Samsung Galaxy S4 Review

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is arguably the most highly anticipated phone of 2013, at least so far. After all, with the massive success of the S III, the S4 has big footsteps to follow in.

The design of the S4 is hardly an overhaul, instead the S4 looks nearly identical to the S4, and it’s just a bit slimmer and lighter than the S III, yet it manages to pack in a larger 5″ full HD Super AMOLED screen, along with a higher capacity 2,600 mAH battery. Samsung has managed to pack in this extra large LCD by making the bezel smaller. Yet at the same time, they have tweaked the polycarbonate body design and have made the home and volume buttons bigger. Overall, the S4 design is an improvement over its predecessor, but it’s not as ground breaking a design as the likes of the HTC One.

Of course, the Super AMOLED display on the S4 is nothing short of brilliant. This is one of the best smartphone displays around, with super vivid, vibrant and bright colors, and plenty of display real estate to enjoy it on. And thanks to the 1080P resolution and 441 ppi, the great photos you’ll be taking with the S4′s camera will be able to shine through on its display with clarity and detail. Likewise, HD videos look superb.

Camera

It’s not about what the 13MP camera on the S4 can do, but really, what can’t it do! Samsung has packed in a crazy rich feature set into the S4, including some features we never knew we wanted or needed. And most of these features work quite well! Dual camera mode lets you use the front facing and rear camera mode at the same time, and this even works for video too. Again, this isn’t something we ever thought we needed, but it’s kind of fun to play with. Smart modes help add polish to your photos, with Instagram-like effects. Drama mode lets you taking multiple exposure shots for a neat dramatic effect. Eraser mode is for those times when you’re trying to take a photo and a stranger gets in the photo. Then, Animated Photo basically lets you create animated gifs on the fly. There are also different shooting speeds for filming, and that includes slow modes as well as a high speed mode for a more comical effect. Voice control can be used on the camera for camera commands too.

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As for camera performance, in general, it’s quite peppy and able to snap super quick shots. And like with its predecessors, the camera on the S4 is top notch. It’s able to produce sharp photos with vivid colors. Unfortunately, the flash doesn’t always behave as well as we would like it too. Low light performance is quite good, as are night shots, if not the best out there. And thanks to the S4′s amazing display, you really get to see what the photos look like in all their vivid glory, right on the spot.



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Testing out Dual Camera mode at the S4 Launch in New York City with Bruno Mars. Dual Camera allowed us to see the screaming crowd behind us, while keeping our eyes on Bruno.

Bells & Whistles

When it comes to features, the S4 packs in everything but the kitchen sink. Heck, at this rate they might really include an actual kitchen sink in the S5. In any case, the S4 offers so many new innovative features, it will make your head spin. Lucky then, that Samsung has had the foresight to offer an Easy Mode option. Easy Mode offers an extremely simplified user interface, with a simpler home screen consisting of bigger fonts, and icons. This mode really suitable for those upgrading from a feature phone. Overall, the whole concept of Easy Mode is something we would like to see offered on more Android devices. And aside from Easy Mode, fortunately, because there’s a lot to learn, Samsung’s Startup wizard does a good job of helping you learn about key features.

But going back to the spiffy new features, lets begin with Air Gesture. This feature allows you to wave your hand over the phone when you want to browse a web page, through photos, or answer a call. The concept is quite futuristic and it kind of makes us feel like we’re playing Kinect on our phone, but with less accuracy and responsiveness then you get from gesture interaction on game consoles. That said, hopefully software updates will improve its accuracy and responsiveness. But even so, Air Gesture in general is just not a must have feature for your phone.

On the other hand, Air View in our opinion, is more practical than Air Gesture. Air View was first introduced on the Samsung Galaxy Note II when used with an S Pen. However, an S Pen is no longer needed to use Air View. Air View technology adds information density to the screen without adding clutter. So for example, all you have to do is hover about 2 centimeters above the email client and you can get an email preview. Hover over calendar days and you get additional information. Similarly, Air View offers additional information in several apps, including extra functionality in apps like Flip Board, and the Samsung Speed Dial, etc.

Smart Scroll and Pause are two more neat new tricks, err, features, on the S4. Smart Scroll lets you tilt your device to scroll, while Smart Pause will automatically pause a video when yoo look away from a screen. We find the latter feature to be pretty unreliable. Smart Scroll is more reliable, but it doesn’t seem as efficient to use as good old touch interaction.

Then there is the Group Play feature which lets multiple S4 phones joint together to play a video game, or to join all of their speakers together in tandem. This feature works pretty well, and is pretty neat, but how often it will be actually put to use is another question altogether.

Thanks to a built-in IR blaster, Samsung has also made the S4 double as universal remote. They have complimented this remote function with the WatchON app, which is is quite slick. This app works as an all-in-one smart remote, recommendation engine and program guide.

And it’s worth noting, that if you have a 2012 or 2013 Samsung TV (certain models only) and you use the Samsung Smart View app, you can mirror what you’re watching on the TV onto the S4.

Also, Samsung Hub has been redesigned and is slicker than ever before. The Samsung Hub is where you can purchase and rent movies and music. And the Samsung Hub library is quite impressive. Also, its latest U.I. overhaul is very nice. As a matter of fact, it’s new U.I. is very reminiscent of the clean Windows 8 U.I – and that isn’t a bad thing.

The Optical Reader app lets you translate words on the fly using the S4′s camera and S Translate technology In practice, this feature works pretty well, but it’s only suitable really for short phrases on signs and menus. The optical reader is also able to read QR codes.

Last but not last, the new Story Album app lets you take your photos and have them published straight to a hard copy photo book, which is produced by Blurb. So basically, your able to create photo books on the fly that will be delivered straight to your doorstep.

If you’re looking for more about the major new features on the S4, Gizmodo has put together an awesome video of the new features in action, which you can see here.

Performance

The S4 is running on a powerful 1.9GHz Snapdragon 600 processor with 2GB of RAM and LTE support. In Quadrant, the phone earned an INCREDIBLE benchmark score of 12218. Battery life is quite good too for such a robust and powerful phone – you’ll get nearly a full day out of the phone with moderate use.

Accessories

Fortunately, like with the S III, Samsung is dedicated to producing a whole slew of cool accessories for the S4. That includes everything from TV adapters to health related accessories. They have also introduced a clever new case design, the S View Flip Cover. Like with the Galaxy Note Flip Cover, since it replaces the back cover altogether, this smartly designed case adds minimal thickness to your phone. This time however, Samsung has left a clear window on the front cover, so that the phone can be used, even when the cover is closed. That means that even with the cover closed, you can swipe to accept your calls, or to dismiss them. And thanks to a magnet, the New S View cover is also able to turn off the S4′s display when you close it. And of-course there is the benefit that with its clear window you can view the time and incoming calls. Overall, we love the this accessory. Our only gripe is that the cover flap doesn’t stay flush to the S4′s display the way the iPad’s smart cover does.

Verdict

Samsung has packed in a ton of innovation with the S4, but a lot of the new features feel like parlor tricks. At the end of the day we really like the S4 for its excellent display, performance, great battery life, excellent camera and multitasking features. The other bonus features like Air Gesture, Smart Scroll, etc, are not what makes the S4 a great phone, but they are kind of like the icing on the cake and a vision of perhaps what’s to come. On the other hand, more practical new features like WatchON and the built-in IR Remote, the Easy Mode option, and improved system tray, are all welcome additions, while other features like Air View and Air Gesture don’t feel nearly as necessary. Lets not forget that like with the Galaxy Note II, Samsung has packed in tons of multitasking features into the TouchWiz U.I. on the S4. And while it’s disappointing that some of these new cutting edge features don’t work as well as we’d like them too, that doesn’t mean that the S4 isn’t a phone at the top of its class.

All in all, the S4 is a smartphone to contend with. Its performance, form factor, amazing display, healthy battery life, great camera and neat multitasking features, help make it one of the hottest smartphones you can get. We tested the U.S. variant of the S4 for Sprint. The S4 is coming to all 4 major carriers and it will arrive at AT&T stores on April 27th, with pre-orders starting on April 25th. Wireless charging and health accessories for the S4 will be coming in June.

The Good: Brilliant display – which is a massive improvement over the display on the S III, slim and lightweight form-factor, Expandable memory and removable battery, built-in IR blaster for using the phone as a TV remote, Easy Mode is welcome addition, tons of multitasking features are built into the Samsung TouchWiz U.I., camera takes great photos and has loads of neat features, optional S View Cover accessory is super neat, voice commands work well, excellent video recording quality, blazing fast performance, touchscreen is responsive to gloves!

The Bad: Polycarbonate body creates a slippery grip, hardware design and materials aren’t the nicest out there, some new features like Smart Pause / Smart Scroll and Air Gesture / Air View can be frustrating to use, the touchscreen wasn’t responsive to gloves for us.

Update 4/28/2013: It turns out that the reason our S4 wasn’t responding to the touch of a pair of gloves, was because we didnt have the “High Touch Sensitivity” setting enabled. With that setting turned on, the S4 does quite miraculously respond to just about any pair of gloves. However, if it’s a thicker glove, it requires applying some pressure because the display seems to require that some of your body heat comes through in order for it to work. In any case, this is the first capacitive smartphone we have ever used that works with non-touchscreen specific gloves and that is super neat!



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Update 5/10/2013:
We got a hold of AT&T’s variant of the Galaxy S4 and have run some speed tests on it. Overall, the web surfing performance is on par with the experience the S III offers on AT&T’s 4G LTE network, which is pretty much to be expected.

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