The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most hotly anticipated smartphone ever from the Korean brand, and with a glut of top end features, it’s the most powerful and desirable device Samsung has created yet.
One of the most impressive things about the phone is the fact the size hasn’t changed from its predecessor – the Galaxy S4 comes in at 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm, meaning there’s no extra heft to try and work with in your palm.
However, despite this fact, the screen on the S4 has been increased once more, to a whopping 5-inch display with Full HD resolution. This means the same amount of pixels you’d have seen on a TV that cost well over £1000 four years ago is now riding around in your pocket.
Let’s not pretend that Samsung is a pioneer in this area though: like a great many features of the Galaxy S4, the phone borrows a lot from the other top smartphones of the moment. Both the Sony Xperia Z and the HTC One have screens that rock the same resolution, but neither of them have the jaw-dropping clout of the Super AMOLED HD screen on offer here.
On top of that, there’s a much faster processor packed under the hood, ample storage space for media thanks to an expandable memory card slot, and the likes of 4G, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and pretty much any other connection you care to mention on board.
Samsung has tried to supplement this with a tranche of software upgrades too, meaning a more powerful camera, a better way to communicate with your friends and consume media, and interestingly a big push into health through dedicated apps too.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 costs the same as the HTC One, give or take a pound or two, on contract. This will still put it around £35 per month, which isn’t too bad for such a high design.
But before we dissect all the possibilities the phone has to offer, let’s look at the design. As we mentioned, it’s impressive in its form factor, thanks to the sub-8mm thickness, and at 130g it manages to still be light without shaving off so much heft that you feel like you’ve got a flimsy piece of plastic.
That’s probably the biggest compliment we can pay the Samsung Galaxy S4 – where its predecessor felt a little bit cheap in the hand, the S4 manages to bring a much more solid build and better construction to boot.
So while the “faux metal” band makes a comeback on this model, it looks a lot more premium. And there’s very little flex in the chassis when you hold it tightly, which was another problem with the Galaxy S3 at times.
That doesn’t mean the that phone is completely remodelled from the S3 – it’s very similar in appearance, so much so that a number of people asking to see it during our review thought we were palming them off with our old S3. The polycarbonate chassis remains, but that brings with it the faithful battery cover which conceals a removable battery and microSD slot.
We’re not so fussed about the battery being able to drop out of the phone – so few people carry around a spare battery, and nowadays portable charging blocks are becoming so cheap and light that they make much more sense too.
We’d almost prefer something like the Sony Xperia Z, which has a refined and packaged chassis but doesn’t need a removable battery: it makes use of a slot instead for the memory card. This integrated nature would make for a slightly more premium feel to the phone.
However, it’s a small gripe with the S4, as while the cover feels flimsy, it’s better than it was on the S2 and the S3, and they both sold like hot cakes.
In the hand, the Samsung Galaxy S4 feels much better than any other Samsung phone we’ve held (apart from the gargantuan smartphones the brand used to make – the i8910 Omnia HD might have been built like a brick, but it felt wonderful to hold). The screen’s spread towards the sides of the phone means a much narrower bezel, and the effect is certainly impressive.
It might look very similar to the S3, but when you take the Samsung Galaxy S4 up close, you really start to appreciate the nuances.
We’d say it feels a lot more like the LG Optimus G range now – when we first picked it up, we were struck with how similar it felt in terms of sturdiness and the polycarbonate construction to the LG Optimus G Pro.
That’s no criticism, as the device was well built too, but it has a similar rounded feel. This is intriguing given the history of the two companies, and shows more of a leaning towards the plastic shell from the Asian brands in general.
Buttonry has barely changed from before – the power button has been shifted slightly on the right-hand side, and is now much easier to hit. Samsung has clearly taken some lessons from the Galaxy Note 2, which has a really well positioned power/lock button.
The volume key is less easy to hit, and could be lower down in our eyes, but the travel on both of these buttons is satisfying, and you’ll always know when you’ve hit them.
The plastic used on the home key has been upgraded too, with a more solid feel under the thumb when you press down to get back to the main home screen. The two buttons flanking it give you access to menus or take you back from whence you came, and while both are easily hidden, they light up nicely with an even glow when called into action.
There are loads of sensors on the front of the phone above the screen, including cameras to track your eyes, a 2MP camera for HD video calling and a proximity sensor for knowing where the phone is in relation to your ear. On the white review unit we had, their presence looks rather ugly either side of the generous earpiece, but on the darker models this is less of an issue.
The other notable addition to the design of the Galaxy S4 is the infra red blaster on the top of the phone. This allows you to control your TV, satellite box, DVD player, amp and even air conditioner, according to the reviewer notes. Again, this isn’t a new feature, but it works well in practice, and despite being small is powerful enough indeed.
Other than that, there’s not a lot more to say about the design of the phone, as it’s just a little underwhelming. We know it’s unfair to lambast a brand for not overhauling the design every year, but in the One X and the One, HTC has proven that it is possible to offer up a new design each time around and still keep things attractive.
Looking so similar to the Galaxy S3, you can’t help but feel Samsung has gone a little too Apple and created something more in keeping with the Samsung Galaxy S3S – a minor update to a great phone to keep those coming out of contract happy that they have a premium phone to upgrade to.
We do implore you to get the phone in your hand before making a judgement though – while it’s not got the best design on the market when it comes to materials, it’s a big step forward compared to the Galaxy S3 and allows for a grippy and easy-to-hold phone, with a whopping screen inside.
To just dismiss it for being plastic would be doing the S4 a disservice as it has so much more going for it than that, but it’s worth remembering that to a lot of people, the way a phone looks is as important as how much RAM it’s got on board and how fast the CPU is – if not more so.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 has an all-new screen, and we’ll state it now: the Samsung Galaxy S4 has the best display you can find on a smartphone.
It’s the same Super AMOLED technology used in other Galaxy smartphones, but this time it’s been cranked up to Full HD resolution, which is 1920 x 1080 pixels, if you’re asking.
This uses the same PenTile matrix that’s drawn so much criticism for Samsung over the years, as some state that Samsung is using too many of one colour of pixel, or sub-pixel (the colours within each pixel) is too basic – all of this has meant that older Galaxy smartphones have had something of a blue or green tint, or been a little low-resolution when viewed (admittedly really) close up.
Well, and you’ll forgive us for saying the same thing that we did last year with the Galaxy S3, close up now there’s no way you can see any jagged edges or elements within the icons. It’s simply superb, and makes everything from web pages to video look brilliant.
And there’s no worry about the tints of old, nor the criticisms levied at Samsung for making over-saturated screens, as often people have claimed that the colours look too strong on these devices thanks to the OLED technology used.
It is a feature of the technology, and not just because of the high contrast ratios on offer, but with the Galaxy S4 Samsung has added in a mode to make the colours look more natural, should the user so with to have it that way.
This method does drop the brightness somewhat, and that’s already lower than you might find on the HTC One but that extra brightness isn’t needed thanks to the contrast ratio we mentioned earlier. One of the strengths of OLED technology is that when a pixel is displaying a black image, it’s completely off, and therefore draws less power and looks darker. Compared to LCD screens, which have a backlight to light the colours in front, this means that the blacks will never be as black as found on an OLED.
So, as we said, there’s nothing to want for with the Super AMOLED Full HD screen found on the Samsung Galaxy S4. It might not be as high resolution as the HTC One, simply because it’s larger with the same amount of pixels, but viewed up close you’ll struggle to find a flaw with it.
You can change the brightness from the notification bar by sliding your finger up and down the screen – but if you want to make things easier you can just tag the Auto button and have the Galaxy S4 working away at deciding the optimum brightness for you.
What’s new here is the ability to customise the auto level – so if you like things a little lighter or darker, then you can choose such a thing. It’s a good way to manage your battery even easier.
Another feature, which is both good and bad, is the improved capacitive technology used in the screen. This is designed to ape a feature brought by Nokia on the Lumia 920, which allows the user to wear gloves and still use the phone – which will be a key feature to those in colder climes, or like to wear gloves for sport or similar.
However, while this works well for gloves, it does over-power the screen somewhat, in that when you’re holding your finger over the screen looking to scroll up and down when you’re read a certain paragraph, it will sometimes register a press when you’ve no intention of doing so. It’s irritating to say the least, and something that we hope Samsung irons out with future software updates.
Aside from that, there’s not a thing that we can criticise the Samsung Galaxy S4 screen for in any way, as it’s as close to perfect as you can get on a smartphone – making it a great device for so many more functions as a result.
The interface on the Samsung Galaxy S4 isn’t an officially new release of TouchWiz, the Korean brand’s name for its Android overlay, but it does bring a whole host of new features to the Galaxy range, working best on the S4.
It’s built on top of Android Jelly Bean 4.2, which means there are several significant upgrades from the previous version, found on most of the other top-end Galaxy devices and, crucially, ahead of the likes of the HTC One and the Sony Xperia Z.
One gets the feeling Samsung has delayed Android 4.2 for the Galaxy S3 simply so it can offer differentiation with the new model – things like split menus mean you feel like you’re greeted with a different phone, despite both the S3 and S4 doing roughly the same thing.
So, for instance, in the drag down notification bar, you’re now greeted with two icons in the top right-hand corner; one takes you to the internal settings from anywhere in the phone, and the other gives you quick shortcuts to turn elements within the S4 off and on.
This is an idea Google pushed with the new iteration of Android, and works well. However, it’s a little redundant here, as the phone already has these in a long line in the notification bar. You can also edit these quick toggles too, so it means that you’ll rarely push the other button to get the full list.
Android 4.2 promises further smoothness upgrades too, and while this works on the likes of the Nexus 4, we’re not sure what it’s really added with the Samsung Galaxy S4.
Considering that this phone is running the quad-core Qualcomm 600 chip, clocked at 1.9GHz and combined with 2GB of RAM, we would have expected this phone to run faster than anything we’d ever seen before.
While that is true for the most part, it’s only a touch more than we’ve seen on the Galaxy S3. Apps will open and close faster, but elements like the time taken to open the multi-taking menu (triggered by holding down the home key from anywhere in the phone) still take a beat to activate.
It makes us hanker for the octa-core processor that other parts of the world are getting – the reason being that 4G can’t apparently be added to that chip very easily, so we have to make do with a quad core option. It’s not as simple as saying that other version is twice as fast, as it’s essentially two quad core chips doing different tasks when needed, but there’s no doubt that the other version is faster.
In case you’re wondering, there are two versions of the Galaxy S4: one with the Exynos 5 octa-core, and this one (model number GT-1905) that has the Qualcomm Snapdragon quad core. This version is clocked at 1.9GHz, which means it runs faster in general – however, the octa core has two sets of four cores, with one for day to day stuff and the other for heavy lifting, such as photo processing and such.
While we’re miffed we don’t have the option of this other version (it’s smashed the benchmarks in many tests) there are questions about whether the battery will hold up as well as the device flicks between the two quad core processors inside – it could improve efficiency or deplete it, depending on the implementation, so perhaps bigger isn’t always better.
The general Android / TouchWiz interface is still the same as ever: this means that you can throw as many widgets and apps all over the seven home screens that you like. It’s still a great way of doing things, and since Android Jelly Bean has been used you can now flick items out of the way just by dragging them onto the screen and holding them in the place you want.
What is interesting is that Samsung still hasn’t added the functionality to drag and drop app icons on top of one another to create a folder. We’re pretty sure Apple is trying to patent such an idea, but given rivals have managed to use this method (such as HTC with the One) we’d have expected Samsung to do the same.
It’s not a big deal, but having to drag an app to the top of the screen, create a folder, name it, then drag other apps in is a bit of a hassle.
One area that has been changed massively from S3 to S4 is the lock screen. Firstly, there’s a new way to mess around with this UI: where once you could only touch the screen and watch the water ripple around, now you can choose to have your finger trigger a little light that hovers under your finger.
Combined with the S4’s improved screen technology that’s been super-boosted, in terms of sensitivity, to allow you to use gloves with it, you can now hold your finger a centimetre or so above the display and watch the light flicker along under your digit. It’s not a big thing, but one that we found ourselves constantly playing with like tiny children.
The lock screen, thanks to the Android 4.2 update, now allows you to have widgets on there before you open the phone, allowing music control, remotes to display and messages to preview.
While there are some useful implementations of these (the music player is really handy to have, and can be resized by dragging the track list up and down) others, like favourite apps, really don’t help as much. You can still thankfully have all the lockscreen shortcuts, which means you can interact in the same way as before. To open the phone into a widget you just tap it then swipe below. We initially wanted to criticise the phone for this, but after a few days it really becomes second nature.
We would say the blocky nature of the UI really isn’t attractive. It basically adds a load of features into a previously simple experience, which may or may not please some people. Thankfully, all this is switched off by default – and you can even have your own message saying hello every time you open the phone.
It’s clear that Samsung has toed the Google line in using Android 4.2 on the Galaxy S4, as this lock screen functionality is straight from the search giant’s design board (with a few Samsung design ideals placed on top).
It’s also present in the menu system, which, rather than one long list of all your options, is divided into four screens: Connectivity, My Device, Accounts, and More. It’s a neat way of packaging things all up, but it can be hard to hit the categories on the top given the size of the screen.
The interface on the Samsung Galaxy S4, to the uninitiated or the Galaxy S2 user looking for their next upgrade, is great. It has loads of innovative ideas and works blazingly fast. We can see why some people find TouchWiz a little cartoony and convoluted at times, but in our eyes this is a great combination of power and simplicity in a smartphone.
Calling and contacts
Contacts are very similar to before on the Samsung Galaxy S4, but this is no bad thing. Laid out in an easy to read format and manageable ways of connecting the right people together, this is a perfectly passable way of looking for the people that matter to you.
The main thing that we like is the ability to smart dial. This means that when you open the number pad you can enter the name as you would have done on predictive text all those years ago – so 3-2-3 would be the command to bring up ‘Dad’, for instance.
It’s a slick way of getting around the contact list. It’s hardly new – most phones pack it as an option now, and those that don’t (iPhone) sorely miss it – but it saves you monkeying around in the main contacts list.
That said, the experience there is very good. If you’ve got the likes of Exchange, Facebook and Google accounts set up on your phone then chances are you’ll be able to see a host of names here to play with. We’re sad that Twitter was taken out of the experience, as it was helpful to have on the Galaxy S2 by allowing you to see friends’ Tweets in their contact profile.
However, if you’re not savvy enough to work out how to stop every person you’re following on Twitter displaying in your contacts’ list, then you would have hundreds floating around there.
(By the way, it’s a simple tap of the menu button and selecting ‘Contacts to display’ where you can choose which service will supply the people to chat to. You can customise this too, meaning you only have certain services coming through, which means you can choose to just have the likes of Facebook and Google, where most people will store contacts.
Pro tip: hit ‘Settings’ and then tag ‘Only contacts with phone numbers’, which will clean up your phone book no end).
Beyond that, there’s not a lot more to the Samsung Galaxy S4 contacts interface that really makes it stand out – it doesn’t have the ability to parse through albums on social networks or update you with people’s musings through statuses, but to many that’s more of a hindrance. And to those where it’s not, you can head on over to the HTC One to see how all that works.
The interface is simple, it’s damned easy to navigate to the people you want (using the alphabetised list on the right-hand side and then using the slider to get more exact) and the result is instant when opening a contact.
You can link contacts together easily by going into the name and hitting joined contacts, then selecting other profiles from social networks to bring everything into one place. Samsung still hasn’t mastered the art of suggesting these links in one big batch, so expect a lengthy time spend doing so when you turn the phone on.
One big change we’re not sure we’re in love with: every contact that doesn’t have a picture drawn in (from the likes of Facebook or Google+) will have a stock smiling male cartoon face – it’s meant to be cutesy, but it can come across a little creepy when it flashes up onscreen from an unknown number.
Another oddity with the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the ability to use high res pictures to populate contact images – other handsets allow you to define that any social network, Facebook in particular, will always display HD pictures when you connect a person in your phone book to the social network profile.
It might sound like a minor thing, but when high-res pictures flash up during a phone call, it makes the phone feel a lot more premium, which is rarely the case with the Galaxy S4, which will only do so if you’ve linked Google+ or tagged them in your own photo.
Calling on the Samsung Galaxy S4 carries on from its predecessor – namely in being excellent. It’s got a slightly narrow earpiece range, which means that you have to be careful where you position it in relation to your ear, but that’s a really minor quibble as the overall effect is impressive and works well thanks to some clever volume management.
The S4 has noise reduction built in, and many people commented how clear the the sound was over the airwaves. The S4 supports HD voice as well, which is carried over the 3G/4G networks (depending on your provider) so you’ll always get the best clarity on offer.
In short, this phone worked well no matter where we were. Dropped calls should be a thing of the past on all handsets, but that’s not always the case; however, with high end handsets there’s no reason to think it should happen, and the power of the S4 to keep hold of signal is impressive.
In fact, the signal strength was regularly impressive, making very few trips down to the dreaded ‘no bar’ icon that means you might have a connection but, hey, you might not. Nobody enjoys that smartphone lottery, right?
There are a number of extra bells and whistles to play with here too which offer varying success. You can set something called ‘Adapt Sound’ which asks you to pop in a pair of headphones and listen to a range of sounds at different frequencies, thus tailoring the output to your ears.
You can also choose to have ‘Clear Sound’ or ‘Soft Sound’ during the calls, but when we tried these modes all we got was a slight variation in volume. There are other tricks that are more useful in call, like being able to turn noise reduction on and off and being able to boost the volume when needed.
Otherwise, it’s the same great calling experience we’ve come to expect from the Samsung Galaxy range, even down to the three options that come up when you end a call (Message, Call or Video Call) so you can get in touch with the person if you’ve forgotten pertinent information. Although video call never works, let’s be honest. Even Apple is starting to wonder…
In short, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is one of the best phones for actually, you know, phoning, out there. It’s size isn’t horrendous next to the ear and people can hear you – and vice versa. Job done.
The messaging experience on Samsung smartphones has never been the strongest, and thankfully it’s getting better and better with each iteration. We’d go as far as saying that it’s actually GOOD on the Samsung Galaxy S4, and that’s coming from a place of wanting to throw the Galaxy S3 out a window once or twice when the email client doesn’t connect properly.
Let’s start with one of the most important points: the keyboard. The previous Samsung versions have been woeful, with bouncy word prediction, inaccurate typing and cramped conditions.
Thankfully with the S4 Samsung appears to have realised this and made a larger option, and thanks to the larger screen you’ve even got a row of numbers on the top so you don’t constantly have to keep pressing ‘Shift’ to get them up each time. We did a lot, though. Just to let you know.
There’s also a Swype-a-like option on board, and while the jury is still out on whether this is more efficient that tapping away, we found it to be more accurate thanks to the larger amount of space afforded by the 5-inch screen.
We still instantly downloaded another option (SwiftKey might be underpinning a lot of what this keyboard is about, but the native option is still preferable in our eyes, as it takes less customisation at the start.)
Text messaging is still a key part of the Samsung Galaxy S4, and has been slightly upgraded; where there was just a conversation view with bubbles before, you now get little contact pictures next to each person, which adds a touch of personality to an SMS conversation. Yes, again it’s not a new experience, but it works well on the phone.
You’ve also got a larger capacity for text messaging than before – where you could only write a missive that was 480 characters or less before converting to a (costly) MMS in previous versions, now you can have over 5 messages’ worth before such a function kicks in.
The email client on the Galaxy S2 and Galaxy S3 was rubbish, and we’ve mentioned that already. However Samsung has taken something of a mallet to that functionality and interface with the S4 and significantly upgraded it. While the S3 came close to working as it was supposed to after nearly a year on the market, the S4 comes out of the gate swinging, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor.
This means a much cleaner UI that makes it much easier to quickly glance and see who sent each message, a slide-across bar that takes you to your inboxes (should you have multiple accounts on the phone) and even the chance to have priority senders and a combined inbox.
So far, so very similar to the recent iOS update (which was similar to the HTC option before it, it should be noted).
But the key thing is here that the client, which was built to be powerful but ended up flawed, now works as it should.
We can easily set out of office messages, set priority accounts that we need to panic about (although the process there is a little convoluted and won’t let you search an Exchange server to get the addresses you need – nobody should have their CEO’s email saved as a contact, but if they email you then you would listen).
There are other options for messaging of course: for instance, ChatON is present once more (Samsung’s attempt to bring a WhatsApp/BBM/iMessage rival) and brings functionality like being able to send walkie-talkie voice messages to one another as well as pictures and messages, but there are so few people using it regularly that it won’t be long before you hide it from the menu screen unless you happen to have a lot of chatty Samsung friends.
This is something of a shame actually, as it’s a decent platform. You can add a profile pic, send files and the like over a data connection without having to faff with email, and the range of customisation options and UI both work very well for the most part.
Once again, Samsung has shown that it has seen a problem in its older phones and corrected it accordingly – it might not be market leading but there wasn’t a point where we felt that communication was harder with the Galaxy S 4, and that’s all we’re looking for in this scenario.
Internet on the Samsung Galaxy S4 is covered by two applications: the inbuilt browser and Google Chrome. This might lead to some confusion as, for the most part, the two applications do precisely the same thing.
However, the default browser (Samsung’s own) still comes with a few tricks of its own, and has been upgraded since the Galaxy S3. It’s not any quicker, which is odd given the uprated processor, but that’s likely because the Galaxy S3 was already running at the top end of the speed the connection would let it.
In speed tests with the HTC One it managed to match it in most cases – interestingly, the HTC would load pages the fastest, but navigating through pages on a site would see the Galaxy S4 come out a shade quicker. We had hoped for slightly faster, but it wasn’t a slouch by any stretch.
Zooming in and out of text is a little bit tricky at times though, as it would sometimes zoom in incorrectly and not allow the full text to stretch across the screen. A couple of taps in and out on another part of the text saw this sorted, but it still pales in comparison to the auto-reflow on offer from the HTC One.
To be honest, that may be the hundredth time we’ve written that statement – ever since the HTC Hero we’ve been impressed with this functionality, so we’ve no idea why Samsung won’t implement it when others will. There’s an option to have the text fit the zoom level you’re after in the menu settings, and it’s so useful that we’ve no idea why it’s not enabled by default.
However, once you’ve got past the niggly elements, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a phone that’s right up there with the best when it comes to internet browsing. We found that a little tweak in the Accessibilty menu (found in Settings within the browser) allowed us to make text a little larger than normal, which led to a really easy to use page no matter what we looked at or at which zoom level.
As you can imagine, everything is razor sharp here, with the HD screen offering levels of detail we could barely comprehend at times. Those upgrading to the S4 will be blown away by the difference between this and a WVGA screen, so get ready to be able to browse the internet in a way you’d want.
The bookmarking system is a little odd though: where before you could have bookmarks brought across from your Gmail account, this functionality has been stripped out here. Those that don’t want to use Google Chrome will be annoyed as it means they’ll have to re-find all their favourite pages rather than having them drawn in from the cloud now.
The UI of the internet browser has changed somewhat, with those changes being positive and… less so in some cases. For instance, if you tap on a link that’s next to another when zoomed out, a small magnifying box will appear and you can more easily select the link you’re after – wicked.
Also, the tabbed view (where you can see all the web pages you’ve got open) has been changed to work vertically now (taking more cues from Google Chrome) so it’s easier to swish through all the pages you’ve got open.
The look of the default browser is a bit low-key now though, and feels like it could do with a bit of a visual overhaul. We’re all for simplicity here, as content should always be king in the browser, but the overall feel is very blocky and doesn’t have the clout of other versions visually.
That said, all the pertinent functionality (namely moving forward and back through sites, bookmarks and tabs) is all present and correct and we weren’t cursing the inventors of the browser for hiding the things we use loads (we’re looking at you, Microsoft with Windows Phone 8).
Flash is still absent, but now HTC has offered it as an optional plug in when you need it, we’re missing it more than ever. There was a point last year, when Adobe ceased the updates to the mobile Flash browser, that we thought it would become irrelevant on mobiles, but it seems that this isn’t the case still.
The BBC website still throws loads of ‘You don’t have the correct version of Flash’ errors at us when browsing through, and while you can still sideload it, we’re still rather missing it on mobiles (in general, not just the Galaxy S4).
Google Chrome, which we touched on earlier, is another good browser on the phone, but one that offers very similar functionality to the main browser, which leads to the confusion we mentioned. However it’s got those cloud bookmarks, the ability to sync with a desktop browser (so you can see which tabs you’ve got open across both devices and is therefore a little bit more well endowed when it comes to internet browsing.
We found it to be a little faster when chugging through the internet as well, meaning we’re surprisingly leaning towards recommending you go Chrome when firing up your Galaxy S4 – something that seems to have Google’s intent all along written all over it.
We always enjoy talking about the media functionality of the Samsung Galaxy range as it’s so good – and we’re happy to do the same here. It’s a media marvel in every sense of the phrase, from music to video to even the FM radio, and if you’re after a spot of entertainment on the go, then there’s very little better out there, with the iPhone 5 the only possible rival.
The Galaxy S4 has done away with the FM Radio for some reason though – it’s a shame as the Samsung app was one of the best out there for listening to some tunes over the airwaves. Sure, there are dozens of excellent internet radio apps, but for free music that you could record when needed, we loved that ability on the Galaxy S3 and Note 2.
It’s also worth noting that Samsung has upgraded the rear speaker as well, which is now a little more rich in the bass tones and makes watching videos or YouTube clips without earphones that little bit better. It’s nowhere near as good as BoomSound from HTC, but it’s definitely a big step forward.
Sonically, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a great device for music consumption. You can lob in as many tracks as you like through the microSD slot, the interface is fluid and easy to navigate, and comes with so much control that if you’ve got quality headphones and high bit-rate tracks, it should be impossible not to get an excellent experience out of the phone.
One of the real winners here is the music player itself – there’s just so much to do.
We’re talking about the main player here – there are other options in the shape of Google’s Play Music, and of course you can check things out using the Music portion of the Samsung Hub (the South Korean brand’s version of iTunes, helpfully now packaged all up in one place) but the main way to transport tunes to your ears is through the main Music app.
It’s easy to get to the tracks you want here too, as when you open it up you’re presented with either a big long list of all the albums or songs you own – although if you have missing album artwork the phone won’t be able to find it for you.
That said, there are so many apps on the Google Play Store that you shouldn’t have an issue with it – we’d recommend you look at something like Player Pro to help you out with this.
Once you’ve selected the track, you can continue building the playlist or press the album artwork icon at the bottom of the screen where a little music player has started. From here there’s all manner of things you can do: from searching through a song using a visual representation of the volume to setting the sound to mimic your ears perfectly, it’s all here if you open up the menu.
The latter functionality is really nice – AdaptSound (which we’ve covered in the Contacts and Calling section of this review) takes you through a wizard that asks you to listen to a variety of frequencies and determines which ones you can hear. It will then boost the sound to make sure it fits into the range you can actually hear, which will diminish as you get older.
Music View, which is the name for the functionality where you can search through a song visually, is a nice touch but really doesn’t work – you see peaks and troughs on the screen, but it doesn’t correspond at all to what you’re hearing.
Another feature (hidden away, annoyingly – you’ll need to swipe to the left on the top row of icons in the main view, and there’s no obvious indication that you can do this) will lead to Music Square.
This analyses your music library and gives it a rating based on Joy, Passion, Excitement and Calmness. Quite why these are the main types of track in Samsung’s eyes, we don’t know. You can then trace a line through the different emotions to get a playlist based on the emotions you really want. While the result is a bit hit and miss, we did find that when we wanted a more chilled out track listing it worked well.
Music also supports voice control here as well, which in theory would be really useful. The ability to Play, Pause, Skip and Volume Up/Down is a really nice thing to have – except it doesn’t really work.
Volume up and down get easily interchanged and go up very slowly, and if the phone is in sleep mode (which it will be most of the time) then the commands don’t work.
We loved it when we forced the screen to stay on and could just command the phone to change tracks by asking, and without having to press any buttons, but that kills the battery; when it doesn’t pick up your voice properly it’s a frustrating experience.
We would say it was more of a niche feature, but if you’ve got voice control turned on in the settings, the music player will constantly tell you that you can change things using the voice, with no way to permanently disable the notification.
Video on the Samsung Galaxy range, like music is excellent. However, unlike music, it is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, in no small part thanks to that Full HD Super AMOLED screen.
When we review phones, we usually always gravitate towards downloading our favourite apps to improve the experience – SwiftKey, PlayerPro and MX Player (for music) are the first three on our list. However, with the Galaxy S4, we had no need for a new video player app as everything we wanted was serviced by the inbuilt experience.
The interface is clean, with a white background allowing the thumbnails of the videos you want to watch really bringing the content to the fore. Then you’ve got the neat functionality of videos auto-playing as thumbnails, which is possible thanks to the power of the processor. It’s not critical functionality, but it’s really fun to watch.
You’ve also got a side link to the videos you’ve downloaded from Samsung’s Video Hub, which makes it a complete and integrated video experience within one app. Many won’t use this option that often, but it really works if you’ve got a couple of titles in the cloud that you want to bring down and means you don’t have to mess around in the main Video Hub.
The phone can detect chapters within the video file, which makes it really easy to navigate through your content when you need to – this is an oft-overlooked piece of functionality that we’re glad to see pervades through the Galaxy S4 from previous smartphone iterations.
But enough about what you can do and more about the experience itself – and it’s glorious. The colour reproduction, the clarity of the screen – it’s all there in spades and makes us just want to gorge ourselves on movies for hours, rather than having to wait until we can find a tablet or a PC to do it with.
Five years ago, when video watching on the smartphone started to trickle into the mainstream, we used to consider that a phone that allowed you to watch a music video without having to squint too hard was a pretty decent device. We’re now at the other end of the scale with the Samsung Galaxy S4, with there being no better phone to watch an episode of Supernatural, a host of music videos from your favourite band and the latest downloaded blockbuster on.
The only slight issue we had with the Galaxy S4 when using the handset for video was with the Smart Pause functionality, which is designed to make it so you don’t miss your video when someone comes to ask you a question or you need to look up to make sure you haven’t missed your stop.
When detecting that your eyes are on the screen, the S4 will keep the action playing. When they stray from the action it’s designed to pause, and for the most part it works. However, there’s a slight second’s delay to confirm your eye movements, which does negate the effect somewhat.
But more annoyingly, if you’re holding the phone too far away from your face then the action won’t kick in either. And with the higher resolution screen you can hold the S4 in a more comfortable way that’s further away from the face, which ruins the effect somewhat.
In terms of clarity, the only rival we’ve seen so far is the Sony Xperia Z, which does have some lovely scenes thanks to the upscaling performed by the Bravia 2 engine within. However, while that does have the edge when it comes to making fuzzy standard-def footage look good, the screen pales (literally) in comparison to the Full HD Super AMOLED offering we’re seeing on the Galaxy S4.
We tested the Samsung Galaxy S4 using EE’s 4G service, and we were more than pleasantly surprised with the result. Having constantly used Netflix on the Three network for a while, we’ve always been impressed with the quality of stream that’s been offered when using HSPDA+.
However, it’s a whole new world with 4G – and one that instantly makes us recommend that you think about how you’re going to get the service on your phone. It’s blisteringly quick and brings a whole new dimension to the way you’ll use your Galaxy S4, as suddenly you can get a whole world of content on the go.
You can even download movies on the go in an extraordinarily fast time, but therein lies the rub: EE has some pretty tight data limits unless you’re willing to fork out a fair whack each month.
They’re not that low if you’re just doing the same general 3G business you always have, but we were so impressed with the speed of things like the internet and, in particular, movie streaming, that we’d recommend waiting until all the networks come out their pricing to see what’s going to be the fastest and cheapest available.
Storage on the Samsung Galaxy S4 is limited if you opt for the 16GB version of the phone, as over 6GB of it is taken up by pre-installed apps and the OS itself. That might not sound like a problem when you consider that you can whack in up to 64GB of microSD storage thanks to the expansion slot, but this is the zone where apps download.
And with the prevalence of the HD app now coming along (for instance, Need For Speed: Most Wanted takes up over half a GB of space on the internal memory) you can see how quickly that could get filled up. You start with only 9.15GB of the 16GB of space you’ve paid for from the outset, which is over 2GB less than offered by the same capacity Galaxy S3.
On top of that, the S4 is desperate to get more stuff on there as soon as possible – within a few days we’d eaten nearly 4GB of that space, which was really worrying.
There are things you can do to mitigate this, but you have to know where to look. For instance, videos you buy from the Samsung Video Hub can run to well over 1GB, but if you head into Settings from within that app you can tell the phone to put the film on your SD card instead to make it a little less of a strain on the internal memory.
This isn’t a problem that only Samsung has to deal with, but the fact that the internal storage is so limited thanks to the pre-installed elements means this becomes even more of an issue than we saw on the iPad, which at least had over 2GB more to start with.
The memory card slot really does help though by giving you a safe haven for your media – our advice is to get your hands on the 32GB version of this phone unless you want to be really careful with your use.
It’s also worth mentioning that you’ve got two years of Dropbox storage on the phone too – and not just a paltry amount, but 50GB to lump all manner of home movies and photos up into the cloud.
With clever connection to your gallery, this is a feature that is swept under the carpet marketing-wise, but really is rather useful.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 camera is a big upgrade over other sensors it has put into phones, and with a 13MP sensor you can see why. It is capable of taking some stunning photos and comes with a decent auto mode, which allows you to get really great shots no matter what the framing.
This means you can be taking a picture of a landscape one minute, then trying to get an extreme close up of a daffodil the next, and the Galaxy S4 camera will handle both with aplomb. There are also a number of clever modes available on the handset that take their UI cues from the Samsung Galaxy Camera, meaning that a quick tap of the ‘Mode’ button below the on screen shutter will give you a scrollable wheel of options to choose from.
These options include Drama Shot, Eraser mode and Beauty Shot, as well as cueing up the likes of HDR mode to improve the quality and light levels of your snaps. For the most part they have a good role to play in your photography, and we’re glad Samsung hasn’t over-burdened the user with too many modes.
There are some issues with this method however, and we’re not sure how you’d solve them: Eraser mode allows you to take five pictures and if someone walks into the shot the phone will recognise the intruder and ask if you want to remove it.
This is a brilliant idea in theory, but the fact you have to enable it as a setting before taking the shot means that unless you leave the camera in this mode all the time, you’ll only get the full benefit when you know you’re likely to get people walking behind.
The other problem we have is the settings side of the user interface. We applaud Samsung for going with simplicity first – and by that we mean that users aren’t presented with a settings menu as long as their arm when trying to take a quick picture of a cat or child doing something funny.
However, as you’ll see in a moment, the Galaxy S4 camera does struggle in some conditions, and as such the only way to mitigate these problems is to do things like increase the exposure or enable night mode. If you want to do this then you’ll have to acquaint yourself with the settings menu in the top left-hand corner of the camera app, which has a number of icons to toggle on and off.
That said, what is on offer does really work. Night mode is a good way of increasing the brightness of your photos when things are getting a little dark – although you’ll have to make sure that you’re able to hold the camera steady if you don’t want blur. We’ve tried a number of smartphones with this mode though, and the Galaxy S4 was one of the better ones, plus being able to enable it automatically is brilliant.
Other tricks, like being able to take a Drama Shot, are pretty close to the innovation spawned from other manufacturers. In this case, the functionality is almost identical to that seen on the Nokia Lumia 920, although we’re glad to see it again as it does allow you to make some pretty funny GIFs.
The other new ideas, such as being able to take a picture using the front and back camera simultaneosly, are niche at best. Samsung made a big deal about this new function at the launch of the Galaxy S4, but in reality we can’t ever see a scenario where you want your face to be in the picture too. We do like that you can have loads of frames for your face though, so there are scenarios to use it – it’s just not a USP of the phone.
But enough about what it can do; how good is the Samsung Galaxy S4 camera in day to day use? In honesty,brilliant in many ways. We mentioned that it’s possible to take some stunning shots, but then we’d expect it from a 13MP camera with Samsung’s burgeoning photography heritage.
When stacked against the HTC One, the S4 is a superior device in one way, but less useful in another. For one, the focal length is much poorer, meaning you have to stand further away from the subject to get the same shot you would on the One.
In theory this sounds great, but as you can see from our comparison shots, the HTC is much better at pulling out the object of the photograph. Then again, the Galaxy S4 has a more balance composition, meaning the chance to get a brilliant photo is stronger. It doesn’t over expose for the sake of it, so while photos might look better on the One’s phone screen, the jaw dropping effect of the S4 is higher.
In low light, the HTC One with its UltraPixel technology is streets ahead of the S4, unless you place the latter into Night Mode after which it’s more even. However, the One manages low light shots almost instantly, while the S4 needs a lot of processing.
In short, as you’ll see below, the Galaxy S4 is a good phone to take a load of pictures on – one of the best if you’re taking your time to get it right.
If you’re looking for a more even picture with the ability to zoom in on certain parts of the shot, it’s a decent option, but for point and shoot ability we would recommend the HTC One (or even giving the Sony Xperia Z a run out).
This is a GIF taken from the Galaxy S4 – it’s a really easy mode to use, does offer some nice results.
On any Android phone the mapping experience is superb these days, and the Galaxy S4 is no exception thanks to the awesome power of Google Maps. We’ve been evangelising this service for years, but when you’re getting a powerful sat-nav in your phone, then you can see why we’re such fans.
On top of that, it’s one that keeps getting upgraded, and combined with the Galaxy S4’s large, high-res and expansive screen we had no issues at all using it as our navigation device in car.
We’re not going to go into the full detail of what Google Maps can do, but there are some highlights worth mentioning. For instance you can cache certain parts of the globe to the phone, so if you’re wondering if you’ll be forced to use loads of data when abroad and lost, you can safeguard your bank balance.
There’s 3D mapping of the big cities, so when in the traditional map view you can see skyscraper models popping up on your screen. This is both cool and makes it very easy to navigate by sight if you can’t see a road name anywhere nearby.
And then you have the StreetView option, which lets you see what the roads look like from a pedestrians point of view. Or indoor maps for major attractions, making it easier to navigate big buildings. It’s an excellent app and one you should spend a lot of time getting to know.
The Google Maps experience has also been upgraded for Full HD phones, with the UI looking so pin sharp (thanks to vector graphics) that you’ll be able to see things you’re looking for instantly on the Galaxy S4.
The screen is bright and clear, and like its predecessor, the GPS and GLONASS combination gives one of the most accurate location experiences we’ve ever seen. In case you’re wondering, GLONASS is the Russian equivalent of the GPS system, with loads of satellites up there beaming down signals.
If you want to sell a smartphone in Russia then you have to offer this compatibility, so it means that any phone that has GPS and GLONASS ability has so many more satellites to choose from – ergo, a much more accurate location experience.
We even found it to be accurate when a metre or so away from the window when inside the house – and we love the fact you can get a lock in under a second, even in built up areas.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is one of the best navigation devices on the market, so if you’ve never experienced the ‘thrill’ of using your phone to get to B from A, then this will blow your mind.
There are a number of apps available on the Samsung Galaxy S4, and for the most part we’re glad to see that pre-installed bloatware is at a lower level than usual. The usual suspects are there: Calculator, S Memo, S Planner and the gang, and these are all really great tools that we urge you to try out.
They do perhaps err on the side of complexity, which is a theme prevalent throughout the Galaxy S4 when diving into the apps themselves. This will attract a lot of people that consider themselves to be more of a power user, but put off others looking for an alternative to the simplicity of the iPhone.
For instance the S Planner app is visually very busy, but comes with rich functionality. You can set a location with a new meeting appointment, or pinch to zoom through the time view, be it day, week, month or year.
But we like that Samsung favours power over simplicity, and it does a really great job of making that power usable.
There are a number of other new apps on the Galaxy S4, so take a look below to see how they stack up:
This application apes the likes of Google Goggles by allowing you to translate words on the screen in front of you (using augmented reality), nab details from business cards and get information from QR codes when asked. It’s a simple interface that really only asks to be pointed at the object you’re looking at, and works well.
In reality we can only see it being any good for getting business card details or understanding what the odd words means in a foreign language. The business card element is hit and miss, so if you’re trying to get everything from the name of the person to their job title to their phone number handily stored in the phone, the accuracy is generally around 70%.
That’s still 70% less effort than manually putting all the info in yourself, so we consider that to be a real time saver.
Building on the ability to take one word and put it in another language, the S Translate app is a powerful tool that will let you speak or type words into the phone and have them translated into another language – or vice versa.
It’s a simple system to actually use – we found very little that went wrong with it. More intriguingly, the app could even understand what were were saying more often than not when trying to speak in a foreign tongue.
We’ve tried this on a number of apps, and this is the first time it’s worked so well, so big thumbs up to Samsung for that.
The only issue we can see is that it relies on a connection to the internet to work properly – if you’re out and about in a land where you don’t understand the language chances are you won’t have data, thus rendering the app moot.
It’s only a slight quibble though, and as such shouldn’t put you off buying the Galaxy S4 if you’re someone looking for a really handy travel companion.
In response to HTC’s Zoe functionality, and BlackBerry bringing the same sort of functionality on the BB10 software, Samsung has added in the ability to make photo albums of your memories and even allowing you to send the pics across to a real life printers to have a glossy book made.
But in practice it’s a really low-power app that seems to be just ticking boxes rather than bringing innovation. We were initially impressed as the phone could work out when we had been taking photos of an event and then asked us to create an album based on the snaps.
When we went to do such a thing though, we were really disappointed. Despite tagging our friends in pictures, the wrong faces were in focus, the themes poor and the speed of rendering for a device that has such a strong core is saddening.
Story album could be so much better if Samsung put some effort here, but it feels really cobbled together – and pales massively when compared to the memory-making HTC One Zoe functionality.
Gaming on the Samsung Galaxy S4 is handled by the Adreno 320 GPU, which obviously can not only handle a much larger number of pixels, but can also work its magic when it comes to giving smooth, real to life gaming on the go.
We tried the phone on a number of games, from Super Hexagon to Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and as expected the Galaxy S4 handled them all with aplomb, with not even a hint of judder or slow down when in heavy use.
More impressively was the lack of battery juice-down when using the handset, as it managed to only consume a few percent of the power even when getting a little warmer in the hand.
Android doesn’t have a lot of stand out games at the moment, but in our tests of the largest (Grand Theft Auto, Need for Speed, NOVA 3 plus myriad benchmarking apps) we found there was nothing the Galaxy S4 couldn’t handle. Good-o.
Smart Stay, Smart Scroll, Air View, Air Gestures
Smart Stay isn’t a new feature for the Galaxy S4, but it’s a better implementation than we saw on the Galaxy S3 last year. Back then the result was a little patchy, and also contributed to some dodgy auto-brightness levels.
In case you don’t know, Smart Stay is another of Samsung’s eye-tracking technologies, one that can tell when you’re looking at the screen and won’t dim or put it into sleep mode as a result.
This time around it’s nearly flawless at checking out when your eyes are looking at the screen, although when it does get it wrong and things begin to dim there’s no way to save it (despite us blinking and flashing our eyes at the display in the vain hope the S4 might recognise the effort.
Of course, you could just tap the screen with your finger – but come on, this isn’t 2011.
For all the brilliance of Smart Stay, the world’s eyes are on Smart Scroll (sorry). This technology was designed to also monitor your eyes, but when it notes you’re looking at the phone the Galaxy S4 will allow you tilt the handset back and forth to move the text or email you’re trying to read up and down the screen.
Well, this is what Samsung said at the Galaxy S4 launch, but it turns out that there’s another, more cool, trick at work here: you can hold the phone steady and tilt your head up and down to achieve the same thing.
You have to make a pretty strong movement with your head to make this function work, but when it does it’s pretty cool indeed and one of the ‘down the pub’ moments that will make people sit up and take notice.
However, and this is a big one: because the feature isn’t perfect, we can’t say it’s a useful way to navigate around the screen. It’s cool that you can choose to either make the screen scroll using your head or tilting the screen, and then you can select the speed of the scrolling too.
You can also decide whether to have the annoying eye icon pop up on the screen to alert you that the Smart Scroll function is working. So while it doesn’t really work every time and sometimes messes up, it’s cool to have – although we still have the issue of using your finger being a more useful way of scrolling around a screen.
With something like Smart Scroll it has to be flawless to be considered a useful part of life, and would have mitigated the issues we found with the actual need for it. But as it’s slightly buggy and dependent on a number of factors (such as lighting conditions) we just found that after a few days it got turned off – and we fear that’s the way it would stay for most for the next two years.
One of the new features of the Samsung Galaxy S4 is Air View – well, it’s not new per se as we’ve seen it on the Galaxy Note 2 already. But where that device needed the S Pen to work, the S4 only needs a finger, which you hover over certain items to see inside without opening.
Samsung has imbued a number of applications with this functionality, but in truth only a few really need it. For instance, being able to see which speed dials are assigned to which number is really useful, as otherwise you’d just have to press and find out.
Less useful are things like video scrolling, where you can flick through the video using the timeline bar without having to disturb the main action. While this is a useful feature, there’s not a lot of point to having to hover the finger over the screen to achieve it when you can just slide your finger on the screen, which is a much easier way of doing things.
What’s nice is that in the Setting menu you can choose what Air View is used for, so that means you can turn it on for emails and messages, but off for video previews and magnifying the web.
The only problem is that you’ll have to get used to holding your finger further from the screen, as the screen is a sensitive little monkey. You’ll be scrolling through an email and suddenly you’ll see items flashing up all over the place, meaning you’ll want to turn off the function. We’d say it’s worth putting in the effort to get better with it, but we’d rather Samsung got even more granular here to let us turn off Air View in email, where it’s easier to trigger and less useful, but keep it in calendar, where it’s a blooming godsend.
That said, it’s still probably one of the best innovations used on the Galaxy S4, and we’re glad it’s been added in.
Where Air View was useful, here we come to one of the things we thought was the least practical things on the phone in our hands on preview: Air gestures. It’s designed to let you simply wipe your hand over the front of the phone without touching it and means you can skip tracks, move between photos and answer calls without touching the phone.
We’ll say that the latter functionality is good, but only when you’re in a hands free situation, such as the car. There you don’t want to be having to root around for the ‘Call accept’ function when you’re supposed to have two hands on the wheel, where a simple wipe to answer is really cool.
We’ve got nothing against the option of doing things this way, although it’s not always accurate, so when you’re showing it off and it doesn’t work you look like a right fool.
No, the issue we have is that with it turned on it can still activate when you don’t want it – so sliding through photos using your finger can accidentally move further forward still when the phone recognises an Air Gesture, which is really annoying and instantly makes you turn it off.
That said, there are some instances where it’s really, really useful – you can wipe over the screen and flick through PDF pages, scroll through web pages a large jump at a time or flip between tabs.
It’s a clever system, but like we said, it’s not consistent enough – you’ll accidentally go backwards when you meant to go forward as you’re resetting your hand for another swipe, for instance. It’s cool to do, but takes a little more effort than it should to be a natural flowing part of your phone use.
Like so many new features on the Galaxy S4, a little annoyance means you’ll turn them off, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever turn them on again, which makes us feel bad for all those engineers that were asked to come up with all this innovation.
WatchON and S Health
WatchON is Samsung’s attempt to make the Galaxy S4 into the remote that controls your whole home, and given the power of the infrared (IR) blaster on the top of the phone, it makes a decent fist of it for the most part.
The application comes with a number of other elements too, but let’s focus on the remote part first, as it’s still a novelty to those that haven’t got a modern tablet or tried the likes of the HTC One or LG Optimus G Pro.
You can set rooms up, allowing you to take the phone with you and still have it as a remote. When first setting the device up, you can tell WatchON how you get your channels (through the TV, set top box or cable) and it can then set up the controller to work in the correct way by asking a few channel-based questions.
It works well, and we found it was really swift at getting the right codes for our devices so we could start controlling the volume etc without having to reach for the main remote. However, it wasn’t as strong as the HTC One here, as some of our gadgets passed the set-up test, but then not all the functions worked, so we needed to reset the codes, which was annoying.
There are also fewer buttons on the Galaxy S4 interface, which was irritating when even swiping down to the lower level, which is supposed to give more complex functions, didn’t yield the options we needed. It’s a good app, just not the best out there.
One thing we did miss on the HTC One, and enjoyed on the Optimus G Pro, was the ability to have the remote control pervade in the notifications menu or on the lock screen, and it’s great that the Galaxy S4 could do both of these things easily.
It’s a good remote control, if a little unwieldy, and it’s a real upgrade to have the option on there.
The other element of the WatchON app is the ability to have programmes chosen for you, with a simple tap on the thumbnail keying in the right sequence to open the channel on your set top box and have it working simply. We noted that although the genres were all over the place (not looking for content coming up, just suggesting basketball when asking for sports etc) when you keyed in your favourite channels and shows the WatchON app was good at suggesting the right content.
It’s a step forward from the HTC One option, and we liked the open and easy to use interface from the Galaxy S4. Also, unlike the One, there’s a lot more to choose from when it comes to On Demand video, with the Video Hub getting its own zone within the app rather than feeling tacked on with the HTC offering.
We’re can’t see a time when you’d use it as such, as the really annoying thing about the Galaxy S4 is you can’t stream bought movies wirelessly – only to a TV with a wired connection and screen mirroring enabled. Come on Samsung, don’t make a big deal about such a function then not let us watch things we bought from you.
Samsung made a big deal about S Health with the launch of the Galaxy S4, and it’s clear to see the intent: it wanted to get a slice of the lucrative fitness market, and wanted to leverage the technology contained within the smartphone already.
It’s a novel idea to have it so entrenched within the phone itself, but it does have some good ideas on how to use your phone to improve one’s fitness. For instance, once you’ve entered all your weight, height and exercise details, the phone can tell you an idea weight to aim for, and how many calories per day you should ingest to achieve it.
On top of that, you get a guide to exercise levels each day, in a way that mimics the likes of Nike’s FuelBand, which uses points to tell you how to get more active.
Samsung is clearly aware of this, as it’s even got an S Band accessory to achieve the same thing if you don’t have the phone with you – although we can see a scenario that when you use the phone and S Band together you’ll be getting twice the exercise for the same activity, which renders the whole process a little moot.
While we like the sentiment behind the S Health app, and the fact it works so much better than other similar apps, there’s still a lot to wonder about in there.
You’ll be set a ‘steps per day’ goal, and these are divided into Running, Walking and Up/Down (whatever that last one is). While on the days we did take the Galaxy S4 running it did have a larger uptick in the percentage of running steps, it was far from accurate.
Even on sedentary days, the S4 was congratulating on running for a portion of it. Seems a bit unfair to all those people that were out sweating and pounding the streets, but we took the kudos.
Perhaps we’re being a little hard on this app, as it works well – just too simplistically. You can track your weight here nicely (and even more effectively if you purchase Samsung’s Bluetooth scales) enter the food you’ve eaten to keep an eye on calories, and if you’re organised enough, track all your exercise in one place.
But there’s so much more to be done; what if you had running app capabilities within S Health, so it can monitor your runs in a similar way to Nike+, Adidas MiCoach or Endomondo? Samsung is missing a trick here – plus it needs to make the pedometer more accurate.
Group Play and Samsung Hub
Another big sell from Samsung, is Group Play – and again we can’t really see the point for certain elements. Yes, we know this is getting to be a theme with the phone, but bear with us here.
One of the most popular functions Samsung was keen to talk about was the music sharing – the idea being that if you’ve got more than one Galaxy S4 kicking around (presumably not by yourself) you can set up a Group Play group by making a Wi-Fi hotspot and stream the music to all phones at once.
The clever idea is that multiple phones can connect, and each can have their own speaker setting in a surround sound setup. The downside is that you’ll never have that many Galaxy S4s in one place, and even if you did, a single small speaker at the back is hardly going to be enough to wipe out your home speaker system.
We can see this being useful going forward though, as if you have other devices with Group Play functionality – such as wireless speakers – you can easily create a virtual surround speaker system using just the Galaxy S4.
One other thing that REALLY annoyed us was the fact that Group Play on the likes of the Galaxy S3 or Note 8.0 is a completely different app, despite having the same name and icon. You can’t do anything we mentioned above with these devices – you can barely connect the two together.
It seems an oversight from Samsung to remove this function, as many people will already have bought heavily into the Samsung ecosystem.
Building neatly on from the WatchON app, we’ve got the all new Samsung Hub ready and waiting to be played with. This is a much better idea than before, where all the disparate entertainment sections were scattered around the phone.
With this attractive hub, Samsung is looking to take a real crack at iTunes by making a holistic experience, whether it’s games, music or video you’re after. The UI, as we mentioned, is really nice, with swipes allowing you to get through all the content, and a home screen that throws up all the different kind of content it thinks you might like.
It’s not got a universal appeal, as even though you’re paying a high dollarpound price for the latest blockbuster, you can’t watch move that content onto your larger screen without a HomeSync device. Connecting to a TV or streaming using AllShare won’t let you play video you’ve purchased from the Samsung Hub, which feels like a massive trick missed here, although Samsung tells us it’s due to a licensing issue.
HTC Watch can do it, and the prices are often cheaper. What gives, Samsung?
It’s not really a great place to get all your content thanks to the really high price, and it would be excellent to see a wider remit by including third party apps to supplement the lack of functionality in places.
For instance, and we’re sure there’s a licensing reason for this, how great would it be to see Netflix in the Video Hub to allow instant streaming, rather than having to pay £10 or so just to get a video in SD that you can only really watch on the phone?
Battery life and connectivity
Ah, the old battery life test. One of the world’s most difficult things to rate, thanks to the sheer range of things you can do with the phone to keep it from throwing out all its juice in a heartbeat.
If you can’t be bothered to read why, just understand that Galaxy S4 = good battery life.
For one person the Galaxy S4 is a treasured beast, only brought out into the dappled light to check emails manually once an hour for most of the day. For the next it’s an all-powerful media beast, one that will be streaming movies over a 4G connection while auto-updating every app under the sun.
Whatever you use your phone for, in our eyes it should be able to handle what the handset’s main USPs are.
But the good news is that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is able to handle all the things you can throw at it and still keep the 2600mAh battery chugging along at the end of the day. We found that in general use it was very well received, as nothing we found could hurt it.
But the good news is that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is able to handle all the things you can throw at it and still keep the 2600mAh battery chugging along at the end of the day. We found that in general use it was very well received, as nothing we found could hurt it.
Our usual test is performed on the commute to work, the time where we’re at our most ‘phone-use-y’. For this test, like all other phones, we streamed the audio over Bluetooth headphones (Rockaway Novero, if you’re asking).
A 10 minute cycle ride with music playing dropped things by 1%. Streaming video over 4G for 10 minutes with full brightness on the screen pulled down another 3%. Then it was more music for 30 minutes, which ate another 2%, and then downloading a 86MB game file over 4G, which munched 3%.
A little more music playing, combined with general email checking and testing out the air gestures, air view and smart scroll saw a battery drain of just over 10% for the hour we were trundling to work. That’s really impressive, as we reckon high drain capability of 10% per hour will lead to more than enough juice come the end of the day.
We never found ourselves in that situation, which is great. You can always pop in another battery, thanks to this being removable, but in truth, it wasn’t needed.
We will say that those that like gaming, movie watching and internet browsing will struggle to make the battery last on this phone, as the screen is the biggest drain. That sounds obvious, but we’re actually happy that the Galaxy S4 isn’t one of those devices that will see your battery juicing down from an overly-enthusiastic background syncing process.
Connectivity on the Samsung Galaxy S4 is well catered for, thanks to simply packing every kind of sensor under the sun in there. For instance, you’ve got low power Bluetooth (Bluetooth 4.0) which means you can connect to a wide range of sensors – like trainers – and have them send back up data without taking up loads of power and sucking the battery dry.
As you can imagine, S Beam and NFC are both present and correct on the Samsung Galaxy S4, with both working well in tandem to nab stuff off other phones which you’ve tapped the back of.
It uses a Wi-Fi Direct connection to make it easier to send items from A to B, and does do very speedily indeed. It might look odd, but we still believe massively in the power of NFC thanks to the plethora of speaker docks and headphones that now use it for easier Bluetooth pairing.
GPS and GLONASS are on board, as we mentioned above in the Maps section of the review, and combined offer a startlingly quick location time when firing up the mapping services. Seriously quick – we urge you to try it.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 supports all manner of Wi-Fi connections, and can hang on to the signal even when weak thanks to dual-channel bonding to preserve the data transfer.
We can’t say that we noticed much of an upgrade over other models, but then again that’s not bad thing as most of the top end smartphones will now manage to offer decent Wi-Fi connections given they’re so crucial to the running of the phone.
When downloading large files we did notice some dropouts and speed losses, but that was more to do with the server connection it seemed. A 700MB video file from Samsung’s Video Hub took a lot less time to download than a 590MB file from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.
We were testing the Samsung Galaxy S4 on the EE network, and if you’re new to the 4G game then we urge you to make sure you’re going to get the superfast service on your new S4, should you have got this far and decided to rush out and buy it.
From app downloads to streaming video, it was just so fast. Web pages load in a heartbeat, updates occur almost instantly and everything you could hope for is serviced by upping the speeds to 4G levels.
If you’ve got fibre optic broadband then the effect is similar – we’re loving the fact you can download things on the go at lightning speeds. The S4 is well set up too – we moved between two tube stops (overground, obviously) and managed to nab a massive 87MB of data in just a few minutes.
The data levels need to be watched though. It’s very easy to get over excited with 4G on the Galaxy S4 as so much of it is enhanced by the faster speeds – from video to music to game downloads, we found ourselves wanting to do everything superfast, and as such were heading between 500MB and 1GB of data per day.
So make sure you’ve got enough data to manage – if you want the full force of 4G, you’ll probably be wanting at least 8GB of data, if not more.
One more thing…
Oh, and a big shout out for USB on the go. It’s a massively underloved feature that allows you to connect a USB dongle to your Galaxy S4 and transfer files without having to fanny about with microSD card and taking off the back of the phone.
Yes, you need a separate cable, and yes, finding one is harder than extracting teeth from a chicken, but we still like to see it added as a feature.
Hands on pictures
Many people will have jumped straight here to see what we think of the phone, so we’ll get the salient points out of the way first.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a phone that we really, really like. The combination of powerful innards, the market’s best screen and a clever design ethos all combine to make a really strong contender for the handset you should be buying when you wander into your local phone emporium.
It’s slick, it’s fast and it wipes the floor with the competition in so many ways. The 13MP camera is one of the best we’ve seen on a phone for getting that picture, with rich colours and texture the way forward.
We’re getting really fed up with the design criticisms thrown at any phone manufacturer that deigns to not make it’s flagship out of metal. Yes, it doesn’t feel as premium, but what you’re giving up in feel you’re getting back in weight, removable battery and general hardiness – the combination of Gorilla Glass 3 and a plastic shell mean this is one tough cookie.
The trend for cases is such that users aren’t even getting the full force of the design either – we don’t think that they should be necessary, but a lot of people are protecting their high investment. We spoke to a chap that went for the HTC One for design reasons, then showed us the huge case he carried it around in.
That’s not to say Samsung couldn’t do better with design on the S4 – there’s a lot more to wish for here – but it’s a much more solid version of the S3.
The Galaxy S4 seemed to be a boring iteration of the S3, and we were ready to be fully nonplussed by it. But you then realise that deep in the Samsung labs they took apart the older version and then upgraded it in nearly every way, so this really is very, very good Galaxy S3 here.
The screen is out of this world. Even at a lower PPI the 5-inch display dominates the competition. We love how Samsung has evened out the colour by default, so the usual ‘OHMYGERD, the colours are too over the top!!!1!’ argument is mostly moot.
It’s clear, bright and vivid, and there’s very little it isn’t great for.
The camera upgrade is impressive too – we liked the top end features and the sheer snapping power allowed for some simply divine pictures. The whole user interface was improved as well, which was a nice touch forward, although it still over-complicates things.
TouchWiz is an Android skin (Android 4.2, don’t forget) that rewards you for playing with it – and in today’s over-sanitised smartphone world, being able to discover features is a real treat to a lot of users.
Battery life is strong, 4G is a real step forward in speed and the addition of a microSD card slot is what we’re looking for in a phone still. Hear that, HTC and Google?
While the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a much better phone than the S3 and most of the competition, there are still some niggles that we can see being problematic.
For a phone that’s so quick to run through nearly every task we were a little upset to see how long it takes to load a gallery up. This problem is compounded with a microSD card, and the more stuff on there, the more the phone has to parse.
It got to the point where we were embarrassed to show off the photos we had taken as it just took too long to get them up.
The capacity issue is one that could rear its head over two years with the phone. 9GB simply isn’t enough to start with, and coupled with the fact any photos you’ve got in Dropbox will store here as a cache, movies and music from Samsung Hub will download here and any large apps will also be caught on the internal memory means we can see this running out FAST.
One of the worst messages you can get on an Android phone is telling you there’s no space for new apps, as many will simply not know what to do. Yes, you can mitigate it, but it shouldn’t be necessary.
But the biggest problem we have is with the supposed ‘innovation’ Samsung has brought to proceedings. Air View, Air Gestures, Smart Scroll – these are all cool in their own way, but all are flawed or overly complex, marring the overall simplicity of the device.
Compare that to the HTC One or stock Android on the Google Nexus 4 and you feel that Samsung is coming up with ideas for the sake of something new. We really do laud the sentiment, and you can just turn it all off – but then you’ve basically got a faster Galaxy S3 with a better screen and camera.
Make no mistake – the Samsung Galaxy S4 is far, far more than a Galaxy S3 ‘S’ – Samsung may be copying Apple according to some people, but it’s not as brazen as the Cupertino brand in flogging the exact same design with a slightly uprated processor and calling it a new phone.
The Galaxy S4 is a great, great device in its own right, re-inventing what it means to own a brilliant smartphone in a number of ways. The gestures are cool, the touch-less experience amazing at times – in short, it’s a wonderful phone you want to pull out of your pocket again and again and again.
The design issue is overblown. Yes, it’s plastic, and yes, compared to the competition you wouldn’t choose to spend £500 on it for the chassis. But it’s a very solid device that belies that exterior and shouldn’t be discounted for it.
TouchWiz is getting a little complex now, though. The simplicity of HTC Sense shines through, and the HTC One is a superior device in many ways because the innovation is based on things users want. Where Samsung brought the ability to wave to move photos, the HTC One made the speaker better.
Where the S4 lets you scroll with your head, the One lets you take photos in low light. The latter feature is slightly offset by the S4’s auto Night Mode, but you get the picture.
But screw all the ‘which phone is better than the other’ notion for now (we’ll get to that in our best mobile phones piece) the Galaxy S4 is a stunning smartphone that won’t let you down for a variety of tasks. There’s no doubt Samsung will have to make a big step forward to keep users interested with the Galaxy S5, but for now we love the S4 and would be proud to have it in our pocket.
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