Samsung Galaxy S4 Review: All hardware, but not much substance

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The Samsung Galaxy S4 has so much to fulfil in one tiny package. The phone needs to be a sufficient update to its predecessor, the Galaxy S3. It needs to be better than phones from its rivals HTC and Sony (with the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z). But most of all – because of a very bitter fight with a certain company named after a fruit – it has to be competitive against the iPhone.

And that would explain why Samsung has packed this phone completely with brand new hardware attached with big numbers everywhere – such as the processor, the battery, and the screen. But let us remind ourselves that while the hardware may sound impressive, the overall experience – the software, and the user interface – also counts.

And unfortunately, the Galaxy S4 doesn’t deliver on that.

Design and Hardware

The phone features a 5-inch screen, a 1.9GHz quad-core processor, a 13-megapixel rear camera with a 2-megapxiel front-facing camera, a large 2600mAH battery, and 2GB of RAM. The phone is available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities – with all of them featuring a microSD card slot (up to 64GB) inside with the battery. It also has 4G support.

The screen used is a Super AMOLED display using its PenTile technology, with a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080 and 441 pixel per inch. All of that pretty much means that the screen is really crisp and clear when reading text or seeing images, and colours are excellent on screen. Even those who hate PenTile will be impressed with how the screen looks.

There is also another variant, the i9500, which contains a Samsung Exynos 5 eight-core processor using the big.LITTLE chip setup. This basically means that there are two quad-core processors inside the phone – a faster processor to handle resource-intensive tasks like games, and a slower but power efficient processor for other tasks. Other than the processor, the only major difference is that the i9500 does not have 4G (which is the reason why no carrier is offering it).

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Design-wise, the phone is still made of plastic. However, the phone doesn’t have that cheapness feel that the Galaxy S3 has. There is less curvy than its predecessor, and the phone is relatively comfortable to hold. Samsung should also be congratulated for managing to fit the entire screen size but still managed to keep it within the same dimensions as the Galaxy S3.

The buttons are easy to navigate when holding the phone. The power button is on the right hand side of the phone, while the volume rocker sits on the left. The top is only reserved for the LED light (for using it as a universal remote) and the audio headphone jack.

But compared to its rivals – such as the HTC One, the iPhone 5 and the Nokia Lumia 925 – the phone feels out of place. It doesn’t scream premium compared to the other three, and it is probably because of the other three phones having adopted a more metallic look. The plastic design of the Galaxy S4 is no doubt cheaper to produce, but with an asking price of nearly $800 unlocked, there is a disconnect between what it actually costs to what it should cost based on what you can see.

And for me, the design doesn’t fit a phone that costs $800.

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Touch-Wiz

Being a Samsung phone, the phone comes installed with its custom skin TouchWiz – and for many Android users, that’s going to suck. I should know. I am not a massive fan of it either. While Samsung has added features and apps to the phone, it hasn’t bothered changing the design of the interface.

The design actually makes Android look worse – especially given it mixes elements of Holo with Gingerbread (such as the tabs) and restricts even the basic features such as changing the bottom dock elements and not letting you easily move apps between home screens by holding on the icon. Instead, I have to go through a menu to do it. WHY? iOS lets me do this. Windows Phone lets me do this. Heck, even Android lets me do this – but not on the Galaxy S4.

This year’s theme is “Life Companion” – which is a bit better than the nature-inspired look the GS3 gave us (and that god-awful line “Inspired by Nature, Designed for Humans”). However, the notification noises from Samsung are just horrible. The ringtone is essentially the same song they played in that Broadway-inspired press conference announcing the device, and it’s just weird.

Feature-wise: many of the new features are pretty useless. Air View and Air Gestures – despite promising to make it “quicker, easier, and super-convenient” – is the opposite of what is supposed to do. The two features are pretty much useless, and make you look like a fool when using them outside in public. When using it around university, I got some weird stares when I decided to wave a finger to move the web page.

Then we get to the ‘just-a-little-bit-creepy’ part – the Smart Screen features. They take advantage of the front-facing camera to detect your eye movements. Smart Stay ensures the screen does not turn off while you’re looking at it, while Smart Pause will stop the video when you look away and resume once your attention is back to the phone. Surprisingly, many of the features do work – if the camera can actually see you.

The only feature that would probably be in the same list as Air View and Air Gestures – as in, being pretty useless and embarrassing – is Smart Scroll. This tracks your eye movements and scrolls the page down or up. This doesn’t really work as well as Samsung would hope (and could explain why this feature isn’t heavily marketed). The position has to be just right for it to work – which pretty much means you place the phone in front of your face. Only two apps support this: the stock email and stock browser.

Also, the keyboard hasn’t received much improvement. Many friends of mine and other reviewers have noted that it’s hard to type on, however I had no issues with it. However that is probably due to the fact that I’m used to it (I do own a Galaxy S3) or that the phone I used previously was a BlackBerry. I don’t know. For me, the keyboard is alright to type on – though, not the best. Predictive text, which is disabled by default for some reason, is a mess altogether. The dictionary is fairly limited and, while it does learn from how you type, doesn’t give the correct options you want. I resorted in just manually typing the word out – again, a hangover from my BlackBerry days.

However, there are some good things with Touch-Wiz. I do love the fact that you can manage to turn on or off your Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi and the Air Gestures all from the notifications bar; and that you can manage the screen’s brightness from the very same place. As well, the Universal Remote feature is pretty interesting – you can now control your television through your smartphone.

Samsung expands on its included apps list with S-Health and S-Translator. Their names are pretty clear on what they are all about. S-Health is another health, fitness tracking and pedometer app – except this time produced by Samsung. For those fitness crazy, then it does do the job. It lets you track how many calories you have eaten today, see how far or how many steps you have taken, and lets you manually logs all exercises you have done.  However, the Galaxy S4 as a tracker seems weird – given its large size.

S-Translator is alright. I translated something in Chinese, and asked my friend to guess what it was. However, warning – like S-Voice, it does require a data connection as it has to send the text to its servers, process it then return the translation. So, if you’re planning to use it when travelling, make sure you get yourself a local prepaid SIM card with a data connection or just stay in places with public Wi-Fi.

But the rest of the Samsung apps family – S-Voice, S-Planner and S-Memo – just avoid them at all cost. S-Voice is still as dodgy as ever, and you should just use Google Calendar (or in fact any calendar app) to replace S-Planner. I would uninstall that app in a heartbeat if given the option.

Camera

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The Galaxy S4 features a 13-megapixel rear camera that lets you record in full 1080p HD, with a 2-megapixel front-facing camera that can record in 720p video. The camera shines when taking photos in the day with image quality excellent with colours vibrant, contrast great and images look crisp. For those who just want to just point-and-shoot, the Galaxy S4 will satisfy you completely.

However, the camera is horribly bad when it comes to low-light photography. The Galaxy S4, like its predecessor, still has problems when taking night shots – something that its rivals, the HTC One and the Nokia Lumia, can do perfectly well. The main reason is that the Galaxy S4 does not have optical image stabilisation, resulting in images being grainy or blurry compared to its rivals.

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Samsung, like many manufacturers, have added some different modes to the camera such as animated photo (which makes a GIF) and picture-in-picture mode (which lets you use both lenses to take a photo, with your face in a corner of the image). There is also Beauty Face (enhances your face), Best Photo and Best Face (choose the best photo/face), Sports Mode (which has a quicker shutter speed) and Panorama mode.

There are also filters, but what I love about Samsung’s implementation is that it can be applied in real-time before you take the photo. While it is an obvious gimmick, if you’re a constant poster on Instagram, at least now you know how the photo will look like when you add sepia to it.

Video quality is pretty decent, but of course there is no stabilisation. So unless you have a really steady hand, the video will be a bit shaky.

Performance and Battery life

The phone does perform pretty well, all thanks to its quad-core processor. There wasn’t any lag when switching between apps or playing games on the phone, and scrolling pages on the browser was smooth.

Battery life is pretty decent, with the phone being around the 35% after a normal business day of heavy data usage. What I do like about Samsung is the fact the phone has a removable battery, so you can simply replace the battery and not buy those battery packs to keep your phone alive. The extra battery is around $19-$25, depending on where you shop. Of course, the main benefit is that it’s considerably cheaper than purchasing a battery pack that has enough power to fully charge your Galaxy S4; but it does mean that you have to charge two batteries (and remember to charge the spare).

Conclusions

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  • Score:

    8.0 / 10

  • The Good:

    Hardware specs; performs pretty well with quad-core processor; the 13-megapixel camera

  • The Bad:

    The camera in low-light/night situations; Touch-Wiz is still horrible as ever; the design doesn’t reflect the price

  • Bottom Line:

    A great update to the Galaxy S3, but needs some improvements

Samsung has a lot of expectations to meet with the Galaxy S4. It has to keep the faithful satisfied and its rivals afraid. And by reading the spec sheet, it does make that impression. It’s filled with hardware with big numbers such as the 5-inch screen, the quad-core processor, the 13-megapixel camera and massive battery life.

But this is Samsung, let us not forget. Their whole approach in marketing the Galaxy S4 is the mobile phone equivalent of comparing dicks with its rivals. What gets lost in Samsung’s marketing is how people use the phone – the experience.  Air Gestures and Smart Scroll are just gimmicks that claim to be easy to use, but will be never used again because it’s either too embarrassing or just annoying to perform because you need to get it exactly right.

Despite the problems with Touch-Wiz (since you can remove it from your phone entirely – it is Android after all), it’s a pretty good phone overall. The camera is excellent, despite being bad at night. The display is one of the best displays on the phone I have seen. And it is snappy with the quad-core processor inside.

So, why do I feel like that the Galaxy S4 is missing something?