Samsung Galaxy S4, hands-on: Does this year's biggest phone deliver?

The Galaxy S4 is Samsung's (and Android's) flagship smartphone - here are my first impressions after getting some hands-on time.
By Ben Woods, Contributor
1 of 11 Ben Woods/ZDNET

The launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4 was one of the most hotly anticipated smartphone releases of the year so far. My time with the device was limited to around 10 to 15 minutes but that was more than enough time to get an initial feel for the new phone.

Hardware-wise Samsung's Galaxy S4 is no slouch and includes an upgraded processor, camera, screen and other internals in comparison to the previous generation Galaxy S3. 

Perhaps one of the most striking things about the phone is the 5-inch full 1080p HD Super AMOLED display (441PPI) that immediately grabs attention with its crisp, bright images and colours. Impressively, despite increasing screen size a little from the Galaxy S3, the chassis of the device is more-or-less the same size, meaning it actually wasn't as large in the hand as I had expected.

Samsung's TouchWiz UI is still present, although there have been few changes to it, and the usual sea of Android apps awaits you if you navigate away from one of the home screens. Just because TouchWiz remains largely the same, that doesn't mean Samsung has abandoned the software experience on the phone — it's really here that the South Korean handset maker hopes to stand out.

Other hardware specs of the S4 include a choice of internal storage (16/32/64GB), microSD support and 2GB RAM. It also supports 4G LTE in the 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz bands.

The handset is due for release in the UK and some European countries on 27 April at 10AM, Samsung confirmed at its Galaxy S4 World Tour event in London on Tuesday.

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Despite packing impressive internals and increasing the screen size, Samsung has managed to keep the profile of the Galaxy S4 down to a svelte 7.9mm.

The overall dimensions of the phone are 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm and weighs 130g which actually makes the handset a little bit narrower, thinner and 3 grams lighter than its predecessor, even though it has that larger screen.

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One of the headline-garnering features of the S4's new software offerings are the 'touchless' operations such as AirView.

AirView lets you preview the content of an email or text message without opening it or touching the handset.

To use AirView you simply open the messages or email inbox and point at the message you want to preview and it will display it on screen.

The image above shows a preview of an email without needing to open or tap it to view the contents. If you hover your finger over any email attachments it will tell you what kind of attachment it is, for example, an image or document. 

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AirView (which was also present on the Samsung Galaxy Note II, but required actually touching the screen) can also be used in other areas of the phone.

For example, if you assign a speed dial number to a contact, you can then go to the phone dialer pad, hover your finger over one of the numbers and it will pop up the contact assigned to that number, giving you the option to call them.

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Other notable software tweaks on the S4 include the Smart Pause, however, due to the crowded nature of the event at which I was using the phone, it was hard to work out how accurate and responsive these features are — there was pretty much always someone looking at the screen. 

However, I had more luck with the Air Gesture feature introduced for the Galaxy S4 which uses sensors at the top of the handset to detect when you are trying to scroll through things. For example, if you want to scroll through pictures in your album or different music tracks in your collection, you just need to swipe your hand left or right in front of the handset and it will move along to the next item.

Obviously, for this to work you need to be relatively close to the phone but it'll still work from a few inches away.

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On the rear of the phone is a 13-megapixel camera with flash and on the front is a 2-megapixel affair for still and video calling.

However, Samsung has gone the extra mile with the camera and included a number of software tweaks to give more mode choices to users.

In contrast to a number of other handset makers, the outside of the chassis on the S4 is home to only a power button and volume rocker.

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One of the new camera modes is called Dual Shot and uses both the front and rear cameras to take on photograph that includes the scene in front and behind the camera.

In the image above the front-facing camera was providing the main part of the picture (the Samsung demonstrator is on the left hand side and I'm next to him with the camera) while the inset heart is showing another member of the Samsung team stood in front of the device. Naturally, having the inset picture in a heart is a user-definable option.


8 of 11 Ben Woods/ZDNET

Another new camera feature, called 'Sound and Shot', allows you to capture up to nine seconds of sound with each photo taken.

You can select whether you want the up to nine second audio clip to be captured from nine seconds before the photo is taken or the nine seconds after using on screen buttons (pictured).

There's also a new mode called 'Drama Shot' which creates a collage of images from a single picture by capturing motion. For example, if you were to take a picture of someone diving off a diving board, you would get several images starting with the diver stood at the top of the board all the way down to entering the water.

There's also an 'Eraser' mode that allows you to edit out moving or unwanted objects in the background of images.


9 of 11 Ben Woods/ZDNET

Samsung's own branded Hub is still present on the handset, but instead of offering different Hubs for music, books, films and games, they are now all found in one place, making it much more convenient to access your content.

The music service 7Digital will continue to provide the musical element of Samsung Hub as it has done in previous generations of Samsung's Galaxy S devices. It also provides the store for BlackBerry Music.



10 of 11 Ben Woods/ZDNET

Another notable feature found on previous generations of Galaxy but evolved for the S4 include Group Play for music, photos and games.

This feature allows multiple people to view or listen to the same content in real-time by sharing it between handsets without the need for a mobile or Wi-Fi signal using Wi-Fi Direct connectivity.

Connecting up two phones to play music creates a stereo set up and this can be increased (if there are enough handsets in the room) up to creating a 5.0 surround sound set up. The image above shows a two speaker stereo setup. 


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By now there should be a pattern emerging: while the Samsung Galaxy S4 looks a lot like the S3 on the surface, Samsung has put considerable efforts into enticing customers to stick with the brand through custom software on the devices.

Another of these tweaks is the Samsung Health app that allows you to track calories consumed and calories burned. However, rather than restrict you to items on a pre-populated list, you can add to your Health tracker by inputting custom items, either by text or by taking a photo using the phone.

There are lots more of these little touches throughout the handset such as S Translator or the 'Story Album' photo mode, adding value to the core Android Jelly Bean OS proposition.

Overall, because I'm not a fan of overly large screens that border on the phablet category, so I was ready for disappointment with the Galaxy S4. However, with the chassis actually taking up less room in your hand than the previous generation and a number of innovative, if somewhat gimmicky, software tricks on board, the S4 looks set to make its mark on the Android market.


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