The Samsung Galaxy S4. Few Android devices generate as much buzz as the Galaxy series, which has been riding atop an increasingly aggressive marketing push from Samsung. Many casual users aren’t even sure what Android is, but they definitely know what a Galaxy is — and if sales numbers are an indication, they care, too.
The smartphone market is crowded these days. At around $620 on Amazon, the Samsung Galaxy S4’s massive market share and consumer attention often makes it the de-facto benchmark against which competitors like the $680 HTC One are compared. For the price of just one Galaxy S4, you could get yourself two of Google’s Nexus 4 phones, the “official” Android 4.2 flagship and a worthy contender in its own right.
Samsung’s current flagship device, the Galaxy S4 marries no-compromises hardware with Google’s mobile operating system, slathered with a thick layer of Samsung’s own software overlays and customizations. That doesn’t mean the outcome is perfect. A smartphone is a complex piece of hardware that has to stand up to intensive daily use, and remain helpful and responsive. Beyond the premium price-tag and glossy spec sheet, does the Samsung Galaxy S4 stand up to the vagaries of day-to-day life? Is it worth the money? Read on to discover, and for a chance to win this extraordinary smartphone for free!
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is big. While you can hold it with one hand and it doesn’t look ridiculous when you put it up to your face to have a conversation, actually using it one-handed to write a text or call someone may prove to be a challenge, due to its 69.8 mm width. This is nothing new: If you’ve ever used (or seen) a Galaxy S III before, you have a very good sense of the S4’s physical dimensions. In fact, the Galaxy S4 is a skosh narrower than the S III (by less than a millimeter), is slightly thinner, is exactly the same height, and is 3 grams lighter (133 grams vs. 130). So it’s a big phone, but no bigger than its predecessor.
If it often feels larger, that’s due to its display: Its 5-inch, full-HD (1080×1920 pixel) AMOLED panel extends across almost the entire surface of the phone, leaving a very thin bezel off to the sides. At 441 pixels per inch, the Samsung Galaxy S4’s pixel density far surpasses the iPhone 5‘s 326-ppi Retina Display, resulting in an incredibly crisp viewing experience. The display is definitely one of the phone’s highlights, and is something you will enjoy every moment while using it — after all, a smartphone is almost all display.
The phone’s other hardware features are just as premium: It’s equipped with 2GB of RAM allowing for a fair bit of multitasking, as well as a 13-megapixel backside camera and a 2-megapixel front-side camera allowing for full-HD video calls (if you’ve got the bandwidth, that is). The Galaxy S4’s processor bears special mention: it’s actually a pair of quad-core processors, one running at 1.6 GHz for intensive tasks, and the other running at 1.2 GHz for more lightweight work. So, eight cores in all, but they won’t all be running at the same time when you use the phone.
Finally, the Galaxy S4 is quite curious about the world around it, pulling in information about its surroundings with no less than seven different sensors: an accelerometer, a barometer, a compass, a gyro, a humidity sensor, a proximity sensor, and a temperature sensor. It even has a special app for telling you whether or not you are currently feeling comfortable. Yes, really.
What’s In The Box
The Samsung Galaxy S4 ships with a fairly standard collection of accessories in the box: a micro USB cable, a pair of in-ear earbuds/microphone with several interchangeable ear pieces in different sizes, a USB wall charger, and a battery. Actually, that last bit, the battery, is becoming increasingly rare: Many modern phones come with the batteries already in the phone, since they’re not user replaceable. Samsung bucks this trend (something I’m very grateful for), which means you’re going to have to put the battery in yourself when you’re ready to start using the phone. This also means you don’t get a finicky tool for opening the SIM card door — because there is no SIM card door: You just pop open the back and put in your SIM card, easy as pie.
Both the included micro USB cable and the earbuds feel premium: These are well-made accessories, and they exude class and a careful attention to detail. The wired earbuds sound good, and when using them to talk on a busy city street with non-stop bus traffic, the other party said they could hear me perfectly clearly with no background noise at all — and I was speaking quietly.
Design & Hardware: Function over Form
Whenever I read a Galaxy S4 review deriding Samsung for their design choices, it makes me sad. People mock the Galaxy S4 for being made of plastic, and for having a staid, “boring” design. But here’s the thing: I don’t want a smartphone designed to entertain me or to impress my friends. I want a smartphone that’s built to work. One that I can easily replace the SIM card on when I land in a new country, and that lets me just pop in a new battery when the current one runs out while I’m trying to navigate the streets of an unfamiliar city.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is built pragmatically. The back comes off, allowing you to quickly and effortlessly insert a SIM card, an SD card for extra memory (something you can’t do on the Nexus 4), and of course, a battery. You don’t need any tools to do this: Just stick a fingernail in the slot, pry the back off, and away you go. To me, this is one of the phone’s major selling points. You may not feel the need for a user-replaceable battery if you never leave your hometown. But when you’re doing some serious travelling, pounding the pavement of some exotic locale 12 hours a day, constantly relying on your phone to navigate, take photos, and keep in touch with the world, this is one feature you’re going to be grateful for.
I can only hope Samsung stays its course with future phones and keeps producing devices that are just as usable in the real world.
The Samsung Galaxy S4’s 13-megapixel camera is flanked by a powerful LED flash. But of course, the hardware is only the beginning of the story — the real action takes place in the innards of the phone, driven by its full-featured camera app. While camera apps usually let you do an interesting trick or two, Samsung pulled out all the stops with this one, including no less than 12 different modes: Auto, Beauty Face, Best Photo, Best Face, Sound & Shot, Drama, Animated Photo, Rich Tone (HDR), Eraser, Panorama, Sports, and Night.
While many of these are self-explanatory (Night and HDR, for example), others bear a bit of explanation. Beauty Face applies an aggressive airbrush effect on-the-fly to any face in the photo. Take a picture of someone, and all of their zits and blemishes instantly disappear, making them look a bit like a smiling wax doll. Yes, it’s pretty heavy-handed. Best Photo snaps a bunch of pictures in rapid succession, letting you pick out one or more to keep later. Best Face is a more clever take on the same idea: it snaps five photos, recognizes all the faces in those photos, and lets you pick out the best expression for each individual in the photo. So if you were smiling in the first photo and your friend was frowning, you can find another photo in the same series where your friend was smiling, and produce a photo where you both look at your best.
Sound & Shot mode records several seconds of audio along with your photo. Drama mode is for rapidly moving subjects: It lets you take several photos of your snowboarding friend (or running baby, or whatever) and combine them into a single shot where you see the subject several times. Finally, the last mode worth discussing is the Animated Photo mode, which is a fun way to produce animated GIFs. Oh, and there’s also Dual Shot: While not a “mode” in itself, this is a feature that lets you take a photo using both the front and back cameras at the same time, superimposing an image of yourself on top of the photo you’ve shot.
In daily use, I found that the camera produces excellent photos:
I mainly take macro shots, and the Galaxy S4 lets me get up close and personal with my subjects, producing crisp, detailed photos. The autofocus is usually fast and accurate. The software is way over the top, but the hardware works well.
Software (and Bloatware)
Whereas Samsung’s hardware designers show a great deal of pragmatism with the phone’s hardware design, I can only wish their software team was marked with the same sense of reserve and practicality. Instead, the Galaxy S4 software feels like the result of a series of brainstorming meetings in which any and all ideas were promptly approved, even (or maybe especially) if Android already included that exact functionality.
This may be because features make for easy marketing — it is easy to rattle off a long laundry list of stuff the phone can do. You can count features, and you can make implausible commercials showing how useful they are for imaginary people.
Conversely, a buttery-smooth experience is much more nebulous and difficult to market. How many ways are there to say that a phone is responsive, that it feels alive in your hand? And so we end up with an 8-core beast of a device that sometimes takes a moment to launch an app.
To discuss the Galaxy S4’s software, we should break things down to two parts: Included apps, and system-wide software features.
Included apps: Here are some of the apps that ship with the Galaxy S4:
- Camera: Covered above. A very good tool that does add value to the phone.
- ChatON: Duplicates WhatsApp, Viber, and just plain text messages.
- Flipboard: Ships with special “proximity” features that work when you hover your finger over the screen. Marginally useful.
- Group Play: For playing games, sharing photos and documents with other devices.
- Optical Reader: For optical character recognition. Can be useful, but again, would have been better as a separate, optional installation.
- S Health: Lets you track your weight, activity, food intake, and oddly enough, your physical comfort level. The Galaxy S4 will tell you whether you’re feeling comfortable or not, using its temperature and humidity sensors.
- S Memo: Duplicates Google Keep.
- S Planner: Duplicates Google Calendar.
- S Translator: Duplicates Google Translate.
- S Voice: Duplicates Google Now.
- Samsung Apps: Duplicates Google Play.
- Samsung Hub: A content store for videos, games, music, and “learning.”
- Samsung Link: For streaming content to a TV, tablet, or computer.
- Story Album: Organizes your photos and creates album based on specific events. You can then order physical copies of those albums.
- WatchON: For watching on-demand video. If this sounds confusingly similar to Samsung Link, that’s because it is.
Are you exhausted yet? The apps that duplicate native Android apps aren’t bad: They do things their own way, and I can definitely see why someone would prefer S Planner over Google Calendar, for example. But they should come as optional apps, not preinstalled ones that can’t be removed.
That’s really my main problem with the glut of software Samsung put on the Galaxy S4: Why not let me choose what I want? Hampering the phone with no less than 15(!) separate pieces of bloatware is inevitably going to leave every user with many apps they don’t use. Worse still, it can confuse many users: Where are my appointments? Google Calendar, or S Planner? Both? Which one should I use?
System-wide software features:
- Smart Pause: Pauses a video as soon as you take your eyes off the screen.
- Air View: Lets you hover your finger over the screen, rather than touch it, to use certain features. Requires custom software (hence the bundled version of Flipboard).
- Air Gesture: Lets you wave your hand over the phone to answer calls or flip between photos.
- Smart Scroll: Tracks your eyes; when you look down, scrolls the current browser page. This works well most of the time and I found it useful, but is only supported when using the built-in browser. So if you prefer Chrome, you’re out of luck.
- Smart Stay: Keeps the screen on as long as you’re looking at it.
- Smart Rotate: Doesn’t rotate the screen if the orientation of your face doesn’t change. In other words, you can lie on your side in bed, and the phone won’t flip on you.
Many of these features are actually useful and add value, but only as long as they don’t require tailor-made software. Having Air View and Smart Scroll tied to specific apps makes it harder to get into the habit of using them.
Living With The Galaxy S4
In daily use, the Galaxy S4 rocks. It’s a workhorse. The battery life is excellent; the phone remains fast and responsive nearly at all times. The camera is very capable. It can run the most demanding games without breaking a sweat, and they look great on its screen, and watching full-HD videos and photos on it is a pleasure.
Basically, this is an amazing phone, held back only by Samsung’s maniacal enthusiasm for piling on ever more software features. If only there was a built-in way to strip it down to the feature set you actually want, it would have been ideal. With the right custom ROM, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is an absolute dream — and Google seems to agree, as it will be shipping the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition on July 9th, running nothing but pure, stock Android.
Should You Buy The Samsung Galaxy S4?
The Galaxy S4 has earned its spot at the top of the Android food chain, at least for now. This is a wonderful device, if you can only ignore the extra software bloat.
How do I win the Samsung Galaxy S4?
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This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, July 19th. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email.
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