Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Android, Lots Of Power... Uninspired Design
Samsung's Galaxy S flagship enters its fourth iteration. Is four the magic number for Samsung?
A quick glance at the spec sheet and the Samsung Galaxy S4 is already making all the right noises: plenty of power, a good camera and a big, clear display. But in that regard it's similar to many of its competitors.
So, to differentiate, Samsung has added some extra capabilities to give the latest flagship a boost in the functionality department. Is it enough to keep Samsung Galaxy in its prestigious position as one of the most popular smartphone brands?
It might be the biggest launch but is it the best? If you want Android and are upgrading your handset soon you’re spoilt for choice in today’s market with devices like the Xperia Z1, HTC One, Nexus 5, and Samsung's own Galaxy Note 3, which all offer their own take on Android.
Many of today’s top-end Android devices feature similar specs, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 CPU, 2GB of RAM and LTE connectivity, meaning high-end performance, generally speaking, is similar across the board.
Manufacturers know this and have concocted new means of differentiating their offerings: waterproofing, new UXs, and contactless gesture navigation to name but a few. Out of Android’s biggest manufacturers though no-one has been busier than Samsung.
The Galaxy S4, backed by a huge marketing campaign, is jam-packed full of exotic software, bespoke applications, and new means of navigating around the handset. Again, on paper – and in TV spots – the Galaxy S4 looks utterly unstoppable.
Ahead of our test run, we had two core questions:
1) Is the Galaxy S4 the best Android phone money can buy?
2) Do all of its new features actually work in an everyday scenario, or are they just gimmicky talking points?
[Also, 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.]
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 iPhone 4S 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 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.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is now available in pink in the UK, and is exclusively available from Phones4U. The handset will be available in early January 2014, but there is no confirmed release date as yet. Now available in black, blue, white and of course pink. The new pink version is framed with a gold surround. Classy.
Another incentive to get your hands on the pink encased handset is a free wireless speaker worth £120 throughout January. Contract wise there’s no charge for handset and tariffs start at £33 a month on 3G from various networks. For LTE, you’re looking at £38 a month.
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.
S4 gets Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
The Samsung Galaxy S4 had its software updated to Android 4.3 in November. It’s not the latest version of Android, but it does bring plenty of improvements, bug fixes and tweaks, as well as support for Samsung’s 800,000-selling Galaxy Gear smartwatch.
Android 4.3 brings a boost to the Galaxy S4’s colour reproduction, better memory management, some updates to TouchWiz and a new Internet Browser. With regards to Android 4.4 KitKat – that’s apparently happening in January. Both the S4 and the Note 3 will go in January.
Below is the Galaxy S4's complete Android 4.3 changelog
- OpenGL 3.0 Support
- GALAXY GEAR Support
- TRIM Support (Makes the device much faster)
- ANT+ Support
- Samsung KNOX Implementation (KNOX bootloader and dedicated application)
- Samsung Wallet comes pre-loaded
- Improved RAM management
- Improved Display colour reproduction (Display looks much sharper than before)
- Improved TouchWiz Launcher (Much less launcher redraws and less lag)
- New Samsung Keyboard
- New Samsung Browser (Full screen by default, new tab interface and more)
- New Reading Mode (Optimises display for reading, used by only a few specific applications)
- New Camera firmware
- Minor UI tweaks (Contacts app, Flashlight Widget, dialog boxes etc)
Samsung’s 2012 flagship, the Note 2 and Galaxy S3, will be updated to KitKat towards the end of Q1 2014 (anytime between March and April, apparently). Samsung is also said to be keen on updating many of its mid-range handsets to Android 4.4 now that Google's OS can run on 512MB of RAM.
Android 4.4 KitKat update: What to expect
It's not here just yet, but Android 4.4 KitKat is on the way for the Galaxy S4 and it's even been leaked a few times on the web alongside the same update for the Galaxy Note 3. Both leaks show how the TouchWiz UI will change in-line with Google's updates to the core software.
Most notably, the UI is cleaner and more minimalist with the black notification bar now being transparent with white icons. The lock screen is also streamlined with a re-design for the camera unlock key and music player widget.
We'll have to wait and see what else is new, but it's nice to see Samsung taking full advantage of Android's cleaner design style.
Android 4.4 KitKat Update Puts A Stop To Benchmark Boosting
Samsung got caught out relatively recently when it was discovered the company had been artificially boosting its processor speeds on key handsets such as the Galaxy S4 during benchmark testing.
The Android 4.3 and TouchWiz software bundle aboard the Galaxy S4 apparently included a tweak, accoridng to ArsTechnica, which meant that if any benchmarking app (such as AnTuTu or Vellamo) was opened, processor core speeds were immediately spiked to maximum until the app was closed.
Having its dirty laundry put on display seems to have kicked Samsung into fixing things, however, as the site now reports that with the Android 4.4 KitKat update, processor behaviour during benchmarking is now normal.
The report notes that the benchmarking boost was little more than a marketing ploy and had no actual effect on day-to-day handset performance. Similarly, the new software with these modifications removed doesn't change much either, but still, it's good to see Samsung mending its ways.
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.
LTE-Advanced and Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
The Samsung Galaxy S4 LTE-Advanced edition has been leaked in AnTuTu benchmark results, showing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor. It will be launched internationally under the I9506 model designation.
Also shown in the results is the handset’s clock speed, Samsung has squeezed the maximum speed from the Qualcomm 800 chip at 2.3GHz, making it much faster than the Snapdragon 600-equipped I9505 Samsung Galaxy S4.
The Qualcomm 800-based model chalks up a score of 31,123 points, quicker than both the I9505 Qualcomm 600 Galaxy S4 at 24,716 and the Exynos 5 Octa eight-core model launched in Asia at 26,275. It’s also considerably faster than the HTC One flagship running a Qualcomm 600 chip at 22,678.
Are the benchmarks what they seem?
Samsung has been boosting the Samsung Galaxy S4's benchmark performance via a line of code which ramps up clockspeeds when certain benchmarking applications are opened, reports suggest.
Samsung has now issued a statement to the Telegraph, saying it did tweak code to enhance benchmarking results, but this was to prevent users over working the GPU on their device while using gaming applications.
'Under ordinary conditions, the GALAXY S4 has been designed to allow a maximum GPU frequency of 533MHz. However, the maximum GPU frequency is lowered to 480MHz for certain gaming apps that may cause an overload, when they are used for a prolonged period of time in full-screen mode. Meanwhile, a maximum GPU frequency of 533MHz is applicable for running apps that are usually used in full-screen mode, such as the S Browser, Gallery, Camera, Video Player, and certain benchmarking apps, which also demand substantial performance.
'The maximum GPU frequencies for the GALAXY S4 have been varied to provide optimal user experience for our customers, and were not intended to improve certain benchmark results.'
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 costs £579. 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.
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.
|Screen Size||5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED|
|UK Launch||April 2013|
|Typical Price||£579.99 SIM-free|
|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|