It’s spring time so it must mean another edition of the Galaxy S line. The Galaxy S 4 was introduced with some pomp and circumstance last month at Radio City Music Hall. The event itself didn’t get a lot of praise, but the fact that the design of the GS4 didn’t change all that much from last year’s Galaxy S III left some people even more disappointed. Samsung didn’t hold much back in terms of specs, but the GS4 has zero to do with that. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the quality of the build. It’s the software features. Samsung started promoting software features with the Galaxy S III, and they turned up the dial even more this year. The Galaxy S III proved to be the most successful Android phone ever, and Samsung has even bigger plans for the Galaxy S 4. Does it live up to the hype? Well skip on past the break to find out.
When the Galaxy S 4 was introduced, I started hearing rumblings that Samsung pulled an Apple, which means the Galaxy S 4 is nothing more than a Galaxy S III S, as in the iPhone 3S and 4S. Those versions of the iPhone were minor spec bumps with minimal changes to the phone itself. Don’t be fooled folks, the Galaxy S 4 is nothing like that. Yes the phone looks the same as last year’s model, but it’s a lot thinner (7.9mm vs 8.6mm) and it has a better and larger display (5-inches 1080p vs 4.8-inches 720p). Apple used the same exact design as the previous years in their 3S and 4S versions. On top of all this, the GS4 brings an upgraded processor, rear camera, and battery. The Galaxy S 4 might not offer much more than other current flagship phones in terms of pure hardware, but it’s far from a minor spec bump when comparing it to the Galaxy S III.
As I mentioned, the Galaxy S 4 looks very much like the Galaxy S III, which means it has an all plastic body. Quality of materials is where Samsung gets hammered by the critics, including myself, but if you look at Samsung’s sales, they have proven that the average consumer isn’t concerned with that. Samsung believes that consumers want light and durable phones and that’s what they give them. This is probably the only area in which Samsung hasn’t copied Apple, and for whatever reason, it has worked out for them. Samsung still implemented some minor changes in the overall look like a cross-stitched pattern on the back battery cover and front face of the phone. You will also find the edges to be straighter, which gives you a better grip. The phone is thinner, but it’s also narrower (2.75-inches vs 2.78-inches) and weighs less (4.6oz vs 4.7oz) than the Galaxy S III. It’s hard to believe that the GS4 is smaller and lighter than the GSIII when you consider the GS4 display is larger, but it’s very subtle. You wouldn’t know it unless someone told you.
As far as buttons and ports go, everything is the same as last year except you will find the power button and volume rocker to be a little longer and they added an IR blaster. The top has the earphone jack towards the left with the IR blaster towards the right, and the bottom has the microUSB port in the middle. The right side has the power button towards the top and the left side has the volume rocker, also towards the top. The main buttons on the front have the same layout as other Samsung phones. The large home button is here again for yet another year with a slightly different shape, and the back button is to the right while the menu button is to the left. Samsung continues its tradition of going against Android principles with these buttons, but it isn’t about Android for Samsung.
Just like the Galaxy S III, the Galaxy S 4 features a removable battery and microSD slot for expanding memory. It’s also one of the few flagship phones that has a removable backplate. This is where you will find the 2,600mAh battery along with the microSD slot and SIM slot.
I know many fans wanted to see a phone with a different design, but Samsung is taking a cue from Apple because consumers like familiarity. This doesn’t mean that Samsung won’t make changes in the future, but when major changes are made every year, it hurts brand marketing. Most consumers are upgrading their phones every two years so it makes no sense to put major R&D dollars into annual design changes. I personally prefer changes more often, but companies like Samsung and Apple know exactly what they are doing, and their sales and market shares prove that.
It might not be about the specs anymore, but Samsung held nothing back with the Galaxy S 4. It has a 5.0-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) Super AMOLED display, a 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor (certain regions will get the Exynos 5 octa-core clocked at 1.6GHz), Adreno 320 GPU, 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of storage, mircoSDXC slot for up to 64GB of extra storage, 13 MP rear camera, 2.1MP front camera, 2600mAh battery, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, MHL 2.0, IR blaster, DLNA, WiFi Direct, and NFC. As for radios, each variant is different. This review is on the Sprint version, which has 850 / 1900 CDMA / EVDO and 850 / 1900 GSM / EDGE / UMTS / HSPA+.
Since I am testing the U.S. version, my experience is based on the quad-core Snapdragon 600. It’s the same CPU found on the HTC One and the LG Optimus G Pro, but the Galaxy S 4 is clocked a little faster (1.9GHz vs 1.7GHz). The overseas version has the Exynos Octa 5, which features 4 Cortex-A15s along with 4 Cortex-A7s. Samsung’s J.K. Shin says it doesn’t matter which version you have because you won’t be able tell the difference. While I don’t have any first hand experience with it, I tend to agree. I mentioned in my HTC One review that it’s getting a little ridiculous to review CPU performance because phones are so fast now that it really isn’t going to be noticeable to the average consumer. The AnTuTu came in at 24,722, which is slightly higher than the HTC One’s 23,538. The bottomline is that the Galaxy S 4 is going to feel a lot faster than the U.S. version of the Galaxy S III. It’s fast, what more can I say?
The Galaxy S 4 features a 5-inch Super AMOLED 1080p display. It’s probably the best display we have seen from Samsung, but how does it stack up against the LCD 3 display found on the DROID DNA and HTC One? It is very very close and unless you are an absolute display snob, you’re going to have a hard time picking one of them. It really comes down to what color representation you like. Holding them side by side, you can see slight differences with color temperatures, but neither one looks off when looking at either display separate from the other. I will say the HTC One seems to have better viewing angles and I think it’s better in sunlight, but again these are minimal differences.
After listening to the stereo speakers on the HTC One, the Galaxy S 4 seemed so blah. It’s on par with just about every other smartphone, but HTC has set the bar at an all time high. I personally don’t listen to much music from my phone’s speaker, but for the occasional YouTube video it gets the job done.
The Galaxy S 4 has a much larger battery than the Galaxy S III (2,600mAh vs 2,100mAh), but don’t expect that much more in performance Unfortunately 1080p displays use more energy than 720p displays. I conducted my usual rundown test in which I run continuous video while WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth are turned on (WiFi and Bluetooth not connected). and I was able to get about 9 hours. Unfortunately we didn’t conduct the same test on the Galaxy S III, but for normal use, I didn’t find a big difference. You should get about 16 to 17 hours of moderate use, which is pretty good for a phone with a 5-inch 1080p display. It should be noted that the GS4 bested the HTC One for both the rundown test and daily use, thanks to the bigger battery (2,600mAh vs 2,300mAh)
The software is really what the Galaxy S 4 is all about. I don’t mean the user interface, which is called TouchWiz. I mean the software features. If you watched the Unpacked Event, you might have noticed that they only spent a few minutes talking about the specs of the GS4. The rest of the time was to tell us about the new software features. It’s these features that make the Galaxy S 4 so smart. Even if you don’t care about them, you cannot tell me there is another phone on the market that can do as much as the Galaxy S 4 out of the box.
Before we get into all that, lets talk about TouchWiz. It probably isn’t the most popular user interface, but Samsung has kept it consistent, which is better for consumers. Consumers like that consistency, and it’s one of the reasons they keep coming back for more. Some of the changes include an updated settings menu, a new sidebar for multitasking, and an improved power toggle menu. In addition, Samsung added a new menu that you will see during the initial setup process (when you turn the phone on for the first time). This menu briefly tells you about many of the newer features, and you are given a choice to toggle them on or off.
Here’s a video showing you the startup menu along with the major TouchWiz changes for this year.
As to software features, Samsung has added a bunch of stuff to the Galaxy S 4. In my opinion, it’s a little overwhelming for the average consumer as they are unlikely to ever utilize the majority of them, but Samsung’s approach is to throw in as much as they can whether they are used or not. There are a couple of reasons why they do this. The first is that it creates differentiation. The more proprietary features, the more distance they create from other Android manufacturers. At the same time, they lock in consumers to the brand since they aren’t available elsewhere, at least by the trademarked name. The second reason is for marketing the Samsung Galaxy brand. Many of these features are marketable and create excitement for consumers. I don’t have anything to back this up, but I feel confident that most Galaxy S III users never used S Beam, but we all remember that commercial when the wife beamed a video to her husband before his trip. Samsung is all about building the brand and these features are what solidifies it. I will go through some of the newer features in this section, but you will also find many of the newer camera related features in the camera section.
Air View and Air Gestures
Air View was first seen on the Galaxy Note II, but you needed an S Pen to utilize it. Now you can hover your finger over emails to read the text without actually opening it, and you can see the pictures in a folder without actually tapping it. You can even use your finger as a magnifying glass in the stock browser.
Air Gestures will let you navigate by waving your hand. Instead of swiping your finger from picture to picture in your gallery, you can wave your hand instead. You can even answer your phone without picking it up.
Here’s a video showing you how they work and how to setup both Air View and Air Gestures.
Sometimes when you’re watching a video, you need to look away at something else. Wouldn’t it be nice if the video paused automatically? That’s exactly what Smart Pause does, and when you return to looking down at the video, it will continue playing from where it left off. It’s pretty nifty when it works, but I found that it’s very dependent on light. You can forget it working in the dark, but I found it didn’t want to work in average light either.
Smart Scroll works with emails and web pages. When you read a webpage, you will eventually get to the bottom of your display. You have two choices: Either swipe up to reveal more information or let Smart Scroll do it for you. This one is pretty spotty as well depending on how you set it up. It can be setup to work by tilting the device or by tilting your head.
The video below shows you how both Smart Pause and Smart Scroll work.
This one might be the best kept secret on the Galaxy S 4. Easy Mode has been around since the Galaxy S III, but it’s more refined on the GS4. It’s for the smartphone beginner or the person who just isn’t that tech savvy. Easy Mode will transform your Galaxy S 4 into a very simple interface with larger icons and a simplified settings menu. You won’t find widgets other than the ones that are locked in for weather and calendar, and you won’t find any of the newer features found in this section. The bottomline is that anyone can own a Galaxy S 4 with Easy Mode.
For a better idea of how it works, check out this video.
S Translator is essentially a lesser version of Google Translate, and it allows you to get language translations via text or by the spoken word. It translates Brazilian Portuguese, English (UK), English (US), French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish. If you’re in another country, you could literally have a conversation with someone even if they don’t speak the same language as you. S Translator also has predefined phrases for you to use and allows you to favorite some translations that you might use more often for quick access.
The optical reader also serves as a translator by scanning written text on documents. It can also scan QR codes as well as create a new contact based on information from a business card.
This video shows you how S Translator and the Optical Reader work.
Just like the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 features an IR blaster along with a companion app to see what’s on TV and get recommendations. Samsung’s version is called WatchON, which is built by Peel. WatchON lets you control your TV as well as a cable or satellite box through the IR blaster at the top of Galaxy S 4. You will need to go through an initial setup, but soon after, you will be able see your TV guide on your GS4 and get recommendations based on your interests. Just tap on a show or sporting event to get more information, and once more to change the channel to that particular program. You can still set up an AV receiver, but for whatever reason it’s not included in the initial setup process. If you hit the volume key, you will be prompted to select your TV or to setup an AV receiver. I never hit the volume key because I knew I didn’t use the TV to control it, so I never knew this would happen. I found this out after I recorded the video below.
This is basically last year’s Group Share option, but with the addition of being able to share music as well. Just like Group Share, you can share a document or picture on several Galaxy devices for collaboration, but you can also share songs as well. This means you can play a song on several devices for a more full room experience. You can share via NFC or by creating or joining a group manually.
Last but not least is the Samsung Hub, which isn’t new, but it has a new look to it that’s more pleasing. If you’re not familiar with Samsung Hub, it’s where you can go for your music, TV, movies, games, and books. With the Music Hub, you can stream over 19 million songs (with a subscription) and create custom stations similar to what Pandora and Slacker offers. The Videos section offers a wide variety of movies for purchase or rent as well as TV shows for purchase. The Games section features games that are available through Samsung Apps. Most of them are available in the Google Play Store, but there does appear to be some exclusives. The Books section is where you can purchase books, magazines, and newspapers.
Still to come is S Health and the Knox Security Suite. S Health will launch in June and will be your fitness companion. They will offer accessories similar to the Nike Fuel band, and you will be able to keep track of all your workouts. Knox is the enterprise security application that allows users to completely separate their work and personal stuff on one phone. It’s similar to the multi-user account option that’s on Android 4.2+ in that employees will be able to switch from work mode to personal mode and everything will be separate. We are not sure exactly when Knox will launch, but it will probably be sometime over the summer.
As you can see, Samsung is throwing everything but the kitchen sink in the Galaxy S 4. Yes it’s confusing, but this plan of attack is working well for Samsung. Lets also not forget that all the features that are on the Galaxy S III are still onboard such as multi window multitasking, S Voice, S Beam, AllShare, and Photo Share. With so many features, no one can argue that the Galaxy S 4 isn’t the smartest smartphone. Unfortunately since there are so many features, you will find less usable space than competing smartphones. For example, the 16GB version only has about 9GB of usable space. Thankfully you can use the microSD slot for expandability.
Samsung upgraded their lens to 13MP, which is now the new norm. HTC, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction and now offers a 4MP with UltraPixels on the HTC One. HTC promises superior low light performance while Samsung’s 13MP will give you more detail for cropping and/or zooming in. The low light performance comes from the size of the pixels. Samsung is using a 1.12-micrometers pixel and HTC is using a 2.0-micrometers pixel. The bottomline is that the Galaxy S 4 doesn’t perform as well in low light, but on the other hand, your pictures will have more detail. Overall it’s a good camera and fans of the Galaxy S III will be happy with it. Here are some pictures to judge for yourself. The last two were in very low light conditions.
Now let’s talk about the updated camera interface and the new features:
Interface and Dual Camera
Samsung changed the camera software as well as added a slew of new features or modes. The camera software has a new look and a new navigating wheel to select one of the many camera modes. One of the coolest new features is the Dual Camera function, which lets you utilize both the front and back lens at the same time for both photos and videos. So if you’re taking a picture of your family, you can be included in the image as well. You can resize the image from the front lens as well as move it around. You can even select from a number of themes such as a postage stamp or a heart.
We put together a hands on tutorial showing you the new camera interface as well as how to use the Dual Camera function.
Drama Shot allows you to take consecutive shots of something moving and put multiple images in one picture. For example, you could take a picture of a motorcyclist going over a jump, and the finished product might include five or six images of the jump itself in one picture.
Eraser mode lets you erase unwanted subjects from a photo. Say you are in a crowded park and trying to take a picture of the family. It’s hard to get a shot in which somebody isn’t walking into the picture. With Eraser mode, you can easily remove these people.
The one problem with both of these modes is that you have to be in either mode to utilize it. If you’re taking a picture in Auto mode and someone decides to jump in, you can’t remove them. Drama Shot is the same way. You can’t reproduce a Drama Shot from video or burst shots. One more issue is that if you plan on taking more photos, you will need to do your editing and fine tuning right after you take the photo. On the other hand, the HTC One allows you to do either of these after the fact if you are using the Zoe feature.
Here’s a video showing you how both Drama Shot and the Eraser work.
Animation Shot allows you to make an image that has movement in it. In other words, an animated GIF. The best part of it is that you can fine tune the duration as well as what parts of the image you want to actually show movement.
Sound & Shot is simply adding voice to a photo. Take a picture, but hold it for another eight seconds for an audio message such as, “We miss you Grammy” or “I love you Mommy.”
Story Album lets you select photos from a particular event and a “Story Album” will automatically be created. You can still customize the photos and even select themes. When you’re happy with your album, you can print it out or order a professionally printed version for yourself or for a gift. You can even save copies to your dropbox account. Here’s how it works.
Samsung is the reigning king of Android and although I don’t think the Galaxy S 4 is the best smartphone available, it doesn’t matter because it’s got enough to keep their brand loyalty. It’s faster, thinner, smaller, and has more features than any other phone. Of course these features are mostly a gimmick, but they solidify Samsung’s Galaxy brand as well as their differentiation from other manufacturers. Most of all, the Galaxy series appeals to everyone. Samsung continues to offer a microSD slot as well as a removable battery to appease those that continue to desire them.
The only real complaint anyone can have on this phone is that it looks like last year’s model and the quality of materials is subpar. Unfortunately for competitors like HTC, those things are not held high by mainstream consumers. But don’t misunderstand me, the Galaxy S 4 might not be the highest quality phone, but it’s well built, durable, and light.
If I were buying a phone today, I would opt for the HTC One because of the quality build and what I feel is the one killer feature in the Video Highlights powered by Zoe. On the other hand, most of the Android smartphone buyers already own a Galaxy S or Note phone and familiarity is king when it comes to technology. The Galaxy S 4 provides that as well as a solid experience.
Samsung’s tagline is that the Galaxy S 4 is a life companion. I think this is true for most of us regardless of what brand smartphone we have in our pocket, but kudos to Samsung for coming up with yet another great marketing strategy. The Galaxy S 4 may lack in the looks department, but it’s by far the smartest smartphone on earth. That makes it one helluva companion even if you don’t utilize everything that it offers.