Samsung Galaxy S4 deep-dive review: A real-world evaluation

Some things in this world need no introduction. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is not one of those things

Some things in this world need no introduction. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is not one of those things.

Sure, "Galaxy S" has practically become a household name. And sure, you've probably heard all sorts of hype about this latest Samsung model. But trust me: There's more to the Galaxy S4 than meets the eye.

I've been using the Galaxy S4 in place of my own personal device for well over a week now -- and I can confidently say that while the device has its share of eye-catching features, it isn't the end-all Android phone for everyone. Don't get me wrong: The Galaxy S4 has plenty of attractive qualities. But it also makes some serious compromises. The question is whether it all adds up to a package that makes sense for you.

So join me on this detailed tour of the Galaxy S4 and see what the device is like to use in the real world. By the time we're done, I suspect you'll know if your future belongs with this phone -- or in a galaxy far, far away.

(The Galaxy S4 is available now on AT&T for $200 with a new two-year contract, Sprint for $250 with a new two-year contract, T-Mobile for $150 down and a two-year payment plan, and U.S. Cellular for $200 with a new two-year contract. It'll launch on Verizon Wireless on May 30 for $200 after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a new two-year contract.)

Body and sound

One thing's for sure: For better or for worse (depending on your perspective), the Galaxy S4 looks and feels distinctly like a Samsung phone. At first glance, you might even mistake it for last year's Galaxy S III; the phone shares the same basic size, shape and form as its predecessor.

The Galaxy S4 is actually slightly narrower and thinner than last year's model, at 2.7 x 5.4 x 0.31 in. It's a hair lighter, too, weighing 4.6 oz. compared to the GSIII's 4.7 oz. body. Beyond that, the phone is a bit less curved than Samsung's previous-generation device, with a flat back and more square-like shape.

But you'd really have to be looking closely to notice those differences. In terms of design, the Galaxy S4 is very much in line with what we've seen from Samsung before, with a plastic-centric construction and almost toy-like feel. The phone's back has a shiny, candy-shell appearance; pull on it from the right spot and you'll realize it's actually a thin panel that peels away to reveal the phone's internal battery compartment.

The benefit of the plastic casing is that it allows you to access and optionally replace the battery; it also makes for a lightweight and relatively durable frame. The downside is that it makes the phone look and feel rather cheap next to more elegantly constructed devices like the all-aluminum HTC One and glass-centric Nexus 4.

(The Galaxy S4 is available in either "Black Mist" or "White Frost," by the way -- and yes, those colors are basically just black and white.)

Comparisons aside, the Galaxy S4 feels nice if a bit insubstantial in the hand. The back panel is slick to the touch but not difficult to hold. The rear camera creates a slight bump in the phone's back, as does a small speaker grille located at the bottom-left of the device.

The Galaxy S4 has a silver-colored trim around its edges that's made to look like metal (though it, too, is actually plastic). The left edge holds a silver-colored volume rocker while the power switch sits on the phone's top-right side -- a natural position that's easy to find with your fingers. The top of the phone houses a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the bottom holds a micro-USB port that doubles as an HDMI-out with the use of a standard MHL adapter.

The Galaxy S4's speaker -- housed behind that aforementioned single grille on the device's back -- is adequate but underwhelming: Audio played through the phone sounds hollow and tinny and tends to be muffled by your hand (if holding the phone) or a table (if the phone is sitting flat on a surface). That level of quality is pretty typical for a smartphone speaker, but the superb front-facing stereo speakers on the HTC One, which I reviewed previously, left me a bit spoiled and expecting more.

Display

Samsung's Galaxy S4 boasts a 5-in. 1080p Super AMOLED display. That's quite a boost from the Galaxy S III's 4.8-in. 720p display; Samsung managed to shrink down the device's bezels to make space for the larger screen while maintaining the same basic frame size.

At 441 pixels per inch, the Galaxy S4's display looks quite good: Colors are bold and brilliant, images are pleasantly crisp and text is sharp and easy to read. The screen is somewhat oversaturated but noticeably less so than with past Samsung devices. Like most Samsung products, the phone's autobrightness mode -- which is activated by default -- is rather wonky and tends to keep the display too dim regardless of your environment; in order for the screen to look its best, you'll need to disable that setting and manually set the brightness level yourself.

The Galaxy S4's pixels-per-inch measurement, it's worth noting, is slightly less than that of the HTC One -- but we've reached the level here where such a difference isn't really noticeable to the human eye. What is noticeable is the difference between the AMOLED display technology Samsung uses and the LCD technology HTC employs.

The Galaxy S4's AMOLED screen has deeper, truer blacks but less pure-looking whites than the One's LCD display. The GS4's screen also suffers in sunlight: While the One's LCD panel remains perfectly viewable even in the most glary conditions, the Galaxy S4's AMOLED display is often difficult to see outdoors and practically useless in direct sun.

One area where the Galaxy S4's screen really shines is in pressure sensitivity: The phone has a somewhat hidden "high-touch sensitivity mode" that -- if you can manage to find it -- will allow you to use the device's touchscreen with gloves on. I tested it using medium-thickness winter gloves and found it worked fairly well; the screen's responsiveness was a bit hit and miss, but considering most smartphones won't recognize glove-covered input at all, the capability will be a welcome addition for anyone in a cold climate.

The button factor

System navigation buttons are a key part of the Android experience -- and while Google moved to a virtual, on-screen approach for such functions with its Android 4.0 release in 2011, Samsung continues to stick with a dated and rather peculiar hybrid button configuration on the Galaxy S4.

For folks who are used to Samsung devices, the phone's physical Home button flanked by capacitive Menu and Back keys won't be much of a shock. But compared to the native Android experience, the setup presents some significant disadvantages.

The first relates to Samsung's decision to include the Menu button -- an element Google removed from the platform at the start of the 4.0 era. The old-style Menu button was eliminated for a specific reason: On button-free devices, a special onscreen icon signals the presence of functions related to the OS or to specific applications -- functions like accessing advanced settings in Gmail, requesting a desktop version of a website in Chrome, or viewing your list of installed apps in the Play Store. In Samsung's setup, there's nothing to let you know when those options are available unless you think to tap the Menu button at the right time.

Samsung's setup causes some core system functions to be similarly hidden, like the app switching tool -- a useful utility that lets you jump directly from one application to another. In devices that follow Google's design recommendations, that tool is accessible via a persistent on-screen icon; on the Galaxy S4, you have to long-press the physical Home button to find it -- an action that won't be obvious to most users.

Philosophical matters aside, the Galaxy S4's capacitive keys are frequently not lit up during use and thus impossible to see. And the mix of physical and capacitive buttons creates an awkward usage scenario that's anything but ideal: As I noted when reviewing the Galaxy S III, once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring.

Sounds like a lot of nitpicking, I know -- but all it takes is 10 minutes with a device that follows Google's Android 4.x-level design guidelines to see how big of a difference these seemingly small details make in the overall user experience.

Under the hood

The U.S. model of Samsung's Galaxy S4 runs on a cutting-edge Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.9GHz quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. With that sort of horsepower, I've been surprised to see that the phone's performance suffers from subtle but noticeable hiccups.

The GS4's system animations are frequently jerky, for instance -- like when the phone is returning from an app to the home screen -- and some actions take far longer than they should to process. I've counted as many as eight to nine seconds after tapping a folder in the Gallery before it actually opens. And these things haven't been isolated, one-time occurrences; they've happened regularly, regardless of what other services the phone has been running or how much time has passed since a restart.

What's most baffling is the fact that the HTC One, which I found to have near-flawless performance, uses the same exact processor -- clocked slightly lower, in fact -- and the same amount of RAM as well. The only logical conclusion I can draw is that something having to do with Samsung's software is gumming up the works.

To be clear, the Galaxy S4's performance isn't all bad -- for the most part, apps usually load quickly, Web browsing is swift and smooth and the system doesn't feel terribly sluggish -- but for a flagship phone with this level of hardware, any amount of jerky or lag-laden performance is disappointing.

The Galaxy S4 does do well when it comes to stamina: The phone packs a removable 2,600mAh battery that's generally provided ample juice to get me through the day. Results will obviously vary based on what you're doing, but with a few short voice calls combined with scattered Web browsing, social media activity, camera use, audio streaming and the occasional video streaming (about 2.5 to 3 hours of total on-screen time), I've found I can usually squeeze in around 13 to 14 hours of use before the phone starts giving me low battery warnings.

The Galaxy S4 ships with 16GB of internal storage space, which -- after factoring in the operating system and various preinstalled applications -- leaves you with just under 10GB of actual usable space. (Both 32GB and 64GB models are also expected to be available from some U.S. carriers, though specific plans for their release have yet to be announced.) The GS4 has an SD card slot as well, allowing you to add up to 64GB of external space.

In terms of data connectivity, the Galaxy S4 supports both LTE and HSPA+ networks. If you're using the phone on AT&T or T-Mobile, it'll connect to LTE by default but automatically drop down to HSPA+ when you're in an area without LTE coverage. On Sprint and Verizon, the phone will resort to the carriers' far slower 3G-level networks when LTE isn't available.

I found voice quality on the Galaxy S4 unit I tested -- a Sprint-connected model -- to be A-OK: I could hear people loud and clear, and those with whom I spoke said my voice was easy to hear and no more annoying than usual.

The Galaxy S4 does support near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data exchanges. Despite some initial reports to the contrary, however, the phone does not provide native support for wireless charging; Samsung says a special back plate will be sold separately that can add such functionality to the phone, but the company is not providing any specific release date or price for that accessory as of now.

Cameras

Want megapixels? The GS4's got 'em: The phone's rear camera has a whopping 13 megapixels -- but as we've seen with the HTC One, more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean more quality.

The good news for the Galaxy S4 is that its camera is capable of capturing some great-looking images. The GS4's photos aren't always completely true to life in coloring, but in most lighting conditions, they're sharp-looking and well-suited for sharing or physical printing. To my eye, HTC seems to have a slight edge in overall quality, but the GS4 generally holds its own and maintains a close race.

The exception is photos taken in low-light environments: The Galaxy S4, unlike the One, struggles to capture much of anything in very dim conditions. The difference between the two phones in that regard is immense.

(You don't have to take my word for it: Click over to my Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One camera gallery to see side-by-side samples and compare for yourself.)

The high megapixel value means the GS4's images are large -- up to 4128 x 3096 pixels in size. Those dimensions allow you to zoom in closely to images; they also open the door to larger physical prints (the One's photos, in my experience, started showing subtle quality loss around the 8 x 10 mark when printed). On the downside, larger dimensions mean files take up more storage space and will take longer to transfer to cloud backup services or social networks.

Samsung's Galaxy S4 Camera app is easy to use and packed with features -- some of them interesting and some just plain silly. One mode allows you to create animated GIFs from photos, for instance, while another lets you take a series of photos and then pick the best face from each individual person in your group to get a final image in which everyone is smiling. Both options work surprisingly well, though it takes a little practice to get good at them.

The same can be said for the GS4's Eraser mode, in which the camera captures five consecutive photos in order to let you "remove" an unwanted object from the background. The effect works well enough, but you'd have to think ahead to enable it; if you're taking photos in any other mode and fall victim to an unwanted photo intruder, you're going to be out of luck.

Other Galaxy S4 camera features sit more on the gimmicky side of the spectrum -- like a Drama mode that allows you to capture multiple photos of a moving subject and merge them together into a single Sports Illustrated-like action sequence. It sounds neat in theory, but I found it works only with multiple attempts and when the action is carefully staged for your benefit.

Then there's the really silly stuff, like Sound and Shot mode -- an option that lets you record up to nine seconds of audio to go along with a still picture. The audio has to be recorded at the time of capture and can't be exported into any standard format, meaning you can only play it back on your phone or another Galaxy S4 device. In other words, it's kind of like a video -- which the Galaxy S4 can capture at 1080p quality -- only in this case, it's using a still picture instead of moving images and audio no one else will be able to hear.

Equally gimmicky is the GS4's Dual Camera mode, which allows you to add a small floating photo of your face from the phone's 2-megapixel front camera onto an image you capture simultaneously with the rear camera. The photo of your face is superimposed over the main image in a small, cheesy-looking frame. I'm not sure what to say about that beyond a short and simple: "Why?"

The Dual Camera function can also be used for video chatting, but only if you're chatting with people on Samsung's proprietary ChatOn service -- which was nowhere to be found on my review unit.

Also curiously missing from the mix is Google's Photo Sphere -- a useful feature of the current Android platform that lets you capture interactive 360-degree images and share them with friends. For some reason, Samsung has stripped this functionality from the GS4's anatomy.

User interface

The Galaxy S4 runs custom Samsung software based on Google's Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) operating system. Samsung has taken its typical "more is more" approach with the OS, trading the subdued visuals of Google's user interface for a loud and often gaudy mix of inconsistent colors and clashing elements.

Many of Samsung's UI changes are arbitrary -- swapping out a tastefully designed Android icon for a cartoony alternative or reskinning the Calendar app with tacky-looking colors -- and design deterioration aside, some of the company's modifications actually make the system less intuitive to use.

For example, on a stock Android device, you can create a folder on the home screen by simply dragging one icon on top of another. You can then remove the folder by dragging all of the icons out of it and back onto the home screen. Samsung has added extra steps into the creation process, requiring you to first drag an icon up to a "Create Folder" command, then name the folder, and then go back and drag a second icon on top of it. And easily removing a folder after you've created it? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Samsung has also tweaked the Android 4.2 lock screen widget feature with negative results. The company has effectively hidden the feature; instead of being able to swipe over on your home screen to add a widget, you first have to find and activate an option buried within the system settings to enable it. Worse yet, Samsung has made the feature completely unavailable if you use a pattern, PIN or any other level of security on your device. This is a shame, because there are plenty of lock screen widgets that enhance the user experience without compromising security -- and Galaxy S4 users who keep their devices protected won't be able to take advantage of them.

The list of changes that unnecessarily complicate things goes on and on. In the main system settings, Samsung has split things up into four categorized tabs: Connections, My Device, Accounts and More. The idea seems sensible enough in theory, but in practice, it ends up making it more difficult to find what you need. Want info about your phone's battery? Don't look under My Device; it's located under More. The same applies for the app manager and security options. Instead of scrolling through a single list to find what you want, you now have to scroll haphazardly through four.

Then there's the company's take on the Android 4.2-level Quick Settings panel: While stock Android software uses that space to provide you with quick access to commonly used commands, Samsung crams in four full rows of tiny, brightly colored buttons for every function you could imagine -- including toggles you likely won't need with any regularity, like screen mirroring, S Beam, NFC and Air Gesture.

Having more options isn't necessarily bad, but for a Quick Settings panel, this sort of "everything under the sun" approach largely defeats the purpose -- and also creates a sense of visual overload that's likely to overwhelm users. What's more, Samsung places those same functions in the regular notifications panel, creating more redundant and unnecessary clutter.

Software features

Samsung's "more is more" mentality extends to the Galaxy S4's software features; in many ways, it feels like the company tried to jam every feature it could think of into the GS4, regardless of whether it'd be practical or useful for users.

The end result is a mixed bag. Some of the stuff is legitimately innovative and valuable, like the phone's Multi Window mode -- as seen in Samsung's Galaxy Note II and other existing devices -- which lets you view two apps side-by-side on your screen at the same time. It works only with a limited number of apps, but those apps include programs like Chrome, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk, YouTube, Facebook and the system Messaging app, so it has a pretty wide range of potential.

Also noteworthy is the GS4's Smart Scroll mode. When enabled, it allows you to scroll through a Web page just by tilting your head gently up or down. Cool factor aside, it's easy to imagine scenarios in which it'd be handy to keep one hand free and make on-screen text scroll with a simple tilt of your chin.

The caveat, like with many of the Galaxy S4 features, is that Smart Scroll is very limited in where it can be used: The feature works only in a Samsung-customized version of the old Browser app (not the superior and actively developed Chrome for Android application) and in a Samsung-customized version of the Email app (not the more feature-rich Gmail application). It also doesn't work well in dimly lit environments, since it needs to see your eyes in order to function.

The Galaxy S4 also includes S Health, a program that takes advantage of a built-in pedometer as well as temperature and humidity sensors in order to offer a suite of health-related services. These could certainly appeal to the FitBit-using crowd, though their accuracy was inconsistent in my experience: The S Health Walking Mate function frequently forgot how many steps I'd taken in a day and reset itself back to zero. The pedometer function also doesn't work too well if you carry the phone around in a bag or purse instead of your pocket; in those scenarios, it tends to dramatically underestimate the number of steps you take.

The GS4 can also be used as a universal remote to control your TV and various entertainment center components. The setup process is simple and the function works well.

And the phone features a new Easy Mode that allows you to trade the typical home screen environment for one with fewer options, larger icons and an overall less daunting layout. It's certainly not something an experienced user would want, but it could be valuable if you were configuring a device for a less tech-savvy smartphone newcomer (like a parent or grandparent).

Beyond those items, most of the Galaxy S4's software elements err on the side of gimmicky, with fleeting novelty but little lasting real-world value. Some examples:

Air View. It's supposed to let you interact with content by hovering your finger over the screen without actually touching it -- but it's finicky and limited in where it can be used, and most of the processes it enables could be done far more easily by going the extra millimeter and just touching the darn screen.

Air Gestures. This one does things like letting you advance through Web pages by waving your hand in front of the phone (right -- because that's way more practical than simply tapping an icon on the screen). A couple of Air Gesture elements -- one in which you can answer calls by waving in front of the phone and another in which you can get a quick activity summary by placing your hand over the screen when it's off -- could be useful in certain circumstances, but they're far too inconsistent to be reliable.

Smart Rotation. It allegedly rotates the screen automatically to "adjust to your angle of height." I couldn't get it to work at all.

Smart Pause. Want your phone to stop playing a video automatically every time your eyes veer away from the screen? Me neither. But this feature will do that for you -- at least 30% of the time, anyway.

Last but not least, Samsung has loaded the Galaxy S4 up with features that duplicate native Google services -- generally in less effective ways. The company's S Voice is a significantly worse version of Google's Voice Search; it's slower, clunkier and far more limited in the actions it can perform and questions it can answer. Luckily, you can opt to ignore it and use Google's version by placing that widget on your home screen.

At a Glance

Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung

Price: $200 from AT&T, $250 from Sprint for $250, $200 from U.S. Cellular for $200, $200 from Verizon Wireless after a $50 mail-in rebate (starting on on May 30). All require a two-year contract. T-Mobile: $149.99 down, plus 24 monthly payments of $20 for a total of $629.99.

Pros: Thin and light; sharp-looking 1080p display; solid battery life; removable battery; SD card support; good camera; interesting software features; support for glove-covered touchscreen use

Cons: Plasticky construction looks and feels cheap compared to other high-end phones; display hard to see outdoors; occasional jerkiness and lags in performance; bloated and messy user interface; dated and peculiar button configuration

Samsung's highly touted S Translator app, meanwhile, is a straight copy of Google's long-existing Google Translate service, only it requires you to create and sign into a Samsung account before it'll work.

Samsung has baked its own music player, app store and entertainment-purchasing "hub" into the device, too, each of which exists alongside its native Android equivalent. It's easy to see why the company would want to push those sorts of services, but from a user perspective, the overlapping and similarly named functions do little more than cause confusion -- particularly considering most users would be better served by Google's native options, which are cross-platform and allow for content to be accessed from and synced to any device.

Whew! Like I said -- lots going on with this phone's software. A few final odds and ends to close things out:

By default, the Galaxy S4 uses a Samsung-customized version of the SwiftKey keyboard; it's basically a lesser version of the standalone SwiftKey app. Fortunately, the fix is easy enough: Download the regular SwiftKey app from the Play Store or snag any other keyboard you like (Swype is also preloaded on the device).

Samsung had discussed plans to offer a new enterprise-level security layer called Knox on the Galaxy S4. The function, however, is not currently on the phone; reports indicate the software will become available at some undisclosed later date.

There's bloatware a-plenty on the GS4, ranging from the standard Samsung stuff to preinstalled apps like Dropbox and Flipboard. Most of those can be disabled but not removed. The carriers pile on even more junk, which -- in the case of Sprint, at least -- can be uninstalled if you want.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention upgrades: With any non-Nexus device, it's important to remember that future software upgrades are in the hands of the manufacturers and carriers -- and Samsung, like most phone-makers, has a spotty track record when it comes to ongoing support.

Bottom line

With its established brand and ubiquitous marketing, Samsung's Galaxy S4 is bound to be a commercial success -- but that doesn't mean it's unconditionally the best Android phone you can buy.

To be sure, the Galaxy S4 has a lot of good things going for it: It's thin and light, has a sharp-looking 1080p display and has solid battery life with the option to replace the battery as needed. The phone also has an SD card slot for expandable storage, a commendable camera with oodles of fancy options and some innovative and cool software features like Multi Window and Smart Scroll.

But compared to other high-end phones, the Galaxy S4's hardware looks and feels cheap and decidedly less premium. Its display is difficult to see outdoors, its performance leaves something to be desired, and its user interface is a bloated, ugly mess. That, combined with the phone's dated and peculiar button configuration, takes a serious toll on the user experience.

In the end, it comes down to what matters most to you in a phone. Hardware design is more important to some folks than it is to others. Many of the GS4's UI issues can be covered up with a custom Android launcher. And if you're already used to the old-style Samsung button configuration, its presence here might not bother you a bit.

The Galaxy S4 isn't a cohesive, undefeatable-champion sort of device. But it is a standout smartphone with a lot of attractive elements. And despite its drawbacks, I think it's safe to say it's going to make a lot of people awfully happy.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor

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JR Raphael

Computerworld (US)

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