Samsung Galaxy S4

Tech Test Lab Review

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Product: Samsung Galaxy S4
Price: $99.00 (T-Mobile) - $149.00 (AT&T)
Rating: Recommend*

Already a global hit, I've recently gotten my hands on the Samsung Galaxy S4 to discover what this latest fourth iteration of Galaxy line brings to the Android mobile experience. Fueled by the Jelly Bean operating system and bolstered by Samsung's own layer of features slathered on top, the S4 sees a slightly refined case finish, upgraded quad-core processor, super high pixel dense 5" HD display, and an impressive 13-megapixel camera. Yet, the S4 proves to be another case of "if they only had..."

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Bigger, faster, better. Samsung has decided to make incremental improvements which add up to their best Galaxy device yet. That is not to say it's perfect; the S4 still suffering from a disconnect between its flagship status and the somewhat plasticky finish. I wanted the S4 to look every bit the part of its best mobile device stature, inside and out. To their credit, Samsung has improved the feel of the plastic exterior, offering a more satisfying and substantial case which doesn't feel as cheap and vulnerable as the previous S3 back. But overall, it looks very similar to the previous Galaxy S3 at first glance.

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Turn on the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the improvements become more evident. A Gorilla Glass 3 clad 5" Super AMOLED HD screen is spacious and bright, with a crisp 1920 x 1080p resolution (that's a 441 PPI compared to the iPhone's 326 PPI screen density, just in case you were wondering). Comparing the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 side by side, the S4's screen seems a tad dimmer at its highest brightness setting, with a slightly warmer color screen temperature. Yet due to the overall screen size, battery life drains about an hour earlier than the iPhone 5 by day's end, so make sure you've got an extra charger or battery (and thankfully, unlike the iPhone, the battery is replaceable).

As an aside, it's interesting to note just after a few generations of using larger phones, the 5" display seems "just right" in hand, and Samsung has kept the device sprightly at just 0.29 pounds, so carrying and pocketing the Galaxy S4 should prove no challenge except for the smallest and tightest of pockets.

The Galaxy S4 is powered by four cores via a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 CPU rated at 1.9GHz and with 2GB of RAM (and either 16, 32, or 64GB of internal storage). All that really matters is all these under-the-hood hardware upgrades have resulted in the S4 eliminating the UI stutter occasionally plaguing the previous S3, and even it's bigger sibling, the Galaxy Note II. Navigation and scrolling is an enjoyably smooth affair, allowing users to enjoy Android 4.2.2 without lag. Samsung has also shipped the S4 with a switchable "Easy Mode" (below) which pares down the Android experience to an oversized and simplified basic UI that may appeal to those hampered by either aged eyes or a fear of options-overload.

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Additional key features

Quick Glance - this is a suite of gesture based features utilizing the front-facing sensors allowing users to answer calls, check time, date, or notifications with a swipe above the screen while the phone is off. It works well while the phone is on a flat surface.

WatchON: partnered with the IR Blaster inside the S4, this app allows users to control personalize and control their home entertainment TV system, including Netflix accounts.

S Health: an updated version of their health and fitness tracker, the app records steps taken all day, helps track diet, and offers information about ambient temperature and humidity. It's a pretty basic health tracking app, but a useful lifestyle addition.

13.1 Megapixel Camera: It's not just the S4's high pixel count, it's everything the camera can do utilizing those pixels, including a 5-photo machine gun capture which allows users to "erase" elements (for example, someone who accidentally walked into your photo) after the fact. The camera can also capture up to 20 shots in succession in burst mode. Automatic mode captures natural contrast and dimensional images, especially in natural sunlight where high detail allows for additional zooming and cropping.

There's also a fun dual-shot mode which takes a photo using both back 13.1 megapixel camera with the 2.0 megapixel front facing camera. The results are a sort of "wish you were here" postcard or video keepsake.

Coming from using the iPhone 5 on a daily basis, it's the camera which seems to have the most notable upgrades in utility and performance, with a UI streamlined for quick switching between camera and video mode, and quick access to editing, creative settings, and customization modes.

Will the S4 convince an entrenched iPhone 5 user to switch over to Android? Unlikely. But there's very little room for criticism now with all these tweaks and refinements (minus case construction), especially with the iPhone 5 looking more than long in the tooth itself. I found myself genuinely enjoying my time switching back over to Android with all the upgrades since last using the S3, not to mention all the OS upgrades related to Google tweaking their operating system to a closer goal of overall user experience consistency.

For those seeking a "can do it all, and do it all very well", the Samsung Galaxy S4 fits the bill across all three major carriers and is now also available in water/dust resistant edition, and soon a scaled down Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini. Like Android itself, the Galaxy line seems to be all about the options...

Pros: Improved hardware and performance makes this the best Galaxy phone yet; impressive 13.1 megapixel camera with 1080p video quality replaces the need for point and shoot cameras, ships with Android 4.2, Samsung's S Health is a solid health and activity addition, IR remote control allows S4 to become a viable TV remote replacement (with compatible Samsung televisions); app performance is top-tier.

Cons: So-so battery life, still hampered by plastic finish, screen collects fingerprints easily requiring carrying a cloth to clean throughout the day, poor low light camera performance.

Our Ratings:

Strong Recommend
Recommend*
Weak Recommend
Don't Recommend

(Images: Gregory Han)

Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.

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