Name: Samsung Galaxy S4
Carrier: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon
The Back Story: The Galaxy S series has gone on to sell over 100 million units since making its debut back in 2010—snatching up a huge chunk of the mobile market share. As Samsung’s flagship property continues to expand in popularity, so has the demand for its next-generation handsets. And with the Galaxy S III becoming the fastest and highest-selling Android phone of all time, the expectations are riding sky high for the latest addition to the Galaxy family. After months of teasers, an over-the-top announcement event that didn’t go over so well, and its biggest competitor, HTC, launching their own flagship device, the company has finally unleashed what it’s calling (for the third time around) “the next big thing.”
Powered by the latest hardware specs and spearheaded by a massive features list that’s never been experienced on a mobile before, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has set its target on creating a device that would appeal to everyone. But is the GS4 the game-changing device Samsung set out to build?
• The quintessential feature phone: The GS4’s biggest selling point revolves around Samsung’s new motion-gesture and productivity features. Period. It’s impossible to touch on every single one, especially since there are several hidden on the backend of the software. So we’ll just touch on the select few highlighted in the accompanying reviewers guide. But before doing so, it’s worth noting that popular features like Multi-Window and the Samsung Hub return with some optimized to support the latest version of TouchWiz.
Ever wanted to answer or ignore a call by just swiping your hand over the screen? Air Gesture does just that by utilizing the IR blaster on the top the phone to recognize hand or finger movement. Users can open tabs in the browser and scroll through web pages, even control media playback as well. Surprisingly, this was the one feature that worked accurately at times. The Air View function introduced in the Note series has been enhanced and now supports finger movement, meaning you can perform certain actions (open emails, scroll pages, etc.) by hovering over the screen.
Smart Screen looks to be the most innovative of the bunch as it examines head and eye movements to initiate commands. Move your noggin away from the screen and it’ll stop a video. Roll your eyes up or down when reading something on the touchscreen and it’ll adjust to the desired scroll pattern. Another intriguing addition is the optical reader, primarily because of its ability to read and store business card info, as well as translate text into a variety of different languages. Then there’s the WatchOn app, which transform the phone into a universal remote that lets you watch TV anywhere and offers personal recommendations. And this is just about a quarter of the features on the phone.
• Unprecedented benchmarks: Like most mobilephiles, we were saddened to hear the U.S. version wasn't receiving the octo-core Exynos CPU integrated in the European model. After our hands-on preview, we're still completely overwhelmed by the GS4’s processing power rather than its feature set. The benchmarks on this thing are off the Richter scale. Qualcomm’s new 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor scored a Quadrant Standard reading of 11,923 on our device. That's nearly 2,500 points higher than the reading we clocked on the One: 9,351. Guess those results are expected when an Andreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM join the party. Commands and screen navigation were instantaneous, plus media playback ran smooth without any lag present. No other phone on the market even comes close.
• Great camera and dynamic software: Fanboys will be proud to hear the GS4 boasts a better shooter than the One. The 13MP lens snaps gorgeous stills and crisp videos, while the front-facing 2MP captures sharp selfies and video output via Skype. Granted each delivers detailed and lively results, it’s the software that really pushes the mobile photography envelope. Now you have the option to use both simultaneously when in Dual Camera mode, which works surprisingly well. The customization features serve as alternatives to popular third-party apps. For instance, Animation Shot works like Cinemagram and creates GIFs on the fly. Live Filters is pretty much an Instagram knockoff that supplies real-time effects and previews for photos (and video). There's much more to play with here.
• Stunning display: Samsung's new 5-inch FHD Super AMOLED is beautiful and vibrant in terms of visual output. It generates up to 441ppi, making it far superior to the iPhone 5’s Retina Display (326ppi), but slightly denser than the One’s panel (468ppi). We actually thought the GS4’s screen delivered a richer color palette and wider contrast ratio than the latter. Bumping the size up .02-inches from the GS III's display lets users and other prying eyes take in the Super AMOLED's effectively wider viewing angles. Hi-def clips and Netflix videos pop. Images look amazing, too.
• Accessories galore: We thought Motorola went hard with its mobile accessories lineup. But Samsung's gone HAM, offering over 10 add-ons for its Android powerhouse—and all useful ones at that. Leading the pact is the S-View cover, a replacement jacket with a small plastic window that allows users to view phone info (battery life, messages, etc.) and answer calls without flipping it open. Other standouts include the AllShare Cast Wireless Hub, Portable Battery Back, Protective Cover+, and Spare Battery Charging System.
• That same cheap plastic design: Apple, HTC, and Motorola have spared no expense to give their handsets an affluent feel. So with the billions Samsung has collected off the Galaxy series alone, there’s absolutely no excuse why this $700+ phone is housed in plastic. Perhaps the fifth time will be a charm, or hopefully the recent rumors of the next-gen Note flaunting a new design hold true.
• Deceiving spec sheet: The GS4 is misleading in three areas: internal memory, feature range, and battery life performance. First off, the phone comes loaded with 16GB, though all the extra software swallows nearly half of that and leaves you with just 9.62GB. Certain features like Air View and Multi-Window are limited to certain apps. And while the company claims its 2600-mAh cell provides up to 17 hours talk time and 8/10 hours on 4G/WiFi, we experienced about two hours less than what the spec sheet promised. Our recommendation for improving vitality: Qualcomm's Snapdragon BatteryGuru app.
• Gimmicky and clunky features: For a smartphone marketed heavy on features, truth is only a handful will end up being utilized on a regular basis. Not to mention the majority need some polishing and have yet to be perfected, such as Smart Scroll.
Final Say: Is the Galaxy S4 the groundbreaking, must-own smartphone we’ve all anticipated over the past several months? Yes and no. The fact that Samsung’s managed to squeeze in so many features into this device is a feat deserving of high recognition. Plus the phone’s monstrous hardware and benchmark performance are entitled to the same shine. As great as the GS4 is—make no mistake about it—it’s not a game-changer. Most of the hi-tech features do feel like novelties and need to be touched up for accuracy purposes. But the phone’s biggest handicap is its design. And we’re not the only ones saying it, as most of the tech experts have expressed the same gripe and noted it as their primary reason for favoring the One at the moment. If you can look past the GS4’s inexpensive and unoriginal look, then an argument can be made over which phone is best.