Few phones have arrived with as much fanfare as the Samsung Galaxy S4. Not only is the S4 piggybacking on the success of its two predecessors, it’s as if Samsung is marketing its latest flagship to compete with Beyonce rather than the competition.
Theatrics in New York, a world tour swinging by London and TV takeovers, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.
But does this quad-core Full HD smarter than smartphone really live up to the hype?
Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Design
Design-wise, we’re not sure there was much hype there to begin with, at least not in terms of the Galaxy legacy.
The Galaxy S3 was a decent looking phone, but it wasn’t particularly premium. Sporting such a similar fit and finish, it’s unsurprising that the Galaxy S4 strikes us as more of the same.
It is denser than the Galaxy S3, which is good, but it is pure high-gloss plastic, complete with bendy back cover and faux chrome trimmings.
The relatively flat sides provide an easy to hold shape and are adorned with a microUSB port at the base, a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, not to mention an array of standard buttons.
Remove the high-bend back and you’ll reveal the huge 2600mAh battery, microSD card slot and microSIM slot.
So while the Galaxy S4’s design isn’t particularly rich to the touch, it is light and fits well in hand or pocket. Better than the Galaxy S3, but behind the HTC One, iPhone 5, and the Sony Xperia Z.
Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Screen
The Samsung Galaxy S4’s 5-inch Super AMOLED screen is a true beauty. It looks mesmerising, with bold, saturated colours and with a pixel density of 441 pixels per-inch, pictures look crisp and text, sharp.
Viewing angles are also on-point as is brightness, with outdoor viewing being enjoyable on all but the brightest of sunny days.
Despite the PenTile pixel formation giving the S4’s screen less of a sharpness edge over its LCD arch nemeses – the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z, at pixel densities above 400, you’re going to be very hard pressed to notice without a microscope, making the Galaxy S4’s display, one of the greats. Click the above images for a close-up view.
Samsung Galaxy S4 review: User Interface
The user interface of the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a point of both adoration and contention.
On the one hand, the Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2, the latest version of Jelly Bean. It’s also loaded with a host of apps and smart features out of the box. These include the fantastic Air View, registering a hover as an input, previewing elements of the UI.
S Planner and its respective widget offer the best-looking calendar integration on Android whilst Group Play can turn multiple S4’s into a collective of surround sound speakers.
Think we’re finished? Not even close. Samsung really does take a Nokia approach to its flagship, cramming it chocka-full of apps like S Translator, S Voice, S Health and S Memo, not to mention an array of multimedia apps.
The aesthetics have also been redrawn to take full advantage of the 1080p Full HD display whilst still maintaining the overall look and feel of the TouchWiz we’ve come to know and… know.
Loading up the Galaxy S4 with every bell, whistle and gizmo under the sun was always going to be a double-edged sword though.
The over the top lock-screen is incredibly customisable for example - great for anyone looking to get into the nitty gritty of their brand new S4. For anyone else though, it’s simply confusing.
If all you’re trying to do is get rid of the default ‘Life Companion’ text on your lock screen for example, you’ll have to open up your settings, select the ‘My device’ tab, tap the ‘lock screen’ option, then the ‘lock screen widgets’ option, followed by ‘Clock or personal message’. Within this final menu, select 'Personal message', tap 'Save' and you’re done. Confusing and click heavy.
Another example of Samsung over-working the UI is the slightly ridiculous twenty toggle laden notifications bar. As much as we love toggles, the value of them is lost when you have so many random options to wade through.
In addition to the Samsung Galaxy S4 being busy, with the phone stuttering every now and then when panning through the UI, something the less powerful HTC One never did for example, we question whether all these smarts are worth the compromise.
For many after innovation and value adds, the answer is yes. Air Gesture is cool, Air View useful and the eye tracking integration is loaded with novelty value, even if you only use it once then turn it off.
For us though, performance is paramount. Were the Galaxy S4 to offer half the features and a 100% silky smooth UI therefore, we’d prefer it.
Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Camera and multimedia
The 13-megapixel camera on the Galaxy S4 is the same sensor as that found on the Sony Xperia Z, though results are very different.
In good lighting, the Galaxy S4 delivers amongst the best shots out there, with stacks of detail, vibrant colours and good exposure levels. Close up shots deliver beautiful background blur with Samsung upping the aperture to a tantalising f/2.2.
Low-light however is the S4’s weak-point in automatic mode. Flip it into night mode and things get better though, with the flash being an excellent performer to save the day when low-light ambience isn’t an issue.
There are plenty of shooting modes to get more from the Galaxy S4's camera.
These include Dual-Shot, pictured above. This simultaneously uses both the 13-megapixel rear and 2-megapixel front facing camera to get both photographer and subject in the same picture.
Animated photo is a smart gif creator, while Drama mode is ideal for action shots collating multiple instances of movement into a single picture (below), much like Nokia’s Smart Camera.
Video, recorded at Full HD delivers the same strengths and weaknesses as photo for the most part, with strong detail and picture quality in bright daylight. The mid-recording focus is a highpoint of the S4’s video capture, with smooth, paced focusing in and out, across the focal extremities, it trumps any phone we’ve used prior.
As with photo though, video delivers mediocre results as dusk dawns, grain sets in, and it's video light o'clock.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is also the best mobile device for in-hand video playback. Its big, bright, bold screen is perfect for movies with the 1080p resolution and 5-inches of screen striking the balance between viewability and pocketability.
Reading on it is pleasure, with music being the weakest point, given the phones single rear speaker which is easy to cover up and muffle. Better than the Sony Xperia Z, but paling in comparison to the HTC One.
As far as Samsung’s own apps go, Group Play turns multiple Galaxy S4s into a conglomerate of speakers – perhaps to compensate for the weakness of one in isolation.
Story album transforms a series of photos into a handsome, albeit hit and miss picture book which can be exported or printed off, whilst WatchOn takes advantage of the IR blaster in the phone, pairing with your TV and acting as an EPG all at the same time.
Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Storage and connections
With the cheapest Samsung Galaxy S4 variant costing £579 and packing 16GB, we don’t even want to think about the price of the 32 and 64GB versions – which is lucky, as we haven’t been given the UK pricing for them just yet.
It’s expandable up to 64GB though, so unless you’re an app hoarder or gamer who needs shed loads of on board storage, 16GB should be enough.
In the same breath – with just over 9GB of that user available – it’s far from ideal at the price. A few GB of Spotify music which has to be downloaded to internal storage, a 1.5GB game or two and a Facebook sync with your gallery – and you’re full up.
When it comes to connections, the S4 has it all – and the kitchen sink. WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G, 4G, NFC, S Beam, GPS, you won’t be left wanting.
Thanks to the ample screen, web browsing is also a treat, with sharp text plus smooth panning and swiping. The stock browser even incorporates Air View, magnifying pages with a hover. For a demo, check out our video review above.
Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Performance and battery life
We would expect nothing short of the smoothest interaction from the Samsung Galaxy S4. Performance from the 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor should be stellar. Most of the time, it is. The phone benchmarks like a champ and games play back flawlessly.
What isn’t so great is that the UI stutters. Baffling us initially, we soon realised, turning off the abundance of smart features helps remedy this.
What does this mean? TouchWiz has tipped the scale, delivering more smarts than the phone’s metaphorical muscles can manage - it’s just too heavy.
This is hardly surprising. Smart Stay and Smart Scroll activate the front facing camera, Air Gesture activates the sensors and the S Voice integration has the microphone listening out for a wake-up command. Performance was always going to take a hit.
It’s a wonder that battery life is so fantastic. The Galaxy S4 easily lasts a full day thanks to the 2600mAh cell inside making it the best of the current flagship, with the HTC One and iPhone 5 neck and neck behind it and the Sony Xperia Z falling in third.
Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Conclusion
Is the Samsung Galaxy S4 the best phone out there right now? In many ways, yes.
It’s ‘smarter’, it’s more powerful and it’ll last longer than the rest. Smart features like Air View and Multi Window work well and the 1.9GHz processor, stunning screen and great battery make the Galaxy S4 a gamer’s dream.
Looking at the competition, the HTC One, iPhone 5 and Xperia Z beat it in terms of design. Their interfaces are also simpler, though not as feature rich. The iPhone 5 wins the prize for app ecosystem, the HTC One for design and the Xperia Z is the only water resistant phone of the bunch.
While not the categorical best smartphone therefore, the Galaxy S4 is our multimedia choice, a hands-down great smartphone and, without a doubt, a worthy successor to the Galaxy S3.