Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Small but equally compelling

Reviews Paul Briden 12:39, 27 Nov 2013

How does the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini stand up in the compact smartphone market?

Rating: 
3.5
Typical Price: 
£360.00
Pros: 
Sleek and compact design, Nice display, Fast performance, Good camera, Great battery life
Cons: 
Small screen size makes it a bit pokey, Poor keyboard, Tacky feel
Verdict: 
A great all rounder and an excellent choice for those wanting a slice of the Samsung pie at a lower cost. Has some imperfections and there are cheaper Android alternatives around, but apart from that it's a fantastic little device.

Providing a miniaturised or ‘compact’ version of flagship smartphones is an increasingly popular move for phone manufacturers, but Samsung’s relatively well versed in the practice by now having already done it with the older Samsung Galaxy S3 and having an extensive back catalogue of compacts.

So, has the Korean giant managed to refine the formula with its latest attempt? Read on to find out.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Design

I’ve been pretty outspoken in the past about Samsung’s Galaxy design ethos which, for me, is something of a double-edged sword and one which consistently applies from one device to the next. They all share the same set of attributes.

At first glance I can say that, like the full size Samsung Galaxy S4, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini is quite impressive to behold. The front fascia is nicely proportioned while the display-to-bodywork ratio creates a flattering appearance. Rounded corners are elegantly shaped and the whole device looks neat.

The bezel along either side is very narrow, which keeps things looking sleek and modern. The silvery metallic-looking bezel, while actually plastic, keeps things premium and sharp and works well with other shiny accents on the speaker grille and around the home button.

It’s not the thinnest device on the market, but at 8.9mm it is reasonably svelte. It’s also lightweight at 107g and well-balanced in the hand. Build quality is solid, as there’s zero flex in the chassis if you give it a good squeeze.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini certainly feels comfortable in the hand and it’s easy to operate with your thumb thanks to the 4.3-inch display. Buttons are well placed just as with other Samsung Galaxy models with the power on the right and the volume rocker on the left, a setup which works just as well in either hand.

The fly in the ointment is, as always, Samsung’s choice of finish. While the plastic stands up to knocks and scrapes it has a cheap feel to it with a slippery and shiny texture and a tacky tactile sensation.

Since this review went live, the Carphone Warehouse has begun selling the S4 mini in a number of different colours. In addition to the original black and white models, you can now get it in pink and purple. Orange is to follow on December 6.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Display

Samsung’s displays have gone from strength-to-strength with recent models and the Galaxy S4 Mini doesn’t disappoint on this front. It has a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED panel but it’s a non-Pentile setup which is incredibly bright. This means that, surprisingly, it’s rather adept at outdoor use in bright sunlight, particularly on the brightest setting but the device does cope reasonably well even with auto settings and at around half brightness.

Of particular note is the adaptive screen capabilities Samsung has introduced, which really are of benefit – as well as adjusting brightness levels depending on ambient light, the software will also change things like the keyboard colour and brightness to make it more usable in low-light conditions, and this does make a tremendous difference to usability.

Colour and contrast are both very strong, as you might expect, while clarity is also excellent. For those who like their numbers, the resolution is 960x540 at 256 pixels-per-inch (ppi). The Galaxy S4 Mini also does well when it comes to viewing angles.

Essentially I found this display left very little wanting in terms of quality. There is of course the issue of scale. At 4.3-inches it is easy to use with one hand – opening menus and switching between homescreens, for instance – but it’s fair to say that the keyboard is a little pokey. I also found it very rewarding for watching videos and multimedia, again due to the quality and robustness of the picture, but the caveat is that a bigger display would of course be preferable for such activities.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Hardware, software and performance

Samsung has now got the cohesion between processing hardware, Google’s Android platform and its own TouchWiz UI down to a fine art with recent models and this is just as evident on the Galaxy S4 Mini as anywhere else.

The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 dual-core chip clocked at 1.7GHz, with 1.5GB of RAM and an Adreno 305 graphics processing unit (GPU). Now, that’s a far cry from the Samsung Galaxy S4 flagship’s quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 at 1.9GHz with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 320 GPU, but the point here is that despite that apparent gap in the hardware there’s virtually no noticeable difference in performance from a day-to-day use perspective.

Performance is, in a word, stunning. The phone simply glides effortlessly from one screen to the next, multitasking never misses a beat, widgets tick away happily and apps work exactly as they should.

Just as with its other devices, Samsung’s TouchWiz interface is quite different from stock Android and the manufacturer has certainly got in there and messed around with quite a lot of stuff.

Samsung has its own app icons and menu elements. There’s an immediate set of quick shortcuts in the drop-down notification menu, which I actually prefer, and green highlights take the place of Android’s turquoise shade. Moving into the main settings menu you’ll now find it’s paginated between a set of tabs.

A few of annoying foibles include the fact that Samsung still refuses to use Google’s persistent search bar widget hovering at the top on all homescreens.

Another issue is that the app drawer icon is stuck on the right hand side of the app tray, rather than centrally as with stock Android. You can't move it. There's also a bit of wasted space above the drawer – about an app icon's worth – which is a shame. On the whole it’s a relatively cohesive approach although some will likely find it a little too noisy and garish. Personally, we prefer HTC's Sense UX but if you cannot abide either there's a variety of Launcher apps readily avaiable inside Google Play. 

In terms of added jazz you’ve got Samsung S-Beam for NFC and Wi-Fi transfer, Smart Stay, Voice control, Group Play and a few camera functions which I’ll detail later.

Onto the benchmarks and the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini performs as admirably. Quadrant clocked in at 6832, above the HTC One X, while AnTuTu gave an impressive 14879 and five star rating, outpacing the Google Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 tablets. Not bad. 

While AnTuTu put the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2 out in front, Vellamo had other ideas. The handset scored 696, again ahead of the HTC One X and Motorola’s Razr i, but also the Galaxy S3.

The Galaxy S4 Mini has 8GB of onboard storage and while only 5GB is user accessible I didn’t encounter any problems with space shortages.

That said, I should clarify my app usage is not exactly extensive, being largely limited to social networking apps like Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Tumblr and, reluctantly, Candy Crush Saga for the purposes of appeasing persistent requests for more lives from friends and family.

Add to that the aforementioned benchmarking apps and that doesn’t take much of a bite out of the available space.

For multimedia buffs the presence of microSD support for cards up to 64GB is sure to be a boon for songs, films and the like

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Connectivity and web

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini seriously impressed me on the connectivity front, not only does it have NFC, microUSB, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and a full complement of Wi-Fi (Direct, Hotspot) and DLNA, but it has some of the best data connectivity I’ve encountered to date.

It supports 4G LTE and HSPA+ and provided an incredibly consistent and reliable HSPA+ connection at very fast speeds on Orange’s network in Central and North London. Bearing in mind several other phones I’ve used in recent months in the same areas and on the same SIM card have been highly temperamental in this regard, I consider this a win on Samsung’s part.

Web browsing via Chrome is also super slick and speedy both on 3G and Wi-Fi, with webpages loading up in mere seconds. For HTML benchmarking Vellamo clocked 1987, above the Samsung Galaxy S3, Motorola Razr i and HTC One X, while Sunspider running independently showed 1422.6 milliseconds. Not bad.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Battery

The battery pack is a 1,900mAh unit. On paper that might not sound earth-shattering but when you factor in the highly efficient dual-core Qualcomm chip and the smaller AMOLED display it starts to make sense. In fact the Galaxy S4 Mini fares better than most in the lifespan stakes. With mobile data enabled, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth off and the display on automatic brightness I found that after several days of use the Galaxy S4 Mini consistently delivered great battery life, usually finishing a day of moderate use at just under half on the indicator bar.

Compared to many handsets I’ve used recently this meant it was generally quite reliable and it coped quite well with whole days at work followed by nights out with a long period away from a charger. I think it only let me down once during my time with the handset and that was probably my fault for not charging it when I should’ve done. Add to this the fact that the battery is removable, enabling you to carry a spare if you wish, and you’ve got a pretty good setup here.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Camera

The camera is quite typical of what I’ve come to expect from Samsung’s recent models, in that it’s very good indeed – more than good enough for most users wishing to share quick snaps on social media – but not quite excellent.

It’s an 8-megapixel sensor with an LED flash, HDR, night mode, voice activation, panoramic capture, face detection, touch focus, autofucs and 1080p full HD video recording. The front-facing secondary is rated at 1.9-megapixels.

In terms of picture quality, detail and sharpness are fantastic while colour saturation is suitably punchy too. On the whole things look good but dynamic range is not the best and if you’re taking snaps of high contrast between bright sunshine and shadow then you may end up with a few areas that are more-or-less black (see below).

Samsung’s Galaxy camera UI is as good as ever with a nicely minimalist approach to the controls. It’s very easy to use, which is great.

For added extras Samsung has included a Sports mode, ‘Sound & shot’ (as seen on the Samsung Galaxy S4), Best Face, Continuous Shot, Best Photo and ‘Beauty Face’. Some of these are more useful than others but on the whole it’s nice to have options.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Conclusion

In short, I am very impressed with the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini.

I was sceptical at first, because the phone appeared to offer a lower spec at what was not exactly a low price point. The Galaxy S4 Mini will set you back around £360 SIM-free and while that is a saving from the full-size Galaxy S4’s £500+ it’s still on the pricey side.

Having used it though, I get it, there is very little compromise in terms of the overall end user experience when compared to Samsung’s other recent additions to the Galaxy stable, including many that are very high-end.

There are one or two unique features from the Galaxy S4 which are missing, a deliberate move on Samsung’s part to make the flagship more saleable, but not a particularly sensible one in my view as they are all things I neither desire nor miss on any other device, including the Galaxy S4 Mini. Things like Dual Shot and Air Gestures - these are gimmicks at best, so don’t think you’re missing out by not going for the full-size Galaxy S4.

What are you missing out on though? Well a bigger display, for one thing. As nice as the screen on the Galaxy S4 Mini is, it’s looking a little shy by modern standards and typing texts is particularly infuriating between Samsung’s poor keyboard (which can thankfully be replaced) and the lack of screen real estate. Multimedia consumption on the Galaxy S4 Mini is a joy, but in relative terms, it would always be more fun on a larger, higher resolution screen.

The counter to that though is the compact for factor, highly desirable for some, and the fact that you do get excellent battery life with the Galaxy S4 Mini, which is in no small part due to the more humble spec and a healthy dose of optimisation.

In other words, if you’re after the Samsung Galaxy experience at a more affordable (though still relatively high) price point, then the Galaxy S4 Mini is spot on. Apart from this though, if you are simply after a cheaper handset, particularly Android based, there are plenty of other options well worth looking at.

Specifications

Length 124.6mm
Width 61.3mm
Thickness 8.9mm
Weight 107g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 4.3-inches
UK Launch July
Phone Style Touchscreen smartphone
Typical Price £360
Website http://www.samsung.com/uk/consumer/mobile-devices/smartphones/android/GT-I9195ZKABTU
Designer Lens No
Camera Resolution 8-megapixels, 3264 x 2448 pixels
Video Resolution 1080p
Flash LED
Zoom Digital
Music Formats MP3/WAV/eAAC+/AC3/FLAC
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Yes
Radio Yes

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