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Samsung Galaxy S 4 Review: Bigger, Faster, Stronger
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Date: Apr 24, 2013
Section:Mobile
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

Samsung has done an exceptional job the past few years building interest and recognition for their Galaxy-branded smartphones. The fervor isn’t quite on the level of Apple's iPhone launches, but if the attendance of their “Samsung Unpacked” event at Radio City Music Hall and the buzz on-line for today’s introduction is any indicator, Samsung has tapped into something big and earned a cult following, very much like Apple has over the years. And the sales figures back this up, of course, all of which show Samsung dominating the Android-based smartphone market.

When a company is clearly on top, people tend to scrutinize every move a little (or lot) more closely, depending on where their allegiances lie. For Samsung, and perhaps Android fans as well, availability of the Galaxy S 4 is a momentous occasion. Although it’ll be strongly contested by competing devices from HTC, LG, and others, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 currently represents the pinnacle of Android-based smartphones. Fans will want to see this phone succeed and will point out its differentiating features at every turn. Detractors, however, will have a few things to say as well. At first glance, for example, the Galaxy S 4 is nearly indistinguishable from the Galaxy S III. Though the devices are actually quite different, their physical similarities alone are going to give the haters fuel for the impending flame wars.

Regardless of which side you’re on, or if you don’t have any particular brand/mobile OS loyalty at all, availability of the Galaxy S 4 we’ll be showing you here is a significant event. Not only is it the next iteration of the most popular brand of Android-based phones, but it is a device that Samsung has infused with a slew of new features, some of which are not available anywhere else. To accompany the device, Samsung is also releasing a myriad of accessories, which include everything from simple bumpers and covers to connected scales and heart monitors.

Before we dive in and take a look at all of the particulars, here’s a video of the Samsung Galaxy S 4 in action. Some of the device’s features are difficult to appreciate and describe with words alone, so we hope you check this out before proceeding.

Samsung Galaxy S 4
Specifications & Features

Display

5 inch Full HD Super AMOLED (1920 x 1080) display, 441 ppi

AP

1.9 GHz Quad-Core Processor

OS

Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean)

Camera

Rear: 13 Mega pixel Auto Focus camera with Flash & Zero Shutter Lag, BIS
Front: 2 Mega pixel camera, Full HD recording @30fps with Zero Shutter Lag, BIS

Video

Codec: MPEG4, H.264, H.263, DivX, DivX3.11, VC-1, VP8, WMV7/8, Sorenson Spark, HEVC
  Recording & Playback: Full HD (1080p)

Audio

Codec: MP3, AMR-NB/WB, AAC/AAC+/eAAC+, WMA, Vorbis(OGG), FLAC,
AC-3, apt-X

Camera
Features

Dual Camera: Dual Shot / Dual Recording/ Dual Video Call, Drama Shot,
Sound & Shot, Animated Photo, Eraser, Night, Best Photo, Best Face,
Beauty Face, Rich Tone (High Dynamic Range), Panorama, Sports

Additional
Features

Group Play: Share Music, Share Picture, Share Document, Play Games

Story Album, S Translator, Optical Reader

Samsung Smart Scroll, Samsung Smart Pause, Air Gesture, Air View,

Samsung Hub, ChatON (Voice/Video Call, Share screen, 3-way calling)
Samsung WatchON

S Travel (Trip Advisor), S Voice™ Drive, S Health

Samsung Adapt Display, Samsung Adapt Sound
High Touch Sensitivity (Glove friendly)

Samsung Link, Screen Mirroring

KNOX

Google Mobile
Services

Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Latitude, Google Play Store,
Google Plus, YouTube, Google Talk, Google Places, Google Navigation,
Google Downloads, Voice Search

Connectivity

WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (HT80)
GPS / GLONASS
NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 (LE)
IR LED (Remote Control), MHL 2.0

Sensor

Accelerometer, RGB light, Geomagnetic, Proximity, Gyro, Barometer
Temperature & Humidity, Gesture

Memory

16/ 32 User memory + microSD slot (up to 64GB)
2GB RAM

Dimension

136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm, 130g

Battery

2,600 mA


As you can see in the chart above, the Samsung Galaxy S 4’s main features and specifications are quite impressive in light of competing devices currently on the market. We’re going to cover many aspects of the S 4 on the pages ahead, but we’ll quickly summarize a few of the improvements over the Galaxy S III here as well. You’ll note this new device has a 5” screen (actual size is 4.99”, but who’s counting?) with a full HD 1080P resolution, for a pixel density of 441PPI. The screen is also covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 3, and features Samsung’s HD Super AMOLED technology.

U.S. variants of the Galaxy S 4 are powered by a fast, 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core SoC (international versions have an octal-core Exynos 5). The Snapdragon 600 features Qualcomm’s updated Krait 300 CPU architecture, which improves performance and efficiency. The Snapdragon 600 is also outfitted with a more powerful Adreno 320 GPU, which supports the OpenGL ES 3.0, DirectX, OpenCL, Renderscript Compute and FlexRender APIs. The SoC is paired to 2GB of LP-DDR3 memory, the device features 4G LTE, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi connectivity (including 802.11ac), a 13MP rear camera, and everything is powered by a beefy 2600 mAh battery. The Samsung Galaxy S 4 also sports a wider array of sensors, which include an accelerometer, and RGB light, Geomagnetic, Proximity, Gyro, Barometric, Temperature and Humidity, and Gesture sensors. The gesture sensor is a particularly interesting addition, as it allows users to control a number of the phones features without even touching the screen—make sure you watch the video above to see that in action. It’s pretty cool and others are sure to copy it ASAP.

In addition to all of the updated or upgraded hardware components, Samsung has done plenty of new things with the software on the Galaxy S 4 as well. We’re going to talk about some new features and improvements to TouchWiz on the pages ahead, and will cover a number of camera modes and S-Apps later too. We should also draw some attention to the S 4’s KNOX feature. KNOX is a play off of “Fort Knox”, and is a feature that partitions the phone into personal and work-related spaces. If you’d like to carry only one device for personal and professional use, with KNOX, you can keep all of your personal data completely separate from any professional files. It’s not something general consumers are likely to take advantage of, but IT departments will appreciate KNOX’s capabilities, especially with more and more companies allowing employees to use their own devices for work.
 

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Design and Exterior

As we noted previously, the Galaxy S 4 sports a 5” (technically 4.99”) screen with a full 1080p resolution (1080x1920, 440PPI), a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 SoC running at a swift 1.9GHz, 2GB of RAM, a 13MP camera, and a number of other additional sensors and updates that allow for some interesting features.


The Samsung Galaxy S 4, Front and Back. A Black Version Is Also Available.

Although the Galaxy S 4 has a larger screen than the Galaxy S III, the S 4 is roughly the same height and width, thanks to thinner bezels all around. The S 4, however, is thinner and lighter than the S III. The Galaxy S 4’s dimensions measure 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm and it weighs in at 130g. According to Samsung, though the device is thinner and lighter, it is more ridged and stronger than the S III, due to tweaks in materials and design. The phone definitely feels good in the hand, and it is clearly more rigid than the Galaxy S III. Torqueing / twisting the device doesn’t result in the same type of squeaks and creaks that the S III had.

In addition to better build quality, the phone’s full HD Super AMOLED 5” screen looks great. Couple those densely packed pixels and high resolution with excellent brightness and vivid colors and the S 4’s screen is sure to impress. When placed side by side against a Note II and a Droid RAZR MAXX, and the superior clarity of the S 4’s screen was obvious and it appeared to display white backgrounds more accurately too. There were not “off color” whites—things looked simply just "white."


The Galaxy S 4 Is Only 7.9mm Thick

The Galaxy S 4 is nice and thin at 7.9mm, and like the S III, it has a metallic band that runs along its edge. Button placement and configuration is the same as the S III as well, though the tolerances are noticeably tighter on the S 4. We should also mention that the band on the S 4 is reportedly stronger than the one used on the S III, though we’re not clear on what material is used to produce it.

The Galaxy S 4 is going to be offered in black or white initially, and like the S III, it has a removable back cover so users can access the battery, SIM slot, and micro-SD expansion slot. The finish on the back cover seemed to be of a better quality than the S III, though it is still made of a flexible composite material. We should point out that under that cover lies a beefy 2,600mAh battery, which offers surprisingly good battery life, despite the phone’s high-end specs. It’s not quite as beefy as the 3,100mAh unit in the Note II, but it is much larger than the 2,100mAh of the similarly-sized S III.


The Galaxy S 4's 13mp Rear-Facing Camera With LED Flash

The 13mp rear facing camera, which compliments the front-facing 2mp camera, is also a nice upgrade over previous models. In addition, the S 4’s camera software offers a number of new features that allow both the front and rear facing cameras to be used simultaneously, so the person taking pics or video can be inserted into any shots being taken / recorded. The S4 also gives users the ability to embed audio into stills, should you want to send a message off to someone along with the picture, without having to send a much larger video file. We'll cover more of the camera's features a little later...

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User Interface and Experience

The Samsung Galaxy S 4 ships with Android Jelly Bean v4.2.2 right out of the box, with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface enhancements integrated into the OS. Overall, we like many of the additions offered by TouchWiz and the build of Jelly Bean on the phone feels very polished and fluid. The work Google has put into Jelly Bean and Samsung has put into TouchWiz really shows on the Galaxy S 4, not only in terms of stability and fluidity, but additional features as well.

   

 
Samsung Galaxy S 4 (Sprint Version) Stock Home Screens

When the S 4 is first powered on, the home screens are fairly loaded up with widgets and shortcuts, but they can be quickly and easily customized. Responsiveness to touch is very good on the S 4, easily among the best we have experienced on any Android device. There is minimal lag when touching / dragging items, pinch to zoom is fluid and responsive, and transition animations are buttery smooth. Launching applications is also very quick; during everyday use, the S 4 simply felt fast, which should be expected considering the high-end nature of the device.

The 5” HD Super AMOLED screen on the S 4 is also very good. We’re not sure what the sub-pixel arrangement looks like on this particular screen, but even upon close inspection things looks great. As is the case with other Super AMOLED screens, there are likely fewer sub-pixels in the S 4’s display than a similar resolution IPS LCD, but until we see it under a microscope, we’re speculating. Either way, the screen is a definitely strong point on the Galaxy S 4. As we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, colors are very vibrant and somewhat over saturated, and the screen has good brightness. It doesn’t seem quite as bright as the screen on the HTC One X or Nokia Lumia 920, but the screen on the S 4 has excellent contrast and very deep blacks, which make up for it.

As is the case with many smartphones, the glossy display is somewhat hard to see in direct sunlight, but that is par for the course. Viewing angles are very good, which makes for easy sharing of content with others around you, even when not directly in front of the device. As we’ve mentioned, the true HD screen offers a high resolution of 1080x1920, which results in crisp and sharp images that are among the best of the smartphones available today. 

   
Samsung Galaxy S 4 S Translator, WatchOn, and Samsung Link

In addition to the standard Google-fare included with Android 4.2.2, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 comes preloaded with a number of other applications. Preloaded on the device are Samsung’s App store and newly-redesigned, and consolidated Hub, which features easy access to music, movies, videos and books. In addition, there are a number of S-branded apps installed on the S 4 too, including S Memo, S Health, S Translator, S Voice, Samsung Link and Watch On. S Memo is obviously a digital memo pad and S Health is the utility to link the Galaxy S 4 with the many health-related accessories also launching along with the device, like the heart monitor and scale. S Translator is an awesome utility that can not only do text-to-speech and speech-to-text translations of many popular languages, but it can scan images using the device’s camera and do some optical character recognition and translation too. If you travel a lot, S Translator is going to come in quite handy. S Voice is Samsung’s voice control / command app and Samsung Link is the tool you’d use to link multiple devices together, for easy content sharing. WatchOn is another cool tool, that not only lets you configure the Galaxy S 4 to act as a universal remote control (for any brand of device, not just Samsung), but it provides TV listings and easy access to content as well.

Since the Galaxy S 4 is also a phone, we should probably speak a bit about voice quality. Like the Galaxy Note II and a number of other popular phones, the Galaxy S 4 employ's Audience's EarSmart technology. EarSmart is a real-time noise suppression—not noise cancellation—technology that can be tailored for specific levels of noise suppression. In the demos we saw (and heard) of EarSmart, the technology was able to essentially filter out background noise as a person spoke into a microphone, which is what a smartphone has to do when a user is speaking in a noisy environment. The S 4 performed very well in that regard. When using the S 4 in a car with the windows down, for example, the wind noise was mostly blocked out to the listener at the other end of the call. Music playing in the car was also mostly suppressed. In quiet environments, the S 4’s call quality was excellent.

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Camera Performance and Battery Life

The Samsung Galaxy S 4 ships with a 13MP rear facing camera with auto-focus and a build in LED flash and a front facing 2MP camera for video-chat and 2-in-1 shot purposes. The main camera also features full 1080P video recording capabilities and a multitude of different shooting modes and capabilities.



 

 
Samsung Galaxy S 4 Sample Photos

We found the S 4’s camera to be very good, but not great. There is minimal shutter lag (the S 4 is capable of a multi-shot burst like many other recent smartphones) and the resolution is very high. We found most of the images to be somewhat under-saturated, however, and focus wasn't always great in artificial light. In natural light or indoors, when the flash is not used, images looks good, but as you can see in the samples above, they are not very vibrant. When the flash is used though, especially with relatively close objects, the images can look over-saturated. We’d speculate that Samsung tuned the cameras to produce images that look optimal on the Galaxy S 4’s HD Super AMOLED screen, but once they’re shared from the phone, the slight deficiencies become evident. We should also note that the camera is configured for 9.4MP shots (16:9) by default, so the pictures fill the screen. You'll have to set the camera to 13MP (4:3) if you want to capture images at full resolution.



 
The Galaxy S 4's Camera Offers A Number Of Different Shooting Modes

The Galaxy S 4’s camera isn’t just about higher-resolutions. Samsung has also added a number of features and capabilities. First, we should point out that the phone’s power button and volume rocker can be configured to act as shutter and zoom buttons, which can come in handy. Samsung has also incorporated a number of shooting modes, a few of which are new. Best face, Best photo, Panorama, and a few others have been around for a while in one form or another, but Sound & Shot, Drama, Animated Photo and Eraser are new. As the name suggests, Sound & Shot gives users the ability to attach sound clips to photos. Drama mode sets the phone to capture a 100 shot burst of images, and then it takes the best images in which the subject is not overlapping, and inserts the subject into multiple positions within a single photo. Animated photo allows you to take a burst of photos of a subject in motion and produce a short animated GIF, and Eraser mode gives users the ability to erase objects from the background of an image. For example, with Eraser mode, if someone walks behind the subject, that person can be removed to reveal the complete background. Samsung also offers the ability to use the front and rear cameras simultaneously, which allows users to insert themselves into photos. The person taking the shot can be imprinted in a stamp or any one of a number of other styles, which can be moved around the screen, resized, etc.

We also captured some quick video with the Galaxy S 4.  As you can see, focus is pretty good, especially considering the number of moving subjects (and that they're behind glass and in water!), and color saturation appears to be decent as well, but you won't be replacing your HD camcorder with a smartphone just yet.

HotHardware Battery Life Test
How Long Does It Last?

As is the case with any 4G smartphone with a large, high-res screen, battery life can sometimes be an issue. Samsung claims the S 4’s 3.8 Volt, 2600 mAh Lithium Ion battery can last for up to 300 hours in 4G standby (350 hours using 3G), with up to 17 hours of talk time, 69 hours of music playback, 11 hours of video play time, and up to 8 hours browsing the web with 3G or 4G, or 10 hours on Wi-Fi. To take the Galaxy S 4's battery to task, we first tried to fire up our standard HotHardware battery test. In this test, we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text and the page automatically refreshes itself every three minutes. We set the S 4's display to 50% brightness and turned off Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, Sprint's service is horrible in our area and Samsung's browser seemed to be caching data and the latest versions of Android no longer display Flash, which was part of this test.  So, since our original test was out, we instead looped a 1080P video streamed from the web over Wi-Fi to hammer of the S 4 non-stop until it dropped into low-power mode.

Despite the Galaxy S 4's relatively large screen, bright, high-res screen, it put up some very impressive battery life numbers, comparable to some of the best phones we tested. We should also point out that standby times are excellent. We left the phone sitting for days and the battery had only drained a couple of percentage points. With moderate to heavy use, Galaxy S 4 owners should have absolutely no trouble making it through a full work day and more. Under light use, we'd expect two full days of usable battery life would also be possible.

Here's exactly what the battery drain graph looked like after steaming 1080P video from the web on the Galaxy S 4 for over 8.5 hours. Please note, that there was still 15% left on the battery at this point. However, the S 4's screen dimmed and it starts throwing low-power warnings once the battery life gets too low.

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Performance: CPU and GPU

In addition to using the Samsung Galaxy S 4 in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the device compared to some of the other smartphones we have recently evaluated.

CPU testing
Android CPU testing

In the Linpack for Android benchmark, the Samsung Galaxy S 4's quad-core 1.9GHz Snapdragon 600 SoC put up the best score we have seen to date. In both the single and multi-threaded version of this benchmark, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 led the pack.

Graphics testing
Android graphics testing

The Galaxy S 4 also put up the best scores we have seen in two of the three An3DBench XL tests we ran. And in the third test, it performed right up there with the fastest devices we've seen.

The Galaxy S 4 also put up some excellent graphics-related benchmark scores in GL Bench. The iPhone 5 holds onto a commanding lead in the GL Benchmark fillrate test, but the S 4 pulled ahead of the iPhone 4S and all of the other Android-based devices we tested. The Galaxy S 4 also put up the best score we have seen in the Egypt Off-Screen benchmark, besting everything else by a wide margin.

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Performance: Javascript and Browsing
Next up, we have some numbers from the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark. According to the SunSpider website:

This benchmark tests the core JavaScript language only, not the DOM or other browser APIs. It is designed to compare different versions of the same browser, and different browsers to each other. Unlike many widely available JavaScript benchmarks, this test is:

Real World - This test mostly avoids microbenchmarks, and tries to focus on the kinds of actual problems developers solve with JavaScript today, and the problems they may want to tackle in the future as the language gets faster. This includes tests to generate a tagcloud from JSON input, a 3D raytracer, cryptography tests, code decompression, and many more examples. There are a few microbenchmarkish things, but they mostly represent real performance problems that developers have encountered.

Balanced - This test is balanced between different areas of the language and different types of code. It's not all math, all string processing, or all timing simple loops. In addition to having tests in many categories, the individual tests were balanced to take similar amounts of time on currently shipping versions of popular browsers.

Statistically Sound - One of the challenges of benchmarking is knowing how much noise you have in your measurements. This benchmark runs each test multiple times and determines an error range (technically, a 95% confidence interval). In addition, in comparison mode it tells you if you have enough data to determine if the difference is statistically significant.

JavaScript testing
JavaScript Android and iPhone testing

The Galaxy Note II's combination of Jelly Bean and a fast Quad-Core SoC put up the best Sunspider score we've seen from an Android device as well. The iPhone 5 and Nokia Lumia 920 (Windows Phone) had previously held the top spots in this benchmark on mobile device, but not anymore.

Rightware Browsermark
Web Browsing Performance

The Samsung Galaxy S 4 put up an excellent score in Rightware's Browsermark too. The iPhone 5 blew everything out of the water upon its release last year, but the Samsung Galaxy S 4 was able to overtake the iPhone 5 and outpace every other smartphone we have tested, with the exception of the LG Optimus G.

We should point out that we tested the S 4 with its stock browser and with Google Chrome, but have reported the score with the stock browser here, since it offered higher performance.
 
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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: Samsung’s choice of components and implementation of Android 4.2.2 make summarizing the Galaxy S 4’s performance easy. Quite simply, overall, this is the fastest smartphone we have tested to date. The Snapdragon 600 SoC at the heart of the Galaxy S 4 put up the best scores we have seen in the majority of our benchmark tests and during real-world use, the phone was fluid and snappy. Our experience using the Galaxy S 4 for the past week or so has been among the best we’ve had with any smartphone.

The full HD screen on the Galaxy S 4 was also very nice and despite the phone’s high-performance, battery life was good.


The Samsung Galaxy S 4 in White

The S 4 has some obvious physical similarities to the Galaxy S III, which most consumers may not care about. On the plus side, you can tell the S 4 is a Samsung device from across the room and users that are already familiar with the S III will be immediately comfortable with much of what the S 4 has the offer. The downside is that many of the complaints about the S III, like its flimsy plastic back cover and seams around its edges, among others, apply to the Galaxy S 4 as well. Samsung has improved the rigidity of the S 4, however, and tightened the tolerances around the buttons and seams, which will improve the durability of the device.

On the software front, Samsung has put a ton of work into differentiating Touchwiz from competing experiences. Android purists would probably prefer fewer modifications to the stock interface, but the additional features offered by Touchwiz are too numerous to dismiss. Gesture controls, easier to use camera modes, multi-window support, screen-mirroring, and Smart Stay and scrolling are all welcome additions in our book. Whether you like or even appreciate Touchwiz, it’s clear that Samsung is trying to innovate on the software front as well.

The Galaxy S 4 is going to be available from every major carrier in the US over the course of the next few days (Sprint, T-Mobile) or weeks (AT&T, Verizon), with prices for the 16GB model starting at around $149 and increasing to about $249, depending on the carrier and contract terms. That puts the Galaxy S 4’s price in-line with other high-profile, high-performance Android-based devices, but also makes it relatively expensive in light of recently discounted, but still great devices like Samsung’s own Galaxy S III or the HTC One X. The GS4's pricing is on par with other high-end smartphones, however.

In the end, the Galaxy S 4 is easily Samsung’s best smartphone to date. Not only does it offer better performance and many new features over the previous generation, but Samsung has improved the user experience as well. If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 deserves serious consideration, regardless of whether or not you're an Android or iOS user currently.

 

  • Great Performance
  • Improved Build Quality
  • Excellent Screen
  • Good Camera
  • Handy Gesture Controls
  • IR Blaster
  • Good Battery Life
  • Multitude of Accessories
  • Looks Nearly Identical To The S III
  • Relatively Pricey


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