Review: Samsung Galaxy S 4

Samsung Galaxy S 4 aims for top of smartphone market (May 8th, 2013)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Samsung

Price: $250 with new Sprint contract

The Good

  • Large, high-res display
  • Great camera features
  • Compact for its size
  • Decent battery life

The Bad

  • Plastic construction
  • Generic design
  • Cluttered interface
  • Dysfunctional features

Samsung's new flagship Android smartphone, the Galaxy S 4, faces even stiffer competition than its popular predecessor. With a five-inch, 1920x1080 display, it is also one of the largest phones on the market. Will the fresh hardware and slew of new software features enable Samsung extend its lead in the smartphone market? In our full review, we'll determine if the S 4 succeeds in outpacing the competition.

Design and construction

At a glance, the S 4 doesn't appear to be much different than the S 3 or Samsung's other Galaxy devices. A flat glass slab extends to the edges of the facade, with room for one hardware button below the screen. The back is mostly flat, save for a tight curve near the edges, while the four outer corners are also broadly curved.



The company seems to be comfortable with its overall design, extensively utilizing plastic rather than embracing a higher-end housing material such as aluminum. What looks like a metal ridge around the outside edge is actually plastic with a brushed chrome finish.

Modern plastics and reinforced composites certainly have proven their merit as durable and light materials for smartphone construction. In this regard, the S 4 is not "poorly" constructed, per se, but it falls short of serving as a uniquely refined alternative to Samsung's own Galaxy devices.

Without violating the "form follows function" mantra, devices such as Apple's iPhone 5, HTC's One and the LG-built Nexus 4 all bring the aesthetic appeal and quality feel that we expect from high-end hardware. Admittedly our examples of better-looking devices all share one common drawback, lacking a removable battery, but this is not going to be a consideration for most buyers.



Display

The Galaxy S III helped stretch the conceptual limit for smartphone size, with its 4.8-inch AMOLED display. The S 4 continues this trend, going even further with a five-inch spread. Fortunately, improvements in components and construction techniques have allowed Samsung to place the bigger panel in a lower-volume housing.

There is clearly much debate about the proper display size for a smartphone. Samsung obviously promotes the "bigger is better" concept, while Apple maintains that the iPhone 5's four-inch panel is the best compromise between presentation and keyboard usability.



After using the S 4 as a daily driver for the better part of a week, we did not find ourselves thinking "I wish this display was a bit smaller." This does not mean that the sky is the limit, and Samsung appears to acknowledge that the S 4 is better suited for mainstream users than the Note II with its 5.5-inch panel.

The latest S-series handset jumps from 1280x720 resolution to a 1920x1080 screen, perfect for playing Full HD videos without downscaling. Crunching the pixel numbers equates to a 441-ppi density, clearly exceeding the iPhone 5's 326-ppi panel and the S III's 306-ppi display.

Samsung has continued to use Super AMOLED technology, with its PenTile pixel layout. In lower-resolution displays, we have noticed a fuzzy appearance to small text and other fine details. In the S 4, however, the pixel density appears to be so high that the PenTile issue becomes imperceptible.

Aside from the pixel specs, the S 4 display is bright and vibrant. AMOLED sometimes oversaturates colors, but this was not an obvious problem with the new Galaxy. Nonetheless, the iPhone 5 and HTC One appear to offer a higher level of color accuracy.



Camera

Working with a shared platform, Samsung has continued to add its own software enhancements to differentiate its hardware from other Android devices. The S 4's camera utilities exemplify this strategy, integrating a variety of features that go beyond the capabilities of Android's core camera app.

Stepping back to the hardware itself, the S 4 features a 13-megapixel primary camera, complete with autofocus and LED flash, along with a 2.0-megapixel front-facing shooter. The rear sensor takes advantage of backside illumination for low-light sensitivity. Shooting in dark environments appears to be competitive with the iPhone 5, but the four-megapixel "UltraPixel" sensor in the HTC One is vastly superior in this regard.

Flipping through shooting modes is extremely easy, thanks to a Cover Flow-style menu with choices for Panorama, Eraser, HDR, and animated functions, among others. We expected the camera experience to be complicated by an overabundance of options, considering the lack of hardware buttons and wheels, but the company has succeeded in simplifying the controls within the touch-based UI.

HDR and panorama functions now are commonplace, but several of the other functions are interesting new additions. Drama mode takes up to 100 shots in a single burst, processing the captures into a single still that shows a moving subject in several positions through the scene. We liked the simplicity of the controls, pressing checkboxes on the corner of small previews to quickly separate unwanted shots.

Animated Photo mode goes one step further, enabling users to blend a moving image with a still photo to create an animated GIF. The UI here is also straightforward; we easily traced part of the image to animate and which areas to freeze. To master a GIF loop, the menu also provides options for reversing direction and trimming the beginning or end.

Eraser mode attempts to address another common issue: random people who unexpectedly or unavoidably wander into group pictures. When the function is enabled, the S 4 automatically captures five stills and highlights any moving objects. Users can then tap the unwanted objects to remove them from the picture.

Some users might also appreciate the dual-camera mode to simultaneously take pictures from the front- and rear-facing cameras, though positioning can be a bit tricky. Sound & Shoot mode, which pairs a few seconds of audio recording with a still picture, came across as a bit gimmicky and unlikely to have much broad appeal.

Samsung's Story Album feature attempts to bridge the gap between smartphone photography and the tasks usually reserved for standalone cameras and computer editing. The phone automatically analyzes photos and recommends album groupings, which can be added to a customizable layout and printed to share in the physical world. We don't mind that this as an option on the S 4, but we do question its seemingly front-and-center placement in the initial configuration process and on the home screens.



Performance

Although some S 4 variants are outfitted with Samsung's eight-core Exynos processor, the Sprint version covered in our review is powered with a quad-core 1.9GHz Snapdragon 600 chip. This is a limitation common to US models, and although it would be easy to assume that four cores equates to half the performance, we found the quad-core model to be extremely fast.

Subjectively, we never encountered a situation in which the quad-core processor could not keep up with the task at hand. The hardware easily handled any 1080p playback/recording, web browsing and gaming that we tried.

We ran a few Android benchmark tests for an objective comparison between devices. The S 4 achieved a Geekbench 2 score of 3238, nearly doubling the 1646 score that we achieved with the iPhone 5--and the 1764 score of the Galaxy S III. Looking at Primate Labs' database, we find HTC One scores topping out around 3000, Samsung Nexus 10 scores around 2433, and Nexus 4 and Galaxy Note II scores around 2000.



Switching to Futuremark's new 3DMark benchmark, we ran the "Ice Storm Extreme" test--geared for 1080p displays--and reached just past 6651. The score is among the top in Futuremark's device listing, followed by Sharp's Aquos SH-02E, HTC's One and Fujitsu's A 201F. Interestingly, the Galaxy S 4 equipped with an eight-core processor is further down the list with a score of 6229.



For one last reference, we opened up the Android browser and headed to WebKit.org to run the SunSpider 0.91 test, which can be run on nearly any device with a JavaScript-capable browser. The S 4 completed all of the tasks in 875.4ms, just slightly faster than the iPhone 5's 944ms score.



Aside from the S 4's computing abilities, we also placed several calls to see how it works as an actual phone. We didn't have any trouble hearing someone on the other end, and they didn't have any problem hearing us, even when we were outside in the wind. When we attempted to use the internal speaker for speakerphone calls, however, the audio quality did not keep up with the iPhone 5 and several other Android phones.

The S 4 integrates a larger battery than its predecessor, jumping from 2100mAh to 2600mAh. The additional juice helps power the larger display, but users shouldn't expect to get better battery endurance than the S III. Nonetheless, the S 4 is comparable to other high-end smartphones that require a nightly charge after a day of typical usage.

Software

Samsung has been criticized for its slow Android update cycle, which naturally lags far behind Nexus devices, however the S 4 is one of the only handsets to ship with Google's latest Jelly Bean build. The TouchWiz overlay nonetheless takes central focus, following the company's established Galaxy strategy.

We have already covered some of Samsung's software enhancements focused on photography, but the company also takes pride in a variety of other software customizations. Some of the unique capabilities owe their existence to an integrated infrared transceiver, such as a universal remote control and eye-tracking capabilities.

The WatchON utility pairs a customizable remote-control interface with an integrated TV guide. The feature is similar to HTC TV on the One, or Peel's app for IR-equipped devices. We liked the IR remote control, however the discovery guide comes across as half-baked.

In stark contrast to Apple's product strategy, Samsung has filled its software with many features that are clearly still in the experimental stage. "Smart scroll" is one of the most problematic, promising to scroll through a page by merely watching a user's eyes. Despite the exciting concept, it simply did not work for us. Samsung deserves a bit of credit for not promoting such features in its marketing campaigns, but users should expect some of the buried options to be dysfunctional at best.

Circling back to the infrared hardware, the S 4 also uses the sensor to detect hand position for "air gestures." Waving a hand in front of the screen can answer an incoming call, while up-and-down or side-to-side gestures can navigate through web pages or gallery images, all without physically touching the screen. We still can't think of many circumstances in which a near-screen gesture is needed in place of the same on-screen touch gesture.



Final thoughts

As the smartphone market matures, all major manufacturers have transitioned from leaps-and-bounds development to incremental, evolutionary refreshes. As companies struggle to outdo each other, the battle is essentially fought in three areas: design, performance and software.

Samsung pokes fun at Apple for producing iPhones that aren't much different from previous generations. The S 4, however, is hardly aesthetically distinguishable from the S III and Note II. If potential buyers want a unique industrial design, the HTC One and Nexus 4 are not as generic.

Style preferences aside, most smartphone owners will cite software features as reasons for claiming allegiance to a platform. Apple's iOS software continues to be the simplest and most predictable throughout its lifespan, while Google's core Nexus experience represents a well-refined alternative with a wider range of capabilities. Samsung's TouchWiz overlay undoubtedly wins in terms of "most features," but some users may be frustrated by the excessive complexity and unreliability of beta options.

The S 4 offers the highest performance of any smartphone that we've handled, and the 1920x1080 display is simply spectacular. These may be the most important factors behind the S 4's reception, as the software may be less obtrusive for anyone switching from the popular S III as opposed to an iPhone or a Nexus device.

Will the S 4 covert many iPhone owners? Probably not, but Samsung doesn't need it to. The company's new flagship Android handset might not be a significant upgrade from the S III, but it is a huge leap from the S II and most other smartphones. It may not be the best-looking design or have the most-refined software, but it certainly is competitive among the top tier.

Sprint offers the S 4 for $250 with new or upgrade-eligible contracts. New customers willing to switch from another carrier can receive a $100 credit.

by Justin King


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