It’s hard to know where to start with the Samsung Galaxy S4. After months of rumours, leaks, hyperbole and more than one launch event, this is undoubtedly the most lusted after Android Smartphone to date. In fact, we’d say that interest in the phone before launch was at least as high as for upcoming Apple phones, including the iPhone 5S and iPhone 6.
Now we finally have an S4 to review, just two simple questions remain. Most importantly, is this the best smartphone you can buy today? But also, has Samsung taken a big step forward over last year’s S3 or is this more an evolution of that handset?
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At first glance you’d have to err towards an evolution. The S3 certainly isn’t a phone to show off with; not that it doesn’t look rather pretty, but more because it’s almost unrecognizable from its predecessor unless you look up close. This is no bad thing in our opinion as it didn’t attract any unwanted attention on the train home, unlike an iPhone 5 just after its release.
The new handset appears to retain the same white plastic finish, but look closer and you’ll see a fine diamond pattern beneath the gloss surface. It’s a nice touch, and one subtle enough to avoid accusations of unnecessary bling.
Given its big 4.99in display, the S4 is surprisingly svelte. It measures just 136.6×69.8×7.9mm and weighs only 130g. That makes it both smaller overall and lighter than both its immediate rivals, the Sony Xperia Z and our current favorite, the HTC One.
From the front the most obvious change is the thinner screen bezels, both down the edges and at other end. This puts the screen just 2.5mm away from the edge of the device and it’s becoming hard to imagine this distance getting any smaller without seriously compromising the survivability of the handset when dropped. The sides have been squared off, compared to the S3, which makes it easier to grip though it looks a little chunkier for it.
The areas above and below the screen are now far smaller, which has significantly reduced the amount of space for the physical home button and touch sensitive menu and back commands. This could have made them awkward, but the button needs an appreciably lighter press and we had no trouble hitting the touch sensitive controls.
Despite the back being removable, which has advantages we’ll discuss later, the S4 doesn’t suffer overly for this practicality. The rear panel fits snug against the body with no flex or shift. When in place, the handset feels like a single piece of tech.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is among the best-looking plastic phones we’ve ever seen. It’s a decent evolution from the S3, ironing out plenty of the minor flaws that its predecessor had. These include a USB port that didn’t look very well cut out and a rear case that had quite a loose fit; with the S4, it feels that much more finished and as though more attention has been paid to the detail.
Having said that it’s a very conservative design purely from a look and feel perspective we prefer the aluminum HTC One. The curved back and sharp corners make it look far more striking that the rather amorphous blob of the S4; plus HTC has squeezed in a pair of front mounted speakers onto the One, as we’ll discuss later. However, as a piece of practical engineering the S4 is simply superior, because it fits a noticeably larger display into a similarly sized handset. You simply can’t get more screen than this in your pocket for the size or weight.
The S4 is better designed from an ergonomic point of view. The HTC One’s power button at the top of the phone is beautifully designed, it doesn’t stick out but it responds reliably when you press it (once you’ve got the hang of where it is). The problem is its position, having pressed it with your forefinger you can’t then reach the buttons below the screen with your thumb. The S4’s right-hand-side power button has a far more traditional and boring look, but at least you can use the handset one handed without having to shift your grip constantly.
This is the first Smartphone to use an AMOLED display with a Full HD resolution. Measuring 4.99in across this gives it an on-paper pixels-per-inch figure of 441, up from 306PPI on the Galaxy S3. As always, it’s worth noting that the display uses a pentile arrangement of subpixels with two colors per pixel, rather than three – which means its actual resolution is less than equivalent LCD displays.
This is less of a problem on a Full HD display than it was previously. The incredibly high number of pixels-per-inch makes the lack of refinement, usually apparent on the edges of text, practically unnoticeable. Furthermore, the incredible contrast you get from an AMOLED display more than makes up for any small perceivable loss of detail.
In practical use there’s far less difference between this and the LCD HTC One than their technology would suggest. The penile pixel arrangement doesn’t seem to noticeably affect detail on the S4, while the contrast on the HTC One was also excellent. The colors on the S4 are a little richer at any given brightness, but then the HTC One is far brighter at its maximum setting, handy on sunny days – although run it that way all the time and your battery life will be severely diminished.
Speaking of brightness, Samsung’s controls are far better, with a brightness slider always present on the notifications drop down menu. This also lets you tweak the auto brightness settings, allowing you to have it a few steps brighter, or dimmer, than the variable default. By comparison the HTC One makes you dig in the menus to adjust it and offers no such tweaking of the auto setting
Having said all that, the biggest difference is simply that the S4’s screen is bigger. It’s not a huge deal when using apps day to day, sending texts, or hammering out a quick email, but for browsing desktop website sites, playing games and watching video clips it’s a big plus.