The Samsung Galaxy S phenomenon keeps getting bigger with every passing year ever since it was launched in 2010. Each iteration of the Galaxy S series has been an incremental update of its previous generation and that trend continues to date. Three things that have stayed pretty much the same in these three years has been AMOLED displays, TouchWiz and Samsung’s love for plastic and faux metal trimmings. If you’ve used any of Samsung’s flagships in the past, you’ll be right at home with the new S4. We quite liked the handset during our brief encounter with it a few weeks back and after using it for about a week, we have come to like it even more. So how does the S4 fit in with the rest of the flagships? Let’s find out.
Design and build
Blending nature and technology works great from a marketing standpoint, but that does not guarantee a good looking product. Asus tried that with the Bamboo series notebooks and last year, Samsung designed the S3 to look like a pebble. Thankfully, this time around, Samsung has ditched the “Designed for humans” playbook and has designed a phone by humans. The S4 has a simple candy bar form factor minus the tapering edges of the S3. This gives it a uniform look – the S4 is a lot more ergonomic as compared to its predecessor. The faux metal trimmings around the edges make a comeback and the bezel is very slightly raised around the display so you don’t accidentally scratch it by keeping it face down. Areas around the screen and the back get a new textured pattern that looks good but doesn’t help in hiding finger prints. The phone looks a lot better in black than it does in white. We’re sure more colour options will soon be announced.
Looks and feels good despite the plastic chassis
The biggest (and impressive) feat that Samsung has pulled off is fitting a larger screen into a chassis that’s a tad smaller and thinner than the S3. Not only that, it has also managed to get the weight down by 3 grams. The handset is incredibly light for a 5-inch phone and even though its weight shedding is mostly due to the plastic chassis, it really doesn’t feel cheap. Besides the weight, the other reason why Samsung hasn’t switched to unibody is for the removable battery. This may not seem like a big deal too many, but if you’re into custom ROMs, then having a removable battery is the easiest way to get yourself out of a boot loop.
Removable back cover is always a bonus
Apart from the usual set of buttons and ports, the S4 packs a truck-load of sensors including a barometer, temperature sensor, humidity sensor and an IR sensor for gestures. The latter is a miniature version of the one used in the Microsoft Kinect. There’s also an IR port on the top alongside the headphone jack, so you can use the S4 as a TV remote. Other than this, we have active noise cancellation, TV-out via MHL and 50GB of Dropbox storage. The rear speaker is placed below and isn’t very loud. Also, alerts easily get muffled when placed on a surface that’s not planar.
The 13MP snapper on the back
We really liked the overall aesthetics of the S4 as compared to the S3. It’s a shame all that faux metal and chrome trim will wear off quite quickly, so you’ll have to be a little extra careful with your usage if you wish to preserve the "premium" look. Our test unit developed a lot of hairline scratches around the camera lens.
One of the biggest changes in the S4 is the new full HD Super AMOLED display. The panel boasts of an impressive 441ppi, which means pixels are virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye. The colours are rich and vibrant, albeit a bit exaggerated. You can fix this by selecting the "Natural" colour profile or choose to set it to auto, in which case the colour is automatically adjusted depending on the ambient light and the content being viewed. The only little gripe we have is that whenever the backlight intensity changes, the purplish tinge of the Pentile matrix display rears its ugly head, which is more prominent on grey backgrounds.
Refreshed user interface
India gets the GT-I9500 variant of the S4, which features the most talked about octa-core chipset. The Official name is Exynos 5 Octa 5410 and it is based on ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture. Here, we have two CPU clusters and a common GPU. The big cluster consists of four Cortex-A15 cores running at 1.6GHz while the LITTLE cluster consists of four Cortex-A7 cores running at 1.2GHz. In a typical situation, only one cluster is on at any given point depending on the task at hand. This is flexible, however as ARM’s architecture dictates that you can have three cores of the LITTLE cluster and one of the big active as well as have both clusters working in tandem if need be. This works seamlessly on the S4 and the handset actually runs very cool. Browsing image-heavy sites and GPS causes the upper portion of the display and the backside to heat up rather quickly. Other than that, the interface is buttery smooth with an occasional hiccup when accessing the widgets page.
Some crazy performance numbers
While most new phones are launching with Jelly Bean 4.1.2, Samsung gives you the latest version of Jelly Bean (4.2.2) along with TouchWiz. The infamous skin hasn’t changed too much from the S3, but there are some new additions. For instance, the scrollable toggle switches in the notification bar can now be viewed all at one by a two-finger pull down.
There have also been many additions to the gestures thanks to the smorgasbord of new sensors. Most of them are quite gimmicky at best: like Smart Scroll, Smart Pause, Air View and Air Gesture. Smart Scroll lets you scroll through webpages either by tracking your head movement or by issuing a gesture. You can switch between the two modes at any time. The head tracking doesn’t work as well as the hand gesture though. Smart Pause works well and manages to pause the video almost as soon as you look away, with a delay of about a second. Air View is cool and lets you preview photos in your gallery, magnify areas of webpages etc. Air Gesture lets you answer calls, browse through photos etc., all by waving your hand over the screen. We particularly liked the feature of being able to answer calls with voice. We doubt most people will use half of these features, but it’s there at your disposal. These new features have eaten into the usable onboard storage space, which is just 8GB out of the total 16GB. This is still plenty for even the heaviest apps, since you’ll be dumping all your media (music, movies, photos) on the memory card.
Samsung never disappoints when it comes to media playback. With Wolfson Microelectronics signed up to be the official audio partner for Samsung, the S4 really excels in audio playback. The audio quality is very good even through the stock earphones. You have plenty of options to tweak the sound as well through equaliser presets and a new addition called Adapt Sound. The latter is a brilliant little addition and helps you tune the overall audio quality based on the currently plugged in earphones. The calibration method involves playing back a series of frequencies across the audio spectrum with you confirming which ones can be heard or not. At the end of the drill, the frequencies that cannot be heard by you through the earphones are amplified so you get to hear the subtle nuances in your music. The difference in audio quality is very apparent and this setting applies to calls as well as music. You can toggle lyrics, normalise the volume of all the tracks in your library and even use voice commands to control your music.
The Adapt Sound feature is pretty cool
The music player is similar to that of the S3. You can sort your music via albums, artists, folders etc. A new addition called Music Square scans all the songs in your library and then groups them according to your mood – "Exciting", "Joyful", "Calm" and "Passionate". Let’s say, you’re in the mood for some uptempo music and a bit of lounge as well – you simply highlight the squares around "Exciting" and a few around "Calm" for a mix of both. This will work well provided you have all your songs categorised under the right genre. There are plenty of equaliser presets present as well, including a 7.1 channel surround mode. To be honest, you won’t really need any of them, since the DAC automatically produces rich and highly detailed sound.
The video player supports MP4, MKV and everything in between. However, the only exceptions were MOV and FLV files, which refused to play. Full HD 1080p video just works, and the new Pop up play feature works as advertised. We’re not too sure how useful it will actually be in everyday use, but it’s a good option to have. You also have the option to share the video, edit it, view it by chapters or stream the audio via Bluetooth.
The S4 is a quad-band GSM handset with quad-band 3G support and has Wi-Fi with hotspot capabilities and Wi-Fi Direct, GPS with A-GPS and GLONASS support, USB OTG, DLNA, external storage up to 64GB, Bluetooth 4.0, TV out via MHL and NFC, which covers all your connectivity options. In fact, this is one of the only phones out there to support the newer Wi-Fi draft "ac", which a handful of high-end routers support. The advantage of "ac" over "n" is that it’s theoretically three times faster than "n" and will eventually replace it. It’s nice to know that the S4 is quite future-proof in this respect. What’s more, the IR port works with the Samsung WatchON app and lets you control your TV and other IR-based home entertainment devices. The HTC One, on the other hand, only works with cable service providers that are programmed, and India is not included in that list. The app doesn’t let you use the phone as a standalone remote either, which is a shame.
The remote app is easily one of the best in the suite
Call reception has been handled pretty well and in our test call, the recipient could hear our voice very clearly. The speaker is loud enough to help you out, if you’ve got a lot of background noise. The stock keyboard is good enough to get the job done, but the word prediction still feels a little daft and is not anywhere as good as SwiftKey or Swype. It’s still better than the stock Android keyboard and Samsung also throws in gesture support. S-Voice is no longer restricted to just telling you the weather or opening apps; it’s better integrated with the rest of the system and you can now control your music, answer or reject calls or even snap a picture by simply speaking.
Offers a good web browsing experience
Samsung has also thrown in some of the custom apps with a completely redesigned look and new set of icons. There’s Samsung Apps, which is the company's own app store with a limited selection of apps. There wasn’t any need for this, though, when all these apps are available in the Play Store itself. Samsung Hub lets you buy videos, books, games and learning material. This content is not linked to Google’s Play Store, so the available content is very limited. We do like the Metro inspired skin though. Samsung Link is the DLNA app that lets you share your media on compatible devices. Other apps include S Translator, Optical Reader, S Memo, S Health, Story Album and Group Play.
Samsung has finally bit the bullet and gone with a 13MP BSI sensor for the rear camera. We even get a decently large aperture of f/2.2 for some good low-light shots and depth of field in macros. The performance is more or less similar to the S3, although the S4 handles metering a lot better. It also manages to capture better detail and is more accurate with colours as compared to the S3. You’ll be happy to know that Samsung has finally fixed the burst mode on the S4 and it’s now actually comparable to HTC’s offerings.
The revamped camera UI
The S4 also debuts some new features and a slightly revamped camera UI. Some of the new modes include Drama Shot, Sound and Shot, Animated photo, Eraser and Beauty Photo. Drama Mode works pretty well as you can see, however, the final picture is best viewed on the phone itself as it looks a little blurry on the PC. This is only true for this mode, as you get the full 13MP image in normal burst mode. Beauty Face works fairly well, too, as it successfully manages to pretty up faces it recognises. Dual Shot mode is fun and works for video too.
Burst mode finally works!
Beauty Shot works really well
Drama Shot is fun too
Most of the new camera features of the S4 can be found on the HTC One, but they work a lot better on the S4 than they do on the One. The one clever feature of the One we wished was present in S4 is a Zoe-like mode. With the S4, you have to select a mode first or effect first and then shoot, whereas the One allows you to shoot first and then apply any of the filters or effects later.
Samsung has fitted a much larger 2600 mAh battery, which easily lasted our 8-hour loop test. This involved 2 hours of music, 2 hours of video, 2 hours of calls and 2 hours of YouTube streaming. We had the brightness on medium and a SIM in the phone at all times. There was enough battery remaining to last us another 8 hours of music playback.
The chunky battery keeps the good times rolling
Verdict and price in India
At Rs 41,500, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is easily the best Android in the market – and the most powerful smartphone by a mile. Samsung seems to have taken criticisms about the S3 in its stride, as the S4 easily irons out most of the chinks found in the S3’s armour with a fresh coat of polish. The phone looks a lot more refined and premium than its predecessor and the whole hullabaloo about the plastic chassis is much ado about nothing. This is not to say it’s as good as the HTC One’s industrial design, but calling it cheap would be an exaggeration. Its build is miles ahead of the S3 and so are the ergonomics. Even if you discount the gimmicky gesture support, the S4 still beats the One in almost every department. It has a larger display, better audio quality for headphones, better battery life and a better camera with more features. The One trumps the S4 in terms of chassis build, much better speakers for alerts and media playback, and a better implementation for the similar suite of camera features (Zoe mode).
The bottom line is: if you are shopping for the best smartphone, then look no further than the Galaxy S4.
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