Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: small in size, but not worth the mega price

Despite how the saying goes, bigger isn't always better -- and that's especially true in the mobile industry, where companies have produced smartphones with larger and larger screens. While that does seem to be the latest trend, a few manufacturers haven't forgotten that there are a ton of smartphone users out there who prefer using something that actually fits in the palm of their hand. Unfortunately, those folks don't have a flagship Android device to call their own, but Samsung is hopeful that its latest 4.3-inch beauty, the Galaxy S4 Mini, will at least suffice as a solid middle-tier option. But will shoppers be bothered by the fact that it lacks many of the top-end components we enjoy on devices like the Samsung GS4? Our friends at Negri Electronics, who are selling the device for $520, were kind enough to let us have some one-on-one time with the petite handset. Read on to get our take.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review

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Hardware

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Since the Galaxy S4 Mini bears the same name as the flagship device released earlier this year, it should simply be a miniaturized version, right? Not so fast. While the Mini -- which comes in both black and white color options -- possesses many of the same traits as its elder sibling, they're mostly related to external design and basic firmware. On the outside, the family resemblance is obvious. The front features a camera on the top-right corner, with a hardware home button on the bottom flanked by two capacitive keys (menu and back), while the back houses the 8-megapixel camera and LED flash in the same vertical arrangement as on the GS4. The sides are essentially the same, with the micro-USB port on the bottom, volume rocker on the left, power button on the right and headphone jack / IR blaster up top. It also takes advantage of the same build techniques as the GS4, which means you're once again getting a polycarbonate construction and checkerboard pattern.

In terms of hardware, that's ultimately where the commonalities cease. As you'd expect, the 4.3-inch Mini is much easier to handle than anything with a 5-inch screen or larger. After reviewing so many big smartphones, we find it a little weird to switch back to a device that our fingers can actually wrap around. At 124.6 x 61.3 x 8.9 mm, it's shorter, narrower and thicker than the GS4, but all of these measurements lead to more rounded edges and a stronger grip as a result. In humid climates, this actually comes in quite handy, as the slippery contours of the phone would make it much easier to pop right out of our sweaty hands -- an issue we sometimes encountered with the GS4. It's also incredibly light, weighing in at just 3.77 ounces (107g).

Underneath the 1,900mAh battery, you'll find a micro-SIM slot and a microSD reader -- the latter on top of the former -- which is a change from the GS4's layout (the two slots were set apart from each other and could be accessed without yanking out the battery). Under the hood is a dual-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon 400, a clear downgrade from any of the original GS4's chipset options. NFC, Bluetooth, IR and WiFi are all included as well, though 802.11ac isn't an option here. The Mini also features a scant 8GB of internal storage, which doesn't leave much room for your own personal enjoyment, especially after you take into account both the OS and Samsung's TouchWiz UI.

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The model we reviewed was the I9195, which is the LTE version (it also comes in dual-SIM and 3G-only variants). It sports bands 3, 7 and 20 (800 / 1800 / 2600), which are primarily used in Europe and other countries around the world. You'll also get quad-band HSPA+ (850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100) with speeds up to 42 Mbps. GSM / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900) is also part of the deal, ensuring that North American users / travelers will get somewhat decent data speeds.

One of our biggest hardware gripes is the lackluster 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display with qHD (960 x 540) resolution, which translates to a pixel density of 256 pixels per inch. Needless to say, this is a considerable drop in quality from the GS4, whose screen resolution is a full 1080p. The majority of the phone's other specs are at least somewhat enticing for most average users, so we're not sure why Samsung chose to cut corners in this department (just for comparison, the HTC One mini features a 720p S-LCD3 display). Unless the company just had a bunch of stockpiled qHD panels it was trying to get rid of; that would sort of make sense, given that the Galaxy S4 Zoom also uses the same display.

Fortunately, there's a silver lining here. Despite the lack of sharpness and resolution, the display at least offers above-average viewing angles and is moderately easy to read at full brightness in direct sunlight (though we can't say the same when you turn the brightness setting down).

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini
Dimensions 124.6 x 61.3 x 8.94mm (4.91 x 2.41 x 0.35 inches)
Weight 3.77 oz. (107g)
Screen size 4.3 inches
Screen resolution 960 x 540 (256 ppi)
Screen type Super AMOLED
Battery 1,900mAh Li-Polymer (removable)
Internal storage 8GB
External storage MicroSD / MicroSDXC
Rear camera 8MP
Front-facing cam 1.9MP
Video capture 1080p, 30 fps (back) 720p (front)
NFC Yes
Radios Depends on market -- see hardware section
Bluetooth v4.0
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 (MSM8930AB)
CPU 1.7GHz dual-core
GPU Adreno 305
RAM 1.5GB
Entertainment MHL, DLNA, IR sensor
WiFi Dual-band, 802.11a/b/g/n, WiFi Direct
Wireless Charging No
Operating system Android 4.2.2, TouchWiz UI

Software

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini screenshots

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In many ways, Samsung smartphones running TouchWiz are just like Windows Phones in the sense that the user experience is incredibly consistent from one device to another. The Mini, which runs Android 4.2.2 with Sammy's proprietary user interface on top, felt very familiar to us after having reviewed the GS4 and the Galaxy Mega. While some original GS4 features have been included in the Mini, however, even more were left out. That said, we don't take much issue there, since we found most of those features to only be ideal for a few niche users and are more processor-intensive than they're worth, but we can't argue that there are some people who would find them useful.

So, what features didn't make the cut? Air View, Air Gestures, most Smart features (such as Smart Scroll, Smart Pause and Smart Rotation) and several camera modes. It does, however, offer live thumbnails in the video app, as well as pop-up movies so you can watch something while doing actual work getting other tasks taken care of.

Otherwise, the Mini offers nothing we haven't seen before. This is the same old TouchWiz, which makes sense, since Samsung usually waits for the flagship devices to unveil brand-new features. You'll notice that Group Play, S Translator, S Health, S Travel, S Voice, Smart Stay, S Memo, WatchOn, Samsung Link and the Samsung Hub are all there. Long-pressing the menu key takes you into Google Now, while the same action on the home button will pull up recent apps. However, doing this on the back button results in nothing at all; this is normally reserved on TouchWiz for Multi-Window, but Samsung probably decided that the experience wouldn't be worthwhile on a smaller device.

Camera

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Much like Samsung's other mid-tier smartphones in 2013, the Mini comes packed with an 8MP rear camera as well as a 1.9MP front-facing selfie-shooter. With it you'll enjoy the full suite of adjustable settings, such as white balance, ISO, exposure, HDR and a large number of filters and modes. Images at the camera's highest resolution are 4:3, though a 16:9 option is available using 6MP.

The user interface should be familiar to anyone who's played with a GS4 or other recent Samsung device. You'll find the shutter keys for both stills and video on the right rail, while filters peek out at you from an arrow at the bottom of the viewfinder. Settings can be accessed either from a button on the top-left corner or by pressing the menu key. While the phone doesn't feature a hardware shutter key, the settings allow you to convert the volume rocker into one.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini sample shots

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As it turns out, there aren't any major surprises when it comes to image quality, either. Pictures tend to be slightly oversaturated, though most of the shots we took were at least detailed. Often, the camera had difficulty reconciling areas of low and high exposure within the same shot, so we had to rely on HDR to balance the two -- fortunately, images looked great in this mode, and we didn't hesitate to use it in multiple situations. We were a bit disappointed that the Mini has a shutter lag of roughly two seconds, which becomes a problem when you're trying to take pictures of moving objects -- or children. (This was also a concern with the GS4.)

Low-light pictures look pretty dark on auto settings, but Night Mode enhances images by grabbing more errant light while also reproducing colors in an accurate way. There's still a lot of noise, although we believe the performance in that regard is on par for a device in this class.

We were also impressed by the quality of our sample video footage. The rear camcorder records movies at a max resolution of 1080p with 30 fps frame rate and 17.1 Mbps bit rate. When we played our masterpieces on a computer, it appeared much closer to actual HD quality than what we've seen from comparable devices. Touch focus is an option here, though continuous autofocus is the default setting. We were also incredibly happy with how well the audio turned out (recorded at 128 Kbps with 48 kHz sampling rate); in the sample video embedded above, we were situated right next to the loudspeakers, yet the recorded sound was clear and not at all overbearing.

Performance and battery life

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The Galaxy S4 Mini uses a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 (MSM8930AB), which is the same 28nm Krait 300 chipset used in the Galaxy Mega, and comes with Adreno 305 GPU and 1.5GB RAM. It's a responsive handset that comes with few hiccups, though we did see it sputter on occasion when we pushed it with processor-intensive tasks. Otherwise, most people will get the type of mid-range performance expected of a device like the Mini. In fact, this should be right on par with the HTC One mini, though it benefits from having an extra bit of RAM at its disposal. Take a look at the full suite of benchmark tests below, all of which confirm what we suspected: this is very much a mid-range device, and one that will hold up against most things you throw at it, even if it doesn't come anywhere close to its namesake.

GS4 Mini GS4 (S600) Galaxy Mega
Quadrant 2.0 7,250 12,684 7,192
Vellamo 2.0 1,980 1,903 1,993
AnTuTu 3.2 13,732 26,143 13,627
SunSpider 1.0 (ms) 1,142 632 769
GLBenchmark Egypt 2.5 HD Offscreen (fps) 17 39 16
CF-Bench 13,646 28,111 13,342
SunSpider: lower scores are better

We had no problem making it through a full day on a charge; we typically had a small amount of the 1,900mAh battery left when it was time to plug the Mini in for bedtime. This was with moderate usage, though, so those of you who are hard on your devices may find that you'll need to give your phone an electric pickup shortly after arriving home at the end of your shift. Our video-looping test, which involves running a 1080p video continuously at 50 percent brightness (with a smattering of other standardized settings), yielded seven hours and 16 minutes of life before the phone died.

Call quality was clear, and we had no problem hearing voices on the other end, thanks to the loud speakerphone and above-average earpiece. The GPS tracked our position in a matter of seconds; videos and music played smoothly; and we enjoyed our time listening to media through headphones. On a random note, the vibrate function on the Mini was one of the strongest we've used in recent memory; turn it on and there'll be no mistaking when a new notification has arrived.

Pricing and comparison

The GS4 brand is one of the best-known on the market, and as a result you're paying a bit of a premium for the privilege. The Mini is geared toward mid-range buyers, but with its cost hovering around the $500 mark, it's a bit more spendy than other phones with similar specs. The Galaxy S III, for instance, offers the same rear camera, a better display (albeit a larger screen, but just for sake of comparison), more internal storage, North American LTE options and retails for around $430 to $450. The HTC First, meanwhile, can be found for around $250 on Amazon and takes advantage of a Snapdragon 400 chipset, 4.3-inch 720p display, stock Android and more internal storage; the compromise here is the lack of microSD support, an older version of Google's mobile OS and lower-res camera. These aren't the only options: the list goes on and less expensive alternatives are numerous, and in most cases we find it difficult to recommend the Mini's higher cost to consumers who are in the market for a mid-range device.

Wrap-up

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As much as we'd like to see a device that fits the literal description of the Galaxy S4 Mini -- you know, a phone that's all but identical to the original GS4, just smaller -- Samsung clearly had something else in mind. Instead, the Mini is meant for those who love the GS4 design and firmware but are looking for a lower price point. To that end, the company has mostly succeeded, with the exception of that poor display. Indeed, our experience with the device was on par with most other mid-range handsets we've tested. Sadly, the cost is a little too steep when compared to similar devices, so definitely weigh your options closely before plunking down the cash.

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Samsung

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini

Pros

  • Solid camera with great video recording
  • Overall performance is decent for a mid-range phone
  • Easy and comfortable to hold

Cons

  • Display could be better
  • Priced too high for intended audience
  • Limited internal storage
Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini is a solid mid-range device, but you can buy similar phones for less -- or better ones for not much more.

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: small in size, but not worth the mega price