Samsung Galaxy S4 Review: Android Lollipop Update Confirmed, Landing "Early 2015"

Reviews Richard Goodwin 12:09, 13 Nov 2014

Samsung's Galaxy S flagship enters its fourth iteration. Is four the magic number for Samsung?

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£354.00
Pros: 
Brilliant Full HD display, awesome camera and settings, powerful CPU, extensive features set, plenty of connectivity – NFC / MHL 2.0 / IR LED / LTE / Bluetooth 4, decent battery life, lightweight for size
Cons: 
Plasticky build quality, TouchWiz can be laggy, almost too many features and some like Smart Scroll don't work all that well, no way near enough onboard memory (16GB gets you just over 8GB)
Verdict: 
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a truly outstanding smartphone, one that offers a best in class features set, awesome display, and reams of connectivity. There is a downside, however, with limited storage and a very plasticky overall build quality.

In case you missed it: the Samsung Galaxy S5 is now official. The new handset doesn't look all that different from the Galaxy S4. The main differences between the two handsets are to do with processing power, imaging technology and sensors. Check out our full break down of the Samsung Galaxy S5 here; how it compares to the Samsung Galaxy S4 here; and what our first impressions of the Galaxy S5 were live from its MWC 2014 launch.]

Also, before you go out and splash a fortune on the Samsung Galaxy S5, be sure to check out some of the deals now available for the Galaxy S4. As we said above, the handset itself doesn’t look all that different from the new handset. Indeed, the only real differences are the backpanel and what’s inside – things like the CPU, GPU and imaging technology, as well as that fingerprint scanner and the heart-rate monitor, which you find beneath the camera.

Nowadays, you can pick up the Samsung Galaxy S4 for £289.99 from Expansys with free delivery. It’s only the 16GB version but it’s a HUGE saving, so you could opt out of getting the newest version of the Samsung’s Galaxy and buy a new HDTV or go on holiday or, y’know, save some pounds for a rainy day or whatnot? The Galaxy S4 is still a great handset and is likely to get consistent Android updates for at least the next 18-months.

More good news, guys –– the Samsung Galaxy S4 WILL be getting updated to Android Lollipop at some point in early 2015. News of the update comes via Sam Mobile, which reports the Exynos version of the handset –– i.e. not the one we have in the UK –– will be getting it first. Below is an extract from the report:

“Thanks to our sources, we can confirm that Samsung will be updating the Galaxy S4 to Android 5.0. That shouldn’t come as surprising since the S4 is still under the 18-month update guarantee period, but it’s notable as this would mean that the Galaxy S4 will be getting its third major update after Android 4.3 and 4.4 (though as many will argue, neither were as major as 5.0, and we’d have to agree.)" 

It’s unclear what Samsung’s plans are for the Qualcomm variant of the Galaxy S4, although it is worth noting the company only updated certain, Exynos-versions of the Galaxy S3 to Android KitKat (despite the fact the software is designed to run on 1GHz CPUs and 512MB of RAM). Hopefully we’ll know more about Samsung’s Lollipop plans in the coming weeks and months. 

Read on for our full review of one 2013's best Android handsets. 

Ahead of our test run, we had two core questions: 

1) Does the Galaxy S4 still offer great value for money?

2) Do all of its new features actually work in an everyday scenario, or are they just gimmicky talking points?

Design

Samsung could have gone to town on the design of the Galaxy S4 but instead it took a more conservative approach, refining certain aspects but keeping things fairly familiar to what we saw on the Galaxy S3. It’s no HTC One M8 in this regard, but the overall changes are very subtle.

At 2.5mm, the bezel is now slimmer than ever leaving very little space between the display and the edge of the device. Speaking of edges, the Galaxy S4’s are now flatter giving the handset a blockier, more robust, appearance. The area above and below the display has also been reduced in order to make room for the Galaxy S4’s larger 5-inch display.

The back panel is embellished with a mesh-like design and is still removable, giving you access to the SIM tray, microSD slot, and battery. The unlock/power button, the volume rocker, a headphone jack, and the microUSB port remain in the same positions they were last time around, creating an instant air of familiarity when handling the device.

The Galaxy S4 measures 136.6x69.8x7.9 mm and weighs 130g, making it 3g lighter than its predecessor, which is suitably impressive when you consider the S4 has a larger 5-inch display and also packs in a bigger battery.

Like the Galaxy S3 (and unlike the HTC One) the S4 is constructed entirely from plastics, but that should come as a surprise to no-one. Samsung’s been dragging its ass for years in this regard, and the Galaxy S4 is no exception despite our prayers for change.

It’s not that we have a problem with plastics, or that we only like handsets crafted from aluminum and fiberglass. Done well, plastics can be just as good as any premium metallic finish on a handset – Nokia’s Lumia 720, Lumia 920, and the HTC One X immediately spring to mind here.

On the Galaxy S4, however, this just isn’t the case. And we’re sort of at a loss as to why this has happened again. HTC, despite appalling financial constraints, managed to turn out something spectacular with its One handset. It tried hard, pulled all its resources, and created something that oozed distinction.

Surely the world’s biggest handset manufacturer ahead of the launch of the world’s biggest smartphone could have done something similar. Or, failing that, just improved the overall quality of the plastics employed on the handset?

In the end it comes down to this: if you liked the Galaxy S3 and are fond of Samsung’s overall design philosophy and don't mind not having the latest and greatest, then you’ll love the Galaxy S4. For everybody else – and I’d wager we’re the minority here – you’ll be grossly disappointed with the overall look and feel of the Galaxy S4.

Display

The display is a 5-inch Super AMOLED panel with 1920x1080 pixel resolution and a pixel density of 441 pixels-per-inch (ppi). It’s reinforced with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 and is the first Full HD Super AMOLED panel we’ve tested. 

Colours are vivid, jumping right off the display, and contrast is astounding, as you’d expect from an AMOLED setup. It’s worth nothing that AMOLED displays use a pentile arrangement of subpixels, meaning there’s two colours per pixel, rather than the usual three, and this results in a lower overall resolution compared to similar LCD setups like that present on the HTC One.

Sat next the HTC One the difference, however, is negligible – both offer superb visual experiences. The HTC One’s LCD panel does seem brighter although we prefer how colours look on the Galaxy S4’s AMOLED. In this respect, and at this level of quality, it is very much a case of swings and roundabouts.

Overall, the Galaxy S4’s display is about as close to perfect as you can get. It’s Full HD, contrast is brilliant, and detail is superb. Video, text, images, web pages, games and applications all look utterly astounding. The Galaxy S4's screen does not disappoint.

We also found the size of the display perfect, too. 5-inches sounds large, but because Samsung implemented the increase without affecting the overall size of the handset the extra 0.2-inches feels natural. You might not even notice it. 

The Samsung Galaxy S4’s 5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display is constructed from Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 and has been shown to be practically invincible, surviving knife scratches and being stabbed.

And not just surviving – there isn’t a mark left on the Galaxy S4’s display following the test. And that’s impressive given the nature of what the handset was subjected to.

Hardware

The UK version of the Galaxy S4 runs Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor clocked at 1.9GHz alongside 2GB or RAM. Android Jelly Bean (version 4.2.2) is the operating system of choice and, as you’d expect, everything ticks along very nicely. There is also a Snapdragon 800 version of the handset available too, although this is harder to come by than the written down 16GB basic version. 

Storage

You get 16GB of internal storage and support for an additional 64GB via the phone's microSD slot. Samsung confirmed 32GB and 64GB variants at launch but we’ve yet to see anything other than the 16GB version here in the UK. 

And that’s rather worrying because once Android and TouchWiz have taken their share of the internal storage you’re not left with much, around 8.8GB, or 55 percent of the listed storage. Comparatively, the 16GB iPhone 5 and 32GB Nokia Lumia 920 ship with almost 90 percent of their respective listed storage.

In a bid to quell moaning about the lack of available space inside its 16GB Galaxy S4 flagship, Samsung has issued a software update aimed at curtailing the level of bloatware present inside its mega-selling handset.

Just don’t go expecting miracles. When it launched the 16GB Galaxy S4 offered 9.15GB of available storage to UK punters. With the update installed you'll now have… wait for it, 9.23GB! 

You do have the microSD card-support, of course, but that’s not really the point. The Galaxy S4 is listed as a 16GB handset. It cost £579 at launch. And you get just over 8GB of storage. For us that’s a real kick in the nuts, and it’s definitely something worth considering before purchasing this handset. 

Benchmark Results & Performance

The Galaxy S4 outperformed the vast majority of other Android phones. However, it’s interesting to note that the HTC One, which clocks in at 1.7GHz on the same chip, actually scored higher in some tests – notably Quadrant.

Still, generally speaking it is without a doubt one of the fastest phones around and should deliver like-for-like performance with the HTC One and other Snapdragon 600 rivals, which are sitting pretty at the top of the high-performance pile at present.

The Galaxy S4 is a 4G capable phone and testing the modem chip in SpeedTest showed a fast ping of 47 milliseconds, a download speed of 18.73 megabits per second and an upload speed of 17.56 megabits per second. This is very good by home broadband standards, showing 4G has the capability to deliver a wireless mobile internet experience on a par with hard-wired solutions. 

As well as general performance the Galaxy S4 is looking like a good prospect for gaming, not least because of the huge, crystal clear display, but also as 3DMark, a gaming benchmark suite, cited the Galaxy S4 as ‘one of the most powerful devices around’. You can expect to get very fast, fluid gaming from Samsung’s latest flagship.

TouchWiz

Android overlays are something of an opinion divider. Some users love them, applauding the added functionality and quirks they introduce, while others prefer the cleaner, vanilla-flavoured setup of Android you get aboard the Nexus 7 and Nexus 4.

TouchWiz brings much to the table and is designed not only to help differentiate Samsung products from Sony and HTC ones, but also to highlight the Galaxy S4’s value-added capabilities.

Things like S-Health, Group Play, Music, S Planner, S Translator, Samsung Hub, and S Voice, as well as all the Air features, are all included out the box and when used appropriately are suitably impressive.

The two-finger dropdown menu, new to the Galaxy S4, gives you instant access to all of the device’s sensors, connections, and modes. In here you can activate Smart Scroll, Airplane Mode, Bluetooth, and Screen Mirroring.

Samsung has bundled all of its Music, Film, TV Shows, and Book services inside the redesigned Samsung Hub, which looks a lot smarter with its image-heavy UX and crisp choice of font. It’s a million miles from the Hubs of old looking more like a Windows Phone app than something you’d find on Android. Impressive stuff.

TouchWiz is a heavy overlay, however, and you do pay a price for all these added goodies. Lag does occur and we consistently experienced glitches while scrolling around the UX. With a quad-core Snapdragon 600 CPU and 2GB of RAM, this really shouldn’t be happening.

Specifications

Length 136.6mm
Width 7.9mm
Thickness 69.8mm
Weight 130g
Screen Size 5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED
UK Launch April 2013
Phone Style Slab
Typical Price £579.99 SIM-free
Video Resolution 1080p
Camera Resolution 13-megapixel
Connectivity NFC / MHL 2.0 / IR LED / GPS / GLONASS / Bluetooth 4.0 /
Built-in Memory 16GB + 64GB via SD-slot
High-speed Data HSPA+, 4G LTE
Video Calling Yes - 2-megapixel front facing camera

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