Review: Samsung Galaxy S4
- — 03 May, 2013 14:10
The Samsung Galaxy S4 adds a wealth of extra software features and a bigger and better screen, but keeps largely the same design as its predecessor.
Design & display
Samsung has kept much of the design the same as only small details have changed. Gone are the curved, back edges of the Galaxy S III, replaced by flat edges and a smaller bezel.
The sides of the Galaxy S4 feel much better than the Galaxy S III as they're flatter and squarer. The Galaxy S4 is also thinner and lighter than the Galaxy S III despite a larger screen.
Despite minor cosmetic changes, the Galaxy S4 feels like a toy when compared to its biggest rivals, the Apple iPhone 5 and the HTC One. Plastic may be a durable material but there's no denying that it feels much cheaper than the aluminium body of its competitors.
We particularly dislike the look of the silver edging around the sides, which has a brushed-metal look but comes across as a poor looking imitation. The glossy back of the phone is also slippery.
The plastic build of the Galaxy S4 does hold two significant advantages. The phone has a microSD card slot for expanding the 16GB of internal memory, and the battery is removable.
The Galaxy S4's right mounted power/lock button is perfectly positioned for one-handed use, while the same applies for the left mounted volume rocker. Below the screen is a raised, physical home button that feels firmer than its predecessor.
The Galaxy S4's 5in, super AMOLED HD screen has a resolution of 1920x1080 and offers a pixel density of 441ppi. Like most new smartphone displays, it's bright, clear and displays superbly crisp text.
The screen has exceptional viewing angles and works well in direct sunlight, though we found the automatic brightness setting was often erratic. All in all, he Galaxy S4's screen is one of the best we've seen on an Android phone.
Software & performance
The Galaxy S4 runs the latest Android 4.2 Jelly Bean operating system, but is skinned with Samsung's own TouchWIZ UI overlay so it looks nothing like stock Android.
The basic interface of the Galaxy S4 is much the same as the Galaxy S III. You can have up to seven home screen for widgets and app shortcuts, there are handy toggles for commonly used features in the notifications panel, including a brightness slider, and you can hide apps in the app drawer or choose to display them in a grid or list format.
Not being able to edit the four home screen dock shortcuts (by default set to phone, contacts, messaging and Internet) is an annoying oversight.
The latest version of TouchWIZ on the Galaxy S4 comes with wealth of new features. Some, like multi-window, you may end up using often. This handy feature allows you to run two apps on the screen simultaneously, though it only works with a selected range of apps.
One of the best features of the Galaxy S4 is one of the least advertised. There's a small infrared port built into the top of the phone that allows the Galaxy S4 to act as a remote control for your TV and other home entertainment devices.
Using the preloaded Samsung WatchON app to set up this function takes less than a minute and the app also includes a free-to-air EPG that shows you what's on every digital TV channel in your area.
You then effectively use the Galaxy S4 to see what's on TV, with the ability change to a particular channel using the remote, save favourite channels as well as like or dislike particular programs.
There's also an S Translator app that can translate nine different languages using both text to speech and speech to text, 'Group Play', which can send music photos and documents to multiple devices, and an 'S Health' app which aims to replace fitness tracking accessories like Fitbit.
A built in pedometer tracks your steps and the Galaxy S4 also includes temperature and humidity sensors. However, the S Health app will work best with an optional accessory called the S Band that syncs via Bluetooth to the Galaxy S4 when you're not carrying the device with you.
Most of the Galaxy S4's strongly marketed features are party tricks with an initial wow factor that grows thin very quickly. Many of them are actually significantly flawed. Air View, which allows you to hover over the screen with your finger to display extra information, such as previewing an email, a Flipboard story or a calendar entry, only works on a minimal range of apps and we often ended up tapping the screen anyway because the margin for hovering your finger over the screen is very close.
Similarly, Air Gesture allows you to swipe your hand over the screen without touching it to scroll up and down a web page or swipe through images in the gallery. We found it very sensitive and it often swiped back when we moved our hand back to swipe forward again. It also only works with a selected range of Samsung apps, so it won't work in Gmail or Google Chrome, for example.
These extra features really don't add much to the overall package and they make learning to use the Galaxy S4 a longer process than previous models. The quick settings toggle dropdown in the notifications panel is a perfect example. There are no less than 20 toggles for these features and more.
As a result, the settings menu on the Galaxy S4 is substantially larger, so much so that Samsung has now split the menu into four tabbed sections. The layout makes it more confusing and less obvious which settings are in each tab, unlike the standard Android layout.
Thankfully, Samsung has included an easy mode targetted at first time smartphone users that enlarges icons, provides some simple shortcuts and hides most other options.
Camera & battery life
The camera on the Samsung Galaxy S4 is outstanding. In our experience, it's the best camera on any Android phone we've ever reviewed.
Naturally, the camera app is packed with new software features that can be overwhelming at first, but when used on the standard "auto mode" it produces excellent photos with outstanding levels of detail and good colour.
The weakest aspect of the Galaxy S4's camera is its performance in low light. In these situations, both the iPhone 5 and the HTC One take better photographs with far less noise.
The Galaxy S4 has 12 camera modes but unlike many of the phone's other features, most of them actually add to the experience. Modes include HDR, panorama and an eraser mode that allows you to remove objects from five consecutive pictures.
There's also a night mode, a best photo mode that takes eight photos in quick succession to ensure you capture the best image, drama shot, which takes 100 shots in four seconds, and animated photo, which allows you to pick one part of the photo to move while the others stay still, somewhat like an animated GIF. A sound and shot mode also captures an image with up to nine seconds of sound.
The only camera feature that's really a gimmick is dual camera, which allows you to take a photo using the front and back cameras of the Galaxy S4 simultaneously. You can choose to place the picture from the front camera somewhere on the image from the back camera, selecting from a variety of frames. We don't see much of a practical use for this feature and the end result looks like a poor rendition in Microsoft Paint.
Despite all these extra features the Galaxy S4's camera app remains pretty straightforward and easy to use. We particularly like the excellent scrolling carousel to change camera modes.
The Galaxy S4 is generally a fast and responsive smartphone. It runs even the most graphically intense games without so much as a stutter and most apps open almost instantly. However, some commonly used apps like the gallery, messaging and phone do exhibit some annoying lag.
The gallery can be quite sluggish at times, the on-screen keyboard takes a second or two to appear in the messaging app and the phone app sometimes experiences some slight lag when switching between tabs. These minor delays aren't huge issues, but given the Galaxy S4's impressive specifications they are a little disappointing.
Samsung has produced multiple variants of the Galaxy S4 depending on market but the Australian model works on Telstra and Optus' 4G networks, and will also work on Vodafone's 4G network when it launches in the coming months. Samsung will only sell the 16GB model in Australia.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 has excellent battery life for a 4G smartphone. During our testing, it lasted a full day in almost all instances. If you're an extremely heavy user and keep the screen on for lengthy periods of time you may experience slightly less than a full day, but the Galaxy S4's 2600mAh battery is a star performer.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is available now through Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and Virgin Mobile in Australia, while it also sells outright through Samsung Experience Stores for $899.