Samsung’s new flagship has arrived but aside from some knockout specs and intriguing software offers, it doesn’t feel like anything new.
Samsung have long pumped out devices to see what’ll stick and the company has been known for some ‘interesting’ choices as such; the Galaxy camera, for one.
But with its new flagship, the Galaxy S4, the offering feels like a bit more of the same old. As Samsung’s current leading handset, it is of course an impressive device: it packs powerful hardware that matches up to the offerings of rivals, and the software Samsung is debuting feels like it could be revolutionary in the near future. At the moment, however, the S4 just feels like a higher specced S3 rather than anything ground-breaking.
First off, contrary to What Mobile’s belief at the Unpacked event in New York, Samsung have stuck with the plasticky looking and feeling cover. This is unfortunate because while the handset is instantly recognisable, the same worries about durability that occurred with the S3 are still there.
As per our picture, we were able to bend the back cover into an arc; while this might not be bad in terms of the phone surviving some warping and bending, it doesn’t do much to reassure the casual owner that dropping the handset on the ground won’t crack the entire cover.
However the screen is covered by Gorilla Glass 3, and during What Mobile’s test run, both devices (see operating system below), survived a week or so in a bag without coming out the worse for wear.
Design-wise, the S4 is basically an up-sized S3; the same white frame, central physical button and moulded back cover. It measures 136.6 x 69.8 and is super slim at 7.9mm, weighing in at 130g; that’s light enough to be noticeable when you pick the device up, and slim enough that despite the size, holding the phone is comfortable, also thanks to the rounded corners that Samsung have retained from the S3.
It’s a fine looking device that stands out from the general smartphone offerings by avoiding the ‘black rectangle’ look that some rivals have fallen prey to, but Samsung certainly hasn’t taken any chances with a new design.
The Galaxy S4 has a big screen at five inches (see ‘The Friend test’) but it’s not huge compared with rivals (the Xperia Z is also five inches, the HTC One 4.7 inches), and while it’s slightly large to be making calls with, it doesn’t feel or look like a brick being clamped to your head.
The screen resolution is impressive, coming in at 441 pixels per inch with resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels ‘ that’s top end specs. Images look good, with clear, detailed pictures and text, plus incredibly vivid colours. In fact, speaking of colours, the S4 seems to suffer from the S3’s tendency to have slightly overblown colours; everything looks a bit too saturated. However this is a minor detail in a good looking screen.
RAMMED WITH MEMORY
When it comes to processing power, the S4 is no slouch. What Mobile’s review unit was running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.9GHz quad core processor with 2GB of RAM; that’s a pretty hefty chunk of power. There’s also a huge amount of RAM ‘ this phone should be able to leap any fences it comes across.
There was much supposition about what CPU the device would eventually ship with, since one of the options was Samsung’s new chipset, the Exynos 5 Octa eight-core processor, billed to use four ‘big’ cores for power and four ‘little’ cores for lower level tasks, improving energy and performance. However the UK and many other markets instead shipped with the Snapdragon CPU, with Samsung saying functionality would be the same, no matter your processor.
At any rate, the CPU runs like a breeze for browsing and general app loading, particularly when running on a 4G SIM; loading is smooth and quick, and there isn’t any hesitation when switching between different apps.
Nevertheless I did notice a slight lag when trying to boot up S Translator from an email, and in fact when using this app in general, which could become quite annoying if trying to use it, as Samsung posits, to interact with locals in a foreign country; ain’t nobody got time for standing around waiting for some weird tourist’s phone to load.
Gaming with Temple Run 2 also had noticeable lag between load screens and the phone heated up quite quickly, although not to a painful extent.
WHY WE HAD TO REVIEW TWO DIFFERENT S4’s
However the big issue What Mobile found with the S4 is that we had to test two units; the first unit’s screen stopped working about a week in. From turning off and on without a hitch the night before, to a screen that completely failed to display, bar a feeble flicker to the right when touching the power or central, back and list buttons; the phone still responded, the screen just…didn’t. Samsung organised a replacement review device and shipped the malfunctioning unit off to its labs.
Fortunately the replacement device performed as it should, at least in that it had a working screen. So while something to keep an eye out for, it’s possible this was a one-off malfunction. Or that What Mobile’s reviewers generate an EMP field.
At any rate, the Galaxy S4 runs the latest version of Android, 4.2.2 or Jelly Bean, with Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface, which means you’ll be seeing both Samsung and Google’s presence, being asked to sign in to both company’s accounts and seeing a double up of pre-loaded apps, which can feel like your device has a split personality.
This is a slick operating system which the S4 ran smoothly, and comes pre-loaded with some of Samsung’s bloatware, like Samsung Apps, which purports to have the pick of apps, but didn’t have Twitter. Samsung’s own offering of video and music applications are useful but nothing revolutionary; however Samsung’s Air Gestures won’t work with the Google music offering, Play Music, but only with Samsung’s Music application. Samsung’s answer to Siri, S Voice, didn’t work wonderfully well (see ‘The Friend Test’) on testing, but to be fair, Siri also has issues with accents.
At any rate, running Android means you’ll have access to Google’s Play store (don’t bother with Samsung Hub) and all its myriad app, book and game offerings.
The phone comes with 16GB of internal storage with microSD expansion options up to 64GB, which is plenty to be getting on with.
These are the software features you’re looking for…
The big news, and one of the main ways Samsung seem to be differentiating the Galaxy S4 from myriad other high-end smartphones and its own products, is its new and improved software features, including Smart Pause, Smart Scroll, Air Gestures, Air View, S Health and S Translator. Our separate article goes into these in more detail, but these features are pretty intriguing offerings which generally make you feel like a ninja. Smart Pause automatically pauses a video when you look away, Air Gestures allow you to jump up a page by waving your hand in front of the phone and Air View lets you hover your finger over an email to get a preview of its contents.
Some of these software features have been adopted from the Note II, such as Air View which originally worked with an S Pen and in general worked well, albeit in a limited capacity. To begin with it was in general very confusing to work out just what worked where. For instance, Air Gestures only worked on the pre-loaded browser and not on a downloaded option (such as Chrome) which seems counter-intuitive, given the device is running a Google-built operating system. This also holds true for Air View, which works on Samsung’s email client and not the Gmail app, which is a shame because Samsung’s client is ugly as sin.
These software additions also seem to burn through the battery a bit; while testing out these functions, the battery dropped 10% in one hour and 15% in about 1.5 hours.
The thing is, while the functions are fascinating and a lot of fun to play with, when they’re offered in a limited capacity, and even slightly buggy, there’s not much incentive to use them. Samsung provides indicators of when you can use them in the form of little pictures in the notification bar, but it’s difficult to remember to check these before trying out a gesture, which means you just end up looking insane, waving at your phone and cursing it because you’re using Chrome and thus Air Jump won’t work. These functionalities need to be incorporated into the device as a whole, not cherry picked into certain apps, for them to be a real differentiator ‘ otherwise, you just end up getting confused and scrolling, pausing or switching tabs the old fashioned way.
Another, more successful differentiator for the Galaxy S4 is its camera. Samsung has developed a number of modes to help the 13MP camera with 4128 x 3096 pixel resolution stand out. The camera contains all the usual trimmings including flash and autofocus, and pictures are crisp with particularly clear detail and bright colours.
The various modes are what set the camera apart, however, including Sound & Shot, which takes a nine second recording of sound as you take a photo. This becomes awkward after a while in static situations (see ‘The Friend Test’) but is actually quite a nice idea for scenic photos, such as having birds tweeting overlaid atop a picture of a sunny field.
One of the crowd favourites is Eraser, which detects ‘heavy’ movement and automatically erases it, and this worked well, highlighting the person in bright pink before deleting them, although since you have to select it, this feature would probably only be useful in a tourist situation, standing in front of a large monument while people walk into shot.
A dual camera is an interesting take on the various gadgets out at the moment offering a 360 degree photo, as well as iPhone 5’s Panorama capability (which the S4 also has, and which works well). It takes a simultaneous front and back picture, so you can insert yourself into a shot. This worked well but comes with a postage stamp style border on the secondary picture which looks a bit amateur hour..
Video, at 1080p and 30 fps, is excellent, with clear footage and automatic light settings.
The 2MP front-facing camera is fine for Skype calls; your face will never have looked so cherubic and the call quality is excellent.
Batteried and deep fried
The S4’s battery life did well in tests; with heavy use, including watching movies, listening to music, browsing the Internet, emailing, texting and using various VoIP services, the battery drains like nobody’s business dropping about 21 per cent in just under 2.5 hours of use. After this, switching back to fairly normal to light use, involving emailing, texting, Viber-ing and looking up the occasional fact on the Internet, the battery lasted about 13 hours in total, which is just under its billed time, but pretty darn good for top-end smartphones these days.
More intensive exercises like playing games burned through the battery, but at a rate comparable to other top end devices; after 10 minutes of playing, the battery dropped by two per cent dropping to eight per cent after 30 minutes.
Samsung has packed this phone with benchmark specs; processing power, camera quality, software and battery power are all top line. While the S4 seems to struggle when it comes to loading games, and its screen has been shown to occasionally give up the ghost, the phone as a whole ran well with its hardcore hardware. The question is, can it be differentiated from the other flagship offerings out there?
Samsung’s software and camera innovations could have done this. While both are intriguing, the software features are cherry picked into certain apps and are occasionally hit and miss. So it’s hard to say the S4 stands out from the crowd.
For a look at how the S4 stands up against its flagship rivals, check out What Mobile’s comparison here. And for a more in depth look at the new software features, see our article here. And for the person on the street’s view, check out the What Mobile Friend Test here.
An impressive hardware offering with intriguing new software and camera features, but these need to be perfected and integrated into the whole phone before the S4 can really be called a knockout. While the phone’s processor seemed to struggle with loading games and What Mobile was given a review unit that failed after a few days, this is a solid offering from Samsung in the flagship smartphone race.
+ Plenty of software innovations
+ Quality screen
+ Good camera and capabilities
‘ Processor sometimes seems to struggle
‘ Smart features don’t work over whole phone
‘ Design is the same as the S3
Dimensions 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm
Screen 5 inch, Super AMOLED capacitive touch screen, 16M colours, Corning Gorilla Glass 3
Resolution 1080 x 1920, 441 ppi
Processor Quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex A15 & quad-core 1.2 GHz Cortex A7
GPU PowerVR SGX 544MP3
Storage 16/32/64GB, up to 64GB external
Cameras 13MP, 4128×3096 pixels, autofocus, LED flash
Wireless Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi hotspot, Bluetooth 4.0
Ports USB 2.0, MicroSD, 3.5mm audio jack
Battery life Li-Ion 2600 mAh, up to 370h standby, 17h talk time (accurate)