Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S4 review
The mobile world may have just got a new king
Update: We've improved the review based on more time with the Galaxy S4 after the event, as well as more information on the handset that's dropped in the days following the phone's launch.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 brings a huge Full HD screen, an improved camera and faster innards, and fits it all in a chassis the same size as theGalaxy S3.
However, many will struggle to tell the difference between the S4 and its predecessor, as the polycarbonate chassis is still in use; although the metallic banding around the side, while still plastic, is much sturdier and feels more premium.
We've already seen a lot of the Samsung Galaxy S4 features, as it's been snapped multiple times in leaks – some more accurate than others, it has to be said – and the specs mooted have turned out to be pretty bang on.
But that doesn't matter – megapixels and gigabytes don't mean anything if they're not wrapped up in a decent package, so how much of an improvement is the Samsung Galaxy S4 spec list and design over the S3, and more importantly, the competition?
The Samsung Galaxy S4 launch saw the Korean brand claiming the phone is built on four foundations: an improved camera, better connections with others, health and wellbeing improvements and simply making life easier.
While this is all a little hyperbolic, the S4 at least brings an integrated feel to things while improving nearly every spec on offer. The outside is still plastic, but harks back to the mesh design, if not feel of the Galaxy S2.
Colour wise you've got a choice of 'White Frost' and 'Black Mist', which adorn the large device, which runs in with dimensions of 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm, despite still having to pack in a 5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED screen.
That means it will have a larger screen, but smaller chassis than the Galaxy S3, which is a superbly impressive feat of engineering, especially when you consider the specs.
But like its predecessor, the plastic feeling of the Galaxy S3 won't appeal to all. It feels very lightweight (tipping the scales at 130g) in the hand, and while people have been conditioned against this feeling cheap, compare it to the HTC One and you'll see that it's a long way from premium feeling.
However, it's exactly the same sensation as we found on the Galaxy S3, and given the record numbers of sales that had Samsung is sticking with a winning formula, plus there's more than a market for a phone that you'll barely notice in your pocket most of the time.
Compared to rest of the Galaxy line, the S4 continues in the same vein as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and the S3, (as well as myriad other devices) showing the Koreans are keen on creating a design heritage here.
The home button is roughly the same size and the same menu and back buttons remain from the prequel.
Overall, the effect is a much more well put together Galaxy S3 – so this means that when you take it out down the pub people won't notice you've got the latest phone, which is a bit of a shame.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 feels like much more of an iterative update than new design, and while it will probably sell well there's very little to wow you when it comes to the overall shape. Specs are important, but if there was such as thing as a Samsung Galaxy S3S, this would be it.
But away from all that negativity! We have a new phone to check over, so let's take a minute and talk about the screen: it's even more beautiful than before.
We almost feel sad that this isn't the first Full HD screen we've seen on a mobile phone, as it's kind of lost its lustre since the likes of the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z have all managed the same trick – but it improves the sharpness a lot, even though you're not getting that much different from the S3.
Side by side you can see the difference close up, and the brightness and efficiency have been tweaked to make this a more compelling screen in a phone. Talk all you want about the benefits and colour saturation of LCD – the Samsung Galaxy S4 is leagues ahead when it comes to jaw-dropping screens.
The 441ppi pixel density doesn't match the HTC One, but is more than good enough for the average user.
We'll be mightily surprised if the combined popularity of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 don't prompt Apple into a re-tooling of the screen with the iPhone 5S or iPhone 6, as the sharpness will definitely wow users on the shelves.
Aside from the initial impression of the design, in the hand the Samsung Galaxy S3 feels just dandy. The design contours well against the palm, and while the screen size may be a little big for some (you'll need a bit of shuffling to reach the upper section of the screen) it's definitely useable in the hand.
So in short: if you don't mind plastic and you like cutting-edge HD screens in your pocket, this is a phone definitely worth checking out.
Samsung hasn't really re-tooled the Touchwiz overlay for the Galaxy S4, but has added some clever upgrades that will have some users talking about innovation.
For instance, the lock screen doesn't have the water rippling any more, but does register your finger from up to two centimetres away, so a little beam of light will follow your digit as you unlock. It's something you'll definitely play with for ages.
It's clear with the Galaxy S4 that Samsung has worked out there's only so much it can do on the hardware side these days – not to say that we're pretty impressed with the spec list - and as such has tried to bring the unique flavour through the interface instead.
As before with Touchwiz, there's a definite sense the whole process has been simplified, as the phone has got a much easier feel to it when swiping around. That's not to say there aren't loads of widgets to be played with, but there is less clutter on the larger screen.
The dock at the bottom of the display pervades, and there are more widgets to play with. Thanks to the Galaxy S4 running Android Jelly Bean4.2.2 you've now got an addition in the notifications bar of a toggle in the top-right hand corner where you can turn on and off pretty much anything, from NFC to Group Cast to eye-tracking.
Swiping around the display was easy as pie – it's not exactly taxing on the processor, but we did note that there was a slight pause as we swiped through the menu screen on this pre-production model.
However, there is a worry that the octa-core (yes, you read that right) 1.6 GHz Exynos 5 CPU, with 2GB of RAM as well, could suck power a little too dramatically – but we've yet to hear the full details of how the CPU will work before we can pass any judgement on that.
Smart Stay, which tracks your eyes to tell if you're looking at the screen, has stablemates now. Smart Pause will note if your gaze leaves the screen and will pause the video, and Smart Scroll will check when you're reading a web page and scroll up and down as you tilt the device.
It's a novel idea for replacing things you do already but in practice we didn't find either that useful. Smart Pause takes a second to register your gaze has gone, which means you'll still miss part of the video, and Smart Scroll (again, pre-production model) was far from accurate when we tilted the phone.
That said, the internet browsing as a whole was sublimely fast (when our conference room Wi-Fi played nicely with the phone) and we were impressed with the clarity of web pages as we zoomed through them.
If Smart Scrolling was the way we'd always used our phones, and then someone invented scrolling with the finger, that would be amazing. It just seems that this is a way of doing things for the sake of it - we can't see the likes of Apple or HTC ever doing the same thing.
Smart Voice hasn't been upgraded beyond improving the accuracy of the voice recognition and Driving Mode, which will give you more voice-related feedback when you're in your motor.
Smart Alert has been upgraded: now it's joined by Air Gestures, which allow you to swipe the phone without touching the screen. So this means you can flip through pictures or music tracks ("good if you have messy fingers" says Samsung) flick to the top of a list by wiping upwards on the screen and Air Call Accept starts the camera… no, we're joking. It accepts a call without touching the screen.
On top of that there's Hover mode, which is the same as Air View on the Note 2 which used the S Pen and tracked when it was near the screen to give previews of emails, video scrolling without disturbing the action, and seeing who is on speed dial.
A quick test with this saw the preview being activated a little too easily, but it's definitely a neat feature and something we could get used to.
Any Android phone fans will be a little perplexed by some areas of the phone, unless of course you've spent some time working with Android 4.2 at any point. The first big change is the fact the notifications bar packs not just the standard icons for turning off Wi-Fi and the like, but a tile to tap that takes you to a whole host of other toggles, from things like AllShare Cast to NFC and more.
The settings menu has also been changed to split into four sections, making it easier to play around with connections, your device settings, accounts for social networks or syncing accounts and more, for the likes of device information.
It might confuse those used to the original way of TouchWiz working, but we think Samsung has worked out a decent way to stop things looking so disjointed.
But overall the good news is the large screen looks great, the improved CPU might not be needed but is welcomed and the little touches like the shining lock screen do actually feel like a real step forward.
There's a lot riding on NFC this year - what's it going to do in terms of making the beepy technology worth using in the day to day lives of many?
Well, with a tie-in with Visa looks like you'll be able to use your phone to pay for bits and pieces more easily by including the PayWave app within the Galaxy S4, meaning you won't have to get validation from the networks for the payment mechanism.
We're also waiting for Samsung's range of NFC-enabled docks to appear, in the same vein as Sony and it's NFC message, so we can get tapping our phones and make music appear in other places. Or you could just use something from another manufacturer and it will work as well, as it's all just Bluetooth connection really. It's your call.
There's some good news for those that loathed the stock keyboard on the Galaxy S3, as it's now been replaced with Android's best keyboard around: Swiftkey.
We didn't get the chance to test out this new implementation on our pre-production unit, but it will be using Swiftkey 4, which brings Flow for swiping out your words on top of the frankly impossibly good prediction engine - the same algorithm that's been partly used for the all new BlackBerry 10 keyboard in the BB Z10.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors in that it's designed for media – which is what you'd expect from a phone that's the sequel to the phone we dubbed the best out there for media on the go.
The video player is obviously taking centre stage here on the Galaxy S4, and combined with the improved Full HD Super AMOLED screen is just magnificent for watching movies.
The video hub now contains both personal and downloaded content in one place, and it looks really, really nice when viewing it on the 5-inch screen.
It's an understandably excellent experience, with the screen veritably shining with quality contrast ratios and decent colour reproduction.
The navigation experience is easy as well, and slipping up and down the timeline to move through a video seems very intuitive.
AllShare Cast is included as well, powering up the ability to stream to and from other devices. In addition to being able to send content from the phone to a TV and receive from a PC in your home network, you can also do this remotely now, as long as the device is turned on obviously.
Another feature is mirroring, where you can send whatever is on the screen of your Galaxy S4 and have it show on a larger display, either through connecting your phone using a MHL lead or an AllShare Cast dongle / compatible Samsung TV.
We've seen this on a number of devices, and while it's not going to allow big screen gaming on the go, as we've often noted that there's a lag between input and its realisation on the screen, it could be good for movies if it's less jumpy than found on the S3.
Samsung has managed to stay ahead of the pack when it comes to internal storage too – it will be available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB flavours plus up to 64GB through a microSD card as well. That's more storage than most will ever need on it's own, right?
This will be a killer feature for a lot of smartphone users, as while the internal storage is generally good enough for most things, many love the idea of having the choice to expand if they so wish – so combining this with an expandable battery is a great idea from Samsung once again.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 camera is a step up from its predecessor, with a 13MP sensor on the back, which now has to bulge slightly from the chassis.
Samsung promises excellent low-light snaps from the S4 as well, but we doubt it can take on the might of the HTC One when it comes to low light conditions, as the Galaxy S3 was decimated by the might of HTC'sUltrapixels - and that's before we even get onto the Nokia Lumia 920.
From a blindingly bright flash to a backside illuminated sensor, our quick snaps came out crisply and clearly – and when we say quick, we mean it.
The UI has changed a bit to mimic that found on the Samsung Galaxy Camera, with a special mode wheel to move between items like the Macro, Beauty shot and smile setting, and while it's a little slow it's definitely an easier to use interface.
Burst mode is predictably back, but it now comes with a 'Drama' setting, so you can take one shot and see all the pictures merge into one. It works really well as long as you don't have something that's just too close to the camera or too large – in our tests it showed you need a lot of space between each movement.
Eraser mode and Cinema mode also come straight from the Nokia Lumia phones we've seen recently – the former works extremely well though, noting an unwanted object moving in the background and erasing it by drawing a pink outline around the thing and letting you delete.
However, you have to have the mode enabled, which takes multiple pics, rather than the standard shot, so you probably won't be able to make good use of it most of the time.
Cinema mode lets you shoot a short video and choose the part to keep static – this means you can have a background moving while the person stays the same, and is created in a GIF to make things properly early noughties.
You also get a 2MP camera on the front of the phone for some decent personal snaps – plus you can also get HD video recording too.
This has been updated to allow you to record video and pictures with the front and back cameras simultaneously, which doesn't really make much sense in the grand scheme of things, but at least you can put some clever frames around your face to make it more relevant.
Samsung has managed to lower the thickness of the Galaxy S4 compared to the S3 but upgraded the battery from 2,100mAh to 2,600mAh, promising a much larger capacity and therefore longer life.
However, with all those extra pixels (1080 x 1920) to drive and more cores – we're not sure whether this will actually translate to better battery life or not. Samsung has promised that the power management will be more intelligent than ever before, but we're yet to play a good half hour of HD gaming and then watch a monster movie marathon on the S4 to really test it out.
It was excellent on the S3 for the most part, so here's hoping that that octa-core will inspire even better battery life.
Features and apps
There's a whole glut of new features on offer with the Samsung Galaxy S4, with elements like a more refined method of buying media to a dedicated S Health application.
The former of these two is pretty expansive, and a clear sign that Samsung is looking to take over even more of Google's efforts into monetising Android - Play Store is one of the big ways Google looks to cash in on Android use, and Samsung's ploy to create a unified hub that offers music, books, games and movies is going to get right in the way of that.
Irrespective of that, it's a much better of way of getting content onto your device, and the line up looks very strong. We haven't had a good root around yet to see the full limits, but here's hoping it's well connected with Samsung's Music Hub and the like to provide a fully-integrated system.
S Health is an interesting proposition too - it's clearly taking the idea of wearable technology from Nike+ and FitBit and rolling it into its own ecosystem.
The application is large and wide-ranging though - from a large database of food and drink you can tap into and note what kind of calorie intake you're rocking, to a an app that lets you note how many steps you've taken that day (using the phone's accelerometer / gyroscope as a pedometer) - and it can even tell when you're running and walking separately.
Anyone that's ever used Nike+ Fuelband and the iPhone app will think this seems very similar to that - add to that the fact Samsung is also releasing S Health accessories in the shape of an S Band and a set of wireless scales, and you can see why some people might see this as copying innovation.
In reality, it's just Samsung taking some popular ideas around fitness technology and embedding them more deeply within the phone - copyright aside - and presenting it in a way that's easy to digest and schedule.
It would be brilliant if this could interact with something like Adidas MiCoach to come up with tailored running and exercise plans, but as it stands it's a more fully-formed idea than anything we've seen from Samsung in the past.
Hands on: Accessories
The mobile world may have just got a new king
The Samsung Galaxy S4 launch was characterised by many things - confusing Broadway ideas being a main theme - but that doesn't mean that the phone was the only thing worth noting.
From S Health to the ability to turn your new phone into a gaming console, the Galaxy S4 announcement also showed off some nifty new accessories for you to play with and buy from Samsung (a kind gesture, right?) when you spend all that cash on phone.
We went behind the scenes at the launch to get the inside scoop on what was happening with these new ideas, and more importantly, whether you should add them to your wishlist when the S4 launches at the end of April.
There was a lot on offer for the fitness-inclined smartphone buyer with the Galaxy S4 launch, with S Health being the new name that pulls together a number of different ideas for keeping your heart and body in check, such as the Running Mate app which apes a lot of functionality from the likes of Runkeeper, Endomondo, Nike+ and Adidas MiCoach.
The inbuilt app uses the phone accelerometer and gyroscope to track your movements for the most part, but Samsung has spotted a trick or two when it comes to accessories you can buy to make things that much easier.
These bathroom scales connect to the phone using Bluetooth and allow you to, you know, see how heavy you (and six others, with multiple profiles supported) are day to day without having to worry about all the palaver of weighing yourself on another set of scales and transferring the numbers across manually.
Which would also save you heaps of cash, in all likelihood, as we can't see these being that cheap to buy.
Then again, they look styling and the display is superbly easy to read out - and if you're something of a gadget-fiend, there's no denying it's cool to watch the weight pop up on the smartphone. Just make sure you take off 139g from your end weight if you're holding the Galaxy S4 while weighing yourself.
Wait, haven't we seen something like this before? Nike what? Plus what? Fuelband eh?
Yes, let's be honest here, this S Band is just the Korean firm getting behind the craze for new wearable tech. The band is designed for those moments when you don't want to take your phone out with you on a run, and will sync with the Galaxy S4 via Bluetooth when you come back in.
While we like the idea muchly - Nike+ isn't really that well bedded-in with Android at the moment - there's no notion over whether this will know when you've run with the phone and the band together, so you could end up with two sets of data for the same run. First world problems, eh?
Heart Rate Monitor
This is pretty much exactly as it sounds – it works with the Running Mate app, connects via Bluetooth to record said heart rate and then uses that to let you know how you're getting on intensity-wise during the run, although this won't give you prompts to raise or lower your pace as some other apps do.
S View cover
This nifty little device is, well, not really a device, more a flip cover from the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 with a small hole cut in the front so you can see notifications on your phone without having to open the case.
The idea seems a strange one, as the whole point of the cover is surely to preserve the condition of the screen – it would have been so much cooler if that front display was an e-ink display on the front of the S View cover.
At least it has some tricks of its own: you can see the time, any messages or what music is playing when the cover is closed and you hit the power button, thanks to the internal magnets that can detect when the cover is closed.
With a range of colours, we can see this being a popular choice for those that want to make their phone seem more next generation.
On top of this flip cover, you've also got the non-holey ones, more rugged cases that can stop your phone from instantly smashing the second it lands on a radiator, or a lovely pouch that will probably cost three times as much as one you can buy online. But it's OFFICIAL.
Wireless Charging Pad
Samsung has been a good little manufacturer with the Galaxy S4, and made it all wireless compatible using the Qi standard, which is being used by the likes of Nokia and LG in their phones too.
Obviously this gives Samsung the chance to pop out an official accessory as well, and with that we've got the Wireless Charging Pad.
While we were impressed with the size of the charging point – there are some out there, such as for the Nokia Lumia 920, that don't really allow the phone to sit on them properly thanks to being too small – we don't know how fast this will be able to charge the phone, which is a key consideration.
That said, it looks inoffensive enough sitting there on your bedside table, providing you have the space, and the connector cord is nicely out of the way.
Samsung Game Pad
This nifty little controller, which is coming in May just after the Samsung Galaxy S4 itself launches, is a neat idea that features an adjustable port for Samsung games that can be controlled by Bluetooth.
The pad features all manner of buttons to use, be it directional D-Pad or analogue stick, and all are made of high-quality plastic and easy to hit. The holder, which slides up and down and locks the phone in using a spring, feels a little fragile but certainly gets a tight grip on the Galaxy S4 (or Note 3, it seems…).
Playing a spot of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 on the device was awesome, as not only did the whole thing flow nicely and the graphics stay nice and fluid, but having been sad at the controller interface on a touchscreen before, we were so happy to have a fully-fledged console in our hands that simply worked.
The next trick for the Game Pad was the ability to slot your Galaxy S4 into a Samsung Smart Dock, which is wired up to the TV via HDMI, and play your games on the big screen using the controller wirelessly.
However, this is the big let down: like all smartphones that try this trick, the Samsung Galaxy S4 lags terribly between receiving the Bluetooth button commands and pushing them onscreen, which means reaction times have to almost enter another dimension to play the game properly.
Until this is fixed the awesome power of the internal GPU of the S4 isn't going to be realised, and we're a little worried it never might be – which would be a huge shame as this could be a killer feature.
Samsung says this will launch with eight games on its App Store, but will support around 80 other titles, making it a decent choice for use officially – more if you get togther with an emulator for some old-skool action.
Other bits and bobs
It wouldn't be a Samsung launch without a myriad other things being offered up to supplement your Galaxy S4 experience, and thankfully you've got that with things like a dedicated Mini HDMI Lead to connect your phone directly to the TV and a separate portable battery charger to keep your S4 juiced up when the main power pack has given up the ghost.