Samsung's Galaxy S3 was one of the most popular phones of last year, rivalled only by the iPhone. It played a huge role in unseating Apple's dominance of the mobile world, so all eyes have been on Samsung to see what it will bring to the table with its next super phone.
After months of wild speculation, Samsung finally unveiled the S4 -- a phone boasting specs to make even the most ardent tech nerds draw breath. It's a 5-inch beast, packing a Full HD screen, a searingly powerful quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, a host of Samsung software extras, a 13-megapixel camera and 4G connectivity for super-fast data speeds.
In smart phone Top Trumps, the S4 challenges the competition on every level.
Naturally then, it comes with a top-end price. If you want it off contract, you'll be shelling out £580. It's being offered by all the major networks on a range of plans though. Check out our deals roundup to find the plan that best suits you.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S4?
If you're looking for the best-performing phone around, then yes. Samsung has taken each spec of the already excellent Galaxy S3 and given them a kick up the backside. Its 5-inch, Full HD screen is the best in the business and the quad-core processor has been supercharged to deliver monster speed.
There's an ocean-liner load of extra Samsung software on board, some of which is daft, but other elements of which are genuinely useful. Bear in mind, though, that the bundled extras result in the S4 being very complicated. If you want a simple-to-operate mobile, I suggest looking towards the iPhone or Windows Phone 8 on Nokia's Lumia phones.
There are a heap of camera tricks too that make the 13-megapixel snapper produce some great and unusual pictures. The snaps it takes are hardly ground-breaking, but will at least jazz up your Facebook page.
The phone's main issues lie in its plastic design, which hasn't seen much of an update from the old S3. If you want to strut through town, flashing your latest gadget like an entrance card to a member's club then you might be disappointed with the S4 -- people probably won't be able to tell you have the latest model.
If, however, you want the best-performing phone in your pocket, the S4 is without question the device for you. Perhaps that level of blistering performance isn't as important to you, but you do want a sleek and stylish body, in which case you should take a look at the HTC One.
Bear in mind too that now the S4 is available, the price of the S3 is likely to drop. It doesn't have the raw power of its big brother, but it's still a fantastic -- not to mention almost identical -- phone that's well worth a look if you don't mind having slightly older kit in your hands.
Design and build quality
Look at the S4 from the front and you'll have a tough time telling it apart from the S3. Both sport a big glass front, a wide home button and slim, silvery speaker grille, with the Samsung logo beneath. Take a moment to really compare the two and you will notice some differences though.
For a start, the S4 has slightly more angular corners, and the bezel is quite a bit slimmer. This means that even though the screen has increased in size, it's not much bigger than its predecessor. It has almost exactly the same dimensions of the S3, although the S4 undercuts slightly the S3's 8.6mm thickness.
There's no denying that it's still a big phone though. If you're used to the iPhone 5, or a smaller Android phone, then stepping up to the S4 will require some hand stretching. It's worth going hands-on in a shop if you're concerned your thumbs won't stretch.
It's not an ugly phone by any stretch, but it really does look very similar to the S3. It's easy to argue that looks aren't everything, but if you're forking out huge wads of money for the latest kit, you want it to be easily identifiable as such, rather than it mimicking older models. Apple's iPhone 4S was identical to its predecessor and it took some stick because of it -- although it didn't stop it selling well.
At 130g it's quite a bit lighter than the 144g of the HTC One and the 145g of the Xperia Z. That's not a big difference, but you could start to feel it if you're holding it up in one hand for an hour while you watch Netflix.
The back panel is a thin, plastic affair that lacks the sleek feel offered by the metal HTC One. It bends extremely easily as you peel it off, and you really need to force the little plastic clips to all sit flush. It feels as plasticky as the S3 and Note 2 and, if I'm honest, basically all of Samsung's phones. It's a matter of preference as to whether you like the plastic approach, but it's hard to deny that the metal mobiles have the edge when it comes to luxurious design.
Around the edges you'll find a micro-USB port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a power button and volume rocker.
Samsung has stated that the phone will be available with 16, 32 or 64GB of storage, but at the time of writing, only the 16GB model was being offered by any networks. If you want the higher-capacity models, you'll likely need to go directly to Samsung or wait to see which retailers offer it SIM-free.
It's important to bear in mind though that Samsung bundles a massive amount of extra software with the phone that takes up a lot of space. Of the 16GB storage, only 8GB is actually useable. Samsung defended this by arguing that it needs the room for all its new features, but it still sparked something of an outrage on our Facebook page, with one commenter writing "This is a scam and mis-advertising."
You can of course root the phone in order to wipe off all Samsung software, freeing up a huge portion of space, but this will void your warranty and potentially destroy your phone if you do it wrong. "For £550 you shouldn't have to void your warranty and potentially brick your phone, simply to have the advertised amount of space," another commenter stated.
There's a microSD card slot under the backplate, so you can at least expand the storage to make room for all your photos and videos. Annoyingly, Samsung doesn't let you install apps on an SD card, so gamers among you will want to keep a close eye on how many glossy games you install -- Real Racing 3 demands almost 2GB of space alone.
The 5-inch screen is one of the headline features of the Galaxy S4, thanks to its whopping 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. That's Full HD to me and you. It's an impressive boost from the 720p display of the Galaxy S3, but for most tasks, you probably won't notice much of a difference.
The S4's screen is pin-sharp, with icons and text showing no fuzziness around the edges at all. Reading long passages of text in Web pages is perfectly comfortable, and of course high-definition images look beautifully crisp.
The HTC One has the same resolution, but its slightly smaller screen size means its pixels are packed tighter. The One boasts 468 pixels per inch (ppi), which narrowly beats the S4's 441ppi, but I really couldn't tell any difference between them, even when looking close up. More pixels might mean a sharper image, but even above the 720p threshold of the S3, there's little point in choosing between them -- there's just not enough difference.
What really counts is how well it displays your photos, videos and apps. Luckily then, the S4 does a great job here, too. Its display is the Super AMOLED type found on some of Samsung's earlier phones, making it incredibly vivid.
Colours are rich and bold, almost to the point of being a little oversaturated. If it's too garish for you then you can choose from different colour profiles in the settings menu. It's bright too, but isn't quite at retina-burning levels. My colleague Jessica Dolcourt struggled a little with reflections under the bright San Francisco sunlight, although I didn't have the same issue under the grey London skies. Sadly. It easily countered our office lights, however.
AirGesture, AirView and SmartPause
To stop you covering that glorious display in oily cake crumbs, Samsung has loaded up some gesture-based navigation. AirGesture lets you wave in front of the phone to control it -- left and right to switch between items, or up and down to scroll through Web pages. It only works in certain apps though. Only in gallery was I was able to swipe left and right, and swipe to scroll works in the Samsung Web browser, but not Chrome.
It's not a critical feature by any means, but waving to move down the Web page will certainly come in handy if you're following a recipe and don't want to smear syrup on the screen.
The screen is super-sensitive which allows it to track your finger, even when it's hovering above, but not touching it. It's a feature also seen on the Galaxy Note 2, but in this instance you don't need to a dorky stylus to use it.
It worked well on the Note, where AirView brought up previews of events in the calendar and emails in Samsung's email app, without needing to actually open the items. The only thing AirView seemed compatible with on the S4 was the video player -- hovering your finger over the timeline brings up a thumbnail of that part of the video, allowing you to easily skip to the section you want.
The high sensitivity of the screen also means you can swipe around it even while wearing gloves. I tried it with a lightweight pair of wool gloves and it still worked fine. It didn't register at all with a thicker pair though, so you'll need to take those chunky working gauntlets off before using it.
The S4 also tracks eye movements to allow you to scroll down a page by tilting the phone and pause a video by looking away -- a feature called SmartPause. SmartPause worked well, pausing the video immediately when I looked away and starting again when I looked back. It's handy if you're quickly distracted by your cat jumping, claws out, onto your crotch, but it can become annoying if you're forced to hold your gaze constantly on a 2-hour movie.
If the S4's familiar design doesn't tempt you to open your wallet, Samsung has bundled in a bunch of extra software nuggets to help shake the cash loose. WatchOn connects your S4 to your TV service provider, showing you programme listings and allowing you to easily flick to a particular channel by controlling your TV via the infrared port.
I gave WatchOn a try on the Note 8 and was disappointed that it didn't seem to work. Testing it with the S4, I was much more successful, managing to pull up listings for Virgin Media. You can see a full channel list, or a curated selection of TV shows and movies. Theoretically, you're then able to control your set-top box with the phone and put on whatever show piqued your interest.
In my own use however, I wasn't able to connect my Virgin Media box (made by Samsung) to the phone. I was able to control my TV -- an improvement on the Note 8 then -- but I couldn't properly take advantage of the service. I wasn't able to spend a lot of time fiddling around to make it work, so I'll come back to this again when I take a deeper look. Even so, it's disheartening that it didn't work properly first time.
Another feature borrowed from Samsung's Note range is the ability to show two apps on screen at once. Press and hold the back button to bring up a panel, showing compatible apps. You can then select two to display at once. It's too fiddly to make it truly useful in a rush, but it's very handy for typing an address on a website into Google Maps, without needing to switch between two apps.
With Optical Reader, you can use the augmented reality display to translate words using the camera -- handy if you're staring, confused at a French road sign. Take photos of business cards and -- assuming they're legible enough -- it can recognise the words, the telephone number and email address and automatically save the details to a contact. It worked perfectly in my test and can be genuinely useful -- especially if you ever return from a conference with 100 or more business cards.
There's also a translation tool, which lets you either speak your own language to have it translated (and spoken aloud) into a different language, or have someone else speak into it to translate it into words you understand. It was able to recognise my own speech well, and translated it quickly into French. Whether or not you can use it to have a full conversation is debatable.
Samsung's also taking its own steps into the health and exercise world with S Health. Pop in your gender, height, weight and a few other bits of far too personal information, and it'll track your calorie intake and exercise routine to help shift those troublesome pounds. Samsung has a sports band -- similar to the Jawbone Up or Nike FuelBand -- that's designed to sync with the phone to track your exercise. I wasn't able to test it out, so I'll have to leave my verdict on that for another day.
Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean
Extra Samsung software aside, the overall interface isn't really any different to what you'll find on the S3. You'll find six homescreens, on which you can pop down your apps and live widgets. There are four app icons along the bottom that remain there no matter which homescreen you're on in order to provide quick access to your most used apps.
To lay a new widget down, you can either press and hold on a homescreen to bring up a menu, or go into the app list where you'll see a widget tab. These multiple ways of performing the same task is quite common across Samsung's phones and isn't necessarily a good thing.
Samsung bundles its phones with its own Web browser and email clients, while pushing its own curated app stores to the front. As an Android phone though, the handset also comes with a Chrome browser, Gmail and of course the Google Play store, meaning you'll find multiple options for one tool on board as standard.
For hardened tech addicts among you that isn't likely to be a problem. Those of you wanting a simple, elegant interface that lets you perform the essential tasks without any fuss might not be too happy though. Elsewhere, the interface isn't any easier to comprehend.
The pull-down notifications bar houses quick-access settings that expands into a list of 20 settings for a multitude features. Some of them are obvious -- Bluetooth, mute -- but some of the keys are likely to be as confusing as the inside of a jumbo jet's cockpit. Without poring over the manual, how are you supposed to know what turning off the 'Sync' button will do? What am I syncing? And where to?
Jumping into the settings menu, you'll see that Samsung has so many individual settings, it's had to split the menu into three distinct tabs. Changing crucial settings now means finding exactly where Samsung has stored it. Want to change the date and time? That's now under 'More', of course. It would have been too easy to put it in 'My device'.
If you uninstall apps you don't want and don't play around with settings too much, you can make the S4 a lot easier to use on a day-to-day basis. If you prefer the out of the box simplicity of the iPhone though, you may well find yourself overwhelmed by the wealth of options open to you. I don't recommend you play around with the settings tabs too much either -- you may accidentally turn off something crucial and wonder why you can't connect to the Internet.
The appeal of Android to many, though, is the ability to customise nearly everything the phone can do. If that's you, you'll find the S4 fun to operate and it'll cater well to your tinkering tendencies.
If you want a more straightforward experience, you'd be better off looking at the iPhone or Windows Phone 8 on the Nokia Lumia 920. Even the new HTC Sense on the One is easier to get to grips with.
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.
|Product type||Smart phone|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, HSPA, 4G|
|Operating system||Google Android|
|Available colours||Black, White|
|Screen size||5 in.|
|Camera resolution||13 megapixels|
|Size (WxHxD)||13.6x68.9x7.9 mm|
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