Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 is a worthy successor but not revolutionary
At a Glance
This is the burning question of the moment: Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S4? After spending a few days with the phone and running it through TechHive's suite of tests, I can confirm that the Galaxy S4 is an impressive Android phone. Samsung's latest offering tops its previous efforts in many respects, and Android fans are rightly excited by the Galaxy S4's imminent release (slated for the end of the month). That's not to say that the phone is perfect: For all of its innovations and cutting-edge specs, the Galaxy S4 has shortcomings that prevent it from being the ideal smartphone.
At first glance, the Galaxy S4 looks similar to its predecessors, the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2. The phone shares the same rounded corners, Home button, and primarily plastic design; yet the Galaxy S4 feels more polished overall. The new phone's buttons are more durable than those on the Note 2 or Galaxy S3, and its plastic components seem to be of higher quality. Measuring 5.38 by 2.75 by 0.31 inches and weighing a scant 4.64 ounces, the Galaxy S4 is slightly lighter and thinner than the Galaxy S3. However, the Galaxy S4 felt blockish next to the Galaxy S3's gentle curves and wasn't as comfortable to hold.
The 5-inch, 1920-by-1080-pixel display on the Galaxy S4 offers an impressive 441 pixels per inch, making it one of the sharper-looking screens around, and beating the pixel density of the iPhone 5 (326 ppi) and the Galaxy S3 (306 ppi). Still, colors looked more saturated on the Galaxy S4 than on competing smartphones. The thin bezel surrounding the screen made using the phone one-handed more difficult because of the ever-present hazard of inadvertently hitting the Menu button or the Back button—a mistake that tended to happen as I was trying to type an email or text message.
The back of the phone comes off to reveal a removable 2600mAh battery, and a MicroSD card slot that can accommodate up to 64GB of additional storage. TechHive’s lab clocked the Galaxy S4's battery life at a solid 7 hours, during which it continuously played back HD video, and I managed to squeeze a full day of use out of the phone while browsing the Web, downloading apps, taking pictures, before having to recharge it.
The Galaxy S4's overall design is a a bit underwhelming. The Galaxy S4 looks chintzy next to phones like the HTC One and the Apple iPhone 5, whose aluminum bodies give them a premium look that seems absent from Samsung's new handset. The phone is by no means ugly; I just wish Samsung had used something other than plastic for the chassis.
Everything but the kitchen sink
What Samsung's phone lacks in design, though, it makes up for in features and specs. The U.S. version of the Galaxy S4 ships with a 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor and 2GB of RAM, making the phone a powerhouse at running 3D games and other resource-heavy applications. All of that processing power comes in handy when running two apps simultaneously, a feature we most recently saw on Samsung's 8-inch Note tablet.
Another feature borrowed from the Note line is Air Preview: By hovering your finger a few centimeters off the screen, you can view the contents of folders, email, and messages without having to open them. It's pretty neat, but I didn't find myself using Air Preview all that much, as simply opening and closing content was often faster than waiting for the preview to show up.
The Galaxy S4 also supports the hands-free Air Gestures control, which lets you scroll through webpages, flip through photos in the Gallery app, and answer the phone by swiping your hand over the Samsung logo above the screen. I ended up using Air Gestures more than I thought I would, because it gave me some control over the phone without having to touch it—useful for when my hands were wet or dirty.
Other highlights of the Galaxy S4 include the exclusive Optical Reader, S Translator, and S Health apps. Optical Reader lets you scan text or QR codes, and you can use it to enter information from business cards into your contacts quickly. The app worked well for scanning QR codes, but it stumbled a bit when I tried to scan several business cards that I had lying around.
S Translator is basically Samsung's attempt to copy the functionality of Google Translate: You enter or speak your queries, and S Translator spits out a translation in one of 12 languages. Though the app managed to translate my Spanish phrases into English somewhat successfully, it seemed uninspired next to the official Google Translate app, which can translate to more languages, and can do so more accurately.
I grew to appreciate S Health, Samsung's fitness tracking app, the more I used it. I'm constantly forgetting my Fitbit at home, so having the Galaxy S4 track my steps and activities without any need for extra hardware proved extremely convenient. The app can also track your calorie intake, and it uses colorful graphs to show you how close you are to your daily step count. S Health is one of my favorite additions to the Galaxy line, and I hope Samsung keeps the service around for future Samsung phones.
Another aspect of the Galaxy S4 that I thoroughly enjoyed was the phone's ability to function as a universal remote control. The phone has a built-in IR blaster, and the preloaded WatchOn app allows you to browse TV listings. The app isn't as straightforward to set up as the TV app on the HTC One, but WatchOn offers extra functionality such as the ability to pair with a Google TV.
Smart Stay, a feature available on the Galaxy S3, returns on the Galaxy S4 and is accompanied by two new head-tracking options: Smart Scroll and Smart Pause. Smart Stay is supposed to keep your screen from dimming as you look at it, but it was as buggy on the Galaxy S4 as it was on its predecessor and often failed, depending on the lighting in the room. Smart Scroll registers when you tilt your head or the phone to scroll up or down. This function worked as advertised, though moving my head felt unnatural and tilting the phone often caused me to scroll down farther than I intended.
Of the bunch, however, Smart Pause deserves some ridicule. With Smart Pause enabled, your videos will pause whenever you look away from the screen—or at least that's what it's supposed to do. In reality, tilting the phone in a certain way caused playback to stop, which made watching videos on the phone during my bumpy commute an exercise in frustration. Smart Pause is off by default, and I recommend leaving it that way.
According to Samsung, the Galaxy S4 has more than 100 new features, but that means very little when many of the phone's headlining capabilities come across as broken gimmicks. Apps like S Health show that Samsung can make great software when it tries; I'd love to see the company put more effort into practical endeavors rather than wasting time and resources on half-baked novelties like head-tracking.
Dual cameras, drama shots, and more
The main shooter on the Galaxy S4 is a 13-megapixel camera with a single LED flash. Photos taken with the Galaxy S4 looked great, with vibrant colors and minimal digital noise. Photos taken indoors came out looking surprisingly good, though the results varied greatly from location to location. The phone has a Night mode for taking photos in dark environments, but my Night mode shots came out extremely grainy.
The Camera app benefits from a wide array of shooting modes, including Macro and Panorama. One mode lets you record audio while taking a photo, and another allows you to erase objects or people from your shots. I'm not sure why you'd want to record audio while taking a photo, but the ability to remove unwanted subjects from photos worked extremely well in my tests. I used it successfully to remove some bystanders from a photo of a bridge.
Two of the Camera app's shooting modes, Dual Camera and Drama, are especially interesting. Activating Dual Camera turns on the front-facing camera while the main camera continues to run, enabling you to "insert" yourself into any photos you take. I can see the feature appealing to families that don't want to leave anyone out of a vacation photo, but I had trouble properly framing my subjects while simultaneously making sure that my face was within the front-facing camera's rather small viewing angle. Dual Camera worked better when I held the phone in portrait mode, but who takes photos that way? (Terrible people, that's who.)
The Drama shooting mode takes multiple exposure shots and stitches them together to form a single photo. As you can see from the image above, the mode works best for capturing images involving lots of movement, or when you're trying to re-create the Abbey Road album cover. When you take a Drama shot, you can select the photos that you'd like to use in the final image by tapping on them, though the Galaxy S4 usually did a good job at picking the best images and stitching them together on its own.
The HTC One has a similar mode that uses the phone's Zoe camera. However, the feature on the Galaxy S4 required less digging through menus. In fact, though the camera apps on the HTC One and Galaxy S4 shared many similar features, they were almost universally easier to access and operate on the Galaxy S4.
Unfortunately, all of these excellent capabilities come at a price: Though the Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, it lacks the ability to take PhotoSpheres—arguably one of the coolest features of the stock Android 4.2 camera. It's possible that Samsung could restore PhotoSpheres later, but I'm disappointed that the option won't be available at the phone's release.
When the Galaxy S3 launched, it was widely regarded as the best Android phone of its time: It had the best design, loads of features, and an impressive list of specs that set it head and shoulders above the competition. The same cannot be said about the Galaxy S4. Yes, the phone is loaded with extras, and its specs are nothing to scoff at; but the Galaxy S4 doesn't do much to differentiate itself from the pack. If anything, the phone is more iterative than revolutionary, and some aspects of the handset—such as Samsung's TouchWiz overlay and the phone's plastic aesthetic—make the Galaxy S4 feel like it's stuck in 2011.
Despite its flaws, the Galaxy S4 is a solid phone and a worthy successor to the Galaxy S3. The Galaxy S4's camera is exceptional and apps like S Health make this new model worth considering. Is it the best Android phone out there? No, but that shouldn't stop people from buying it if they find Samsung's additions to Android appealing.