Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 (GT-I9500)
The Galaxy S4 is flying off the shelves all around the world. We’ve had the device for a while now thanks to Samsung Mobile UK, and it’s about time we shared some of our thoughts and opinions about the device. We’ll go over some of the key features offered by the Galaxy S4, and discuss how useful we think they are and where this device sits in the current market. Of course, this is just our opinion, so make sure you let us know what you think in the comments!
For a full tech specs, check out our compare section and select the model relevant to your country.
The Box – What’s Inside
It’s pretty silly to include a “box” in a review for a phone. Ultimately this is just a container which the Galaxy S4 arrives in. However, the ritual of unpacking and unboxing has become so much a part of receiving a new device that it’s hard avoid.
Fortunately for the Galaxy S4, it comes in fairly interesting box (as far as boxes go!). Everything is made of 100% recycled and recyclable paper and cardboard apart from a couple of bits of plastic that contain the headphones protect the device. Furthermore, the ink which is printed on the box is made out of full biodegradable “Soy ink” which is certainly a nice touch!
For versions of the Galaxy S4 outside of Korea, you will get the basic device, headphones (with different sized earbuds), Wall plug with detachable USB cable and a quick start guide/warranty information.
Within Korea, unfortunately for the rest of the world, you are treated to an extra spare battery, cases and the official Samsung charging dock accessory. I’m not sure how aware the rest of the world is that the Korean market gets so much extra for a comparable price – but personally I think we should make a sing and dance about it so that the rest of us get more free goodies!
Design – On the Outside
For all intents and purposes, the Galaxy S4’s design is a smaller Galaxy Note 2 with a little more refinement around the outside. It certainly is a natural evolution in the design line following on from the Galaxy Nexus –> Galaxy S3 –> Galaxy Note 2 and I have to say I much prefer it to the Galaxy S3 which was a bit too bottom-bulged and bug-eyed for my liking. Having said that, on offering the Galaxy S4 up for inspection by friends and family, even some of the more technologically-and-mobile-interested among them found it difficult to tell that this was a new phone, or any different from its previous iterations. I suppose if you are spending a lot of money on something new and fancy like a Galaxy S4, you might want it to stand out a be a bit different and. Although it’s nice looking, it’s not very different looking which might be a problem for those who take pleasure in superficiality.
If you ignore the confusing and conflicting messages offered by Samsung’s design team, it’s hard to fault the device on looks and functionality and although we’re sure the sales figures will agree with us, the design seems to be a popular ranting point for more vocal internetarians.
Currently the Galaxy S4 comes in black and white. Or, if you are so inclined: “Black Mist” and “White Frost”. Hmmmmm….. anyway… while both devices have a carbon-fibresque dotted finish to them it’s not very apparent on the white model: it’s much more visible on the black. More colours such as arctic blue will be announced and available in the months to come.
Of course, in true Samsung fashion, the entire device is
‘polycarbonate plastic. This seems to anger the more outspoken people on the internet who go nuts for words like “brushed aluminium” and “unibody”.
OK – sure – considering how much you are paying for a device it would be nice to see something that looks like it costs a bit more, but it would also be nice to get better and faster GPS locks which is what you get with a plastic outer body. Also, and let’s be honest here, the first thing you do with an expensive device like a Galaxy S4 is to buy a (probably cheap and plastic) case to ‘protect’ it… so it’s not like you’re going to be looking at it that brushed aluminium all day anyway!
Samsung have gone some way to appease the brushed-aluminium fanboys, by including a what-looks-like-brushed-aluminium-but-is-actually-plastic “band” round the outside of the device. This does actually look really nice, and more importantly gives a much better grip in the hand compared to its more rounded and more slippery predecessors.
The Galaxy S4 is a behemoth of a device when it comes to hardware. Packing either a 1.9Ghz Quad Core or 1.6Ghz Octa-Core processor (depending on which version you get) and 2GB of RAM it currently outbenchmarks almost all of the competition in terms of pure grunt. The 2GB of RAM ensures that you will be able to multi-task and switch between apps with ease.
I could go on for some time about all the different benchmark scores, but ultimately that isn’t really significant. Let’s ask a few questions:
- Can the Galaxy S4 play games really well without lag? Yes.
- Can the Galaxy S4 do lots of multitasking without the device slowing down? Yes.
- Is there really anything that the Galaxy S4 can run that the Galaxy S3, Note 2 or even the S2 cannot? No… but it can do them faster!
- Will everyone buy the Galaxy S4 because we like newer and more shiny things? Yes!!!
For the majority of users, this added processing power is actually somewhat redundant. Of course, there are the power users among us who like to ogle over tech-specs or whatever but all you really need to know is that with the current state of apps offered on the Android platform, the Galaxy S4 offers a very future-proof hardware solution that will undoubtedly be able to run even more hardware-demanding applications released in the years to come.
Interface and Operating System
The Galaxy S4 runs on Android version 4.2.2 with Samsung’s own “TouchWiz Nature UX” overlayed on top. Google’s Android is the most widely used operating system and highly revered for its high levels of customisation and personalisation. With access to hundreds of thousands of applications, games, books, magazines and movies through Google’s own “Google Play”, with many other third-party vendors like Samsung’s own services: if you want an App to do something then it almost certainly already exists. If you want a book, movie, TV show or anything else, then you can get that to. If you can’t get it, or the App you want doesn’t seem to exist… then you might be in a good position to make a bit of money!
Samsung’s TouchWiz interface brings a lot of added benefits to users, and, whether you like it from past experiences or not, it’s hard to deny that Samsung have contributed a lot of very tempting features and Samsung’s own software which, for me at least, have been keeping me away from the custom ROM scene for quite a while.
Samsung have included some of their own software which, for the most part, is very well executed:
- S-Health assists you in calorie counting, exercise and comfort levels,
- S-Translate offers some cool babelfish-like translation services
- Watch On uses the Infrared Blaster on the Galaxy S4 to control external devices
- Story Album allows your to organise media in a scrap-book style
- Samsung Link (formerly “All Share Play”) and Group Play lets you share media over your home network
- Alternate service and content vending system through Samsung’s media hubs and “Samsung Apps“.
The Galaxy S4 is also packed full of very cool unique-to-Samsung features such as “Multi Window” (below) which allows split-screen multi-tasking and a whole host of added “smart” functions.
Samsung have always been fans of gestural control of in their smartphones – which has now evolved into something much more biometric such as eye and head-orientation tracking. The Galaxy S4 now incorporates “Air View” which we first saw integrated with the Galaxy Note 2’s S-Pen which allows users to interact with the Galaxy S4 without even touching it!
Between you and me, Samsung’s “Smart” or “S” features are probably the first things I switch off in order to preserve battery life, but there is no denying that these features are about as cool and impressive as they come.
Clever Eye Tracking Features
The Galaxy S4 uses its front facing camera to track your eyes. This might sound a little bit creepy… that your phone is “watching you”, but you can’t deny that some of these features might be pretty useful. Smart Stay makes sure that the screen stays on as long as you keep looking at it, Smart Rotation adjusts the screen’s orientation depending on which way you are (pretty useful if you are reading in bed, for example), Smart Pause will automatically pause a video when you look away from the screen! Smart Scroll automatically scrolls content (such as web or emails) according to the angle your eyes are to the device.
AirView allows added functionality and interaction to the device without even touching it. This technology was first introduced with the Galaxy Note 2, but was dependent on the device’s SPen. No detecting the electromagnetic field in your finger… As far as we are concerned, this might as well be magic! As well as being magic, it’s also very useful, allowing you to hover over items to get more information and you get some cool effects like this lens flare lock-screen.
All of these features are extremely impressive, but I’m not convinced how useful they actually are in a real life situation. They may seem very enticing when coming from the mouth of a salesperson and, OK – they’re fun to show off to friends … but as far as I’m concerned, these are features which add more value to the salesperson than they do to us as a consumer: what’s wrong with holding your thumb on the device to stop it locking, or just tapping on the screen to pause a video?! Between you and me – these gestural controls and smart features are amongst the first things I turn off to save battery life.
Take a deep breath. The Galaxy S4 has a 441ppi 1080p Full HD super AMOLED RGBG Diamond PenTile display. If you want to know exactly what all that means, then check out our article about the screen technology in the Galaxy S4.
As the first device with a 1080p AMOLED display, the Galaxy S4’s screen is quite spectacular to look at. Compared to AMOLED displays on previous flagship Galaxy devices it’s maybe a little bit less bright over all but good enough in sunlight. The quality of the picture is great – up there with the best we’ve seen. However, for my eyes – someone with normal vision – I can only really see a difference between the Galaxy S4 screen and the Note II/S3 screens if I really look for it: Although a full HD screen is impressive technology, I am still not convinced that smartphones need to have such extreme pixel density and resolution. I suppose the market[ing] demands it as ‘higher numbers are always better’ but I have to question where all this stops!
Ultimately, this screen is a great upgrade from its predecessors and a huge step forward for AMOLED and PenTile screen technology.
The Galaxy S4 screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 3, a type of fortified glass manufactured by Corning which offers protection against scratches, scuffs and cracks. Without a screen protector, we’ve had no discernable scratches on the device yet, but it is by no means impervious to a battering or an unfortunate grain of sand in your pocket.
The Galaxy S4 has a 13MP camera with LED Flash. It’s sharp, accurate and up there with the best smartphones around, if not a bit better. The only exception is in low light conditions where, although it performs fairly well, it isn’t as good as other manufacturers. The Camera interface has borrowed quite a lot from the Galaxy Camera but the features have been ramped up to include things like animated photographs, recording sound along with the pictures, photobomb removal, filters, fish-eye, and dual camera mode: allowing you to capture images simultaneously from both cameras. Basically, like the rest of the Galaxy S4, it has more features than you can shake a stick at.
One thing we particularly like is that you can choose what the volume rocker does in the Camera App. By default it’s set to act as a zoom, but you can change the role to take a photograph or start recording video. It’s nice to see Samsung offering this level greater level of customisation on their devices – hopefully something to look forward to more of in the future.
The Galaxy S4 is powered by a 2600mAh battery. With the full HD screen and upgraded hardware, we assumed it to would extremely power hungry but battery performance has been on par with other smartphones lasting well over a day (though considerably less with heavy usage). It’s not as good as the Galaxy Note 2, but it’s certainly worthy of its flagship position. Of course, battery life deteriorates over time, but as the battery is removable, replacement/spare batteries can be fitted for a relatively little cost, increasing the lifetime of the device significantly.
The Galaxy S4 is a worthy upgrade to the Galaxy SIII, though much of this is because of the software. Given that there isn’t anything particularly wrong or outdated with device hardware from this time last year and many of the new software updates will trickle down onto previous Galaxy S devices anyway it’s really down to the better screen, design and better camera that set it aside from previous models.
Overall, the Galaxy S4 is a beautiful, feature rich, behemoth of power and functionality. It can do more things than we could ever get round to knowing how to do, and do them in a quicker and more user-friendly way than any previous Samsung device.