Samsung's new GALAXY S 4 has some pretty big shoes to fill. Destined to replace the most popular smartphone on the planet and the best selling Android smartphone to date, the Galaxy S III. With more than 50 million sold the GS3 was very popular, and with good reason. Can Samsung's new flagship remain the smartphone King? While it looks very similar, there's tons of differences. Samsung expects to sell nearly 100m of their new smartphone so read on to find out what it's all about.
While the GALAXY S 4 may look and feel, at least at first glance, much like the GS3, it actually has been completely redesigned and improved with all the latest and greatest specs in the mobile world. Samsung's topped this device out to ensure it doesn't get beat by Motorola's upcoming devices, or the HTC One. Can it keep the lead?
Hardware & Design
Where to start. Sigh! This is a brand new and improved phone from every single angle, but you'll barely notice the difference from afar, but up close it's completely new and improved. Once you start interacting with the larger HD display and the phone as a whole you'll quickly realize this is a completely different beast. The phone looks the same, is roughly the same size, but here's the numbers. The GS4 comes in at 136.6mm long (same as the GS3), super thin bezels have the newer phone narrower, at 69.8mm compared to 70.6mm, and thinner, at 7.9mm versus 8.6mm. All that goodness in the same size. Ohh, and it's lighter. At 130g you'll be carrying 3g less weight.
Samsung chose to stick to their same (but highly successful, obviously) design language which is built wrapped in a lightweight plastic. Some aren't fans, but many love the idea of a lightweight phone rather than an aluminum device that's prone to scratching and dents. It's hard to tell the difference between the GS3, GS4, and the Note II, but once you have them together things start becoming noticeable.
You all probably know the specs of this flagship phone but if not, here they are again. The screen is bigger and HD, and everything else got a boost too. Samsung's improved the GALAXY S 4 to what only can be described as a simply beautiful display. It really is stunning. You'll enjoy a 4.99-inch 1920 x 1080p full HD AMOLED display - and you'll love it.
Powered by Qualcomm’s 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor, the GS4 comes with a 5-inch Super AMOLED Full HD touch screen, 2GB RAM, 16/32/64 GB internal storage, microSD card slot (thank you), NFC, Bluetooth, WiFi, 13 megapixel camera, 2 megapixel front facing camera and even an IR-blaster. Yeah! Samsung checked off all those must-have boxes for this one.
With more on the screen and software below, how does if feel? Excellent! OK, it feels like the Galaxy S III - lets just be honest here folks. That's a good thing though, so don't even fret. Even though it's actually thinner, the GALAXY S 4 felt fatter to us, because the more squared sides feel a bit blunt. Overall though, it's an extremely similar experience. The chrome trim is still present and Samsung moved the earpiece all the way to the top with the new model, then of course thinner bezels made the physical home button and those capacitive back/menu buttons even more cramped than before - which was already an issue on the Galaxy S III. You might accidentally hit that back button a few times while trying to snap a photo. We sure did.
The plastic is lightweight and comfortable, the sides being more squared makes it easier to hold, but it's still slippery and could be dropped easy - so use caution while carrying this device. We'll compare the hardware to the HTC One and others later, but lets just say it certainly feels premium, while not feeling premium - if you get our drift. Take a peek at our hands-on video review below.
Time to take a few moments to talk about that screen, since it's the most important thing we interact with on a smartphone. It's absolutely gorgeous! Nuff said. Moving on. Seriously the Samsung GALAXY S 4 and its 5-inch FHD AMOLED display coming in at 1080p and 441 pixels-per-inch is just a joy to use. It truly is. Colors are amazing, blacks are ink black and pure, and of course everything is as clear and crisp as possible. Samsung's outdone themselves here.
The GS3 is a 4.8-nch device with a decent 720p res, but the new GS4 is a full 4.99-inches and 1920 x 1080p resolution on on board gives it a clear edge. Clear as mud! Obviously the size might be an issue for some, but keeping it roughly the same size as the GS3 makes this a perfect transition to a larger screen, and we doubt anyone will mind. This bigger is better mentality needs to stop, but we're content with using a device of this size.
This is another one of those "where do we start" areas because Samsung announced so much with this device. While we won't be going into every single S-feature today, the important ones will be covered and expect follow up details and hands-on coming soon. Now for the software, we're running the latest Android 4.2 Jelly Bean here. We'll give Samsung another high five for that - and we're looking at you HTC. Get with the program.
Obviously Google's 4.2. Jelly Bean has been skinned to the edge and back with Samsung's TouchWiz or "Nature UX" providing their own tailored experience - and it's a similar one. It has a long long list of new features, but the look and feel remains similar to the Galaxy S III, Note II, Galaxy Note and Tab 10.1 and more as of late.
We still have Samsung's S-Voice Siri and Google Now competition for voice actions and such, and S-Memo for taking notes, as well as a few others. With Android 4.2.2 and the GS4 we have tons more. Here's the full list of S-features: Hover, Smart Stay, Smart Scroll, Smart Pause, Air Wave, Air Browse, Air Jump, Health and more. S-Health will monitor fitness and exercise and they even have an S-Band accessory to pair along with it that's coming soon. We still have Samsung's Music Hub, ChatON messenger, and all the multi-screen modes that were on the Galaxy S III - but there's plenty of new ones too.
Samsung brought all those S-Pen features we love about the Galaxy Note line to their smartphone. Air Gesture and Air View does all those hover stylus and almost mouse pointer-like features of the Note just by using your finger. Their new display recognizes your finger as you hover it around. Hold your finger above a folder in your gallery for a preview of the photos, and the same will give you a live playing preview of movies from your camera, or videos in storage. This also tells you little pointers for what buttons do what, and much more.
Hover your finger over a Flipboard story, calendar entries, and more for this but it doesn't work everywhere. Gmail doesn't support it, but Samsung's own email app does. So there's a toss up of the feature vs what you're use to using. Then sometimes Airview was a bit sluggish. While these features are next-gen and fun, personally I found myself showing it off but just clicking as usual when in actual use. It's fun, but not 100% practical. Oh and that same fancy screen now works with gloves of all types. Perfect for those cold NYC winters.
Then we have Air Gesture and all those eye-recognition features. Some I'll be using day to day, but honestly the rest are a little gimmicky. We've been hearing the words "software gimmicks" a lot, and sadly it's somewhat true. We love taking a screenshot by the swipe of our palm. Scrolling down a webpage with eye-scroll is awesome and rather nice too, but the rest just aren't necessary. S-Pause will pause a video when your eyes look away. It's nice, but sometimes I want to listen and not be completely engaged in the video - so we disabled it.
Don't worry though. While Samsung brought tons of features, some you'll use and some you won't, they are all removable should you want to keep it clean and simple. The Android 4.2 dropdown bar with extended setting controls Google announced is present. And with Samsung it's on steroids. You can enable and disable all types of things all from the dropdown notification bar with ease.
Samsung's Peel remote works with the IR Blaster just like many of their recent tablets, the S-Health app will work with their S-Scale (yes they have that too), and various other accessories will all be coming shortly. More details on those below.
In closing, the software is excellent and as fluid as ever. The Snapdragon 600 keeps things running butter smooth, and surely the 8-core model will too. This phone is fast! However, Once AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon get their hands on these smartphones you'll have additional apps and bloatware, but in general the main software and features will all remain the same. This is Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean like we love, covered in TouchWiz and S-features galore. We're thankful for those disable options though.
We mentioned a little about the performance above so this is mainly about benchmarks, since we know you all love those. The phone is fast, in every sense of the word, although some of those gimmick features weren't as quick as we wanted. As far as daily use and raw power for apps, video, multi-tasking and of course gaming this thing is rock solid. Now, and in the future as apps and games continue to improve.
With the standard for benchmarks, Quadrant, the GALAXY S 4 scored 12,593 overall. Barely beating the HTC One with the same quad-core and resolution under the hood. Then the old Linpack for Android it also beat HTC's flagship, managing 749.63 MFLOPS compared to the One's 694.102. In Qualcomm's unbiased Vellamo test, the GS4 scores 1,783 in the HTML5 category and 814 in the Metal test. Trading blows with the One. Lately AnTuTu has been the go-to benchmark app and surprisingly the HTC One blew out the GALAXY S 4 for whatever reason. With the S4 scoring 17,320, nearly 5,000 points behind the One.
Overall we are highly impressed with the Samsung GALAXY S 4, but we knew we would be. Samsung's tossed in some impressive specs all around. The only thing we're left wondering is how the Exynos 5 Octa 8-core processor using their big.LITTLE technology will handle these tests. We'd love to get our hands on that model, and once we do we'll surely be testing everything all over again. Sadly all U.S. carriers will get that Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 series quad-core variant - which could be a good thing. We're not sure yet.
Camera, Battery & Phone
Yes, it's a phone too! While many skip this we wanted to test those aspects a little bit. The speaker is crisp, loud, and vibrant but certainly doesn't match that of the HTC One. Then of course those speakers on back are muffled, sound like a tin can, and just have nothing on HTC's front facing Boomsound speakers on the One. HTC has the right idea here. Oddly Samsung offers front facing speakers on their tablets - which everyone loves - so it's odd they let another manufacturer beat them to that feature on a smartphone. Their loss!
The camera we have mixed feelings, to say the least. Obviously a smartphone camera can only be so good, and lighting helps, but we were expecting a bit more with their 13 megapixel lens over the 8 MP Galaxy S III. Sadly in real world usage the benefits are minimal at best. Not to say the camera was bad. The GSIII had one of the best, so we're not too concerned.
Close-up photos seemed to struggle (and not even Macro-shots) and occasionally the GS4 struggled to focus, and that can be fixed with a software update - but it was worth mentioning. Then of course low-light photos were a bit grainy, but comparable to the HTC One and other high quality smartphone sensors. Here's a gallery of a few.
Samsung 360 panorama
Adding to the many software features Samsung brought with this new device, the camera received a slew of them too. We have Sound & Shot, Dual Shot and something called Cinema Photos. The dual-shot mode captures two images at once and blends them for the perfect shot. Then Sound & Shot adds 1-9 seconds of audio to capture the moment for true enjoyment like never before. It adds drama to the image. Again this is nice, a little bit of a gimmick, but fun to show off and mess around with while enjoying a vacation or pictures of the kids.
Then they also have Cinema Photo that takes a moving image and lets you place your photo inside a quick video so you have a static image, while also showing movement. It will be like a GIF image. All these camera features combined make for a truly awesome experience with GALAXY. Then Samsung added a pause feature to the 1080p recording, instead of only stop, so you can resume and have a single file. Lastly dual shot also enables video and photo features from both cameras. Record 1080p with the rear, while capturing the person recordings face and more in 1080p using the front, and the same time. Check it out below! (and halfway through you'll see the AC logo somewhere)
Last, just for good measure is a quick sample photo between the Galaxy S 4, HTC One, and the iPhone all in low light. The HTC One actually wins this battle.
With large FHD displays, quad and 8-core processors, 4G LTE and more battery life is going to continue to be an important part of a phone. Who wants to be tethered to a wall all the time getting juice? Not us. Thankfully Samsung is learning here and increased the battery size, something HTC should have done might I add. The GALAXY S 4 is graced with a 2,600 mAh removable battery.
Obviously this varies by user, their apps, what's pulling data and more. Using the GS4 heavily with games, apps, browsing the web, snapping some photos, and a few real-time messenger apps like ChatON and Line running nonstop we saw 14-15 hours of usage. Certainly enough for an entire work day, but you'll be reaching for the charger overnight. Someone that uses the device more moderately will have no problems just charging once every morning. So that's a major plus. It isn't quite the Galaxy Note II with a 3,100 mAh battery - but it's close.
Add in the fact that the Snapdragon quad-core model uses Qualcomm's Quick Charge 1.0 technology for up to 60% faster charging, this device will juice up quick and last all day with no worries. Enjoy it!
The competition really isn't completely known at this point, but for now it only has a few competitors. Obviously the HTC One comes to mind as it's extremely similar and available now. Rocking the same quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 1080p display. Only it employs a smaller display. That's a personal decision based on preference however. Then we'll have to wait and see what Motorola and Google bring to the table next month at Google I/O, and in the coming months if Motorola doesn't announce anything at IO.
Lastly, the number one competition to the GS4 could be the Galaxy S III. Being lowered to $99 or less on many carriers for a similar experience across the board, Samsung will be competing against itself. However, as we mentioned above this phone looks the same but is leaps and bounds above the older brother. It will probably see updates faster too, so that's another thing to consider when making a purchase decision.
How shall we end this? How about a little of the obvious, then close with our final thoughts. The obvious being the Samsung GALAXY S 4 will be a big ticket item and sell by the millions. That's just a given at this stage in the "Galaxy" brands life. Taking on the same level as the iPhone and surpassing it, the Galaxy S III was such a well known smartphone and the S4 will continue that tradition - as long as it doesn't get mistaken for the III.
Samsung has what we all can agree is cutting edge hardware, and even though some are gimmicks this is packed full of cutting edge software, and we'll get plastered with advertising to keep it front and center in our thoughts. And the thoughts of millions of potential customers watching ESPN and wherever else they air their ads.
Ads can go a long ways that's for sure, but don't mistake that for the reason this smartphone will sell by the millions. Samsung has a real winner here. A device that has improved upon the original in every single aspect of a smartphone. Some not by the leaps and bounds we'd like with a flagship, but in the end this is a solid improvement to an already stellar device.
The similar design might make it seem like more of a small incremental update than an evolution of their brand, but that's exactly what they wanted. Just like Apple it seems Samsung is content with riding the high wave, and will continue to innovate and make our lives easier along the way with a beautiful HD AMOLED display, better software, and improved battery life. Sure we all want front facing speakers, maybe something other than plastic for the build quality, and something truly amazing with that WOW factor to get us all giddy. In the end the GALAXY S 4 has done that, just in a subtle way. Wait until you get your hands on one!
Samsung certainly played it safe with the GALAXY S 4, but with nearly 100 million sales waiting in their future can you blame them? In closing this is a solid, well rounded, and extremely capable device that will sell by the truckloads.