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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.
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?
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.
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.