Samsung Galaxy S4 – Review

Samsung Galaxy S4   Review

It’s fair to say that Samsung’s success with the Galaxy S3 has been nothing short of astonishing. The handset even gave the lauded iPhone 5 a run for it’s money in terms of pure numbers, and for good reason.
Great performance, a slim plastic (sorry Samsung, polycarbonate) shell and a great camera along with some features such as ‘smart stay’ not featured in other Android handsets. Since it’s launch, the S3 has been regarded as one of the best, and certainly the most popular Android handsets.


So how does the successor to this behemoth hold up? Will you actually use any of the new features Samsung announced? Read on for my thoughts on the Korean giant’s latest flagship.

(NB – there are two reasons I will be mentioning the HTC One a lot during this review.

1) It’s a direct competitor for the S4 for many, and both are recent Android ‘flagships’.

2) I own one, so have had enough time to compare them properly and fairly.)

Design
It’s fair to say this is a point of some debate on the Galaxy S4. Yes, it’s very much like the Galaxy S3. It has Polycarbonate casing, where other phones are using metal contruction (such as the HTC One). It is light and durable, but there’s no denying it feels cheap. When paying £580 for a phone (more than the 16gb iPhone 5) I would expect a more premium feel. The design itself also feels rather out of date. That’s not to say it poor, because this is not an ugly handset, but we’ve seen it all before. There are subtle differences between this and the S3, but blink and you’ll miss them.

 

Screen

If I had to mention one reason to buy this phone, and give the one reason people will buy this phone, it would be the screen. Superlatives fail me. It’s astonishingly beautiful. I’ve often joked that the Galaxy S3 is an average phone tacked on to an amazing screen. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with the S4 but the screen is certainly the stand out feature. It’s beautiful.

The combination of saturated colours, thin bezel and  lots and lots of pixels means everything just looks terrific. I currently own the HTC One, and there are pluses and minuses for both screens, I’d say they end up being about as good as each other. Both are amazing, for different reasons.

The HTC One looks marginally sharper, and with more accurate whites, whereas the S4 has that over-saturation and better blacks which AMOLED tech is famous for, and is slightly larger. (Both screens are 1080p, the S4 is 5.0 inches at 441 ppi, the HTC One is 4.7, giving 469 ppi – both thrashing the iPhone’s ‘retina display’)

These points are only really noticeable when comparing directly, whichever phone you choose, you won’t be disappointed with the screen.

Samsung Galaxy S4   Review

Performance

Performance is a big deal for me. I’m impatient. I was therefore, slightly surprised to find the Galaxy S4 felt quite sluggish at first. Part of this is by design (Samsung introduce more animations when doing various operations) and part of it is just strange. For example, Samsung’s home button (and this applied to the S3 too) when pressed once introduces an intentional delay, just to check you’re not going to press it a second time to invoke S-Voice. this means every time the user goes back to the home screen and doesn’t want to use S-Voice (the majority of the time I would suggest) they are waiting for no reason. This is not good UI design. It is possible to turn off this functionality, so the home button always goes straight to home with no delay, but it shouldn’t be there in the first place. Naughty Samsung.

Also, comparing directly to HTC’s flagship, application performance is not as snappy. Apps took noticabley longer to open, and there were occasional pauses which I don’t see on my HTC One. The camera also feels much slower, but more on that later.

Also, placing a call, selecting a contact etc? All faster on the HTC One.

Battery Life

Battery life was good on the Galaxy S4. It’s always difficult to review battery life, since once user’s usage pattern will vary from another’s, but the S4 would comfortably last a day of usage (approx 7am to 11pm) whereas my HTC One *just* lasts a day. This makes sense given the S4 has a 2600mAh battery, as opposed to the HTC One’s 2300mAh effort.

Camera

The camera is fairly easy to sum up. It’s the same as the S3 but with more pixels. It feels the same to use, has the same overall great results, and has lots of new features you’ll probably never use. Seriously, I can’t think of a single use case where I want to remove passers by from a photo. The ‘eraser’ mode has to be selected in advance. If I knew someone was going to walk in front of my photo, why not just wait until they’e done so and then take the picture? I’ve never needed this feature with a point and shoot, nor do I need it on my smartphone. Beauty face just makes it look like someone has rubbed vaseline all over your mush, sound and shot just makes me wonder why I didn’t just take a video.. you get the idea. Buy the S4 because it is a competent camera, not because of these gimmicks.  I didn’t find any of them particularly useful (burst shot is easily the most useful to me, and doesn’t even get it’s own menu!).

Some sample pictures and a video from the S4 can be found here, stay tuned for a camera comparison between the S4, HTC One, Nexus 4 and Nokia 808.

Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review Samsung Galaxy S4   Review

 

Sound

No problems here, callers were able to hear me, and me them, loud and clear. Both on headset and loudspeaker. Music sounded great, although I did miss Beats audio from my HTC One. I’m sure the same could easily be achieved using a downloaded player and tweaking the EQ settings though.. I didn’t use Samsung’s stock music player, because I’ve never liked the design, and I use Google Music for everything anyway.

The Touchwiz conundrum

People say iOS needs a makeover.. TouchWiz is just horrid. In terms of functionality it works fine, but the design  language was awful a year ago and nothing has changed for the better. This is personal taste, for sure, but I can’t help think the sharper screen has made it look even worse. From the cartoony icons, to the horrible fonts, it’s all just fairly ‘my first smartphone’.

To illustrate this point I’ve attached some screenshots, from the Galaxy S4, then the HTC One.

First up is the messaging app

Samsung Galaxy S4   Review

Samsung Galaxy S4   Review

Now the phone dialler

Samsung Galaxy S4   Review

 

Samsung Galaxy S4   Review

 

You get the idea.

Conclusion

I liked the Samsung Galaxy S4 a lot. The screen is wonderful, and I found myself switching to it every time I needed to check out a YouTube clip or a film trailer. I can’t say the same for the rest of the device however. Yes, having a removable battery and an SD card slot is great, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of a premium feel handset, and performance on a phone this expensive (and with these specs) should  be blazing. I’m not talking about benchmarks, I’m talking about real world use. There’s not point having the fastest CPU out there, if the software running slows it down. This seems like something Samsung can fix, but will they? I don’t know.

For many, the choice will be between the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. For me personally, the better construction, faster performance and more useful (if lower resolution) camera have won me over. If battery life, a terrific screen, higher resolution camera and maybe a lighter handset are all important to you, consider the Galaxy S4.

I’m happy to answer any questions relevant to this review, use my contact details which can be found beneath each of my posts.

Thanks for reading!

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  • david hart

    Don’t pick a phone on it’s metal shell.
    My HTC One S was a rubbish phone.Too thin and slippery plus
    constantly doing a ram dump

  • Martin

    Nice review Mark, need a comparison against the Sony Z as well now ;)

    I agree about the feel of the HTC v the Sammy, the HTC just feels quality. Samsung appeared to have rested on their Laurels a bit with the S4, perhaps they thought ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and just made a faster, bigger S3?

    • Well they bumped the specs for everything (they seem to have bumped every spec just for the sake of it!), but the irony is the device is slower.
      I’ve got a colleague who got his S4 last week and he’s now going to sell it in favour of the HTC One. He prefers the screen of the S4, but can’t put up with the lag on every task. It might have 2GB of RAM, but it fills 1.6GB of the usable 1.8GB with TouchWiz & crap – they needed to go for 3GB if they were going to hamper it that much!
      They need to sort out the amount of bloat they’ve put into everything sharpish.

      • scott

        can he root it?

        • You can, but that has its own issues.
          And I agree with him that you shouldn’t have to root a brand new flagship £600 phone just to get it to run properly!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the review Mark. I’m opting for the HTC One, as you are a user of that handset I would be interested to learn what you use to top-up your battery during a day of heavy use.
    Would be nice to discover what apps you have found most useful. Obviously that is going to vary widely from person to person but it’s a start.

  • robinottawa

    I think the photos are overly sharpened. It’s just an impression here, but I came here to see after looking at Steve Litchfield’s photo review of the GS3 and GS4 and other cams. He zoomed in more so it was way more obvious, but I can’t see how to zoom in here. Crisp sharpening can add a lot of zip to a photo, but not everyone wants that much post-processing of their photos. For example, I’d rather have the ability to do my own post-processing depending on the situation (print size, media, etc). Thanks for the info.