There are two companies that are currently dominating the world of smartphones. Controlling the vast majority of the overall market share are Apple and Samsung. And when you take a look at the latter, the pre-eminent handset being offered today is the Samsung Galaxy S4. It's big, it's bold, and it's what Samsung wants to have as your "life companion." If you're in the market for a new Android smartphone, the Galaxy S4 certainly cannot be ignored.
The overall styling of the Samsung Galaxy S4 is very much like its predecessor. It has the same kind of rounded corners, the same kind of physical home button on the bottom flanked by capacitive menu and back buttons, and the same kind of slippery plastic back. While I did like the almost carbon fiber-like appearance of the black back, it still had that lack of "premium" feel that you may find with something like the HTC One.
Even though the Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch display, compared to the 4.8-inch display on the Galaxy S III, its outward dimensions are actually a tiny bit smaller. It's just 7.9mm thick and 130g, compared to the 8.6mm profile and 133g weight of its predecessor. Thsi is mostly because Samsung has thinned out the bezel around the display.
As far as the core specs go, that 5-inch Super AMOLED display offers full 1080p resolution for a pixel density of 441ppi. You get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core 1.9GHz Krait 300 processor, Adreno 320 graphics, 13MP rear camera, 2MP front camera, LTE, Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, and the usual assortment of wireless radios and sensors.
Android OS Optimizations
The hardware on the Galaxy S4 is impressive and all, but where Samsung is really trying to separate itself from the pack is with the software side of things. The Galaxy S4 borrows some features from the Galaxy Note II, for instance. Even though you don't have
a stylus an S-Pen to use here, you can still hover your finger over certain things for secondary functions. If you're inside the web browser, for example, hovering your finger will bring up a magnified view of that portion of the webpage.
Samsung has implemented all sorts of different sensors and motion controls on here. They call them Air Gestures. You can scroll up and down a page by waving your hand accordingly, for example, or you can answer a call by waving your hand in front of the display too. These seem neat on paper, but I didn't find they were all that useful in practice. After the novelty factor wore off, I turned many of these off... though I did keep the hover view and the Smart Stay features on. I like those.
Another useful feature was the omnipresent dock along the left side of the screen. If you tap on that little arrow, it pulls out a tray of some of your favorite apps. It would have been nice to put any app in there, but you do have to choose from a pre-determined list.
In addition to these optimizations and special features, Samsung has also gone through the trouble of pre-installing a bunch of software for you. There are third party apps, like Flipboard, but the focus is naturally more on what Samsung brought to the digital table itself.
S Health is an app that, well, is designed to help you stay healthy. You can use it to track your workouts and it works as a perpetual pedometer. You can set a daily "step goal" and the gamification aspect can be quite the motivator. It can also be used to track calories, weight and so on.
As with all other Samsung smartphones, the "pure" Google Calendar is replaced with Samsung's S Planner. You'll also find a Story Album app that can be used to automatically organize your photos into albums based on specific events, applying themes and layouts for ease of printing. How much value you get out of these additional apps is purely up to you, but I didn't find that I used them all that much.
Camera and Camera Modes
The 13MP camera on the SGS4 does very well when there is a good amount of light available to you. You'll get decent detail and a good deal of saturation and contrast. The low light performance, like most other smartphone cameras, isn't quite as good. You will get grain from the elevated ISO, but the on-board flash can be used in a pinch. Video feels a little more muted by comparison, but still very usable. Have a look at some 1080p full HD video samples to see for yourself.
Just like the core Android experience, Samsung has also optimized the camera app with several innovations. While you will likely be using the "Auto" mode most of the time, the app does contain several other modes that you can use. The Dual Shot mode takes a simultaneous photo with the front and rear cameras, for example, placing the front-facing photo in a creative "frame" within the main photo.
With Drama Shot, you effectively get a burst mode where the phone will detect moving objects and allow you to place multiple images of them in the same photo. Again, like the unique software and Android optimizations, I found that these worked better in theory than in practice. With Drama Shot, I oftentimes got frames with partial people or objects.
You can see my brief demonstration of the Animated Photo mode and Eraser mode for a closer look at a couple of these modes. It should be noted that you do need to be in the mode before you take the shot in order to take advantage of its features. This sounds obvious enough, but there were at least a few instances where I was in Auto and had wished I was in Eraser.
Battery Life and Daily Use
Through moderate use over a period of a couple of weeks, I found that I was generally able to retire at the end of the day with more than 30% charge left on the battery. This is with somewhere in the neighborhood of 16+ hours of moderate usage, updating Facebook, surfing the web, and playing a game or two. Your mileage will vary, to be sure, but this is quite admirable.
With lighter usage, I could foreseeably get through two work days on a single charge. According to the official numbers from Samsung, you can expect up to 17 hours of talk time on 3G or up to 62 hours of music playing. Even though it has a slim profile, the SGS4 has a 2600mAh battery. That's pretty nuts.
As far as being a "daily driver," the Galaxy S4 performs admirably. I never felt lacking for speed or power, the screen is the brilliantly saturated Super AMOLED that we've come to love, and the software was generally intuitive enough. The slippery plastic back can still be annoying, though, especially when you're stretching out your fingers to reach all the way around the 5-inch display single-handed.
4G LTE SpeedTest
The review unit that we received came with a SIM from Telus Mobility, so there will always be some individual differences in terms of speed performance. I ran the tests in the city of Vancouver, as well as in some of its neighboring suburbs. In Burnaby, I was barely able to crack 7-8Mbps down, even on what was supposed to be LTE. That's closer to what you might expect from HSDPA.
Thankfully, the speeds picked up significantly in the actual city of Vancouver, where I was consistently able to get 33-42Mbps downstream and up to about 23Mbps upstream. This is more reflective of the network than the hardware, per se, but you can probably expect similar speeds in other major Canadian cities. This was a little lower but within a comparable range to what I am able to get on the Rogers LTE.
Quadrant Standard Benchmark
I never felt lacking for speed or performance with the Galaxy S4, but we did have to put it to the test in a more quantitative way. To do that, we turned to the Quadrant Standard benchmark.
Unsurprisingly, the super fact quad core processor in there did very well. Running several iterations of the benchmark, I was consistenly able to achieve scores of right around 10,000. For comparison, the HTC One -- which also uses a Snapdragon 600 chipset -- generally scores in the 11,000-12,000 range, whereas the Sony Xperia ZL has been clocked in at about 8,000.
MEGATechie S4-midable Phone or MEGATechie S4-gettable Follow-Up?
If you're already a fan of Samsung Galaxy products, you don't have much of a reason to dislike the Galaxy S4. It's a stylish phone that is packed full of performance and it shouldn't have any problem getting you through a standard work day. It comes with all sorts of software optimizations and features that make for a fun experience.
If you don't like TouchWiz and you don't like that "plastic" feeling, then you may have reasons to look elsewhere. Aesthetically, the S4 is just like the S III before it and if you didn't like the quirks of Samsung's software before, there's just as much to get on your nerves here. To be fair, you'll be able to get a pure Google version of this phone soon... but that won't change the plastic feel and the increasingly awkward feeling of reaching your thumb from corner to corner.
In many ways, the Galaxy S4 doesn't really feel like a Galaxy S4. It feels a lot more like a Galaxy S III Plus or a Galaxy S III Advanced, adding in some bells and whistles to go along with a marginally larger display. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make me look forward to how the inevitable Galaxy S5 will be any different.