The Samsung Galaxy S4 is easily the most hyped phone of the year.
There was a Broadway-style launch event took place at Radio City Music Hall. The announcement made the front pages of newspapers around the country. People were drooling.
Now, a month later, the Galaxy S4 is here.
I've been using the Galaxy S4 for about a week. In many respects, it does live up to all that hype and is definitely one of the best phones you can buy today. But it's still falls short of its chief rivals, the iPhone 5 and HTC One, at least from a design standpoint.
Perhaps the most polarizing feature of the Galaxy S4 is its design and build quality. A lot of people criticized Samsung when it decided to make its new flagship phone out of plastic, and rightfully so. The Galaxy S4 simply isn't as beautiful or as fun to hold as the HTC One and iPhone 5.
And it almost feels cheap by comparison. The entire phone is covered in creaky plastic, not solid metal and glass. Just take off the flimsy back cover and you'll see what I'm talking about. It almost bends in half. Whereas the iPhone and HTC One designs scream quality, the Galaxy S4 design feels at least two years behind. It looks nearly identical to last year's Galaxy S III, with only a few minor tweaks.
Now is the plastic horrible? Is it a deal breaker? Is the Galaxy S4 a total dud because there's no metal on the body?
There are plenty of benefits to owning a plastic phone over a metal one, and some will find the plastic construction a benefit, not a drawback. The Galaxy S4 won't scratch as easily as metal phones, and the plastic makes the phone feel slim and lightweight.
And there are plenty of other things to love about the hardware, most notably the screen, which is easily the best physical feature of the Galaxy S4.
At five inches, the Galaxy S4's display is bigger, sharper, and more impressive than the one on the iPhone 5. It can also play HD video, another feature missing from the iPhone. And a bigger screen doesn't mean the phone itself is so huge you can't hold it. Samsung was able to increase the Galaxy S4's screen size but still keep the phone's body nearly the same size as the Galaxy S III. As a result, the phone has a remarkably thin bezel, and the display feels like it's floating in your hand. Gorgeous.
The Galaxy S4 also has a removable battery and a SD card slot for extra memory, two features many manufacturers are starting to leave out of phones nowadays. Battery life is pretty good too. You'll easily be able to make it through a day with moderate use.
In the end, the hardware is all about tradeoffs. You get one of the best screens available on a phone, a removable battery, and expandable memory, but it's all encased in a plastic shell. I enjoyed the look and feel of the HTC One a lot more than the Galaxy S4, but it's all a matter of personal preference.
More Features Than You Can Count
The Galaxy S4 is still an Android phone at its core, meaning you get access to all of those great Google features like a robust selection of apps and games along with Google Now, a voice-powered assistant that's much better than Siri on the iPhone.
But Samsung has modified Google's basic Android operating system with a bunch of whiz-bang features of its own. In fact, there's so much stuff packed into this phone, that Samsung had to create a special settings menu just so you can toggle everything on and off.
Normally, I wouldn't spend so much time on these features, but it's a big part of how Samsung is trying to differentiate the Galaxy S4 from other phones. It spent a few million dollars putting on that Broadway-style show to introduce them, after all.
There's way too much in the Galaxy S4 to go over without boring you to death, so here's an overview of the most important stuff:
Air View: This feature lets you hover your finger a centimeter or two over the phone's display and view extra information or drop-down menus in apps. I found it the most useful in the email app, which lets you hover over a message in your inbox and get a quick preview of what it says. But it doesn't work with most apps, only a few that are made by Samsung and the specially designed Flipboard app. And it's still not as instant as actually touching the screen. There's a noticeable delay from the time you hover over the screen and when the action actually appears.
Air Gesture: When you switch on Air Gesture, you can scroll through photos in your gallery, browse websites, or answer incoming calls by waving your hand over the screen. Air Gesture was one of the most talked about features when the Galaxy S4 was first introduced, but it also happens to be one of the most impractical. I could only think of one scenario where waving your hand over the screen is better than actually touching it, and it's the example Samsung gave me –– Air Gesture is great if you're in the car and you need to answer the phone without looking.
Smart Stay: Smart Stay uses the Galaxy S4's front-facing camera to detect when you're looking at it and prevents the screen from going dark. Out of all the extras in the Galaxy S4, this is by the most useful. It solves a real problem with smartphones and tablets (How many times has your phone's screen gone dark while you were in the middle of reading an article?) and it's a feature you should always keep switched on.
Smart Scrolling: You've probably heard that the Galaxy S4 has a special eye-tracking technology used for scrolling. That's not entirely accurate. Like with Smart Stay, Smart Scrolling can detect when you're looking at the phone. You then tilt the phone forward or backward to scroll through pages. But smart scrolling didn't always work well for me, and like Air Gesture, I found it easier just to touch the screen to navigate the old-fashioned way. There's no real advantage to tilting your phone to scroll.
Camera: The camera software is really impressive, packed with a bunch of clever shooting modes that are easy to navigate to. (A lot of smartphone cameras tend to bury their extra modes.) My favorite mode is called Eraser, which can automatically detect people moving in the background and remove them to create a nearly perfect image. I also like Animated Photo, which lets you create your own GIF-like images. Other standard shooting modes like panorama and HDR are included too.
Got all that?
There are several more goodies hidden in the Galaxy S4's software, but hopefully you get the idea. Samsung has packed its new phone with more doodads than any one person could ever use. Some of them are useful, some of them don't work properly, and some of them are just plain gimmicky. But that's also part of what makes the Galaxy S4 an appealing phone –– it's versatile and completely customizable, able to adapt to your needs whether you're a smartphone pro or a novice.
All those extras are there if you want them, yet hidden if you don't.
Is It Worth The Hype?
Make no mistake about it, the Galaxy S4 is a great phone, and easily one of the best you can buy right now. You get an amazing Android experience on a big, beautiful display.
As long as you don't mind a bunch of plastic, you'll be perfectly happy with the Galaxy S4.
Pricing and launch dates vary by carrier, but you should be able to get the Galaxy S4 for around $200 starting this week. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular will be the first US carriers to sell the phone.