How do you trump the world’s best-selling smartphone? That’s the billion dollar question every time Apple launches a new iPhone. But this time it is Samsung and its flagship Galaxy S 4 smartphone that’s doing the bidding. The Galaxy S III has been a runaway success for Samsung and has come to define Android as a platform more than Google’s own Nexus series of devices. It might not have been the best smartphone but it remains to be the best-selling Android smartphone of all time. Does the Galaxy S 4 have enough in it to take over from its predecessor? Let’s find out.
Samsung isn’t renowned for the industrial design of its smartphones and it shows in the Galaxy S 4. Comparing it side by side to last year’s Galaxy S III becomes a game of ‘spot the difference’ with most people failing to distinguish between the two if the display is turned off. Despite rumors prior to the launch pointing out possibilities of the Korean electronics giant going for a metallic chassis, things haven’t changed much. Having said that, it is an incredible feat to fit in a larger 5-inch display in a footprint that is actually a little smaller than the Galaxy S III, which sports a 4.8-inch display.
Samsung continues to use plastic for the back panel, though it does seem to be of a slightly better quality than that on the Galaxy S III. The black has a dotted pattern that makes it look a little different from its predecessor but it is also a fingerprint magnet. If, like me, you have an OCD of keeping the surface of the phone clean, be prepared to keep a cleaning cloth handy. The faux metal trimmings remain on the mid-frame. The placement of various ports and buttons are similar to the Galaxy S III as well, which is a good thing, especially having the power button on the side rather than on the top.
The Galaxy S 4 is no premium feeling or looking smartphone and the industrial design doesn’t come close to that of the HTC One. Looking from Samsung’s perspective, the use of plastic has not impacted sales of the Galaxy S III and there is no reason why that should be the case here. Playing the devil’s advocate here, I might add that for many users plastic would actually fare better than metal as it not only makes the device lighter but also durable with less chances of it getting dented or scratched.
What the Galaxy S 4 lacks in design, it makes up in hardware and that is also one of the key reasons for Samsung’s success. The device has the best silicon available and also packs in a number of new sensors, which I believe will set the tone for the industry and also pave way for new use cases and apps.
The Galaxy S 4 available in India features Samsung’s latest Exynos 5 Octa processor, which has two pairs of quad-core processors though only one of them works at any point of time. Based on ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture, where the 1.2GHz Cortex A7 quad-core processor does most of the mundane tasks and the 1.6GHz Cortex A15 quad-core processor kicks in for heavy lifting. This is supposed to conserve battery but it is difficult to gauge if that’s the case in the absence of the Galaxy S 4′s Snapdragon 600 variant. The processor is coupled with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal memory, which has become a staple for most flagship Android smartphones. Unlike the HTC One, the Galaxy S 4 comes with a microSD card slot and a removable battery, things that appeal to power users.
The 5-inch 1080p display is a treat for the eyes. Even though the HTC One with its 4.8-inch 1080p display has a slightly higher pixel density, it hardly makes any noticeable difference. The viewing angles are stellar and it is bright enough to be readable in most settings. If you, like me, hated the color reproduction on Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, there’s some good news. Samsung has added new display settings that provides RGB color reproduction that photographers use and even an adaptive setting that would change according to the visual on the display. However, auto-brightness remains as iffy as ever and Samsung needs to tune its ambient light sensor. I ended up turning off auto-brightness and toggled brightness manually.
The Galaxy S 4 has a 13-megapixel camera, which in my books is the best camera on any Android smartphone and is at par, if not better, than the iPhone 5′s 8-megapixel camera under most settings. Despite HTC’s claims about the “Ultrapixel” camera on the One, I found the Galaxy S 4′s camera to be most versatile under majority of conditions. Yes, it might not have the same low light performance as that of the One, yet it performed better under all other conditions.
It borrows the camera UI from Samsung’s Galaxy Camera, which makes the camera easy to use. Like most smartphones of 2013, it comes with multiple shooting modes and includes editing features for group shots, removing unwanted elements from a photo and animated shots. Then there is a feature that lets users click a photo using both front and rear cameras simultaneously. I’m not a big fan of that feature and found it to be gimmicky. Ditto for clicking a photo and recording a nine second audio clip with it.
Samsung is also introducing an array of new sensors in the Galaxy S 4 apart from the regular accelerometer, gyroscope and ambient light sensors. The new additions include a gesture sensor, a temperature and humidity sensor as well as a barometer for good measure. The gesture sensor, which is essentially a pair of IR sensors on either side of the earpiece, is a crucial part of the new TouchWiz UI elements while the temperature and humidity sensor is used in its S-Health application. Hopefully, developers would soon start incorporating these sensors in their apps for added functionality.
Samsung calls the Galaxy S 4 a “life companion” and its software additions on top of Android are a big part of that vision. The world’s largest smartphone vendor has been tinkering with TouchWiz for a couple of years now and in my opinion, this is the closest it can come without forking Android. The latest iteration of TouchWiz has so many software additions that users would keep finding new things even after months of using the device. While it is next to impossible to detail all of them, let’s check out some key features.
While the Galaxy S 4 does not get a stylus like the Galaxy Note II, it does get Air View and users can get previews of mails, calendar entries, photo albums, videos among others without touching the display. It works mostly but still has limited third-party app support. Gesture View takes it a step forward by allowing users to accept calls, move through photos in an album or just wake the screen to see notifications without touching the display. For this, users have to move their hands over the pair of sensors near the earpiece. While these are interesting add-ons, they have a sporadic success rate, especially the gesture to accept calls. The idea that users might want to use their phones when their hands are wet or dirty is pure genius, the execution is not perfect.
Same goes for Smart stay and Smart scroll features. Smart stay is an old feature that is supposed to track the user’s eye and keep the display on or off depending whether the user is looking at the display or not. Now videos are also supposed to pause if the user looks away, but this feature never worked for me. Smart scroll, as the name suggests, scrolls web pages by tracking the user’s eye. Sadly, this feature works only on the default web browser and does not work even on Chrome. While I was able to scroll pages by just looking at the web page, controlling the scroll is a hit or miss affair. Also, both Smart stay and Smart scroll require perfect lighting conditions.
S-Health is an interesting app that combines the functions of a Nike Fuelband like device and even shows the ambient temperature and humidity. The phone also comes with a remote control app for televisions and set-top boxes, though support for Indian DTH set-top boxes is not so great. We were, however, able to control our Tata Sky set-top box effortlessly, after trying various options available in the list.
All these features have bloated TouchWiz to such an extent that users get only 8.82GB of internal memory when they buy the 16GB version. In comparison, the Galaxy S III had 11.25GB. Samsung says that the presence of a microSD card slot should take care of situations if the user runs out of internal storage. The UI skin is so heavy that it shows even during regular usage. There is a noticeable lag between hitting the home button and when the homescreen appears and especially in opening the photo gallery, despite the Galaxy S 4 having one of the fastest processors in town.
The Galaxy S 4 has all the hardware specifications and on paper is probably the most capable smartphone currently available in the market. But does it perform in the real world? First the positives. The display is insanely great and if it does fall short by any chance with default settings, it can be tweaked to the user’s satisfaction. The in-call audio quality is also among the best I have encountered. The 13-megapixel camera too is the best I have used on any Android smartphone and also beats the iPhone 5 in most situations.
Now the not so good things about the Galaxy S 4. I was hoping that ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture would translate into huge battery performance improvements but that wasn’t the case. I was almost able to see through a day of usage with an hour of calls and two hours of web browsing. It also included two email accounts and a Twitter and Facebook account, all set to push. Probably turning off the Air Gesture and Smart scroll and stay options would have provided some extra juice. Nevertheless, with my usage, I found the HTC One that runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 processor to have better battery performance. Then there is the thing about its plasticky body, but like we have seen with the Galaxy S III it is not that big a deal breaker for most users.
Then there are a couple of things I just don’t like about the Galaxy S 4. The biggest one of them being all the gimmicks in the software that has not only eaten away precious internal storage but is also poorly executed. Also, in certain extreme conditions, I found the Galaxy S 4 to heat up alarmingly. While shooting for this review, I turned up the display’s brightness level to 100 percent and had the camera running for about five minutes when the top part of the phone became so hot it became uncomfortable to hold the phone. All phones heat up a little but I have never encountered a phone heating up to this level.
Despite its gimmicky software add-ons and plastic build, the Galaxy S 4 gets things that matter to most users right – the camera, display, in-call audio quality and to an extent, the battery. By throwing in a removable battery and a microSD card slot, many would be tempted to go for the Galaxy S 4 over the HTC One. All of these factors make the Galaxy S 4 a great choice at Rs 41,500.
More than the iPhone 5, I believe the Galaxy S 4 will compete with the HTC One. While HTC has gone all out with its premium build and numerous features like I pointed in my review of the One, Samsung is doing what it does best – create a mass market, ‘please everyone’ flagship smartphone. Both the devices target completely different sets of users with HTC gunning for the lifestyle segment while Samsung aiming for everyone else.
Photos: Eshan Shetty