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User Review: Samsung Galaxy S4

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Eric Kane #1

Eric Kane
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Posted May 19 '13 @ 6:33 PM

When I first started thinking about what the Samsung Galaxy S4 was going to be like, I have to admit I was pretty excited. I remember watching the launch event of the Galaxy S3 and thinking that Samsung had finally brought enough to the party that it would start competing with Apple. I pre-ordered one for AT&T as soon as I could and over the course of the last year, the S3 has been a tremendous success. Samsung's direct assault at Apple via their commercials had brought the product awareness they were looking for and soon enough, even the most technologically challenged would ask "Is that a Galaxy?". Due to the home run that the S3 inevitably ended up being, the next iteration was going to be highly anticipated. What else was Samsung going to bring to the table?

Expectations for the Galaxy S4, even by my own admission, were very high. A Nexus user at heart, the Galaxy is the only other phone I genuinely get excited for every year now. Before the launch event this year, as it with most devices, the specs had already leaked out and it seemed as if the excitement was gone. The Galaxy S4 was seemingly the Galaxy S3-S, a minor upgrade and victim to a grandiose launch event that the device was second fiddle to. Or at least that's what it looked like on the surface.

When I was able to take a step back and look at the Galaxy S4 outside the cage of my own expectations, the real device stopped looking like another Galaxy S3. The changes that were made no longer seemed subtle, but necessary and impressive. The Galaxy S4 moved out from the shadows of its predecessor and became its own phone, something I feel is lacking in the reviews of this phone. They compare it to the S3, a revolutionary phone in 2012, the tremendous success of the iPhone, and other devices that have made more radical changes out of necessity.

The Galaxy S4 is the most polarizing phone in the world, but it also might just be the best. Here's my experience with the Galaxy S4, a phone I've tested for exactly one week. In this review, I test the AT&T version of the Galaxy S4, putting it through its paces on a very strong LTE network.



Design:

When I think about smartphone design, I think about what the thought process was when creating the device. For me, the design of a phone goes far beyond just the materials it's made with, but the functionality it presents, the intricate work put into making it an enjoyable experience for the user. There's an enormous stigma about the use of plastic in making smartphones, but Samsung persisted, going against a trend that seems to only get stronger in 2013.

The Galaxy S4 is a study in efficiency and ergonomics. When you first pick it up, you notice how the weight is evenly distributed throughout the chassis. It's very light, but at the same time it feels substantial despite only being 7.9 mm thin. I attribute this to the faux metal band that frames the device which is reminiscent of the Blackberry Bold 9900 in look, but not in material. The S4 maintains the same button location with a volume rocker on the top left hand side of the device, the power/lock/unlock button slightly lower on the right side, menu and back capacitive buttons below the display , and a physical home button in the center between them. While the button placement is not different, there's a higher attention to detail in their function on the S4. The volume rocker and power button have the same faux metal texture, giving them a more substantial feel as they're almost perfectly flush with the device and offer a very satisfying press when using them. The physical home button shares the same satisfying feel when pressed, it's location below the display and above the edge of the phone making it very easy to use.

Framing the 5 inch display is an extremely thin bezel that leads to the top of the device where the Galaxy's numerous sensors and LED notification light are housed around the speaker grille and front facing camera. Up top there's a 3.5 mm headphone jack and an IR blaster (more on that later) and on the bottom there's a micro USB port and noise canceling microphone. Around back is a plastic battery door that gives off a reflective diamond pattern, a design that is also present on the bezel on the front of the device. It looks as if it would be textured, but it's simply for the aesthetics and adds a sophistication to the design that is punctuated on the Black Mist version. The 13 MP camera sticks out ever so slightly on the back, the flash located directly below it instead of beside it. There's minimal carrier branding on the AT&T version, their "Globe" logo printed center below the flash with a "Galaxy S4" logo residing at the bottom of the phone next to the speaker.

The Galaxy S4 is unquestionably a joy to hold. The button placement combined with the overall profile of the device make one handed use not only possible, but comfortable. While the plastic may not be a winner in a jewelry case, it's ability to keep the device lightweight and offer functionality such as access to the battery and removable storage is what makes it a valid choice to use as the basis for a smartphone design.

Samsung made a big effort to maintain elements of the design that their customers are used to, but also wanted to make the phone lighter and thinner than before. They've not only achieved this with the Galaxy S4, but they hit a median between the two that I believe people will be extremely happy with.



Display:

The Galaxy S4 packs a 5 inch 1080p Full HD Super AMOLED screen, covered with Corning's latest Gorilla Glass 3, and sporting an impressive 441 pixels per inch (PPI). At first glance, the S4 screen is extremely impressive, but it's ability to do all things well is what really catches the eye. Colors are vibrant, but less saturated than their previous iteration. This allows the S4 to compete with LCD screens in terms of color reproduction. As with all AMOLED screens, blacks are darker than on other screens while whites aren't as white as their LCD rivals. The ability to pick a Screen Mode, found in the display settings, is a fantastic addition that allows users to pick their preference of how colors are represented. If someone likes their colors to be more saturated, then Dynamic mode is perfect for them. If they like more accurate colors, then Movie mode would be their choice. Samsung also offers an Adapt display mode that changes the screen based on what you're doing. Versatility in this area is more than welcome and the S4 accommodates.

Viewing angles are exceptional, though I would have to say that they're not as good as on some of the SLCD offerings. AMOLED has some incredible strengths, but it's not the brightest display on the market. It can suffer in direct sunlight, but I've found that it's superior to past AMOLED screens. I've been able to test it in direct sunlight on several occasions and I've had little problem seeing the display if I push the brightness to 100%.

The S4 also includes ClearPad's "3D Touch", the technology that brings the Air View feature, but it also allows users to use the screen while wearing gloves. Corning's Gorilla Glass 3 gives the screen a very smooth texture that's a pleasure to scroll over. Built with Native Damage Resistance, the newest iteration of Gorilla Glass performs well in the scratch test, but doesn't guarantee a protected screen if the phone is dropped. Regardless, it's comforting to know that Samsung has included the latest version to protect their display.

If you're a fan of AMOLED, this is the best version yet. They've improved almost every aspect of the display from viewing angles, brightness, and color reproduction. The biggest advantage, thanks to the inclusion of the capacitive menu button, is that you get to use all 5 inches of this gorgeous display in almost every scenario. There's never too much of a good thing and the S4 and it's Super AMOLED display deliver.



Software:

The Galaxy S4 brings Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean to the table, the first smartphone outside of the Nexus family to offer Google's latest software. Over the top of this version of Jelly Bean is Touchwiz, Samsungs custom skin that remains relatively unchanged from its previous iteration. What you get with Touchwiz is a UI that capitalizes on the Super AMOLED display with bright colors, heavy animations, and colorful icons. Samsung has a clear strategy with Touchwiz that seems to be working, but as with every custom skin, there's definitely room for improvement. Instead of going over the software screen by screen, as it hasn't changed much aesthetically, I'm going to discuss the choice to move to Android 4.2.2 and how it affects the S4, and where Touchwiz can go from here.

When Samsung announced that the S4 was shipping with Android 4.2.2, I believe I wasn't alone in being excited that the newest version of Android was finally being shipped on a flagship phone in 2013. One of the most frustrating parts about owning a device not named Nexus is the wait for the latest software, but Samsung pushed to get Android 4.2.2 on the S4 at launch and succeeded. With added features such as lock screen widgets and quick settings (Photosphere, possibly because of camera hardware, is not included), Samsung was able to add them to Touchwiz without destroying their functionality. Having the latest software is never a bad thing, but in the case of the S4, there may have been some sacrifices, at least initially.

When I first turned on my Galaxy S4 and set up my home screens, downloaded all my apps, and adjusted the settings to my preferences, I noticed that some transitions were stuttering when I was moving about the UI. Initial setup can take a toll on the phone, so I restarted the device thinking that it just needed a reboot. The stuttering persisted. It wasn't terrible, but it seemed to follow after using the home button, either for multi-tasking or going back to the home screen. I disabled S Voice from the home button and the issue seemed to right itself for the most part. I noticed that when it did stutter, and it was only occasionally, it was due to the animations Touchwiz implements. I disabled those animations through the Developer Settings and the phone was snappy, but it still felt as if it was being held back. I told anyone who would listen that Samsung was aware of this and would release an update very soon after launch. A week and a half later, the update was pushed to the US variants and performance was no longer an issue. I've had two units (16 and 32 GB) from AT&T and both have performed flawlessly after the update. This seems to be the general consensus among those that have received the update, regardless of carrier.

I believe that by adding 4.2.2 to the S4, Samsung wasn't able to optimize their Touchwiz UI to the new software at launch. There was a lot of speculation on this and there still is, but using the S4 now post-update is a much different experience. There are probably several of you who have heard that the S4 has "lag", but it's just not true. It's a different experience than stock Android, but Touchwiz remains a fairly heavy skin that comes with some tradeoffs. The beauty of Android is that even if you don't like the skin the device is shipped with, there's several custom launcher options to choose from. If anyone is wondering, both Apex and Nova absolutely fly on the S4.

I actually don't have a problem with Touchwiz. I find myself setting up Apex or Nova, but almost immediately going back to Touchwiz afterwards. The sheer amount of options that Touchwiz offers is mindblowing and I find myself enjoying the experience of finding new ones everyday. It's extremely customizable and the subtle changes they've made, such as adding avatars to each message bubble sent, go a long way with some users. With that said, I feel as if they can clean it up while still maintaining the overall feel. It seems like they're attempting to do that, as marked by the change in the settings menu, but sometimes they're going about it the wrong way as I feel they are in that instance. Taking some design cues from the aesthetically pleasing and clean UI of stock Android would be a welcome addition. There's a way to incorporate all these tremendous features and options into a cleaner package and I think they'll figure it out.

Overall, there's no doubt that there's flaws in Touchwiz, but if your main issue is with how the skin LOOKS, these things can be changed. Putting all these incredible features into a software experience you enjoy looking at and using is very possible on the Galaxy S4. You've got choices, and that's the beauty of Android.



Features:

Less is more. More is more. Everyone has their opinion when it comes to the Galaxy S4 features. The word "gimmicky" is used ad nauseum when describing not only the features, but the phone in general. I've had the opportunity to use all of these new features extensively and I couldn't disagree more. The features brought to the table by Samsung do not define the Galaxy S4. On its own, sans features, the Galaxy S4 is still a powerful phone that millions will buy. The features are included to push the envelope, inspiring different ways to interact with your smartphone. None of them are forced on the user whatsoever. You can quickly turn them on or off via the notification menu, quick settings, or the device settings. With that said, every user is going to have their own opinion of what they like and what they don't like. What's important is that with the S4, they have the choice.

Air Gesture is probably my personal favorite and the feature I use the most with the Galaxy S4. Quick Glance is an option within Air Gesture that allows you to wave your hand over the sensor, which I believe to be the front facing camera, while the phone is locked to display a notification screen without unlocking the device. It shows the time, the battery percentage, whether you have missed calls or messages, and what notifications you have. I find myself using this feature frequently. The phone generally needs to be on a flat surface to work. I also find waving across the Samsung logo twice works much better than just once. Air Jump/Browse/Move are all navigation gestures that can move you throughout specific applications. These gestures can only be used in the stock applications like the Gallery and the Browser. They work well as long as you don't draw your hand back over the sensor after the initial movement. I've found myself using it when switching tabs in the stock browser and when I'm going through my pictures. The other thing I use it for, maybe even moreso than the Quick Glance option, is Air Call-Accept. When someone calls while I'm at the office, I can wave my hand over the sensor twice and it will not only answer the call for me, but it goes directly to speakerphone. I've found this extremely useful and it works well.

Air View is another feature that is drawn off the same technology used in the Note 2 with the S Pen. If you hover your finger a few centimeters from the screen it will interact with the device and allow you to use your screen without touching it. Just like Air Gesture, this is only used in the stock applications, but FlipBoard is also included in that list. I use it most in the Gallery to see which photos I have in each album and on the lock screen when I get a message. If I don't feel like unlocking the phone and the message is too long to be displayed fully from the lock screen, you can hover your finger over it to reveal the rest of the message. I find myself using that often. You can turn the haptic feedback/sound setting on or off, but I feel it's more satisfying to use Air View when you feel it interact with the screen.

Smart Scroll is a feature that I personally don't find myself using often unless I'm demoing it for someone who thinks the idea is really cool. It tracks your eyes and head movement, allowing you to scroll up and down by looking up and down. It does work in good lighting, but for me, I can't seem to find areas in which I'd use this feature. I'm sure that there's people who read articles that may just want to move the screen without touching it. As a setting I don't use often, I can always turn it off and not use it.

Smart Pause is a feature where if you're watching a video and look away, it pauses the video for you. When you look back, it resumes play. I've tested it quite a few times and it does work well, but as with Smart Scroll, it's not a feature I personally use. If you find this to be a useful feature, and there's people who do/will, it's available on the S4. If you're like me and won't have a use for it, you can turn it off.

Multi-Window, the feature found in the Note 2, is now available on the S4. For true multi-tasking, the user can split the screen (portrait or landscape) with two applications running at the same time. Not all applications are available for this feature just yet, but I've found uses with the stock applications. While driving, I can use navigation and listen to music and have both on the screen at the same time. I can text my friend and surf the web at the same time. It takes a little getting used to that the functionality is there, but it's become second nature for me to be able to split my screen when I want to do more than one thing at once.

Included in the hardware of the Galaxy S4 is an IR Blaster which turns your S4 into a remote control for your living room. WatchOn, powered by Peel, is an application on the S4 that can recommend content, but more importantly allows you to control your TV and set top box. The interface is easy to use, the setup is easy, and it's there if you don't feel like reaching for the remote. I have it located on my lock screen as a widget so I can quickly get to it. I love the addition of this onto any phone and I hope it's something that catches on going forward.

Out of 6 new features, I use 4 of them pretty extensively. Other users might use the Smart features and not the Air features. Some may use them all. Some may use none of them. The point here is that if these features, at any point, can be useful to you, they're there for you to use. I enjoy the added functionality and encourage people to try them all out to see which ones work best for them.



Camera:

One thing Samsung never seems to mention too much in their product launches for the Galaxy S devices is the camera. They've always been very good shooters, but for whatever reason they never seem to push it as a huge feature on the device. The S4 is a little different. With the release of the Galaxy Camera, Samsung has taken an interest in their ability to make great cameras and great camera software. The S4 takes this a step further. Here's the rundown: The 13MP rear camera lens uses an f/2.2 aperture, 4.235mm focal length and a 69-degree angular field of view, and the 1/3.06-inch sensor offers a pixel size of 1.12 microns. As much as I'd like to tell you all that I'm a photographer, I'm not. I have a limited knowledge of how the camera works and can only give opinions on how I view the strengths and weaknesses of the S4 in this regard. I'd advise looking at comparison shots, some of which were done on this very site by Alex Dobie. It was an excellent piece and I recommend anyone interested in the camera on this device to read it.

As for my opinion on the camera and the shots I've been able to get with it? The shutter isn't as fast as I would have thought, but that can be fixed via update. The software is so easy to use, even for people who aren't photographers like myself. It takes great shots in good lighting, okay shots in low light, and offers a wide range of camera modes seen on the Galaxy Camera that only enhance the experience. I have zero complaints with the camera on the S4 and it very well could be the best camera on any smartphone available right now.



Storage:

I'm including this section only for informational purposes. The 16GB S4 ships with 9.7GB (AT&T)to as low as 8.5GB on other versions with expandable storage up to 64GB with an microSD card. AT&T has recently released a 32GB version that ships with 24GB. This is the subject of a lot of debate and I wanted to clear the air as much as I can.

There's nothing wrong with wanting more storage on your device. You have every right to want a 32GB or 64GB version of the Galaxy S4. What it comes down to is whether or not your carrier is willing to offer it. AT&T decided to carry the 32GB version and I hope that it sells well. I purchased one purely to support this cause as I have no need for 24GB of internal storage.

Every device ships with less storage than what they advertise. It's common to see less than 16GB, but the reason for the uproar is that it's almost half of what they advertised. The internal storage, if you purchase an SD card, can be used exclusively for your applications. Applications cannot be transferred to your SD card. For gamers, because games can be a GB or two individually, this presents a problem. For most users, 8-9 GB will be more than enough if they use an SD card to store their pictures/music/videos.

As time goes on, I think you'll see the higher storage capacities hit the other carriers. At least the 32GB version. I would recommend that if you're in the market for an S4 on AT&T and $50 isn't going to break the bank, buy the 32GB version. Showing demand for this will only help the cause for this year, as well as going forward.



Performance/Battery Life:

The US variants of the Galaxy S4 comes with a 1.9ghz Snapdragon 600 quad core CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, and 2GB of RAM. This hardware puts out some of the most impressive benchmarks ever recorded, having scored over 3200 on GeekBench, 25,000 on AnTuTu, and 12,500+ on Quadrant. Scrolling is snappy, opening apps is fast, and web browsing is extremely quick. It's everything you'd expect from a smartphone packed with this much power.

Let me preface my comments about the battery on the Galaxy S4 by stating that this is my own usage pattern. Mileage will vary if you use your device differently than I do.

The Galaxy S4 comes with a removable 2600 mah battery, one of the largest batteries found on a smartphone today. With all these features, a 1080p display, LTE, and a quad core processor, the Galaxy S4 performs very well as it pertains to battery life. In fact, outside of the Note 2 and Razr Maxx HD, I've never used a phone that performed so well in the battery life department. I've used 2 AT&T versions of the S4 and battery life has been consistent on both.

My work day typically starts at 7 AM. I keep Air View and Air Gesture on, Power Saving Mode off, GPS off, and WiFi on. I leave my home at 8 AM and turn Bluetooth on and listen to music over Sony Music Unlimited for my drive to work, which is an hour. From 8 AM until 6 PM, I'm on LTE. I typically make a few phone calls totalling 20-30 minutes, use Facebook and Twitter, have 2 email accounts syncing, and I'm texting quite frequently. At 6 PM, after 10 hours of LTE and 1 1/2 hours of on screen time, I'm typically around 55%. I then spend most of my night texting and web browsing and I end the day around 11PM with 15% left and 4 hours of on screen time.

On weekends, I've managed to get 6 hours of on screen time out of one charge more than once. It's typically on WiFi all day and isn't an average, but it is possible with Power Saving Mode on. For the average user, this battery should be more than enough to get you through a single day. If you're a power user and find yourself on LTE most of the day, you can reap the benefits of having a removable battery.



Conclusion:

By now, so many of you have read reviews that cover every little detail of the S4. I chose to highlight everything I found important while doing one very important thing; not comparing it to any other smartphone or holding it up against the Galaxy S3. The S4 has been brutalized in some reviews based soley on opinion or expectations as it relates to comparing it to the S3 or other devices. If you judge the Galaxy S4 on its own, the real device shines.

While not a perfect device, the Galaxy S4 brings so much to the table that its fair to say that regardless of the expectations, it's the best smartphone in the world right now.
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Cyber Warrior #2

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Posted May 19 '13 @ 7:22 PM

Great write up.. thanks!


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dmmarck #3

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Posted May 19 '13 @ 7:24 PM

Awesome writeup, thank you for sharing your thoughts :).


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Blackmannx #4

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Posted May 19 '13 @ 7:52 PM

really good write up!


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Lee Bo #5

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Posted May 20 '13 @ 7:25 AM

Excellent information.  I know a few folks that are leaning toward the GS4 and i'll send them over here to read this.


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C Sab #6

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Posted May 20 '13 @ 3:53 PM

Agreed, the S4 has been given some unfair criticism and it's usually for the same few reasons and people thinking their opinions make the phone look not as good as it is.



vanessa110 #7

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Posted Sep 14 '15 @ 5:48 PM

Thank you for your reviewing. I have more knowledge about SS-S4 to decide whether buy it or not.  ;)  ;)  ;)