Samsung is the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer, with its Galaxy range having become one of the most recognised brands within the smartphone market. The firm is furthering that range with the Galaxy S4, a flagship device which takes the foundations laid by the excellent Galaxy S III and adds even more powerful features.
- 1.9GHz quad-core processor
- 5-inch super AMOLED display
- 16GB, 32GB and 64GB of internal storage
- 13 megapixel camera
- 1080p video recording
- 7.9mm thick
- 130g weight
- Android Jelly Bean
- 2600mAh battery
Design and Build
The Galaxy S4 follows the distinctive and recognisable design trend that has become established amongst Samsung’s leading range. The rounded edges and slight bulge around the camera lens mark it out as a Galaxy handset straight away, although its form factor is slightly less curved than its predecessor, the Galaxy S III.
While the device retains the polycarbonate body of the S III it has a slightly more solid feel to it, although we found the way in which the physical buttons are quite loose to be unpleasant. However, the handset fits a 5-inch display into an overall body that is smaller than the S III and sits much better in the hand than the sharp edges of the similarly-sized Sony Xperia Z.
The Galaxy S4 is also comparable to Sony’s flagship in the quality of its display, which puts this device into a category also occupied by the HTC One and sees a new generation of HD smartphone screens that take visual performance a step further than the previous generation of devices.
The brightness and clarity exhibited by the S4’s screen is incredible, with colour reproduction also being excellent without becoming too brash and contrasting. The super AMOLED display has a ppi of 441, which is the same as the Sony flagship and slightly lower than the HTC One, but these three devices have reached a new level in screen technology and the Galaxy S4’s display is outstanding.
Under the Hood
While the UK isn’t getting the attention-grabbing octa-core version of the Galaxy S4, we are seeing an even faster variant which makes use of a quad-core, 1.9GHz chip that is the fastest currently available.
The processor’s speed is incredible to the point where you don’t even notice it doing what it is doing. The real credit to Samsung here is that you don’t have to think about how quickly the handset will perform a task, it just does it straight away.
A screen such as that on the Galaxy S4 could put a drain on battery life and we must admit that the device doesn’t set any new records in this area. However, its 2600mAh power cell isn’t disappointing and with moderate use such as frequent browsing online, downloading apps, taking photos and playing music the handset just about lasted a day on one charge. You’ll need to plug it in each evening but we didn’t find that battery performance was an issue when using the device.
Operating System and User Interface
Some eyebrows were raised by the fact that Samsung didn’t mention Android during its high-profile Galaxy S4 launch event, instead focussing on its own software developments and letting the Galaxy brand take centre stage. The S4 uses a bedrock of Jelly Bean upon which is built a new version of the firm’s TouchWiz user interface that has many unique features.
Many of the key points on which Samsung is selling its flagship focus on the way in which users interact with the device; certain functions can now be controlled by gestures without touching the handset.
Air View opens up a preview window when you hold your finger over things such as photos and messages and also works with some third party apps such as Flipboard, which comes pre-installed. It’s a clever idea but many of the previews end up being obscured by your finger and it’s very easy to unintentionally tap the screen.
Another feature, Air Gesture, allows you to swipe your hand across the device to control certain functions. You can flick through photos or answer calls, which could come in handy if you have dirty hands.
Smart Pause uses facial recognition and stops videos playing should the user look away from the screen. A clever point about the way in which it is set up is that if you just glance away for a fraction of a second it won’t stop the film, only pausing if you look away for longer. This is intuitive and saves the feature from becoming annoying by constantly switching playback on and off.
Lastly there is Smart Scroll, which allows you to move up and down a webpage by tilting the device when you are looking at it. However, this only works with the native Android browser and is overly sensitive; just shifting around in your seat can cause the page to scroll and make you lose your place.
Beyond the gesture-based features, Samsung has created S Health, a personal fitness suite that measures your calorie intake and monitors exercise regimes. This may be useless to you if you don’t put much focus on your fitness levels, but if you do, it offers a comprehensive way of monitoring your wellbeing.
The amount of time spent exercising can be entered to work out how many calories you are burning and the app uses the handset’s accelerometer to read your movements to judge things like how much walking you are doing. However, shaking the device around can skew these results; when we were taking some photos it registered our movements as several paces when we hadn’t exerted anywhere near the equivalent amount of effort that this would take.
Each meal that you eat can also be recorded to track your calorie intake although entering foods can be a laborious task – if you eat two sausages with your breakfast for example, each must be individually recorded.
Also, the Galaxy S4 is supposedly able to recognise certain meals from photographs, meaning that snapping your dinner now has a real purpose rather than just having something to put on Instagram. We are told that the photo-recognition only works with easily identifiable foods such as a Big Mac though and having tried it we found it impossible to use with any accuracy at all.
Samsung has also included S Translator, which can convert text into nine different languages and even read the results aloud. It doesn’t support as many languages as Google Translate (64) but the fact that it will read text out loud is a bonus and the feature’s interface is easy to use.
Finally, Samsung has grouped many of its media services into one app, called Samsung Hub. Music, movies, books and games can be purchased through this well designed service which stands as a rival to Google Play. The only criticism is that apps themselves are sold through a separate Samsung Apps service, when we would have liked them to be included in the main hub too.
The Galaxy S4 also has several less prominent features that are well thought out. The handset’s notifications bar is very similar to that seen on the Jelly Bean upgrades to Samsung’s recent Galaxy devices but includes additional controls for the likes of Air View and Air Gesture. It’s packed full of functions, works like a simplified settings menu and is incredibly easy to use.
That settings menu itself is also impressive, splitting controls into four sections that are navigated with minimal fuss and save you from feeling swamped by the number of different options.
The device also has a lockscreen which can show things like music player controls and your favourite apps, with quite an extensive app menu available with a swipe to the left. Lastly, the handset has several storage options and is available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions and also having a microSD card slot that can support cards of up to 64GB. That’s a huge amount of space on offer.
Camera and Video
Like much to do with the Galaxy S4, the 13 megapixel camera is feature heavy. The camera app is well designed and takes its cues from the interface seen on the Galaxy Camera, with features like Panorama and Night Mode being easy to access from the scrolling menu.
Also available is Dual Capture, a shooting mode that allows you to superimpose an image captured by the handset’s front-facing camera onto a photo taken with the main lens, effectively putting your face into a picture. To be honest, we have struggled to think of a real life example of when this would be useful, as the smaller image is of a lower quality and stands out way too much when amalgamated with other images.
Aside from these features, the Galaxy S4 has an outstanding camera which produces very high quality results. Some noise does occur when zooming right in on a photo and the handset adds a touch too much magenta to photos, making them look a little red. Overall though, photos are vibrant and have real depth, factors highlighted when they are shown on the fantastic display.
Video is equally high in quality at 1080p, with the Dual Capture feature also applicable when recording. Footage can also be captured at lower quality for smaller files sizes that are easier to share and can also be captured in both slow and fast motion, with effects being easy to add to footage as you film.
Performance and Verdict
The Galaxy S4 is packed full of features which are so innovative as to almost change the way in which you interact with the device. What these features do, however, is become a little distracting and take the focus away from what we think are the really important aspects of this smartphone, namely the fast processor, powerful camera and incredible display.
Samsung has a lot to shout about where its latest flagship is concerned and the device has many exciting and fun features like Air View, Smart Pause and Dual Camera. However, behind these prominent functions is an outstanding smartphone that doesn’t need gimmicks in order to make it stand out. Samsung has created an incredible handset that positions itself at the very top of the smartphone world and will rightly appeal to many millions of potential users.