Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S4 review
The Samsung Galaxy S4 brings a huge Full HD screen, an improved camera and faster innards, and fits in all in a chassis the same size as the Galaxy S3.
However, many will struggle to tell the difference between the S4 and its predecessor, as the polycarbonate chassis is still in use, although the metallic banding around the side, while still plastic, is much sturdier and feels more premium.
We’ve already seen a lot of the Samsung Galaxy S4, as it’s been snapped multiple times in leaks – some more accurate than others, it has to be said – and the specs mooted have turned out to be pretty bang on.
But that doesn’t matter – megapixels and gigabytes don’t mean anything if they’re not wrapped up in a decent package, so how much of an improvement is the Samsung Galaxy S4 over the S3, and more importantly, the competition?
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is built on four foundations: an improved camera, better connections with others, health and wellbeing improvements and simply making life easier.
While this is all a little hyperbolic, the S4 at least brings an integrated feel to things while improving nearly every spec on offer. The outside is still plastic, but harks back to the mesh design, if not feel of the Galaxy S2.
Colour wise you’ve got a choice of ‘White Frost’ and ‘Black Mist’, which adorn the large device, which runs in with dimensions of 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm, despite still having to pack in a 5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED screen.
That means it will have a larger screen, but smaller chassis than the Galaxy S3, which is a superbly impressive feat of engineering, especially when you consider the specs.
But like its predecessor, the plastic feeling of the Galaxy S3 won’t appeal to all. It feels very lightweight (tipping the scales at 130g) in the hand, and while people have been conditioned against this feeling cheap, compare it to the HTC One and you’ll see that it’s a long way from premium feeling.
However, it’s exactly the same sensation as we found on the Galaxy S3, and given the record numbers of sales that had Samsung is sticking with a winning formula, plus there’s more than a market for a phone that you’ll barely notice in your pocket most of the time.
Compared to rest of the Galaxy line, the S4 continues in the same vein as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and the S3, (as well as myriad other devices) showing the Koreans are keen on creating a design heritage here.
The home button is roughly the same size and the same menu and back buttons remain from the prequel.
Overall, the effect is a much more well put together Galaxy S3 – so this means that when you take it out down the pub people won’t notice you’ve got the latest phone, which is a bit of a shame.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 feels like much more of an iterative update than new design, and while it will probably sell well there’s very little to wow you when it comes to the overall shape. Specs are important, but if there was such as thing as a Samsung Galaxy S3S, this would be it.
But away from all that negativity! We have a new phone to check over, so let’s take a minute and talk about the screen: it’s even more beautiful than before.
We almost feel sad that this isn’t the first Full HD screen we’ve seen on a mobile phone, as it’s kind of lost its lustre since the likes of the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z have all managed the same trick – but it improves the sharpness a lot, even though you’re not getting that much different from the S3.
Side by side you can see the difference close up, and the brightness and efficiency have been tweaked to make this a more compelling screen in a phone. Talk all you want about the benefits and colour saturation of LCD – the Samsung Galaxy S4 is leagues ahead when it comes to jaw-dropping screens.
The 441ppi pixel density doesn’t match the HTC One, but is more than good enough for the average user.
We’ll be mightily surprised if the combined popularity of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 don’t prompt Apple into a re-tooling of the screen with the iPhone 5S or iPhone 6, as the sharpness will definitely wow users on the shelves.
Aside from the initial impression of the design, in the hand the Samsung Galaxy S3 feels just dandy. The design contours well against the palm, and while the screen size may be a little big for some (you’ll need a bit of shuffling to reach the upper section of the screen) it’s definitely useable in the hand.
So in short: if you don’t mind plastic and you like cutting-edge HD screens in your pocket, this is a phone definitely worth checking out.
Samsung hasn’t really re-tooled the Touchwiz overlay for the Galaxy S4, but has added some clever upgrades that will have some users talking about innovation.
For instance, the lock screen doesn’t have the water rippling any more, but does register your finger from up to two centimetres away, so a little beam of light will follow your digit as you unlock. It’s something you’ll definitely play with for ages.
It’s clear with the Galaxy S4 that Samsung has worked out there’s only so much it can do on the hardware side these days – not to say that we’re pretty impressed with the spec list – and as such has tried to bring the unique flavour through the interface instead.
As before with Touchwiz, there’s a definite sense the whole process has been simplified, as the phone has got a much easier feel to it when swiping around. That’s not to say there aren’t loads of widgets to be played with, but there is less clutter on the larger screen.
The dock at the bottom of the display pervades, and there are more widgets to play with. Thanks to the Galaxy S4 running Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2 you’ve now got an addition in the notifications bar of a toggle in the top-right hand corner where you can turn on and off pretty much anything, from NFC to Group Cast to eye-tracking.
Swiping around the display was easy as pie – it’s not exactly taxing on the processor, but we did note that there was a slight pause as we swiped through the menu screen on this pre-production model.
However, there is a worry that the octo-core (yes, you read that right) 1.6 GHz Exynos 5 CPU, with 2GB of RAM as well, could suck power a little too dramatically – but we’ve yet to hear the full details of how the CPU will work before we can pass any judgement on that.
Smart Stay, which tracks your eyes to tell if you’re looking at the screen, has stablemates now. Smart Pause will note if your gaze leaves the screen and will pause the video, and Smart Scroll will check when you’re reading a web page and scroll up and down as you tilt the device.
It’s a novel idea for replacing things you do already but in practice we didn’t find either that useful. Smart Pause takes a second to register your gaze has gone, which means you’ll still miss part of the video, and Smart Scroll (again, pre-production model) was far from accurate when we tilted the phone.
Smart Voice hasn’t been upgraded beyond improving the accuracy of the voice recognition and Driving Mode, which will give you more voice-related feedback when you’re in your motor.
Smart Alert has been upgraded: now it’s joined by Air Gestures, which allow you to swipe the phone without touching the screen. So this means you can flip through pictures or music tracks ("good if you have messy fingers" says Samsung) flick to the top of a list by wiping upwards on the screen and Air Call Accept starts the camera… no, we’re joking. It accepts a call without touching the screen.
On top of that there’s Hover mode, which is the same as Air View on the Note 2 which used the S Pen and tracked when it was near the screen to give previews of emails, video scrolling without disturbing the action, and seeing who is on speed dial.
A quick test with this saw the preview being activated a little too easily, but it’s definitely a neat feature and something we could get used to.
But overall the good news is the large screen looks great, the improved CPU might not be needed but is welcomed and the little touches like the shining lock screen do actually feel like a real step forward.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors in that it’s designed for media – which is what you’d expect from a phone that’s the sequel to the phone we dubbed the best out there for media on the go.
The video player is obviously taking centre stage here on the Galaxy S4, and combined with the improved Full HD Super AMOLED screen is just magnificent for watching movies.
The video hub now contains both personal and downloaded content in one place, and it looks really, really nice when viewing it on the 5-inch screen.
It’s an understandably excellent experience, with the screen veritably shining with quality contrast ratios and decent colour reproduction.
The navigation experience is easy as well, and slipping up and down the timeline to move through a video seems very intuitive.
AllShare Cast is included as well, powering up the ability to stream to and from other devices. In addition to being able to send content from the phone to a TV and receive from a PC in your home network, you can also do this remotely now, as long as the device is turned on obviously.
Another feature is mirroring, where you can send whatever is on the screen of your Galaxy S4 and have it show on a larger display. We’ve seen this on a number of devices, and while it’s not going to allow big screen gaming on the go, as we’ve often noted that there’s a lag between input and its realisation on the screen, it could be good for movies if it’s less jumpy than found on the S3.
Samsung has managed to stay ahead of the pack when it comes to internal storage too – it will be available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB flavours plus up to 64GB through a microSD card as well. That’s more storage than most will ever need on it’s own, right?
This will be a killer feature for a lot of smartphone users, as while the internal storage is generally good enough for most things, many love the idea of having the choice to expand if they so wish – so combining this with an expandable battery is a great idea from Samsung once again.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 camera is a step up from its predecessor, with a 13MP sensor on the back, which now has to bulge slightly from the chassis.
Samsung promises excellent low-light snaps from the S4 as well, but we doubt it can take on the might of the HTC One when it comes to low light conditions, as the Galaxy S3 was decimated by the might of HTC’s Ultrapixels – and that’s before we even get onto the Nokia Lumia 920.
From a blindingly bright flash to a backside illuminated sensor, our quick snaps came out crisply and clearly – and when we say quick, we mean it.
The UI has changed a bit to mimic that found on the Samsung Galaxy Camera, with a special mode wheel to move between items like the Macro, Beauty shot and smile setting, and while it’s a little slow it’s definitely an easier to use interface.
Burst mode is predictably back, but it now comes with a ‘Drama’ setting, so you can take one shot and see all the pictures merge into one. It works really well as long as you don’t have something that’s just too close to the camera or too large – in our tests it showed you need a lot of space between each movement.
Eraser mode and Cinema mode also come straight from the Nokia Lumia phones we’ve seen recently – the former works extremely well though, noting an unwanted object moving in the background and erasing it by drawing a pink outline around the thing and letting you delete.
However, you have to have the mode enabled, which takes multiple pics, rather than the standard shot, so you probably won’t be able to make good use of it most of the time.
Cinema mode lets you shoot a short video and choose the part to keep static – this means you can have a background moving while the person stays the same, and is created in a GIF to make things properly early noughties.
You also get a 2MP camera on the front of the phone for some decent personal snaps – plus you can also get HD video recording too.
This has been updated to allow you to record video and pictures with the front and back cameras simultaneously, which doesn’t really make much sense in the grand scheme of things, but at least you can put some clever frames around your face to make it more relevant.
Samsung has managed to lower the thickness of the Galaxy S4 compared to the S3 but upgraded the battery from 2,100mAh to 2,600mAh, promising a much larger capacity and therefore longer life.
However, with all those extra pixels (1080 x 1920) to drive and more cores – we’re not sure whether this will actually translate to better battery life or not. Samsung has promised that the power management will be more intelligent than ever before, but we’re yet to play a good half hour of HD gaming and then watch a monster movie marathon on the S4 to really test it out.
It was excellent on the S3 for the most part, so here’s hoping that that Octo-core will inspire even better battery life.
Hands on gallery
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is more evolution than revolution compared to the Galaxy S3 – in some ways, it appears that the Korean firm has taken Apple’s lead and decided it doesn’t have to massively overhaul hardware each time to make a statement.
Perhaps it’s right; after all, the specs are all upgraded, the screen is bigger and better and there’s a host of new features on board to chew over.
But when you pick up the Samsung Galaxy S4 for the first time you won’t be blown away. In fact, you’ll have to check it IS the new phone, rather than another Galaxy S3 that you left on your desk (if you’re so lucky to have both, that is…)
Once you dive into the handset, the new features, the integrated Samsung Hub that brings together all your media, book, gaming and educational needs under one roof, and enhanced camera do impress, but do scream of refinement over big innovation.
The camera has a load of new tricks we can’t see that many people using, but then again it has improved the basics very well, so we’re looking forward to putting that through its paces when we can.
Overall, we’re a little nonplussed by the Samsung Galaxy S4. It’s superbly impressive that it has crammed so much stuff into a smaller chassis than the Galaxy S3, but in reality, there’s not a lot of difference cosmetically bar beefing up the structural integrity of the device and putting stronger glass on the front (Gorilla Glass 3 isn’t the be sniffed at though).
Will it sell by the bucketload? Undoubtedly. Does it represent a huge step forward for Samsung? No, so it will be interested to see how it’s marketed to consumers, or whether, like the iPhone 5, there will be apathy and a desire to stick with last year’s cheaper model when the phone launches (in the UK) on 26 April.