Samsung Galaxy S4 review

Galaxy S4 frontSamsung’s Galaxy S3 is the best-selling Android smartphone of all time. A staggering 50 million S3 handsets have been sold in under a year. Samsung’s Galaxy series has become synonymous with the Android platform, and the South Korean manufacturer expects its latest flagship, the Galaxy S4, to perform even better than its predecessor. Billed as your “life companion”, the S4 is a big phone with a stunning display, cutting edge specs, and a tidal wave of features. Will it sweep you away? Let’s take a closer look.

Design

At first glance the S4 looks a lot like the S3. Samsung has managed to make the screen bigger without increasing the overall size of the device. It looks a little more angular, and it has a chrome-style band around the edges, although it is crafted from plastic. Detractors might bemoan the “cheap” plastic feel, but it has enabled Samsung to make the S4 thinner and lighter than the S3 and, make no mistake, it’s very durable. There’s a textured pattern on the back, the bezels have shrunk, and the familiar physical home button is front and centre beneath the screen, with the capacitive Menu and Back keys either side.

Around the phone, ports and buttons are as expected. The Power button is on the right spine, the Volume rocker is on the left, there’s a headphone port up top, and the micro USB port is on the bottom. You can peel off the back to get access to the SIM card, microSD card slot, and the removable battery. For a phone this size it’s well-designed and, provided you don’t have small hands, it is possible to operate one-handed.

Display

This is where things start to get exciting. Samsung’s Super AMOLED display is difficult to tear your eyes away from. The vibrant colours, the incredible detail, the shining brightness, suck you in and won’t let go. It looks like 1080p is going to be the new standard for high-end smartphones and the S4’s 1920×1080 pixel resolution, which is 441 ppi (pixels per inch), is simply astounding. Apple’s once world-beating Retina display was 326 ppi.

Deep blacks and wide viewing angles more than make up for exaggerated colours. You’ll also appreciate the good visibility, even in direct sunlight, although the automatic brightness can prove to be a distraction (you can always turn it off). In terms of touch control it is extremely responsive and there’s even a high-sensitivity touch mode for when you’re wearing gloves.

Hardware

There is more than one version of the S4 when it comes to the guts, but both look to be speed demons. The UK will be getting the 1.9GHz quad-core processor version, while some other markets get the 1.6GHz octa-core processor. You’ll have trouble finding anything to do on your S4 that could determine the difference. This phone is lightning fast.

Looking beyond the processor, you’ve got 2GB of RAM and a choice of 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage which you can bolster with a microSD card up to 64GB in size. All of the sensors and connectivity you would expect to find are present and correct, including Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, an IR blaster for the remote control function, and sensors for detecting temperature and humidity, as well as gestures (more on that later).

The weak spot in the hardware is the 2,600mAh battery. That stunning display and the powerful internals will really put that battery to work. Looking on the bright side, at least Samsung has made it removable, which few competitors have done, so you could carry a spare battery for emergencies.

Camera

Fans of photography are going to love the 13MP camera in the S4. In good light conditions the results are stunning. It’s not quite as good at handling dark scenarios, but still easily beats most of its opponents. There are also many camera features to explore, allowing you to erase unwanted objects or people from shots, choose the best face from a range of shots, combine shots to create dramatic stills that show your path, or animated photos where you can dictate which parts of a video stay still and which move. Older features, such as panorama mode, HDR, or the ability to take still shots while shooting video, are all still there as well.

Naturally you can shoot full HD, 1080p video. There’s also a 2MP front-facing camera for video calls, and it can be used with the dual camera modes which allow you to show a caller what you are seeing, or just superimpose your head on whatever you are filming. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the camera and the quality and speed is impressive.

Software

The S4 is running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean out of the box and it has Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface on top. It really is quite different from stock Android and Samsung offers some shortcuts and features that you will love and others that you might not. Even more toggles have been added to the Notifications bar, so you can quickly turn everything from GPS to Air gesture on and off.

Samsung has thrown in too many extra features and apps of its own devising to mention here, so let’s look at the highlights:

Air view – you can hover over the screen to get more info on things like Flipboard stories, or detail on emails, without entering them.

Air gesture – you can wave at your phone to answer a call, scroll web pages or change songs.

Smart screen – it won’t turn off if you’re looking at it (as long as there is light and it can tell), you can scroll by tilting the phone, it won’t switch orientation when you are looking at it (so you can lie on your side and keep portrait mode).

Multi-window – you can have two apps open at once on the screen for true multitasking.

Watch ON – make your S4 a universal remote with a TV guide.

S-Health – helps you get fit by tracking your exercise and assessing your health.

Old favourites from the S3, like motion control, are still there as well. Some of the Samsung apps feel like bloatware, particularly where they duplicate things that Google has already dealt with as part of Android, but you can hardly fail to be impressed by the sheer variety on offer. Whether you’ll actually use half of this stuff is debatable, but it’s good to see Samsung trying to add value and thinking beyond the spec list.

The verdict

This is definitely evolution, not revolution. The S4 improves on the S3 in lots of little ways and Samsung has tried to innovate on the software side and really differentiate its products from the rest of the market. If it’s been a couple of years since you got a new smartphone and you’re heading to the shops tomorrow, then it’s going to be very hard to look past the S4 as your best choice.

If you want to buy a Galaxy S4, SIM-free, it will cost you around £600. A free S4 handset with a two-year contract starts at around £35 per month and goes up depending on the allowance you want. Will you be buying one?

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About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced tech writer with a background in games development. He has been covering the world of mobile technology for several years now and writes for a variety of popular websites.