Samsung Galaxy S4 Android smartphone review

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This past March when Samsung announced the Galaxy S4, I had been using my Samsung Galaxy S3 for only 6 months. I remember the anticipation while waiting to hear all the details of the new S4. But once the cat was out of the bag, I was a little disappointed because the S4 didn’t seem like a huge step forward in features or design. I didn’t buy one and am still using my S3, which has been serving me very well. But when Verizon offered to send me a loaner of the S4 to try out for a few days, I was happy to take a look to see if it was a worthy upgrade from my S3. Here are some quick impressions of Verizon’s latest flagship Android smartphone.

Note: Images can be clicked to view a larger size.

My time with the Samsung Galaxy S4 made me think about the main criteria that I consider before upgrading to a new phone. Here they are in no particular order:

  • Looks and style updates
  • Hardware feature updates
  • OS updates

Let’s see what the Samsung Galaxy S4 offers for each of these criteria.

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Looks and style updates

Am I being shallow and materialistic to care about looks and style? Heck no! What is the fun of upgrading to a new phone if it doesn’t look a little better or different than the one you were using before? This may be one of my biggest disappointments with the Galaxy S4… it just doesn’t look that much different from its predecessor. Above on the left is my S3 and to the right is the S4. Other than the fact that mine is blue and the loaner is white, they are very similar right?

Only when you look closely you notice that the S4’s display is slightly larger than the S3’s. It offers 1920 x 1080 resolution vs. 1280 x 720 resolution on the S3. Besides having more pixels, the colors look slightly more vivid to my eyes and a tiny bit brighter.  I also noticed that whites look more white on the S4 than my S3. These are subtle differences though.

A really close look at the phones will also reveal an updated home button, which is more rectangular on s4. You have to admit that it would be really easy to mistake one phone for the other.

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Case in point… One morning before Verizon even started offering the S4, a co-worker came to my cube and handed me his shiny new phone. I said “Congrats on the upgrade…” and almost said “Congrats on the upgrade to the S3″ because that’s what I thought it was until I tipped it to the side and saw the brushed chrome sides and realized it was an S4. FYI: the sides aren’t really made of metal, they are plastic.

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Flipping the S4 over reveals a larger camera lens with an LED flash below it. The S4 is also thinner than the S3 and feels lighter in hand. It’s a solid phone, but feels a little toyish because it doesn’t have a lot heft to it. Like the S3, the S4 is a slippery little sucker. You’ll either want a case that provides better grip, or you can do what I did with my S3 and put Egrips Non-Slip Strips on the back.

When it comes to the looks and style updates, the S4 doesn’t bring anything very new or different to the party. That said, I think the S3 and  the S4 are both attractive phones. Other than being slippery and almost too light weight, there’s nothing about the look of the S4 that I don’t like.  I’d love to see Samsung try using metal sometime though…

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Hardware feature updates

The S4 has several updated features under the hood that aren’t obvious to the naked eye, such as a processor update from 1.5Gz dual core to a 1.9 GHz quad core. That sounds impressive, but I honestly didn’t notice a huge difference in overall speed. The phone is very snappy, but flipping back and forth between apps, scrolling and launching apps felt about the same as doing the same steps with the S3. 

Other updates include the battery capacity boost which has been increased to 2600mAh vs. 2100mAh in the S3. I was able to enjoy more than a full day of active use without needing to charge, so this update gets a big thumbs up from me.

Another thumbs up goes to the update to the capacitive display. There is a new setting that increases the touch screen sensitivity so you can interact with it even while wearing gloves. This is great for winter use! I was able to test it and it worked great.

The camera has also been updated to 13MP, which is up from 8MP in the Galaxy S3. I’ve been happy with the photos taken with my S3 and wasn’t disappointed with the S4 during my review period. Unfortunately, I some how managed to lose the sample shots that I took, so I can’t include any in this review, which is disappointing because I had fun playing with the various creative features that the camera app offers like the Sound and Shot mode which captures a few seconds of sound when you snap a photo. The Drama mode was also fun to play with. It stitches together several consecutive shots and puts them in one image. This is fun to play with for action and sports photography as you can get all the action in one shot of a baseball player sliding into home. The S4 has a problem that is shared by almost all smartphone cameras; low light shots are not impressive. The S4 does have a great flash though, so that helps a lot.

I guess I should talk about using the S4 as a phone ;) But nothing has really changed or been updated on that front. This phone makes and receives calls just fine. No issues or complaints noted while I was testing it.

So for the S4’s main hardware updates, the list short and sweet. There’s a processor update, battery capacity, increased camera megapixels and display sensitivity. All of those updates sound good, but the only one that I really noticed was the better battery life when compared to my S3. If was winter, I’d include the display sensitivity, but I didn’t really use that feature except to test it.

OS and software updates

Most of the changes to the Galaxy S4 come by way of OS and software updates.

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The S4 has the latest Android OS version (v4.2 Jelly Bean) along with Samsung’s Touchwiz additions which bring a metric ton of extra gee-wiz features. I’ll just talk about a few of them like a home screen starter mode for smartphone newbies which makes it easier to navigate and use the phone.

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Multi-window – Originally offered on the Galaxy Note line of devices, this feature offers a dual pane view where you can open 2 apps on the screen at one time. Unfortunately it doesn’t work with all apps… but it can be useful for quick lookups or copying and pasting between apps. In all honesty, I probably would use this more on a tablet than a phone… even with the S4’s 5 inch display, it’s still a bit cramped to put up two windows at once.

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Story Album – Let’s you create a quick scrapbook from photos in the gallery based on time, people and location. You can then print the album through an online service to get a physical hard copy.

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S Health – Samsung’s take on the Fitbit and Jawbone Up. The S4 becomes a pedometer, a food tracker and an exercise tracker. It works pretty well and is one less thing to carry around and charge if you want to keep track of your activity and calories. There are supposed to be accessories to go along with this app like a wireless scale, activity tracking wrist band and a heart rate monitor. No word when they will be available though.

Then there are all the new gestures… I never use the gestures on my S3 and didn’t find a real urge to use them for very long on the S4. Yes, they are fun to try out for a few minutes or when you’re trying to impress someone while demoing the phone. But after that, they kind of seem pointless. At least to me. Some of them don’t even work in all the apps, which is really annoying. And some just give me a headache like the Smart Scroll which is supposed to watch your eyes as you’re reading a page and then automatically scroll the page up when your eyes reach the bottom of the page.

The OS and software updates far outnumber the hardware updates on this phone. This doesn’t really surprise me because other than screen size, processor speed, battery and memory capacity, what else can we really add / upgrade any more? If I would pick one thing out of that list that really matters these days, it’s battery life… We’ll always want more of that. But faster processors don’t seem to matter that much and screens can only go so big before our phones stop fitting in our pockets.

Is it worth upgrading to the S4 if you already have an S3?

In a word, no. Even if I were able to upgrade my Samsung Galaxy S3 right now, I’d wait. There just aren’t enough reasons to switch in my opinion. Of course, I’d switch to the Samsung Galaxy S4 in a heartbeat if someone wanted to give me one… for free. ;)

Also, if I had any phone other the S3 and was wanting to upgrade, the S4 would be my first choice. Whenever someone asks me which Verizon Android smartphone to buy right now, I tell them go for the Samsung Galaxy S4. It’s a snappy performer with all kinds of fun features added in to keep you entertained and productive.

 

Product Information

Price:$249.99 with 2yr contract ($699.99 without contract)
Manufacturer:Samsung
Retailer:Verizon Wireless
Pros:
  • Large display
  • Can interact with display while wearing gloves
  • Great performance
  • Good battery life
Cons:
  • Lots of extra software that you may or may not use
  • Very expensive without a contract
Posted in: Android related, Reviews

{ 20 comments… add one }

  • John July 6, 2013, 10:53 pm

    Let’s not forget that the Galaxy S4 also has a 802.11ac wi-fi radio, so those real techies with the latest gadgets can boast quicker network access.

  • Julie July 7, 2013, 9:10 am

    @John Thanks for mentioning that. I also read that the G4 is a global phone. Anyone know if the G3 is a global phone too? I can’t seem to locate specs that mention it.

  • Peter Maddison July 7, 2013, 4:10 pm

    I’m currently using the Ace+ (UK) and I like it, it’s a nice phone. My main purpose for getting it is Google Navigation as I use it as a SatNav. I did have a Nokia and use OviMaps but the screen wasn’t big enough so switched, I also used to use ‘real’ SatNav’s but didn’t want to be forced into a subscription contract. Also, the maps were hardly ever, if never updated. I’d guess you’d say go for the S4 in that case. I have got 18 months left on my contract, I know there will be more versions our by the time my contract ends but I don’t want t pay a huge amount for a phone and contract so the S4 seems a good deal in 18 months.

  • Dave Marcus July 7, 2013, 7:14 pm

    I also have a S3, I was able to download the camera app from the S4 and install it on my phone. It’s a much better app, the panoramic functions are really cool. I also downloaded and paid for a camera app called “snap camera” this app is REALLY good and I’m constantly amazed at it’s functionality. I don’t remember how much it was, but it wasn’t expensive (like $1.99 or something like that). Just thought I’d add that.

  • Julie July 7, 2013, 7:45 pm

    @Dave where did you get the S4 camera app?

  • Robert van Weersch July 8, 2013, 2:27 am

    I’d like to make a note on the wish for “Samsung to try using metal”.

    For the past few years, the Apple marketing department has been very effective in making customers believe that a phone made of metal (or even glass…) is better than one made of plastics. They even managed to make us believe that a unibody is better than a two or three part body.
    But it isn’t.

    Most plastics are
    1. way better at absorbing impact (like falling) than metal
    2. way for the reception quality because plastics cause less interference
    3. much cheaper than relatively rare metals like aluminum

    And a multi-part body is better than a unibody because it can transfer the energy of impact to the back cover and battery, which results in the back and battery launching out of the phone (the fall energy is converted to kinetic energy), on impact with the floor, thus saving the screen. In a unibody, all impact energy is transfered into the body and can cause damage to the weakest part, very often resulting in a cracked screen.
    A plastic unibody, like Nokia uses with some Lumia’s, scores better than a metal one.

    Compare phones to cars. Bumpers/fenders a (with most cars) made of plastics, not of metal. Heck, if the market were ready for it, car bodies would even be made of plastics, but for some reason it never took off… European car brands Citroen/Peugeot use relative much plastics in their bodies, and from a safety point of view, those cars are much safer than a steel body car. The major disadvantage is that the body is less rigid, which subjectively makes you feel it’s a badly constructed car, but actually it isn’t.

    Yes, metal feels sturdy and luxurious but from a constructive and technical point of view, plastics are the better choice for phones. But for some reason consumers, and even reviewers, tend to overlook this fact and keep telling Samsung to make metallic phones.

  • Rob Tillotson July 8, 2013, 3:37 am

    @Julie Nope, the S3 CDMA versions (Verizon/Sprint) don’t have GSM/HSPA at all. The GSM versions do have both US and international bands though.

    The S4 camera app for S3 is probably flashed onto a rooted phone… a lot of the S4 apps can be installed that way.

  • deslock July 8, 2013, 7:53 am

    Your review was mostly about going from an S3 to an S4, but I upgraded from a Galaxy Nexus.

    The S4’s screen is larger, brighter, sharper, more vibrant, and doesn’t have the weird textures/patterns at low brightness.

    It’s much zippier.

    Battery life is more than double. With the Nexus I had to disable LTE, GPS, BT, and routinely kill tasks. The S4 lasts all day with everything enabled and tasks unmanaged. I carried a spare battery with the Nexus; I haven’t needed to with the S4.

    The camera is mucho improved. Though 13 MP is overkill, it shows a lot more detail when zooming/cropping than 5 MP.

    I value its low weight and thin form-factor, especially since I put it in a protective silicone shell.

    I appreciate the tiny bezel. That the screen takes up almost the entire footprint of the device is awesome.

    As far as the HTC One goes, I considered one and its core advantages vs the S4 are:

    1. Its speakers are a big improvement over a mono back-facing speaker.
    2. The chassis looks and feels great.
    3. Low light camera photos look awesome.
    4. More internal memory can be handy (as you don’t have to worry about microSD weirdness: performance, corrupt cards, etc).
    5. The screen can get noticeably brighter than the S4’s.
    6. More accurate colors.

    But how important are those things?

    1. The speakers are awesome given the size, but still sound like crap compared to headphones or a Jambox.
    2. The aluminum chassis doesn’t provide much additional shock protection, and isn’t noticeable if you put the phone in a silicone shell.
    3. This one is important, though most of my photos are taken in decent lighting.
    4. SD issues aren’t that common.
    5. Not noticeable unless the devices are side-by-side, and there are almost no situations during which I’d want the screen that bright.
    6 Not noticeable unless the devices are side-by-side.

    To me the core S4 advantages are:

    1. Larger screen
    2. AMOLED
    3. Bigger battery
    4. Swappable battery
    5. Expandable memory
    6. Better camera overall
    7. Lower weight

    How important are those things?

    1. 0.3″ may not seem like much, but that translates to 13% more screen area than the HTC One.
    2. More vibrance and blacks-are-black = very important. At this DPI, pentile isn’t noticeable.
    3. Battery life is key in a device like this (though the One is also excellent).
    4. Swappable battery = very useful in a pinch.
    5. Using an external card means I can spend less and go for the 16 GB model when I upgrade phones (which I do often).
    6. The HTC One’s 4 MP is too small for cropping photos. Samsung’s best shot and burst photo capabilities are nifty.
    7. The weight difference may seem insignificant, but it isn’t. The HTC One is 10% heavier than the S4.

    Summary:

    Having the biggest screen I can comfortably hold and fit in my pocket is perhaps the most important feature to me, and here Samsung has once again beat the competition:

    A. The S4’s screen-area-to-footprint ratio is 11% better than the HTC One’s.
    B. The S4’s screen-area-to-weight ratio is 24% better than the HTC One’s.
    C. The S4’s screen-area-to-volume ratio is ~27% better than the HTC One’s (going by average thickness).

    I value the S4’s tiny bezel, thin form factor, low weight, and large screen more than the HTC’s aluminum chassis and speakers.

    That written, both devices are incredible, especially to old school Palm/WinCE users like me (this is my 20th pocket touchscreen computer). It’s a great time to be a gadget-geek.

  • Julie July 8, 2013, 8:52 am

    @deslock Great to hear that your upgraded to the S4 from the Nexus was a good one. :) The S4 is definitely the best phone out there right now.

  • Rob Tillotson July 8, 2013, 11:25 am

    I also ended up with a GS4 after considering the HTC One and ended up picking it for similar reasons… SD card (64GB card is still not quite enough for me to replace my iPod, but it’s nearly close enough…) and replaceable battery being the big ones. I upgraded from a Galaxy Nexus as well and the difference is night and day even before you consider how crappy my GNex was at actually doing mobile data for more than 5 minutes per reboot…

    Surprisingly I haven’t felt the need to install an AOSPish ROM yet… TouchWiz doesn’t bother me much at all now that I’ve rooted it and installed a mod or two.

  • Julie July 8, 2013, 11:54 am

    @Rob if you end up flashing it, try Carbon. I’ve been using it for a few months and really like it.

  • Raj July 16, 2013, 4:17 pm

    very great analysis. I own a Samsung galaxy 2s (bought second hand ;) ), and was think of going up the ladder. will take a while though (cost issues ;) ). Reading through I find S4 interesting too. You didn’t mention the interconnection between foes which had intrigue me from the onset. Thanks

  • arnab July 17, 2013, 4:15 am

    Hi I am Arnab, from Ahmedabad (Gujarat – India). I bought a Samsung Galaxy S4 (GT-I9500) paying a whooping amount of INR 41,500/- on 08th July 2013. Within a week I suffered Mobile Network Signal Drop (NO SERVICE – ERROR SEARCHING NETWORKS) & Call Drops!!. I tried replacing my SIM card and trying other network provider’s SIM too. But the problem persisted. I also researched the internet and came to know that many of the users have the same problem! It’s definitely a handset fault. I contacted Samsung Customer Care on 16th July 2013 and they said that as a policy they could not replace my Samsung Galaxy S4 GT-I9500 as it has crossed 7 days period after purchase (NOT TO MENTION…RIDICULOUSLY SAMSUNG INCLUDES SUNDAYS TOO, EVEN WHEN THE CUSTOMER CARE CENTERS ARE CLOSED!!) Failing to solve the issue even after updating my software, now they have provided me with the option of replacing the motherboard of Samsung Galaxy S4 (GT-I9500). My charm of buying such an high-end phone has been completely lost and left me shattered fearing any more loss after motherboard replacement! I feel cheated buying a Toy of INR 41,500/-, when Samsung cannot even provide a stable BASIC necessity. It’s even more sad for me since I have still not started paying my monthly installments! ( At great loss here buying this phone. I DO NOT recommend Samsung Galaxy S4 to anyone, unless you want to waste your hard earned money.

    Can anyone provide me with a solution to this?

  • Christine Derrel August 7, 2013, 10:36 am

    Hello Julie!!! I am really thinking about getting this phone as it looks so cool, however I was windering if its okay and easy to use for an anti-tech talented woman like myself. If you know what I mean…. :)

  • Julie Strietelmeier August 7, 2013, 10:46 am

    @Christine Don’t believe what you read that Android is harder to learn than iOS. Yes, it’s more powerful, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating. The S4 actually has a beginner’s mode that can be set to make the phone easier to use for an Android newbie. So you could use it like that for a little while till you were comfortable enough to take off the training wheels :)

  • Kablo Kanali August 24, 2013, 10:17 am

    S4 is not much better than Iphone 5 but I am still using it.

  • Anton October 22, 2013, 12:37 am

    I am an Electronic Engineer, designed products for HP for many years, was part of the first ipaq team designing smartphones on Windows Mobile 2003 platform.
    In regards to Robert van Weersch comment above, I totally agree.
    Metal bodies for phones is the absolute worst idea ever.
    Metal warps/bends and becomes weak, its conductive, transfers shock into the device rather than absorbing it, blocks phone signal, scratches easier, dents, is more sensitive to temperature. Usually metal parts are not user replaceable, haven’t seen a metal phone yet that lets you swap the battery out. There really is only one thing metal has over plastic and that is it makes the device feel solid, but the fact is a plastic phone will handle drops far better than a metal one, so really it’s only our perception of what is solid that leads people to believe metal is better. When your going to put a protective case on the phone you wont notice what the body is made of.
    We need to move into carbon fiber bodies or the plastic resins they make guns out of.
    Just like Robert said above, if metal was good at getting knocked about then car manufactures would make all their front/rear bumpers out of it, they don’t and that’s because metal isn’t the right material for that application. Same applies for phones.

  • Vidisha November 26, 2013, 1:26 am

    With lot of enthusiasm I had bought the Samsung S4 in May 2013. My enthusiasm was very short lived and I started facing so many issues with my phone. I have already taken it to the service center and got it repaired 3 times… Still the phone is not perfectly fine and I am extremely dissatisfied.

    1.1st Instance :- The phone was getting overheated. It was becoming so hot that I was not even able to talk after 15-20 mins and had to use my blackberry for talking purpose. I took it to service center and it was repaired.
    2.2nd Instance : The phone was shutting down every 10 minutes. When taken to service center it was concluded that the battery was defective and needed replacement.
    3.3rd Instance : Every conversation on the phone with goes more than 3-4 minutes drops suddenly. The call drop was happening from the first day itself however it was dropping in 10 minutes. Now the call drops every 3-4 mins.
    Voice calling is the core/basic feature of a mobile phone. That itself is faulty. This is very shameful for a company like Samsung which is a leader in consumer electronics including mobile phones. As of now, the phone is with the customer repair center.

    I am very frustrated and tired of making trips to service center for having such a defective piece. As of now the phone is within warranty. However 6 months from now, when it goes out of warranty….I don’t know what will happen. Had I purchased it from some shop they would have happily replaced it and I would appreciate if you being online store also replace the same.

    Just to give you some idea on customer service for one of your competitors. I had an Apple IPod and it was giving issues with its Radio operations. Without any hesitance and insistence from my side, the device was replaced.

    Brings me to a conclusion if buying S4 over iPhone was thoughtful decision.

    Now the customer service comes up and says that faulty motherboard needs to be replaced. First they replaced battery and now the motherboard and for this defective piece of shit I paid 40k and they are just not ready to replace it.

    Shame Samsung! Shame Samsung!

  • sahil khan December 21, 2013, 6:30 am

    S4 have alot of issues, Buying it was a Nightmare decision for me.. Samsung quality wasn’t there specially the quality they have produced with NOTE 2.

  • Anton January 8, 2014, 11:18 pm

    Everyone forgets about the Thermometer and barometer included in the S4, I love it! My partner says its cold I’m turning up the heating, I whip out the S4 and say HANG ON….it’s 23c don’t touch that dial.

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