Technologizer

Samsung Galaxy S 4 Review: Gimme One Smartphone, with Everything

Samsung's newest iPhone archrival sports more features than ever — and a bigger screen crammed into a smaller case.

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When it became clear that Google’s Android operating system would be the iPhone’s primary rival, hardware makers quickly began cranking out a vast profusion of Android models. And for a while, it looked like the future of the phone market would be the iPhone vs. … well, everybody.

Recently, though, the market has boiled down to the iPhone vs. Samsung — or, more precisely, the iPhone vs. the Galaxy S. True, other manufacturers produce some very well-done Android phones, like HTC’s elegant One. But Samsung is Android’s 800-lb. gorilla, and the Galaxy S line is its most direct answer to Apple’s phone. Which makes the Galaxy S 4 the smartphone you’re most likely to buy if you’re not buying an iPhone.

Like previous Galaxy phones, the S 4 will be one of the most widely available smartphones on the planet: it arrives on AT&T on Saturday, on Sprint and T-Mobile next week and on Verizon in May. The price varies from carrier to carrier and reseller to reseller, but in general, the 16GB model will set you back $150 to $250 with a two-year service commitment. (Or, with T-Mobile, a contract-free agreement to pay off the rest of the price of the phone over two years.)

I reviewed the T-Mobile version of the Galaxy S 4 — compatible with both that company’s nationwide HSPA+ network and its nascent LTE one — using a phone provided by Samsung.

If you’ve been following the evolution of the Galaxy S line since the original model debuted in March 2010, you can guess what Samsung’s done to differentiate the S 4 from its predecessors. If Apple is a master of minimalism, Samsung believes just as deeply in maximalism: bigger screens, better specs, more features and apps. Bottom line: the Galaxy S 4 is essentially last year’s Galaxy S III, only more so.

In a happy paradox, the S 4 is both larger and smaller than its predecessor. What’s bigger is the display — a bright, vivid, HD-capable 5-in. (12.7 cm) Super AMOLED screen that adds 0.2 in. (0.5 cm) of diagonal space and, at 1080-by-1920 resolution, a heck of a lot more pixels. What’s smaller is the phone: Samsung crammed that screen into a handset that’s a skosh smaller, thinner and lighter than the S III. It’s a minor miracle of clever engineering.

Granted, the S 4 is still a BIG PHONE, and using it requires either two hands or straining your thumb to reach the far corners of the screen. But if you like jumbo displays — and aren’t quite ready for the truly ginormous Galaxy Note II — you’ll approve.

Samsung itself was apparently satisfied with the Galaxy S III’s overall personality: the S 4 preserves the same basic look and feel. That includes the plastic case. It’s perfectly pleasant, but doesn’t aspire to match the posh styling of the aluminum iPhone 5 and HTC One and Nokia’s polycarbonate Lumia models. As Samsung points out, the design has some advantages: you can pry off the backplate to swap in a spare battery or expand the phone’s storage with a microSD card.

[image] Samsung S View Cover

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

You can also remove the backplate and snap on Samsung’s $60 S View Cover, a replacement back that builds in a screen-protecting hinged cover. Like previous Flip Covers for other Samsung phones, it adds only a wee bit of additional bulk. And it adds an ingenious new feature: a small window lets you answer the phone or check the time without having to open the cover. It’s the smartest cover I’ve seen for a mobile gizmo since the iPad’s Smart Cover.

Beyond the big screen, the Galaxy S 4’s other tech specs are impressive — though, as always, impressive specs don’t tell you much about the experience of using the phone, and it’s dangerous to assume that bigger numbers are always better. A few countries are getting a version of the Galaxy S 4 with an ultrapotent eight-core processor; the U.S. isn’t one of them, but don’t get too upset. The four-core Qualcomm Snapdragon chip in the Stateside model provided more than enough oomph to make everything feel fast.

As for the rear-facing camera, it boasts a formidable-sounding 13 megapixels of resolution, up from 8 in the S III, which is a superfluous quantity unless you’re planning to print jumbo-size photos or indulge in serious cropping. I was pleased with the test shots I took, as long as the lighting was decent. (Photos in murky environments, however, were considerably noisier than ones I shot with an iPhone 5.)

Herewith, some photos I shot — click on them for a higher-resolution view:

Samsung doesn’t seem to be making any specific promises about the endurance of the S 4’s 2600-mAh battery — a higher-capacity one than the 2100-mAh unit provided with the Galaxy S III. In my decidedly unscientific use, I found that it was par for the Android course: a full charge in the morning got me into the late evening, but trying to continue into the next morning without recharging was risky. (My colleague Doug Aamoth had better luck with the HTC One.)

Software-wise, the S 4 comes with Jelly Bean 4.2.2, the latest, greatest version of Android. That’s good, but it’s only about a tenth of the story. More than any other maker of Android phones, Samsung uses Google’s software as a starting point. And the S 4 has far more features than the S III, which was already an extraordinarily feature-rich phone.

Samsung’s variant of Android still looks pretty much like Android. But it’s almost inaccurate to describe the S 4 as having a “touch interface” — the company has added multiple options that involve not touching the screen.

For instance:

  • Air View lets you hover your finger or thumb over the screen in certain apps for previews and other information — such as longer snippets of messages in Mail and larger photo thumbnails in Gallery. (The Galaxy Note II introduced Air View last year, but its version works with its S Pen stylus.)
  • Air Gesture allows you to interact with the phone by sweeping your hand over the screen. Doing so when it’s turned off gives you a quick glance at stuff like the time and unread e-mail count; doing it when the phone is ringing answers the incoming call.
  • Smart screen monitors your head movements and does things like pause video (if you turn away) and scroll text up and down (if you tilt your noggin in one direction or the other).

None of these features are transcendent breakthroughs. For the most part, they work only in Samsung’s own apps — Air View also appears in the Flipboard reader, which comes preloaded — not in third-party apps. In fact, they don’t even work in all the apps that are standard with Jelly Bean, such as Gmail and Chrome browser.

They’re also a mixed bag in terms of practical utility and reliability. Standing in a tightly packed subway car, I appreciated being able to scroll through web pages without so much as a swipe of my thumb. But in a dimly lit room, Smart Screen didn’t work at all: it uses the front-facing camera and therefore needs an adequate amount of light.

In Flipboard, I had to hold my fingertip very, very close to the screen to activate Air View — so close that it obscured much of the text I was trying to read, and often left me tapping when I intended only to hover. And sometimes, Flipboard expanded a section on the left-hand side of the screen when my fingertip was on the far right.

(That last oddity seems to be an outright bug, and it wasn’t the only one I encountered with the Galaxy S 4. As a matter of fact, I came across one within minutes of turning on the phone, when the initial setup process stopped letting me proceed through the initialization screens until I backed up, then tried again. None of these glitches were showstoppers, and they’re typical of phones running just-finished software — even ones from Apple.)

Samsung Galaxy S 4 S Health

Samsung Galaxy S 4 S Health

Besides the interface tweaks, Samsung has packed the S 4 with its own apps: I don’t know of another phone that tries to do so many things right out of the box. I liked WatchON, which uses the S 4’s new infrared sensor to let you use your phone as a fancy TV remote that knows what’s on broadcast TV, cable and Netflix. (HTC’s One has a similar feature.) Also useful: S Health, a pedometer/exercise tracker/food diary that approximates some of the features you’d get with a fitness wristband like Jawbone’s UP.

S Translator translates spoken and typed phrases between English and other languages. A separate app, Optical Viewer, can translate words when you point the phone’s camera at them. Story Album lets you assemble photos into a picture book with a few taps; if you want, you can then order them in a real printed book, right from your phone.

Existing apps have been beefed up too. The Camera app incorporates a bevy of new modes, such as Dual Camera (which superimposes a stamp-size image of you on top of a photo you take), Eraser (which lets you remove moving objects from a picture, like a bypasser who intrudes on your landscape shot) and Animated Photo (which creates animated GIFs in which everything’s freeze-framed except for a portion of the image you specify). Most people aren’t going to use these more than occasionally — if ever — but none get in the way when you don’t want them.

[image] Dual Camera mode

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Dual Camera mode

I haven’t even begun to mention all of the S 4’s significant features. There’s Knox, which allows people who use the phone for both work and play to isolate work data so their corporate overlords don’t fret too much about security. And an option that lets you stream video to Samsung TVs, similar to Apple’s AirPlay. I could go on, and on.

But instead I’ll move on to a challenge that gets trickier the more ambitious Samsung’s Galaxy S software gets: it never enters the same ZIP code where Apple’s iOS resides in terms of sheer seamlessness. Samsung may have barely mentioned Android at its Galaxy S 4 launch event, but there’s plenty of evidence of Google’s handiwork in the S 4, and at times, the handset’s joint authorship results in competing features, overlapping functionality and a general sense of redundancy. For instance, when you set up the S 4, you’re asked to enter information for two accounts — a Google account and a Samsung account — rather than the one required by an iPhone.

(Actually, initializing the Galaxy S 4 involves three accounts: the phone comes with 50GB of Dropbox online storage for two years, and prompts you to enter Dropbox credentials during the setup process.)

Oftentimes, Samsung apps live alongside Google apps that are either directly competitive or vaguely similar. A few examples:

  • Browsers: the S 4 has both Samsung’s customized Internet and Google’s Chrome
  • E-mail: Samsung’s customized Mail and Google’s Gmail
  • Voice assistants: Samsung’s S Voice and Google Now
  • Movies and music: Samsung Hub and Google Play
  • Apps: Samsung Apps and Google Play

To be fair to Samsung, its new apps are among the best-designed ones I’ve used on one of its phones: the company, which has shipped more than one product with a baffling interface, is getting the knack of building simple, approachable software.

Samsung also takes multiple measures to prevent the S 4’s abundance of options from becoming utterly overwhelming. When you first boot up the phone, it makes sure that you know about features like Air View and lets you choose whether to use them or not. They all have nicely done built-in tutorials, and Samsung supplemented Android’s standard settings with a simpler screen that lets you toggle numerous features on or off with one tap.

[image] Galaxy S 4 Easy Mode

Easy Mode

Then there’s Easy Mode, an alternative interface that caters to newbies and eternal newbies by reducing clutter, hiding advanced features and boosting the size of icons and fonts. It even removes some of the more exotic modes from the Camera app.

It’s tempting to mock the S 4 for requiring an Easy Mode — shouldn’t every phone be easy, period? — but actually, I think it’ll be a great option for certain users. (Hi, Mom!)

So where does that leave the S 4 compared with its major competitors? If you want the most polished phone with the best selection of apps, the iPhone 5 still has no peer. If you crave Apple-like panache but love Android, HTC’s One is a fine choice. And if what you want is the mainstream phone with the biggest screen and the most built-in stuff, the Galaxy  S 4 is your most logical option.

I do, however, think that the Galaxy S 4 should mark the end of Samsung’s strategy of more, more, more. When the Galaxy S 5 shows up in a year or so, I hope it’s not just a Galaxy S 4 with an even bigger screen and even more new features crammed into a phone that’s already bursting with them. Samsung may be the master of maximalism, but as with minimalism, it’s possible to carry things too far.

39 comments
WilsonKendra
WilsonKendra

Not only did I buy one of the best smart phones of 2013, but Amazon has some awesome s4 cases at great prices. I'm so excited that I just wanted to share the deal that I received on my s4 case http://amzn.to/12zGpJ0 - Don't know how much longer these discounts will be active, but they have many.

kflowry7
kflowry7

Can I use 2100 maH batteries in the S-4 if I have spares left over from my S-3?

robardin
robardin

After some consideration and playing with in-store demo devices (as well as an iPhone 5 in my wife's possession), I am upgrading from my iPhone 4S to a Galaxy S4 rather than the iPhone 5 tomorrow, and here is why.

It's all about the hardware.

For the most part, I could care less about the seemingly bloated and fractured suite of added-on software features Samsung has jammed in there.  "Air gestures" to move through screens or apps without touching the phone's surface?  I'm not an orchestra conductor.  Heck, I don't even listen to enough classical music to be called an orchestra capacitor.

I do worry about losing my "investment" in iOS, in that my family will still have 2 iPhones and 2 iPads even after I "defect" to the S4.  But in the end, I realized I use my phone far more than my iPad, which I use for reading books, magazines and news, and watching Netflix or HBO Go, web surfing or light game playing.  My iPad is on my bedside table, and in my carry-on bag when traveling by Amtrak or airplane.  I love it for that, and it's not going away any time soon.  But my phone is with me all the time, in my pocket, and what I use on the NYC bus and subway, waiting on a line or even to cross the street.  So having the best "smartphone" experience possible is worth pursuing as its own end.

I do kind of care about the more flexible UI that Android phones in general offer versus iOS, that swipe-page-after-page, row-upon-rows of little square icons world that iOS gives me - custom placeable and configurable app widgets that stream updates, for example - but that's not enough of a reason for me to change over, either.

It's all about the hardware.

I use about 25-30 apps on a regular basis on my iPhone.  More than anything else, the user experience of firing up, switching between and using that core rotation of apps define my day-to-day user experience.  Most of them are free, some are pay (most of which I have the pay version of in order to get rid of ads), and all exist on Android.  This includes my favorite photo retouching and editing app (Camera+).  I'm not a big player of games on my phone, so the apparently richer domain of games for iOS is not a factor for me.

The S4 promises me a 5" versus a 4" screen in a form that fits perfectly in my hand; I have long fingers and this is certainly not a "two hand" phone for me, I can thumb the entire screen easily in a secure grasp.  It has a noticeably faster processor (benchmarked at about twice the speed of the iPhone 5) and can run all the apps I'm interested in having, some with a split-screen functionality which looks very hot, a removable and swappable battery for when I run out of juice, and an external 65GB SD Micro memory card slot.  With that, I can carry my entire music library (about 50 GB of MP3s) on one 64 GB card, and swap it out if I want to for movies or TV shows kept on another card for long trips.  All maintained as drag and drop from my Windows PC desktop, no iTunes syncing needed.  

Finally, if the Samsung installed stuff proves too annoying, I can "root" my phone with a variety of tried and true alternatives out there (e.g., "Cyanogen" has already been recommended to me).

So it's all about the hardware.

I have no fear of installing ROMs, configuring widgets, and so on; I am a computer programmer by profession and have, in my life, assembled a PC from parts, installed a Slackware Linux OS onto it, and gotten it running on an academic computer network (even running a web server and Quake game server on it as well).  So I assume I can get the phone to do what I want to with software.  What I can't get a phone to do is to add more or faster CPUs, install a larger screen, a swappable battery (instead of a bulky "juice pack") or cheap, swappable external storage options that it didn't come with.

After playing with the S4 demo in the store, I could not use either my 4S or the demo version or my wife's iPhone 5 again without feeling like its screen is too small, or that the apps run or switch context noticeably slower.  That's not even mentioning the supposedly better background app multitasking functionality on Android vs. iOS (as I have no first-hand experience of this yet).

That's why I'm going for the Galaxy S4, at for least the 14 day period within which I can still return it and exchange for an iPhone 5 if I really, really hate it for some reason.

It's all about the hardware.

There are three reasons I can foresee for which I might actually trade in the S4 for an iPhone 5 within that 14 day period:

1 - I find the phone flimsy or unreliable.  Being faster, larger and more flexible is no good if it frequently crashes or locks up, or the phone is physically weak and feels like it'd break easily.

2 - I find the apps annoying to use or exhausting to configure; for example, if customization settings keep dropping out and require resetting.  I don't see why this would happen, but I have read reviews of people complaining about having to "constantly" fiddle with their settings to disable built-in Samsung bloatware.  I would assume they could be disabled and stay disabled.  (And my "rooting" options might address that anyway.)

3 - I find the camera intolerably worse than my iPhone 4S.  I take a lot of pictures with my phone, as do most people.  I am very happy with my 4S' picture quality, and the iPhone 5 is even better.  The S4 has been compared as "on par" with the iPhone 5 so I doubt it would be worse than the 4S, but that's for me to judge for myself.

That's pretty much it.  When Android first came on the scene about 3 years ago it had far to go to catch up with iOS in terms of stability and usability, but I think it's long since caught up and it's down to hardware.

If I knew, KNEW, that Apple was coming out in the Fall of 2013 with an iPhone 6 that was faster, had a larger screen (had a 5th column, not row of apps), a more edge to edge display and a somewhat refreshed UI, I would probably hold out for it.  But what we'll get in the Fall seems very likely to be only an incremental upgrade to the iPhone 5, with any larger edge-to-edge iPhone coming (if ever) in June 2014 or even Fall of 2014.

If that day comes, I might well "switch back" to an iPhone.  Until then, I think I'll be happy with an S4 and an iPad.

Because it's all about the hardware.

snookasnoo
snookasnoo

The hardware does not help the bloated slow Touchwiz and other bloatware which is why this phone lags so badly. Sd cards suck in every way which is why google has stopped supporting them. Enjoy your 9 gb of usable space. Also the S 4 feels cheap and flimsy. So much for it being all about the hardware.

TomStJohn
TomStJohn

My wife and I received out S4's last week. Utterly amazing devices. Glad I got off of the Apple bandwagon. I guess the Iphone is OK for children but for adults the S4 does it all and does it well.

Comparisons should be fair and unbiased. The reviews below are so slanted to the IPhone that they are a joke and the reviewer should be embarrassed  writing them.

jimpelch
jimpelch

This is a very poor and bias review of the s4. Although several times Harry referenced the iphone for comparison purposed, he never actually compared the phones in any objective manner. This article would lead me to believe that the iphone 5 continues to be best phone as it has the best selection of apps, battery life, best low light camera, most polished and has panache.  Owning and using both the current iphone and android phone, I know that both phones either perform poorly or simply cannot do what the other is capable of in many key areas.  Owning and using these phones, it's readily apparent what phone to grab to accomplish certain task or what phone works best in a connected corporate account and what phone picks up a signal when the other cannot. There are many key differences like these between phones and if Harry is going to make a attempt at comparing phones, this is the kind information that would be useful. 

ALJ
ALJ

I'll just wait until next year when they Samsung Galaxy 5 and then 6 come out.

ParrotParker
ParrotParker

Unfortunately, there's a big misconception about the Quad-Core vs. Octa-Core processor shipping in the two variants of the Galaxy S4. The US model is indeed the quad-core beast, but the octa-core model does not pack a punch of 8. Rather, the coveted 8 core chip is technically two separate quad-core chips, combined into a single package. When the phone is in a lower power state, the system runs on the more conservative of the two. When an application is launched or a similar process intensive task is performed, the phone switches to the more powerful of the quad-core chips.

Luscus
Luscus

What is not being said about Samsung is there repair/replace policy. If it stops working you have to send it to Samsung they take 5 to 7 days to trouble shoot the problem and let you know if it's under warranty then they send it back to you. 4 days shipping (2 coming and 2 going) 5 to 7 business days that is 2 weeks with out a phone. Pray it does not stop working!!!! My experience with them, and that is why until they do not change their warranty policy I will not buy  another Samsung . Caveat Emptor

BitchleyStyles
BitchleyStyles like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Luscus What are you smoking?  If I have a problem with any phone I buy through AT&T, I take to the store and they either fix it or give me a replacement for a year, just like Apple...

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Interesting. Once, when my iPhone stopped working (faulty button), I took it to an Apple Store, and was out the door with a replacement in about ten minutes.

MikeReid1
MikeReid1

I think the thing that took me back to iphone was that the Samsung Note 2's screen colors were too off.  I show photos to prospective clients on the phone and I always had to explain the colors.  That and how it took 3 programs to sync my bookmarks, outlook calendar and music to the phone.  Lastly, I didn't appreciate not being able to pick up the phone without inadvertently making a call, opening some app or causing some kind of chaos.  Loved the size of the thing though.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

OLED screens are very, very vivid -- more vivid than real life, sometimes. People tend to either love or hate it.

GNS
GNS

@harrymccracken GSMArena mentions that there is an Adobe RGB mode to adjust the color profile of the screen (along with other modes, manual or auto).  Supposedly makes the colors much less artificial and closer to being real.  

Did you see any Adobe RGB color adjustments on your tester?

thecrud
thecrud

I dont like to worry if the next update will ruin my jail break on the Iphone so this or others like it are for me.


BitchleyStyles
BitchleyStyles

I can't believe all of these reviewers still put the iPhone 5 in the elite category   I've owned every iPhone and now a Galaxy S3 and the S3 makes the iPhone 5 look totally inept.  I will be getting the S4 next week.  It amazes me to show my iPhone 5 user friends how superior my Galaxy is in side by side REAL World comparisons.  A LOT of them will be switching to Galaxy or something else when their contracts expire and they are eligible to get a BETTER phone...

snookasnoo
snookasnoo

Like all android users you can't say how it is superior.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

I find the iPhone 5 and the S III/S4 strikingly different in goals -- they're almost the opposite of each other, and therefore appeal to different sorts of people.

BitchleyStyles
BitchleyStyles like.author.displayName 1 Like

@harrymccracken   I find your comment absurd.  The point is, the Galaxy S4 does EVERYTHING the iPhone 5 dies, does it better/just as fast, does far more and is much easier to see.   Why would anyone want a LESS smart smart phone?

TheIronReview
TheIronReview

@BitchleyStyles I've used every single mobile OS on about every high end Android, Windows Phone, and iOS device. In the 'real' world the iPhone is the most consistent experience along with being the most reliable, and oh battery life is nice too, you get what 4 hours of screen time? I get 9. What features are you referring to? are they ones that include your delusions of Samsung grandeur? Yes they make good phones, and yes they have tons of features, but don't fool yourself in thinking that the iPhone is a "bad" device because it doesn't have useless proprietary eye candy. 

slmraiders
slmraiders

@TheIronReview, Styles never said the iPhone 5 is a "bad device". They only mentioned that it should know longer be known as elite device. I actually agree. I also agree that the iPhone is for the customers who are not as technically advanced or just want a more simplistic OS experience on their device. Apple's restrictions are good for those customers for that purpose and that is why it is the most consistent but the restrictions in the Apple OS and software is what drives the techies away. That's why the iPhone is a good phone for my wife but the Galaxy S4 is great for me. She loves the simple things her iPhone 5 does while I love the open source Android OS along with the features that some reviewers are calling "gimmicky" or "ones that include your delusions of Samsung grandeur".  It doesn't necessarily make the iPhone 5 bad, because it's still a great phone, but its just not good enough for me.

RobertLyon
RobertLyon

@TheIronReview @slmraidersThe iphone is watered down.  If you like it fine, but what he says is fact.  Just one example: multitasking.  If I open and start speedtest.net app on my N4, I can go check something out say in chrome and come back when I choose to get my finished result on speedtest.  Can't do that with iOs, have to sit there for a minute or so with the app open until it finishes running.  And the little multitasking icons at the bottom in iOs offer barely any content, whereas the Android multitasking shows those same icons but also a snapshot of the window.  it's nice to see what you have under the app before you open it.  I just flick it away if I don't want to open it, but with iOs you might not even remember what's there.  I wouldn't consider myself a techie, by some standards I'm probably even tech inept, but I'd be foolish in trying to win an argument that iOs is as advanced as Android.  I do however agree with you that not all iOs users are tech inept.  It's really the iPhone itself that wins that crown.

TheIronReview
TheIronReview

@slmraiders @TheIronReview I find the typical response of "oh the iPhone is for the tech inept" to be quite offensive, I've developed for the Android community since it was a baby and yet I'm treated to a community brimming over with hate and negativity for no apparent reason towards iOS users. I'm a very capable power user who prefers to use his iPhone, any other false equivalencies need I shoot down? I consider myself a "techie" as well I just don't like the same things you do. deal with it in a more constructive, and intelligent manner rather than trying to say iPhone users are somehow inferior to yourself.

Ne0
Ne0

Samsung is getting ready for Tizen OS.

Hope Android OS Galaxy S line will still continue.

pjalli
pjalli

too much. we need a new 4G nexus...

Sarka
Sarka

I agree that S4 has so many, maybe too many features to present at one smartphone... It´s hard to say which one is the key feature. Maybe Air Gestures will work well. But I am curious to see how S Health application with its accessories will work :-). I stay loyal to Samsung Galaxy line... But what is the best smartphone? Samsung Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5? Or HTC One?

Give a vote to your best smartphone which deserves the consumer´s highest rating.