We played with Samsung's freshly-launched Galaxy S4 smartphone at a special preview event earlier, and can happily report that it not only lives up to the hype, it's a supremely desirable chunk of designer tech that's packed with the usual incredible Samsung features.
With the likes of Sony's Xperia Z and the HTC One already announced, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has some stiff competition, but impressive new features such as the phone’s spooky ability to track your face help the Galaxy S4 to stand out.
How it looks and feels
The Galaxy S4 is a five incher as rumoured, but the body is slimmer and lighter than the Galaxy S3 at 130g and 7.9mm (although it’s the same height). That five inch screen has a pixel density of 441ppi, and is a Full HD Super AMOLED display with Gorilla Glass 3 to keep it tough and resistant to scratches. It has a supremely bright screen, as vibrant as ever, with great viewing angles.
The Galaxy S4 comes in two colours, also as rumoured: White Frost and Black Mist. Good to see that the descriptive colour names are still present, even when it’s essentially black and white. The body looks similar to the S3, with the same rounded corners and screen that fills the bulk of the front panel. The back feels plastic but also solid, and the screen sure is tough – we tried pushing on it - hard - with no ill effects such as colour distortion.
Galaxy S4 specs
With 4G compatability, our preview model's 1.9 GHz Qualcomm SnapDragon quad-core processor backed up by 2GB of RAM, and everything ran as smoothly as you’d expect. A 2600mAh battery should hopefully provide a full day of life despite the powerful components and the bright, spacious screen. You get a choice of 16/32/64GB of storage space, plus a microSD memory card slot for expanding up to a maximum of 128GB overall.
The processor for the UK will actually be a 1.6ghz octo-core Samsung-made processor, which is apparently 30% more battery efficient than S3!
Android 4.2.2 is covered with Samsung’s usual TouchWiz interface, and there’s nothing obviously new to report – it flows smoothly as usual, with Samsung’s full range of widgets (plus new ones for the extra features – more on those in a bit).
Galaxy S4 Camera
You get the usual front and rear-facing cameras on the Galaxy S4, but it’s the features that help the S4’s snappers to really stand out.
The front camera is two-megapixels, the rear is 13-megapixels.
There are tons of different camera modes to select, many of which were found on the Galaxy Camera, such as ‘beauty face’ (helps ugly mugs like us to look better) and panorama mode. However, there are a fair few notable new modes too, such as:
Dual Mode - Samsung’s directly taking on LG’s Optimus G Pro smartphone with dual recording and dual shot modes, which takes photos or videos using both cameras at once. Your front-facing image appears in a frame within the shot and you can select from a range of different frames (including a heart, or a 50/50 split between front and rear cameras). You can also move the frame around the screen and position it wherever you want. It worked well in practice, and could be useful if you want to shoot a commentary video on an event or place.
Sound & Shot – This feature captures nine seconds of sound to go with a photo, so you can record a brief note or similar to help jog your memory or note an interesting fact.
Drama shot – combine several photos into one, for instance to show several images of the same person in one frame. This one will make arty types dribble all over themselves.
Cinema Photo – this is the same as Cinemagraph - Nokia’s Lumia camera trickery where part of a photo remains static and you select another part to ‘animate’. For instance, you can have a person running through a static environment where everyone else is frozen. Another one for arty types to self-combust over.
Eraser Shot - One of the more interesting (although yet-to-be-decided-if-it’s-useful) features is ‘eraser shot’, which aims to remove unwanted people hovering around in the background of your photo. It works by taking five consecutive shots and detecting rapid background movement. Any such movement is highlighted in purple, as shown here.
You can select purple items for removal, which could be useful if someone walks into your shot by accident – but you have to have Eraser mode selected to use it, which presumably you wouldn’t if you weren’t expecting the intrusion. The erroneous intruders also have to be moving quite quickly to be picked up and eliminated, so if they’re merely loitering it won’t work.
Story Album - You get the usual full array of editing and sharing options, and also the new ‘Story Album’, which combines photos, times, weather, location etc. into an automatic album, and it can even pull info from websites such as TripAdvisor for an info-packed memoriam of your trip or party or whatever.
Other cool Galaxy S4 features
Air View – Hover your finger a couple of millimetres over various areas of the Galaxy S4’s interface and you’ll get extra information popping up on screen. For instance, hover over a speed dial button and you’ll bring up who you’ve assigned that number to. Hover over an area in your browser and it’ll magnify that area. In the video player, you can hover your finger over a point of the timeline to see that particular frame, so you know which part of a movie you’re about to skip to. You can also hover over an email in your inbox to check out the start of that email. It’s a quick and handy way of accessing info without having to click through unnecessarily.
Air Gesture – You can now navigate through the Galaxy S4’s UI using hand gesture commands. For instance, swipe your hand right to left to flick through your photos, skip music tracks or jump between browser tabs, or swipe top to bottom to scroll down the page (handy if you’re halfway through eating ribs and don’t want BBQ sauce all over your beautiful screen, or busy driving). We found in our brief play that this feature worked well, recognising our gestures close to 100% of the time.
Smart Pause – The Galaxy S3 had basic eye-tracking with the likes of Smart Stay, which put the phone into hibernation if you looked away. The Galaxy S4 expands on this tech with three more features, starting with Smart Pause. If you’re watching a video and you look away, the video will assume you’ve been distracted by some pesky bystander and pause after a second or so. Smart Pause worked every time we tried it, although there is a slightly long pause before resuming your video when you look back at the screen – something that may be down to the preview unit we were testing. We’ll be sure to test Smart Pause out in full when we get the finished product.
Smart Scroll – One of the heralded futuristic features of the Galaxy S4 before launch was its ability to scroll up and down by tracking your eye movements, something which would’ve been mighty impressive but also presumably a nightmare to encode. Smart Scroll is what we actually got: it detects when you’re looking at the screen and allows you to scroll up and down websites and the like with a slight tilt of your wrist, saving you from clumsy thumb navigation. We struggled to get this working properly in our brief hands-on, but we’re sure it’ll be a worthwhile feature when we’ve had a chance to get used to it.
Smart Rotation – You probably know how annoying it is when you lie on your side while using your phone and the screen decides to rotate so everything’s sideways. Smart Rotation disables auto screen rotation when this happens using the front-facing camera to detect the orientation of your face.
S Health - The Galaxy S4 is also health conscious, with a new feature called S Health. It has a built-in pedometer so it detects when you’re walking or running and even if you’re climbing steps. You can set goals for exercise and it’ll let you know if you make them. It will also tell you the temperature of the room, and keep track of how many calories you’ve consumed, so you know when to put down that pie.
These are all features already available on Android through various exercisey Google Play apps, but it’s nice to have them built into TouchWiz. There are also extra accessories you can buy to interact with S Health, including an ‘S Band’ wrist band which tracks your activity even when you don’t have your S4 on you, which then syncs via Bluetooth when you get back home – perfect if you don’t want to go running with your precious smartphone. We don’t know pricing yet, but hopefully they’ll be competitively priced so wannabe exercisers can get in on the action without coughing up tons more cash.
Chat On – Not a new feature, but in Chat On you can now share photos and maps/diagrams plus annotations with other users, and S Translator has been built in so you can have a conversation with a Frenchman, for instance, without resorting to your mediocre pigeon GCSE French. You also have Group Play, which allows you to play a multiplayer game with friends over a wireless network.
Watch On – Using the Galaxy S4’s IR sensor, you can control your TV using the phone. You can browse TV shows on digital guides and then select shows to watch, or set up a lazy day’s viewing schedule. This is something we’re seeing on every new smartphone, as manufacturers realise that practically everyone messes around on their mobile while watching the idiot box.
Samsung Hub – Your one-stop shop for books, music, movies, games and more. A big online store.
S View Cover
The new Galaxy S4 flip cover, which wraps around the phone to protect it from scrapes, has a small window in the front which shows you a readout of the S4’s screen. This will show you the time and any notifications such as missed calls, so you don’t need to keep opening it up to check for new items.
Galaxy S4 UK release date and price
Release date is April 26 in the UK, although so far no pricing has been announced. We’ll have a full Samsung Galaxy S4 review for you guys soon!