Reviewed: Samsung Galaxy S4

There was a point in the late nineties when the shrinking size of mobile phones no longer served as a mark of innovation but pointed towards a bare bones phone that couldn’t serve up those cool WAP webpages. As we head in the other direction some are beginning to debate how big is too big. On paper the Samsung Galaxy S4 screen sounds a bit oversized at 5-inches but in reality it works just fine. Besides, it’s noticeably lighter (3g) and thinner (.7mm) than its predecessor and the screen size is the least innovative aspect of this feature-packed smartphone.

Screen

Before we get to the new additions of Smart Scroll and Air Gesture we’ll take a look at the Super AMOLED display with 1920 x 1080 resolution. For comparison the S3 has a resolution of 720 x 1280 and the iPhone 5 has 1136 x 640 on a 4-inch screen. So it’s big and it displays deep, vivid colours.

The Kindle app rarely gets an outing on my iPhone, however, I couldn’t help but linger over my eBooks on the S4; my actual Kindle device is getting a well-deserved rest. Netflix is another app that showcases the S4’s best asset. You would think that a bigger screen isn’t a game changer, and you’d be right, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive or desirable for media consumption and comfortable web browsing.

It only loses marks for its poor performance in direct sunlight; it’s quite difficult to read text or see pictures clearly. The auto brightness setting is also a bit off; the screen seems dimmer than it should be in certain light conditions.

Camera

The 13-megapixel camera shoots gorgeous images. I tested it out with some foodie shots (below), which demonstrated crisp, clear close-ups due to a good macro function with nice depth of field. The landscape shots (also below) also produced vivid images with stunningly rich blues and greens and nice shadow definition.

There are plenty of clever camera modes: ‘Beauty Face’ sounds cheesy but it detects and focuses on facial features, softening and making more attractive in a Photoshop-lite kind of way. There’s also a group shot one that shots a series of pictures for rearrangement later in order to get one group photo where everyone looks decent! The drama shot is also pretty enticing as it captures movement across the screen and arranges it in a series of still images; a nice way to capture your children playing at the park or a sports event. The video camera holds up well too, with full HD (1080p) playback.

Processor

The S3 has a 1.4GHz quad core processor so the S4 easily outpaces with 1.9GHz. I only had an iPhone 4s to hand to test against the S4 and didn’t find a noticeable difference in terms of loading webpages but there is s difference when it comes to multitasking. Downloading apps, updates, receiving alerts and switching between apps does feel rather zippy, something I didn’t appreciate until I’d swapped back to using the 4S.

US reviews have been talking lots about the Exynos 5 Octa chipset but this isn’t what we’re getting in Ireland and the UK. Whereas the S4 GT-19500 is on sale in the US, what we have is the GT-19505 version with the Snapdragon 600, a quad-core microprocessor. So that whole “fastest smartphone in the world” thing? Yeah, the Americans are getting that, not us. Still though, the Snapdragon is not to be sniffed at. For comparison the iPhone 5 has the A6 – a dual-core 1.3GHz chip (See comparison at CPU Boss).

Design and user interface

Samsung’s smartphones have always been plastic, with a cheaper look and feel than its competitors. The S4 has a lightweight polycarbonate plastic backing so no surprises there. It’s got a slightly better finish with a crosshatched diamond design underneath the smooth plastic finish but you’re essentially looking at the same old approach. I’ve always loved the glass and metal combo that Apple and HTC bring to the table and Samsung continues to lose out in the design stakes. It might be the most beefed up, powerful smartphone out there right now but it’s wearing a cheap suit.

Speaking of cheap suits, the custom TouchWiz UI skinned over Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean is also a little birght and chunky (but a huge improvement on Samsung’s earlier Android skinning). I couldn’t help but be appeased by the beautiful HD screen and found TouchWiz pretty tolerable.

From the perspective of an iPhone user it can be difficult to adapt to any new non-Apple designed user interface but a couple of days into testing the S4 and it felt like home. This was for a few reasons, the first being the overall good navigational design and well-laid out interface but most importantly because Google Play has leveled the playing field in terms of the availability of smartphone apps.

It’s now possible to make the transition from Android to iOS and vice versa with the wealth of cloud-based, platform agnostic apps that demonstrate the same high quality user experience no matter what the mobile OS. Despite coming packed with native apps (and widgets galore) I went straight for the familiar Spotify, Evernote, WhatsApp, RunKeeper, Netflix and so on.

Samsung encourages this kind of behavior from the moment you switch on the handset. You’re asked to add your Google, Facebook and Dropbox profiles at set-up, which comprises of the trifecta of mobile computing for the majority of people: finding stuff, communicating with people and storing stuff.

Smart View and Smart Scroll

Smart View and Smart Scroll work by using front facing sensors positioned at the top of the phone. These sensors detect your face (in combination with the natural tilt accompanied by reading text on screen) in order to scroll down through an email or webpage as you read. The result is mixed. Sometimes it doesn’t detect your presence due to lighting conditions and at other times the text whizzes by before you have a chance to read. Like a lot of extras on this device, it might be a feature you slowly get used to and enjoy or simply one you switch off without regret. Unfortunately, there’s no option to train this feature to recognize your face or reading habits. I do, however, like the fact that it recognizes when you’re facing the screen, which prevents auto dimming. This works for when you’re watching video too: if you turn away from the screen it automatically pauses, well, most of the time anyway.

Air Gesture and Air Touch

Air Touch detects your finger hovering over the screen and responds in kind. It can be set to highlight text or act as the hover function of an onscreen cursor and bring up options without actually clicking through. It also leaves a trail of sparkles in its wake on the lockscreen. Pretty!

The Air Gesture (positioned at top of screen) recognises gestures from a distance of under 7cm at normal speed. When it’s working (as with Smart View and Smart Scroll) the icon will appear (and light up) on the status bar. This was particularly useful for flicking through pictures in a photo album with the wave of a hand and also for motioning a webpage up or down. It can be set to answer the phone too: waving a hand back and forth across the screen will automatically answer an incoming call and switch to loudspeaker mode.

Verdict

I suppose there are three main players in the high-end smartphone arena right now: the iPhone 5, the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. I haven’t tested the HTC One, had a brief love affair with a HTC Hero (industrial design heaven!) but I’ve been using the iPhone ever since it first came out and therefore have invested a lot of time and money in apps, integration with my other hardware and so on.

Other than that I don’t see a reason not to pick one device over the other. I would easily recommend the S4 to a first time smartphone user but with one caveat: beware of overload. You won’t need half of the features of this device but it’s nice to see that they are there just in case. It does superbly on the essentials and, lets face it, you won’t regret owning a 13-megapixel camera with a 5-inch HD screen and 1.9GHz processor.

Pricing: From €99 on Three.ie

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