Samsung’s Galaxy S III was one of the most successful Android smartphones of all time, but is the Galaxy S4 a worthy successor?
In a word: yes. The Galaxy S4 manages to build on the framework that helped Samsung sell over 100 million Galaxy S III devices in under 12 months, and it packs in new features and better specs to keep it competitive with the likes of the HTC One and other high-end Android devices.
Reviewing the Galaxy S4 isn’t an easy task. That isn’t because the phone is bad — far from it — but there are so many new features in both software and hardware, it’s hard to know where to start and when to stop talking.
After spending about a week with the Galaxy S4, I feel it is not only the best Galaxy product to date — it’s one of my favorite Android smartphones ever.
Check out what makes the Galaxy S4 really tick.
Same Size Body, Bigger Screen
From afar, the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy S4 are hard to discern. The fundamental design is the same, and the two devices retain the same physical size. The difference is that the Galaxy S4 has a larger screen and is a bit more refined.
While still primarily made of plastic, the Galaxy S4 somehow feels more substantial than the Galaxy S III, despite being both thinner and lighter.
The screen is also bigger. It’s now 5 inches instead of 4.7. In practice, I’m not sure if the added screen real-estate makes a difference, but it’s certainly nice to get such a big screen into a device that doesn’t take up any more physical space.
Speaking of the screen — it’s gorgeous. It’s 1920×1080 — that’s full HD — AMOLED and backlit. Text is crisp, colors are vibrant and blacks are deep.
I’ve long been a proponent of smaller handsets. The iPhone 5 — or maybe even the BlackBerry Z10 — fit the sweet spot for my personal needs. That makes sense. I’m a petite woman with small hands, tiny wrists and pant pockets that can’t easily include anything bigger or wider than an iPhone.
Still, after spending a week with the Galaxy S4, I have to admit to not being turned off by the size. I still feel a bit silly holding it up to my ear — but who really uses their smartphone to make phone calls?
In any event, the Galaxy S4 helps hit that sweet spot for users that want a big-screen phone, but don’t want to step into phablet territory with a Galaxy Note II.
The Benchmarks Are Slamming
On the surface, the specs for the Galaxy S4 don’t look diametrically different from the Galaxy S III. Both have quad-core processors and 2GB of RAM.
Samsung actually sells two different variants of the Galaxy S4. In North America, the phone has a quad-core 1.9Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor. The European and non-LTE variant of the Galaxy S4, meanwhile, uses Samsung’s own Exynos processor, which is a whopping eight cores (ocotocore, baby!). While early benchmarks show that in terms of raw speed, the octocore model is a bit faster, no one should feel slighted by the performance of the U.S. variant of the Galaxy S4.
I ran benchmarks In Geekbench 2, a popular tool for comparing different device benchmarks across platforms, and the Galaxy S4 performed extremely well. In my tests, the Galaxy S4 managed a score of 3259. To put that in perspective, our Galaxy S III (running Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean) — one of the best performers of 2012 — scored a 1343. This is despite having a bigger, higher-resolution screen.
It also puts the Galaxy S4 slightly ahead of the excellent HTC One.
I imagine that a lot of the performance has to do with the graphics chip Samsung is putting in the phone. Even a mid-range smartphone such as the HTC First is fast enough to run the latest apps and games. For power users and for future developer targets, many of the biggest innovations are happening with graphics. Having more graphical horsepower means that the Galaxy S4 can drive a full HD screen while also interacting with lots of secondary devices.
Of course, benchmarks are only part of the equation. The real test comes to how a device performs. In this case, most actions are quick and fluid. Some apps — especially the Samsung Hub — had some wait time, but by and large, the device is snappy. Graphical elements load without pause, and web pages and other elements can be manipulated with ease.
A Picture’s Worth 1000 Words
The camera on the Galaxy S4 is now 13 megapixels (up from 8 on the Galaxy S III) on the rear and 2 megapixels on the front. The bigger story, however, is with the camera software.
Taking cues from the Galaxy Camera, Samsung has redesigned the entire user interface. That’s a good thing, as the old software was clunky and hard to use.
The new software mimics the interface of the Galaxy Camera, and adds in some new features, as well. One new feature, dubbed “Dual Camera,” allows the front and rear cameras to be used at the same time.
This works in photo and video mode, and users can choose from a number of presets, including shaped vignettes, side-by-side mode and a postage-stamp look.
I’m not sure how useful this feature will be in photos, but in video, it could be really helpful as a way to dictate something and show something else off. Plus, the dual cameras work on video calls, which could also come in handy.
In addition to dual camera, Samsung has a ton of camera options and features.
Samsung introduced its “Best Face” and “Best Photo” features with the Galaxy Note II, and the features are a bit more refined with the Galaxy S4. This essentially takes five images in rapid succession, and lets you choose the best photo from the list — or manipulate aspects of the image to create one “best” photo — no Photoshop needed.
In addition to those modes, the Galaxy S4 has some other cool modes too, including:
- Sound and Shot: appends up to nine seconds of sound to your photo if you want to dictate a moment or share a message
- Drama: This is great for movement, as it shows a moving figure in all phases of a shot, as if it was done with long exposure
- Eraser Shot: This lets you remove objects and photos from your photos. It’s similar to Photoshop’s Content Aware masks, but simpler and in-camera.
- Animation Shot: This is basically Cinemgram, but built into the stock camera software. You record a piece of animation, isolate what part you want to animate, edit the length of the animation and export the resulting file as a GIF.
- Live Filters: Users get real-time effects and previews for photo and video before even pressing the capture button
We’ll do more through tests with the Galaxy S4 camera in the coming days, pitting it against the HTC One, the Galaxy S III, the Lumia 920 and the iPhone 5. Without a more controlled setting, I can’t really say if the photos are substantially better than any other camera phone on the market, but the extra features really do pack a punch.
Sensors, Gestures and Remote Controls
Building off of some of the features it introduced with the Galaxy Note II and the Galaxy Note 8, Samsung has integrated some new sensor technologies into the Galaxy S4.
The first feature is Air View, which acts similarly to how the S-pen on the Galaxy Note 8 works. Simply hover your finger a few millimeters above the screen of the device and in supported apps, you’ll see a preview of content. This works with many of Samsung’s built-in apps, including the photo gallery, the dialer, Samsung’s browser and email client. It also works with Flipboard, and Samsung says it will have an SDK so developers can integrate the feature into their app.
Air View works by cranking up the capacitive sensor on the screen so that it is more sensitive and can detect interaction without your finger having to touch the device. While finding the right way to use the feature can take time, once you figure out the sweet spot, it works reliably.
Air View is handy, especially in apps that support it. Unfortunately, right now, the only apps that support Air View are either built by Samsung or are Flipboard. If you use Chrome and Gmail — as opposed to Samsung’s mail app and browser — you won’t be able to take advantage of these cool features.
Another new feature is Air Gestures. This uses the built-in IR sensor on the top of the phone to detect movement by your hand or finger. Using Air Gestures, you can flip between open tabs in Samsung’s browser app, skip to a new song in the music player, answer a call or even scroll through a web page.
In my tests, Air Gestures were much more difficult to reliably activate than Air View. Still, when they do work, the experience is kind of awesome. It’s like taking the best elements of Xbox Kinect, but putting it on a smaller screen. My favorite is the ability to answer a phone call by waving your hand and having it go straight to speaker phone. That’s a feature I could see lots of regular people using.
Samsung also has some new features, including Smart Scroll and Smart Pause. These features don’t include eye-tracking per se, but do monitor your facial movements — and in the case of Smart Scroll, the position of your wrist — to help better deliver content. Smart Pause can pause videos when your attention is turned away, and resume once you turn back, while Smart Scroll will automatically advance a webpage you’re reading as your eyes get closer to the bottom of the screen.
While they certainly sound cool, in practice, I think the Smart Pause and Smart Scroll features are a bit gimmicky — and I can’t see many people actively using them. It makes for a great demo, but the experience isn’t as fluid or seamless as it needs to be to be something that regular people will actually use.
One feature that is genuinely useful is the built-in universal remote control. Samsung has built IR ports into its tablets since the Galaxy Tab Plus back in 2011. The Galaxy S4 marks the first time we’re seeing the IR tech come to the phone itself. By putting an IR port on the phone, the Galaxy S4 becomes a really nice universal remote control.
Using Samsung’s revamped WatchOn software (which is still powered by Peel), users can configure different rooms of their home or office with different device types. Even better, the remote control functionality is not limited to Samsung products.
Getting the software to recognize the Sony TV in our office was a snap, as was the Scientific America cable box. That’s actually a big deal because the biggest barrier to most universal remote controls is the process of actually getting it to interact with your equipment.
Using Peel’s TV listing info, WatchOn even made it easy to create and access a good-looking electronic programming guide within the app.
What’s really nice about the remote control is that it can be configured as a notifications-screen widget on the lockscreen. This is awesome because it means you can continue to do your thing with the phone, leave it on the table and then pick it up to change a channel or turn the volume up or down.
To be clear: The remote capabilities with the Galaxy S4 aren’t going to match what you can get from the Logitech Harmony Touch, but it’s a solid offering with good design.
As for the WatchOn software, its new design is greatly improved, and the recommendations that can come from WatchOn or Netflix are both great.
For users with 2013 Samsung TVs: You can actually transfer live video from the TV to your Galaxy S4. We don’t have one of those to test, but the demos I’ve seen are very slick.
Call Quality, Data Speeds, Battery Life
My Galaxy S4 review unit was on Sprint’s network. Because I work in the Flatiron district of New York and live in Brooklyn, that means I’m virtually out of bounds of any of Sprint’s rumored 4G LTE coverage in the city. As a result, I couldn’t test LTE data speeds. Still, I have every reason to expect them to be on-par with what you can find on the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II.
Likewise, Sprint doesn’t have the best call quality in my testing areas, but when I was able to find good pockets of coverage, calls were crisp and clear on both sides.
When it comes to battery life, I walked away impressed by what the S4 had to offer. The phone packs a huge 2600 mAh battery; but keep in mind, this phone has a 5-inch full HD display and enough sensors and gizmos to drain anything quickly.
The good news is that when the phone isn’t in use — and is idle — it drains very little power. I found I was able to leave the phone on overnight in my laptop bag and it retained most of its juice the next morning. This was without running any sort of memory-management apps in Android and without enabling the handy Battery Saver mode.
Once you’re actually using the phone, battery life becomes a different story. When using some of the Air Gesture, Air View and Smart Scroll features, I noticed battery life disappearing at a hefty clip.
As with all smartphones, battery life can also get run down tremendously in areas with low or poor signal. Because I was testing a Sprint phone in New York City, that certainly had an impact on my usage.
I can’t give a qualitative battery figure, but I’d feel comfortable saying that the Galaxy S4 can last at least eight hours of normal usage. If you’re a heavy user, playing lots of games or have all the sensors enabled, that time can be cut back.
Software Modifications and the Samsung Hub
Although the Galaxy S4 ships with Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean — also known as the latest and greatest version of Android — Samsung has put their own imprint on the look and feel. The latest version of TouchWiz (Samsung’s name for their special skin) is its most cohesive yet.
I like some of the design changes, especially to the layout of the settings menu and app. I also like how the drop-down notification area can be customized and ordered for easy access to sensors and features.
Still, having extensively used Android 4.2.2 on a Galaxy Nexus — and thus getting the “pure” Android experience — not all of the changes are for the better. Controlling running applications works the same as on the Galaxy S III — long hold the home button — rather than using a dedicated soft-button as is standard in the pure Google experience.
Samsung has modified its keyboard. It looks and feels more like the stock Jelly Bean keyboard, and includes the number row on the top. It also includes SwiftKey predictive technology built-in. While this is great, for my use, I still prefer the stock Jelly Bean keyboard that Google ships with the Nexus 4.
Still, those are niggles and for most users, TouchWiz and the implementation of the Galaxy S4 will be both easy to recognize and use.
For new users, Samsung even has an Easy Mode that can be turned on or off. This is great for first-time smartphone users who don’t want to have to shuffle through lots of screens and options, and just want a more simplified experience.
For the last several years, Samsung has started to build out its own content ecosystem for music, movies, TV shows and books, as well as specific or highlighted apps. In the past, these apps all lived in different places and didn’t have a homogenous design.
That changes with the Galaxy S4 and the new Samsung Hub. The Samsung Hub is basically Samsung’s version of what Sony does with its Music and Video Unlimited apps. It’s also a competitor of sorts with Google Play.
With the Samsung Hub, it’s clear Samsung wants to try to create its own branded content ecosystem the same way Apple has with iTunes and the App Store.
My first impressions of the music, books and video store is that the selection is decent — if not overly stellar. While music and video prices are in line with what you’d find at other mobile stores, eBooks are more expensive. A copy of The Great Gatsby that is about $8 for the Amazon Kindle is $15 via the Samsung Hub.
Still, I mention the Samsung Hub because it now has a single sign-on and payment portal for content. Samsung has sold over 100 million Galaxy S devices — if the company can convert even a fraction of that audience into Samsung Hub users, it could be disruptive for Google. Moreover, I’d like to see what Samsung does with Hub integration on its consumer electronic devices such as TVs and Blu-ray players.
Wrapping Up: Everything and the Kitchen Sink
As I said at the start of my review, it’s hard to be concise when it comes to the Galaxy S4 because Samsung packed so much — both in software and hardware — into the device.
That’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it means that this is the most realized Samsung smartphone or tablet to date, and one of the first Android devices that ships with built-in apps, features and an ecosystem that can come close to matching what Apple has with iTunes and iOS.
It’s a curse because wading through the features and figuring out what is useful and what is a one-time gimmick is difficult. I’ve written nearly 3,000 words thus far, and I haven’t even mentioned every feature on the phone — including stuff such as the optical reader, Group Play for sharing music and games, the cloud backup and restore service or KNOX security.
If I have one criticism of the phone, it’s that there is too much here, and the execution isn’t even throughout. I would have almost preferred if Samsung focused on half of the features it put into the phone and really made sure they were awesome, rather than throwing everything into the mix.
It’s great to have a huge feature list for ads or for spec comparisons, but none of that matters if you aren’t actually going to use the features in day-to-day life.
Still, I can’t find many hard issues with the Galaxy S4. It’s undoubtedly the best Android phone on the market right now (unless you are absolutely reliant on a pure Google experience). Part of what makes it the best is that it’s from Samsung — the runaway leader in Android phone sales. Buying a Galaxy S4 — much like buying an iPhone — means buying into an ecosystem of accessories, supported apps and lots of fellow apps.
The Galaxy S III was a great phone. The Galaxy S4 is even better. If you have a Galaxy S III, fear not — many of the software features will come to that device and the Galaxy Note II in the future.
For new smartphone buyers seeking a high-end Android handset: The Galaxy S4 is easily one of the strongest phones on the market.
Are you interested in buying the Galaxy S4? Let us know in the comments
Galaxy S4 Lockscreen
The Galaxy S4 features a stunning 5-inch 1920×1080 display. That’s ful HD. The best part? The phone is the same physical size as the Galaxy S III.
Galaxy S4 Home Screen
Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay is more refined and polished. Underneath the Galaxy S4, it runs the latest version of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean.
Galaxy S4 View Cover
One our favorite early accessories for the Galaxy S4 is the Galaxy View Cover. The window on the front display time and date, call info and music playback. Plus, when you open the cover, it goes straight to the home screen — just like Apple’s Smart Cover.
Galaxy S4 Rear
The back of the Galaxy S4 features its 13-megapixel camera front and center. The rest of the back is fairly flat and very, very thin.
Galaxy S4 Left Side
Volume buttons are on the left side of the Galaxy S4.
Galaxy S4 Right Side
The right side of the Galaxy S4 contains a single power button.
Galaxy S4 Top
The top of the Galaxy S4 contains an earphone jack and an IR port.
Galaxy S4 Bottom
The bottom of the Galaxy S4 has a mini-USB connector.