Easy Mode, which is a brilliant idea, although maybe not necessarily here. Easy Mode gives you a very simplified home screen: A clock, weather, date, six standard app icons, and a second screen with nine large, customised icons. The calendar shows large type, too. Will the target audience for Easy Mode be buying a smartphone of this calibre? I'm not sure, but I guess it's a good thing to have available.

Head back to Normal Mode and start on the lock screen. The default home screen reads "Life Companion" in a ridiculous quasi-script, and when you touch it, there's a lens flare and a little sound like someone playing the rim of a glass full of water. You can customise all that, of course, and you can tweak your Android home screen with a huge number of widgets, and determine what shows up on the quick settings bar when you drag down the notifications pane.

Oh, the settings! Samsung may not encourage you to install your own ROM, but the settings screens are a tweaker's wonderland. You can change when the notifications LED lights up, what notifications you get and when, what widgets go on the home screen, whether or not the touchscreen should work with gloves, which apps can load in multiple windows… there's a lot here.

Multiple window mode has arrived from the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, and it's convenient, letting you split the screen in half and look at two web pages, maps, emails, or a few other apps. Samsung's S Voice still provides comprehensive voice commands; it's not as natural language oriented as Siri, but it's far superior to the very basic voice commands on the HTC One. S Translator deciphers foreign languages, whether by itself, in text messages, or in Samsung's email app (though not in Gmail). Polaris Office reads Microsoft Office documents and PDFs. S Note takes notes, although it's not as fun as it is with the S Pen on the Galaxy Note.

Past greatest hits like Smart Stay (which prevents the screen from turning off when you're looking at it) and customised audio call quality have been joined by a bunch of other useful preloaded apps. I'm most excited about S Health, which combines a working pedometer, thermometer, humidity meter, and calorie counter. Though it's not available yet, S Health will later hook up with a body monitoring armband for more exciting self-health-assessment. Otherwise, Optical Reader is a business card and QR code scanner, while Story Album tries to make photo albums out of photos taken in the same place.

WatchOn falls in the middle group of usable inventions. It's another iteration of the Peel Remote, the TV program guide software we've seen on several Samsung tablets. Peel does a good job of showing what's on TV right now, but I don't know many smartphone owners who watch what's on right now, and the app's Achilles' heel is that it can't see or access DVRs. You can also rent or buy TV and movies from Samsung's store or Netflix, and watch them on your HDTV using an MHL cable, a Samsung Smart TV, or Samsung's AllShare Cast Wireless Hub.

WatchOn could save itself with its basic IR remote support, but even that has some issues. Like the HTC One, the S4 has an infrared emitter, and it'll control a broad array of TVs, DVRs, and other gadgets. Controlling my TiVo, though, I found it entered channel numbers frustratingly slowly.

Now we get to the ugly, and the ideas which should probably have been left on the drawing board. The new Samsung Hub store is a damp squib, a misfire that serves the company (by getting people to buy DRM’ed media which only works on Samsung devices), but doesn't serve consumers. It has a solid selection of music, a rather strange collection of movies, and a hideously weak choice of books. Samsung should leave the media business to the big players such as Netflix and Amazon.

Also, Samsung's Air View and Smart Scroll aren't quite ready for primetime. Air View lets you preview certain types of content by hovering a finger over them, but it's just a little physically awkward to hold your finger like that, and the information you get is rarely very helpful. Smart Scroll is supposed to let you scroll web pages by tilting your head (it's a camera-based trick) but I found it very unreliable.

And there's more. Oh yes, there's more. Just as with the Galaxy S3, this is a phone on which you can discover new things a year after you first bought it.

Multimedia

Samsung's megapixels face up well against the HTC One's ultrapixels, given good light. The Galaxy S4 has a 13-megapixel main camera and a 2-megapixel front camera, and both are impressive enough.

This being Samsung, of course, there's a ridiculous number of special modes, some of which are absolute genius, some of which are novelties, and some of which don't work. Do I need to make a list? Okay. Here goes:

So much… there's just so much. But how about the pictures themselves? They're good. The 13-megapixel main camera takes sharp photos and allows plenty of room for cropping and zooming, which is where the S4's camera really jumps ahead of the HTC One's ultrapixels. As soon as you try to crop or zoom, the One falls apart, but the S4 has headroom.

In macro mode, the S4's images were a bit noisier than the One's, and colours weren't quite as rich. There was a touch of greenish cast sometimes – but the differences are, admittedly, at nit-picky levels.

Low light performance was a mixed bag. An image captured at 1/40 second with decent definition on the One, was captured at 1/30 and a little dimmer on the S4, but it was still usable. But in some indoor situations, the S4 dropped to 1/15 second, the boundary where things start to become blurry. That's frustrating, but also par for the course with any mobile phone camera other than the HTC One, the Nokia Lumia 920, and sometimes the iPhone 5. The front camera is a perfectly average 2-megapixel shooter; I prefer the One's, which has a much wider angle.

The Galaxy S4's 1080p video recording is superior to the HTC One's, and able to keep a consistent 30 frames per second indoor and out. You lose the One's HDR video mode, which is definitely something to consider if you do a lot of shooting with bright backgrounds, but you gain both 120 frames per second slo-mo and 8x quasi-time-lapse video, which can be really fun to play with.

Music and video playback are top notch here; the S4 supports all expected formats up to 1080p, including DivX and Xvid video. The photo gallery app can handle Dropbox and Google, but not Facebook libraries.

Verdict

The simple truth is that the Galaxy S4 and high-end rivals the HTC One and iPhone 5 are all excellent, highly recommended phones. The One and iPhone 5 have stronger design points of view with focused, flagship features. The HTC One is about Blinkfeed, Watch, and Zoe. The iPhone is really about the apps. Both of these devices have classier, higher quality bodies, and both have better low light photography performance than the Galaxy S4.

The S4 is all over the place. It's American excess in a phone. It's like Microsoft Office. But you know what? People love Microsoft Office, because everybody finds what they need in it, and they don't all find or need the same things.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a million ideas and needs to share all of them, right now, and it doesn't matter if five of them are ridiculous because you're going to think the next five are brilliant. And wow, that call quality is tremendous (remember, these are phones with which, you know, you phone people up). And all of this snags the Galaxy S4 one of our coveted Best Buy awards.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Samsung Galaxy S4

Screen Size

5in

Screen Resolution

1920 x 1080 pixels

High-Speed Data

LTE, HSPA+ 42

Dimensions

136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm

Screen Type

Super AMOLED HD

Operating System

Android 4.2.2

Physical Keyboard

No

Camera Resolution

13-megapixel rear, 2-megapixel front

Screen Pixels Per Inch

441 ppi

802.11x/Band(s)

802.11 a/b/g/n/ac

Available Integrated Storage

16GB

microSD Slot

Yes

Processor Speed

1.9GHz

GPS

Yes

RAM

2GB

CPU

Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core

Form Factor

Candy Bar

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