Review: Samsung's Galaxy S4
There's a great phone in here, struggling to get out.
Samsung's latest flagship phone has a huge screen, a million-and-one features, and insanely fast insides. It's definitely a premium smartphone, at $1149 off-contract, but it doesn't quite feel like it. Why? Well.
The S4 packs a serious punch on the inside, with the international edition I used (the GT-I9505) cranking a 1.9GHz quad core processor and all editions packing 2GB of RAM. If you somehow get another edition, they all use well-built quad cores, so you really don't need to worry about speed.
I never felt even a moment of lag over my fortnight with this device. Switching between graphically intensive games and browsers with 20 or so tabs open was always instantaneous.
On the outside, the 5 inch screen is vivid, bright, and very sharp, with a full 1080p display providing a ridiculous 448 pixels-per-inch of resolution (Apple's 'retina' displays are only 300PPI.) Viewing angles are pretty good, and the touch response is excellent - precise control of tiny buttons is easier than on any other phone I have used. The only problem with the gigantic screen? The gigantic screen.
It's not just the length of the phone, it's the width too. There are people who want 5-inch screens - and bigger, if you look at the popularity of the Samsung Note - but I am not one of them. I have reasonably-sized male hands and I often found the phone difficult to use one-handed.
Both cameras, front and back, perform perfectly. Sure, they are still cellphone cameras, but the divide between a point-and-shoot digital camera and a smartphone like the S4 are increasingly arbitrary. Samsung make a regular camera as well, and their experience shows. The back camera has a 13 megapixel sensor, which is kind of ridiculous, but it produces crisp shots in decent lighting conditions. The flash could be better, but it could be a lot worse too - it looks fine but it's sometimes a little slow. The front camera is far sharper than a camera intended entirely for selfies needs to be, but, hey, why not?
As a phone? Well - it's a phone that costs over a thousand dollars so of course calls sound crisp and clear, and the LTE speeds available over 4G (nowhere near fully available in New Zealand yet) are stupendous. Your phone getting faster internet than your home sounds pretty ridiculous, but with 4G LTE it's pretty likely.
Battery life is what you would expect these days - fine to use all day "as a smartphone", but you'll probably need to charge it every night. The phone comes with around 9GB of usable space, and a Micro-SD slot, in case you want to store a whole lot of music on there.
The thing is, it just doesn't feel like an expensive phone. Despite the excellent screen and stupendous specs, it's an extremely light phone, weighing only 130 grams. The removable back (the battery is changeable) means the phone feels much more like separate parts than a unified device. It's made of a plastic that feels slimy, slippery, and just downright cheap in your hand.
Every person I showed the phone immediately commented on the lightness - some people love light phones, some hate them. This "feeling" thing is still wholly subjective though, and the features may outweigh this problem for you - so definitely go into a store and hold the phone before you make a decision.
The S4 runs Android 4.2.2, also known as 'Jelly Bean', the latest stable release of Google's smartphone operating system. Android has came a long way in the last few years, with the 'butter' initiative ensuring the system is much speedier, and a complete visual overhaul providing a consistent and pleasant feel.
Samsung takes this excellent OS and decides it can do better, adding a mostly ridiculous layer called ''TouchWiz". TouchWiz changes much of the Android experience, and adds many of the "kitchen sink" features Samsung bake in.
New features aside, TouchWiz completely transforms the default Android experience, changing how menus look, how the homescreen acts, even adding a ridiculously ugly "Life Companion" in a cursive version of Comic Sans on the lockscreen.
The mishmash of the Samsung design elements with the Android ones is often jarring, or simply ugly. Android has embraced quite a 'flat' and minimal design lately, while Samsung goes in the opposite direction, with garish and colourful icons aplenty.
If Samsung are going to continue to build their own layer on top of the OS - and they will - they should really hire some decent designers. Please.
Samsung also insists on installing a whole lot of apps and their accompanying widgets before you even buy the phone. Some of the apps are great - Flipboard for instance - but turning on a new phone to find pages and pages of full page widgets is jarring and unnecessary.
I get that you want to point users in the direction of great apps, but leaving them all over the homescreens means most users will have to spend their first 10 minutes with the device just making it look okay. TouchWiz adds a huge library of noises to the phone as well - think bubbles popping or water rippling - for no discernable reason.
Worst of all, TouchWiz changes the default Android keyboard - which is now excellent - into the worst keyboard I have ever used. I had a 2-inch Huawei with a better keyboard than this.
I really can't reiterate how much I hate this keyboard: the buttons are small and far apart, it's terrible at fixing small errors, and if you hit it wrong it can open the camera up, completely losing your place in whatever you were doing.
I ended up rewriting every second word of anything I wrote using the keyboard, even after a fortnight of using it. Of course, this is Android, so you can replace the keyboard pretty easily - I recommend SwiftKey. (I should note here that Google have recently unveiled plans to sell the S4 with pure Android.)
Samsung throws so many new features in, it's hard to know where to start. They range from the somewhat basic and nifty - say the dual camera tool, which lets you take a photo of both you and your subject simultaneously - to the more complex, such as 'Smart scroll', which supposedly tracks where your eyes are on a page and scrolls accordingly. Some of these features really impress. Air Gestures, which allows you to skip a song or answer a call by wiping your hand over the phone, without touching it at all, works excellently.
This is my go-to "impress people" feature I use all the time, and it's great at that - although it's kind of useless at the same time. I guess you might have dirty hands?
The huge variety of camera features baked in are mostly decent, especially the action shot and the dual camera feature. The camera software could be a little bit faster, but this is a minor issue. The multi-window feature, where the phone lets you run two apps side by side, is a simple and well executed idea that regular Android should definitely cotton on to.
Some of the other features don't work so well. I failed to make eye-scrolling work, at all, ever. Group Play, where several Galaxies can play the same song together as a group of speakers, seems like the kind of feature someone pitched as a joke.
Story Album, a photo collation app, tries to make me use it every few days, which is annoying. I have no problem with Samsung bundling all these apps in - I'm sure there is a user somewhere in the world who loves every one - but they shouldn't force them on you. Samsung's version of Siri, S Voice, falls down in the same way Siri does: it finds it really hard to decode New Zealanders' accents.
Android's app selection is better than ever before, and all of the 'essential' apps are properly here now - your Instagram, your Snapchat, your Facebook, your Twitter. Facebook and Twitter have been on Android forever, but they are good now, as good as their iOS counterparts.
Obviously the Google experience is much better on Android, with the excellent Google Now built right in, as well as the best maps app in the world. The app selection is still a little bit limited however, with most of the buzzy new apps still debuting on iOS. The most obvious example of this is Vine, Twitter's instagram-of-video, which is gaining popularity fast, but it isn't alone. The Android marketplace is getting better, steadily, but if you want to be be on the cutting edge of new apps, an iPhone is still the way to go.
At the end of the day, some people will love the S4, some people will hate it. If you are after a somewhat refined or elegant experience, or anything approaching the word 'simplicity', you won't have much fun with the S4.
If you want a huge screen on a powerful phone with a million-and-one features, you will probably enjoy this phone a whole lot.
In fact, it's probably the best option possible for you. Just make sure to change the keyboard.