Samsung Galaxy S4 review

  • Editors' rating
    8.8 Outstanding
  • $148.50

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.

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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

Cellular
Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
Application Software AT&T DriveMode, Flipboard, Google Chrome, Google Download, Google Places, Microsoft Direct Push, AT&T FamilyMap, Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, Photo Reader, Polaris Office, S Health, S Memo, S Planner, S Translator, S Travel, S Voice Drive, Samsung KNOX, AT&T Messages, Samsung Optical Reader, Samsung WatchON, Story Album, Trip Advisor, AT&T Smart Wi-Fi, Android Browser
Type smartphone (Android OS)
Integrated Components front-facing camera, navigation, rear-facing camera, voice recorder
Navigation A-GPS, GLONASS
Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900
Mobile Broadband Generation 4G
Phone Form Factor touch
Service Provider AT&T
Operating System Family Android
Operating System Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean)
User Interface Samsung TouchWiz
Input Device Multi-touch
Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, pedometer, barometer, magnetometer, thermometer, gyro sensor, humidity, gesture
Additional Features TTY compatible, Speech-to-Text (speech recognition), DLNA Certified, Text-to-Speech (text recognition), software updates FOTA (Firmware Over The Air), multitasking, intelligent typing (SWYPE), sharing media via DLNA, Face Unlock, Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), Samsung Approved for Enterprise (SAFE), Android Beam, S Beam, Audience earSmart technology, intelligent typing (SWIFTKEY), infrared remote control, Samsung Smart Pause/Smart Scroll, Samsung Adapt Display, Air View/Air Gesture, Dual Camera function, Group Play function, Samsung Link (AllShare Play)
Details
Form Factor Touch
SAR Value 1.18 W/kg (body) / 0.84 W/kg (head)
Integrated Components Rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, voice recorder, navigation
Body Color Aurora red
Messaging & Internet
Cellular Messaging Services MMS, SMS
Messaging & Data Features Microsoft Excel support, Microsoft PowerPoint support, Microsoft Word support, PDF support, handwriting recognition
Mobile Services AT&T Address Book, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Smart Wi-Fi, AT&T U-verse Live TV, Android Browser, Flipboard, AT&T DriveMode, Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Download, Google Latitude, Google Local Search, Google Maps, Google Maps Navigation, Google Places, Google Play, Google Play Books, AT&T FamilyMap, Google Play Magazines, Google Play Movies, Google Play Music, Google Quick Search Box, Google Search, Google Search by Voice, Microsoft Direct Push, Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, Photo Reader, Picasa, AT&T Locker, Polaris Office, S Health, S Memo, S Planner, S Translator, S Travel, S Voice Drive, Samsung Apps, Samsung ChatON, Samsung Hub, AT&T Messages, Samsung KNOX, Samsung Optical Reader, Samsung WatchON, Story Album, Trip Advisor, Video Call, YPmobile, Yahoo! Mail, YouTube, myAT&T
Messaging Services Google Talk, MMS, SMS
Supported Email Protocols IMAP4, POP3
Supported Social Networks and Blogs Facebook, Google+, Twitter
Miscellaneous
Sensors accelerometer, humidity, magnetometer, pedometer, proximity sensor, thermometer, ambient light sensor, barometer, gesture, gyro sensor
Communications
Communication Features Internet browser, mobile Email client
Data Transmission EDGE, LTE, GPRS, HSDPA, HSPA+, HSUPA
4G LTE Band Band 1, Band 17, Band 4, Band 7
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.0, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
Bluetooth Profiles Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP), Headset Profile (HSP), Human Interface Device Profile (HID), Message Access Profile (MAP), OBject EXchange (OBEX), Object Push Profile (OPP), Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP), Personal Area Networking Profile (PAN), Phonebook Access Profile (PBAP), Serial Port Profile (SPP), General Audio/Video Distribution Profile (GAVDP), Generic Object Exchange Profile (GOEP), Hands-Free Profile (HFP)
Processor
Clock Speed 1.9 GHz
Manufacturer QUALCOMM
Processor Core Qty quad-core
Display
Technology Full HD Super AMOLED
Display Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
Color Depth 24-bit (16.7 million colors)
Pixel Density (ppi) 441
Diagonal Size 5 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 12.7 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 5 in
Protection Corning Gorilla Glass 3 (scratch resistant glass)
Color Support color
Organizer
Personal Information Management alarm clock, stopwatch, synchronization with PC, alarm clock with snooze, calculator, calendar, reminder
Camera
Digital Zoom 4
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source LED light
Features Anti-shake, Geo-tagging, Multi-shots, Red-Eye Reduction, Sound & Shot, Zero Shutter Lag, Beauty face, picture stabilizer, video recording, video stabilizer, Best face function, Best photo function, Drama Shot
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards MKV, VC-1, FLV, AVI, MPEG-4, WMV, ASF, DivX, 3GP, H.264, H.263, WebM, HEVC
Supported Digital Audio Standards WAV, WMA, AAC, ASF, Ogg Vorbis, Real Audio, AMR, MP3, FLAC, AC-3, XMF, AAC +, OGG, eAAC+, MIDI, M4A, apt-X
Location
Navigation Software & Services AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Navigator, Google Local Search, Google Maps, Google Maps Navigation
Memory
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDHC - up to 64 GB
Multimedia
Graphics Accelerator Qualcomm ADRENO 320
Battery
Technology Lithium ion
Run Time Details Talk: up to 1020 min
Standby (WCDMA): up to 350 hrs
Standby (LTE): up to 300 hrs
Playback (music): up to 69 hrs
Playback (video): up to 11 hrs
Active online usage (WCDMA): up to 8 hrs
Active online usage (LTE): up to 8 hrs
Active online usage (Wi-Fi): up to 10 hrs
Navigation System
Navigation Software & Services AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Navigator, Google Local Search, Google Maps, Google Maps Navigation
Digital Camera
Digital Zoom 4
Focus Adjustment automatic
Self-Timer Delay 10 sec, 2 sec, 5 sec
Camera Light Source LED light
Video Recorder Resolutions 1920 x 1080 (1080p)
Features Anti-shake, Geo-tagging, Multi-shots, Red-Eye Reduction, Sound & Shot, Zero Shutter Lag, Beauty face, picture stabilizer, video recording, video stabilizer, Best face function, Best photo function, Drama Shot
Header
Brand Samsung
Product Line Samsung Galaxy
Model S4
Edition SGH-I337
Packaged Quantity 1
Connections
Connector Type Headset jack - mini-phone 3.5 mm
MHL (Micro-USB) - 11 pin Micro-USB Type B
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen (multi-touch)
Features
Sensors accelerometer, humidity, magnetometer, pedometer, proximity sensor, thermometer, ambient light sensor, barometer, gesture, gyro sensor
Phone Functions call timer, voice control, voice dialing, conference call, flight mode, speakerphone, vibrating alert
Additional Features Air View/Air Gesture, Dual Camera function, Face Unlock, Group Play function, S Beam, Samsung Adapt Display, Android Beam, Samsung Approved for Enterprise (SAFE), Samsung Link (AllShare Play), Samsung Smart Pause/Smart Scroll, Speech-to-Text (speech recognition), TTY compatible, Text-to-Speech (text recognition), infrared remote control, intelligent typing (SWIFTKEY), intelligent typing (SWYPE), multitasking, Audience earSmart technology, sharing media via DLNA, software updates FOTA (Firmware Over The Air), Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), DLNA Certified
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC, FLAC, M4A, MIDI, MP3, OGG, Ogg Vorbis, Real Audio, WAV, WMA, XMF, apt-X, eAAC+, AC-3, AMR, ASF
Supported Digital Video Standards 3GP, H.263, H.264, HEVC, MKV, MPEG-4, ASF, VC-1, WMV, WebM, AVI, DivX, FLV
Sound Enhancements Samsung Adapt Sound
RAM
Installed Size 2 GB
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 16 GB
Max Supported Size 64 GB
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDHC
Graphics System
Graphics Accelerator Qualcomm ADRENO 320
Optical Sensor
Sensor Resolution 13 megapixels
Service & Support Details
Type limited warranty
Full Contract Period 1 year
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty

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Where To Buy

Samsung Galaxy S4 (aurora red)

Part Number: SGH-I337ZRAATT