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Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Still worth buying in 2017?

Christopher Minasians Katharine Byrne
10 Feb 2017
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
600
inc VAT

You can still buy a Samsung Galaxy S4, but the smartphone world has moved on and you can do much better these days

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Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Display

The S4 was 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 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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Performance

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 implemented 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 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, even now a year-and-a-half after release. It uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset which runs at 1.9GHz. Browsing the web felt smooth and responsive, with a SunSpider score of 1,100ms being quicker than current budget handsets, and not for some more expensive phones launched of late. The GeekBench 2 benchmark showed the S4 hit 3,227, again a bit behind modern phones, but ahead of the latest budget wonders like the Moto G. 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 pretty powerful chip, hitting 50fps in the recent 3Dmark Ice Storm test, and managed almost 30fps in the far tougher Extreme version of the same test. Newer hardware is faster still, but you'd have to be keen on playing the most taxing 3D games to notice any difference.

Beneath the removable rear cover is a rather large-looking battery, with a hefty 2,600mAh capacity. 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.

It's a respectable score but it's outdone by the latest phones, with the S5 managing a massive 17 hours. That said, the S4 will get most people through the day without a problem. Its removable back means you can switch out the battery if required too. Samsung sells spare batteries and an official charger for them too. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Storage

Behind the cover is the Micro SD slot, which can take a card with a capacity of up to 64GB. Such a card will cost you about £35, with a 32GB card costing around half that. And you'll want one to store your photos on, as the S4 only comes with 16GB as standard, of which only a measly 8GB is immediately available for your use, we managed to quickly clear another 1GB, but we still reckon a memory card will be a good idea for most users.

Of course, many people prefer to store much of their data in the cloud now, and Dropbox is Samsung's preferred partner. The handset comes with two years of free storage with a huge 50GB limit. Disappointingly for anyone who's making a quick upgrade from an S3, buying the new handset doesn't reset the two year time limit on this offer. The S4 handily backups all your camera shots to your Dropbox account automatically when a Wi-Fi connection is available.

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