The S4 sees Samsung looking to cement its position as the world’s leading phone manufacturer.
The device has relatively few real standout features yet put all changes together – a refined design, better screen, faster processor and a whole lot more software – and it’s clear this is a radical improvement on last year’s S III.
That became the best selling Android phone ever. What’s to stop the S4 repeating the trick?
There has been no shortage of comment about the S4’s design and build. We feel that most of the complaints are wildly overstated.
Yes, it is plastic, but it feels solidly built and is quite a dense package with no creaking or flexing, and it is a noticeable improvement over the S III in pretty much every respect.
It’s obviously not as premium as the HTC One, yet beyond the initial rush excitement that form your first impressions we’d question just how important that is.
The S4 is not ugly, it’s too bland for that, and Samsung’s approach seems to be one of anti-design as much as anything. The huge screen size and minimal bezel make the design less relevant than it is on other handsets.
If you want a piece of costume jewellery then fine, but you’ll need to look elsewhere. The S4 is all about the screen and what it enables you to do.
The few buttons and ports that are on the S4 are all in the right place. The power button is located beneath your right thumb or left forefinger, and there’s also a home button below the screen.
Incidentally this is another important aspect of design that is so often overlooked in the obsession with making things beautiful – the HTC One’s awkwardly positioned power button and lack of front buttons makes it surprisingly difficult to switch on.
The volume controls are on the left edge, microSD port on the bottom and headphone jack and tiny IR port on the top. On the rear at the bottom is a small mono speaker. It pumps out the sound loud enough but is generally unimpressive.
The screen is stunning, and fitting a larger display into a chassis with a marginally smaller footprint than the S III is a fantastic achievement. You don’t notice the extra size in the hand, but do gain the benefits of it.
The display is Super AMOLED, which means bright and vibrant colours (some find them too vibrant although we like them) and satisfyingly deep blacks. The full 1080p resolution spread across five inches corner to corner equates to a pixel density of 441ppi.
It isn’t quite class leading although at this level the individual pixels are completely indiscernible so factors like contrast and brightness and useability outdoors are more important. The S4 rates highly in all regards, and we had no problems seeing the screen in full summer sun.
There’s also a high touch sensitivity option for the screen that enables you to use it with gloves on. This is turned off by default, presumably because it would impact on the battery somewhat. We found while it did work with gloves, gloves and smartphone UIs make a cumbersome combination.
Performance and battery
The specs on the Galaxy S4 are top notch. We were testing the version with the quad-core processor clocked at 1.9GHz, while there’s an octa-core verion also available in some markets. Backed with 2GB RAM the performance was stellar.
Inevitably we noticed the odd brief moment of jerkiness, something we put down as fact of life with Android. And on occasion apps took longer to load than we’d expect – launching the weather app via the home screen widget was a particular culprit here, and may again be down to the optimisation of the software rather than any inherent performance issues. There was also the slightest shutter lag in the camera, something we’ve seen eradicated on other devices.
These minor issues apart the S4 absolutely flew. Even scrolling large web pages in the Chrome browser was smooth, a rarity indeed.
Storage on the phone starts at 16GB, which was the version we were using. You only get around 9GB to play with, with the rest being taken up by the OS. You can add a memory card but cannot install apps onto it, so a handful of big games could see your storage being eaten up quickly.
Despite everything going on on the S4 the battery is fantastic. The 2600mAh battery is only 10% or so larger than normal but seems to deliver more than 10% of improvement. Put simply it is the first phone we’ve used where the battery is just not something we felt a need to keep an eye on. Most flagship devices will get you through a full day of solid use, but the S4 will keep you going into the next day should you forget to charge it overnight.
And so to the software. This is what sets the Galaxy S4 apart from every other smartphone, and what gives the device its identity. There has never been a smartphone that has crammed in so many features and it takes some time to really get your head around its curious mix of extreme complexity and overbearing handholding.
Anyone who thinks that Samsung’s software is lacking refinement will have plenty of ammunition to back up their argument simply from the default setup of the software. Some bizarre choices gave been made (some, sadly, carried over from previous devices), such as how a sound effect accompanies virtually every screen tap. Usually it is a plop from a water droplet, sometimes it is a beep, occasionally something else.
It’s annoying – if not to the user then certainly to anyone within earshot – and completely unnecessary. Maybe five years ago when screens were not so responsive we might have needed an audible confirmation of every screen tap, but not now. Now it just seems to support the image of a company that doesn’t understand the concept of subtletly.
Similar overkill is also evident from the endless help screens that pop up whenever you try and do almost anything. We understand the need to make things simple, but nobody needs instructions on how to swipe the lockscreen to unlock the phone, especially when those instructions are written on the lockscreen already.
Worst of all, some of these pop ups, such as when you set a new default app, can not be dismissed forever, no matter how many times you perform the function.
Yet despite all the friendliness the phone never feels especially intuitive or easy to use, there are just too so many features. The quick settings panel in the notifications shade, for example, contains no fewer than 20 icons for things you can turn on or off.
The S4 runs Android 4.2, and despite being well hidden beneath the TouchWiz UI includes that updates best features, like lockscreen widgets. But this is first and foremost a TouchWiz device, all about its apps, enhancements (the multi-window mode from the Note II is especially good) and gesture controls.
Considering how innovative and exciting Samsung appears to believe its gestures are it is interesting to discover that most of them are disabled by default. That is the right decision as most are beta standard at best.
Of those that are set to On, Smart Stay, which was introduced in the S III and keeps the screen on when you’re looking at it, works pretty well, as does Air View, which shows you a thumbnail preview of an image or email when you hover your finger over it.
Of those that are off, we couldn’t get Smart Pause (pause a video when you look away from the screen) working at all, while Smart Scroll, which automatically scrolls a page based on the position of your head or the way you tilt the phone, was so glitchy that we would frequently find it scrolling rapidly in the wrong direction in response to even our slightest movements.
A third, Air Gesture, allows you to control the device – answer a call, view the clock when the screen is off – just by waving your hand. This one could be useful in some circumstances but was too sensitive and tended to misinterpret innocent hand movements as gestures.
Not a revolution, then. And neither are Samsung’s apps. S Health and S Translator are okay if you use them but there’s no reason for them to be pre-installed rather than placed in the app store. Optical Reader, a business card and QR code scanner likewise.
Samsung Hub is an attempt to lock you into Samsung’s products via content. It’s a sound commercial move for Samsung, but we’ll always prefer manufacturer agnostic services instead.
There’s also the full selection of S-branded apps that replace the stock Android ones. The keyboard is okay and includes a useful floating mode for when the text input is obscured in an app.
On the whole we found little in the software that was absolutely essential. New users may find the experience overwhelming, and experienced ones will need to spend some time taming the software, and disabling the bits they don’t need.
The S4’s camera software has been lifted from the Galaxy Camera and is one of the star features of the device. The 13 megapixel camera takes good photos in good light, and okay ones in poor light, and easily ranks among the best we’ve tested.
As with everything else the camera app is absolutely rammed with features. Eraser removes unwanted intruders from your images, Drama shot composites multiple images together to create an action shot, Animated photo makes GIFs on the fly, sound and shot adds audio to a still (it’s just a regular still if viewed off the device), dual shot uses the front and rear cameras simultaneously. There’s plenty more too.
Most of these features work exactly as advertised, but we can’t help but wonder how much use they will get. The problem is they all have to be turned on in advance – there’s no way to retroactively erase someone from an image, or create a drama shot.
More annoying is that the app remembers your last shot mode, so if you take an animated photo now and forget to switch back to Auto mode, you’ll be shooting an animated photo next time you launch the camera.
Overall we’d say the camera is the standout feature on the S4, and shows perfectly how Samsung can overload the features without ruining the user experience.
Summarising the S4, it feels like two distinct devices. There’s the hardware, its awesome power and the potential that that brings, and there’s the software, overblown with features that you’ll never use.
As enthusiasts we’ll always embrace the possibilities presented by the hardware. Twenty minutes spent clearing up some of the junk and setting up a third party launcher left us with a near-stock device with unrivalled hardware, a fantastic camera and amazing battery life.
Whether you should have to do that on a flagship device is a different matter, and those less inclined to do so will find themselves with a mass of silly sound effects, gestures they don’t use and apps they don’t need.
There’s no doubt that the S4 offers too much, that for every good idea there’s at least one bad one. But if you can look beyond this you’ll find a pretty incredible smartphone.