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 /

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 /

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.