|Style & Handling
|Ease Of Use
Pros: 4G support, screen is better and bigger, improved features, excellent camera, good battery performance.
Cons: Plastic body a little off putting, and the overall design very similar to the S III. So many options that it can be overwhelming.
Verdict: The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a 4G handset with a huge amount of power and performance packed into a comparatively small chassis. It can do anything the S III does, in a smaller form, but there’s more to it than just size. The extra features are fun, and have a good use. This clearly shows where smartphones are headed.
Galaxy S4 Full Review
The Galaxy S4, Samsung’s latest 4G handset, is as advanced a piece of technology as you can get without going into the realms of science fiction.
Look away from the phone and your movie will pause. A move of your head will scroll a web page. Hover your finger over part of a web page and snapshots of links will appear. A small piece of pure magic for even the most technologically savvy.
The amazing features, the big screen – it all has to soak up the power right? It probably does but with the Galaxy S4’s larger sized battery it doesn’t make as big a difference as you’d think.
You’re going to want to stream video over the super fast 4G connection, and the great news is that the battery ran for seven hours between charges even with the screen at full brightness. Other smartphones manage six as the most. And they don’t have a screen this big or bright. We got nearly 24 hours out of the phone before having to recharge with regular use and all the options, including Bluetooth and GPS, switched on. You’re not going to do that in reality, so expect to get more than a days use out of it. Which is spectacular.
The 4G connectivity is more than ably paired with a powerfull 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor backed by a very respectable 2GB of RAM. You’re not going to get faster, and so it would be a huge surprise to encounter any lags while using the phone. If your movie slows down, check 4G reception in the area before you start cursing the handset.
There were very good reasons why the Galaxy S III received our five star phone of the year award in 2012. It seemed inevitable that Samsung would try to top that, but truthfully we expected them to fail. We were wrong. Instead this South Korean magician of a technology company has come up with something that is even harder to beat.
It is obvious that the S III is the template for the 4. But a slimmer, more lightweight version. And packed with more awesome features.
Improvements abound, such as the larger 5-inch display, fabulous if you’re doing super fast movie downloads over 4G. It has a width of 7.99mm compared to the S III’ 8.6mm profile. And they’ve shaved 3g off the weight. A bigger battery, at 2,600Ah compared to 2,100Ah, has also been inserted.
The design hasn’t been altered much though. You can see the S III pedigree with touches like the physical home button. It isn’t identical though. The S4 has a centred rear camera, and the larger screen we mentioned before. It looks squarer – a nod to the S III perhaps. And on a very minor note, the fake metal band around the outside doesn’t taper but stays the same size.
You do have to put up with an overall plastic look and feel to this phone though. Not having a metal body will be an instant turn off to some. But try holding a handset before making up your mind. You may be surprised by the solid feel. We rather liked it.
By using a polycarbonate plastic body, you get the flexibility of an SD card slot, and a replaceable battery. This is what customers want more, according to Samsung.
Stuffed with features
What really makes this 4G smartphone stand out are the huge array of features, and this is the biggest difference compared to previous models.
Are they just gimmicks? We’d have to say that yes, some are. For now. That’s going to change. Take Smart Pause, which is a feature that stops video when you look away. A great idea but still not working quite right. Sometimes it pulls it off, other times it doesn’t. Smart Pause can’t take into account that no one looks at a screen all the time when watching a movie. We found it annoying and turned the feature off quickly. But it has potential and is taking technology in the right, practical, direction. Next up, automatic zoom when a phone senses you can’t read text.
There are other features that are good to go though. Air Gestures is one of the features that work perfectly every time. And more importantly, is well worth using.
If a handset is lying there inactive, a hand held over the front will make it display the time, and notifications such as texts, messages or missed calls. Ideal for those times you’re in company and don’t want to be anti-social, but do need to check for anything important.
Air Jump scrolls webpages up and down with a short hand movement. This is pretty nifty and if your phone is propped up, an easy way to browse online. Which takes us to Air Browse, a feature that moves you between tabs with a left or right swipe of the hand. You can use this in music, and photos as well. However, hand movements must be exact. We did find that the phone sometimes mistook a vertical flick for a horizontal one. But with a bit of practice the feature soon works perfectly.
There is one feature that is head and shoulders over the rest. Air View. This displays information when a finger is held over the display. For example, if you do this on a photo album it will preview the pictures inside. Or over a video’s progress bar, it will show what is next.
To really see how useful it is, try Air View out when emailing. Hover a digit over anything in the inbox. It will display the first lines of the message. Using this means you don’t need to open up messages when you’re just looking for something specific. We did see this features in the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 but it used a stylus not a finger.
It’s not all perfect
Some things just didn’t work, or didn’t work that well. We weren’t impressed with the eye-tracking software. Smart Stay, and Smart Scroll.
We’ve seen Smart Stay on other Samsun devices – it keeps the screen switched on as long as you are looking at it. This works all right. But the feature doesn’t work so well when used for watching video.
Things weren’t so great with Smart Scroll either. This is a genius application of technology – when it works. The phone did lose track of our eyes though, leaving us feeling rather silly was we nodded at the screen.
This is a phone that can use 4G, and what you really want to be able to do on it is make great use of that super fast connection. Entertainment is the keyword here, and the Samsung Galaxy S4 has that by the bucket load.
There’s 4G compatibility, NFC, and content can be exchanged over Wi-Fi. The S4 also has WatchOn. This connects the S4 to whichever TV service provider you use, allowing the phone to work as an EPG, and a remote control. Pretty cool.
This outdoes a similar feature on the HTC one. Choose from Sky, Freeview, etc, then a manufacturer, and you’ll get an electronic programme guide (EPG). Choose a show, set a schedule, or an alarm reminder, or share with friends your current viewing preferences. We found this feature was used every day. As a spare remote control it is pretty handy.
Super screen star
Or ditch the TV altogether. HD movie clips looked unbelievable on the phone’s five-inch display, with its bright 1920 x 1080 resolution. Compared directly with the Galaxy S III, the extra screen space makes a remarkable difference.
It has a Super AMOLED panel, resulting in rich, vibrant colours, and crisp black. The 441-pixel-per-inch feel like an outrageous luxury. The responsiveness of the screen can be adjusted. Handy if you want to use it while wearing gloves. In testing, it took oven mitts to stop the phone from working.
The audio quality is disappointing. The speakers themselves aren’t bad, the position Samsung has put them in hasn’t been thought through. They’re on the rear of the phone, and at the bottom. The ideal position to be covered by the palm of the hand holding the phone. When watching movies in landscape mode you’re not going to find this an issue. But we don’t just want to listen to the phone when it is on its side. Surely the speakers could have been placed a little more conveniently?
The Samsung Galaxy S4’s camera is simply the all-rounder of the smartphone world. Nearly everyone is going to find something on here they need, and there are more complex features for those who like tinkering. Samsung has really paid attention here, making sure there’s a lot you can do, so you can realise the full potential of the phone’s 4G connectivity by using it to download and upload images at ease.
The rear camera gives you a whopping 13 megapixels, while the front camera (handy for video messaging) has 2.1 megapixels. There’s no lag between the snap being taken and pressing the shutter, which is great. Images are vivid and crisp.
Like the phone, the camera is stuffed with options, all of which are reached using the Mode button on the camera screen. Some features are pure genius, others are purely odd.
These include Dual Camera. With this you can use both cameras at the same time. A self portrait can be inserted into a photo for instance. Best Photo mode takes a quick burst of eight shots and suggests which is best. You can choose something different but we found the S4 to be pretty good at picking them.
Best Face takes five shots in a quick burst. From these you can mix them to make up the best face from each subject. Although it sounds like a recipe for bad Photoshop-type images, it works surprisingly well.
Here’s an odd one. Sound & Shot. Use this to put a short audio recording with an image. We don’t know why either. For a dramatic action image use the aptly named Drama Shot. It delivers an image of a moving subject with that subject appearing numerous times. As they jump, as they’re in the air, and as they land, for example.
Animated Photo is a quick and easy way to turn any image into an animated gif. Similar to the Cinemagraph feature on the Nokia Lumia. And finally there’s the Eraser. Perhaps our favourite it will remove anything that jumps into a frame when you shoot. Like a pesky photo bomber for instance.
While we’re sure we won’t use some of these. Ever. The choice is there. And they add to the overall amazing usability of this phone.
Customise every which way
On the other hand, and we do appreciate that this is a back-handed criticism of the S4, there’s so much in there it is hard to know where to start. The Galaxy S4 is so dazzling, with customisation possible to a level we’ve not seen before. What do you do? This is what you do. You spend time getting to slowly know the phone, uncovering each feature one by one, getting used to them and peeling back the layers. It is helpful that all the features can be turned off so you can start with a small, less confusing number and work your way up from there.
Or you can just plunge straight into Easy Mode. All the bells and whistle are whipped away, you’re left with three home screens, and these are filled with large, friendly widgets, app icons and favourite contacts. You get a high end, 4G phone, but without the navigation nightmares.
The Galaxy S4 launched to a buzz of ‘life companion’ – you’ll even find this as the default lock screen image. It is hard to figure out why though, or what on earth they mean by this. So far the great entertainment options, EPG and tv remote control mode seem designed to keep you in couch potato mode. Until you find S Health though.
It is a health-app built-in as part of the phone itself. You will use it – we found ourselves quickly adopting the app. And it does nudge you into making healthier choices. You can look up the calories in any food, keep track of your steps with the pedometer, and generate daily graphs that help motivate you to walk instead of using transport, or to use the stairs instead of a lift or escalator.
The app takes details like your weight, height, and exercise. It can then give you an ideal target weight, with an estimation of the calories you should be eating each day. There are temperature and humidity sensors too, which are handy if you work in an office. By giving the phone information about how you feel it will work out what to adjust to make your surroundings more comfortable.
It is hard they got this much power and battery life into such a small handset. But the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a 4G handset with a lot of surprises. You get absolutely everything that the S III offers, then all the new S4 toys. Most of the additions are fun, but also have their useful sides. This is entertainment in a handset at its best, and coupled with 4G connectivity, the S4 shows where smartphones are going.