The Samsung Galaxy S4 has big plans to become the smartphone of 2013, but it already has competition from established rivals such as the HTC One and the Sony Xperia Z. There’s also the BlackBerry Z10, and later this year the new iPhone and likely a new flagship Windows Phone from Nokia.
Since the Galaxy S2, the annual update to Samsung’s flagship Android device has become more and more popular, recently climaxing with a huge amount of hype for the Galaxy S4. Will it live up to the hype? We went hands-on to find out.
Build and Design
At first glance the design is impressive, and we were instantly drawn in by the carbon weave-style pattern that’s all over the front and back of the phone. The colour is classed as Black Mist by Samsung, but as you tilt the phone and it catches the light, the textured pattern appears to give it a more blue-ish colour. It’s different, and we like it.
Samsung has stuck with a similar size and shape to the S3, keeping the thin and bendy removable back cover and rounded corners. The S4 is a little bit thinner than its predecessor, although rather than curving the edges as it did last year, Samsung has opted to put a flat and silver metal effect edging around the handset. As such it gives the phone a premium look which really catches the eye.
Pick up the phone and it’s a slightly different story, however. It’s clear to see that the chrome effects are just that – effects. As is Samsung tradition, the handset is made almost entirely out of plastic, save for the sheet of Gorilla Glass which covers the entire front. The phone is light and fits nicely in the hand, but we instantly noticed a creaking coming from the battery door. Coming from using the HTC One with its aluminium unibody, the S4 feels cheaper in the hand, which isn’t a feeling you want to get from device that costs £550+.
Full HD on a smartphone is a beautiful thing. Press the power button, swipe to unlock and you’re instantly hit by a blast of colour and sharp visuals on the S4. Samsung’s choice of an AMOLED screen over the likes of an LCD display (HTC One) means that colours are much brighter and more vivid, although at times they can appear cartoon-y.
Although technically not as sharp as the HTC One on paper, it’s not something 99% of people will notice. Text is pin-sharp and as such web browsing and reading are both a pleasure. Games also look stunning; especially titles that make use of vivid colours, which really compliment the display well.
When compared to its two main Full HD Android rivals, the Galaxy S4 does well. It’s brighter and more colourful than Sony’s Xperia Z, however we feel that the HTC One’s display is marginally better as it offers deeper blacks and a more natural representation of colour.
Samsung has upped its game in the camera area, upgrading both the front and rear cameras. Both take great quality still images and are capable of recording Full HD video, but the really cool stuff comes under the software category. New shooting modes like Dual Shot allow you to use both cameras at the same time, capturing either a picture-in-picture of you and your surroundings or a dual video feed. This is pretty cool, we think, but we found the most impressive feature to be Eraser mode.
With this mode you can select any moving object within the frame of your picture and give it a single tap to delete it altogether, leaving a picture that looks as though that annoying person walking through your shot was never there. It’s not a new technology of course – a company called Scalado introduced this years ago and was then bought by Nokia, and you can do a similar thing on the BlackBerry Z10. However, it’s certainly a feature to evoke “wow” and “that’s amazing!” from those who see it in action.
Software and power
Unfortunately here in the UK we don’t get the octa-core processor that Samsung mentioned when it launched the S4. We get a quad-core chip instead, which, paired with 2 gigs of RAM, is still blazing fast. There’s no question that this is a handset that will handle the latest games over the next year or two with aplomb. Multitasking is done smoothly, and we were especially impressed at how well the phone handled flicking between a game of Shine Runner and Chrome for some browsing, then to sending an email through Gmail and back to the game again. There was virtually no pausing or lag, just as it should be.
Android Jelly Bean 4.2 is the operating system, paired up with Samsung’s new TouchWiz interface. Compared to previous iterations we feel Samsung has now got it spot on with the UI, with simpler icons, less clutter and a smoother overall feel. There are plenty of new apps here like S Translator and S Health, although just how useful these will be depends on the person using the phone. We gave S Translator a go by having a conversation with our Spanish speaking colleague and the translations and features impressed both parties.
We’ve no doubt that the Galaxy S4 will sell by the absolute bucketload, as has become tradition. The handset looks the part, and we love how Samsung has crammed a bigger and better display into a body that’s a fraction smaller than last year’s S3. That display is stunning and will bring your games and movies to life, with everything running smoothly thanks to the quad-core chip and 2GB of RAM.
We couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed with the build quality, however, although for now we’re putting a large part of that down to recently using the excellently crafted HTC One. This seems to really be the only area of concern that we found, as the camera and software both join the display and design in being superb.