Already managing to sell 10 million units within its first month of being released comes Samsung’s Galaxy S4, the smartphone to give Apple a run for their money. Oh, and don’t forget about the HTC One, but that’s a review for another day. Samsung got a lot of things right with the Galaxy S4, but to most, it’s just a slightly updated Galaxy S III. However, once one gets a chance to use it, it’s actually much more.
Unfortunately, the international model differs slightly in specifications from its North American counterpart, but only when it comes to the processor.
- Samsung Exynos 5 octa-core CPU (4-cores @ 1.6GHz, 4-cores at 1.2GHz), international
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core CPU @ 1.9GHz, North America
- 2GB LPDDR3 RAM
- 16GB, 32GB, 64GB storage options (microSD available, up to 64GB)
- 2600mAh user-replaceable battery
- 5-inch 1080×1920 (Full HD) Super AMOLED with Gorilla Glass 3
- 13MP rear-facing camera (1080p30 video recording)
- 2MP front-facing camera (1080p30 video recording)
- Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean
Design & Hardware
I’ve personally been a fan of Samsung’s previous flagship smartphones, and seeing that the Galaxy S4 is a slightly updated S III, I was instantly a fan. One thing that I didn’t like was the added black sensors surrounding the phone’s earpiece. I’m sure that they could’ve used one larger sensor instead of 3 or 4, or tuck them behind the earpiece.
Samsung offers the Galaxy S4 in white, black, and an AT&T-exclusive red. All colors look fantastic, especially under the right lighting conditions. I opted for the white model for review purposes, as I found it to be quite gorgeous. Covering the front of the phone are the various sensors, front-facing camera, home button, 2 touch buttons, and the 5-inch display. Around the sides is the volume rocker on the left, power button on the right, 3.5mm headset jack at the top with an IR blaster to its right (for controlling a TV, cable box, etc.), while the micro USB port is at the bottom. All of these things are easy to access, despite the device being a bit large. On that note, I found the phone just on the border of being okay to fit and use in my hand without it being too much trouble.
The color is found throughout both the front and back of the device, with a faux chrome side. Because the entire phone is made out of plastic, there certainly are times where I wished that it was made of more premium materials, such as those found in the iPhone 5 and HTC One. That’s not to say that the build quality is bad, because it certainly isn’t, but Samsung could’ve taken a different approach this time around.
The more cheaper, generic materials provide for easier and cheaper component replacements. For example, crack or damage the back cover? Simply go online and buy a new one. iFixIt rated the GS4’s ease of repairability an 8 out of 10, making it very easy to repair. To compare, the iPhone 5’s score is 7, while the HTC One is an astounding 1.
Carrying on with the plastic materials is its grip level. It’s honestly not great, as I found the device a bit slippery at times, sometimes resulting in it slipping out completely and falling onto the ground. I would recommend getting a case to somewhat solve this, or at least getting a bumper of sorts.
If I had to pick the best reason to purchase a Galaxy S4, the display would easily be it. It’s large, beautiful, and great to look at. Unfortunately, all of that goes away when you’re in areas with almost-direct sunlight. Even if you turn the brightness up as high as the slider can handle, the screen can often be hard to view.
When in areas with good visibility, the colors are plenty saturated without overdoing it too much, which is quite common in Samsung’s AMOLED displays. Having a high pixel density of 441ppi makes text crisp and images sharp. Viewing angles are excellent, and the display is just fantastic in most ways.
One thing that I found to be odd, as most others reviewers did as well, was the auto brightness feature. Simply put, it was hit or miss. It seems as though it worked properly half of the time while, the other half, it didn’t.
Display sensitivity was about as good as a capacitive touch display could get, with an option for even higher sensitivity being available from within the Settings application.
Speaker, Network, and Call Quality
Like with most Android devices, the speaker is quite loud, sometimes loud to the point where the audio will begin to be distorted. I found that the speaker was perfectly suitable for casual listening of music and audio shows, etc.
While call quality will slightly vary by carrier, it was just fine, with the earpiece providing loud, clear audio.
Another thing that will vary by carrier is network speeds. While AT&T doesn’t come close to Verizon in terms of 4G LTE coverage, they still provide very speedy network access. My strongest LTE speedtests came out to around 72Mbps down and 23Mbps up. On average, I noticed speeds of roughly 35Mbps down and 15Mbps up.
Software & Features
Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay, at first, was really good. It looks nice, and works well overall. However, the more I used the GS4, the more annoyed I got. Some of Samsung’s tweaks to applications, such as Email, seemed nice, but the stock Internet browser and many of the others have quite ugly designs that are ultimately unintuitive, making performing certain tasks slower than they should. What seemed the worst was the with the Settings application. Samsung decided to add four tabs to try and help organize things, but this seems to complicate things more than anything, as finding certain things can sometimes be a tough task alone. Honestly, if I had a GS4 for myself, I would instantly get it rooted so that I can have an experience that’s as stock as possible. Fortunately, Google and Samsung partnered up to create a Galaxy S4 that runs stock Android, and will be available in the U.S. within the next few weeks at a whopping $650. At that price, very few people will go for it, but at least it’s an easily available option.
Some of this also carries over to many of the features that Samsung managed to pack into the device. Just some of these include Air View, Air Gesture, and Smart Stay. While most of these feature worked, they weren’t too reliable or stable. I imagine that further software updates could greatly help these things, but I honestly don’t feel as though many would use these features on a regular basis, regardless of how well they worked. But, when they did work, they were pretty neat to use and show off to people occasionally.
Samsung includes 2 keyboards, a Samsung keyboard and the Swype one. Each has its pros and cons, but neither should really be used. The issue with the Samsung keyboard is that, while its own swiping feature works very well, thumb typing does not, because it has no autocorrect. The Swype keyboard obviously has excellent swiping, but its thumb typing would often get mixed up with the swiping, resulting in many mispressed keys. Installing SwiftKey from Google Play will make typing much, much better.
Despite having a powerful 1.9GHz quad-core CPU that’s paired with 2GB of the fastest mobile RAM available, things didn’t feel as fast as they could. I think that most of this comes down to software and Samsung’s lack of real optimization. Apps loaded quickly, and ran fine once opened. Though, when it came to browsing the web via Chrome, things weren’t as fast as expected, and given the horsepower, I felt a bit let-down. I was disappointed further when comparing the GS4 with an iPhone 5, consisting of a dual-core 1.3GHz CPU and just 1GB of RAM. Comparable apps loaded faster on the Apple device, and nearly every webpage in Chrome did as well. Fortunately, the GS4 still isn’t slow by any means, but it just doesn’t seem to be where it should be, again, given its hardware.
After a hard boot, nearly 900MB of RAM will be used, and depending on any background services that may have been installed from Google Play or elsewhere, this number could be higher.
The battery in the Galaxy S4 is quite large with a capacity of 2600mAh. With many essential Android features left on, such as GPS usage, auto brightness, and mobile data, I was able to get through the day with very little worries. Some of what I did on the device included some short calls, tweeting, email checking, using the camera, playing some games, downloading & updating new apps on LTE, streaming video of Wi-Fi, and some texting. I would keep the charger handy at the end of the day, though. Fortunately, the GS4’s battery is easily removable, so spares could be had on the cheap.
Featuring a massive 13MP sensor, the Galaxy S4 takes fantastic photos in the day. At night? Not so much, though the “night” mode helps quite a bit by increasing brightness and decreasing contrast. Some of the other modes were worth using, such as HDR mode. You can see more of this for yourself via our review video, starting at 13:05.
Video quality was good as well, including the audio. There were some rumors as to whether or not the device would be capable of recording full HD video at 60FPS. Unfortunately, it records at 30FPS, so maybe next year we’ll see this. Videos with lots of movement would ultimately benefit from this, however.
It’s no wonder why the Galaxy S4 is already the fastest-selling Android-powered smartphone. Packed with plenty of features (some obviously not practical for long-term use) and a design that continues to be worthwhile, the GS4 is sure to continue to be one of the most popular smartphones of the year. Is it worth the upgrade over a Galaxy S III? Probably not, as many of the GS4’s features are said to be headed over to last year’s device via a software update. If you’re ready to upgrade from something else, should you get it? Honestly, that’s a tough call, because the HTC One provides a great experience with much nicer hardware, and Apple’s upcoming iPhone is sure to be a hit as well. If you decide to take the plunge, you’ll still enjoy it, but some of it might take a bit of extra getting used to.
Feel free to follow Brian and Gadget Unit on Twitter.