Friday, June 28, 2013

Samsung Galaxy S4 Review

The smartphone world has changed drastically over the past four years and Samsung has been an integral player in that change. The Galaxy S series of smartphone has been instrumental in the proliferation of Android. Last year's model, the Galaxy S III has sold a staggering 50+ million handsets and with such success everyone wondered how Samsung was going to follow up their best handset ever. In our short time with the Galaxy S4 at the Canadian launch party, it was clear that this year's Galaxy S was going to going to be a minor iteration over last year's model, but with mounting competition from Sony and HTC as well as the upcoming iPhone, will it be enough? We see if Samsung does the Galaxy S brand justice in our review of the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Overall Construction
For whatever reason, Samsung has been waging war on smartphone girth and weight for the past four years. This isn't any different with the Galaxy S4 as this is one of the thinnest and lightest phones we've handled at Android Bugle, more on that later. To achieve this Samsung has, once again, unfortunately gone with less premium materials. That being said while the phone doesn't feel as high end as its biggest competitor the One, it still feels relatively solid.

Our review unit was the white TELUS version, and like the model we reviewed last year, it felt glossier than we would like. Hand oils persist on the back of the phone until you wiped down and to be honest we wish this wasn't the case. While we don't find that there is anything explicitly wrong with plastic, the polycarbonate shell could have been executed better. A matte finish would have alleviated most is not all our complaints about the hyperglazed finish on the S4.

Like the S III before it, the S4 has a band of faux-chrome that wraps around the edges of the phone. This makes the phone look higher end but once in the hand it's fairly easy to tell that it isn't real metal. That being said, the S4 goes of a more refined look with straighter lines and less of the "nature" inspired curves, so overall we still like the design and consider it an improvement over last year's model.

At 7.9mm thick, the Galaxy S4 is significantly thinner than most smartphones in the market but wasn't overly thin as to make compromises on ergonomics like on the original Motorola RAZR. It's a nice balance between the thinness and the grip one can get on the phone. As far as weight is concerned, at 130g, the S4 is slightly lighter than its predecessor and is feathery light.

Ergonomics were just as we'd expect from such a light device. At first impressions, the phone is light to the point where people are shocked but after extensive usage the balance is about exactly where one would want a phone of this size to be. The glossy back however dampens what would be a normally reassuring grip. The less tapered edges of the S4 compared to the S III does mitigate the back somewhat as it feel like there is more area with which to hold onto the phone.

Like last year, our review unit, was by all indications, a pre-production unit that came with a few cosmetic blemishes. While these slight "war scars" will most likely be attributed to the fact we were probably not the first reviewers to get our hands on this review unit, we can't help but recommend getting a case for the S4. Also like last year's device, all S4s share the same plastic back so we expect that it should be relatively easy to find replacement covers or even custom covers online.

Samsung Galaxy S4

The Galaxy S line has been mired in controversy since its inception over the display technology used in the flagship phone. The original Galaxy S had a groundbreaking new Super AMOLED display that wowed people with its super high color saturation and insane black levels but brought a new term familiar to most tech enthusiasts called "PenTile".

Then the Galaxy II brought one of the best WVGA screens we've ever seen by dropping the much maligned PenTile pixel arrangement. Finally last year we saw Samsung's best Super AMOLED screen yet in the Galaxy S III and while PenTile made a comeback, the 720p resolution simply overpowered the usual downsides of PenTile displays.

This time around, the Galaxy S4 also has a PenTile display but instead of having pixels in an aligned grid, the shared pixels are offset between the lines creating a "diamond-like" pattern. This all probably means nothing to the end user as the quality of the image produced is all that matters and boy is it good on the S4.

One thing we were apprehensive about was the move to a 5-inch display. While the Xperia ZL did well in managing a screen of this size by reducing bezel sizes significantly the Galaxy S4 did exactly the same thing. In virtually the same physical footprint, the Galaxy S4 manages to pack in a bigger screen. Usability was just as we remembered as on the Galaxy S III so we were really impressed.

We said last year that the 720p resolution overpowered the downsides of PenTile and really that statement still holds as the 1080p display on the S4 absolutely erases any of the cons brought by the PenTile matrix. While our favorite display of the year so far on the HTC One is more pixel dense, we didn't see it being leaps better than the Super AMOLED of this generation in the S4 unlike last year where the HTC One X's display was noticeably better than the S3's display.

Like with all AMOLED displays, color saturation (especially in reds and oranges) and black levels were outstanding. But what really stood out to me were sharpness and viewing angles. The latest iteration of Samsung's Super AMOLED is the best we've seen. Sharpness was great thanks to the ultra-high pixel density at 441DPI and viewing angles were far improved from what we've previously seen as the cyan hue at off angles is almost gone.

One addition to this year's editions is probably one of the best for Canadian winters. With the new Galaxy S4 the touchscreen can be set to "Extra-high Sensitivity" to be able to be used even with gloves on. We've seen this done before on the Lumia line of Windows phone but this is a first for an Android Phone.

Overall, we came away incredibly impressed by the screen of the S4. We started the review thinking that we would have a repeat of last year's head to head battle between the Galaxy S III and One X but clearly Samsung put extra efforts to address the issue from last year. The display of the Galaxy S4 is absolutely in the same league as the One and iPhone 5.

With the Galaxy S4, Samsung went with the same button setup that the Galaxy S3 went with and our feelings haven't changed about the decision. We believe that as the world's most popular Android Phone it is detrimental to the platform to continue to use such an archaic function.

While we do understand that Samsung was trying to retain familiarity with design, this is the kind of thinking that makes companies stagnate and stop innovating. Thankfully this isn't the case with Samsung and they haven't stopped innovating but we would really love to the Galaxy S line finally either embrace on screen buttons, like on the Galaxy Camera, or just drop the menu button for a multitasking button. Despite our feelings on the presence of a menu button we have to commend the clean look of the disappearing buttons, but we have to mention that it does make it a bit of a learning curve for the menu and back button.

The hardware buttons were actually quite an improvement over previous models and that includes the home button which felt significantly more solid than on the Galaxy S III.

Battery Life
With a very impressive 2600mAh battery the Galaxy S4, on paper, should have battery life that outclasses most other phones. While we had no issues getting through a day's worth of use browsing, using maps, looking at Twitter, taking high res pics / video, etc. it wasn't the mind blowing battery life we expected.

Maybe we unfairly wanted Galaxy Note II battery life, but why would that be unreasonable. The Note II at 3100mAh isn't overly large compared to the 2600Mah battery of the S4 but unfortunately the S4 was more in the range of the HTC One's battery life. While that isn't a terrible thing as we were pretty happy with the HTC One's battery life we sort of expected more from the S4.

At the end of the day, people will choose one phone and will most probably stick with it. If a person goes with a Galaxy S4, they will probably find the battery life just about par. Of course this is pretty subjective to personal usage patterns.

Internal Hardware
Just like its predecessor, the Galaxy S4 comes in two flavors. Last year many complained that North America was getting the short end of the stick by getting the "lowly" Dual-Core Snapdragon S4 processor. Little did most pundits know how good the S4 turned out to be even against the Quad Core Exynos variant.

This time around North America got the Quad Core they wanted (on top of LTE capabilities) and the international version got the Exynos 5 Octa-Core processor. While that is impressive on paper most people will probably find it overkill and the chatter about North America getting the short end of the stick is just about non existent.

- 1.9 GHz Qualcomm Quad Core Snapdragon 600 Processor
- 2GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card slot upgradable to up to 64GB
- Adreno 320 Graphic processor
- 4G LTE and HSPA+ capable chipset (Rogers/Bell/TELUS version)
- DC-HSPA capable chipset (WIND/Mobilicity/Videotron version)
- WiFi b/g/n/ac
- 13MP camera with LED flash and 1080p video recording capabilities

After using the HTC One for a few weeks, enjoying its smooth responsiveness and hearing that the Galaxy S4 was going to be rocking slightly faster hardware and was running probably the most matured version of TouchWiz yet, we thought it would a walk in the park in terms of performance but unfortunately it wasn't the case.

We don't know if it's the fact Samsung was trying to expedite porting over TouchWiz Nature UX to Android 4.2 or if there is inherently something different between the TouchWiz on the S III and the S4 but while the overall responsiveness of the Galaxy S4 was as good as we expected, there were very minute but noticeable hiccups in animation and transitions in overall usage in the UI.

At the end of the day, there is really nothing too much to complain about on the S4 other than the slight hiccups and frame drops in animations. This means raw performance in browsing, gaming and app loading was phenomenal.

One last thing we need to mention is that the Galaxy S4's default storage capacity is 16GB. While this should be enough for a lot of people, the plethora of pre-loaded Samsung Apps takes up almost 9 out of the 16GB of storage out of the box. More on that later in the software portion of the review.

LTE/DC-HSPA 4G Capabilities
Our specific review unit was a TELUS version, so please keep in mind when looking at the speedtest results. For the most part in LTE covered area, speeds were never lower than 25mbps and reached speeds of up to 40mbps. In our experience in Montreal TELUS' network was pretty good but did have spots where we would fall to the much slower HSPA+ and those tests ended up in the 4-7mbps range.

Again we have to stress that these tests were run in the Greater Metropolitan area of Montreal, so your speed will vary on your location.

Speaker and microphone
Overall the Galaxy S4 was pretty darn good performer when it came to Speaker and microphone performance. Calls were clear and from both ends and were what we expect from a high end Android device.

The loudspeaker was as good as you expect from a rear mounted speaker. Sadly this is a far cry from the stereo front facing speakers on the rival HTC One.

Cameras on phone have gotten to the point where their quality are quite easy comparable to point and shoot devices. In fact we wouldn't be surprised of a decline in digital camera sales because of how good smartphone cameras have gotten. That being said, the camera on the Galaxy S4 is the best overall smartphone camera we've reviewed.

While it's well known to most enthusiasts that megapixels aren't the whole story when it comes to picture quality, it hasn't stopped consumers from clinging onto it as their benchmark of choice and most certainly hasn't stopped the megapixel wars going on in the mobile space.

The Galaxy S4 is equipped with a 13 megapixel camera matching the Xperia ZL in pixel count and easily outdoing the HTC One's 4MP Ultrapixel camera. But the results clearly show how MP count isn't everything, as shots were much sharper and color accurate than the Xperia ZL and displayed a ton more detail than the One in good sunlight. In low light performance was decent but unfortunately not up to par with the One.

Last year we lamented how the Galaxy S III's camera software suite was lacking slightly as it basically was comparable to the S II's camera software. However, this year, our complaints have all been addressed, as the camera software from the Galaxy Camera has been basically grafted onto the S4 and provides one of the richest camera application in terms of sheer number of features.

From the various shooting modes available like, Drama shot, Sports, Night, Beauty Shot, Panorama, Eraser, HDR and Best photo to ultra-fine camera controls like ISO, White Balance and Exposure the Galaxy S4 caters to both the amateur and more enthusiast photographer. Some software features, like the Dual Camera picture in picture capabilities doesn't really exude usefulness outside of the random "selfie". Much like a vanity shot with a twist, we can see the being useful for some but definitely not all.

As with still, 1080p Full HD video recording was simply phenomenal. With great amount of detail, good color reproduction, fast exposure adjustment and little to no motion blur on fast moving objects.

Sample Pictures


Samsung TouchWiz Nature UX /w Android 4.2.2
With the Galaxy S4, Samsung focus was clearly dead set on improving the already rich software features of the Galaxy S III. On top of the existing Nature UX features like, S Voice, S Memo, S Beam and Smart Stay, Samsung went all out with new features in the Galaxy S4.

Much of the general experience using the S4 was just about identical to our experience with the S III and to be honest that is a good thing. Galaxy S II users upgraded to Jelly Bean have been treated to a lighter version of Nature UX that might not have all the bells and whistles but give users the same general user experience. This is a good thing for those S II users thinking of upgrading to the S4 as the transition should be pretty seamless.

Existing features from the SIII like S Memo, S Beam, EasyMode, MultiWindow, and Smart Stay stayed relatively the same with basically the same feature set. EasyMode is of course aimed at simplifying the smartphone user Experience for smartphone novices and MultiWindow was a highly touted feature that debuted on the Galaxy Note II allowing users to simultaneously use two apps at a time.

S Voice on the other hand got a bit of an upgrade as response time and accuracy has been improved significantly. That being said, it still isn't up to par with Siri on the iPhone or even Google's own Google Now. In fact, when doing searches on S Voice users are redirected to Google Now since it is built into the Google Search capabilities.

New features on the S4 include Smart Scroll, S Health, S Translate, Easy Mode, MultiWindow (from Galaxy Note II), Air View, Air Gestures, TV Guide Capabilities and even a revamped Samsung App Store.

Smart Scroll is something of an extension to the existing Smart Stay capabilities of the S series. How it works is that when looking at a website for example, Smart Scroll will track the user's head and scroll the page appropriately depending on the tilt of the user's head. We found this feature to work about 75% of the time but really took more effort than scrolling a page normally with a finger. We also noted that this feature only worked with Samsung apps like their Browser and not in Chrome.

Smart Pause is also in the same vein as Smart Stay and Smart Pause, as it tracks user's eyes to see if they are looking at the screen while a video is playing. When the user's attention remains on the video the playback continues and when the user looks away it pauses till the user focuses on the video once again. In our experience this feature works about 95% of the time. The only times we really had trouble was when multiple people were watching a video on the phone. It did get a bit finicky but nothing major.

S Health is something of a novelty as far as OEM's are concerned as this is the first time a manufacturer has put effort into a feature that traditionally has been served by third party companies like Nike and FitBit. With S Health users can tracks their steps, calories, sleep, and diet. With the aid of its temperature and humidity sensors can also notify users of their current health status. Samsung will probably look to augment S Health's capabilities with compatible accessories this delving into the relatively untapped by lucrative "health" segment of smartphone usage.

S Translate is something of clone of Google Translate and much like S Voice feels like a bit of needless redundancy for existing Google software. While this isn't something we find particularly harmful to the overall user experience it seems like this kind of redundancy is what lead to so much of the internal storage to be used up on the Galaxy S4.

AirView was one of two new features the S4 that were really emphasized during the London unveiling of the S4. Similarly to AirView on the Galaxy Note II, previews are shown for various content like SMS, videos, pictures, etc by hovering a finger slightly above the touchscreen. This like other features have only worked on Samsung made apps and while useful limits its potential usage should a user decide to use third party apps.

Air Gestures is the second of the two S4 features that got a lot of talk as this allowed users to control their touch screen phone without using the touchscreen. Again like AirView, it seems pretty cool in concept but really has limit use scenarios limiting its usefulness.

With the included IR Blaster the S4 also delves into your living room with TV Guide capabilities. Once setup with the correct TV service providers and inputs for TVs and receivers, the S4 really does replace the remote control quite effectively.

Lastly we noticed a pre-loaded Samsung App Store. Now we're not one to highlight "bloatware" but this has to be mentioned. For all intents and purposes, people will looks to get a large selection of applications for their new Galaxy S4 and that need is more than satisfied by the Google Play store. Thus we aren't sure what the need for a Samsung curated Apps store is. In the context of something like the business OS of a KNOX enabled work phone it makes sense. But for the best user experience we really wish Samsung wouldn't invest time and resource into developing redundant software like this and spent it on more innovative software features.

Overall, we like the value that the total package of features the S4 brings to the table, despite the long term "usefulness" of these features. It might not all be useful to everyone, but there is a good chance the one or more of these features will be a big selling point for a number of people. We're also very glad to see Samsung's flagship launch once again with the latest version of Android. While 4.2.2 isn't big an upgrade as previous version it's still good to see nothing is left out for the user.


As tech writers we all knew that the Galaxy S4 was coming, just like we know the Galaxy S5 is already being worked on as we speak. But the Galaxy S III was arguably the first real worldwide mainstream Android phone. That then begs the question of how would Samsung improve on what was arguably the best Android device of all time.

World class display, phenomenal camera and plethora of software features. That's how they topped the Galaxy S III with the Galaxy S4. But sadly for Samsung they don't compete in a bubble and not only have to best their previous offering but those of other OEMs looking to push the envelope and competitors have been pushing the industry forward with their own innovation. We still believe the Galaxy S4 will be a top selling device and with a reported 10 million units shipped it seems to be the case. At the end of the day the Galaxy S4 is one of the top smartphones in the world, it just simply leaves us wanting a little more.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 8.5/10
- Again, Samsung uses non-inspiring materials to put together the Galaxy S4. Still provides great ergonomics on an even larger screen.

Screen: 10/10
- Best Super AMOLED screen to date and shortens the gap between IPS/LCD to where there is little to no visual differences.

Buttons: 8/10
- Again, we understand Samsung's need for continuity for the previous Galaxy S owners but the harm it does to the Android ecosystem is significant. Hardware buttons have improved and felt good.

Internal Hardware: 10/10
- Overall responsiveness was great with a few hiccups that we sure can be resolved. LTE speeds were great on TELUS' network.

Battery Life: 8.5/10
- Good battery life. Better than the HTC One, but not by as much as we expected.

Speaker and Microphone: 8.5/10
- Good earpiece and microphone. Loudspeaker performance is par for a smartphone but nothing compared to HTC's Boomsound.

Camera: 10/10
- Best smartphone all-round camera period.

UI Changes: 8.5/10
- Pretty much the same experience as the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II's version of TouchWiz

Addition Enhancements: 10/10
- Novelty of features wears off quick with limited use cases for features. Various "S" features are relatively useful but are probably not used often enough to justify them to be very innovative.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 8/10
- Pristine installation of Android except TELUS App House. Score normalized for different configurations per carrier.

Final Score: 9.0/10

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