Samsung Galaxy S4 review

Samsung Galaxy S4 review

Summary: With the Galaxy S4, Samsung has squeezed a superb 5-inch screen and a host of high-end features into a slightly slimmer, thinner and lighter chassis than its S III predecessor. It's an excellent handset, but some will find the S4 overladen with unnecessary features and too expensive.

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  • Editors' rating:
    8.8
  • User rating:
    7.3
  • RRP:
    £488.33

Pros

  • Fabulous 5-inch screen
  • Packed with high-end features
  • LTE and 802.11ac Wi-Fi support
  • HDMI-out via Micro-USB with MHL support
  • Surprisingly good battery life

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Many of the proximity- and gesture-based features feel gimmicky
  • Limited internal storage (16GB) on review unit

The Samsung Galaxy S III was the hit phone of 2012, and it continues to be one of the most popular handsets of the first half of 2013. Samsung is riding this wave with the Galaxy S4. Physically similar to its predecessor, the S4 builds on the S III's gesture- and motion-based functionality and has an absolutely top-notch technical specification. But has Samsung added any useful extras, or are the new features simply expensive frivolities?

samsung-galaxy-s4-1
The standout feature of the Galaxy S4, which comes in black or white, is its 5-inch Super AMOLED screen, which has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels (441 pixels per inch, or ppi). The main camera, at the back, is a 13-megapixel unit. (Image: Samsung)

Design
The Galaxy S4 may resemble the S III, but that's no bad thing as far as we're concerned. The thin frame, curved edges and characteristic physical home button are all present and correct, and to us they look as good as they did on the S III. The Galaxy S4's dimensions and weight are almost identical to its predecessor's: 69.8mm wide by 136.6mm deep by 7.9mm thick and 130g versus 70.6mm by 136.6mm by 8.6mm and 133g. The S4 shaves off a tiny amount of width, thickness and weight, yet manages to cram in a slightly larger screen — 5 inches across the diagonal compared to 4.8in. for the S III. It just goes to show what a year of development can do in terms of cramming components into a chassis.

samsung-galaxy-s4-sides
The Galaxy S4 (top) is slightly thinner than the S III at 7.9mm (0.31in.) versus 8.6mm (0.34in.). It's also slightly slimmer at 69.8mm (2.75in.) versus 70.6mm (2.78in.). The two handsets weigh 130g (4.58oz) and 133g (4.69oz) repsectively. (Image: Samsung)

Button design is very similar to that of the S III too. The power button is on the right side of the chassis (see above), the headset jack is on the top, the volume rocker is on the left and power connector is in the correct ergonomic location on the bottom. There are slight differences between the two handsets, with the S4 sporting a longer volume button, but unless you put the S4 and S III side by side, as we did, you'll be unlikely to spot them.

The Galaxy S4's 5in. screen is one of its standout features. The combination of a 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution (441ppi) and Super AMOLED technology makes it look absolutely stunning. It is bright, clear, sharp and superbly readable.

Other handsets with large, high-quality screens can be used comfortably even for text-heavy tasks like ebook reading, but the Galaxy S4 is peerless in this respect thanks to its overall size and clarity. It also goes without saying that the S4's screen is ideal for video watching.

Another of our favourite smartphones of 2013, the Sony Xperia Z, also sports a 5in. 1,920-by-1,080-pixel screen, while the Editors' Choice-winning 4.7in. HTC One squeezes this resolution into a 4.7in. display. Somehow the Galaxy S4 has the edge over them both.

Like the Galaxy S III, the S4 accepts a microSIM, which sits under the backplate along with the microSD storage expansion slot. The backplate is the part of the physical design that we find least acceptable: as on the Galaxy S III, it's flimsy (extremely flimsy in fact), and its large size left us in fear of actually snapping it in two. That said, the backplate is rigid enough when clipped into place.

Samsung doesn't hold with the rubberised backplates that some handset makers use, so there's a smooth, slippery finish to the back of the device. Given the Galaxy S4's size, people with smaller hands might have some concerns about gripping the device.

Features
One potential disappointment with the Samsung Galaxy S4 is its processor. Not that there's anything wrong with the quad-core 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, backed by 2GB of RAM, which is fast and power-efficient. The disappointment is that the UK did not get the eight-core 1.6Hz processor that was originally mooted.

Our review sample had a modest 16GB of internal storage, and not all of that was user accessible: out of the box just 8.5GB was accessible. Handset makers generally specify the total amount of storage rather the amount available, which has sparked something of a public backlash in this case. At least you can augment the S4's internal storage with a relatively inexpensive microSD card — a feature that's not universally available these days.

The Galaxy S4 runs the latest 4.2 version of Android, overlain with Samsung's TouchWiz user interface, which has become more refined with every iteration. The handset supports LTE, HSPA+ and quad-band GPRS/EDGE, along with 802.11a/b/g/n and — like the HTC One — the latest high-speed 802.11ac standard. You also get Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and HDMI output via the MHL-compliant Micro-USB port. Also like the HTC One, the S4 supports infrared, with a sensor above the screen that can be used for remote control of TVs and other consumer equipment via Samsung's WatchON app.

The main rear-facing camera has a 13-megapixel resolution, while the front-facing one is a 2-megapixel unit; both are capable of shooting 1080p HD video. There's a good range of shooting modes, and you can use both cameras at the same time in Samsung's Dual Shot mode, which puts the front camera's image in a small frame inside the main image. We've no idea why Samsung thinks this might be useful. Sound & Shot, which lets you record audio alongside your photos, has more potential.

In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that Samsung's developers sat in a brainstorming meeting to come up with features they might put into the Galaxy S4 — and decided to throw in every single one. The range and number of features is huge, and for some people it may seem overwhelming. Others, of course, will delight in the variety on offer.

Futile gestures?
The S4 abounds with gesture controls and proximity features, some of which are of dubious utility. Take Smart Scroll, for example: in theory this uses the front camera to 'watch' your eyes and scroll through web pages or email depending on where you're looking. Not for us, it didn't — fingers are fine for scrolling.

There's also Smart Pause, which stops video playing when you turn your gaze away from the screen. This worked for us, and is a much more practical and useful idea. Meanwhile, Smart Rotation is back in the realms of the unnecessary: it uses the front camera to detect the orientation of your face and rotates the screen. We find auto screen rotation just fine, thanks.

We'll mention just one more of the many iterations of this class of feature: Air Gestures. You sweep your hand across the sensor above the screen to do things like scroll web pages, accept incoming calls or page through photos. Individual features can be turned on and off, so you can customise when it's active. This worked well for us, and although it's a bit of a gimmick, we rather liked using it.

There are plenty of preinstalled apps, and one we particularly like is S Translator. It does a nice job of translating the spoken or typed word between a wide range of languages. Foreign restaurant menus need never be a problem again.

Samsung is getting in on the health and fitness boom, and the Galaxy S4 has an app simply called S Health. This is a relatively basic fitness app that incorporates a pedometer, can track calorie intake if you input data manually, and can help you measure your exercise rate. It can link with external devices, and it will be interesting to see whether Samsung can carve itself out a niche in this competitive area. The Galaxy S4 has a built-in barometer, thermometer and humidity sensor, no doubt with an eye on future 'outdoors'-style development.

For all these fancy features, one relatively basic addition sticks out for us. Samsung has taken advantage of the large screen to place a row of number keys above the on-screen QWERTY keyboard. This is a great feature and shows that sometimes the simplest features enhance usability the most.

A common problem with new high-end smartphones is poor battery life. However, we're pleased to report that the Galaxy S4 does pretty well in this respect: we were able to get a day's use out of the 2,600mAh battery on a moderately heavy usage pattern that included plenty of mobile web usage. Having said that, as soon we made serious use of GPS, the battery needed a mid-afternoon power boost.

Conclusion
Some of the Galaxy S4's proximity-based features feel like pure fluff, and will no doubt be switched off by many users. With that in mind, it'll be interesting to see how Samsung's new flagship handset fares in the market. Will the S III continue to be hugely popular and outshine the more expensive S4? The latter undoubtedly has an specification, but also carries a host of features that many people simply won't use. Has Samsung done enough here to justify the S4's high price tag? We're not so sure.

Specifications

General
Dimensions (W x H x D) 69.8x136.6x7.9 mm
Weight 130 g
OS & software
Software included Android 4.2, TouchWiz
Processor & memory
Clock speed 1.9 GHz
Processor model Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 (quad-core)
RAM 2048 MB
Storage
Internal 16000 MB
Connections
Ports Micro-USB 2.0 (+ HDMI support via MHL)
Slots MicroSD
Networks
2.xG GPRS, EDGE
2G GSM 850, GSM 900, GSM 1800, GSM 1900
3.xG HSPA+
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac
GPS receiver Yes
Short range Bluetooth 4.0
GPS technology
Accuracy enhancement system A-GPS
Antenna built in
GPS receiver + GLONASS
Input devices
Navigation button/wheel Yes
Touchscreen Yes
Camera
2nd camera front
Flash Yes
Main camera rear
2nd camera resolution 2 megapixels
Main camera resolution 13 megapixels
Power
Removable battery Yes
Battery capacity 2600 mAh
Claimed battery life 8 h
Number of batteries 1
Standby time 370 h
Talk time 17 h
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter
Expand

Prices

Price
Price GBP 488.33

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Reviews, Samsung

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Talkback

36 comments
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  • Too Much - Overwhelming

    7.0

    I had the opportunity to play with an S4 for a couple of days. I currently use an Optimus G and an HTC One. The wife uses an S3.
    The S4 was great from a hardware perspective but falls short when compared (look and feel) to the G and the One. The screen was great and overall it is a great piece of hardware.
    However ........ the software that Samsung has built in, layered on, included, etc.... is way to over the top. I feel like I bought a Corvette for the driving thrill and someone piled every bell and whistle that could be conceived onto the car. "Yes!!! We know you only use 10-15 features, but we are packing in more than 100!!! Isn't it awesome!?!?!"
    No. Basics. Give me the basics awesomely done and a few features.
    rhonin
    • I like the options....

      But the great thing about Samsung's S4 is that you don't have to use all 100 features, just pick the 10-15 you want to use.
      hotwire277
      • Laden with features - YES. Over priced - No

        7.0

        Samsung has packed so many different features in Galaxy S4, that we can for sure say, its the most advanced smartphone in the world today. iPhone 5 would feel from Ice Age if we were to compare the feature and capability stack. One might not use too many of them too often but I am sure the feeling will not be second to none to hold the most advanced phone in your hand. Any way, I came across an interesting website with a dedicated section on Samsung Galaxy S4, which beautifully explains its features. Website:

        Brand Collage
        Uzin
      • Galaxy S4 - Read-up Section at Brand Collage

        7.0

        Here is the the handy direct link to Galaxy S4. Also find an interesting Face-off between iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4:

        BRAND COLLAGE
        Uzin
    • Re: Too Much - Overwhelming

      That's Android for you--overpowered and underpriced!
      ldo17
    • what about the I9500?

      7.0

      What does everyone think about the I9500 model compared to the base S4? I came from http://www.squidoo.com/samsung-galaxy-s-iv-s4-gt-i9500-review and am currently trying to decide between the 2.
      greg1287@...
  • Too fragile

    1.0

    I upgraded to this phone from an iPhone 3GS, and aside from a few minor issues found it a substantial upgrade, once i turned off all the bloatware.

    However, I'm giving it a very low rating because it is so fragile. I had it for less than 48 hours (so I was still treating it very carefully), but the screen cracked whilst it was in my pocket (i think because it was next to my wallet). I don't know the exact moment it happened - i.e. the event wasn't noteworthy.

    They are refusing to cover it under warranty.

    Compared to the iPhone, which I found to be very robust (i even dropped it a few times onto concrete), the Samsung S4 is comically fragile.

    I think Samsung should replace their marketing spin of "life companion" with "don't put this phone in your pocket because it might break".

    If i can't treat it like a phone you need to tell me this before I buy it.
    mhowlett
    • Next to your WALLET!?

      3.0

      Honestly if you put that size phone in that location you got what you deserverd!

      I have a Note 2 and it is a fabulous phone and in fact SO good that the S4 isnt really an upgrade but it is bigger than the S4. I keep it in a pocket where that crap wont happen to it and inside a filop open from top to bottom cover that is thick. Works well.

      Downer on the Note 2 and most smart phones is the battery tech. Batteries not good enough and have to have a case with me that can charge the phone when out on the road.
      greg-w-h
      • Cracked my Note 2 screen while in my pocket with nothing else!

        8.0

        I broke the screen of my Note 2 while in my pocket when cycling and I had nothing else than the phone in the pocket. But the jean was tight enough and that probably put too much pressure on the large phone.

        But I find the battery excellent. I have Wifi and GPS on all the time and I consider having an intensive use with listening to streaming music, browsing internet, making phone calls, quite often during the day and I have many widgets updating every so often and yet at the end of the day I have some remaining battery.

        So basically my experience is opposite as yours :)
        panurgePhobe
        • While cycling?

          8.0

          C'mon, unless you were wearing cargo shorts, why would you even thing of putting the Note II in tight jeans where you are bending you legs constantly? That's only asking for trouble. In this case it wasn't the hardware per se, it was the size of the phone that was the issue.

          If an iPhone was 5.5", it would have broken as well under the same circumstances.
          laequis
        • Cycling with phablets

          I use an armband case when cycling but instead of strapping it on my upper arm, I have it on the inside of my forearm facing me so I can just look down at it and easily press the home button to wake it if need to.
          I find mounting it to the frame a bit too risky when going over rough surfaces.
          Bike computer apps and Google bike maps are great when cycling in unfamiliar territory.
          warboat
    • Galaxy S4 Screen Cracked - Possible Recall?

      1.0

      The frame is not sturdy enough making it very easy for the phone to flex and the screen to crack. I too had a hairline crack diagonally across the screen, presumably from too much "pocket stress". Searching for similar reports (many on the web!!), I also found a notice of a possible Samsung Galaxy S4 recall on the XDA Developers Forum:

      "I just found out at work while on a Samsung technician training the galaxy as 4's are possibly going to be recalled. The frame of the phone is to weak and flex's easy resulting in the screen cracking down the middle. Samsung is determining how many they've sold and what the cost would be. Depending on the cost they'd either issue a recall or replace the phone when it breaks for that reason. "

      Ref: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?p=41238449
      vixvii
  • Battery life

    3.0

    You people werent using the phone that much if you got a good life out of it. My Note 2 wont last more than 8 hours on average but I use GPS a lot, wi-fi a lot, wi-fi hotspot a lot, use email, web browse, camera....and the list goes on.

    If you have ANY smart phone, carry extra power with you in some form!
    greg-w-h
    • Manage your battery use better. Don't be lazy.

      8.0

      It only takes a couple of clicks to turn on and off certain battery draining processes on Android. I do it all the time and my Note 2 lasts a day and a half. For example, I turn off bluetooth when I get out of my Prius. I turn off GPS when I'm at my desk at work. Very easy turn turn both back on. It's a habit now so I don't even think twice.

      I also don't automatically have the apps on my phone updated. I'll get the notice, but manually update each app. I like to see what changes are being made before updating.

      Take a look at your battery use log and see what's taking up the most juice and adjust accordingly.
      laequis
  • When they increase internal storage to a decent amount....

    6.0

    I have a galaxy Ace and found that with very few apps added the phone constantly nags me to delete something as it has run out of space. I'm talking about no more than half a dozen downloaded apps. I won't buy a Samsung phone again until they add decent sized storage as these restrictions caused me no end of headaches. I used a 32Mb mini SD card as extra storage but apps refused to be written or transferred to it. This left it 3 parts empty.
    mongrel1999
  • Killer Feature

    8.0

    The IR Blaster is a great feature.
    I look forward to being able to throw my 5 separate remotes into a drawer.
    ITenquirer
  • Top Shelf

    9.0

    Guys, this is a review for the S4. Stop rating your Note II!

    I needed a phone, was not upgrading from anything. My main reference point was my wife's iPhone5. I was prepared to buy the same thing but decided to broaden my horizons and consider Blackberry and Android. I did as much homework as I could, asked around and read reviews ad nauseum. It came down to the HTC One and S4. YES, the plastic body is cheezy-looking. The screen and camera are amazing. If you think another device has the edge, it is probably down to personal preference (ie. splitting hairs).

    You're complaining about too many features? They can all be ignored or removed. That's way better than not having enough available to you (Blackberry).

    Removable battery? Micro SD? Double check. It is extremely customizable.
    Buy a case and a screen protector people, cuz most of us are going to be locked into a contract for 2-3 years. Yes, the phone was expensive but it just came out 4 weeks ago. It's the freshest, latest gadget. Xperia Z is not out yet where I live or I would have considered that one too.

    I was considering an iPad to complement my laptop and phone but now I feel it's obsolete. I got more of a tiny computer than a cell phone. Can you say processing power? Some people need to get their expectations under control. What do I care if Samsung didn't revolutionize the planet with the S4 vs. S3? It's a badass device and deserves full respect. In my opinion it's significantly better than the iPhone5. I'm not a teenager tweeting and facebooking all day long and I get 2 days on a single charge. I do watch my power settings, turn off wifi or data when I don't need to.
    NHCondon
  • Fast, Good Looking and Smart

    10.0

    I have never owned a better phone. This phone is fast! There is no delay with the phone and makes the S3 seem like dial up. The screen is the best looking and feeling. Image is sharp and colors are spot on. Also, the camera, is amazing!

    Get this phone!!!
    Ryan Troup
    • Worst Phone

      It's a good looking phone and yes it is fast but not faster than other phone's I've had. The bottom line, is for me it is the worse phone I've ever owned. Pretty and Fast are nice but they are not enough to get me over the flaws of this phone.
      hawkH
      • Worst Phone??

        My findings and experience with the S4 are completely opposite of yours. You can easily manage the software on your phone to eliminate most features you find unnecessary or "bloatware". If you bothered to try, you could have easily sold your S4 and used the proceeds to purchase an HTC as you said you wanted. You really don't sound like a good candidate for any of today's smartphones and operating system.
        Melvyn Moy