Samsung Galaxy S4 review
Android 4.2.2, 5.0in 1,920x1,080 display
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?
It's finally here and it looks very similar to its predecessor
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.
We rather like the subtle new pattern, but it's far more pronounced on the Black version
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.
The screen fills the handset like we've never seen before
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.