Samsung has taken the smartphone market by storm – it is incredibly popular, and Android to the common man has become synonymous with the “Galaxy” brand. But the Android market has some truly great competitors right now. The HTC One is almost perfect, and the Sony Xperia Z sports a cool waterproof design. But thanks to Samsung’s huge marketing effort, the most popular Android phone out is the Galaxy S series, and most other Android phone are ignored. In a quick few iterations it has become the phone on everyone’s minds, and thanks to massive marketing, the phone that the average South African aspires to.
But is the new Galaxy S4 up to that high praise?
The S4 looks a hell of a lot like the S3 – and its good to see that Samsung has nailed down their own design language. Much like the way you can recognize a iPhone, the S4 is unmistakably a Samsung Galaxy phone. In fact, if you don’t have some time to look at it with a close eye, it easy to mistake for the S3. And I think that is a good thing.
The S4 is a good looking phone in person, and it is dominated by a massive 5 inch display. This screen is larger than the S3, which means that the phone has now officially crossed over into the uncomfortable territory. Sure, thanks to curved edges it feels great in hand, but you need some monstrous paws to use this phone with one hand.
The Galaxy S4 is also very light, and feels almost unnatural the first time you hold it. It is a plastic phone with almost no texture to it, and the bigger size does not help either. I had to handle the phone very carefully to prevent it from slipping from my hands. It did drop a few times – luckily onto carpet floors. The outer rim is a piece of brushed metal which does look good, and makes the phone slightly easier to grip. The rear panel of the phone clips loose to reveal the battery and SIM card.
But despite the plasticky feel, it does seem to be quite resilient. After using it for a few days without a case, I did not see any scuff marks on the back, which I did not expect. But only time will tell if the plastic body is indeed well built.
This screen is fantastic. After reviewing the HTC One last month I am really in two minds about which one is better. Both screens are incredibly crisp thanks to 1080p resolution, but the Samsung is a AMOLED display type. The S4 hits 441 pixels per inch. This means that blacks are perfectly black, and colours do pop a lot more thanks to a better contrast. But AMOLED does seem to make a lot of colours almost unnatural – for example, green looks almost neon in many cases.
The HTC One has more accurate colour and performs better in direct sunlight. As I said before, the 5 inch display size is actually not comfortable to use with one hand, but if you can make peace with that (as the market trends seem to indicate), it is a great screen to behold. Webpages with fine text look brilliant, and movies look excellent as well thanks to that great contrast. Another bonus is that apps like Citrix Receiver and Teamviewer become better to use thanks to the great resolution.
There is no denying that the S4 is one very powerful phone. No matter what I threw at it, the phone just hummed along. That 1.6GHz octa-core processor handled any game without trouble. Apps switched without trouble thanks to 2GB of RAM. I did notice that if you switch off some of the Samsung “features”, it does actually speed the phone up even more.
But despite the speed there are some apps that seem to take a long time to launch or crash occasionally. This makes me think that many apps are simply not coded yet to handle all those cores.
I found the S4’s battery to be surprisingly good. These days I am happy if any phone can last a full day of heavy use, and the S4 did that without issues. If you turn of some of the S4’s unique features, the battery life does benefit as well. Provided you charge your phone every night, the S4 will suit you well.
At 13 megapixels, the S4 has the highest resolution we have used on any smartphone. It is clear Samsung is still punting the spec race – which is a sharp contrast with what HTC is doing with its 4MP “Ultrapixel” camera. In everyday use the camera is excellent, and will not disappoint. Images are pin sharp, and colours do look natural. Focussing is fast as well. I did find the camera lacking somewhat in low light though. While it is indeed better than many other smartphone cameras on the market, it does not hold a candle against the HTC One and Lumia 920 cameras when it comes to darkness.
The software is the great part of the camera though. There is some amazing features, and some pretty useless features as well (which is pretty much the case once we get to the rest of the software as well). It has optical character recognition to easily scan business cards and instantly store them as a contact, it can store images with sound (called shot and sound). It also has panorama mode and a animated GIF creator.
There is some less useful features – like “dual view mode” – combining a photo from the front and back camera, so you see yourself in a photo you took. But hey – maybe you like it.
The S4 is a Android phone that is currently still running the latest version 4.2.2, but it runs Samsung’s TouchWiz layer on top. It is easy enough to use, and Samsung has really thrown a lot of features at it.
But here is the issue – you get the feeling that no one in Samsung’s software team said no to any feature. Most of the new features on this phone make for excellent ads and demos, but in everyday use they very quickly lose their appeal. It is really a case of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at a phone. Here is some of the new “features” and my personal experience of using them:
- Multiwindow: Allows you to snap 2 apps to screen at once, but only certain apps work with it. I switched it off.
- Air Gesture: Allow you to wave across the phone to browse photos. Works about half the time, and is really not very accurate.
- Air View: You can hover over an item (like in Flipboard) to preview it. It is great to see some type of hover functionality on a touch screen, but only a few apps support it right now.
- Smart Pause: Pauses a video when you look away. It does not work well (and no, I dont have small eyes). But – is it really useful?
- Smart Stay: Keeps the screen on as long as you look at it. In other words, it wont switch off if you look at it. Useful? Maybe.
- Smart Scroll: Allows the screen to scroll as you tilt your head or move your eyes downward. I could not get it to work reliably.
- Group Play: Imagine you and a group of friends want to all play the same song through your phone’s speakers. But the phones all need to be S4’s. No, I don’t see it happening either.
There are some really great features though, but many people might argue its as simple as downloading a app on any other phone. The S-Translator app looks useful, and the “WatchON” TV remote software is pretty great to use. With a little bit of effort I was quickly controlling my TV and its relevant streaming boxes without issue. The S Health app seems like an interesting idea for tracking your movement every day, very much like Nike’s Fuelband or Fitbit devices.
The TouchWiz layer on top is also something I do not enjoy. I don’t enjoy the little bubble popping noises the first time you fire it up. I don’t like that it calls itself a “Life Companion” in a terrible font with a fool jumping with balloons as my wallpaper. I don’t like that it changes so many of the best parts of Android. And I can go on and on and on. If you know what kind of effort Google puts into the Android user interface (look at this video of their UI development at the recent I/O conference), it is quite a shame that Samsung feels they should cover it up.
But the great thing about Android is that you remove most of these annoyances without too much hassle. With a few well chosen apps it can quickly become much better to use, and a lot closer to the way Google intentioned Android to be. Once I applied a good launcher and lock screen the phone was pretty great to use.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is going to be a hit – and I can absolutely see why. If you look at a feature list and insane specs, it is clear people will jump at the chance to have one.
But in every day use these seemingly amazing features very quickly fall in the background, and you start to notice some of the less appealing parts of the phone. I for one did not like the plastic build of the phone, but I was surprised at how well it held up in everyday use.
My issue with the phone is not with the hardware however – it is after all a incredibly powerful device. I just could not stand the TouchWiz interface after a few days, and most of the new “features” I switched off. Once I changed the phone to a more stock Android experience I started to really like the phone.
In my opinion the days of putting skins on Android is over – Google has clearly paid a lot of attention to the user interface in recent times, and I do not see the appeal of TouchWiz anymore. The newly announced Galaxy S4 Google Edition (which ships with stock Android) would be my weapon of choice. I really hope Samsung gives early adopters of the S4 a way to change it to the Google Edition. If you are already a Samsung fan I would recommend the S4, but it is not a massive upgrade above the S3.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a very good phone, and will sell in absolutely massive numbers. It is just a tough sell compared to some of the other phone out there right now. But if you have your heart set on the Samsung’s latest and greatest, you will not go wrong.
For me personally, the HTC One seems to make a more compelling argument (see our review here). If I have to live with a non stock Android phone I might as well get the phone which truly feels high end.
Body / Build: 6/10
Images: Eric Burger