Samsung Galaxy S4 review
The Galaxy S4 is one of the most lusted after Android smartphones ever, with months of rumours, leaks, hyperbole and more than one launch event. Interest in the phone in the lead up to launch was at least as high as for Apple's iPhone 5S and iPhone 6.
Now that the Galaxy S4 is finally on sale, just two simple questions remain. Most importantly, is this the best smartphone you can buy today? But also, has Samsung taken a big step forward over last year's S3 or is this more an evolution of that handset?
BUILD QUALITY AND DESIGN
At first glance you'd have to err towards an evolution. The Galaxy S4 certainly isn't a phone to show off with; not that it doesn't look rather pretty, but more because it's almost unrecognisable from its predecessor unless you look up close. This is no bad thing in our opinion as it didn't attract any unwanted attention on the train home, unlike an iPhone 5 just after its release.
The new handset appears to retain the same white plastic finish, but look closer and you'll see a fine diamond pattern beneath the gloss surface. It's a nice touch, and one subtle enough to avoid accusations of unnecessary bling. It manages to avoid attracting fingerprints too, so you won't need to incessantly polish it to keep it looking clean. The silver trim around the edges might look like metal, but it's actually plastic as well.
Given its big 4.99in display, the S4 is surprisingly svelte. It measures just 136.6x69.8x7.9mm and weighs only 130g. That makes it both smaller overall and lighter than both its immediate rivals, the Sony Xperia Z and our current favourite, the HTC One.
From the front the most obvious change is the thinner screen bezels, both down the edges and at other end. This puts the screen just 2.5mm away from the edge of the device and it's becoming hard to imagine this distance getting any smaller without seriously compromising the survivability of the handset when dropped. The sides have been squared off, compared to the S3, which makes it easier to grip though it looks a little chunkier for it.
The areas above and below the screen are now far smaller, which has significantly reduced the amount of space for the physical home button and touch sensitive menu and back commands. This could have made them awkward, but the button needs an appreciably lighter press and we had no trouble hitting the touch sensitive controls.
Despite having a removable rear cover, which has advantages we'll discuss later, the S4 doesn't suffer overly for this practicality. The rear panel fits snug against the body with no flex or shift. When in place, the handset feels like a single piece of tech. It looks somewhat flimsy when removed, but we've taken it off many times without cracking or breaking it.
The Galaxy S4 is among the best-looking plastic phones we've ever seen. It's a decent evolution from the S3, ironing out plenty of the minor flaws that its predecessor had. These include a USB port that didn't look very well cut out and a rear case that had quite a loose fit; with the S4, it feels that much more finished and as though more attention has been paid to the detail.
Having said that it's a very conservative design. Purely from a look and feel perspective we prefer the aluminium HTC One. The curved back and sharp corners make it look far more striking that the rather amorphous blob of the S4; plus HTC has squeezed in a pair of front mounted speakers onto the One, as we'll discuss later. However, as a piece of practical engineering the S4 is simply superior, because it fits a noticeably larger display into a similarly sized handset. You simply can't get more screen than this in your pocket for the size or weight - everything else heads into phablet territory.
The S4 is better designed from an ergonomic point of view too. The power button at the top of the HTC One is beautifully designed, doubles as an IR blaster and responds reliably when you press it - once you've got the hang of where it is. The problem is its position; having pressed it with your forefinger, you can't then reach the buttons below the screen with your thumb. The S4's right-hand-side power button has a far more traditional and boring look, but at least you can use the handset one handed without having to shift your grip constantly.
This is the first smartphone to use an AMOLED display with a Full HD resolution. Measuring 4.99in across this gives it an on-paper pixels-per-inch figure of 441, up from 306PPI on the Galaxy S3. As always, it's worth noting that the display uses a pentile arrangement of subpixels - with two colours per pixel, rather than three – which means its actual resolution is less than equivalent LCD displays.
This is less of a problem on a Full HD display than it was previously. The incredibly high number of pixels-per-inch makes the lack of refinement, usually apparent on the edges of text, practically unnoticeable. Furthermore, the incredible contrast you get from an AMOLED display more than makes up for any small perceivable loss of detail.
In practical use there's far less difference between this and the LCD HTC One than their technology would suggest. The pentile pixel arrangement doesn't seem to noticeably effect detail on the S4, while the contrast on the HTC One was also excellent. The colours on the S4 are a little richer at any given brightness, but then the HTC One is far brighter at its maximum setting, handy on sunny days - although run it that way all the time and your battery life will be severely diminished.
Speaking of brightness, Samsung's controls are far better, with a brightness slider always present on the notifications drop down menu. This also lets you tweak the auto brightness settings, allowing you to have it a few steps brighter, or dimmer, than the variable default. By comparison the HTC One makes you dig in the menus to adjust it and offers no such tweaking of the auto setting
Having said all that, the biggest difference is simply that the S4's screen is bigger. It's not a huge deal when using apps day to day, sending texts, or hammering out a quick email, but for browsing desktop website sites, playing games and watching video clips it's a big plus.
The S4 may have a bigger, higher resolution screen than its predecessor for enjoying such content but the audio from its speaker hasn't improved by the same degree. The speaker is still a rear-mounted, mono design and so you have to carefully position your hands to avoid muffling it accidentally. Sound quality isn't bad for such a speaker, but if you like to entertain yourself and friends with your handset then the HTC One's front stereo speakers are far superior.
While we're talking audio, the HTC One (and Xperia Z) also have FM Radios, which is missing from the S4 for the first time in the series. A disappointment, and one that may sway some radio fans.
In the run-up to the launch of any exciting new smartphone or tablet, much is made of the exact nature of the hardware contained and its processing power. For the Samsung Galaxy S4 the talk was of an eight-core CPU, though the reality turns out to be far more complicated than that.
Yes, there's an S4 (the GT-I9500) with a Samsung designed and produced Xynos eight-core CPU, but that actually consists of a four-core main CPU and a four-core low-power CPU, which the handset switches between in realtime to maximise performance and battery life. It's an idea that's been around a while, ARM calls it big.LITTLE, but it's good to see it finally implement on a quad-core flagship device.
But, and it's a big one, that eight-core Galaxy S4 isn't the one you'll be buying in the UK. Instead when you turn on your shiny new S4 the first thing you'll see is that it's a GT-I9505 handset, which uses a Qualcomm designed quad-core chipset instead. This is because the other model doesn't include 4G/LTE support, something that Samsung obviously feels is key for a new handset launching in the UK.
Given that there's no option to buy the eight-core S4, unless you import one yourself and pay full price for it plus a hefty import duty, there's little point in comparing the two in detail. We haven't been sent an I9500 for testing, but looking at reputable sources online it appears to be a little quicker with slightly improved battery life.
We'll be looking forward to seeing a big.LITTLE device released in the UK then, but the Qualcomm chipset in our version of the S4 is no slouch. It uses the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset as the HTC One, though the S4's runs at 1.9GHz rather than 1.7GHz. We couldn't detect any noticeable change in browser speed in real-world testing, but the GeekBench 2 benchmark showed the faster S4 edge ahead by 3,227 to 2,688. In use, everything feels incredibly slick, apps launch quickly and everything flows along, very impressive stuff.
The S4 also uses the same Adreno 320 GPU as the HTC One. It's a powerful chip and a huge step forward over the S3. We hit 50fps in the recent 3Dmark Ice Storm test, and managed almost 30fps in the far tougher Extreme version of the same test. We doubt anyone will make an Android game in the near future that will trouble this hardware overly.
Beneath the removable rear cover is a rather large-looking battery, with a hefty 2,600mAh capacity. That's over 10% bigger than the 2,300 and 2,330mAh examples in the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z respectively. The results though were even more impressive than that figure might suggest.
In our continuous video playback the S4 managed an impressive ten hours and 43 minutes, a score we'd largely attribute to its more power-efficient AMOLED display. The Sony Xperia Z has a 5in LCD display and it only ran for five hours and 48 minutes, while the smaller-screened HTC One put in a much more respectable eight hours and 32 minutes.
If battery life is a big concern for you then the S4 stands well above its main rivals then. In addition to this its removable back means you can switch out the battery if required. Samsung sells spare batteries and an official charger for them too, so if you fear running out of power, the S4 is the phone for you.
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