Look and feel
Slim and sleek. Although the plastic build doesn't scream 'premium', but it keeps the phone light and it still looks gorgeous and feels great in the hand.
Ease of Use
One of the most fluid uses of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean we have seen yet, and the changes to Samsung's TouchWiz interface lift the user experience to another level altogether.
Where to start? Air Gestures, Smart Scroll, S Health and a 13-megapixel camera rammed with options just scratch the surface of fun and functional features offered.
It takes a lot to impress us, but the S 4's performance is flawless. The quad-core processor twinned with 2GB of RAM meant we never saw a moment of lag, even when pushing the phone to its limits.
In every day use, it is more than acceptable, especially when considering we used 4G networks. The media test results blew us away, with seven hours of video streaming at full brightness on a single charge.
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,3/21/2013 12:20:48 PM
Ease of use
Enlarged and improved screen, innovative features, great camera, strong battery life
Sheer number of options can be overwhelming, design is not wildly different to the S III, plastic body is off-putting to some
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, wrote science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.
With the Galaxy S 4, Samsung has reached that level of advancement.
A phone that pauses a movie when look away, will scroll down a webpage with a slight move of your head and can bring up snippets of links simply by hovering a finger above the screen doesn’t just seem supernatural to 15th century peasants – it seems pretty damn magical to us, too.
Building on greatness
How do you improve on perfection? The S III was our five star phone of the year in 2012, but somehow, Samsung has taken what makes it great, sprinkled on a little more of its South Korean pixie dust and has produced something that is going to be hard to top.
The S 4 uses the S III as a template, and then packs in even more phone, despite being thinner and lighter.
Left: The new Samsung Galaxy S 4. Right: The Galaxy S 3
Those improvements include a five-inch screen over its predecessor’s 4.8-inch display, a 7.99mm profile compared to the S III’s width of 8.6mm and a weight loss of 3g. The battery is larger, too, holding 2,600mAh rather than 2,100mAh.
Where the new phone hasn’t changed much, is in its design. It looks very much like its predecessor, complete with physical home button, although look closely and there are differences. Aside from that larger screen, the rear camera is centered, the device is slightly squarer overall (like the S II), and the faux-metal band that runs around the outside of the phone is uniform in width, rather than tapering.
The S 4 doesn't have the tapered metal band of the S III
One thing that hasn’t improved though is the general plasticness of the phone. For those who prefer a metal body, that’s a dealbreaker, however, we like the feel of the phone and even though it has a plastic body, it still feels more solid than a lot of other devices.
Samsung say that its customers want the flexibility of an SD card slot and replaceable battery and a polycarbonate plastic body allows for this.
The S 4 has centred the camera LED, and placed the speaker at the bottom
The biggest changes you’ll encounter come when investigating the S 4’s range of features.
It’s fair to say that some of the S 4’s features are – at present - little more than gimmicks, but it’s just the beginning of the road. Smart pause, where video will pause when you look away, isn’t right yet and its performance is patchy. Nobody looks at a screen 100 per cent of the time they are watching a video, so some of the pauses are unwanted, and you’ll turn this feature off pretty quickly, but it’s a good sign of where technology is heading. How far are we from automatic zoom when the phone can see you’re struggling to read text?
Other features, however, are already fully optimised, work perfectly every time and are worth using every day, with air gestures coming out on top for us.
With your phone lying dormant, simply hovering your hand over the front brings up a screen telling you the time and if there are any texts, messages or missed calls – much less antisocial than picking the phone up to check when in the company of others.
Scrolling up and down webpages (Air Jump) with a flick of the hand is also neat, and comes in usefulif you are reading with your phone propped up. The same goes for being able to flick between tabs (Air Browse) by swiping your hand left or right – it works with music and photos too. The movements need to be precise, the phone sometimes confuses a vertical swipe for a horizontal one and vice versa, but once you get the gestures perfected, it is seamless.
The real stand-out is Air View, which presents information when you hover a finger over the screen. Point at a photo album folder to preview the pics inside, or hover over a point on a video’s progress bar to see what’s coming up.
Our favourite aspect of Air View comes when emailing. Simply hover your finger over an item in your inbox, and the first few lines of the email will pop up, meaning there’s no need to open and close different messages when looking for something in particular. This feature originally appeared on Samsung's Galaxy Note 2, but needed the stylus – now just a finger will suffice.
Eye is for imperfect
The innovation gets a little less impressive when you spend a bit of time with the eye-tracking software – Smart Stay and Smart Scroll.
Samsung has used Smart Stay on previous devices, and it keeps the screen on as long as you’re looking at it. This works well, but as we mentioned above, falls over a bit when the feature is transported to video.
Smart Scroll is a bit hit-and-miss too. When it works, controlling a webpage with your head feels amazing, but all too often, the phone loses track of your eyeballs and you’re left awkwardly nodding your head at an article about the Norwegian leather industry.
The ability to fling content to other devices via Wi-Fi is still present, as is NFC, but the S 4 integrates itself into your home entertainment set-up in a whole new way. WatchOn connects your S 4 to your TV service provider, acting as both an EPG and a reliable remote control.
The HTC One offers a TV remote function, but it isn’t as fluid as this. Pick the service you use (Sky, Freeview, etc), choose manufacturer, and off you go. You are then presented with an electronic programme guide where you can pick a show to watch, schedule one for later, set an alarm reminder, or even share with friends what you’re watching. Hit another button, and you’re given an impressive, fully-functioning remote control. It’s a feature that is executed very well and we found ourselves using it every day. If you live with a child who leaves the remote in obscure places, you’re going to love it.
Of course, with a five-inch screen, you may not want to use your TV anymore. Simply put, HD video looks incredible on the S 4, and images look great on that supersize screen. Side-by-side with the S III, the display size difference is marked.
More screen in the same size space: the S 4's five-inch screen is marvellous
The 1920 x 1080 display is big, bright and beautiful. The Super AMOLED panel means colours burst out of the screen and black reproduction is excellent, too. It has an outrageous 441-pixels-per-inch and the responsiveness can be tinkered with, meaning it can be configured to still work even if you’re wearing gloves. We tried it with a few different pairs, and it only stopped registering touch once we had moved onto oven mitts.
Sound isn’t quite so brilliant. Not because the speaker isn’t good, but because its positioning is poorly thought out - sitting on the back of the phone right at the bottom, where it’s muffled by your palm. Of course, this is only a problem when holding the phone in portrait, and perhaps Samsung figured that with a screen this nice, all media will be consumed in landscape mode, but it’s a silly decision and one that could have been worked around simply by giving speaker placement a little more thought.
Continuing the theme of offering something to everyone, the S 4 camera is a brilliant all-rounder that will be more than suitable for the vast majority of users, while offering some more elaborate features for those that want them.
Boasting 13-megapixels on the back, and 2.1-megapixels on the front, we found images to be sharp and bright and delivered with next to no lag.
The myriad camera options are accessed via a simple Mode button displayed on the camera screen and within this lie a variety of features – some useful, some not so much. These features include:
Although there are definitely a couple there that will never get used, their inclusion doesn’t hurt our overall opinion of the camera.
This is another would-be criticism that can be levelled at the S 4 - there’s so much there, where to begin. It’s true that for the uninitiated, the S 4 has the potential to dazzle and confuse, such is the level of customisation, but like a great piece of music, the longer you spend with it, the more you’ll uncover, understand and appreciate about it. Almost every feature can be turned off, too; so if you don’t think it’s going to get used, simply switch it off.
There are quite a lot of options on the dropdown menu
For those who will find this too much trouble, the phone also offers an Easy Mode, which strips away all the bells and whistles, and gives you three home screens, filled with large widgets, app icons favourite contacts. It’s a nice touch for people who want a high-end phone, but find navigating the menus a bit overwhelming.
When the S 4 launched, Samsung made a great deal of fuss about it being a ‘life companion’ (that legend is emblazoned across the default lock screen), it’s not until we started using S Health that we realised what they meant. If the in-built TV remote helps you stay rooted to the sofa, S Health will encourage you to get up and move.
It’s an interesting idea to have a health-app embedded so firmly within the phone itself, but you will find yourself using it and it does subtly help you make healthier decisions. The ability to quickly look up the calorie content of almost any item is quite helpful, while the built-in pedometer and daily graphs gamify the decision to walk instead of use public transport, or take the stairs instead of the lift.
The S Health widget sits on the desktop and tells you how far you've walked each day
Enter 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. The S 4's temperature and humidity sensors are a nice addition, too. Tell the phone how you feel, and it'll figure out how you should adjust your surroundings to feel better.
With all these features whirring away, you’d think the Galaxy S 4 would be a power-hungry demon, and maybe it is, but the larger battery makes it unnoticeable.
We got almost seven hours out of the Galaxy S 4 while streaming video at full brightness over Wi-Fi. The average for a smartphone is between five and six hours, so getting that much out of a phone with a screen this big and bright is entirely acceptable. We just about scraped a day of regular use with all options (Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, Smart Scroll, etc) switched on, but using it more realistically, it easily exceeded 24 hours.
All the fuss and worry over what processor the UK version of the S 4 would get has proved to be unfounded, as the 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor backed by a hefty 2GB of RAM is blisteringly fast and we didn’t encounter any lag or slowdown at any time while living with the phone.
With this amount of power and performance, the S 4 feels like it should be a much larger device. The fact that it does everything the S III can, but in less space, is an achievement in itself, but the S 4 does not simply rest on its laurels. The additional features are both practical and entertaining, and an exciting glimpse into the future of smartphones.
The excellent screen, speedy processor and impressive battery life mean it will handle absolutely anything you throw at it.
Rivals take note; this is the phone to beat.