Samsung Galaxy S4 Review

Here at mobilife we’ve had our hands on the Samsung Galaxy S4 for the last couple of weeks to live with it and give it the thorough testing it deserves. The 13MP camera and a 1080p screen resolution were an interesting prospect, as well as running Android’s v4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS and some of Samsung’s highest level of custom tweaks to the UI care of TouchWiz we’ve ever seen.  So after really putting it through its paces, let’s give you our full Samsung Galaxy S4 review.

Wood grain effect boxing on the Samsung Galaxy S4

Wood grain effect boxing on the Samsung Galaxy S4

The Samsung Galaxy S4 came in a really nice wood grain effect box and upon taking the top off reveals the smartphone in all its glory, synonymous with how all smartphones are packaged these days. In the box the contents are kept to a minimum with just the phone, battery, back cover, USB cable, wall plug adapter and headphones. The days of getting a MircoSD thrown in are long gone now manufacturers ship their phones with almost always 8GB/16GB internal memory.  I was extremely surprised to feel how cheap the Samsung Galaxy S4 felt in my hands. The back cover is frightfully flimsy with a real lightweight plastic feel. The high gloss finish looks nice and all, but quite slippery to hold if your hands are hot and fingerprints and marks show up tenfold on the back, let alone the screen. I gave up trying to keep it clean within mere minutes. The back cover is seriously thin and malleable, I get the strong sense it’s not very robust.

The Samsung Galaxy S4's not so deliberate bendy back cover

The Samsung Galaxy S4′s not so great bendy back cover

Past that, the screen is fantastic. The Samsung Galaxy S4 packs a 5″ screen of of glorious 1080p resolution (~441ppi for those that like stats) and protected with Corning Gorilla Glass 3 – so yes it can withstand a bit of light abuse.  The screen holds a level of clarity I have not seen before. It is simply stunning to look at, the colours look vibrant and you are drawn into the screen. The PenTile matrix is what allows this, and the 441 ppi pixel density makes sure you won’t be able to spot the hated cross-hatch pattern. Yes, the Super AMOLED screen can make photos look a little less life-like than say a standard LCD screen such as those seen on an HTC, but it’s a personal preference and I much prefer the look of AMOLED screens for the intense, rich and vibrant colours seen on it.

Screen images of the Samsung Galaxy S4

Screen images of the Samsung Galaxy S4

Apps play great on the Samsung Galaxy S4 which can be given thanks to the 1.6GHz quad-core processor and 2 gigs of RAM. I installed GTA: Vice City on to the phone, a game that is hungry for everything the phone has and it stood up to the test well. The graphics were very clean, there was no lag or juddering, and all sounds lined up with the visuals perfectly, there was no delay at all. YouTube played absolutely well, and the app’s latest update allowing a video to be minimised while you search for another worked well, and the transitioning of video position was a really fluid, positive motion.

Social Networking Champion!!!

Social Networking Champion!!!

Another test of the phone’s power is the Multi-Window mode, first seen on the Samsung Galaxy Note II. You can turn on Multi-Window on within display settings, allowing you to run two apps at once. I tried it out with the Reddit is fun app, along with browsing Imgur on Google Chrome and loaded up Twitter and Facebook together so for those that are social networking champions, this is a great way to stay in shape!  Interestingly, I added a video download to the phone and ran it via MX Player, while also opening the same video through the Gallery and using Samsung’s own Video Player, so in effect running two videos at the same time. The 1.6GHz quad-core CPU really coped well and although it is an entirely awful experience the phone stood up well to the test with no lagginess or freezing at all. If there were only two headphone jacks and you could dictate where each app should send the sound, this could work well, the screen is certainly big enough.

The 13MP camera on the Samsung Galaxy S4 has some really rich features built into the home-baked TouchWiz UI. Not all of them are useful and some of them do feel rather gimmicky to say the least. There are lots of different modes for when capturing images such as animated photo, drama, sound and shot, best face, best photo, beauty face, night, sports, panorama, eraser, rich tone (HDR) and the old faithful auto mode. As you can see, a lot to choose from and some are a tad “pointless” in my opinion such as the animated photos (not gifs) and sound with shot images which are just pictures with a little sound-bite embedded. Auto mode stood up to the test for the most part rather well.

Auto mode working exceptionally well on the Samsung Galaxy S4's camera

Auto mode working exceptionally well on the Samsung Galaxy S4′s camera

Auto focus not working so well under certain lighting conditions

Auto focus not working so well under certain lighting conditions

Colours very dark under low light conditions

Colours very dark under low light conditions

The images taken on the Samsung Galaxy S4 varied in quality. Close up shots in low light conditions couldn’t focus all too well when set to Auto mode, however outside these close up shots held great clarity. The depth of colours are fantastic. Sadly due to the weather conditions I had no sunlight for testing, but outdoor shots still looked amazing. The 13MP camera really holds its own whilst outdoors, and the panorama worked really well, I cannot see where the images are stitched together it truly looks as if a panorama lens took the image.

Excellent auto focus with good lighting

Excellent auto focus with good lighting

Fantastic panorama

Fantastic panorama

The 1080p video capturing is very good and with simultaneous HD video and image recording it’s great. This lets you take up to 8MP still image whist taking a continuous video, almost like screenshots of your video. It’s a fantastic feature that we’ve seen on the likes of the HTC One and is such a useful feature. The dual-recording has it’s uses, I just personally couldn’t see any use for it and the way Samsung sell it to customers doesn’t win me over. As well as making your full 1080p video recording using the back camera, it uses the front-facing camera to capture the photographer’s point of view so as “not to feel left out in those family moments”. It’s a clever concept, but that’s all it is, a concept. It’s not been executed well enough, and the front-facing 2MP camera video is stuck in what looks like a stamp in the top left corner. Not all videos want this “holiday postcard” feel about it and a 2MP camera image just isn’t good enough for this use. Rethink it Samsung, please..!

Samsung’s own S Translator works well, has a nice layout and is simple to use. There is no offline mode though whereas with the Google Translate app you can download the different language’s dictionaries to use when abroad without racking up large data roaming bills. This is another instance of Samsung having a great concept, but just not executing it right. At this stage already I am left feeling this phone was not quite finished, and they rushed to push it out. I hope after a couple of point releases, TouchWiz will be at a standard I can get on board with as for now, it just doesn’t feel ready for public consumption it’s still quite “beta”.

NFC didn’t work when trying to beam images from my Galaxy Note II to the Samsung Galaxy S4 – NFC and Android Beam was enabled on both devices. I wonder whether it only works with other Galaxy S4 devices? I could find nothing online about this, and I was slightly saddened to see another feature not work on my test and yes, NFC does work on my Note II.

Air View is another added bonus Samsung have added into this iteration of TouchWiz for the Galaxy S. With many features (too many to list all of) I’ll touch on a few. There’s a little gimmick called Quick glance which once set enables you to wave your hand over the phone when the screen is off to wake the screen and reveal if you have any missed calls, texts, emails or notifications. I like this feature, it’s a great use of the proximity sensor and hopefully doesn’t use too much battery in the process, but it does beg the question that if you can wave your hand over the phone, why can’t you just press the home button to wake the device? Some people may find a use for this feature and if so excellent. It’s a clever feature and I’ll allow it as a great addition to TouchWiz, not a pointless one.

Samsung's S Health app

Samsung’s S Health app

Eye scrolling is another clever feature in theory but felt rather unfinished. This feature lets you scroll down web pages by moving your eyes while looking at the screen. I could well be proven wrong and it may be a very powerful feature itself but this didn’t work for me at all as a glasses wearer. I feel the front-facing camera couldn’t detect my eye movement behind my lenses and I was forced to nod like a dog to get it to work. Also, this only worked with the default “Internet” browser and not Google Chrome which a large percentage of Android users use as it syncs up with your desktop version of Chrome.  A similar use of looking at the screen for actions/commands was the feature whereby when viewing videos through Samsung’s own Video Player, if you look away from the screen the video pauses. This is very clever but again for myself was more of a full head turn. Even without my glasses on both of these features took a very positive eye movement to stimulate the phone. The latter only works with Samsung’s own Video Player. This isn’t my personal choice (MX Player) as it doesn’t play all codecs and “Unable to play video” could get on your nerves.

For a device that is toting to be Samsung’s flagship phone, I’m left wanting so much more. I feel just a little underwhelmed with the device… I can’t quite put my finger on why. The device does have a great look to it, but the feel of the high-gloss plastic does give it a cheap feel and when your hands are hot, good luck holding on to it. It just doesn’t feel like a premium device and I genuinely feel disappointed by it. I’m left wanting more from the feel of a device after holding the HTC One with its great aluminium unibody. A case is definitely necessary with the Samsung Galaxy S4. It just doesn’t feel special and I so wanted it to. Internally, a great package to be had. Just such a shame Samsung take these cost-cutting measures using high-gloss, flimsy plastic.

Samsung's high gloss finish

Samsung’s high gloss finish

TouchWiz isn’t quite there either. As a home-baked launcher, you want it not only to throw everything at you that Google’s vanilla Android can, but with lots of added tweaks to make improve ease of use, be more refined and actually aide you in getting on with daily tasks. With Samsung’s latest iteration for the Galaxy S4, I find a lot of it more of a hindrance than a help, such as S Health that can track your activities and food intake, but it’s such a laborious and thankless task. The previously mentioned S Translate is good, it works really well, but there’s not offline mode which greatly restricts its use when travelling abroad. Everything feels not quite ready as if it was a little rushed in time for release. Instead of trying to pack in 20 features that aren’t quite polished and ready, I’d much rather see Samsung add only 5 features, but have them being truly perfect.

If you’re paying good money for a device you want it to be perfect and at the time of reviewing this device, TouchWiz let the Samsung Galaxy S4 down. I don’t mind custom features a manufacturer wants to add to Android, in fact I welcome great ones and tweaks like S Voice are fantastic. S Voice is Samsung’s version of Siri, but uses Google to enhance searches, not Bing. The Galaxy S4 has both S Voice and Google Now, which is Google’s own version and gives you the information you need, when you need it and this is seamlessly built into Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean with TouchWiz, whereas on HTC’s Sense UI, Google’s own parts of Android feel left out.

Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS

Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS

If you’re after a top of the range Android device with a 5″ screen, honestly look no further than the Samsung Galaxy S4. I do have complaints with regards to the software but in reality these are features that you don’t have to use and can turn off in the settings. Once turned off they do not detract from the device at all and you are still left with a great device, running nearly the latest version of Android, a powerful 1.6GHz quad-core processor, 2 gigs of RAM with 16GB on-board memory and the option to expand via MicroSD card.  The Samsung Galaxy S4 is still the top contender when another manufacturer release a phone and look to take the competition off the top spot and no-one comes close to it. Of course Apple fans will tell you their phone is the best, but look at the figures, the CPU, the RAM, the screen size…your Retina display has a lower ppi pixel density than the Samsung Galaxy S4 and yet Samsung don’t feel the need to harp on about the fact you can’t see the individual pixels, it’s just 1080p and that’s what you expect from a high resolution.

A comfortable 5" screen size

A comfortable 5″ screen size

Samsung are great at making things other manufacturers consider big deals as nothing more than business as usual and they even play down the greatness of this device. OK so it’s perhaps not as polished as it could be, but it can be and probably will be on the next point release to TouchWiz.

If you’re looking for a camera phone, music phone, media phone or just an Android phone look no further, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is still the top phone to go for. It’s not often that a phone can be a good all-rounder so convincingly well and have such a strong following. The Galaxy brand name is stronger than some phone manufacturer’s entire brand image and you know if you purchase a phone such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 that when it’s replaced it won’t be forgotten, nor will you forget it or want to get shot of it in a short space of time. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a keeper and I highly suspect it will do as well as the Galaxy S II did back when that came out.

With thanks for Dialaphone for supplying us with this test phone.

About Graham

My First phone was the Nokia 3210, sometimes when I get fed up of all technology, I wish I could go back to using it, a simpler time. I am currently using the Samsung Galaxy Note II, running CyanogenMod 10.1 on the basis I dislike bloatware and prefer anything that improves performance and battery life. I love all things techy, especially from the phone world. I get obsessed with release dates and rumoured features.! My only real pet peeves are back-pedaling politicians and sucky gadgets, both of which I just feel shouldn't exist in our Li-Ion fueled world. Graham (@mobilife_graham)
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