Two months after its release, does the Galaxy S4 claim the title of 'best smartphone'?
There's no bigger player in the Android market right now than Samsung, and there's been no bigger device launch from the company than the Galaxy S4. While in many respects this smartphone is simply a refinement of the principles introduced with the Galaxy S III, it's still a significant enough refresh that keeps it firmly in the race for the top Android flagship.
But 2013 is a tougher market than Samsung has ever faced: HTC has set a strong precedent with the beautifully crafted HTC One, Sony's presence is stronger than ever with their Xperia Z, and Nokia continues to push their Windows Phones such as the Lumia 920 and Lumia 925. Has Samsung done enough with the Galaxy S4 to keep it in the race? Is it worth upgrading over a Galaxy S III? What innovation have we seen from Samsung this year around? Is it still worth it, two months on? All will be answered in due course.
A big shout-out this time to both Samsung and MobiCity, whose combined efforts have allowed me to review not only the more-prevalent Galaxy S4 i9505 with 4G LTE and Snapdragon processor, but also the 3G-only Exynos octa-core i9500 model. If you're after a smartphone and want it fast, unlocked and contract-free, look no further than the guys at MobiCity to provide a solid service in many locations around the globe.
As I mentioned above, this review will actually cover two different devices as I have both on hand. The i9500 is the internationally-available 3G model with Samsung's own Exynos 5 Octa processor, combining two quad-core processors together in a big.LITTLE setup; on the other hand the i9505 is the international 4G LTE model that packs Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 chipset that we've already seen in some phones such as the HTC One.
Aside from the radio and chipset differences between the two devices, there are a number of other subtle changes that you might not notice, and will be covered in more depth in a separate analysis. The camera sensors, for example, appear to be slightly different, and I'm not seeing the same range of Wi-Fi radios in the i9505 as the i9500.
Regardless, here's the full table of specifications as provided by Samsung.
|Samsung Galaxy S4|
HSPA+: 42 Mbps ↓ 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
LTE: 100 Mbps ↓ (up to) 6 bands (i9500 only)
5.0-inch Full HD Super AMOLED at 1920 x 1080
441 ppi pixel density
Samsung Exynos 5 Octa 5410
1.6 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A15 CPU
1.2 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 CPU
Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 APQ8064T
1.9 GHz quad-core Krait 300 CPU
16/32/64 GB internal storage
microSD card slot
Wi-Fi 802.11 ac/a/b/g/n (dual-band)
A-GPS and GLONASS
Rear: 13 MP | 1080p/30 video | BIS sensor | f/2.2 28mm lens | LED flash
Front: 2.0 MP | 1080p/30 video | BIS sensor
3.5mm audio jack
|Battery||Li-ion 2,600 mAh removable|
Android 4.2 'Jelly Bean'
|Launch Date||April 2013|
|Size & Weight||
136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm
|Price||Unlocked & Outright: AU$709 (Buy now!) | £500 inc. VAT|
Last year, when a Samsung Galaxy S III arrived in my hands, I slammed it for having a cheap build and a design that plainly didn't reflect the high-end cost of the device. Two months ago, the Samsung Galaxy S4 was unleashed on the world, and not a huge amount has changed in the year between devices: the design is largely the same, only featuring small changes that slightly differentiate it from its predecessor.
Before I get in to some of the more awful things about the Galaxy S4 design, let's talk about the good things. For starters, the overall look is slightly less rounded than that of the Galaxy S III; it doesn't quite fit with the modern look of smartphones (to me it seems like that other kid), but at least it's a very ergonomic design that fits well in your hand. It's not as tapered as past Samsung phones, but the curves still allow easy holding from your palm and fingers.
Samsung have managed to squeeze in a full 5.0-inch display into the front of the Galaxy S4, which is a slight increase on the 4.8-inch display of the Galaxy S III, but at no extra cost to the footprint of the phone. The space to include the extra screen real estate comes from the gap above the physical home button, which has been reduced and doesn't really affect the usability of the phone.
Again, keeping with the theme of ergonomics, Samsung has placed the power button on the upper right side of the phone - an extremely comfortable position considering the size of the phone - while the volume rocker sits on the upper left side. The top of the phone features both a 3.5mm audio jack and an infrared LED, the latter of which is used for some of the TV controlling features found in the software. The bottom has just the microUSB charging port, and a small hole for the microphone.
The back panel contains the 13-megapixel camera, a small flash beneath it and the repositioned speaker grill, which leaves its post beside the camera to shift to the bottom-left of the back. The new position doesn't affect the sound production even when the phone is on a table or in a pocket, and contributes to back panel having a cleaner design.
Along with various design changes between the Galaxy S III and Galaxy S4, the latter device has also managed to receive a slight fat trimming, slimming down to a reported 7.9mm from 8.6mm. I'm always skeptical of these measurements, because it's unclear exactly where they measure the thickness from, so I checked both values using a micrometer at the devices' thickest point (at the camera with its slight bump): the Galaxy S4 is actually 9.0mm thick, down from 9.3mm on the Galaxy S III. In the hand both devices feel reasonably thin (the Galaxy S4 body is actually 8.1mm thin), and you probably won't be able to ascertain any real difference between the thickness of them.
The Galaxy S4 (left) next to the Galaxy S III (right)
The Galaxy S4 features Gorilla Glass 3 on its front panel with a smooth, oleophobic coating, making it a joy to use the responsive touchscreen. My finger simply whooshes across the display with ease, and it's very easy to remove nasty fingerprints that may inhibit your viewing experience. Gorilla Glass 3 is also reportedly very strong and extremely scratch resistant, although to preserve the review unit I didn't go out of my way to test the strength of the glass.
The phone does not feel like a premium, $700 piece of hardware
Despite the ergonomics and the small improvements that Samsung has made to the design of the phone, the major complaint I had about the Galaxy S III has not been addressed: the phone does not feel like a premium, $700 piece of hardware. It's made of the same, ridiculously smooth plastic that feels like it comes straight from the packaging of a children's toy, albeit with slight diamond patterns that you can see in the right light.
The Galaxy S4 (bottom) against the Galaxy S III (top)
Take off the back panel and the cheapness is even more pronounced, as it would take basically no effort to bend and snap the flimsy piece of
crap plastic that protects the battery and other internal components. Up against the HTC One, Sony Xperia Z, Apple iPhone 5 and Nokia Lumia 925 - some of its biggest competitors - it's barely a competition in terms of build quality.
The Galaxy S4 (left and bottom) next to the HTC One (top right)
Samsung have tried their hardest to make the phone look visually impressive, but it simply isn't. The curves appear outdated compared to other phones, the aforementioned cheap plastic keeps the phone from feeling 'premium' and the metal-colored rim that goes around the edge adds no wow-factor whatsoever. The sensor array on the front panel also looks like a mess that doesn't integrate well with the rest of the otherwise neat arrangement of elements, and becomes another failure of Samsung's design team.
Perhaps the design choice that disappoints me the most about the Galaxy S4 is the arrangement and selection of hardware buttons below the device. First of all is the back button, located on the right of the home button; a position which no non-Samsung phone in existence uses and immediately confuses anyone used to a different button arrangement. The only reason I can think that this position was chosen is that it's easier to reach than the other hardware button located to the left, and it's a hard position to reach only because the buttons are so far down the front of the phone.
What button is this? It's menu, the legacy Android button that was killed off with the release of Android 4.0 and a button that, for whatever terrible reason, Samsung refuses to kill. As many apps updated in the past year have coded an in-app menu button, as per the Android design guidelines, the button is largely redundant and better replaced by a recent apps/app switching button. Learning to make quick use of app switching greatly improves your productivity with a smartphone, as I experienced with the Xperia Z, but instead Samsung makes you hold down the home button.
Although Samsung has produced a generally ergonomic phone with some minor improvements over the Galaxy S III, keeping almost the same design with a cheap, non-premium construction leaves me feeling extremely disappointed with Samsung and the Galaxy S4. I've used a HTC One and I know what the upper end of smartphone designs can be, so come the inevitable Galaxy S5 I urge Samsung to reconsider the cheap, plastic aesthetics.
Like most Samsung smartphones before it, the Galaxy S4 uses a Super AMOLED display straight from the Samsung factory, although this time around - as you'd expect for a current-gen high-end phone - we're seeing a brand new and improved panel. Samsung is calling this panel a "Full HD Super AMOLED display", although we all know this to be a 5.0-inch 1920 x 1080 AMOLED display with an integrated digitizer and PenTile RGBG subpixel matrix.
From the moment this display was turned on before my eyes, it was clear that this is the best AMOLED panel I've ever seen. From the perspective of crispness, you simply can't go past a 1080p panel when you have a display of five inches: 441 pixels per inch produces images so sharp that it's easy to mistake this display for a printed image, and it makes reading text on the display an absolute joy.
Of course this isn't the first time I've used a display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080, as Sony uses a 1080p eIPS LCD panel at the same size on the Xperia Z, while HTC packs an even more impressive pixel density into the 4.7-inch 1080p Super LCD 3 display on the HTC One. As the Galaxy S4 uses an infamous PenTile RGBG subpixel matrix for its display, compared to the more traditional RGB stripe array in most other displays, a comparison between these three flagships is inevitable.
The truth is that, compared to the Xperia Z and HTC One displays, I can see the difference in crispness between a PenTile 1080p display and an RGB 1080p display, even at 441 PPI. Samsung's Full HD Super AMOLED lacks a minute amount of clarity and sharpness around high-contrast edges such as text and icons compared to, say, the Xperia Z, but whether or not you'll be able to tell is another question.
Despite the very small differences caused by the PenTile subpixel arrangement, there's no way I'd outright call the Galaxy S4's display bad, or even sub-par compared to other panels you can find on the market. You're still getting a fantastically crisp display with a ridiculous resolution, which you'll be very impressed with, PenTile or not.
One area I was particularly impressed with the Galaxy S4's display was in the brightness
One area I was particularly impressed with the Galaxy S4's display was in the brightness and outdoor visibility. AMOLED panels are known not to be as bright as their LCD counterparts, but with this new-generation display from Samsung, a lot of my past complaints seem to have been addressed. When it needs to be, the Full HD Super AMOLED can push itself to be very bright, and where it doesn't, automatic brightness pushes it way down so you don't hurt your eyes.
Outdoors I had barely any issues with visibility in direct sunlight, which is thanks to very few layers of material between the light-emitting diodes and the outer glass on the device. By reducing refraction and reflection, and coupling this with a reasonably bright AMOLED panel and a few sun-reducing filters, the Galaxy S4 is one of the easiest phones to use where there's a lot of background light or strong sun.
In terms of color reproduction and contrast, the Galaxy S4's AMOLED display performs very well, vibrantly displaying images and videos on the large five-inch panel. Contrast is, as always with AMOLEDs, superb thanks to deep blacks from the lack of a backlight in this sort of display, and viewing angles are extremely good as well.
There are a number of display modes included in the Galaxy S4's software that control how the display looks, but I preferred to set the screen mode to Normal, disable adapt display and turn off auto adjust screen tone. To my eyes this made the display look the best, but you do have the option to play around with a few settings and you may find you prefer one of the other modes.
While the Galaxy S4 display is in most respects a very solid panel, comparing to some of the latest IPS LCD offerings - especially the Super LCD 3 on the HTC One - the Full HD Super AMOLED just lacks a wow-factor that is present with these other displays. Images on the Galaxy S4 are quite vibrant and generally look very good, but the same scene on an IPS LCD can look even better. It's nothing to make a huge fuss about, although it's something to keep in mind when deciding between this phone and others in your local store.
Following in the footsteps of Nokia's Lumia 920, the Galaxy S4 includes a high-sensitivity touch mode for increasing the power sent to the digitizer, allowing you to use the touchscreen with gloves on. I don't recommend leaving the feature on all the time, as you can increase your battery life with it disabled, but where needed it will allow you to use your smartphone with gloves on. And even during normal usage without high-sensitivity enabled, the touchscreen is extremely responsive and easy to use.
The Galaxy S4's display may not be the best display going around, but it's a definite improvement over past generations of Super AMOLEDs, and you'll generally find yourself very satisfied with what Samsung has delivered in this department.
There's a few areas to be annoyed about with the design of the Galaxy S4, but that pales in comparison to some of absolutely atrocious decisions made on the software front. Throughout the few months I've been using a Galaxy S4, it often amazed me just how horrible some of the software is, rarely improving on the software in the Galaxy S III.
For starters, the Galaxy S4 features Android 4.2.2 with Samsung's custom (and often terrible) TouchWiz skin slapped on the top. If an OEM is going to introduce a skin on top of stock Android, which is quite visually appealing and in keeping with modern times, it must improve on what is already offered by Google. TouchWiz is a step backwards in both design and, in some cases, features; the complete opposite of an ideal skin situation.
Few changes have been made between the Galaxy S III's TouchWiz and the Galaxy S4's TouchWiz, so all the odd design inconsistencies remain. It's still very colorful, there are still odd gradients and drop shadows around the operating system and its apps, and it clashes badly with the Google-made apps on the phone such as Gmail, Search and YouTube.
Directly looking at the software on this and last generation's Galaxy S'es reveals that the gradients and drop shadows are less pronounced on the GS4, but they are still there. You'll be looking at the contacts app, with its flat-UI tabs and generally clean design, and then you'll notice the odd buttons with gradients. Why does one button have a gradient when all the others don't? Why are some of the icons flat but others appear to be somewhat 3D-rendered?
Why does one button have a gradient when all the others don't?
Text seems to have been improved in this round of TouchWiz, likely to make use of the crisp 1080p display, opting for thinner lines which do actually look better (surprisingly). Most other elements, including widgets, are basically straight-up copies of the past version of TouchWiz optimized for a higher resolution display, so if you're coming from a Galaxy S III there's little to get excited about.
Moving on to some of the 'features' of the Galaxy S4, and at Samsung's launch event for the device they made a big deal out of the various sensing features that are available in the phone's software. The most impressive one was the Smart Screen, improved with the Galaxy S4 to make even more use of the front facing camera and its ability to detect eyes looking at the screen.
Returning from the Galaxy S3 is Smart Stay, which turns the display off only when you're not looking at it, along with Smart Pause that pauses a video in the stock Videos app when you're no longer looking at the phone. Smart Rotation uses similar technology to prevent the phone from rotating when it seems your eyes are still in the same orientation. All these features work acceptably provided you're in decent lighting and have visible eyes, although they don't add a huge amount to the overall experience.
The fourth Smart Screen feature and obviously the most gimmicky of them all is Smart Scroll, which detects when your eyes are looking at the top or bottom of the display and scrolls either way accordingly. Unsurprisingly this feature is useless, as it not only fails to work in most situations, often detecting eyes looking towards the bottom of the display when I'm in fact looking at the middle, but it also only works in the stock Browser and Email apps. If you use Chrome or Gmail (also included on the phone), or literally any other app it doesn't work at all, meaning it's essentially just a feature Samsung can use to market the phone.
Unsurprisingly the Smart Scroll feature is useless
But the gimmicks don't stop with Smart Screen, there's also Air View, a feature that uses the capabilities of the highly sensitive touchscreen to display information when you hover your finger above certain elements. It apparently allows you to magnify text in the browser, preview information and images, as well as see extended progress reports when you hover your finger, but again this feature is limited to a few stock apps, and often I had absolutely no idea when I could hover my finger to make use of Air View.
This meant that when I had Air View enabled, I often hovered my finger over the display for absolutely no reason, expecting extra information to magically appear as I was lead to believe in the settings. It does work occasionally in apps such as the Gallery, but it's better to save yourself some battery and effort by disabling the feature and simply tapping on objects to get what you're after.
Motion, gesture and voice controls can all also be added to list of gimmicks, as it's plainly easier to control your phone normally than make use of the sensors for a few actions. Using the accelerometer to pan and zoom brings more problems than its worth, capturing the screen with a palm swipe only seems to work some of the time, and voice controls are still too inaccurate and too slow to bother using.
Aside from the regular gesture controls, there's an extra section for "Air Gestures", which allows you to wave your hand above the proximity sensor to activate various things. The best one of these features is the Quick Glance: on a desk, if you wave your hand above your resting phone, it will show you quick stats about the phone. That said, most of the others I never found myself using as it's once again easier to simply tap at the screen than try and activate the proximity sensor.
One of the better aspects of the Galaxy S4's software is Blocking Mode, a feature that turns off certain notifications between times you set, allowing you to get a good night's sleep uninterrupted by incoming calls or messages. I'm not sure why it comes with a persistent notification to tell you that it's enabled, but it's a handy feature if you keep your phone charging right beside your bed.
In the notification pane I also appreciated how Samsung included a bunch of quick setting toggles, in fact a lot of quick setting toggles that control nearly all the important features of the phone without you having to venture deep into the vast expanse of settings. The ability to rearrange them also comes in handy, so you can keep your most used toggles in the most visible area.
Oh, and before I dive into some of the apps you can find on the Galaxy S4, the out-of-the-box configuration must be mentioned: it's absolutely horrendous. Whoever decided that touch sound should be enabled by default must answer for their crimes against humanity, as the GS4 makes a ridiculous amount of noises from the word go.
And to make things worse, the keyboard has predictive text disabled by default, which is absolutely necessary for typing quickly on this cramped Samsung keyboard, and one of the worst default configuration options I've ever seen. Even with predictive text enabled like it should be, the keyboard is quite hard to type on, and I'd suggest opting for a third-party alternative such as the stock Android keyboard or my personal favorite, SwiftKey.
Your basic apps included with the phone - Contacts, Messaging, Email, Phone, Internet, Calculator, Clock and Gallery - are largely unchanged from past iterations and should present no surprises or exciting features for those used to the way these apps operate on other smartphones. Most of them do a decent job at what they're supposed to do, although all of them are skinned for no discernible reason other than to change up what Google concocted in stock Android.
The other apps included on the phone are where things get more interesting, and I'll start with the good ones. Music is a decent music playing app with some handy features such as the Music Square, a mood selection device that is useful for finding the exact right type of music you want to listen to, and the usual lyric support.
WatchOn allows you to control your TV via the infrared LED on the top of the device, and it seemed to work fine with a number of TVs and set-top boxes located around my house. The TV guide also included with the app is a little lackluster as it doesn't have support for Australia's cable TV networks, and the design isn't as good as HTC's rival app on the HTC One.
S Planner is awful. Like really, really monstrously terrible. Download Google Calendar from the Play Store and banish Samsung's horrific excuse for a calendar app to Android app hell.
Other "S" apps include S Memo, which we've seen before on the Galaxy Note range, S Translator (simply not as good as Google Translate), S Health for managing your fitness, and S Voice for dodgy voice controls. There's also Samsung Apps, which is a terrible app store that I don't really understand why is included, as the Google Play Store has a far better selection with a faster and cleaner interface.
Samsung was lazy with the Galaxy S4's software
At the end of the day I feel like Samsung was lazy with the Galaxy S4's software: it's like they thought the Galaxy S III's software was good enough, so they'd just slap on some new gimmicks and let a phenomenal marketing budget do the selling work. There's no doubting that the Galaxy S4 will sell very well, but a chance to refine and improve the experience from the S III has gone missing, leaving the software in a disappointing, often bad state.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 i9500 may pack a state-of-the-art Samsung Exynos 5 Octa chipset, including two different quad-core CPUs, but my feelings regarding its performance are definitely mixed. On the one hand, it's an extremely fast and very capable processor that cuts through tasks with little effort, and on the other it feels like a prototype chipset that's not quite ready for the mass market of everyday smartphone users.
As I primarily used the i9500 model during my testing, the majority of this performance section deals with the Exynos 5 Octa chipest, but rest assured that I'll briefly talk about what you can find in the 4G-enabled Snapdragon 600 model.
I stress that only one of these two CPUs can be used at a time, meaning only a maximum of four cores are ever used at once
The Exynos 5 Octa 5410 is the first chipset in a commercially available smartphone that uses ARM's big.LITTLE model, which combines a high-powered Cortex-A15 CPU with an energy-efficient Cortex-A7 CPU. In Samsung's design, were seeing a 1.6 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A15 CPU combined with a 1.2 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 CPU; the two CPUs combine to make it technically an octa-core chipset, but I stress that only one of these CPUs can be used at a time, meaning only a maximum of four cores are ever used at once, or ever seen by the operating system.
The supposed advantages of the big.LITTLE model revolve around power conservation, in that the chipset can switch from the A15 cores during high-powered tasks (think web browsing and gaming) to the A7 cores when tasks aren't so intense. The Exynos 5 Octa automatically does the switching for you, apparently choosing to use the A7s when playing music and idling.
The good news is that I never noticed the switching taking place, so there were never any real slowdowns that I could immediately relate to some sort of processor switch over. The bad news is that I didn't really see a clear advantage to the Exynos 5 Octa over the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 in battery life, but more on that will be explored later.
Using the Galaxy S4 for regular phone tasks - whether it was the Snapdragon or Exynos model - the chipset certainly feels very fast, zooming in and out of apps in mere milliseconds and churning through games and webpages like there's no tomorrow. It's not really significantly faster than its predecessor, in fact in many ways you likely won't notice the extra power from the latest ARM CPUs, but it's definitely there when it's needed.
Interestingly, out of the two Galaxy S4 models I used throughout the testing period, the Snapdragon model actually felt marginally smoother to use. This is because there were strange, inconsistent and infrequent occurrences where the Exynos-touting i9500 exhibited lag, almost like the processor decided mid-way through swiping across homescreens that it would send tasks to the slower A7 cores, only to have it immediately switch back to the A15s after it obviously couldn't cope.
Out of the two Galaxy S4 models I used throughout the testing period, the Snapdragon model actually felt marginally smoother to use
Also, directly comparing the browser performance of Chrome on the i9500 to the Snapdragon-touting i9505 reveals that, in scrolling, the i9505 is simply smoother and more consistent with its performance. Switching between tabs is where this difference is particularly noticeable, as the i9505 renders the animations more smoothly and switches faster than the i9500.
Oh, and the i9500 crashed a lot, and I mean a lot. Usually the crashes would be related to opening the camera, switching cameras to the front camera, or using an app that was about to access the camera, but occasionally the phone would simply hang and soon enough it would be rebooting. I'm sure a quick software update could rectify these issues, but in the meantime it's absolutely unacceptable to have any smartphone crash on you on a daily basis.
While the i9500 may be hard to recommend over the i9500 from the point of its instability and occasional inconsistent performance, let's take a look at the benchmarks of both devices to see which one is actually faster.
The stock browser on the Galaxy S4 i9505 seems not to have been optimized particularly well, as it falls behind the HTC One - which has the same chipset - and the Exynos-powered i9500 in Peacekeeper. While the i9500 carries the lead in this test, it still falls behind the iPhone 5, although it's well above all Windows Phones.
In Vellamo, which is Qualcomm's own benchmark, the i9505 takes a very slight edge over the i9500, coming in with a 5% performance advantage. Again, despite the same chipset, the HTC One comes out performing better than the Galaxy S4 i9505 for whatever reason.
Testing out the graphics chips of the two devices sees the two devices neck and neck in the Egypt 2.5 test; neither the PowerVR SGX544MP3 in the i9500 or the Adreno 320 in the i9505 had a clear advantage. I wasn't particularly impressed to see both devices get the same score, so I fired up a second graphics benchmark, this time the far more graphically intense T-Rex HD benchmark, with all the phones I had in my office.
When times got tough, the Adreno 320 showed a slight lead on the SGX544MP3, on average pushing out 3 FPS more in this test (confirmed by results from the HTC One). It was a close battle though, unlike last time there were two Galaxy S III models, which shows that while the i9505 is very slightly faster, people with both models should be satisfied.
Speaking of graphics, on both Galaxy S4s I tested a range of the latest GPU-busting smartphone games for some real world tests including Real Racing 3 and Modern Combat 4, and the graphics cores in both chipsets suit gamers well. Never did I experience a slowdown in a game I was testing, even though the GPU has to render to a 1080p display, usually pushing out 60 frames per second. The five inch display also provides a decent amount of real estate for those looking to game on a regular basis.
The graphically intense T-Rex benchmark made the Galaxy S4 struggle
Apart from just the chipset performance of the Galaxy S4, the storage situation should also be noted. Both the i9500 and i9505 I tested were 16 GB models, which is the lowest storage capacity available, and of course not all the 16 GB is available for use, with a huge amount taken up for the system software; I was left with 8.90 GB and 9.23 GB on the i9500 and i9505 respectively, both with the latest system software that reportedly reduced the storage footprint of said system software.
Despite the fact that the Galaxy S4 contains a microSD card slot, around 9 GB of free space on the device itself is still not a huge amount. After just one game install (Modern Combat 4) my free space was reduced to 5.5 GB, and although you can move apps to the SD card if you're really struggling for space, it comes at the cost of performance due to decreased I/O speeds.
While the performance of the various radios in the Galaxy S4 i9505, which includes the faster 4G LTE radios, was perfectly fine, once again I had a few issues with the Exynos-touting Galaxy S4 i9500. Whenever cell reception dropped to one or fewer bars and connections became dodgy, the i9500 had problems regaining a stable connection once the signal improved: for example after leaving a train station with notoriously bad signal and returning to an area with full coverage, data requests would simply not complete until I turned mobile data off and then back on in the phone's settings.
It's extremely frustrating to see strong mobile reception in the status bar of the phone, only to have perpetual loading in the browser and other internet-connected apps until action is taken to reset the network connection. It's an issue I've never experienced outside of other Samsung phones (from memory the Galaxy Note II had occasional but similar connectivity issues), although thankfully I couldn't replicate it on the Snapdragon-powered, and much more prevalent i9505.
Of the two Galaxy S4 models I was testing throughout the review period, the Snapdragon model is the one I would prefer to use on a regular basis: it's considerably more stable, just as perceptibly fast as the "octa-core" Exynos model and touting LTE for those who have access to it. On a more general note, the phone is clearly very fast and very capable of providing a smooth experience, although the difference compared to the last generation of phones is less pronounced than it has been in the past; an upgrade from the Galaxy S III for the performance alone is an unwise move at this stage.
I'm not going to beat about the bush when it comes to the camera on the Galaxy S4: it's outstanding, in fact it's one of the best I've seen on a smartphone of late. I believe (but Samsung hasn't confirmed to me) that the Galaxy S4 uses a Sony Exmor RS sensor, and taking a look at the information from the camera it looks like Samsung is using the best combination available to them: the IMX135 sensor combined with the IU135F3-Z lens module.
Most aspects of this camera combination are the same as the Sony Xperia Z: you get a 13.13 megapixel sensor with 1.12 μm pixels (compared to 1.4 μm on the Lumia 925 and 2.0 μm on the HTC One), 1080p30 video as well as 1080p HDR video; lens wise there is a 28mm effective f/2.2 lens with five elements, a slight upgrade from the f/2.4 lens on the Xperia Z, but combined with some improvements on the post-processing end by Samsung the results come in slightly better than Sony's flagship.
Starting with the camera in good lighting conditions, this is where the Galaxy S4 really shines. 13 megapixels provides plenty of crispness into photos when they're donwnsized to normal viewing sizes, and the sensor plus lens combination provides some really good quality images, even when there might be a lot of contrast in lighting. Here are some of the highlights from my Galaxy S4 camera testing in near-perfect conditions.
View this photo full sized here
When the Galaxy S4 was taken indoors or the conditions became more cloudy outdoors, the f/2.2 lens (which lets in more light than the f/2.4 lens on the Xperia Z) managed to produce some decent shots, not of the same caliber as the good conditions shots, but still above average for a smartphone. The biggest difference with indoor shots appears to be that colors are slightly less vibrant than you would expect for the lighting in the room, but again, photos can still be visually stunning.
When conditions start to get tougher, such as when light is approaching 'low light' conditions eg. under lights at night, the Galaxy S4 prefers to push up the ISO to keep images sharp, as opposed to attempting a long exposure. This is a better choice for this camera module, as it doesn't contain optical image stabilization (OIS) that phones such as the Lumia 925 have, although grain starts to creep in where the Lumia thrives. The results end up being acceptable and still usable, but not as good as devices with OIS.
When you step outside into the streets at night - times where the low-light champions such as the Lumia 925 and HTC One flex their muscles - the Galaxy S4's smaller pixels and lack of OIS takes its toll, despite the f/2.2 lens, producing shots that are often blurry and very grainy. If you plan on taking a lot of your photos at night, this camera is perhaps not for you, although don't ignore the wonderful daylight performance.
Now all the shots taken above are were from the standard Auto mode, and that's just one of a number of modes that the camera has. A few of them we've seen before such as Beauty Face (enhances facial features), Best Photo (takes a burst shot and then you can select the best one), Best Face (similar to Best Photo but you can choose the best faces), Panorama, Sports (uses a quick shutter speed), and Night (uses a long shutter speed).
One of the more interesting modes is the Rich Tone (HDR) mode, which is one of the best HDR implementations I've seen in a smartphone. Essentially it takes two photos very quickly, one with high exposure and one with low exposure, and merges them together to deliver high dynamic range (HDR). Below are the results with (top) and without (bottom) HDR mode enabled in high contrast situations, and you can see that the HDR mode really enhances the normally dark areas, providing considerably more detail, although it can be at the expense of vibrancy.
Another one of the cool modes is the Animated Photo mode, which takes a short video and allows you to highlight what you want to move, before it automatically creates a GIF image for you. Below I've included what the phone produces (it's normally a 780 x 440 image), and the results are actually pretty good so long as you hold the phone very still.
Two other features that you might find handy are the Eraser and Drama modes, which again make use of burst shots to either remove moving objects (in the case of the Eraser) or put multiple images into the shot (in the case of Drama mode). Occasionally the phone doesn't recognize moving objects, but when it does the results are very good.
Moving on to the last camera feature I'd like to look at, and that's the various filters that can instantly be applied to photos during the shooting process. The processor inside the Galaxy S4 is more than capable of live-rendering a video stream with added effects, and you can choose from a large number including artist-style and Instagram-style filters. I've included two below for your viewing pleasure.
Moving on to video, and the Galaxy S4 delivers some outstanding quality, with crisp visuals and very good colors for a smartphone video, also including very crisp audio from dual microphones. Unfortunately the phone lacks optical image stabilization, so if you're moving about the video can be a little shaky, but otherwise I was very impressed with what the S4 delivers in the video recording department.
As far as Android cameras go, the Galaxy S4 is one of the best, if not the best going around, and I can't see how anyone would be disappointed with it considering the daylight performance, video capabilities and abundance of features.
In the past, Samsung has done quite well in delivering a phone that has great media capabilities, and with the Galaxy S4 it's really no exception. I'll start with the rear speaker on the device, and while it's no BoomSound, it does a satisfactory job of what it's needed for: notifications, ringtones and speakerphone. you'll be able to hear the Galaxy S4 when you want to, although you definitely won't want to play any serious music through the speaker, as the quality is terrible (as expected).
Through headphones attached to the 3.5mm audio jack at the top of the device, the audio quality is very good, delivering crisp and balanced tones for the most part. There are a few preset equalizer options available under the SoundAlive menu, but I tended to prefer just leaving this on normal as the alterations from other modes weren't particularly to my liking. Unfortunately Samsung hasn't included a full graphic equalizer, so you can't fine tune the sound from the device, instead having to stick with the aforementioned SoundAlive options.
Volume-wise the Galaxy S4 can deliver some of the loudest audio through earphones that I've seen from a phone to date, with my preferred listening volume just slightly below the half way point in the slider. Anything getting above two-thirds volume seems to be ridiculously loud, which means there's ample room for amplifying songs and videos where necessary, although be careful not to accidentally leave it too loud and then destroy your eardrums when you do go back to playing regular music.
There's ample room for amplifying songs and videos where necessary
When it comes to videos, the five inch Full HD display is one of the best you can get at the moment for real estate and resolution for viewing pleasure, and I was glad to see that Samsung backs this up with a healthy array of codec support. I had no problems playing back unconverted 480p, 720p and 1080p content in the stock Video app, and the phone seemed perfectly capable of decoding a range of formats (including MKV) and codecs (including multi-channel audio).
New to my phone testing routine are 4K Ultra HD videos (3840 x 2160), which provides a real test for current hardware as most phones already do quite well playing back up to 1080p content. With the Galaxy S4, the stock video playing app unfortunately only decides to decode the audio stream of 4K videos, so I turned to MX Player for some tough decoding work. Both the Exynos and Snapdragon phones try their hardest to decode the video stream, but the end result is jittery and without audio sync. Perhaps this generation of phones is not quite ready for super high resolution video.
Despite the hiccups in getting 4K video to render correctly on the Galaxy S4, it's otherwise a very capable phone that should satisfy your needs for both playing music and videos where necessary. The headphones in the box are also reasonably good quality with interchangeable earbud sizes, so don't neglect this phone as a capable media player.
Samsung is one of the few companies still including removable batteries in their high-end smartphones, which may sway the hot-swappers out there towards purchasing the Galaxy S4; the phone includes a 2,600 mAh 9.88 Wh removable lithium-ion battery. A quick pry of the flimsy back cover reveals the fairly large battery sitting in plain sight, and it's generally very easy to remove.
Whether you end up with the Exynos or Snapdragon model, both deliver satisfactory battery life, keeping on par with smartphones from other companies without delivering significantly more. Out and about in my usual day of usage, which features several hours of data use plus a few messages and some light camera use, the Galaxy S4 lasted around 10 hours - enough to get through my time away from a charger, but nothing to write home about.
Interestingly I found that the Qualcomm-powered model lasted around an hour longer on average than the model with Samsung internals, despite the extra A7 cores included in the Exynos 5 Octa specifically for reducing power consumption and lengthening battery life. This extra battery life is handy when you come into LTE range, as the faster radios require more power and will likely end up levelling the playing field between the two devices battery life wise.
A number of you are also probably wanting to know what effect the range of gimmicky sensing features has on the battery life of the Galaxy S4. If you turn every single one of them on, which ends up continually polling the proximity sensor and accelerometer as well as occasionally using the front facing camera, I found my battery life to be reduced by approximately 15%. As the features don't enhance the experience considerably, the extra 15% of life you can gain from turning them all off is a better choice.
Below are the results from both Galaxy S4 models in our battery life rundown test, which sees a phone placed in airplane mode while a 720p video is looped at 75% brightness until the phone dies.
The average battery life is 8 hours in this test; phones that score above this generally have good battery life in real world usage
As you can see, the i9505 performed significantly better in the battery life test, gaining an extra three hours on the i9500 despite the same brightness, same settings, same display, same battery size and basically same everything apart from the processor. This difference, as I mentioned before, translates into real world usage as well, gaining around an hour of extra use in normal conditions.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is an odd combination of the best phone Samsung has ever made, and an opportunity gone missing to address the issues with the previous model. There's no doubting the Full HD Super AMOLED display looks crisp and generally fantastic, or that the performance from either the Snapdragon 600 or Exynos 5 Octa chipset is right up there at the top - you won't be disappointed with either of these areas.
And let's not forget the outstanding camera, with fantastic results from both the video recording mode and also daylight photographs. Complementing this is a wealth of great features that you'll genuinely find yourself using and experimenting with, including one of the best HDR modes I've seen in recent times.
The two areas I wasn't as impressed with the Galaxy S4 was in the design and software. In both areas Samsung failed to address the issues that arose with its predecessor, the Galaxy S III, and although there are some improvements to both, it simply feels like the Samsung design team were being lazy. Luckily the design remains quite ergonomic and many of the software issues can be addressed through tweaks and third-party software, otherwise I wouldn't be as positive about the overall experience with the flagship device.
It simply feels like the Samsung design team were being lazy
You'll notice below that I've given two separate scores for the Exynos-powered Galaxy S4 i9500 and Snapdragon-powered Galaxy S4 i9505, and that's due to a few simple facts. The i9505 has better battery life, support for both HSPA+ and LTE netwroks, essentially equal performance and considerably better system stability. Choosing between the two is a no-brainer, and I'm glad to see the i9505 is the more widely available phone across the globe.
Is this phone the best choice on the market today? It's certainly very good in most areas, and anyone purchasing it should be quite happy with the overall experience, but I'm tending to lean towards it not carrying the crown of best smartphone. What phone I think is better, though, will have to be left until another time...
The Samsung Galaxy S4 was reviewed thanks to a combined effort from Samsung, who provided the i9505, and MobiCity, who provided the i9500. Both devices were fully updated at the time of writing and publication.
→ Buy the Samsung Galaxy S4 i9505 from MobiCity, unlocked and SIM free!
→ Buy the Samsung Galaxy S4 i9500 from MobiCity, unlocked and SIM free!
→ Official Galaxy S4 website
→ It's predecessor: the Galaxy S III review
→ Follow me on Twitter
47 Comments - Add comment