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marc

April 24th 2013 4:17 pm

When is the "best" smartphone not the best choice?


We just scored the Samsung Galaxy S4, a smartphone that critics are calling "one of the best phones you can buy," and "the best Android phone on the market right now." And, as befits a phone with such accolades, we gave the S4 a gdgt Score of 92, and awarded it a Must-have badge, as we had done with its predecessor, the Galaxy S III.

However, we could have gone the other way, and withheld the Must-have status. The fact is, as many critics pointed out, the S4 is far from a revolutionary step forward in smartphone design or technology. Yes, it has a neat new touch-free feature, which lets you access certain functions by hovering your finger over the screen -- something that will be a boon to anyone who needs to use their phone while wearing gloves or eating chicken wings. And, yes, it has expandable storage and a removable battery, things some other premium smartphones -- most notably the iPhone 5 and HTC One -- lack.

As much as Samsung might hope, the S4 isn't an iPhone killer -- or even an HTC One killer.

Most critics like, but don't love, the Galaxy S4, and prefer the HTC One, with its emphasis on class-leading industrial design and user interface tweaks that actually improve the phone's usability. Samsung, on the other hand, chose to focus mainly on features with dubious real-world value, including the ability to scroll through content by tilting the phone, or pause videos by looking away from the phone's screen.

None of these missteps mean the S4 isn't a great smartphone. After all, Samsung loaded the S III with similar forgettable gimmicks -- remember the ads showing people sharing content by tapping their phones together? how often have you done that in real life? -- and that didn't stop it from being one of the best-selling smartphones in history. And the S4 is every bit as great a phone as the S III, with an amazing display, a very good camera, and some genuinely useful features you won't find on many other phones. However, as Gizmodo puts it, the S4 comes very close to being the best Android smartphone on the market, and "one can't help but think that had Samsung poured all of its innovation into maximizing the practical user experience—instead of highly ignorable gimmicks—it might have taken the crown." (gizmodo.com­/5995291­/samsung­-galaxy­-s4­-review­-bette...)

Should you buy the Galaxy S4? If you want a phone with a big, super-sharp 1080p screen (its display is 5 inches, compared to the HTC One's 4.7), yes. If you want expandable storage or a removable battery, yes. If you're a Verizon customer -- the carrier isn't offering the One -- yes. If you're a fan of Samsung's user interface customizations, or already own some other Samsung devices that you'd like the phone to interact with, yes. In just about every way, this is a great Android smartphone, and you won't regret buying it. But be sure to check out the HTC One while you're shopping. And don't be surprised if you find yourself stuck deciding between the two.

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16 replies
IdoTDW

The best phone is not the best choice when it's...
  • too big. When the Galaxy Note II was launched, it was most definitely the best and most advanced smartphone, at least technically speaking. But it didn't get a 90+ gdgt Score for a reason: Most people can't seem to find a way to use it as a smartphone.
  • overpriced, or just plain expensive. The iPhone 5 is a superb handset, without a doubt. But it costs almost $100 more than the HTC One (unlocked), with less storage capacity. The One is by far the superior device out of the two, unless it fits into the first bullet-point for the potential buyer.
  • running outdated software while being forced to a multi-year carrier-commitment. Signing a two-year contract with a carrier when buying a phone that's working on Android Ice Cream Sandwich is not a smart move, at least if that phone fits into the $99+ price range (with a US-carrier two-year contract). Buying a Windows Phone 7.X handset is even worse. But then again, no phone that's geared to be one of the best smartphones in the world runs outdated software.
  • not equipped with good-enough support, customer service and repair services. Though the best smartphones don't usually suffer from these things - they depend on the seller; if the purchase is made through the carrier, the manufacturer itself or its other authorized resellers, you can rest assured that this will not be present.
  • not user-friendly enough. Once again, this is never a problem with high-end smartphones that are supposed to be among the best in the industry.
  • lacking in features you need. If you need great audio quality, you'll purchase the HTC One. If a high-resolution camera is what you're after, then the Galaxy S4 is obviously the better choice. (Apple's iPhone 5 fits somewhere in the middle, with very good audio quality, and a fantastic 8-megapixel camera - a higher resolution the the One's camera, but still lower than that of the Galaxy S4.)
3 like dislike
Met

For your last bullet point, I'd like to note that resolution isn't everything. The HTC One has the best camera of the 3 by a long shot! Here's a good comparison: www.cnet.com­/8301­-17918­_1­-57581522­-85­/samsung­-gala...
2 like dislike
hel

That review actually rates the One as having the worst camera of the three. And I'd be very curious to see the couple dark pics if they'd put the GS4 into night mode.
1 like dislike
IdoTDW

You can easily see that the HTC One's camera is far from the best at adequate lighting, but at any harsh lighting conditions, it's second-to-none, surpassing even Nokia'sgreatest offerings. You're right, the pixel count is far from telling the whole story. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the fewer pixels, the better. It obviously can't be a severely low number, as that would cost in detail and overall clarity, especially when using the digital zoom. 4 megapixels is stressing it for my taste. I believe that the perfect balance is like that in Nokia's Lumia 720, which sports a 6.6 megapixel camera if I'm not mistaken.
0 like dislike
Thullraven

I agree with you for the most part, although Met is right about the camera on The HTC One. To me, if anyone is that much into photography they need a dedicated camera because all these devices take excellent pictures for a casual shooter. Also I might add, Not Vastly Superior Or Different Than Model being Replaced. As Amazinpack mentioned, The GS4 is more of an upgrade to The GS3. it looks basically the same, improves features, and adds more software gimmicks which The GS3 will get over time anyway. IMHO, not worth the price off contract as it is an evolution, not a new model. It would be geared for GS2 users coming off contract.
0 like dislike
hel

I find the GS4 camera, when *not* in full auto mode, to be better than any point & shoot I ever owned, and remarkably comparable to my (6 year old) canon dslr with a standard 18-55 lens on it. Honestly, I think that cnet camera comparison really did *all* the phones a disservice by not at least tapping the screen to set the focal point, or engaging each phone's night mode for the low light tests.

I'm not sure the GS3 will ever get the "hover" features the GS4 has, as I understand these are a hardware difference. (I may be wrong tho, perhaps it's simply having bumped the screen touch sensitivity.) The scrolling/swiping features don't do much for me, cos they're not "natural" motions (not for me anyway), but "hover for info" is useful, and come winter, I'm sure the "read touches even through gloves" will be really useful. The screen acknowledges touches even with my finger about 3 centimeters from the screen, so I'm sure it'll read through gloves with no problems.

I think you might not be giving enough credit to the GS4 having improved hardware over the GS3. Better CPU, larger & higher res screen. I think the RAM might be faster too, cos my 4.2.2 stock+samsung GS4 does all the things I do daily faster than my 4.2.2 CyanogenModded GS3 did. Tho maybe that's just the faster processor. But faster responses from apps, and faster switching between apps, is really nice.

I'm not saying the GS4 is a revolutionary upgrade, I think evolutionary is a good description. But it's more than just software. I'd say it's about equally software and hardware upgrades. I'll actually be kind of disappointed if the GS5 tries to do all new stuff, instead of further improving what they've got, cos all new stuff tends to have all new bugs and glitches and poor design.
1 like dislike
Thullraven

I'm sure you're right about the camera, Hel, but I don't take a lot of pictures so the GS3 is just fine for me. Cell phone cameras on all the high end models are starting to rival basic and mid range cameras, but for a pro, they'll get a high end camera. As for the other improvements, still not enough to justify getting off contract. Remember, in 2012 the GS3 was the King Of The Hill. From what my sources tell me, The GS5 (when it comes eventually) will be a re-design of some sort. To what extent, I don't know.
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IdoTDW

I don't think that Samsung ever intended that current Galaxy S III owners would upgrade to the Galaxy S4. They've taken an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach that Apple has really made acceptable. But Apple's way of doing these incremental changes is much more extreme: while all Apple does is improve the chipset and the camera with every second device, Samsung enlarged the screen in both size and resolution, made the handset thinner and lighter, and changed the design (quite subtly) by decreasing the large curves and making some sort of a pattern on the back, though the latter only changes the looks while keeping the controversial slick polycarbonate shell.
1 like dislike
Thullraven

From what I heard, you're right. The GS4 was designed for GS2 owners to upgrade more than GS3 owners.
0 like dislike
Thullraven

The GS4 is great, but not so much better than my GS3 to justify the expense off contract. Also, I have an extended battery on my GS3, so battery life isn't much of a problem. Yeah, sure, the GS4 is slightly superior specs wise, but in real world use, I don't think the average user will really notice. Also, most of the software features on the GS4 will come to the GS3 eventually.
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hel

Thullraven-I upgraded to the GS4 from a GS3, and have definitely noticed a difference. The display and camera alone are significantly better IMO, and the stock+samsung OS is running better than my cyanogen-ed GS3 did.

I am perhaps not exactly the average user tho, as my husband has often said that flashing new ROMs to my phone is my most often engaged in hobby. But I think any suer would notice the display and camera differences.
1 like dislike
Thullraven

I kinda go with Amazinpack on this. Hel, I'm with you when your saying the display and camera are better. I have no doubt they are better, but to me, The GS3 is still pretty good. Also, with the money I've spent on extended batteries, covers, and a custom designed skin, it's not worth the price to get a GS4 for me. I like having a good, solid device and The GS3 is that. It's so hard to have "The Latest and Greatest" when 6 months down the road something with better specs comes out. It's especially true where Android is concerned. Thanks for giving your feedback, but I think that for the time being, I'll wait for The GS5 :)
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Lsolar

Can you get a GS3 at online At&T store without having to pay an upgrade ?, I know that you will have to re-up the contract though which kinda stinks ?
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Thullraven

Probably not. I usually upgrade through Best Buy Mobile Online and get really good deals on the phones. You may be able to get out of the upgrade fee at an AT&T Store in person, but that's probably the only way.
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amazinpack

FOR SMARTPHONES IN GENERAL, YOU HAVE TO MAKE A CHOICE. DO YOU WANT THE IMPROVED VERSION OF A PHONE, OR THE COMPLETE NEW DESIGN? EXAMPLE iPHONE 4S WAS AN IMPROVEMENT OF THE IPHONE 4, AS IS THE GS4 TO THE GS3. BUT THE iPHONE 5 WAS A COMPLETE REDESIGN OF THE 4S, AS IS THE GS3 TO THE GS2.

IMPROVED VERSION WILL ALWAYS HAVE THAT JUST ABOUT THE SAME FACTOR TO THEM. BUT MANY TIMES, AND ESP. IN THE CASE OF THE GS4, IT IS THE SUPER AWESOME PHONE LIKE THE GS3, JUST IMPROVED! CAN'T GET BETTER THAN THAT.

COMPLETE NEW DESIGN WILL ALWAYS HAVE THAT NEW FEELING TO THEM. EVERYONE WILL BE LIKE "WHERE'D YOU GET THAT?". DOWNFALLS TO THAT ARE THAT PROBLEMS ARISE WITH NEW DESIGNS, MOST OF THE TIME. PROBLEMS THAT ARE FIXED IN THE IMPROVED VERSION.

SO DO YOU WANT A BETTER/IMPROVED VERSION OF LAST YEAR'S PHONE? OR DO YOU WANT THE NEW THING, THAT MAY HAVE SOME ISSUES?

YOUR CHOICE.

and
you're welcome
0 like dislike
Met

WHY ARE YOU SHOUTING AT US?!
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