Samsung Galaxy S4: The Next Big Thing, Already Here

November 22, 2013 by

At a Glance

Look and Feel
The S4’s large form factor and dazzling screen make it stand out among other high-end phones.

Defining Features
The screen and camera are excellent. Removable battery is a big plus. "Smart Screen” controls let you scroll and pause video with your eyes.

Core Functionality
Phone is loaded with features yet remarkably lightweight. Processor is very fast. Easy to use and customize.

Recommended For
Android fans, iPhone avoiders, multimedia junkies and shutterbugs.

Editor’s Rating
4.5 out of 5 stars

Samsung's Next Big Thing (Since April)

The Galaxy S4 hit store shelves in April 2013 amid a lot of hype, and it delivered on the hype. The phone became the fastest selling smartphone in Samsung's history, selling 20 million units worldwide in its first two months on the market.

As with the S3, the S4 TV ads took direct shots at Apple and iPhone fans. But it wasn't just the marketing. Everybody I know that owns this phone positions it as the best alternative to an iPhone 5 (which at the S4's release, was its number-one competitor). Many of these people are former iPhone owners, and while the alleged advantages to an S4 vary, one thing is certain: This phone is a beast.

Using It

Look and Feel

The S4 is immediately striking. Its large (5 inches), sharp and vivid display is unmistakable. And its body is more metallic than its predecessor (the S3 had more plastic to it, as well as rounded edges) -- it essentially feels more substantial, more professional.
Given its larger size, the S4 is a surprisingly lightweight device.

What's also impressive is how lightweight the phone is, which is surprising given its larger form factor. Samsung has really made the big smartphone -- and even bigger "phablets" (like the new Galaxy Note 3) -- a niche for itself in the high-end device market.

The main drawback to being big, of course, is a reduced "pocketability" for the device. And you can't really use it with just one hand either.

Defining Features

High Quality Camera and Screen
The S4 might be the best phone available for multimedia types and mobile photographers. I can't say enough about the 5-inch, 441ppi (1920 x 1080) full-HD screen. Videos and photos jump right off of it. Once again, because the S4 is the largest high-end phone on the market, the screen is a major differentiator.

And the camera is loaded with features (scroll down for more details), but even aside from all of those, it simply takes fantastic pictures. Also, because of the S4's large display, its photos capture a wider angle than, say, the iPhone 5 (see example below).

"Smart Screen" Controls
The S4 introduced an array of new controls and gestures, called Smart Screen controls. Much was made of these controls and even on the TV ads, Samsung showed how -- even while eating ribs -- you could answer your phone just by waving your hand over the device.

The S4 might be the best phone available for multimedia types and mobile photographers.

But that wasn't all. The Smart Screen can detect your eyes and line of sight, letting you scroll up or down by tilting your head up or down. "Smart Pause" will pause a video when you look away from the screen, and resume when you look back at the screen.

I found these controls, although nifty, to be quite gimmicky. They certainly set the S4 apart from other devices, but aside from the "wave to answer" feature, I can't see myself using them regularly. There were also quite flaky. During testing, the Smart Screen controls only worked when outside. They apparently need a certain amount of light to function properly and when we tested them indoors, they were either slow or completely unresponsive.

Removable Battery
A removable battery is one of those things that seems minor, but truly is major. Short battery life is the obvious tradeoff to high-end devices' ultra-fast processing speeds and crystal clear resolution. Being able to carry a fully-charged second battery is a major plus for travelers and business users alike.

Core Functionality

First things first, I've always been impressed with the Galaxy line cameras. The S3 camera was awesome and the S4 definitely carries on the tradition. As a longtime iPhone user, one of my biggest beefs with the iPhone camera was how its LED flash (the iPhone 5s' True Tone flash is the first non-LED flash on an iPhone) always overexposed photos, and lit up everyone's eyeballs. The S4 does not do that. Frankly, it's like having a real point-and-shoot camera on your phone, which is what a phone camera should be.

Some of the S4's fancy photo features are more gimmicky than useful.

The S4's 13-megapixel rear camera has probably the most sophisticated camera settings I've ever seen on a smartphone. "Dual Shot" lets you take a photo of yourself (using the front camera) on a stamp embedded onto the main photo (taken with the rear camera). Here's an example, below:

"Drama Shot" lets you stitch a series of moving frames into one action shot, seen here:

There are other features too, like "Animated Photo," which lets you add video motion to parts of a still photo, like an animated GIF. I found some of the features tacky (Dual Shot), but others were pretty cool (Drama Shot). Another area where the S4 camera shines is in its "Night Mode," which helps to stabilize low-light shots, like this photo of the Vancouver skyline, below:

Another feature, "Voice Caption," lets you add voiceover to photos. However, major drawback to having all of these fancy photo features is that, apart from Drama Shot, they are only viewable on the S4. It begs the question: What is the point, then? You can only share them between S4s or by physically showing them to people, on your phone.

Performance and Battery Life
As far as multitasking and app usage were concerned, the S4 performed brilliantly. Its quad-core processor makes it capable of handling all kinds of activity at once, without skipping a beat. Scrolling is fast and smooth and the overall user interface is nice.

I've also been told by S4 users that it's a lot easier to customize than other high-end Android phones, particularly the HTC One. One thing about the S4 is that it's been criticized for being "bloated" with too many features, making it less desirable to hard-core Android users keen on stripped-down devices. So while being "fully loaded" may appeal to the average consumer, it's not for everybody.

Having a removable battery is a big because hi-res displays can be real power hogs.

Battery life was good for the tasks I put it through, but as previously mentioned, it's less of an issue on this phone than on many of its competitors: Heavy users can pack an extra battery if they want to.

OS and Available Apps
Along with HTC One, the S4 is one of the most impressive Android phones I've ever used, so it's hard to imagine a better way to experience the Android OS and ecosystem.

A particular feature worth noting on the S4 is its built-in "IR Blaster," which lets you control your home electronics (e.g. TV, home stereo, Netflix, HD pvr) from your phone. Combined with Google Play integrations for movies and music, it's a nice feature to have for accessing media at home.

Recommended for

If you're not in the market for a larger Galaxy Note, the S4 is still the premier Samsung smartphone and will remain that way until the S5 comes out some time in 2014 (likely spring). For loyal Android users, if you're not on an HTC One or waiting for the Nexus 5, the S4 is likely the phone for you. There's something for everyone on the S4, but especially multimedia users (screen, form factor) and shutterbugs (excellent camera).

The Bottom Line

Samsung made the Galaxy S4 as a departure from all other high-end smartphones, and especially the iPhone 5. All things considered, it’s as good or better than the latter. Its form factor, speed, HD display, camera and user-friendly interface not only differentiate the S4 –- they make it the best Android phone on the market.

Compare Cellular Editor's Rating:
4.5 out of 5 stars

-- Special thanks to Dipt streetwear/sneaker boutique, for letting us film in their store. --
Posted in: Google/Android, Product Reviews, Samsung