Power and performance
At its unveiling, Samsung made a big song and dance about how the Galaxy S4 is the first octa-core phone -- that's eight cores. Technically, it's actually a four-plus-four situation -- it doesn't ever use all eight at the same time -- but that's something of a moot point, as Samsung currently isn't planning to bring the eight-core model to the UK.
Instead, we'll have the quad-core variant. Yes, yes, boo and indeed hiss, but don't get too upset just yet. More cores doesn't necessarily mean more speed -- a nippy dual-core chip can provide better results than some quad-core chips (the Nexus 10 tablet is dual-core, but it's superbly powerful). The quad-core chip on board is a burly 1.9GHz affair, paired up with a hearty 2GB of RAM which is enough junk to rock the most bulbous of trunks.
To see how it stacks up against the competition, I had to throw some benchmark tests at it. To give you a quick spoiler, it's an astonishing powerhouse of a phone. I fired up the Geekbench benchmark tool and was given the whopping score of 3,087. That not only beats the score of any other phone I've ever tested, but it's actually starting to trouble some laptops. Acer's Aspire V5, for example, achieved 3,900 in the same test.
The HTC One racked up around 2,500, while the Xperia Z achieved a little over 2,000. They're all superb scores, but the S4 blows them out of the water. You shouldn't expect a smoother, more swift experience though. Even the older hardware on the Galaxy S3 has the power to easily tackle almost anything you're likely to throw at it. With the S4's more potent hardware you can tackle more things at once, but your overall experience won't be any smoother.
Flicking between the various homescreens was free of lag, opening menus was immediate and it didn't bat an eyelid with multiple Web browser tabs or multi-tasking using the split-screen app view. Gaming fans will be pleased to know that it tackled the glorious racer Real Racing 3 with extremely smooth frame rates, and the only thing slowing me down in Shadowgun: DeadZone was my almost complete lack of skill.
Full HD video playback looked glorious thanks to both the graphical prowess of the processor and the extremely vibrant screen. There was absolutely no stuttering or frame rate drop to be seen.
The S4's camera has seen a bump from the 8 megapixels you'll find on the S3, up to a mighty 13 megapixels. That's rivalling the megapixels of the Sony Xperia Z and it's a massive jump over the 4 megapixels of the HTC One. Pixel count isn't everything though -- HTC boasts that its fewer pixels are bigger, resulting in better quality -- so it's important to see how it really performs.
In my original tests the S4 put up a good fight, but to see how it really stacks up against the competition, I took it for a spin alongside the HTC One, Sony Xperia Z, iPhone 5, Nokia Lumia 920 and the Galaxy S3 (click images to see full size versions). I've included some example shots here, but if you want to see all the tests, head over to the full camera test.
The S4 managed to come out tops in nearly every test. In London's Borough Market, it produced a rich, colourful and sharp image of this lovely fruit. By comparison, The HTC One was a little washed out while the Lumia 920 had very cold colours. It performed similarly well with HDR scenes (shown below) and indoor shots, so long as there was sufficient lighting.
The S4 fell down in low-light conditions though. Without flash, its picture was very dark, grainy and suffered from image noise. The Lumia 920 however managed to capture the scene brilliantly, with bright colours, good detail and low image noise. If low light photography is your chief concern, the 920 is probably a better option.
Another point to note is that the S4 has quite a narrow field of view, so if you're hoping to do a lot of wide, sweeping landscape shots, the HTC One might be more suitable. The HTC One produced generally good images, but its 4-megapixel sensor just doesn't provide the level of detail achieved by the S4. That won't be a problem for Facebook snaps but if you want to order large prints -- or crop into an image -- go for the S4.
Along with the now compulsory panorama, burst mode and HDR functions, you'll find some extra Samsung-specific camera tricks too. The most unusual of which is called Dual Shot. It allows you to take a photo with the main camera and superimpose your own face over the top using the front-facing camera.
The idea is to allow you to get into the scene too. I personally think it's hilariously daft and I doubt I'd ever really want to use it seriously. Jessica Dolcourt warmed to the feature in her review though, and both Luke Westaway and Rich Trenholm seemed to have fun with it, so I guess I'm just a bit of a stick in the mud.
Up next in "things you didn't ask for, but got anyway" is Sound & Shot. It lets you take a photo while recording nine seconds of audio. Samsung reckons it's a great way to add context to an image -- hearing your daughter practice the violin with a photo to go with it, for example. Personally, I'd rather capture it in video, particularly as you can only share the sound shots with other S4 owners.
You'll also find a mode called Drama Shot. It takes multiple photos of an action sequence and stitches them all together, showing the movement take place across an unchanging background. The HTC One rocks a similar feature, so I headed into the sunny London streets to see which came out best. While the S4's image quality was better -- it was much brighter, bolder and clearer -- it didn't do a great job at stitching the different scenes together. The HTC One's was dull in comparison, but stitched them together seamlessly.
Animated Photo will be familiar to those of you who ever used the Cinemagram app on the iPhone or the Cinemagraph feature on any of Nokia's Lumia phones. You're able to selectively animate certain portions of a moving scene to loop into an odd, often quite creepy GIF image.
It's sometimes difficult to do -- a shaky clip can make the resulting animation quite poor -- but if you get it right, it's quite fun. I think Crave editor Rich Trenholm particularly enjoyed getting involved to test the camera. Annoyingly though, the resulting images are too big to share on Twitter, and Facebook doesn't support moving GIFs, so sharing your carefully crafted animations is very difficult.
The Best Face mode takes multiple shots of a group of your friends, then lets you pick the individual faces from all images to merge together so everyone looks good -- at least in theory. I roped in the help of our buddies from GameSpot and CNET's own Katie Collins to pull a variety of faces. I then chose my favourites from each and created this picture. It might look like one seamless shot, but the faces have all been selected from different photos.
There are various built-in editing functions too. You can tinker with the brightness and contrast, as well as apply the usual array of vintage-style filters and frames. There's sadly no Photo Sphere that Google introduced on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, meaning you can't make a crazy mini planet of wherever you are.
It's still early days with the camera and I really need to see how it performs in various different conditions before I can say whether it's truly the top dog. It's certainly off to a very impressive start though. Colours and clarity are great and the slew of extra features, while hardly game changing, are undeniably fun.
For many of you, a smart phone will be a crucial lifeline not only to your friends, but to your working colleagues, contacts and clients. Whatever you need it for, you'll want it to be able to last more than a few hours away from the plug. Sadly, though, the demanding screens and processors of most smart phones means that charging at least once a day is essential.
The S4 is no exception to that. I found that after some fairly heavy use on full brightness and on EE's 4G network, the battery had dropped from full to around half after only 3 hours. That's really not great. If you're even a moderate user, you'd be wise to put it on charge when you arrive at the office in the morning.
You can preserve battery life as much as possible by avoiding 4G networks, keeping screen brightness down and saving demanding tasks like gaming for when you're near a plug. Of course that does mean you're sacrificing functionality you've paid a load of money for. If you're very careful you can probably eke out a day's use, but I recommend you give it some juice whenever you get the chance.
In most respects the S4 has secured its spot at the top of the smart phone ladder. Its 5-inch screen is the best in the business and its quad-core processor delivers absolutely outstanding performance. Couple that with a host of interesting -- if not exactly groundbreaking -- Samsung software nuggets and you've got yourself an absolute beast of a phone.
It's a shame Samsung hasn't updated the design much from the S3. It's difficult to brag about having the latest kit if you can't tell it apart from old hardware, and the plastic construction does feel quite cheap. If you don't mind the Playmobil stylings though, the S4 is a superb phone to plonk in your pocket.
Should I buy it?
Ask your Facebook friends and Twitter followers if you should buy the Samsung Galaxy S4