This is the story of a little smartphone series that grows up and, three years later, positions itself to take over the world. The device in question, the newest addition to that lineup, doesn't really need much of an introduction thanks to some of the most successful marketing campaigns in the world. We'll be happy to give it anyway: pictured atop this very text sits the Samsung Galaxy S 4, the latest and greatest flagship out of Korea. This is the hero, the device chosen to lead the charge for Samsung as it ventures deeper into 2013, and it's fitted with the best of everything: a 1080p Super AMOLED display, 1.9GHz quad-core (or 1.6GHz Exynos 5 Octa 5410, depending on market) chipset, Android 4.2, 13MP camera and a wide assortment of brand-new firmware amenities, to name just a few.
Despite the fact that its predecessor sold millions upon millions of units in the past year, the Galaxy S 4 isn't alone in its quest for global Android domination this time. HTC, the underdog of the fight, has launched the One, a flagship that rivals the GS4 in almost every way and does so in a physically attractive package complete with a solid aluminum build. Where do these two devices stand in comparison to each other? Does the GS4 reign supreme? Will its onslaught of new software features send the phone to the top of the pack? These answers and more await you after the break.
Several new features are impractical and half-baked
Boring overall design without premium look or feel
The Galaxy S 4 is a solid improvement over the GS3, and the best Samsung device we've ever used, but we'd love to see Samsung come up with a fresh design and premium look.
If your first impression of the Galaxy S 4 was like ours, we're guessing you had a hard time differentiating it from last year's flagship model. Take a closer look, however, and it becomes more apparent that Samsung's design team didn't actually use the past year to catch up on the sleep it lost crafting the GS3. The phone maker kept to the same overall style, but it made a few crucial tweaks along the way to improve its fit and finish.
Samsung's choice of build material wasn't one of them. If you were a critic of the GS3's plastic construction, you'll be disappointed with its successor -- the company's continuing its long-standing tradition of keeping metal out of the assembly lines, building the frame, back cover and faux-chrome edges with polycarbonate. It's similar -- though lower-grade and not machined -- to the type of plastic you'd enjoy on flagships like the Nokia Lumia 920 or even the HTC One X+, so it's nothing out of the ordinary for Samsung. The biggest benefit in using this type of material is that it offers a little more give when you drop the phone. It's still plenty sturdy, and it feels like it's just as durable as the GS3 or Galaxy Note II. This may be ideal for a large number of potential buyers, but we still prefer the HTC One's premium build quality and visual appeal, thanks to its use of high-grade aluminum through its entire unibody chassis.
The GS4 uses polycarbonate and is pretty sturdy, but the HTC One still has a more premium build quality and visual appeal.
One of the subtlest tweaks to the design in the GS4 may also be one of the most effective: the Gorilla Glass 3 rests just a hair below the edge of the screen. This tiny move makes the screen a tad less vulnerable than the GS3, which features glass that sits slightly above the edge. This won't guarantee your screen's safety when you drop your phone, but it at least increases the likelihood of it surviving an impact at an angle.
Another design shift is in Samsung's choice of decor. At launch, the GS4 will be offered in Frost White and Black Mist, and both colors feature a cross-stitching pattern across the front and back. This style is sufficiently subtle on our white review unit and adds a little extra personality to an otherwise plain and glossy device. It stands out more on the black model, however, to the point where it's a bit of an eyesore. When it comes to comparing the darker-hued versions, we much prefer the brushed-metal look on the blue GS3. (In full disclosure, we've spent far more time with the white unit, so our views of the black version are based on first impressions we had prior to our review.)
Although it technically has a larger display than its 4.8-inch predecessor, the 5-inch GS4 is actually narrower (69.8mm wide, versus 70.6mm on the GS3) because it only adds vertical screen space and has skinnier bezels on each side. The GS4 loses most of the well-polished curves prominently featured in the past-gen flagship, as it's designed with broader corners and a filled-out back, both of which are signs that Samsung has veered away from its "inspired by nature" mantra. Fortunately, this means we finally get to say goodbye to the pebble look and feel: the edges are straighter from top to bottom, giving our fingers more surface to grasp onto, and the back cover fits flat on the faux-chrome edge instead of curving around it like waves of the ocean. The entire surface is still slick and glossy, but even so, it's still easier to wrap your hands around this device. Measuring 7.9mm (0.31 inch) thick, the Galaxy S 4 is 0.7mm (0.027 inch) thinner than its older sibling. It's also a mere three grams (0.11 ounce) lighter. All that said, the difference between the two devices isn't noticeable unless you're closely inspecting the pair side by side.
Whereas the home button was almost completely flush with the rest of the body on the GS3, the S 4's is raised a fair amount. On one hand, physical buttons are much easier to press this way; on the other, it stands out above the rest of the screen so much that our fingers catch on it as we swipe down on the display. It's an aspect of the phone we can get used to, although it's unfortunate that its placement interrupts the design flow. As for the rest of the front side, the menu and back keys flank the home button on the left and right, respectively, which is completely opposite of the layout used on a large number of OEM Android devices. Along the top of the screen, you'll see the 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera, earpiece grille and an assortment of sensors.
Flip the phone over and you're presented with a slightly raised camera module on the top with an LED flash just below, and a pair of slits over the mono speaker sitting near the bottom; the plastic between them is raised to prevent sound from being muffled when the phone is lying face-up. The obligatory logos are here as well: "Galaxy S 4," located just above the speakers in traditional fashion, and the carrier logo (T-Mobile in this case) underneath the flash.
Samsung prefers to make the back cover removable, meaning you have easy access to the 2,600mAh battery (which doubles as the NFC antenna), along with the microSDXC and micro-SIM slots -- as well as contacts for inductive charging -- just above it. We expect to hear more about the phone's wireless charging options from Samsung eventually, but all we know for now is that the company plans to sell an optional back cover with this capability built-in. (Given Verizon's interest in Qi, we won't be surprised if its version of the GS4 launches with the option.)
Going around the faux-chrome edges, you'll find the volume rocker on the left, power button on the right, micro-USB / MHL 2.0 connection port on the bottom and the 3.5mm headphone jack, mic and infrared transceiver on the top. It's refreshing to see infrared resurging in popularity, as we're now seeing it in several flagship devices, though it's used in a completely different way now than in the days of the Palm Treo and other IrDA-clad devices. Which is to say, the primary reason for the tech used to be focused on data transfers and "beaming," and now it's simply offered as a universal remote.
Samsung Galaxy S 4
136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm (5.38 x 2.75 x 0.31 inches)
4.59 oz. (130g)
1,920 x 1,080 (441 ppi)
Full HD Super AMOLED
2,600mAh Li-Polymer (removable)
16 or 32GB
MicroSDXC (up to 64GB)
1080p / 30 fps (rear); 1080p (front)
Varies by region and operator
Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
MHL 2.0, IR transceiver, DLNA, WiFi Direct
Android 4.2.2 (TouchWiz)
In the last two months, Sony and HTC have both released flagship phones, each with a spec sheet-topping 1080p display. Although both looked great on their own, the HTC One bested the Xperia Z in nearly every possible way. But now that Samsung is finally tossing its hat into the ring, will its 5-inch, 1080p Super AMOLED screen top the LCD used on its bitter rival?
In short, the two are incredibly close, and you'd probably be happy with either one. But let's dive into more detail about how they differ. AMOLED panels are generally more saturated in color than their LCD counterparts, but we were a little surprised to see the level of color toned down from the GS3; so much, in fact, that most images we viewed matched the natural color reproduction we enjoyed on the One. The blacks were still darker on the GS4, while the whites were brighter -- and viewing angles better -- on the One. Blues looked the best on the GS4, but the reds were a little too saturated for our taste. Yes, the world of 1080p smartphone displays is a nitpicker's heaven, but unless you have an aversion to AMOLED panels, you'll be amazingly happy with the crisp text and vibrant visuals. Lastly, to make sure we avoid any confusion, it is indeed a clear improvement over the 720p display on the GS3.
The new Synaptics ClearPad in the GS4 is capable of detecting your finger from 2cm away.
Additionally, the GS4 uses an advanced capacitive touchscreen powered by Synaptics, also known as ClearPad. This particular screen features a new tech dubbed "3D-Touch" which gives the phone the ability to detect your finger from up to 2cm away. Not only does this make it possible to use Air View without an S Pen, it also allows cold-weather folk to touch the screen while wearing gloves if you've activated the "extra sensitivity mode" in the settings. (In case you're wondering, an S Pen won't work on the GS4 due to the lack of Wacom digitizer, but we're told that the C-Pen and other capacitive styli should function perfectly fine.)
Despite the fact that Android received nary a mention in Samsung's GS4 launch event last month, the device is actually one of the first smartphones (outside the Nexus 4, of course) to run Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, the most recent version of Google's mobile OS. Considering it was introduced nearly six months ago, this is a pretty huge deal -- not to mention yet another scathing reminder of the lengthy waiting period Android fans endure between updates.
The GS4 runs Android 4.2, which is still rarely used in brand new devices.
Since the GS4 uses Android 4.2, it offers many of the same additions introduced with the refresh -- but not all. One feature that didn't make the cut is Photo Sphere, a clever camera option which lets you stitch together panorama photos aligned both horizontally and vertically. You also can't use the stock Android keyboard, though Samsung's collaboration with SwiftKey is definitely an acceptable alternative. What you can do, however, is take advantage of expanded Google Now features, use the Daydream screen saver and pull down the notification bar with two fingers to access the quick settings notification bar. (In fact, Samsung's TouchWiz version boasts even more toggles to choose from in this menu, and you can customize the order in which they appear.) Lock screen widgets will also be at your disposal every time you wake your phone up -- and Samsung has even developed a few of its own, such as widgets for WatchON, Samsung Music and a customizable grid of your favorite apps.
As is the mantra of every Galaxy device, the GS4 uses Samsung's TouchWiz skin atop nearly every possible aspect of the firmware. And whether you love the proprietary UI or not, its overall layout is nearly identical to what you'll find on the GS3. You can still use up to seven home pages, and you're treated to the same app menu, options and gestures. Even the standard notification bar looks exactly alike. Samsung is a fan of consistency, and many TouchWiz enthusiasts will appreciate the minimal learning curve required to make the jump to this device. Simply put: if you enjoyed the firmware on the GS3, your experience with its successor will be just as rapturous, if not more so. If you're hoping to run custom ROMs in place of TouchWiz, you may have to wait for a little while since Samsung has confirmed to us that the bootloader is locked.
With another flagship Galaxy device comes yet another wave of brand-new software gimmicks perks. This shouldn't stun anyone who's already familiar with Samsung; the company's been cranking out onslaughts of new gesture- and motion-based features -- alongside a variety of other apps and services -- with each new version. Some are useful, but even more are simply party tricks that seem to be designed for their wow factor.
The feature that has arguably received the most attention is Smart Scroll. The front-facing camera detects your eyes and then tracks the movement of your head, in much the same manner as most other Smart features. If you tilt your head down, the page you're looking at scrolls down; tilt your head up and the screen scrolls up as well. It's a great idea, in theory, but we ultimately found it frustrating for several reasons. First, it only works in specific apps. For instance, the stock internet browser supports it, but Chrome does not, and we couldn't scroll through Samsung's menus using this method, either. (There's no word on whether this feature will be incorporated into an SDK eventually for third-party developers, but we're optimistic about it.)
Smart Scroll is a fun idea in theory, but our neck got tired more quickly than our fingers when doing the same task.
Second, it won't work in a dimly lit area since it has to pick up your eyes. Third, your face can't be too close or too far away -- you'll get the best results from between two and three feet away. We also grew quickly tired of bobbing our head up and down to do an activity we can easily do with a flick of a finger. Lastly, it doesn't always work as promised. In some cases, tilting your head up offers no results, regardless of how smooth or jerky your facial movements are. Other times, the screen scrolls down even when your face is out of the camera's line of sight. On several occasions, even, the screen simply stopped scrolling mid-page, despite the fact that we hadn't moved or blinked. (In full disclosure, we have only reviewed the T-Mobile model, so it's possible that the experience may vary on the unbranded GS4. We will update this review if we find differing experiences with other models.)
Right up there amongst the highly touted GS4 services is a feature called Group Play, a P2P networking tool that expands on the features introduced in Group Cast last year. In this mode, your phone establishes an ad-hoc WiFi hotspot. When one or more GS4 devices are within range, all of them can be connected to each other, giving them the ability to share music, photos, docs and even games with each other. While sharing photos and docs in this fashion are par for the course, Group Play adds some interesting twists to the music and games arena. Instead of simply sharing the song with a friend, this feature lets each phone act as a different surround sound speaker, with the master unit in charge of which songs to play. For games, the feature gives you and a friend the chance to go head-to-head against each other, though this isn't anything we haven't seen already.
Since GS4 units are a bit of a rarity these days, we didn't get to test this particular feature much aside from a few minutes when we first received our device at a press briefing. During that experience, everything functioned exactly as advertised and we had no trouble sharing music. Given that you probably won't have a lot of friends picking up GS4 units right away, Group Play is a difficult feature to recommend; once the flood of excited consumers start pouring in -- not to mention devices like the Note III that seem like locks to receive the service when it launches -- it will become infinitely more functional. Until that happens, however, it's no better than vaporware.
The next "smart" feature Samsung boasts on the GS4 is Smart Pause. The phone pauses the video or movie you're watching any time your eyes look away from the screen. This is another feature that doesn't appear to be universal: it worked well in the pre-loaded YouTube and Samsung Video apps, but it didn't register in Play Movies and third-party players downloaded from the Play Store. This feature performed fine in regular light, but if you want to (or have to) watch a full-length movie in the dark -- you know, the preferred setting for watching movies -- it's probably not going to work out so well. Of course, we aren't smitten by the idea of having the video stop anytime we close our eyes or briefly take our gaze away from the screen, so it's nice that the feature is turned off by default.
Lastly, an app called S Translator could be the most useful of the bunch. Speak a phrase in one language and the phone is able to translate it and rattle off the translated phrase in a completely different language. If the app is having trouble understanding what you're saying, you can choose to type it in text to get the same outcome. If that doesn't work either, the program has a large library of preset phrases already stored. Pick the category you're interested in -- say, you need to get to the airport -- and the app can teach you how to ask for a taxi (or you can just have it do the asking for you, if you're lazy that's your preferred style). Have a specific question or phrase you ask a lot throughout your travels? Why go through the trouble of learning it when you can just favorite it for quick access later?
Other notable features
We're not done yet: there are still a few more special features worth highlighting. IR appears to be making a huge comeback, and the included transmitter found in the top of the GS4 transforms the smartphone into a remote control. The HTC One and LG Optimus G Pro do the same thing, and just like the former, Samsung is partnering with Peel -- not a huge surprise, as the two companies have teamed up before on products like the Galaxy Tab 7.7. The app they've created is WatchON, which acts as a universal remote, entertainment guide and Netflix portal all wrapped up into one. Those last two features will vary in usefulness depending on cable provider and equipment (hint: Netflix doesn't seem to do much good if you don't have Google TV). We were able to use the remote function to connect to multiple entertainment systems without our fingers breaking into a sweat; in fact, we got a family member's system set up and working faster than it would've taken us to figure out their own mess of remotes.
Safety Assistance may be one of the cleverest features on the GS4, but the US models won't offer it.
We'll make brief mention of the next feature purely on account of its cleverness, despite the fact that it won't be available in any US models at launch (meaning, we couldn't test it). The app we're referring to is called Safety Assistance, a tool that you can break out if you find yourself in an emergency and need to broadcast your whereabouts (without using GPS, of course). Activating the service, which is done by holding down volume up and down for three seconds, will prompt the phone to take a picture from both cameras and automatically send them to a pre-determined contact. This will allow that person to see exactly where you're at. Hopefully it'll never have to be used, but something like this should be included on a large number of phones.
The Galaxy S 4 has another unique capability that we've yet to see elsewhere: compatibility with Mobeam. Never heard of it? No sweat. The startup makes it possible for any standard bar code scanner -- grocery stores are the most popular examples, but this could extend to any scenario -- to scan digital coupons stored on your smartphone. How is this done? It utilizes the proximity sensor built into the handset to bounce light into the scanner, mimicking the pattern of your coupon in the process. It's quite possible that we'll begin seeing this capability show up in more new devices (legacy phones can't be programmed with this feature), but the GS4 is the first to offer this particular functionality.
Finally, the GS4 includes a pair of features called Adapt Display and Adapt Sound which function exactly as the names imply: Display is a fancy auto brightness tool that figures out what you're viewing, as well as the environment you're in, and adjusts the screen brightness to fit your needs. Naturally, Adapt Sound is the audio equivalent of this feature and is capable of adjusting your music or audiobook volume as you change songs or videos, making the sound consistently optimized to your preferences.
Look ma, no S Pen!
One of the unique aspects of Samsung's Galaxy Note series is the S Pen, a stylus-like device that gives you new ways to interact with the screen. Thanks to the GS4's ultra-sensitive display, however, S Pen features are beginning to trickle down to more devices without actually needing to use the pen at all. The best example of this is Air View, which does many of the same things already accomplished on the Note 2, but with your finger acting as the S Pen. Hold one of your digits above the calendar to get a pop-up screen of the day's appointments, above your emails to see the first few lines of text (Gmail not included, sadly), above the browser to make the text larger and above the progress bar when watching movies to preview a scene.
Samsung's been adding fancy gesture- and motion-based tricks to its flagships for several years now, thanks to the large array of sensors made available to Android devices. In the case of the GS4, the company has incorporated a set of features called Air Gesture. We first saw a glimpse of this in the Note 2 with Quick Glance, but it's been greatly expanded this time around. Air Jump lets you do page-up and page-down scrolls by waving your hand up or down, while Air Browse will switch you from one browser tab to another when you wave your hand from side to side. And Air Move helps you relocate icons (namely, apps and calendar appointments) to other pages by holding them with one finger and waving your free hand left or right.
Finally, one last feature that's gained popularity in the Note series is Multi Window, and it's fully functional in the GS4. Press and hold the back button and a tab will magically appear. Tap on it to behold a sidebar of apps that support the feature. Since third-party developers have been doing an amazing job of hopping on board, plenty of applications are already compatible.
Samsung has been mass-producing 8-megapixel camera modules for its flagships ever since the Galaxy S 2, so it almost comes as a shock that the company is ready to push ahead with a 13-megapixel model. As our experience with the HTC One confirmed, megapixel count does not a great camera make, but it certainly can't hurt (in theory). And let's face it: potential buyers are more likely to see 13 megapixels as favorable to Samsung's previous 8MP modules -- especially when you compare it to the One's 4MP count, Ultrapixels or not.
Additionally, the GS4 rear camera lens uses an f/2.2 aperture, 4.235mm focal length and a 69-degree angular field of view; the 1/3.06-inch sensor offers a pixel size of 1.12 microns (compared to 2.0 microns on the One). Its 13MP resolution is set at an aspect ratio of 4:3, so 16:9 fans will need to go down to 9.6 megapixels for a widescreen option. On paper, the specs indicate a pretty solid setup for a flagship, but performance doesn't always match up with the specs -- especially now that we've used the One extensively and found it to be a bar-raiser in terms of its low-light results.
Samsung took one step forward and one step back with its camera UI. Mainstream users won't have any problem adjusting to the interface, a lot of which has been carried over from the Galaxy Camera: it consists of dual shutter buttons (one for stills and one for video, just like HTC's Sense UI), gallery access above and a button underneath that lets you choose from nine different modes, most of which we'll discuss in more detail shortly. Where it regresses from previous phones, however, is in the confusing settings menu, which is found on the top-left corner of the viewfinder. Press it once and you have a small list of shortcut options, as well as another gear icon indicating you have more settings to pick from (you can also access this menu a little more easily by hitting the menu key from the main viewfinder).
Some camera modes also include a downward arrow near the bottom of the viewfinder that features even more options to choose from. Since these menus are different with each corresponding mode -- and absent in some modes altogether -- it may take some getting used to. Speaking of which, let's dive into the new features Samsung has cooked up for the GS4.
New camera modes
As you can see, Samsung has built a reputation for offering a wide variety of lavish settings that give you an opportunity to tweak your images in a plethora of ways. With the GS4, it's actually expanding its efforts even more, as several new camera modes have been added to the mix. Many of them are great for showing off at parties with little usefulness elsewhere, but we found ourselves using a few of them on a more regular basis. We'll discuss each one in order of importance.
Dual-shot takes advantage of both cameras on the phone simultaneously. You now have the opportunity to shoot pictures or videos with the front and rear cameras at the same exact time, effectively creating a picture-in-picture effect similar to what we've already seen on the Optimus G Pro, as well as many televisions. The smaller frame -- which is the front camera view by default, though you can switch views easily at any time -- is resizable, can be moved to any part of the viewfinder and can take the form of a box, heart, stamp or Wizard of Oz-style floating cloud, amongst others. The GS4 even lets you do a split-screen effect, with half of the screen showing the front and the other half displaying the back. We know it's gimmicky, but it's one of our favorite features and we imagine plenty of people will find good use for it.
The GS4 also offers what we like to call "photobomb mode," officially known as Eraser. It takes a series of images for five seconds and gives you the ability to remove any objects that are moving in the background. Sound familiar? That's because it does exactly the same thing as Scalado Remove -- heck, we wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Samsung partnered with the company to make it happen. Regardless, this is a useful feature, but there are a couple drawbacks. First, you have to actually be in this mode for it to work; if you're in the standard camera mode and a photobomber decides to ruin your kids' only picture with Goofy at the happiest place on Earth, you're out of luck. Second, it occasionally acts finicky, which means that it doesn't always pick up every moving object.
Sound and Shot is a spiffy feature to show off to your friends, but we found no use for it otherwise. In this mode, the phone takes the picture and then records nine seconds of audio immediately following it; then, that recording will play back any time you view the image. The point of this is to capture memories of the event as it unfolds, but we had a difficult time figuring out many good use case scenarios for it.
Then there's Drama Shot, which also seems to have been designed specifically to bedazzle onlookers. It takes a series of burst shots -- ideally of a subject that's moving from one side of the viewfinder to the other -- and combines them into one image. Think of those old-fashioned "action shots" of sports stars like Michael Jordan going up for a slam dunk, and you'll get the idea. In fact, those frankly are the best use cases for this particular feature.
Most of Samsung's new camera modes are fun to use a few times, but offer little practical use.
The last mode we'll discuss is Animated Photo. With this, the camera takes a five-second video clip and lets you decide which parts of the screen to freeze and which ones to animate. You can choose to have the end result go in a forward or backward loop, or go crazy and have the clip go back and forth. In other words, this is your chance to make a really fancy GIF and have certain sections of the screen frozen in time. Something you'd use regularly? Probably not. A cool feature to have? Absolutely. If we're being honest, we had difficulty making anything look particularly artistic, but it's fun to try, at least. Sadly, though, there appears to be no way to go back and redo your masterpiece after it's been saved.
On top of this list of unique camera modes, the GS4 also offers HDR, Beauty Face, Best Face, Best Photo, Panorama, Sports and Night modes. Most of the scene modes we were accustomed to seeing in older Samsung phones are no longer present -- the autumn colors, backlight, candlelight, sunset and several others are now incorporated into the camera's auto mode, which means it's smart enough to select the best scene based on each individual situation.
We've covered Samsung's fancy feast of features ad nauseam, but as any photographer can attest to, those kinds of things don't guarantee high-quality and great-looking images. But on the GS4, can you have your cake and eat it too? Are its snazzy modes and settings compensating for a greater problem, or do they simply complement a solid imaging module?
The camera is very impressive in daylight use, but the One still wins in low light performance.
Fortunately, it appears to be option number two, though performance still isn't perfect. Let's get the bad out of the way: although Samsung advertises zero shutter lag, this only applies to objects that are already in focus. We had difficulty capturing moving objects (children, for instance) without those shots coming out blurry; we didn't experience this quite as frequently on the One.
One of the most important aspects of having a 13MP camera is the amount of detail it's capable of capturing, and the GS4 appears to grab just a little more of it than the same images taken by the One or the GS3. But the extra pixels do their best work when the shots are zoomed in; not only can the GS4 zoom in further than the One and GS3, it also allows for more cropping and presents more definition than the other aforementioned devices. Color reproduction is slightly oversaturated; dynamic range is noticeably better; and the images aren't as oversharpened as the One. When it comes to daylight imagery, Samsung's latest and greatest is pretty impressive, and bests the HTC One, which has been our favorite shooter on an Android device so far and still offers superb colors and natural light. For examples of low-light performance, we've included galleries of samples from both phones below so you can compare. (Update: we've also added the full-res versions of our samples to Flickr. Head here for the GS4 and here for the HTC One.)
There's one missing puzzle piece, however, and that's low-light performance. Can Samsung's latest and greatest hold a candle to a device that doesn't actually need any candles to pick up light? The good news is that the GS4 is better in this regard than any Samsung phone camera we've seen before, but it still can't outdo the One. In fact, HTC's Ultrapixel sensor picks up more errant light in its standard setting than the GS4 does in dedicated Night mode. That said, we noticed that the GS4 does a better job with what little amount of light it can grab, using its higher resolution to smooth out noise. Lastly, despite the fact that the One has an amazing LED flash, the GS4's is even brighter.
Video is captured at a maximum resolution of 1080p at 30 fps, and offers a bit rate of 17 Mbps. It's not a terrible camcorder replacement, but there's nothing about it that really stands out either. Ultimately, it's just your run-of-the-mill phone video capture. That said, the mic picked up excellent audio while filtering out most of the wind and other unwanted noise. The GS4 also has a stabilization feature that, much like you would see in post-production software, trims off the outer edges of the viewfinder, so those of you with shaky hands (this includes us, too) should consider at least giving it a chance. You'll also be able to play with fast-motion (2, 4 and 8x) and slow-motion (1/2, 1/4 and 1/8) settings for quality entertainment purposes.
If the endless buffet of fabulous camera features isn't enough of an indication, we'll clue you in: Samsung's no stranger to imagery extravagance, especially when it comes to producing the actual masterpiece. The exception to this rule, however, is in its post-production features. Aside from the usual set of editing tools, Sammy hasn't done much to stand out from the crowd. As a method of changing that, the GS4 comes with a new app called Story Album, which is a lovechild of a partnership Samsung created with self-publishing outfit Blurb. The service does exactly what the name implies; in short, you bundle a bunch of pictures together, create a photo album out of them and then use your phone to order a physical, professional-style version of that collection -- whether it be in hardcover, softcover or magazine format. Pick one of five layout designs, add your own captions and select which images you want to include in the album. Blurb claims that these photo books will be offered in up to 75 countries, so pricing may vary -- in the US, you're looking at a minimum of $9 for a 20-page 5 x 5-inch book. We enjoyed slapping together a bunch of albums, though sadly we haven't had enough time to order one yet.
Performance and battery life
Generally speaking, flagships feature the latest and greatest components available at the time of their release. As you may have guessed, the Galaxy S 4 continues that tradition, as evidenced by both everyday performance and synthetic benchmarks. This particular smartphone comes in two distinct flavors: one that uses a 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset and one that debuts Samsung's octa-core Exynos 5 chip clocked at 1.6GHz, the latter of which takes four Cortex-A15 processors and pairs them up with four A7s. Despite the fact that the Exynos chip offers LTE compatibility in all 20 frequencies, the US carriers have all gone with the Snapdragon model.
As a result, our conclusions on the phone's performance are based on tests with the Snapdragon 600, which is paired with an Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB RAM. This is the same chip the HTC One and LG Optimus G Pro use, though the GS4 is clocked at a faster speed than both of them. The CPU features Krait 300 -- a bump from the S4 Pro's Krait 200, which results in a 15 percent improvement in instructions per clock (IPC) and a "speed-enhanced" Adreno 320 GPU. The 600 is also built using a 28nm process, just like the S4 Pro, and offers 802.11ac support (in addition to the standard suite of a/b/g/n). How does it hold up against the One, and what kind of improvement does the GS4 have over the GS3? The table below holds the answers, so let's take a quick look.
Samsung Galaxy S 4
Samsung Galaxy S III
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark Egypt 2.5 HD Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better. Samsung Galaxy S III was benchmarked on Android 4.1.
Although it's only been one year since the Galaxy S III was launched, the smartphone industry has been the proud recipient of some hefty improvements in processing power -- and it's not over yet. The once-dominating force of a Snapdragon S4 chipset is now eclipsed by the Snapdragon 600, and we have a feeling history will repeat itself later this year as soon as the 800 is unleashed into the world. Think about it: out of the six benchmarks above, the GS4 managed to set records in five of them, with the One (the previous record-breaker) not too far behind.
The GS4 holds the record in five of our six benchmark tests.
In our review of the HTC One, we witnessed one of the most powerful smartphones we've ever used -- and since it uses the same chipset clocked at a higher frequency, the Galaxy S 4 is in similar territory. In general, the GS4 performs amazingly well, but there's a catch: when Air View and Air Gestures were enabled, we noticed the phone acting a little sluggish even in the most basic of tasks. It would complete those tasks every time, but we couldn't help but notice some stuttering. This seems to indicate that Sammy's razzle-dazzle features are processor hogs and aren't worth enabling unless you use them on a frequent basis (as unlikely as that may seem). On the gaming side, the Adreno 320 works just as well here as it did on the One; while GLBenchmark ranks the GS4 higher, you likely won't be able to tell a large difference when playing more graphic-intense titles like Riptide or Asphalt 7.
Samsung's bumped its battery capacity to 2,600mAh (up from 2,100mAh on the GS3), but its more elaborate componentry (higher-res screen, better camera and more powerful processor) tend to suck down more energy. With this balance in mind, we weren't surprised to find that battery life measured by our rundown test (video looping with 50 percent brightness and other standardized settings) was only marginally better. All told, it made it through one complete cycle in nine hours and 15 minutes. If we're comparing T-Mobile versions, this means the GS4 bested the GS3 by 17 minutes. This is also above average for an early-2013 flagship phone; since we're in the habit of comparing to HTC's pride and joy, the One snagged six and a half hours on the same test. In full disclosure, we weren't able to test out the GS4 in an LTE area, though the phone had a full HSPA+ signal. As for real life, we typically got around 14 or 15 hours of regular usage before it was time to recharge. This means that power users should be able to make it through a full workday with a little extra to spare for the commute, and nearly everyone else will likely get pretty close to bedtime before the phone gets in the red.
On a full day of regular use, the GS4 managed to last for around 14-15 hours.
When we used the GS4 for making calls, the volume was loud, though still slightly quieter than on the One and iPhone 5. We could hear the person on the other fine, and they in turn couldn't tell when we were walking down a busy street, thanks to the phone's noise-cancellation capabilities. The external speakers used are louder than the GS3, but not as loud as the One's BoomSound stereo offerings.
When a device has several variants, network performance is tricky to define, at least with one review unit. Samsung offers up to six possible sets of radio frequencies, so it's ultimately up to individual operators to decide which one works best for their network. For example, T-Mobile and AT&T both have quad-band LTE (bands 2, 4, 5 and 17) and quad-band GSM / EDGE, but T-Mo offers 850 / AWS / 1900 / 2100 DC-HSPA+ up to 42 Mbps while AT&T's HSPA+ bands cover 850 / 1900 / 2100. (As an aside, T-Mobile confirmed to us that its LTE antenna operates with 5-20MHz bandwidth.) Verizon and Sprint both use 850 / 1900 CDMA / EVDO as well as 850 / 1900 GSM / EDGE / UMTS / HSPA+, though Big Red's option offers LTE in bands 4 and 13 (700 / AWS) while Sprint uses band 25 (1900). The Now Network uses a removable SIM and will unlock global GSM roaming after the first 90 days of service; we expect Verizon to offer international roaming as well, but we've yet to receive confirmation. The mainstream global models, the Snapdragon 600-powered I9505 and Exynos-powered I9500, offer quad-band GSM / EDGE, quad-band HSPA+ (850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100) and up to six LTE bands. All of this is a long way of saying that data performance will vary on which particular model you use, although our T-Mobile unit got speeds that were in line with the GS3 and other comparable flagship phones using the same network.
In drawing our conclusion of the Samsung Galaxy S 4, we find ourselves at an interesting junction: while our geek senses keep tingling at the thought of so many market-topping specs contained within the same chassis, we also aren't overjoyed, per se, with excitement. The design doesn't feel fresh, especially not next to the HTC One, but we can't deny that it's an improvement over the GS3. On the plus side, it has better battery life, the same smooth performance and a beautiful display, and a few diehards will like its inclusion of microSDXC and a removable battery cell. Software-wise, Samsung's brand-new features are innovative and clever, yet most of them don't solve any actual UX problems; they seem impractical and are (in some cases) less convenient than tried-and-true methods we've used in the past.
If you're considering a move from an older Samsung device, the GS4 is absolutely the handset you want. Your learning curve will be minimal thanks to TouchWiz's consistent UI, and besides, it's generally a great smartphone -- heck, the phone itself is the best Samsung handset we've used to date, and it'll definitely give the One a run for its money. All told, both phones have different strengths and weaknesses, so one handset unfortunately won't fit all. But when we compare it to the eye-catching look and feel of the One, we can't help but think of one word to describe Samsung's particular flagship entry: predictable.