What’s the formula for success? Clearly, Samsung knows a thing or two about this, having followed a similar strategy for its Galaxy S, S2 and S III smartphones – each model a bigger success than its predecessor. And with its latest flagship, the Galaxy S4, the Korean manufacturer hasn’t broken the mold, and is attempting to follow the same tried and tested route to the top. Each and every aspect of the S III has been beefed up – from the hardware to the software, to come up with a device that’s so loaded that a hard copy of its spec and features sheet probably weigh much more than the handset itself. And then of course, there’s the matter of its plastic construction and how it compares to its nemesis, the HTC One, widely touted as the best Android phone there is. Bear with us, as we attempt to decode the S4’s DNA and present it to you stripped of its hype, just so you can figure out whether this is a galaxy you want to explore or not.
Design and hardware
Yes, it’s made of plastic. No, it doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy. Yes, the HTC One feels much, much more premium. No, that probably won’t be a deal breaker for most. The best part about the Galaxy S4’s design has to be how Samsung has managed to squeeze in a larger screen compared to the S III in a body that’s physically smaller, thinner and lighter. Toting a design that’s not drastically different, it’s a smooth slab with rounded corners.
The best part about the Galaxy S4’s design has to be how Samsung has managed to squeeze in a larger screen compared to the S III in a body that’s physically smaller, thinner and lighter
There’s a 5-inch screen in front along with a dark, thin border, a rounded home button at the bottom with a chrome lining and flanked by two capacitive touch keys, while the top is home to the phone earpiece, sensors, a notification LED and the front-facing camera. A chrome band encircles the spine on all four sides and ups the ante in terms of its premium feel. The metallic power / sleep key is on the right, the volume rocker on the left, microUSB cum MHL port at the bottom along with the microphone, while the 3.5mm headset socket can be found on top next to the secondary microphone and an infrared blaster. Flip the phone over and you’re greeted by a textured pattern that’s smooth to the touch and a bit of a fingerprint magnet. Our review unit came in black, but there’s a white option available as well.
The 13-megapixel snapper and an LED flash are placed close to the top, with a Samsung logo in the middle and a speaker close to the bottom. As we mentioned earlier, the device doesn’t compare in build to the HTC One’s aluminum unibody construction, and while we aren’t sure how Samsung’s new flagship will take hard falls, at least it doesn’t feel cheap and is lighter to boot.
The Galaxy S III has a 720p screen, so it’s only apt that the S4 gets a bigger, better screen. With its full HD 1920 x 1080 pixel screen, the S4 joins the elite club that currently has the likes of the HTC One, Sony Xperia Z and the HTC Butterfly as its members. The Super AMOLED display on the S4 boasts a pixel density of 441 ppi and is a treat for the eyes. It’s hard to find fault with it, since it works well in all aspects – from the colors to viewing angles. Sunlight legibility isn’t bad either. The text is crisp, the icons float, the images pop out and the videos look alive.
Apart from the usual auto brightness feature that adjusts screen brightness as per ambient light, there are quite a few other tweaks available that let you customize the S4’s display. Like the S III, there’s an option to switch the display between dynamic, standard, photo and movie modes depending upon your preferences and usage. A new option called “adapt display” has also been added, tuning the display automatically. This aside, there’s also an option to increase touch sensitivity for use with gloved hands – useful for those residing in or traveling to chilly climes. It’s a superb screen, and will not disappoint you whatever your usage might be.
While a 2-megapixel snapper handles video calling at the front, the Galaxy S4 has been armed with a 13-megapixel main camera. After loading it up with megapixels, Samsung went ahead and crammed every software feature it could find, ending up with quite a few gimmicks in the process as well. Not too long ago, there was a time when we used to talk about features like HDR and panorama, and wax lyrical about smartphones cameras that sported them. The S4’s shooter has all of this, and so much more. Par for the course, there’s control over ISO, white balance, exposure, and metering. You can set the volume key to control digital zoom or to capture stills or video.
The S4’s snapper is much more versatile and serves up good results in almost all other scenarios. The frills and the gimmicks are bonus.
Just like the LG Optimus G, the shutter can be triggered using voice commands. There’s an editable quick menu so you can place shortcuts to your favorite settings right upfront. The camera UI allows you to capture stills and videos from the same screen, and tapping on an arrow below throws up the available filters and effects, each with live previews. Tap on the “Mode” key, and you’re presented with the range of shooting modes on offer. This is where you can select the usual ones such as panorama, HDR, night, sports, beauty face etc, but there are also a few others. “Eraser” and “Drama” are two features we’ve seen previously on the HTC One, with the former capturing a series of images and erasing undesired elements such as bystanders from a photo, and the latter combining a series to stitch them into a sequence action shot. There’s also a “Sound & shot” mode that lets you capture a short audio clip with a still, and “Animated photo” that enables animating a part of an image to create a .GIF.
Next, a Dual Shot feature combines images from both the front and the rear cameras to capture a single shot that gets you into the action while shooting, so to speak. How’s the quality, you ask? In one word, outstanding. Pristine images, detailed and accurate colors, and sharp, crisp results are yours for the taking. The camera excels in all sorts of shooting conditions, especially those with good lighting, both indoors and outdoors. It’s quite usable in low light as well, though the HTC One takes the cake there. However, the S4’s snapper is much more versatile and serves up good results in almost all other scenarios. The frills and the gimmicks are bonus.
Where there’s a Samsung Galaxy, there’s TouchWiz, the manufacturer’s custom skin that drapes over Android. And this time, the Android offering is the latest version of Mountain View’s world-beating mobile OS, version 4.2.2.
Sammy has made sure that the software features and content offerings are so loaded that no other rival can even think about coming close
While this version brings its own pluses to the table including lock screen widgets, Sammy has made sure that the software features and content offerings are so loaded that no other rival can even think about coming close. As one would expect, the goodies we’ve seen earlier are all there, from Samsung’s own apps covering the likes of ChatOn, S Voice, S Planner and S Memo, right along with the Samsung Apps storefront.
Features we’ve see earlier such as Multi window and Smart Stay are also present. Text input is handled by the Samsung Keyboard, which offers a dedicated row of numbers on the top. It also features text prediction, auto correct, and swipe-based text input. The only problem with it is that it feels a tad cramped, but in case you don’t get friendly with it after a while, you can always opt for one of the third-party options such as the excellent SwiftKey off the Play Store.
There’s a new app called WatchOn which is powered by Peel and works hand-in-glove with the IR blaster located on the top. This is another feature we’ve seen in the HTC One and lets you use your device as a universal remote to control your TV and DVR, apart from presenting a program guide. The one-time setup process on the S4 is fairly straightforward, and while India isn’t mentioned in the list of countries, we were able to control our LG TV and Tata Sky set-top box after a bit of hit and trial, and choosing UK as our location and Sky+ as the provider. Most functions of the Tata Sky + box are supported, including the onscreen guide as well as recording and playback functions, and while it isn’t really a must-have feature, it’s certainly a useful one.
Then there’s Story Album that lets you create photo albums using your camera images, and Group Play, a feature that lets you share music, pictures and documents, and also play multiplayer games with other S4 devices. S Health is another new addition, and is a full-fledged fitness app that lets you monitor your health and keep track of workouts, steps taken, calorie intake etc. Samsung Hub acts as the main content hub and integrates books, games, videos and learning material that includes educational titles, TED Talks and sample question papers. Make no mistake, there’s a lot on offer here, and we aren’t finished yet.
While there’s the question of how many of these features are actually useful and will be used regularly over the long term, there’s no denying that these work in the device’s favor to differentiate from the pack
Taking a cue from features such as Air View that worked using the S Pen on the Note II, along with the Smart Stay concept that uses the front camera to detect your eyes on the screen and keeps the screen awake, Samsung has crammed the S4 with a slew of gestures and tricks that let you control the device without even touching it. Air View now works using just your finger, and displays previews of emails or contact details just by hovering your finger over the screen. Swiping your hand above the screen while the device is on standby can awaken it to display notifications, and you can even use the same action to accept incoming calls or scroll through images in the gallery or long web pages – all without actually touching the screen.
Then there are others, such as Smart Pause that pauses a video automatically when you look away, and continues playback when you turn your face back towards the screen. Similarly, Smart Scroll lets you scroll web pages just by tilting your head. It’s an overwhelming package, and in our testing, we had mixed success in getting many of these to work. While there’s the question of how many of these features are actually useful and will be used regularly by S4 owners over the long term, there’s no denying that these work in the device’s favor to differentiate and make it stand out from the rest of the pack.
Performance and battery life
With an Exynos 5 Octa 5410 processor under the hood, mated to 2GB of RAM and a PowerVR SGX 544MP3 GPU, the Galaxy S4’s core specs are top notch. The Octa-core processor is slightly misleading in the sense that while it does have eight cores, only four are in operation at a time. The chipset combines 1.6GHz Cortex-A15 quad-core and 1.2GHz Cortex-A7 quad-core silicon, and the speedier cores only kick in for tasks that require their prowess, switching the A7 cores off in the process. Similar to Tegra 3’s 4-PLUS-1 structure, this is a battery saving feature.
The 2,600 mAh pack here keeps the phone alive for a full working day with medium usage. A little more however, and you may need a top-up charge during the day.
As far as pure performance is concerned, this is Samsung’s new age flagship we’re talking about here, and as such, there are absolutely no speed bumps anywhere. This smartphone flies and zips through everything that’s thrown at it, and the going is butter smooth. There’s only a little over 8GB of available storage accessible by the user out of the built-in 16GB, and while that’s a bit of a disappointment, at least you can add more via the microSD slot.
In terms of connectivity, there’s the whole gamut – from Wi-Fi 802.11 ac to MHL 2.0, NFC, DLNA and Wi-Fi Direct – no quibbles here. Unlike most of its closest rivals, the Galaxy S4 offers a removable battery, and the 2,600 mAh pack here keeps the phone alive for a full working day with medium usage. A little more however, and you may need a top-up charge during the day, especially if you’re working late or have a late evening do to attend.
Too much of a good thing can be a problem, and Samsung’s attempt to cram the S4 with so many features could have a negative side as well. It even defies the 80:20 rule, which we think, holds true for smartphones too.
It’s a bit like an all-you-can-eat buffet by the end of which you feel stuffed, but not really satiated.
With the ubiquitous smartphone handling so much of our tasks, from communications to media, social networking to personal organization, navigation to shooting, very few of the conventional users actually use all of a device’s capabilities, especially a powerful, flagship one. And considering the S4’s capabilities, how many of these are actually useful on a day-to-day basis, assuming they all work as advertised? We reckon it’s a bit like an all-you-can-eat buffet by the end of which you feel stuffed, but not really satiated.
Truth be told, these gripes could very well be the rants of those like us who follow this space closely, and may not mean much to the average user. The Galaxy S4 is an overwhelming, powerful device that will not disappoint, unless you really hate plastic devices and prefer metal. Priced at Rs 41,500 (~ $760), it certainly doesn’t come cheap, but you get what you pay for.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs HTC One – What to buy?
As diplomatic as it may sound, there’s little doubt that both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One are both extremely capable in their own right, but if you’re having trouble trying to figure out where to lay your hard-earned dosh, check out both of them and get a first-hand feel before you buy. The HTC One is certainly the one to own if you’re a fan of great build quality, and value a snapper that’ll deliver amazing shots in low light – a scenario where most of us end up clicking pictures regularly anyway. Think parties, dinners, et al.
On the other hand, the Galaxy S4’s beauty lies in it being a device loaded with a ton of features, some of which are fun, some handy, some amazing, and some gimmicky, along with that all-rounder of a camera. Being the evolution it is, the S4 may not be a totally unexplored galaxy that promises exciting adventures, but it can certainly boast a maze of features for keeping you occupied. Or lost. Or at least help you shout, “look ma, no hands!”, if nothing else. Depends on you, really.
Overall Rating: 9/10