with MHL support
Many of the proximity- and gesture-based features feel gimmicky
Limited internal storage (16GB) on review unit
It's hard to know where to start with the Samsung Galaxy S4. After months of rumours, leaks, hyperbole and more than one launch event, this is undoubtedly the most lusted after Android smartphone to date. In fact, we'd say that interest in the phone before launch was at least as high as for upcoming Apple phones, including the iPhone 5S and iPhone 6.
Now we finally have an S4 to review, just two simple questions remain. Most importantly, is this the best smartphone you can buy today? But also, has Samsung taken a big step forward over last year's S3 or is this more an evolution of that handset?
|It's finally here and it looks very similar to its predecessor|
BUILD QUALITY AND DESIGN
At first glance you'd have to err towards an evolution. The S3 certainly isn't a phone to show off with; not that it doesn't look rather pretty, but more because it's almost unrecognisable from its predecessor unless you look up close. This is no bad thing in our opinion as it didn't attract any unwanted attention on the train home, unlike an iPhone 5 just after its release.
The new handset appears to retain the same white plastic finish, but look closer and you'll see a fine diamond pattern beneath the gloss surface. It's a nice touch, and one subtle enough to avoid accusations of unnecessary bling.
Given its big 4.99in display, the S4 is surprisingly svelte. It measures just 136.6x69.8x7.9mm and weighs only 130g. That makes it both smaller overall and lighter than both its immediate rivals, the Sony Xperia Z and our current favourite, the HTC One.
From the front the most obvious change is the thinner screen bezels, both down the edges and at other end. This puts the screen just 2.5mm away from the edge of the device and it's becoming hard to imagine this distance getting any smaller without seriously compromising the survivability of the handset when dropped. The sides have been squared off, compared to the S3, which makes it easier to grip though it looks a little chunkier for it.
The areas above and below the screen are now far smaller, which has significantly reduced the amount of space for the physical home button and touch sensitive menu and back commands. This could have made them awkward, but the button needs an appreciably lighter press and we had no trouble hitting the touch sensitive controls.
|The screen fills the handset like we've never seen before|
Despite the back being removable, which has advantages we'll discuss later, the S4 doesn't suffer overly for this practicality. The rear panel fits snug against the body with no flex or shift. When in place, the handset feels like a single piece of tech.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is among the best-looking plastic phones we've ever seen. It's a decent evolution from the S3, ironing out plenty of the minor flaws that its predecessor had. These include a USB port that didn't look very well cut out and a rear case that had quite a loose fit; with the S4, it feels that much more finished and as though more attention has been paid to the detail.
Having said that it's a very conservative design. Purely from a look and feel perspective we prefer the aluminium HTC One. The curved back and sharp corners make it look far more striking that the rather amorphous blob of the S4; plus HTC has squeezed in a pair of front mounted speakers onto the One, as we'll discuss later. However, as a piece of practical engineering the S4 is simply superior, because it fits a noticeably larger display into a similarly sized handset. You simply can't get more screen than this in your pocket for the size or weight.
The S4 is better designed from an ergonomic point of view. The HTC One's power button at the top of the phone is beautifully designed, it doesn't stick out but it responds reliably when you press it (once you've got the hang of where it is). The problem is its position, having pressed it with your forefinger, you can't then reach the buttons below the screen with your thumb. The S4's right-hand-side power button has a far more traditional and boring look, but at least you can use the handset one handed without having to shift your grip constantly.
DISPLAYThis is the first smartphone to use an AMOLED display with a Full HD resolution. Measuring 4.99in across this gives it an on-paper pixels-per-inch figure of 441, up from 306PPI on the Galaxy S3. As always, it's worth noting that the display uses a pentile arrangement of subpixels - with two colours per pixel, rather than three – which means its actual resolution is less than equivalent LCD displays.
This is less of a problem on a Full HD display than it was previously. The incredibly high number of pixels-per-inch makes the lack of refinement, usually apparent on the edges of text, practically unnoticeable. Furthermore, the incredible contrast you get from an AMOLED display more than makes up for any small perceivable loss of detail.
In practical use there's far less difference between this and the LCD HTC One than their technology would suggest. The pentile pixel arrangement doesn't seem to noticeably effect detail on the S4, while the contrast on the HTC One was also excellent. The colours on the S4 are a little richer at any given brightness, but then the HTC One is far brighter at its maximum setting, handy on sunny days - although run it that way all the time and your battery life will be severely diminished.
Speaking of brightness, Samsung's controls are far better, with a brightness slider always present on the notifications drop down menu. This also lets you tweak the auto brightness settings, allowing you to have it a few steps brighter, or dimmer, than the variable default. By comparison the HTC One makes you dig in the menus to adjust it and offers no such tweaking of the auto setting.
Having said all that, the biggest difference is simply that the S4's screen is bigger. It's not a huge deal when using apps day to day, sending texts, or hammering out a quick email, but for browsing desktop website sites, playing games and watching video clips it's a big plus.
The S4 may have a bigger, higher resolution screen than its predecessor for enjoying such content but the audio from its speaker hasn't improved by the same degree. The speaker is still a rear-mounted, mono design and so you have to carefully position your hands to avoid muffling it accidentally. Sound quality isn't bad for such a speaker, but if you like to entertain yourself and friends with your handset then the HTC One's front stereo speakers are far superior.
|The single mono speaker is now at the bottom of the back|
While we're talking audio, the HTC One (and Xperia Z) also have FM Radios, which is missing from the S4 for the first time in the series. A disappointment, and one that may sway some radio fans.
HARDWAREIn the run-up to the launch of any exciting new smartphone or tablet, much is made of the exact nature of the hardware contained and its processing power. For the Samsung Galaxy S4 the talk was of an eight-core CPU, though the reality turns out to be far more complicated than that.
Yes, there's an S4 (the GT-I9500) with a Samsung designed and produced Xynos eight-core CPU, but that actually consists of a four-core main CPU and a four-core low-power CPU, which the handset switches between in realtime to maximise performance and battery life. It's an idea that's been around a while, ARM calls it big.LITTLE, but it's good to see it finally implement on a quad-core flagship device.
But, and it's a big one, that eight-core Galaxy S4 isn't the one you'll be buying in the UK. Instead when you turn on your shiny new S4 the first thing you'll see is that it's a GT-I9505 handset, which uses a Qualcomm designed quad-core chipset instead. This is because the other model doesn't include 4G/LTE support, something that Samsung obviously feels is key for a new handset launching in the UK.
|This isn't the Android you're looking for ... but it's still pretty impressive|
We'll be looking forward to seeing a big.LITTLE device released in the UK then, but the Qualcomm chipset in our version of the S4 is no slouch. It uses the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset as the HTC One, though the S4's runs at 1.9GHz rather than 1.7GHz. We couldn't detect any noticeable change in browser speed in real-world testing, but the GeekBench 2 benchmark showed the faster S4 edge ahead by 3,227 to 2,688. In use, everything feels incredibly slick, apps launch quickly and everything flows along, very impressive stuff.
The S4 also uses the same Adreno 320 GPU as the HTC One. It's a powerful chip and a huge step forward over the S3. We hit 50fps in the recent 3Dmark Ice Storm test, and managed almost 30fps in the far tougher Extreme version of the same test. We doubt anyone will make an Android game in the near future that will trouble this hardware overly.
BATTERYBeneath the removable rear cover is a rather large-looking battery, with a hefty 2,600mAh capacity. That's over 10% bigger than the 2,300 and 2,330mAh examples in the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z respectively. The results though were even more impressive than that figure might suggest.
|The S4 retains the S3's highly practical design|
In our continuous video playback the S4 managed an impressive ten hours and 43 minutes, a score we'd largely attribute to its more power-efficient AMOLED display. The Sony Xperia Z has a 5in LCD display and it only ran for five hours and 48 minutes, while the smaller-screened HTC One put in a much more respectable eight hours and 32 minutes.
If battery life is a big concern for you then the S4 stands well above its main rivals then. In addition to this its removable back means you can switch out the battery if required. Samsung sells spare batteries and an official charger for them too, so if you fear running out of power, the S4 is the phone for you.
STORAGEAlso behind the cover is the Micro SD slot, which can take a card with a capacity of up to 64GB. Such a card will cost you about £35, with a 32GB card costing around half that. The Sony Xperia Z also has this option, but it looks to be another point scored over the HTC One which is internal storage only.
However, the HTC One comes with 32GB of storage as standard, of which around 25GB is available for you to use. Comparatively, the S4 only comes with 16GB as standard, of which only a measly 8GB is immediately available for your use, we managed to quickly clear another 1GB, but we still reckon a memory card will be a good idea for most users.
Of course, many people prefer to store much of their data in the cloud now, and Dropbox is Samsung's preferred partner. The handset comes with two years of free storage with a huge 50GB limit. Disappointingly for anyone who's making a quick upgrade from an S3, buying the new handset doesn't reset the two year time limit on this offer. The S4 handily backups all your camera shots to your Dropbox account automatically when a Wi-Fi connection is available.
CAMERASamsung has opted for a 13-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor and the resulting images are excellent. There was plenty of fine detail to be seen in our still life tests and exposures were consistently well judged throughout the varying light levels. It was notably crisper than the HTC One's four-megapixel camera, you won’t notice on Facebook, but even a Full HD TGV they were noticeably sharper, with better refined lines. The extra resolution also helps when cropping images without resulting in too much pixellation.
Taking the camera out and about in the spring sun also produced good results. Its exposures dealt with the strong contrast created by the sunshine, and colours looked accurate. It also has a 20-shot burst mode that's activated by simply holding down the shutter button. The front camera has a 2-megapixel BSI sensor and takes pretty decent little snaps too.
|We saw good results across our range of test shots ...|
|... this 1:1 pixel crop shows up some nice detail in the fur|
PHOTO MODESThere's lots more to Samsung's new camera than good image quality and specifications, though. With a raft of playful extras that should provide at least momentary amusement and possibly a lot more than that.
DUAL SHOTBy far our favourite of the various fun photography modes is dual shot. The concept is actually quite simple, the S4 uses both the front and back cameras to simultaneously capture two images, which it combines into a single image.
Now you might just ask why not just take two shots and fit them together later, but that would miss out on the immediacy of Samsung's take. This way you take one picture, hit share and get a great shot up on Facebook, plus your smug, smiling mug in one easy step. It's the next logical step for the much-beloved 'Selfie' style of photography, and unless Samsung has a patent we can see this appearing on every other smartphone by next year.
|This vertiginous dual-shot captures our News Editor's love of heights|
You can change the size and shape of the second, superimposed image, with various shapes or just a plain box. It will even take the two full images and tag them side by side into a super-widescreen effort – good for more serious efforts or adhoc vistas. You can also switch the cameras around at a tap, making you fill the screen with just a small image of your surroundings to add context.
|There's a good range of frames for the shot-in-shot mode|
Best of all, it just works, what you see is what you get. It can be a little hard to line up at first, but you soon get used to it and then you're away. It even has its own shortcut, so no messing with the mode menu to activate it.
The fun doesn't end there though, as Dual Shot can also be used with video. You get all the same options as to how it combines the two images and the ability to switch. It really adds something to short clips and could be great for those who love to shoot and talk to camera.
ANIMATED PHOTOSamsung is trying to get in on the craze for GIF animations with this clever mode. It takes a short video clip, identifies moving parts from the results and then allows you to freeze or animate those while the rest of the frame remains still. You can choose how the animations loop and where the start and end points are. Once you're done you can then upload the results to Facebook or share it online.
|You can freeze most of the image and keep just one part moving to create a GIF - which our website doesn't support, so you'll just have to imagine the cars moving by|
ERASERThe Eraser effect could be useful, as it lets you remove unwanted moving elements in a shot by combining five shots together. For example you could remove someone who walk across the background of the shot.
|Remove moving elements from a shot, like people or cars|
DRAMA SHOTDrama Shot creates an action-effect shots with multiple instances of the same moving subject, see below for an example. Although it creates a still image it looks to be using the video function to create it, rather than burst shot. It captures a short clip and then picks out frames which it combines into a single shot.
|This basic example shows how it works|
SOUND AND SHOTThe most straightforward of the oddball shooting modes, Sound and Shot simply captures 9 seconds of audio with the image. We're not quite sure what the point is over simply capturing a short video clip and the fact you can't share the combined image and audio online makes it even more pointless.
BEST FACE AND BEST PHOTO
Two variations on a theme. Best Photo simply takes a short burst of eight shots and then you can pick which of them (if any) you want to keep by putting a thumbs up on a thumbnail. It's a great way of getting the best shot using burst mode, but without cluttering your phone with loads of almost identical images.
|Even given a choice sometimes it's hard to choose a 'best face' - not the S4's fault though|
In both modes it's quicker than the S3's take on the same functions, with the thumbnails appearing almost as soon as the last frame is snapped.
STORY ALBUMA separate app from the camera but one that allows you to select pictures from your gallery, or have them selected for you based on GPS location and date, and then create picture albums from them. Initially these are just virtual albums that you can page through on your phone, but you can also order physical copies if you wish directly from the handset.
|Layouts can look a bit messy if you've been abusing Dual Shot heavily|
ANDROIDSamsung has done well in releasing the Samsung Galaxy S4 with the latest version of the operating system - Android 4.2.2. There are many advantages to this, but we particularly like the highly customisable list of shortcuts buttons you can add to the notifications dropdown.
|Your settings, just where you want them|
Of course, it's customised in numerous ways by Samsung's TouchWiz interface, but we feel it's one of the less offensive variants out there. For example, it at least lets you hide applications from sight in the app tray, so you can clear away those you don't use and can't uninstall.The new keyboard has a row of numbers above the standard layout, so you don't have to use a switch key or long press to type them. We'll be lloking at these in more details as we use the handset more, but there's nothing in the UI layout itself that will particular wow or frustrate those used to vanilla Android or another Android launcher.
EXTRA FEATURESSamsung has packed a lot of extras into the Samsung Galaxy S4. So many in fact that it's unlikely that anyone but a smartphone reviewer or the most ardent Samsung smartphone fan will ever realise they're all there, let alone use them. It does mean though that there's bound to be something that you find useful, or even indispensable.
A quick overview of such features includes: S Health, which tracks food intake and exercise to help you improve your fitness; S translator, which translates speech or text into nine different languages; Knox Tracking, which lets you track down your handset if its lost or stolen.
There's also a far wider range of eye and motion tracking features than we saw on the S3. You can hover your finger over the screen, much like hovering your mouse cursor over a link on your PC, and engage high-sensitivity mode for use with gloves on. Eye tracking will now pause videos when you look away and you can even scroll up and down web pages by tilting your head up or down.
Then there's Group Play, which lets you share music, video and even some games with other S4 users, plus you can even use multiple handsets to create stereo or surround sound effects; plus a built-in IR blaster for controlling your home cinema kit.
We'll be expanding on all these as we get more hands-on time with the handset over the next couple of weeks.
CONCLUSIONIt's hard to find chinks the S4's general excellence. The storage is measly and the mono speaker and lack of FM radio may be a downer for some, but despite these it's still a lot of phone for your money. We shopped around and the best deal we saw was a free handset for £31 a month with unlimited minutes, texts and 500MB of mobile data.
According to research and experience even these reasonable prices will drop steadily over the next six months. For the S3 this meant you could shop around for a phone late last year and find it as cheaper, if not cheaper, than many mid-range handsets that should have been far less expensive according to reason alone.
Even considering that, the S4 is a lot of smartphone for your money today. The lack of a big.LITTLE processor is a shame, as it looks to be a great idea, but even without it the S4 embodies that phrase rather nicely. The screen is bigger than that on the HTC One, the battery is bigger than the HTC One's or the one in the Sony Xperia Z, yet the phone itself is slightly smaller than either. Simply put, Samsung has squeezed more into less - and that's why it wins it our Ultimate award.