On the outside, the Galaxy S4 is not radically different from the S3, but on the inside the change is drastic. Behind the new 5-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) Super AMOLED display is a tag team of a 1.9 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S600 quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM. The S4 comes with 16 GB of storage (10.86 GB of which are available for files and content), which is expandable via microSD. It has Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, 3G/3G+/4G, Bluetooth 4.0 and an NFC chip. The rear camera is 13 Megapixels and films in Full HD 1080p at 30 FPS, and has an LED flash, whereas the front webcam is 2 Mpx. There are two ports: micro-USB and a 3.5 mm headphone jack.
The operating system is Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, with Samsung's TouchWiz on top.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is being sold SIM-free for as low as £580.
Design & Handling
Samsung has gotten a lot of flack about its supposed "lack of ambition" with the Galaxy S4's design, a sort of plastic remake of the original. And it's true, at first sight it doesn't look like a major break with the past. It isn't even one of the most striking designs out right now.
That said, by scraping off a few millimetres and using generally the same dimensions as the GS3 to house the "larger" screen (it's 0.2 inches bigger), Samsung has made one of the smartphones that feels the nicest to hold.
Even with the large 5-inch display, the GS4 is easy to use with one hand, whether you're navigating through the OS or using the physical buttons. The combination of the 130-gramme weight, the under-8-mm thickness and the quality finishing really gives the sense that you have an elegant, high-end mobile in your hand (or pocket).
Besides, it's the polycarbonate alloy that allows the GS4 to have such a low SAR (specific absorption rate, or the amount of radio frequency energy that your head absorbs while you talk on the phone—obviously, lower is better). It's one of the lowest SARs on the market. These may not be the noblest of materials used here, but the plastics are of very high quality and have less of an impact on the user than, say, the iPhone 5, which has a full 0.9 W/kg.
When you push the Galaxy S4 to its limits you can feel the body heat up just a little where the battery and camera are located, but not as much as the GS3 does.
The GS4 is one of that rare species of high-end smartphones whose makers were gracious enough to give it a removable battery.
The Galaxy S4, dead centre, keeping it real among its biggest competitors rivals
From left to right: Apple iPhone 5, Sony Xperia Z, Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920
After a first hands-on with the Galaxy S4 and an up-close look at its excellent 13-Megapixel camera, we put the handset's AMOLED screen to the test in our labs. This kind of display technology has already been seen in previous Galaxy S smartphones, and has shown an annoying tendency to make colours look practically fluorescent. A strong blue overtone has also been seen play havoc with whites. Samsung has been gradually working on improving things by tweaking to its various display modes from one product generation to the next. Proof of this progress can already been seen in the Galaxy Note 2.
This time Samsung has taken things a step further by adding a new Professional Photo option to the S4's range of screen modes, alongside Standard, Dynamic, Movie and Adaptive. This mode is supposed to boost onscreen image fidelity, giving the most accurate possible results. Time to put that to the test.
First things first—OLED technology means infinite contrast. The maximum brightness reaches 300 cd/m2 here, which is nice progress for AMOLED, both for Samsung and other brands' devices. That goes for all of the screen modes.
The real test for the Galaxy S4 is colour fidelity. This has been something of a stumbling block for AMOLED technology, which has previously been prone to vivid, gaudy onscreen images. These may look striking at first glance, but they do nothing to flatter content onscreen. Still, here too, Samsung has gradually been working towards improving quality.
As with all AMOLED-based mobile devices—well, Samsung ones at least—the onscreen image is more accurate in portrait mode than in landscape mode, where a dynamic contrast system kicks in and affects image quality. This is mainly due to the fact that the phone needs to save power when working in landscape mode with the AMOLED running at full whack to maintain the onscreen image.
You might as well forget about the Standard and Dynamic modes straight away with the Galaxy S4. Both modes give totally saturated colours where detail and any concept of a natural-looking image are sacrificed in favour of flashy, punch-packing pictures worthy of the TVs on sale at your local supermarket. In the lab, we measured an average Delta E of over 15 for both of these modes. Note that Delta E measures the difference between "perfectly" reproduced colours and those displayed onscreen. The average Delta E should be as close as possible to zero, with a score between zero and three required for colours to be considered "accurate".
Thankfully, the Movie and Professional Photo modes save the day for the Galaxy S4! As a long-standing feature of this handset range, the Movie mode has been getting better from one Galaxy S to the next. The dull, almost sepia look of yesteryear (although it's still seen in the Galaxy Note 8.0) has been replaced by a Movie mode that brings genuinely natural colours. The average Delta E is a very respectable 3.5—the best we've seen yet from an AMOLED mobile device screen—while the colour temperature isn't far from perfect, staying at a near-constant 6784 Kelvins over the whole spectrum. Nice work Samsung!
So can the new Professional Photo mode top that? In a word, no, it can't. As with some Samsung TVs, a newfangled mode promises and ultimately fails to deliver more natural, more impressive results than a more traditional but well-rendered option. In other words, the new Professional Photo mode doesn't do any better than good old Movie mode. It actually falls slightly behind, as colours are a touch less accurate (average Delta E = 4.1), notably due to less subtle reds and greens. Apart from that, the results are more or less on par with Movie mode, which, in the end, remains a better option.
By nature, OLED/AMOLED screens have practically zero ghosting time. Response times are so fast that there's no trace of ghosting here, which notably helps keep films and onscreen movement looking smooth. It's the same story for viewing angles too, as AMOLED technology gives almost perfect results.
Finally, the Adaptive function is supposed to change the Galaxy S4's display mode in relation to the content onscreen. This isn't particularly effective, as the handset has trouble choosing the right mode. More importantly, it means that display quality and accuracy don't stay constant, which isn't the case with Movie mode.
Strangely, we measured the screen's touch-responsiveness at 164 ms, which falls slightly behind the Galaxy S3's score of 107 ms. However, touchscreen sensitivity can be boosted by activating the display's "extra sensitivity mode" which is primarily designed to make the screen usable with gloves. This shaves the touchscreen responsiveness down to 120 ms—a marked improvement that isn't instantly noticeable but which makes the whole experience smoother and more fluid. Still, it's a far cry from the 75 ms we measured for the iPhone 5, a clear leader in the field.
Readability and sharpness levels are obviously good with this 5" screen and its 1920 x 1080 pixels. From web pages and e-books to text messages and e-mails, individual letters are displayed with clear, crisp precision. Icons in the OS also gain in clarity and readability. What's not to like?
All in all, the 5" AMOLED screen in Samsung's Galaxy S4 is very good. Still, you'll need to ditch the Standard screen mode and switch to Movie mode straight away to get the best results. In fact, Movie mode really isn't far from perfect!
Interface & Navigation
The Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, but more importantly, it has the latest version of TouchWiz, Samsung's own graphical user interface that it includes on its mobile devices. The company came up with a smorgasbord of special new features and functions just for the Galaxy S4. Some examples are Air Gesture (which lets you control the phone by gesturing in front of the screen without touching it), Air View, Eye Scroll (which tracks your head movements to scroll automatically as you read), Smart Pause and S Health. Also, like on the Galaxy Note 2 and 8.0, a long press on the Back button brings up a vertical shortcuts window.
There's also a new-and-improved version of S Translator, an app that translates written and spoken phrases in multiple languages.
When it comes to responsiveness, we can say without hesitation that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most fluid and responsive Android phone on the market... once you've changed a few settings. By default, the GS4 takes 165 ms to register your touch commands (the GS3 has 105 ms and the iPhone 5 has 75 ms). But if you turn off both Air Gesture and Air View and then turn on the increased sensitivity in the Settings, the delay drops to just 91 ms. Note: the GS4 is the most responsive Android phone, but it isn't the most touch-responsive; the Sony Xperia Z beats it at just 84 ms.
But once everything's set just right, you can make full use of the GS4's power. With the same processor as the HTC One, but clocked higher, the Galaxy S4 is as fast as lightning—always. Lags and choppiness are extremely rare, even when quitting processor-intensive activities, such as a new 3D video game or Full HD movie.
Web browsing on the Galaxy S4 is a hoot. Whether you're using the default browser or Chrome, pages load like the wind (as long as you have a good 3G or Wi-Fi connection, of course). And even the smallest text is easy to read in both landscape and portrait mode, thanks to the 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution.
The media players on Samsung's mobile devices are all pretty similar, especially when it comes to the video player. The Galaxy S4 is a veritable portable media centre, supporting HD DivX, MKV, High Profile 1080p movies, subtitles and much, much more.
Now for video games. We would like to salute Samsung for finally saying good riddance to the Adreno 320 chipset and welcoming the Snapdragon S600, because the Galaxy S4 has better graphics than any other Android phone. The game we've been using lately to test how much a device can handle is Real Racing 3, and the GS4 runs it better than any other device (barring the iPhone 5 and iPad 4). We didn't see a single lag.
The sound through the Galaxy S4's headphone output is perfectly good, but it doesn't exactly revolutionise anything, given that it's the same as on the previous models. The audio signal is clean and doesn't have distortion. The volume doesn't go close to as loud as the HTC One or iPhone 5, but it's still plenty for any average earphones or headphones.
The built-in speaker is on par with the competition, but hasn't changed at all since the GS3. As for the music player, there's still no equaliser and not enough settings.
Samsung gave the GS4 a 2,600 mAh battery (the GS3's was 2,100 mAh). Now, that's a commendable step up, but don't forget the GS4 has practically twice as much processing power, lots of power-hungry functions and a Full HD screen to feed. So in practice the Galaxy S4's battery life isn't that different from the S3's. In both our raw benchmark tests and in practice, we got a little over 13 hours, which comes to just over a day's worth of basic usage. More intensive users can easily wait until the end of the evening before they need to charge it back up. Let's just say Samsung's keeping the tradition going, no better, no worse.
Let's get straight to it: Yes, the Galaxy S4 is the best camera phone on the market. Bar none. Samsung went all out on the sensor, delivering simply astounding image quality for a smartphone.
Bottom left: Xperia Z - Bottom right: HTC One
The detail is breathtaking. You can tell there's some digital enhancement going on, but unlike the Xperia Z, the GS4 keeps it all under control. Contours are clean, the noise is held at a minimum and the colours are generally faithful. The GS4 performs well in low lighting without the flash on, but still not quite as well as the Lumia 920. But compared to the GS3, it's a huge improvement. And, on the whole, it's better in low lighting than the iPhone 5 because the images contain more detail.
Bottom left: Xperia Z - Bottom right: HTC One
With the flash on, the GS4 stands up well to the competition, most of whose flashes tend to scorch the image.
Naturally, we pitted the GS4 against its biggest Android rivals, the Sony Xperia Z and HTC One. And hands down, Samsung's new flagship super phone crushes its opponents' cameras with monster detail and a picture that's simply nicer to look at.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 beats the iPhone 5 (just barely) at its own game, which until now has been to dominate the market as best camera phone in town. The iPhone 5 still gives excellent detail and more natural rendering, but it isn't as consistent across the frame (pictures get blurry toward the edges).
We also compared the GS4's camera to another adversary that's practically disappeared from the market but that has an exceptional camera, the Nokia 808 PureView. While the GS4 takes slightly sharper pictures (thanks to digital enhancement), the 808 PureView still offers an unrivalled camera experience. It isn't as thin, but it has a real zoom and optical image stabilisation, and the super-high resolution allows you to do more with your photos.
As such, the Galaxy S4 is now officially the best camera phone of its generation. It also handles nicely and is lots of fun to use.
- Incredible image when watching video on the AMOLED display
- Good handling / Flawless responsiveness
- Camera beats the competition hands down
- S Health is promising, S-Translator is making progress and Smart Pause comes in handy at times
- Finds network and Wi-Fi well / Fast GPS fixing
- Some of the functions are novelty features
- Nothing new in the design, boring look
- Good battery life, but could be better
- Almost too many new features
A lot was riding on the Galaxy S4, and Samsung took somewhat of a surprise turn by putting little to no effort into the design, all the while unleashing an innovative user experience that lives up to what 2013 consumers want out of a high-end smartphone, and more. Fast, powerful and surprisingly intelligent in its interactions with the user, the GS4, a sort of GS3 on testosterone, sometimes even over-extends itself with features that are part-innovation, part-novelty. But the overall experience is top-notch and rather unique in the world of smartphones. Bravo.