Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone Review
If we look back a few years, it’s easy to recognize that the iPhone is the milestone product which started the smartphone craze in earnest. With over 350 million iPhones sold to date, and millions more being sold every week, Apple has been leading the pack since Day One. Samsung is keen to change that.
The South Korean conglomerate’s smartphone models might not yet have the same cachet or cultural mind share as their Cupertino rivals, but the numbers don't lie. Samsung has sold over 100 million Galaxy S smartphones since 2010, and they are ambitiously aiming to sell 100 million of their latest flagship, the Galaxy S4.
After having hit the ball out of the park with the widely acclaimed Galaxy S3, it’s easy to understand why the company would be so bullish about their newest über-phone. They have a successful recipe, now they just have to improve upon it without alienating those who have bought into Samsung’s branding and marketing.
The centerpiece of any high-end smartphone is obviously the display, and Samsung have outfitted the Galaxy S4 with a real beauty. Although HTC might have been first to the market with a 1080p smartphone, via the overlooked HTC Butterfly and subsequent HTC One, the new 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display was worth the wait. Although we examine the display more closely on the next page, suffice it to say that it is really a sight to behold and it’s definitely befitting a flagship device.
At its core, the Galaxy S4 is built around the proven 28nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset. This SoC features four Krait 300 cores clocked at 1.9GHz, a dual-core Adreno 320 GPU with a 450MHz clock speed, and 2GB of RAM. What makes the GS4 unique and one of the fastest mobile devices on the market right now is the fact that its CPU and GPU are clocked higher than on any other Snapdragon 600-based device. The much lauded HTC One, for example, tops out at 1.7GHz and its GPU runs at 400MHz.
As you might know, the international version of the GS4 - the GT-I9500 - features a Samsung-designed Exynos 5 Octa 5410 chipset. Based on the ARM big.LITTLE architecture, this SoC contains four Cortex A15 cores clocked at 1.6 GHz and four low-power Cortex A7 cores running at 1.2GHz. The Exynos chip also features a different GPU, in lieu of the aforementioned Adreno part is the tri-core PowerVR SGX544MP3 clocked at 533MHz. Before you experience any angst at missing out on the Exynos version know that the GT-I9500 lacks LTE and a variety of benchmarking tests around the web indicate a mixed bag of results when compared to the Snapdragon model, especially with regard to battery life.
On the connectivity and storage front, the GS4 is also packed. As you would expect from a modern flagship device, the phone obviously features LTE connectivity, but it also supports 42Mbps HSPA+ for those who don’t live in LTE enabled areas. Thanks to a new Broadcom chip, the latest WiFi 802.11ac standard is supported – with theoretical transfer speeds of up to 1,300 Megabits per second (Mbps) – as are the usual WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n. Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, NFC and GPS + GLONASS round out some of the other noteworthy wireless links present in the device.
Although the Galaxy S4 is listed as coming in three different storage capacities, as far as we have been able to determine only the 16GB version has seen worldwide distribution. A few weeks ago, the 32GB model was made available through AT&T and Verizon in the US, but the 64GB variant is still missing-in-action.
High up on a flagship smartphone’s “must-have” list is a top-notch camera, and as such Samsung have unveiled their latest and greatest mobile camera module for this device. On the back, the Galaxy S4 features the brand new 13-megapixel sensor which is joined to a bright F/2.2 lens, with 4X digital zoom capability and an LED flash. The front-facing camera uses a 2-megapixel sensor which matches the front unit’s 1080p @ 30FPS video recording capabilities. That front-facing camera has also been utilized to create a cool new camera mode. In fact, the GS4 features a bunch of unique settings in this respect, some truly useful and others slightly more gimmicky.
As we’ve established, from a purely technical perspective, Samsung clearly have a winner of their hands, but specs alone don’t make the phone. And while they have innovated, increased, and improved just about everything in order to push the envelope when it comes to specs, there is still a lot of consistency to be found in the GS4…which is both good and bad depending on your point of view. When it comes to design, materials, and the TouchWiz elements throughout the UI, this is clearly an iterative product.
If you mistook this phone for a Galaxy S3 or a Galaxy Note 2, it would be hard to blame you. Aesthetically, the GS4 definitely shares its design language with the two aforementioned models. That is to be expected though since Samsung is trying to capitalize on what has now become a trademark look and they have really been focusing on creating a sense of Apple-like consistency across their smartphone lineup.
Looks are ultimately a personal matter, but the continued use of cheap-feeling plastics by Samsung remains a point of contention for many. Despite a fairly convincing looking chrome-coloured frame, the Galaxy S4 is entirely made of plastic. This material is great due to its ruggedness, light weight, and low manufacturing costs, but the stuff Samsung uses just doesn’t feel worthy of a $650 flagship device. This is a shame since companies like Nokia have shown that certain plastics can have great tactile feel without sacrificing all that much else. Despite this fact, there is no denying that the build quality and durability of the GS4 are excellent.
Because of its aforementioned all-plastic construction, the phone weighs in at a svelte 130 grams and it does feel very light in the hand. Also, due to the impressive work Samsung did in minimizing the bezels and actually reducing the overall dimensions when compared to the Galaxy S3, the GS4 fits very well in my small-to-medium sized hands. However, I was always worried that it would slip out of my hands.
Although I never actually dropped the device, it was in the back of my mind every time I handled the device while walking. The back panel is just really slick and kind of gross feeling, for the lack of a more technical term. Simply put, although its comfortable it’s hard to feel confident while handling the S4 and worse, it’s just not pleasant to touch.
The front’s bottom-most half is where you can find the prominent physical Home button. This redesigned button now features a distinct beveled edge, which makes it easily locatable with your finger, and it also now has a reassuring click to it. Quite nice.
Functionality wise this button can be held down to switch between a list of active programs or browse through various system settings. Although it seems like Samsung still hasn’t read Google’s memo about the death of physical buttons, this particular interface is perfectly implemented and it ensures that no screen space is wasted by an onscreen Home button.
One either side of the center-mounted Home button is a pair of capacitive areas which house the Menu and Back functions. When using the GS4 with a single hand, reaching across the screen for either of these buttons was too much of stretch, so a change in hand grip was often required. On the left side of the device is the ample volume rocker and on the right is the power button. Both have the same excellent beveled edges and responsive feel as the physical Home button.
At the very top of the S4 from left to right is the notification light, an IR sensor, the earpiece speaker, another IR sensor, the ambient light sensor, and the front-facing camera.
The backside of the phone features a very thin piece of plastic, and although quite bendy when removed it is rigid when actually attached the device. Our particular GS4 came in the Black Mist colour scheme and the back of it is super shiny, almost mirror-like. Although Samsung was probably going for a carbon fiber look, the actual design is more a diamond checkerboard pattern.
The new 13-megapixel camera module creates a small hump on the back, but the protrusion is really quite minimal and unnoticeable in day-to-day use. Under the lens is the LED flash, which is quite effective as you’ll see in our camera tests. At the bottom left is a small raised cutout for the mono speaker, which ensures that the sound is not muffled when the phone is placed on a surface face-up.
Once you remove the back cover, one of the selling points of the Galaxy S4 is revealed. Unlike many modern high-end smartphones, the Galaxy S series has a removable battery and a microSD expansion slot. The battery is a very large 2,600mAh / 9.88 Wh unit with Near Field Communication (NFC) built-in. The GS4 can support wireless charging via the Qi inductive power standard if you purchase the $90 wireless charging kit.
The microSD slot, another quickly vanishing feature among other high-end phones, allows users to install up to 64GB of additional storage space which can be accessed through a file manager or as a separate folder when hooked up to a computer. To the right of the expansion slot is the microSIM card tray.
Below the battery is the aforementioned back-mounted speaker. This might be a mono unit, but it’s very loud and distortion-free even at the highest volume levels. Although bass is obviously lacking, we didn’t find the overall sound quality to be hollow or tinny. Subjectively, we found the GS4 to be quite a bit louder than the iPhone 5, which features two bottom-edge mounted speakers, and only a touch inferior acoustically.
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