Samsung is already on its fourth iteration of its highly popular and successful Galaxy S line. It is now pretty obvious that the Galaxy line made Samsung the No. 1 smartphone brand worldwide. With competition inching closer, the question remains if Samsung can maintain the wide lead. Read our Samsung Galaxy S4 review to find out.
The Galaxy S4 comes in a number of variant combinations — White Frost and Black Mist colors as well as Exynos or Snapdragon chip with either 3G/HSPA+ or LTE, depending on the region.
For the Philippines, we are expecting both the Exynos and Snapdragon variant with LTE but for the purpose of this review we are using the Snapdragon 600 model in White Frost.
Design and Construction.
The Galaxy S4 did not depart much from the design of its predecessor, the Galaxy S3. There were a lot of refinements introduced but the basic size and form factor remained almost the same.
Side by side: Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S3
In order to add that 0.199 inches of display (diagonally), Samsung tried to narrow down the size of the bezel. There’s probably a millimeter or two shaved off from the side and about half a centimeter extension towards the home button at the bottom end.
This approach allowed the Galaxy S4 to have a smaller foot-print compared to the other 5-inch, full HD smartphones that have been released earlier (i.e., HTC Butterfly, Sony Xperia Z). In some instances, because of the relatively smaller body, it might give people the impression that it has a smaller display size. That impression could either work for or against the Galaxy S4, depending on who’s looking for what.
In hindsight, by retaining the body size, the Galaxy S4 ended up being more comfortable on the hands. It fits right well and does not overwhelm on prolonged use. Compared to the HTC Butterfly or the Xperia Z, we can still hold and type an SMS with one hand instead of two, effortlessly. Again, this is subjective as it will depend on the size of your hands and the comfort level of using one or both hands.
The finish has a unique texture design that reminds us of the patterns used in the Nexus 4 and Optimus G (with the S4, though, the pattern is both at the back and front). The pattern beneath the polished exterior is more subtle and will only be prominent at a certain angle.
The power button is found in the right side of the device while the volume rocker is on the left. The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top side along with a noise-canceling microphone and an IR Blaster. At the front is the physical home button flanked by two soft buttons for Menu and Back. The 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera is on the top corner and paraded by 3 more sensors.
At the rear are the 13-megapixel camera with the LED flash just below it as well as the speaker grills at the bottom left corner.
The device less plasticky compared to the Galaxy S3 despite the fact that they use the same polycarbonate materials. The silver trimming around the corners look and feels metallic but it’s also polycarbonate as well. The S4 feels more compact and has that premium feel to it. The glossy body can be slippery especially if you have sweaty or oily palm.
Samsung’s makes their own display and they’ve fully invested in AMOLED/PLS technology so it is no surprise that they’ll employ a full HD 1080p Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy S4. This display type has been used for a long time already so it’s nothing new except for the fact that Samsung packed it with a twice more pixels.
With a pixel density of 441ppi, the Galaxy S4 stands side-by-side the HTC Butterfly and the Xperia Z with the highest resolution in any smartphone we’ve ever tested and reviewed.
Without a doubt, the S4 has one of the most impressive smartphone displays — rich and vibrant colors, wide viewing angles, high contrast and color saturation.
BB Z10, Galaxy S4, One X+, iPhone 5: Notice the bluish tint when the Galaxy S4 display is turned off.
Unfortunately, the only thing that we noticed though is displaying white color tends become a bit greenish/yellowish. This is evident once you place it side by side another display that uses an IPS panel (just launch a browser and set to a white blank page). Even in the off state, the screen has a bluish tinge to it. This is a characteristic that all other AMOLED displays have.
OS, Apps and UI.
Samsung has obviously placed a lot of focus on making their TouchWiz UI more palatable to the growing sophistication of Android users. The Galaxy S4 comes with Android 4.2.2 Jellybean right out of the box but Samsung made sure that their UI layer and the accompanying features can do so much more.
They highlighted four experiences and created apps to cater to them (Fun, Relationship, Life Task, Life Care). To some, it might just look like bloatware but there are instances that it could be useful or fun to use.
Of course, there are 3rd-party apps that function similarly which you can install in any Android smartphone. Samsung made sure that there are hardware sensors that go along with it so the features are more functional and accurate.
The built-in features might have equivalent 3rd-party apps in the Play Store but it’s nice to know that Samsung is doing way more than what a regular Android licensee is doing on the software front. Maybe, it is also Samsung’s way to diminish the brand value that Google is heavily imposing on the platform.
Usability seems to be getting a lot of attention with Samsung and as such, features like Smart Scroll, Smart Pause, S Translator, and Air Gestures might come in handy in some rare cases. It’s a neat trick but we could not definitively point if it’s a genius stroke of modern usability or just a complex gesture of gimmickry.
For the usual texting and calling, the virtual keyboard and keypad of the S4 works well, although we wish the qwerty keys were wider. We we’re thoroughly impressed that Samsung manages to kick in Android 4.2.2 Jellybean right out of the box when most other handsets struggle at getting 4.1 at launch.
Multimedia & Camera.
Perhaps one of the most comprehensive developments Samsung has ever made for the Galaxy S4 was its multimedia features. It is the very first flagship smartphone from Sammy to sport an IR blaster (following the likes of the Galaxy Note 10.1, Note 8.0, Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus). If you have a nice Samsung LED TV at home, the IR Blaster (Samsung WatchON) could get very handy. In some cases, it can also control certain cable boxes and DVD players.
The 13-megapixel shooter does not add anything optically superior to other Galaxy phones like the S3 or the Note 2, except obviously for the bump in the megapixels. What makes it more exciting for regular customers though is the plethora of camera tricks it can do — Sound & Shot, Dual Camera, Drama Shot, Story Album. Our favorite is the anti-photobombing feature.
Same goes with the video recording. It’s the first time we’ve seen the rear and front-facing camera capture video at the same time, and at 1080p resolution.
The rear and front camera of the S4 are already very good but if you’ve been using the S3 or the Note for sometime, don’t expect any more improvement that what you’ve been getting.
Group Play, a feature that allows you to share and play music from one S4 to multiple other S4 devices all at the same time, is also something we wanted to test out but that requires several Galaxy S4 to demonstrate.
Performance and Benchmarks.
The Galaxy S4 performs really well, navigation and transitions are smooth, has efficient multi-tasking while running all other sensors at the background.
Our Quadrant benchmark places the S4 i9505 at the top of the heap with a score of 12,413. For Antutu Benchmark, the S4 i9505 got a whooping 28,444, the highest score we’ve ever seen anywhere. We did expect the NenaMark 2 score of 60.2fps so nothing surprising there.
The Galaxy S4 manages to cut thru anything we throw at it, from graphics-intensive games to full HD movies even while a dozen other apps are running on the background. The split screen function allows for two active windows to simultaneously work and even if both apps are resource-intensive, we didn’t see the unit choked for even a second.
Call Quality, Connectivity and Battery Life.
After about two weeks of using the Galaxy S4, we’ve never had a single problem with calls or SMS although that’s really dependent on the location and network (we used a Globe LTE nano-SIM from our iPhone 5). Calls are clear and crisp, same as with sending and receiving SMS. The old Samsung call features such as Direct Call does work its wonders (especially when you’re driving).
As for connectivity, we’re pretty satisfied with the speed the LTE network gave us — our highest downlink speed was 26Mbps and highest uplink speed was 17Mbps (using Globe LTE). NFC has made it more convenient to pair and transfer files on the go, although we sometimes hit a bump when doing the tap-dance with other brands/OS (like in the case of the BB Z10).
As for battery life, the 2600mAh Li-Ion battery does a good job at getting us a full day of moderate to heavy use; a little over a day for casual to moderate use; and a total of about 4-5 hours when used solely as WiFi hotspot running on LTE.
What we did to standardize our battery bench was to run a 1 hour & 45-minute movie (1080p MP4) in a loop at 50% brightness and 0% audio volume (to simulate usage when on headphones). The battery stress test gave us an average of 11.5 hours of movie playback.
For mobile connectivity, we are able to register a high of 26Mbps downlink and 17Mbps for uplink using the LTE nano-SIM from Globe. We believe the S4 is also the first handset to have the WiFi 802.11ac standard that offers high-bandwidth speeds on the 5GHz band. This will prove useful when streaming content to other devices, like a TV, over WiFi network.
It’s pretty obvious Samsung is putting more focus now on the software aside from the hardware. This is evident with the new TouchWiz UI, the loaded Camera App, the multitude of environmental sensors (barometer, temperature, humidity), and the polishing of the ecosystem and user-experience.
It would have been easy to conclude that the Galaxy S4 is merely a more polished and well-designed version of the Galaxy S3, and in some aspects, it holds true. However, we think Samsung has moved on to the next layer of perfecting their handsets while competitors are just starting to catch up on the hardware front.
Nevertheless, we think the Galaxy S4 has almost everything any customer would expect from a flagship device — an impressive set of hardware, a more refined design, a polished user-interface, a great camera plus all the bells and whistles that Samsung can think of (yes, we see a hint of Apple-envy here).
With a suggested retail price of Php30,990, we believe Samsung will continue to sell a gazillion of these babies this year.
Samsung Galaxy S4 i9505 specs:
4.99-inch display full HD Super AMOLED @ 1920x1080p, 441ppi
Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.9GHz quad-core
Adreno 320 Graphics
2GB LP-DDR3 RAM
16, 32GB, 64GB
Up to 64GB microSD
HSPA+, LTE 100Mbps (6 bands)
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/ac, dual-band WiFi Direct
GPS w/ aGPS support
13MP autofocus, rear camera with LED flash
1080p video recording @ 30fps
2MP front-facing camera
1080p video recording @ 30fps
Li-Ion Battery 2600mAh
Android 4.2.2 Jellybean
What we liked about it:
* Top-notch performance
* Very high display resolution
* Great camera performance and features
* High-speed LTE connectivity
* NFC functions and features
* IR Blaster
* Good battery life
What we did not like:
* More gimmicky features and bloatware