It is likely that the Samsung Galaxy S4 in its various guises will be the best selling Android handset of all time by the end of this year. But does that make it the best Android handset that has ever been made?
With the recent announcement of the Google Edition of the S4, the fact there are two distinct hardware revisions of the S4 and given that TouchWiz - Samsung's software layer on top of Android - can be run in two quite different modes, I should qualify what is being reviewed here. The device I am using is a full UK retail device, the i9505 model with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor as opposed to the i9500 model which has Samsung's own Exynos 5 Octa 5410 processor. The firmware version used for this review was build JDQ39.I9505XXUAMDM. This is not the Google Edition and I used TouchWiz in its standard mode almost all of the time, but more on that later. The fact this needs qualifying at all prepares us nicely for an overriding theme of the S4 - this is a complex device and there is almost always more than one option available for each feature.
Just as it is perfectly possible to ignore the model variation complexities, it is possible to ignore almost all other complexities too, but that does not change the fact that they exist.
Samsung are riding a massive wave in the Android device market, easily hoovering up the vast majority of sales and profits available to the various manufacturers and this success is only helped by Samsung also being a major component supplier for many of their competitors. The Galaxy S3 was the best selling Android device of the last 12 months and the S4 looks more than likely to simply pick up where the S3 left off.
The design of the Galaxy S4 certainly does this, looking remarkably similar to the S3. But despite that, the design of the S4 is in my view far superior, being slightly narrower, slimmer and lighter than the S3 despite having a larger screen and a larger battery. The S4 does not taper in the way its predecessor did and is quite squared off in fact, but I find this makes the device just feel slightly more solid.
Let's take a look at the amazing array of hardware Samsung has managed to squeeze into the S4's slight frame:
- Dimensions: 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm
- Weight: 130 grams
- 5" Super AMOLED, 1080x1920 Full HD display
- Scratch resistant Gorilla Glass 3 display
- 2600 mAh battery
- 13 megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash
- 2 megapixel front facing camera
- 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, Qualcomm APQ8064T chipset
- 2Gb of RAM
- 16Gb storage with MicroSD card expansion up to 64Gb
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi hotspot
- GPS receiver with A-GPS
- Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
- microUSB port with MHL2 and on the go support
- Bluetooth v4.0 with A2DP, EDR, LE
- Infrared port
The S4 does not have a premium feel to its materials or construction. Now I have got that out of the way, I can be totally frank. I love the form factor of this phone and can forgive the cheap plastics, a sentiment that is helped by the device not exhibiting any creaks or weakness in its shell at all. This is a new level of quality that Samsung have achieved in their phone construction but it still falls well short of many of its competitors in overall feel.
The front of the device is completely dominated by its 5" screen. The proportion of space taken up by the screen here is extremely impressive and helps make the S4 feel smaller than it actually is. Above the screen is a small speaker grille which protrudes from the fascia a little bit helping you to place it next to your ear by feel alone. This is surrounded by various sensors and the front facing camera. Beneath the screen is the hardware home button and beside that, two capacitive buttons - menu on the left and back on the right. I would prefer the back button on the left, but I got used to this layout very quickly as I switch devices often anyway.
The home button can also wake the phone from sleep and I very quickly forgot about the power button altogether and used this front button to switch the screen on exclusively. It is a great feature but I wish it was also capacitive when the screen was on so a simple tap with the finger would take you home.
The left side of the phone houses just a volume rocker whilst the power button is on the right along with a little cut out in the back allowing you to pull the back cover off. The bottom is where you find the primary microphone and the Micro USB port for charging the device. This port supports MHL and USB Host mode too.
The top of the S4 is notable because as well as locating the standard headphone jack and noise cancelling microphone here, Samsung have included an infrared port. This can be used to control your TV as well as many other devices that use infrared.
The back has the usual camera and flash - an LED flash in this case - but it is also the location for the single mono speaker. It is a very loud and fairly clear speaker and is helped by a little notch in the plastic back which lifts the body of the phone slightly away from the speaker itself, allowing it to be heard even when the phone is placed on its back.
Overall, I am extremely impressed with the ergonomics of the Galaxy S4. It feels like quite a lot of thought has gone into the position of the various buttons and other features. The hardware home button, the position of the power button and the volume keys are all spot on for me. The protruding speaker for use on calls and the little bump on the back that lifts the rear of the phone away from the surface it is on so as not to block the speaker there... these are all well thought out and I applaud Samsung for that.
If you have been following my reviews here on MoDaCo, you will know that the screen is very important to me. The Galaxy S4 screen leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is absolutely stunning, with the normal unbeatable AMOLED black levels and a super high resolution that leaves individual pixels impossible to discern, even with its pentile sub pixel matrix which is not as sharp as some screen technologies. Colours simply pop out of the screen and it has fantastic viewing angles while icons and text appear to float on top of the screen.
But there are some issues. Chief among this is that whites are never white, they always have a blue-ish tinge. The contrast and colour reproduction on my S4 is not consistent across the screen with lighter colours appearing almost muddy on the bottom of the screen while being fairly accurate on the top half. This is not just a problem with this device but also an issue with the AMOLED technology. Many people have a preference between LCD and AMOLED screens, but in my view, the HTC One still has the finest phone screen on the market today with the iPhone 5 a close second. The Galaxy S4 is stunning, and if you have never used other top end phone screens, you will love the S4's screen, but it is not the best screen according to my eyes.
The Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2, but at times you would hardly know it. As usual, Samsung have supplied their TouchWiz skin on top of Android and it reaches into the deepest, darkest corners of the stock Android experience, altering it almost beyond recognition.
The initial setup process is straight forwards but quite lengthy, being about 6 screens before you are even asked to sign in to your Google account. You are invited to setup a Dropbox account with 50Gb of free storage which is nice and eventually you are taken to a screen asking you to learn about key features. These are Samsung added features such as Air View and Voice Controls. There are nine of these key features, all proprietary to Samsung and for each there is a toggle to enable or disable them. This is all before landing at the default home screen!
Samsung's launcher is actually reasonably simple and quite easy to like, if a little sluggish. There is the usual dock at the bottom and the apps drawer is similar to stock Android's. The whole presentation is attractive and welcoming to new users and is something that Samsung has obviously thought about. A major distraction to this good first impression is that Samsung have touch sounds enabled by default which makes the phone quite noisy to use... so, I decided to go into the settings and switch them off.
Pulling down the notification drawer, I was presented with some quick toggles at the top, a list that scrolls horizontally and brightness adjustments. Auto brightness can be tweaked to be slightly brighter or dimmer, a definite positive. On the subject of quick toggles, I went to see what Samsung had done with the stock Android 4.2 quick toggles. They were there - skinned of course - and boy, there are a lot of them. 20 in total!
Going into the settings sees more Samsung customisations with a tabbed view. I am pleased they did this as the number of settings is simply overwhelming. Whilst the device does have decent default settings for most things, altering these is time consuming and confusing at first. But at least the tabs help compartmentalise this.
The next area I looked into was the lock screen. There are the usual options for Android unlock styles including face unlock and widgets are present too. You can also have app shortcuts on the lock screen which I do like. Worse is the unlock effect which defaults to a light effect simply slowing things down. The lock screen is actually quite good, especially when setup as you like it, but it is not fast to unlock in any circumstances and is far too complex to setup.
Samsung provide lots of features that use the front facing camera with eye tracking, such as Smart Stay which keeps the screen on while you are looking at it and Smart Pause which will pause a video when you look away. There is also Air View which responds to your finger hovering over the screen and shows additional information when it detects your finger. I could not get any of these to work reliably except for Smart Stay which I found genuinely useful. Everything else just felt gimmicky. This is system centred design rather than user centred design and it feels clumsy and totally unnecessary. The S4 would be a better device without unreliable (but highly advertised!) features.
If all this is too much for you, there is an Easy Mode which greatly simplifies the home screen. You can see some screenshots of this mode above and it is extremely basic. In fact, it is totally pointless in my opinion as the home screen is not especially complicated, it is everything else that is, but Easy Mode leaves all else alone. In case this isn't enough, Samsung also include hubs for movies, music and books. These hubs have a feel of Windows Phone to them and are attractive but all their features can be found in other apps too.
The Galaxy S4 comes with a very nice browser based on the stock Android browser which works well and is fast. The messaging app is fully featured and of course, highly customisable with different backgrounds and message bubble styles. The phone dialler works well enough with proper T9 based search for contact names. The contacts app is also functional and for once not overly complex. The calendar - or S-Planner - is an app I really did not like. It looks dated and is slow and clunky to use. Thankfully the stock Android calendar is available in the Play Store.
The keyboard is particularly loathsome despite its number row, with small buttons and auto correct that does not replace what you have entered with the matched word. It is another clunky design and just doesn't work. It does have a Swype style continuous input mode which works far better as it does actually choose the right word most of the time, but unless you are a fan of this form of typing, you will want to download one of the many third party keyboard options available in the Play Store.
There is an awful lot of propriety software on the S4, a lot more than I have detailed above. It is generally OK with a few exceptions, but I wish Samsung would be more selective on the features they provide.
The camera on the S4 is fantastic. It is really easy to take high quality shots, particularly in the day. It is fast to focus and in auto mode seemed to get the picture just about right every time. There are a plethora of options but for once, I didn't see the need to use any of them. In decent light, I think it is the best smartphone camera I have used. In low light, the HTC One and the Nokia Lumia 920 are still a long way ahead. As a casual users camera though, it is absolutely great. I have included a couple of sample shots below.
The camera interface is fairly busy but quite simple to use. There are various different modes allowing you to make better use of the camera features such as best photo which selects the best image from a burst set, a mode for taking multiple exposures of a moving subject and stitching them together into one shot, the normal HDR mode, panorama mode and more. There is a wide range of features here. In addition, separate settings are available to control whether the flash is used, the recording mode for videos, auto night mode (which I found didn't really work) and more. In general, I just left it in auto mode for everything and all my pictures seemed good to me. It is without a doubt the most consistent phone camera I have used.
The S4 is also capable of shooting full HD 1080p video and includes slow motion and fast motion modes. Videos worked quite well, but due to the lack of optical image stabilisation, they can be a bit shaky. I also felt the HTC One did a better job capturing fine details in videos and definitely captured audio with much greater success. That is not to say the S4 did badly, but it is one area where it is not on top.
Some negatives about the camera are that you cannot disable the camera lens sound in the UK and it is also quite slow to capture. Sometimes it could be very slow, so despite the good results, I did miss the odd shot I would like to have got and would have got with an HTC One or many other, faster, phones.
Phone calls and signal strength
The Galaxy S4 has excellent signal strength in my experience particularly for WiFi connections. I can get on my home WiFi network from the back of my garden using the S4 - the first device I have ever used to be able to hook into the signal from there. Phone calls are loud, clear and of very high quality with the noise cancelling features working well for the other party on the call. The phone is also really fast to reconnect to a cellular network when for instance you are on a train and go through a tunnel. Overall, a great performance.
Everyone's battery experiences vary but overall I have been really impressed with the S4. With my standard setup and usage, I can get 2 days of usage out of a single charge. For reference, the only other device I have used that can do this is the RAZR i. I have had one weird issue though when connecting to an Exchange server using the in built Email app. I have found that even with syncing set to an hourly schedule the battery drains quite a bit faster with the battery lasting me only a day and a half or so. I am not sure if this is an issue with the app or with the Exchange server I was using as I have not been able to connect to another server on the same protocol to test it.
With a user replaceable battery, if you are a very heavy user, this could be the device for you. When you run out of juice, just swap in another, fully charged battery.
Given the specs on offer here, you would expect the S4 to sizzle. In fact, it falls rather flat. There is no other way of saying it, this is a laggy phone. Scrolling through lists, returning to the home screen, loading apps and unlocking the device all lag. Animations are jerky and it feels cumbersome. This is simply unacceptable these days and especially with the hardware inside this phone. Compared to the HTC One, the S4 performance feels at least a whole generation behind. I have no idea how Samsung have managed it, but they have made the most powerful Android device on the market today feel decidedly mid-range. The silver lining here is that these issues are more than likely to be software related and will hopefully be fixed at some point in the future, but it is sad that this is not the phone it should be out of the box today.
So this is the big one. Should you buy this device? If you believe Samsung can sort out their performance jitters, if you can live with TouchWiz and the material qualities, this is one of the best phones ever made and is a great buy. But I believe that for most people, the HTC One is simply better and quite possibly the best phone ever made - even if I do hate the position of the power button. The camera on the Galaxy S4 is fantastic and very flexible, but the experience of using the HTC One as a camera is far superior no matter what you think about the Ultrapixel. HTC have nailed what casual users want from their camera phone. The HTC One also has superior performance with similar battery life and Sense 5 is fantastic.
I would be more than happy to use the S4 as my own phone, but I am not sure I could recommend it to others. The old adage that less is more seems truer than ever with today's mobile devices but Samsung have gone with the more is more approach, packing the S4 with every piece of technology and every feature they could think of and the only surprise is that they don't supply it with the proverbial kitchen sink.
My experience of the Galaxy S4 has in some ways been very mixed but almost every time I used the device, I fell for its charms. It isn't perfect, and in some ways it is truly awful, but it is still an amazing piece of technology and a great phone.