After a lot of teasing, and a lot of leaking, the Galaxy S4 is finally here. Last year's version, the S III, remains the world's most popular Android phone, having sold over 40 million units. Can the S4 live up to that kind of hype? Can Samsung make us feel like we're living in the future?
We took a deep dive into the S4 earlier today, and the verdict is in. It just may not be the one you were hoping for.
The first thing you'll notice about the S4 is that it's a dead ringer for the S III. In some ways, that was a neat trick to pull off; the screen went from 4.8-inches on the S III to a full 5-inches on the S4, but it actually feels smaller. At 5.46 inches tall, 2.75 wide, and 0.31 thick, it's slightly narrower and thinner than the S III, and just 0.08 inches taller. It's also 0.9 ounces lighter at 4.6 ounces. They accomplished this by shrinking the bezel way down. It's the same basic shape as the S III, though it's a little bit more rectangular.
Samsung sold a tonne of S IIIs, so to a certain extent it makes sense that they'd take an ain't broke, don't fix it approach. But to be brutally honest, in 2013 the design feels stale, dated, and boring. The S III's plastic back made it look and feel cheap; the effect is amplified on the S4 given how sleek and anodised the competition has gotten. There's just no innovation on this front, to the point that it's hard to take the S4 seriously next to a gorgeous piece of hardware like the HTC One.
At least the 5-inch "Full HD Super AMOLED" is very good-looking. It's a full 1080p, which gives it 441 pixels per inch (PPI). Indeed, it looked very sharp, and you can't discern individual pixels. Colours—especially greens and blues—were vibrant, although that's largely because AMOLED screens skew a little blue compared to phones with other display technologies. The blacks were nice and deep, though, and the screen was bright enough that you should be fine even when the sun is blazing.
We know that the S4 will be packing a flagship-standard 2GB of RAM and a hefty 2600mAh battery, which is certainly welcome news. It will come in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB options, with a micro SD card slot allowing for expanded storage. Naturally it will also have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4, and NFC. The rear camera is 13MP and the front—which is also capable of 720p video chatting—has a 2MP sensor. It'll also have LTE (duh) with p to 100/50Mbps, which is quick. We still don't know what processor's running the show; Samsung would only say is that guts will different from region to region (and possibly carrier to carrier). We'll have to wait until closer to launch for those details.
One of the few surprises here is that the S4 has an IR blaster, meaning that—like the HTC One—you can use your phone as a remote control for you home entertainment system. We love this feature, since remotes always seem to go missing right when you need them.
As with the S III, Samsung really tries to differentiate itself here with software. The S4 running the current version of Android (4.2.2, Jelly Bean), but you wouldn't necessarily know that because of the heavy TouchWiz UI, where more is more seems to be the philosophy. Some of the new features are definitely innovative, but they're just as often impractical. Let's go through some of the marquee additions:
Smart Scroll: So, all those rumors about the S4 tracking your eyes and auto-scrolling? Turns out that was something Samsung was experimenting with, but ended up not using (this time, anyway). Instead, the phone knows when you're looking at it, and then lets you tilt it up or down to scroll. Sounds neat! But unfortunately doesn't work very well. The S4 that we played with seemed to have trouble setting the base angle, so it would scroll up or down even when you didn't want to. When it worked it was fine, but more often than not it was a frustrating mess.
Smart Pause: Conversely, Smart Pause works quite well! This new feature automatically pauses a video you're playing when you look away. It works, but it's hard to think of too many cases in which you'd actually want to use it.
S Health: Holy crap, Samsung put a health tracker in its phone! Which is actually a great idea. S Health is an app that will track your steps, stairs climbed, and the ambient temperature and humidity, plus track your food intake and estimate calories consumed/burned. You can even track sleep with an optional accessory (see below). Fitbit and co. should be nervous, although I'm curious to see what kind of ding this puts on your battery life.
Air View / Air Gesture: Samsung did some borrowing from the Galaxy Note II, where you can hover with the S Pen (stylus) over the screen and it will preview information. Except with the S4 there's no pen; you just use your finger. You can hover over galleries to see previews of their contents, email headers to get the first few lines, or text in the browser to magnify something. Likewise, gestures let you switch between tabs in the browser or skip tracks by passing your hand left or right above the screen, scroll by passing it up or down over the screen, or answer calls by waving at it. Cool that you can do that, but ultimately, it was pretty useless. It's the same things you'd do in Android with simple swiping, just... a few centimeters above the phone. The only way I can see this being great is if you find yourself constantly eating buffalo wings and hate moist towelettes.
Other Stuff: S Translator is a built in translation service that works as a standalone app (which does voice to voice translation), but also integrates into email, messaging, and Samsung's ChatON service (though not Gmail or Google Talk). Group Play allows up to 8 devices to directly connect via NFC for sharing photos and music, which, whatever, but the cool thing is it lets you game together. At launch it will work with Asphalt 7 and Gun Bros 2. Pretty cool idea. Adapt Display will change the colour of your screen if it senses you're reading a lot of text on white, making it more of a sepia tone, which is easier on the eyes.
Truthfully, there are too many modifications to go into, and most of them aren't things you'll ever use. Which is really the S4's biggest problem.
Samsung really revamped the camera app—which is to say it stole the interface from its own Galaxy Camera. That's not a bad thing. The on-screen mode dial is a really convenient way of selecting the mode you want. It has some really cool built-in features like Cinema photo, which is basically a cinemagraph mode. The UI for it was very nice. There's also Drama Shot, which takes a burst of pictures, and then combines them into one image, showing the subject at various points of his/her trajectory. It would be great for friends who do a lot of cartwheels.
There is also dual camera shooting, which uses both the back and front cameras at the same time, getting your face all up in the action. You can have your head in a hard rectangle, or a Gaussian circle, or a heart, or you can do a split screen. Again, it feels more like Samsung is showing off what it can do, rather than giving you something you actually need.
There are some rather nice accessories for the S4. Most appealing is a flip cover that has a little window cut out of it, which can light up by itself to show you incoming callers, text messages, and the time of day, so you don't have to open it to get that info. Pretty slick.
There are also a bevy of accessories that complement the S Health app. There's a wristband you can wear independently of the phone (in case you prefer running with out it), which will track your steps and monitor the quality of your sleep. It will then sync wirelessly with the app. There's also a connected scale and heart rate monitor. Again, this isn't good news for smaller fitness tracking companies.
There has been a tonne of hype and build-up to this device, and ultimately, it left us feeling cold. The S4 feels uninspired. There are small spec bumps from the previous generation and there's a tonne of software which will largely sit unused. There's just no wow-factor here.
I had the HTC One with me during my hands on time, and the difference is like night and day. For starters, the One is noticeably faster in every context. When flicking between screens, opening apps, and taking photos there was clear lag on the Galaxy S4, whereas everything was almost instantaneous on the One. To be fair, this wasn't the final production version of the S4, and who knows which processor was in the model I had. There's a chance it'll be faster at launch.
But even purely from a design perspective, the One absolutely crushes the S4. When you pick up the One, you feel like you're holding something amazing, both in the build and the screen. When you pick up the S4, you feel like you're holding an S III with a few extra bells and whistles.
We'll reserve final judgement until our full review. But already the S4 feels like a missed opportunity for Samsung, a company that had an inarguable lead over the rest of the Android pack and a chance to close the door. Instead, it's invited HTC, LG, and others right on in to take a run at the crown.
The S IV will be on sale from 26th April from all major UK networks, pricing still TBA.
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