Samsung Galaxy S4 - A second look

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A few weeks ago I did a layman-level review of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and many readers expressed their desire for a more in-depth review. I pondered on this for a while and decided that the fastest-selling Android smartphone in history deserves a second look. 6 months after its launch, it still lists among the best smartphones money can buy. Without further ado, let’s move on to the review.

Processing power

The Galaxy S4 comes with a 1.6GHz AND a 1.2GHz quad-core processor. Depending on your region, you may see slightly different variants on the market, but our test unit came with the above specs. As a flagship-class phone, I’d expect nothing less than this from Samsung, and I’m pleased to note that the S4 performs admirably in terms of gaming and multimedia performance.

Benchmark scores:

  • Quadrant Standard: 12,366
  • SuperPi 4M: 54.058 seconds
  • 3D Mark (Ice Storm): 9946
  • Smartbench 2012: 6901

All that power in such a light and slim device comes at a cost, though. The S4 heats up faster than most phones out there and I’m sure current heavy users can agree with me that an hour of graphics-heavy gaming (Real Racing 3, Iron Man, Minion Rush, etc) can heat up the phone to a very uncomfortable point. That said, perhaps it isn’t a bad thing if you’re trying to overcome smartphone addiction.

Display

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The S4 has a 5 inch display with a Full HD resolution of 1920x1080 pixels, which translates into 441ppi. Apple’s Retina Display seems really old by now, as their 326ppi pales in comparison to this. The S4’s display is razor sharp, bright and vibrant, and pictures look wonderful when viewed on the S4’s screen. There really isn’t much more to say about the display, really. It’s good; ‘nuff said.

Battery life

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The phone comes with a 2,600mAh battery which is pretty decent considering its size and weight. It lasted me well over a day with normal use (some phone calls, messaging, perhaps an hour of gaming, an hour of manga, GPS and WiFi on all day). It’s a little difficult to gauge if this is good or bad, as usage patterns vary from person to person, and even from day to day. Personally I think it fits into the “decent” category, as I’m not particularly blown away by the capacity nor am I particularly disappointed with the usage duration.

Sound

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I missed this during my first review but I’ll take this opportunity to hammer this out. Why, oh dear Samsung (and practically every other manufacturer out there except HTC and Apple), WHY did you put the speakers at the back of the phone? It’s downright ridiculous to have the speakers face away from you when you’re playing a game or watching a video. It becomes even more ridiculous when you strap the phone to a car hands-free kit and try to hold a conversation over speakerphone. Would you watch TV with speakers facing the wall? Would you go to a concert with speakers facing backstage? Would you talk to someone with your back facing him?

That aside, at least it’s loud and clear when you raise the volume and turn the phone to face the speakers. It’s definitely loud enough for you to hear an incoming call over a loud environment, and loud enough to wake you up in the morning.

Camera

If you’ve read my previous review, you probably noticed that I left this category out almost altogether. This is because I felt the camera did not stand out despite the many features Samsung highlighted in their launch event and in a booklet inside the box.

Before I go in, however, let me first say that the S4’s 13 MP camera performs well on the whole. The autofocus responds quickly to my taps on the screen and the resultant pictures are sharp and vibrant. Again, it performs admirably as a flagship-class camera, and I have no complaints on that. I won’t go into specific comparisons between cameras that other niche blogs may do, as the average user does not quite care about whether the hue is off by 6% or if the reds are too strong. Kindly consult your preferred photography blog for that.

Moving on.

Let’s start with the Dual Camera feature, which allows you to take two scenes at once by merging the pictures taken from the front and back cameras. I never used it voluntarily as I felt it was kinda sad not to actually be *in* the picture. This would be (to me, at least), a last resort if and only if I absolutely have to be in the picture and can’t use the front-facing camera to make a selfie. If Samsung had produced a smartphone with a 13MP front AND back camera, then we’re talking! Sadly, that isn’t the case.

Drama Shot – a mode which combines a few pictures of a moving target into one picture. It’s cool, I’ll give you that – but you’d have to be a pretty creative person to take advantage of this, else the pictures will just look like four pictures layered on top of one another.

Sound & Shot – This mode takes a picture together with a few seconds of audio with it. I would rather just record a video, but okay. Each to his/her own?

Story Album – An auto-sorting function for your pictures. Useful if you really like organized albums, but otherwise “meh”.

On the whole, I think Samsung was using the S4 as an experiment to see what kinds of new features will resonate well with the market. We’ve used filters to death with Flickr and Instagram, and I suppose Samsung is trying to find or create the “next big thing”. It’s been a few months now since the S4 was released, and we’ve not heard of any mad rush over any of the above features, so I suppose Samsung will just have to keep trying.

Touch-less features

The S4 is the first phone to push for the touch-less experience – again, probably as a Samsung experiment. The technology behind this feature is indeed pretty amazing, being able to accurately track the finger a few millimeters above the screen. But from a usage standpoint, I can’t bring myself to love any part of it.

Air View – Brings up additional information about whatever you’re pointing at when you hover your finger above the screen, for instance, preview pictures in an album. A very cool feature, yes. However it’s too tedious for me to concentrate hovering my finger 3mm from the screen when all I need to do is tap-and-hold, go to the menu or just do it the usual enter-the-album-and-see-the-picture way.

Air Gesture – Browse the web without touching the phone by simply waving your hand across the screen. Also a cool feature which I’m not particularly enthusiastic about. By experience, it was harder to wave-scroll than to just use a different finger (e.g. if I’m eating pizza with my hands). That said, this feature is incredibly useful in winter countries where they can operate the phone with a gloved hand. Unfortunately we don’t have winter where we live, so this feature is, well, redundant.

Smart Scroll – A face-tracking feature which detects your movements to operate your phone. Very, very cool - if it worked, that is. When surfing the web, for instance, Smart Scroll will scroll the page when you nod your head. It will also scroll up when you look up to see where you’re going, which means you need to scroll down again to read. I turned this feature off from Day One and used my finger instead.

Smart Pause – An eye-tracking feature which pauses the video you’re watching when it detects your eye looking away from the screen. I don’t know about you but I would very much rather have the video continue playing when I multitask instead of being forced to actually look non-stop at the screen throughout the video. Again, it’s not that hard to tap “pause”. Auto-pausing the video every few minutes is incredibly annoying. Turned it off on Day One.

Other notes

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The Galaxy S4 forces a 0% screen brightness when the battery drops to 5%.

I still feel the same way about the “meh” earphones (they’re not bad, but they’re not great either), power-saving 0% brightness issue (if I could adjust the brightness via the notification panel, don’t you think I would?), and the vibration when you tap the back of the phone (yes, I know what haptic feedback is, and this is not haptic feedback). I won’t detail them here again but feel free to read my first review for more.

In summary

Smartphones are in high demand worldwide, and manufacturers like Samsung, Apple, HTC, Microsoft, LG and many others are trying their best to out-maneuver each other with top-notch hardware and new features. This can sometimes result in successes, but sometimes it just doesn’t hit the mark.

In the end, I’m still not particularly impressed with the Samsung Galaxy S4, and so are many other tech writers out there. I checked.

If you’re a power user like me, and you look for a phone which offers something *special* which you can brag about and actually look forward to using, then as an unbiased writer I simply cannot bring myself to love this phone. Feel free to disagree with me as it is a free country after all – I’m just a reviewer and it’s my job to tell you what I feel about a product.

However, when you factor in the lower price (especially with telco bundled plans), service centre availability, wide variety of third-party accessories and the overall recognition of the brand, I have to agree that the S4 is indeed a viable option for the everyday consumer. It’s fast and smooth, takes good pictures, is light and slim, and has some unique features which you may or may not use.

If that’s all you need, then by all means, buy this phone. Else, you can wait for the Galaxy Note 3 to reach our shores, like me.

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