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Samsung Galaxy S4 expert review

Following their fancy launch event on the 14th March, Agent Dale Collins was the lucky chap who managed to get his hands on Samsung’s new ‘Life Companion’ and flagship phone, the Galaxy S4 for our expert review.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Review Quick Search

  1. Design: size, weight and screen
  2. Hardware: processor, battery, connectivity, audio and camera
  3. Software: Jelly Bean 4.2.2 and new bundled apps
  4. Gestures and Motion Control: Smart Gestures, Air Gestures and Air View
  5. Who is this phone for and verdict


The Galaxy S3 was a huge success worldwide and as a result there has been much talk about the upcoming Galaxy S4. It seems Samsung have taken everything to the next level with a new and improved screen, battery size and the perfection of their much loved Galaxy design. This review will take you through some of the key talking points we found after playing around with the device for a few days.

S4 Front

Pros

  • Stunning full HD 5-inch Super AMOLED display
  • Lightning-fast Snapdragon 1.9GHz Quad-Core CPU
  • Superb battery life
  • Expandable memory up to 64GB

Cons

  • High end price point
  • Flimsy back casing
  • Top specs reflected in the premium price point

Design - Samsung Galaxy S4

Upon picking up the Galaxy S4 I had a sense of nostalgia, I felt as though I had held this device before. This was down to the fact that the size, shape and feel of this device are near enough identical to its predecessor, the S3. Samsung have achieved this by taking what they have already done and building on it with the following:

  • Tough-as-nails Corning Gorilla Glass 3 screen
  • Unnecessary empty space removed from the front of the handset
  • A pinpoint-sized infrared sensor on the top
  • Smoother finish on the edges, including power and volume buttons
  • Flat glass screen
S4 - Side - Thin
Hello beautiful...

In this Agent’s humble opinion, this seems a good move as the Galaxy S3 was such an incredible device that they didn’t really need to change much; instead they have just simply made it stronger in every aspect.

Whilst refining the design of the S4 Samsung also managed to tackle the features that set devices apart:

  • Size
  • Weight
  • Thickness
S4 and S3 side by side - 4_3
Spot the difference? The S4 is a true successor to the S3 in every department

The overall size of the S4 is near enough exactly the same as the S3, despite having a larger screen, the S4's casing comes in at 136.6 x 69.8mm compared to the S3 which is 136.6 x 70.6mm, the difference is marginal but you really can feel it.

With any device boasting new and improved hardware you would expect a little extra weight right? Not so with the S4. Weighing in at a mere 130g making it the lightest of the top dog smartphones so far in 2013. To me, the thickness of a device plays a huge part as it won’t feel comfortable in the pocket if it’s too thick, but Samsung have made the S4 an incredibly slim 7.9mm, the same as Sony’s flagship the Xperia Z.

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Hardware - SAMSUNG GALAXY S4

Processor and memory

S4 casing and metal band - 4_3
The S4's serious power is hidden by an understated exterior

The hardware found within the S4 is top notch. There aren’t any concerns about raw horsepower here, even without the 8-core chipset available in other territories. Samsung have crammed a lot of incredible hardware into such a small shell, this consists primarily of:

  • 1.9GHz Quad-Core Snapdragon processor
  • 2GB RAM

When powering the S4 on for the first time, I was impressed by how fast it was to load up. It took little to no time to go from a fully powered off state to being ready to roll and do as I please, this was just the beginning of seeing what the quad-core Snapdragon was capable of. After I started playing with the S4, I could see just how powerful the Snapdragon chip was, I was flying through the home screens, jumping through all the settings, launching the camera and snapping photos. Not once did I feel any sign of slow down or any sort of performance issues.

In terms of storage capacity, we were treated to the standard 16GB version of the handset for our testing purposes. One thing that did catch our eye was the fact that the sheer volume of Samsung's bundled software take up a lot of space on the device. Our version only had around 8.5GB of free space to play with! It's important to note that this will be ample for most users but if you plan to throw a lot of HD video and music on the phone then an SD is a must really. If you're struggling for space on your device, you can check our Carphone Warehouse's range of options here.

Multi-tasking

Samsung have been at the forefront on multi-tasking performance for a while now with their renowned multi-window feature. Multi-window allows you to have two different apps open at the same time on the screen and gives you the ability to use both simultaneously. Not only does the device offer multi-window, but it also offers a full multi-tasking feature allowing apps to continue running in the background meaning you can switch to them whenever you want, by double tapping the home button, and continue where you left off. To put the multi-tasking capabilities to the test, I opened up every application possible to see how the S4 could handle it. I was shocked; I could seamlessly run through all applications with absolutely no problems. Quite simply, if you’re a big-time multi-tasker, this is the one for you…

Battery Life

S4 Battery and back case
A removable battery can be a life-saver if you're a heavy user - Samsung don't disappoint here.

The 2600mah battery in the S4 is able to handle quite a lot of punishment. Under heavy use you will be looking at around 11 hours of battery life, with moderate use I can see it being charged every night and with light use approximately every two-three days. This is certainly at the front of the pack by current standards. Samsung have continued their trend of allowing the removal of the battery, this is a nice feature as it would allow me to carry a spare one just in case I need it.

One of the new features added is wireless charging, this is becoming a lot more popular with current high-end devices and allows for an easy way to charge your device without having a wire hanging out of it constantly, although it does require an additional charging mat specifically for the S4. When charging through the mains you are looking at a full charge in around three hours; through USB on your computer you will get a full charge in around five hours. All pretty standard fare here to be honest but certainly not a let-down.

Connectivity

The S4 packs in all the latest standards in connectivity you would expect for something this high-end - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC made it to the party but Samsung have made the S4 their first device that only comes in a LTE 4G variant so if you go for 4G in a year, this fella’s got you covered even if you change provider. Also included is the addition of infrared, I have seen this in the likes of the HTC One and the Xperia Z and it seems to be making a major comeback with apps to support TVs and home cinema all over the world. Good times.

Audio

My experience with the S3 and Note devices is that they had quite poor volume outputs and lower quality audio, but with the S4 Samsung have drastically improved this function. The speakers shifted from the top of the S3 down to the bottom on the S4 with a little notch on the casing to raise it up, similar to the Note 2. This gives the speaker an amplified effect when on a hard surface, with clear and crisp audio.

I tested out a couple of tracks through the headphones provided in the box and I could instantly hear the audio was a lot clearer and louder, it was an extremely pleasant listening experience (well, as pleasant as Adele can ever be!). HTC's 'Boomsound' technology on their latest 'One' handset still has the edge here but the S4 is certainly no slouch.

The S4 also provides active noise cancellation whilst in calls, this is something I have seen a lot of phones lacking whilst walking out in gale force winds recently, but the S4 works to cover the majority of that up for you.

Camera

S4 and S3 rear camera - 4_3
The S4 houses a serious 13-megapixel sensor underneath a sleek exterior

Samsung always implement very solid cameras on their mobile phones and the S4 is no exception, boasting a 13-megapixel rear camera with a 2-megapixel front facing camera, both of which are capable of full HD video capture. This is a huge step up from the 8-megapixel camera the S3 had to offer and the difference in quality between the two is clear.

The main feature that caught my attention was the ‘Dual Camera’ mode. Dual camera mode allows you to capture images and videos using both the front and rear cameras at the same time. This is perfect for capturing every single precious moment and allows the always anonymous photographer to participate and be part of every snap. This is achieved by a smaller version of either the front or rear camera on screen and capturing your image/video as you normally would while snapping a photo.

S4 - Dual camera - slim
The dual camera feature and low-light performance were impressive in our tests

One thing worthy of note is that although the camera is indeed a 13-megapixel beast, usually you will only take your photos at 9-megapixel, this is due to the fact that the 13-megapixel photos are shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, whereas the 9-megapixel photos are shot in a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. This doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the actual quality of the photo but it’s a little cheeky of Samsung and worth being aware of. Shooting video with both the front and rear cameras is pretty awesome as both film in full HD, giving you the highest quality you could ask for. The camera software itself has been cleaned up and given a nicer feel with live previews on the camera effects, showing you just how amazing your photos will look with a vignette filter applied – slight sarcasm intended.

S4 - Built in filters
Having built in filters and very sleek new interface makes getting some decent looking shots easy

Screen

S4 Screen Colours - 4_3
The S4's screen is certainly eye catching

The Galaxy S4 is joining the ranks of other high-end smartphones, much like the HTC One and the Sony Xperia Z and they have added a full HD screen to their new flagship, boasting an extremely impressive set of specs:

  • 5-inch Display
  • Super AMOLED HD screen
  • 1080 x 1920 resolution
  • 441ppi (Pixels Per Inch)

The jump from a 4.8-inch screen with a resolution of 720 x 1820 pixels on the S3 to a 5-inch, 1080 x 1920 pixel on the S4 is a slight, but significant leap ahead. I found the screen to be incredibly beautiful, colourful and vivid but it does have one main flaw; it still has the same blue tint that is visible at certain viewing angles on the S3, only not as striking as its predecessor.

To most people this isn’t a problem, but I found it to be quite annoying as I knew it was there from the off.

The stunning 5-inch screen is the first smartphone on the market to be protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3. Gorilla Glass 3 is stronger and 3x more scratch resistant than Gorilla Glass 2 - the standard on most high-end devices, it also shows 40% less scratches than other variants.

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Software - SAMSUNG GALAXY S4

The Galaxy S4 comes preloaded with Android version 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean), the latest version available. This is the first phone to launch with it preloaded.

Samsung haven’t made many changes to their TouchWiz UI layout, but they have added some cool new features. Some of my favourites are:

  • S Translate
  • S Fitness
  • Watch TV Now
  • Group Play
  • Story Album
  • Lock screen widgets

I found that the S Translate app could prove quite useful; I personally speak no other languages and have an extremely hard time going on holiday and trying to get by. S Translate allows me to speak to the phone, in English or any other language, and it will translate it to the language of your choice, play it out loud and also display it visually on the screen. The only problem is that I found it requires you to download a language pack for each individual language. Worth doing before you go away on a home Wi-Fi connection.

S4 - health and fitness - 4_3
S Fitness is an impressive new inclusion to Samsung's Android app portfolio

S Fitness has combined a variety of fitness apps into an all-in-one app. When I first started it up, it asked me my age, weight, calorie intake per day, how much exercise I do and let me set a target of how many calories I want to burn per day. This allowed me to monitor my food intake, in calories, by either scanning the barcode, a QR code or entering details of my meal manually. It then gave me the option to track running, walking or general exercise, and accumulated all of the data into a graph for me to monitor my progress. Also included was a thermometer and barometer, these allowed the app to check the temperature and humidity of my surroundings and advised me to exercise somewhere where the conditions were suitable for the type of exercise I was doing.

Watch TV Now is an application that integrates with the built in infrared sensor allowing you to take control of your TV, DVD/BluRay player, home theatre system and set top box. The controls are fairly basic, ranging from volume up/down, changing channel, settings and navigating the menu, but the controls are a little more sophisticated if you own a swish Samsung Smart TV. The app also acts as a TV guide tailored directly to your preference of content. It’s a great feature but the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z tablet seem to implement the feature better in their app offerings.

S4 - Picture management - 4_3
Image management on the S4 is impressive

My favourite new feature is story album. If you’re anything like me and you snap a thousand photos on a night out then this app is perfect for you. Story album creates an album based on common details such as location, date and time. It will group all your images from events you have attended and holidays you’ve been on into dedicated albums which you can then purchase as a printed version to be delivered straight to your home.

The lock screen has been given a facelift with some nice widgets and customisation options for you to play around with. This feature is compatible with a whole variety of useful apps such as:

  • Clock
  • Notifications
  • App shortcuts (Phone, messaging, contacts, internet, camera and so on)
  • Email inbox
  • Message previews
  • Music Player
  • TV Remote
S4 lock screen customisation - 4_3
Personalising your homescreen - a great way to customise your phone and sabotage the devices of friends!

My favourite amongst these was infact the TV remote widget, allowing me to control my TV without having to unlock my phone. Personally I found the email inbox and message previews a bit invasive, as anyone who simply pressed the power button on my phone could immediately see potentially private information. One to avoid perhaps but nice to have the option I guess. The ability to add a lock screen title and adjust pretty much every facet of it is also a nice touch and we had some fun playing around with different styles and options available.

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Gestures and motion control - SAMSUNG GALAXY S4

Samsung have really tried to push the concept of gesture control into the mainstream with their Galaxy range of devices. The S4 has been loaded with a bucket-load of new motion and gesture controls on top of what was already offered with the S3.

First, let’s take a look at the ‘Smart Gestures’ on the handset:

  • Smart Rotation – This prevents the screen from rotating when you are looking at it, this is ideal for if you are trying to relax in bed and don’t want the screen to auto rotate
  • Smart Pause – If you're watching a video and look away from the screen the video will pause, when you look back at it, the video will continue
  • Smart Scroll – This allows you to scroll through web pages using your eye placement, by simply tilting the phone ever so slightly
S4 - Smart Pause
The ironically named 'Smart Pause' function - a solution looking for a problem perhaps?

After having had a good play with these gestures I found that Smart Pause and Smart Scroll weren’t really fit for purpose and ended up hindering my S4 experience more than they enhanced it.

Smart Scroll is an interesting new feature which gives you the option of scrolling through a webpage or email by either moving your head or tilting the device up and down. I found when using my head to scroll it was extremely smooth and quick to pick up, but whenever I looked away for a split second it continuously scrolled down the page. With tilting the device, this took a little more getting used to; I was able to control how far I wanted the page to scroll and it didn’t jump or continuously scroll as previously mentioned. For me this can prove to be a handy feature when I am on a train or bus.

Smart Pause worked like a charm and stopped my video whenever I looked away for a split second. This would be great if the feature itself wasn’t so amazingly irritating by design. I definitely like being able to glance up and around me and have the audio from a movie continue rolling in my ear. The consensus here at Geek Squad HQ is that this is the perfect example of a terrible idea very well implemented. Ironic really as it’s normally the other way round!

Smart rotation by contrast is extremely useful, it prevents you from toggling auto rotate on and off every time I am lying in bed browsing the web or watching videos - a source of some agitation to me using various different smartphones in the past.

Secondly, I will cover the ‘Air Gestures’:

  • S4 Main Menu
    Pretty much every aspect of the S4 is geared toward improving efficiency
    Air Move – This enables you to move app shortcuts or S Planner events to different home screens
  • Air call-accept – Lets you wave your hand over the screen to accept incoming calls
  • Quick Glance – When your screen is off, wave your hand over the top of the phone to see a glimpse of the time, notifications, calls and texts
  • Air jump - This allows you to scroll through web pages in huge jumps
  • Air Browse – This allows you to move between pictures and tracks by swiping your hand just above the screen

With the air gestures I found they could be quite handy at times, quick glance was definitely my favourite. Quick glance enabled me to check all notifications without pressing a single button; ideal if your phone’s sat on your desk or even the arm of your sofa. I didn’t enjoy the experience of air call-accept as it only allows you to answer calls when waving your hand over it, I can see this causing accidental answering of phone calls and it also doesn’t support an option to decline a call.

Finally, ‘Air View’ gestures:

  • Information Preview – This provides an enlarged preview of text or images when you hover your finger over the screen
  • Progress Preview – Whilst watching a video, if you hover your finger over the time bar you will get a live preview of that segment of video
  • Speed Dial Preview – When in your dial pad, if you hover over a number it will show you what contact is assigned to the speed dial
  • Web Page Magnifier – When in your web browser, hover over a link or image for it to display a preview that has been zoomed in

After playing with the Air View gestures I have to say I enjoyed all of them. I am not the kind of person to use speed dial as I tend to forget who I have assigned to them, but Speed Dial Preview would make my life so much easier. Information preview and Web Page Magnifier on the other hand would be productive for everyday life; I am always looking at images and browsing content on the web, the ability to preview and zoom in on these would personally benefit me a lot more than any of the others on show.

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Who is the Samsung Galaxy S4 for?

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a top end smartphone aimed at the very top of the smartphone power-user market. It is designed for photographers, media enthusiasts and holiday goers alike. The ingenuity that has been put behind the S4 is second to none and will be the ideal phone for many people. Be warned though, it has a price tag to match its comprehensive skillset!

Verdict - SAMSUNG GALAXY S4

S4 and S3 back side by side - 4_3
The S3 and S4 back to back - Where do Samsung go from here?

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the perfect successor to the S3; boasting a bigger, brighter and even more beautiful screen. The camera is amazing, especially the dual camera feature, the audio has improved drastically from previous Samsung devices and the new additions to the software are impressive in the main. It's difficult to give the phone anything other than 9/10. There's just so much that you can do with it but hey, nothing's perfect and some people will still point to the plastic construction of the device as a chink in the armour of the S4. I will say this though; I don’t quite know where Samsung can go after this with the S5…

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