updated 02:30 pm EDT, Fri March 15, 2013
Revamped Android flagship
Samsung yesterday formally unveiled the Galaxy S 4 handset at a spectacular Radio City Music Hall launch event, which attracted enough people to completely fill the sidewalks around the entire block. Although the festivities were certainly impressive, we spent some time with the new smartphone to see if it lives up to the hype.
From an industrial-design perspective, the S 4 is not much different than its predecessor. The company has shaved the thickness down to 7.9mm and reduced the bezel size, but the overall build retains the same basic shape and plastic battery cover. In this respect, it lacks the high-end feel and appearance of HTC's One or the iPhone 5.
The S 4 integrates a massive five-inch display with 1920x1080 resolution, utilizing Super AMOLED technology for deep blacks and vibrant colors. We've been disappointed by lower-resolution Super AMOLED panels, which utilize a PenTile pixel configuration that results in a fuzzy appearance when looking at fine details. Super AMOLED Plus technology uses a standard RGB layout, but since the S 4 specs list does not reference the Plus designation, we suspect the fuzziness may not be apparent because the 441 ppi density is high enough to make it indiscernible. The color accuracy also appears to be improved over other OLED screens, mitigating oversaturation.
With a 1.9GHz quad-core processor, the US-bound hardware (with an LTE radio) was very capable of keeping up with any of our basic tests. Some markets will have the option of stepping up to a 1.6GHz eight-core chip, though we did not try out this variant.
We have been critical of many custom Android overlays, which typically bring little in additional features and sometimes add unnecessary clutter or complexity to the arguably well-rounded stock experience. It is no surprise that Samsung has kept its TouchWiz interface, which continues to be updated with new features and capabilities.
The company experimented with hovering-finger input through its Air View feature on the Note II, and the concept has been expanded with the S 4. Other software enhancements focus on the camera utility, enabling users to combine action shots or quickly erase things that move into the frame during burst shots. We also like the translation integration, which integrates a translator across various core applications.
Some of Samsung's OS customizations are certainly interesting, but leave us doubtful that the company will release timely updates to take advantage of the latest Android builds. Google typically introduces significant updates at its I/O developer conference in May, potentially before some carriers even begin selling the S 4.
Overall the S 4 brings a variety of incremental improvements over its predecessor, though it is not the perfect smartphone. The S III established itself as a top seller and helped boost Samsung's smartphone share to rival Apple, and we have no doubt the S 4 will be one of the most popular Android handsets in 2013.