With the Galaxy S4, Samsung clinches its goal of global smartphone domination. The supercharged Android 4.2 Jelly Bean device may look like a toy compared with the stunning HTC One and the dapper iPhone 5, but taken together, its blazing quad-core processor, colourful 5-inch HD screen, sharp-shooting 13-megapixel camera, and mile-high stack of software extras make the Galaxy S4 (GS4) the most powerful super-phone anywhere in the world.
What does the Galaxy S4 have? A better question is: what doesn't it have? There's the 1080p screen, zippy processing speeds that are ideal for gaming and an IR blaster that can control your TV. Then there's the parade of camera tricks that cram action shots into one scene, use both front and back cameras, and film a video in slow-mo. The GS4 can harness your eyeballs to pause video, and it can answer a phone call with the wave of your hand. Unlike the HTC One and the iPhone 5, it also piles on expandable storage space and a removable battery.
It's true: most of the GS4's featurettes aren't essential, and some aren't even very useful. While none stand out as a must-have, cannot-possibly-live-without extra, these features do add up to a compelling testament that the Galaxy S4 is more than a step ahead of the pack.
Design and build
Throughout the lifetime of Samsung's Galaxy S line, one of the biggest complaints levied against the manufacturer was — and is — how its plastic construction and flimsier-looking industrial design fall short compared with premium rivals from Apple and HTC.
No, Samsung sticks by plastic, and points to only a handful of Android enthusiasts who really care about vaunted materials like aluminium and glass. Yet the phone maker has also made an effort to add more "refined" touches to the Galaxy S4.
Indeed, when you compare the S3 and S4 side by side, you note a more rectangular home button and metallic accents around the rim. The S4's 5-inch screen is taller and the bezel surrounding the display slimmer. Its volume and power/lock buttons are metallic-looking polycarbonate, and tooled to have slanted sides and a flat top. Look closely, and you'll see that the gaps around these controls are narrower, too.
Samsung's Galaxy S4, left, looks a lot like its predecessor, the Galaxy S3.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
The GS4's metallic spines are also reworked to be steeper and less curved than the Galaxy S3. In fact, while Samsung boasted that its GS3 was inspired by nature, the GS4's straight sides seem to be inspired by the iPhone 5 or HTC One.
The Galaxy S4 is actually marginally a millimetre thinner and lighter than the GS3. Yet the S3 and S4 generations still look so similar that you might not know the difference if you're not looking closely. When in doubt, flip the S4 over to see the new tiny black-and-silver diamond design on the black mist model, or a similar pinprick design on the white frost edition. As with the Galaxy S3's brushed-plastic backing, the newer generation is so reflective you could use it as a makeshift mirror.
The 5-inch 1080p HD display yields a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch (ppi), which is higher than Apple's 321ppi screen and lower than the HTC One's 468ppi screen. In the end, we're not sure how much these pixel density wars matter. The naked eye doesn't calibrate numbers, but it does understand if an image looks rich and sharp and detailed, versus dull and blurred.
Carrying on its fine tradition, the Galaxy S4's HD AMOLED display nails it with colour saturation and contrast, sharply defined edges and details. Articles are easy to read, gameplay looks good and photos and videos look terrific.
In a new display setting, Samsung attempts to correct an old complaint about certain colours, like green, looking too saturated. In the screen mode settings, you can choose to let the GS4 auto-adjust the colour tone depending on what you're looking at.
There are a few other important things to note about the Galaxy S4's display besides colour and sharpness. As with the GS3, this year's model is highly reflective indoors and out, and even at its full brightness, it can seem dim outside when fighting bright light.
Outdoor readability in strong sunlight is really tough; when taking photos, we very often couldn't tell that a finger covered the camera lens until we got back inside, a plight that ruined several pictures. Now would have been the time for Samsung to follow Nokia's lead with its excellent polarised screen filter on phones like the Nokia Lumia 920.
Importantly, the screen does has hover functionality, meaning that you can actually navigate the screen without having to physically touch it. It also uses the newest Gorilla Glass 3.
A 2-megapixel front-facing camera lens sits in the upper right corner, neighboured to the left by ambient light and proximity sensors. To the left of the speaker grill is the phone's IR, or infrared, sensor. There's also an LED indicator at the top left corner. This will glow or blink green, red or blue to indicate certain activities.
Sharing the top edge with the phone's 3.5-millimetre headset jack is the Galaxy S4's brand-new IR blaster, which is to be used in conjunction with the Watch On app as a TV remote.
Volume is on the left spine, phone charging is from the bottom and the right spine has the on/off button. On the back, you'll see the 13-megapixel camera lens and LED flash just below. Pry off the back cover to get to the microSD card slot, SIM card slot and battery.
An infrared blaster turns your Galaxy S4 into a universal TV and DVR remote.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Arguably, the design's sharper edges do make it look like a more premium device than its predecessor, but it won't ever be as eye-popping as the gorgeous HTC One or as understatedly elegant as the iPhone 5. Still, it's pleasant to look at and, in our opinion, more comfortable to hold than the other two.
The Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2 beneath its very highly customised Touch Wiz interface. Argue the pluses and minuses of stock Android versus overlay all you want, but Samsung's pile of software lets the GS4 go places that a stock Android phone can't even dream about without rooting and mods.
Take this new interface addition, for example: Samsung has bulked up its one-touch system icons in the notifications shade. Tap a new button in the upper right corner to expand the list to 15 icons that you'll no longer have to dig through settings menus to find. If you press the edit button, you'll be able to drag and drop icons to reorder them. This is very cool and extremely useful for finding and toggling settings.
The new notifications shade on the Galaxy S4 adds a heap of new one-touch settings options; you can reorder their positions in the edit menu.
(Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
In the Galaxy S4, the lock screen has become a more customisable place. You'll still choose if you swipe to unlock or use a passcode or face scan, and you can still add and order lock screen icons that serve as shortcuts to the camera, search and your contacts.
Now, however, there are lock screen widget options, similar in concept to what you can get on Windows Phone, but different in execution. For example, you choose if you'd like to see the clock or a personal message on the screen, and if you'd like to swipe to open a list of favourite apps or launch the camera
Before diving into the GS4's feature list, let's just run through one of its key inner workings: how it communicates wirelessly. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that the Galaxy S4 is up-to-date in all its radios and communications. The phone supports 4G here in Australia, as well as in other regions.
Wi-Fi is 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (5GHz), and the handset can serve as a mobile hotspot for up to 10 devices. Wi-Fi Direct and DLNA support are a go, and a renamed feature that used to be known as AllShare Cast can mirror the contents of your phone's screen with another device. Samsung's Kies app connects you with your computer over Wi-Fi.
Pre-installed apps and functions
Samsung also includes branded versions of its own translator, a calories and exercise app and Watch On, its TV remote-plus-video-rental app (more on all these later). A special version of Flipboard is installed; this build takes advantage of Samsung's Air View functionality to preview content when you hover over it.
The Story Album app is new as well. You can use it to create narrative albums with photos and text, and print (buy) a photo book through a third-party service.
Eye-tracking software sounds like a cool, futuristic power for controlling your phone with your peepers, but that's really only partway true. It isn't so much that the cursor or text follows the movement of your eyes, which you probably wouldn't want anyhow, if you think about it. More generally, the software knows when you're paying attention and when you avert your gaze.
Smart Pause and Smart Scroll are two features that build off the Galaxy S3's optional Smart Stay feature, which keeps the screen from dimming when you look at it. In the GS4, tilting the screen up or down while looking at it scrolls you up or down, say, if you're reading a CNET Australia story, of course. As a daily commuter with one hand on the phone and one on a pole, this could be a more convenient way to catch up with news while on the train or bus.
Smart Pause, which halts the video you're watching when your eyes dart away then resumes when you start paying attention again, was more responsive and easier to control than the scrolling, which experienced some abrupt motions and a short lag time.
Most gestures on the S4 are still reserved for your fingertips. Hovering features, known as Air View, make their way from the stylus-centric Galaxy Note 2 and Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet to the Galaxy S4, but replaces the stylus with your digit.
Hover your finger, and you can preview a video clip or image from the photo gallery, glance at browser tab thumbnails, find your place on a video timeline and check out an email. You'll also be able to magnify calendar events and get a closer look in speed dial. As mentioned above, Flipboard has built a customised app to work with Air View that lets you hover over a tile to see which articles lie beneath.
In addition to hovering with a fingertip, you can wave or wipe your whole hand in front of the screen (and sensor near the Samsung logo) to navigate around. For example, enable this gesture and you can use your palm to answer a call or switch songs in a playlist. Steadily sliding your hand back and forth can advance photos in a gallery or browser tabs, and you can also scroll up and down in a list.
The Watch On app works as both a free-to-air EPG and allows you to program the S4 to work as a remote control for your TV or PVR. Samsung has worked with all 34 local free-to-air channels to ensure that the EPG is as exhaustive as possible. You can set reminders for shows and it will integrate with the similar TV tile on any Samsung TV (the remote function doesn't require a Samsung TV, however). It's important to note that the service isn't fully live until May. We haven't been able to fully test it, and we will update after it goes live. Similarly, the Foxtel Go app will be available via the Samsung App store in June, and we'll add to this review after we see how that works.
Users with a 2012 or 2013 Samsung TV will also be able to easily swap content back and forth from the TV and phone — for example, you could take a video from the TV to the phone when you leave the room. We'll have a review unit of Samsung's E8000 TV soon, and will be checking this functionality when we do.
Other features include:
Multi Window: turn it on to create a split-screen view with two apps, say the browser and S Memo note app. This neat feature first came on-board with the Galaxy Note 2 and is available on the Galaxy S3 as a premium suite add-on.
Group Play: a bulked-up and re-envisioned version of the GS3's Group Cast, Group Play can share music, video, documents and games across a close-range, ad hoc network of connected phones. Music and games-sharing works with GS4 phones for now, but you can broadcast the other content to Galaxy S3s. A much more streamlined set-up process makes it worth trying out for multiplayer gaming and surround sound through the phones' speakers.
S Translator: speak or type into this extremely handy translation tool to get verbal or written assistance in one of 10 languages. It worked mostly well in my tests, though translation wasn't perfect. It's a cool app that absolutely mimics Google Translate with no additional benefit that we can immediately see, apart from not having to download Google Translate.
Optical reader: optical character recognition readers (OCR) have been in the works on mobile for years, and while they're getting better, most are still pretty bad. It's nice that Samsung's built-in OCR tool reads business cards and adds them to your contact book, includes a QR code scanner and uses S Translator's back-end to read signs and menus in other languages. This one didn't work as well as we wanted. For instance, it'll capture an email address to add, but doesn't seem to be able to also fill in the person's name, address and title.
S Health: once again, Samsung attempts to take a slice of the pie that others have baked first. S Health is a pretty app that logs your exercise and calories. Since it's pre-loaded, weight-watchers might be more inclined to use it than to download something new. More dedicated fitness buffs can pair it with Samsung's new S Band wrist accessory, heart rate monitor and body scale to sync data. No call yet on any release dates for S Health accessories in Australia.
Cameras and video
Samsung has absolutely packed its camera full of new and existing features, and we'll admit that there was more fun to be had in testing them all out than we imagined. When it comes down to it, the average smartphone photography needs are simple: people want to whip open the camera app and take a really good picture or video, fast.
Toss aside all the fancy modes, and the Galaxy S4's 13-megapixel camera is good. Very good. No, not every photo came out perfectly when we took picture after test picture in full automatic mode, whether because of off-target photo rendering for a shot or because sometimes you just can't overcome bad lighting. Overwhelmingly, though, we were happy with the pictures taken, and the excellent image quality inspired us to snap and share even more photos.
The jump from the Galaxy S3's 8-megapixel lens to the GS4's 13-megapixel lens makes a huge difference in photo size, of course. We also noticed that images we had perfectly focused still looked terrific after being cropped, and after they had resized to fit the phone's screen. We checked them both out on the phone, and again on our laptop's larger screen, both in full resolution and also resized.
We have similar compliments about the GS4's 2-megapixel front-facing camera, which took adequate photos, both as part of a full self-shot and as part of one of the specialised camera modes.
Taking a self-portrait can be a challenge on the GS4 (and on any phone); you should consider programming the volume key to trigger the camera shutter, a real help if you plan to take self-portraits to upload or send to friends (you can also do this on some other phones). I found that this method made my arm position look a lot less awkward and forced on the screen.
Incorporating burst mode into the on-screen camera button is one great trick that Samsung borrowed from HTC. Press and hold to take as many as 20 shots in succession. You'll get your picture, but when taken like this, there's no time to readjust the focal point for each. If your subject's in motion, you may find that the clearest image is also the first. Burst mode takes a photo every 0.1333 seconds.
Samsung has incorporated interface elements from its 16-megapixel Samsung Galaxy Camera, like the on-screen menu options at the top of the screen for dual-shot mode, and for settings that include night mode and flash.
Good luck getting the clear action sequence you want using Drama mode.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
There's also the on-screen shutter button, a video button to quickly toggle to recording mode and the Mode button that calls up a lot of other options. Press the GS4's capacitive Menu button for even more options to edit your quick on-screen choices, and to go deeper into the settings to pick things like a time, voice control and shutter sound, as well as your photo and video resolution sizes.
Of all of the Galaxy S4's five kooky new camera settings and modes — out of 13 total modes including auto — dual-shot mode is the surprise favourite. Like the same feature on the LG Optimus G Pro, dual-shot mode uses both the front- and rear-facing cameras to create a composite photo or video.
Also seen on the HTC One, Drama is the mode you want when you have a well-planned action sequence you'd like to take from a distance. If you position the camera right and keep it still, it compiles a series of still images into a single frame, keeping the background the same. You can check the box to add or remove which frames you'd like to include. It helps to back away from the subject and plot your shot for subjects moving in a single direction.
We had the same trouble making the Eraser mode work. Again, an HTC One option as well, this mode compares five pictures and plays the game of "which of these things is not like the other". If a person or object clutters a few frames, but not all, the GS4 camera offers to help you remove the offender. As with Drama mode, Eraser mode requires a certain amount of premeditation to successfully use.
Sound and Shot is one mode we really warmed up to in theory; consider it an audio postcard you'll send to someone. Instead of captioning the image, you leave up to nine seconds of a voice recording that's attached to the photo. Sadly, it seems to be a proprietary format, so only other Galaxy S4 users can get the sound shot. You can email it, but Samsung confirmed to us that only the photo will be sent, not the audio.
If you've ever wanted to turn your photos or short videos into animated GIFs, the Animated Photo mode is your tool. It lets you isolate any part of a mostly static video, which you "draw" on to select the part you'll want to animate or freeze. It looked cool and worked pretty well. Just keep in mind that you need to pick this mode first to use the tool, and that the Galaxy S4 won't save your original video in the gallery.
Performance: speed, processor, battery life
A 4G long-term evolution (LTE) device with a 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, the Galaxy S4 is one of the fastest handheld machines available anywhere. (Elsewhere in the world, the Galaxy S4 sports an 8-core Samsung Exynos 5 Octa chipset.)
Data transfer speeds will, of course, depend on the network's strength at any given moment. We tested on Telstra's 4G network in the Sydney CBD. We saw download speeds up to around 20Mbps, more usually around 16-17Mbps. On the upload side, we were pleasantly surprised, with the SpeedTest app showing a top of 20,376Kbps — on average, we were at least 15Mbps.
In more real-world tests, both the mobile and full versions of the CNET Australia site loaded quickly and smoothly both on the office Wi-Fi network and on 4G. Average time for the full site was just nine seconds. Call quality across the network was crisp, and we had no issues with the phone's speaker or mic even in noisier or windier areas.
The Quadrant benchmark was nothing short of amazing, hitting 12,588 and just slightly edging out the HTC One (12,194). Boot-up time from complete shut-down was just 24 seconds, and the camera app took slightly less than two seconds to open.
Quadrant and SpeedTest results.
(Screenshot by Nic Healey/CNET)
At 2600mAh, the GS4's battery is 20 per cent larger than the Galaxy S3's 2100mAh ticker, on a phone that's also thinner. However, its slightly larger screen and bevy of features requires more juice, too. Playing games and video, streaming music and using S Voice and S Voice Drive will draw power quicker than other activities, and 4G will add to the draw, so keep that in mind, too. Samsung claims that you get "about a day" for normal use, and we can't imagine many users going without having to charge daily.
What you'll pay
The S4 has an RRP of AU$899, although Telstra will be selling it outright for AU$816. For those looking for plans, the rundown of the basic telco offerings are:
Telstra: On the AU$80 Every Day Connect Plan, the Galaxy S4 will cost an additional AU$7 handset repayment per month, and comes with AU$800 worth of standard national calls and MMS plus unlimited text messaging to standard Australian number. The data allowance is 1.5GB, and minimum cost over 24 months is AU$2088.
Optus: On its AU$60 Optus Plan, you'll have an additional AU$7 per month of handset repayments. The plan has AU$650 worth of calls, unlimited national text messaging, free unlimited calls to Optus Mobiles and 1.5GB data allowance. The minimum cost over 24 months is AU$1512.
Vodafone: On the AU$60 Plan, Vodafone will charge AU$5 per month in handset repayments. The plan has AU$700 worth of standard and international calls, unlimited text and 1.5GB of data. Vodafone will be giving customers an additional 1GB of bonus data for their first 12 months, making it 2.5GB of data for that year. The minimum cost over 24 months is AU$1560.Note that Vodafone's 4G network won't begin rolling out until June.
Virgin: The AU$59 Big Plan also has AU$7 per month handset repayments, AU$700 worth of call credit and 3GB of data allowance. The total cost over 24 months is AU$1584. If you're already a Virgin customer, the handset repayments drop to just AU$2 per month, making the minimum cost over 24 months AU$1464.
Should I buy it?
Samsung's Galaxy S4 is without a doubt a top two Android contender against the HTC One, and a top five handset when you include reps from each other major OS. Android is the most feature-advanced OS by far, and the Galaxy S4 has the most diverse software extras, making it an exciting handset for intrepid smartphone users ready to dive into it all.
However, a long feature list doesn't make it better for everyone. HTC's premium One is the far more impressive phone physically, and has a much fresher interface design to boot. It, too, has an IR blaster to control your TV. The One's camera features, including the "Zoe" tools, are interesting in their own right, and HTC has invested tremendously in audio. The One's built-in speakers sound fantastic, and although there's no expandable storage slot, the phone starts you off at 32GB, which is plenty for most people, and double the GS4's storage at the same starting price.
As cool as some of the Galaxy S4's add-ons seem, their multitude makes them easy to miss, and there's a good chance that most people will only use a fraction of them. When it comes down to core features, the Galaxy S4 still mightily handles all the essentials, and we really enjoyed using the phone. However, without all the armour of its feature minions, it might not necessarily be your top pick. So here's our advice:
Buy Samsung's Galaxy S4 if you:
Want the latest and greatest in Android
Love customising your interface or want something really pared down with Easy Mode
Strongly value camera performance
Thrill at fun extra camera features
Require a removable battery
Use a tremendous amount of storage space
Want to control your TV with your phone
Can live without a metal body.
Skip the Galaxy S4 if you:
Prize a premium, sophisticated hardware design
Yearn for a fresh-looking Android interface
Prefer to skip most whistles and bells
Seek a bargain smartphone.