*The device is a review unit from Samsung Malaysia
Finally, I got to get my hands on Samsung’s 2013 Android flagship smartphone – Samsung Galaxy S4. We’ve all heard so much about the smartphone. We remember how well the S3 sold globally and we’re sure that Samsung will once again deliver the goods and make the S4 such a huge success. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is meant to go head on with the iPhone as the Android phone to beat.
But is it?
Let me walk you through my review of the flagship Samsung Galaxy S4 as a user. No weird benchmark and performance tests here… just a simple use of the S4 as my primary phone for work and play in the last few days. I tested as many features as I do (and can) as a regular user, just like you.
Samsung Galaxy S4 is their latest Android superphone successor of the highly popular Samsung Galaxy S III. This latest flagship phone certainly packs a punch with so many features and functions that’s true to a flagship phone title.
Here’s a quick overview of the specification of the Samsung Galaxy S4:-
- 5″ Full HD Super AMOLED display (1920X1080)(441 ppi)
- 1.6 GHz octa core Exynnos 5 processor <– Malaysian version is non-LTE
- 16/32/64 GB internal storage (expandable microSD slot) + 2 GB RAM
- Powered by latest Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2 OS (with Samsung TouchWiz interface)
- 13 megapixel rear camera, 2 megapixel front facing camera
- 7.9 mm thin, weighing only 130 grams
- 2,600 mAH removable battery
- Connectivity : HSPA+/LTE, WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, IR (infrared) Blaster
- Available in Black Mist and White Frost
For more information, do check out the Samsung Galaxy S4 microsite at http://www.samsung.com/my/galaxys4/
When I received my review unit (which I got to use for only 2 weeks and don’t get to keep, in case you’re wondering), I Instagram-ed a picture of the packaging on my home’s laminated flooring. Look, it blends nicely.
Let’s get to the unboxing and hardware overview of the smartphone.
Inside the box, you’ll find the gorgeous 5″ Full HD Super AMOLED display phone. Underneath, you’ll get the standard items – 2 piece charger adapter, USB to micro USB charging / sync cable, standard in-ear headphones (with different size buds) and user manuals.
The device is not that much bigger than the previous S3. In fact, I had a chance to measure it on top of my friend’s S3 and it’s only very slightly bigger. That was what Samsung was going for – they want to maintain the size of the much loved S3 with only millimeters of difference and reduced the bezel around the screen.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is indeed slim at only 7.9 mm thin (versus 8.5 mm on the S3). The ports and buttons are rather standard with the Power On/Off button on the right, headphone jack port up top, volume rocker on the right and sole microUSB charge/sync port at the bottom.
Many were also disappointed (myself included) that the S4 looks almost identical to the S3. Down to the build quality, which is sadly plastic. Ahem – or as Samsung calls it “polycarbonate”. The only addition this time round, was that there’s a criss-cross pattern at the backplate, which is (thankfully) removable to access the battery, micro SIM and micro SD slot (yes, expandable memory, too).
External hardware wise, I have to say, there’s really nothing impressive. Because it looks and feels so much like the S3 and pretty much every other Samsung devices these days, it’s hard to stand by this phone when so many other phone manufacturers are pushing the boundaries and innovating with better build quality. Like my favourite HTC One.
When you power the phone on for the first time, you’d note that the “Nature inspired theme” carried across from the recent Samsung phones.
Samsung named the S4’s tagline this year for the phone to be your “Life Companion”. It’s impressive how they kept this tagline across every feature in the phone – from S Translation (auto translate voice or written text) to S Health (health monitoring app) and camera functions (every setting you can think of for every picture taking moment you can think of). The S4 this time goes beyond just being a phone that we’re all a slave to – it enriches your life as features are handy tool to help you be more efficient.
Ah – also discovered (accidentally) that you can customise the “Life Companion” text on the Lock screen. So I customised it for the phone to greet e with a “Hello Winnie” when I turn it on. 🙂
The shortcut app icons can be customised as well. These are shortcuts for you to access the apps without having to go through the steps of unlocking your phone, then going to the App Drawer, locate the app and tap to open. Customisation of these shortcuts can be tricky though. If you’re not a savvy Samsung or Android user, you might get frustrated about how these settings are so burried underneath multiple navigations.
TouchWiz – Menu, Navigation, Keyboard, Browser
The S4 runs on TouchWiz interface again. This is exactly the same as you’d find on all Samsung devices – their own skin on top of Android 4.2 OS running underneath. TouchWiz is heavy and bloated this time round as it packs in so many new features for the phone. Nevertheless, for a newbie Android user, there’s even an “Easy Mode” to help you setup your phone, customise everything and make it much easier to use it day-to-day.
TouchWiz looks about the same from previous iterations. App Drawer, Widgets all look the same, too. When you pull down from the top to reveal your Notification Centre (bottom left), you’ll be greeted with notifications from all apps, as well as quick toggle icons for WiFi, GPS, Sound, etc. Above that, the “Gear” icon opens up your “Settings” menu.
Just next to the “Gear” icon, you’ll see another icon that looks like “App” icon. Actually, that’s an additional setting to expand more quick toggles without having to enter the “Settings” menu. There’s a total of 20 toggles here. A bit much, dontcha think? Handy? Yes. But a bit much.
The default on-screen keyboard by Samsung has been improved. Word prediction is better. However, I still catch myself making multiple errors even with auto correct on. Personally, I would spring the money to get SwiftKey. In my opinion, the SwiftKey prediction, auto correct and learning is way better than any default keyboards.
Default browser is good and fast. It has the usual functions such as multi-tab browsing, incognito mode, sharing and desktop mode. Nothing out of the ordinary that’s been changed here. Personally, I’d go download the Chrome browser for Android. It has the ability to sync bookmarks, passwords etc with your desktop Chrome browser tied to your Google account.
I did find that the “Gallery” app wouldn’t load on my device. I believe it’s unique to only the device that I have. When the app opens (if it opens) it takes several long seconds to load the picture thumbnails. When it does, tapping on an album would simply hang with grey bars (as seen in picture above). It simply wouldn’t let me browse through my pictures.
I have to resort to opening only the last snapped picture through the “Camera” app. And with that workaround, I can’t browse through my Gallery at all. If I want to view other pictures, I have to open the “My Files” app file browser to hunt through the image I want. I hope you’re not as unlucky as I am. 🙁
[UPDATE] Informed by reader, Vicky Rao, that the issue with my Gallery app is related to cloud syncing of other photos from Dropbox, etc. Seems there’s similar issue with the Samsung Galaxy Note II. Thanks, Vicky.
Generally, I feel that the phone is rather slugggish. I don’t think I have too many downloaded apps (only 10 apps) and I don’t think I have too many pictures or files in storage and I don’t think I have too many apps running in the background (I make a habit of clearing unused apps periodically). Initially, it was fine and smooth and fast. Over time, it starts to slow down and kinda upsets me a little.
[UPDATE] Informed by reader, Keng Siang, that many of the sluggishness of phone I experienced was rectified in the latest firmware / ROM update.
If you haven’t heard, there are buttloads of features that Samsung has packed into the S4. So many that it took up so much space in your phone’s memory and people were complaining.
The bad news – in a 16 GB version of the S4, you only get slightly over 9 GB of storage for your files, pictures, etc as shown here. People were understandably angry, and Samsung tried to justify the limited space complaint by telling us to use the micro SD expansion slot and be happy that we have so many features on the phone. Not long after, Samsung relented and has since pushed a new update to the Samsung Galaxy S4 that gives you a few more MB of space and allows you to move some apps to your SD card.
Hmmmm… Not a very smart thing to do there, Samsung. Well, buyers be warned!
Back to all the many features that Samsung Galaxy S4 carries. Check out my original post HERE on the launch coverage to go through these features.
With so many features, obviously there must be equally as many settings you can customise. Samsung has now separated their “Settings” menu to 4 major tabs, instead of the traditional long scrolling “Settings” menu in most Android phones. The tabs help make more sense out of this whole section, and also gives you an idea of all the features included:-
- Connections – normal WiFi, Bluetooth, Data and Network settings, you also get to set NFC, “S Beam” (Samsung’s NFC app to share files), DLNA (connect to your TV), “Screen Mirroring” (share your phone screen with another S4) and Kies via WiFi (connect to your desktop sync client)
- My Device – Lock screen, display, sound, personalisation and more display related settings; such as
- “Motions & Gesture” – actions based on how you move your hand over or on the device
- “Air Gesture” by waving your hand over the sensors
- “Motion” like making a call when you put your phone on your ear
- “Palm Motion” like muting your phone when you put your palm over the screen
- “Smart Screen” – actions depending on eye tarcking or moving the device
- “Smart Stay” that keeps your display on as long as your eyes are still looking at the screen
- “Smart Rotation” displays the screen according to your viewing angle
- “Smart Pause” that pauses videos when you look away
- “Smart Scroll” scrolls long webpages according to how you tilt your head.
- “Air View” – like in previous Samsung Galaxy Note II you can now view more details by hovering your finger (instead of S Pen in the Note II) in Calendar, Gallery, etc.
- “Voice Control” – using “S Voice” (Samsung’s Siri equivalent) you can now use voice commands to navigate your phone like answering calls, stop/snooze alarm clocks, take picture, control music player. All using your voice.
- “Motions & Gesture” – actions based on how you move your hand over or on the device
- Accounts – Manage all your account connections for Google, Social media, Samsung accounts etc
- More – Other settings for location, security, app manager, battery, storage etc
As you can see, there’s certainly a lot of features packed into the Samsung Galaxy S4. And I haven’t even got to the Camera features yet.
I got around to trying some of these features.
“Air View” is certainly one feature that I find handy, which was one of the reason I got the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 as a personal tablet. To be able to use only your finger for this action is awesome. In the picture above, I go to “Month” view on my Calendar (or “S Planner”) app and I hover over the dates to see detail view of my appointments, without having to tap on the day and scroll through the week or month to see what my schedule is like.
“Air Gestures” tend to be the biggest feature that friends ask me to demonstrate. It’s a handy features for when you can’t physically touch / pick up your phone (eg,your fingers are dirty while you’re eating). I turn on the feature and show them how I scroll through pictures and webpages by waving my hand over the sensor at the top of the front of the phone. General comment I receive ranges from “Cool, I’d use this often” to “Meh” to “How is that practical?” It might work for you, it might not – so it’s always personal preference.
A number of these features are demonstrated during the Launch Event in NYC that I covered HERE. “Smart Screen” is useful for when you want to turn off your display as you’re reading in bed before you fall asleep, and “Voice Control” for hands-free use of your phone when you’re driving or otherwise occupied.
There are a few functions that didn’t quite work right when I tested it – “Smart Pause” didn’t pause the video in the multiple times I tested it, “Palm Motion” didn’t like my skinny hand because it did nothing, and “Smart Scroll” I just don’t get.
Problem is though, if you turn every feature on, it will drain your batteries. If you only turn them on when you need it, then you have to dig through so many settings to get to it, you might not do it all the time. Also, what if you need it and you didn’t turn on the feature until it’s too late?
Cool features, Samsung. But I call all these features a little too many features that are too gimmicky for my liking.
Camera wise, Samsung has up-ed the megapixel count from 8 megapixel in the S3 to a whopping 13 megapixel rear camera on this S4.
That’s not all. As with the Samsung Galaxy Note II, several of those camera features came on board the Samsung Galaxy S4 namely “Best Face”, “Best Photo” and more. Here’s a quick refresher on the various Camera features on the Samsung Galaxy S4:-
- Dual Camera – Lets you use both the front and rear camera simultaneously. Take a picture with your rear camera, as well as use the front camera to take your own picture (which will show as a framed thumbnail at the top left). The same can be done for video recording, too.
- Dual Video Call – Allows you to have a video call with your face on the front facing camera, while turning on the rear camera to let your caller see what you’re looking at. It was demonstrated at the event as a video call where the caller can say hi to the rest of the family in the room with the rear camera. Handy, I think.
- Sound & Shot – It’s like an MMS feature of sorts. You take a picture and you can record up to 9 seconds audio clip along with the picture.
- Drama Shot – Stitches a series of burst shots into one picture (good for action shots). This also comes with Eraser function that allows you to erase unwanted background distractions, like people walking in your shot.
- Story Album – Lets you create an album (think Photobook) with different layouts and theme, based on locations, events, etc.
Again, jam packed with loads of features here.
If you use the Camera app and keep it at “Auto” mode (like me) you’re mostly fine. Image quality is good, and I’m generally happy with the different condition I place the camera on in Auto mode. Check the sample pictures below (click to enlarge to original full resolution):-
When you start to click on to the “Settings” and “Mode” button, you’ll see how all the features of the Camera app come in handy (or not).
Check out the picture above with screenshots of the various “Mode” that comes with the camera app for different situations and picture preference. From “Beauty Face” that smooths out faces to give the subject a nice glow, to “Drama” mode that stitches together an action shot to give you one picture of your action shot, to “Sound and Shot” where you can record up to 9 seconds of audio accompanying the picture, to “Eraser” mode that snaps a burst of images and intelligently remove background moving subjects of your posed shot, and more.
Some of them can be rather cool features. If you use them often, it would be a simple flick of your finger to enable that mode and snap the perfect picture. If you’re in a rush to capture an image, then the “Auto” mode serves you well just as its basic function.
Bad news though – some of my friends have been having problem with their Camera app causing their phone to shut down on its own. This is quite a common issue with some friends (who take a lot of pictures) reporting their S4 shutting down up to 5 times daily! Maybe a bug fix from Samsung is on the way?
Another bad news – is that I feel that the Camera app is really slow and sluggish. No longer do I feel what I love most about previous Samsung devices in the zero shutter lag function. The app takes a few seconds to power on, which likely made me miss several split second moment I’d like to capture in picture. Toggling between the various modes are rather slow, too. Taking a few seconds to change mode to the point that I can safely take a picture. Not good.
With a 2,600 mAH removable battery on board, you’d expect long battery life with this device. Personally, because I am at the desk mostly on my Ultrabook and I also carry a second tablet for note taking etc at work, I am no longer the heavy smartphone user I once was. These days, I am a moderate to heavy user with the on and off emails, social media, browsing, several calls, a number of messages and WhatsApp, several food porn pictures daily.
I managed between 14 hours to 17 hours of battery usage daily until it runs painfully low and needs a recharge. This is good but not impressive, for me.
Comparing this to the HTC One that I have, which runs on 2,300 mAH battery (instead of 2,600 mAH), I get close to 18 hours with my HTC on the same usage pattern. Hmmm….
Pricing and Availability
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is available on sale now, for a Recommended Retail Price (RRP) of RM 2,199 which is RM100 cheaper than the HTC One. However, you can also purchase the device at a discount if you sign up for a plan with any of the major telcos.
Do note that when the Samsung Galaxy S4 was initially on sale, it was the non 4G / LTE version. A few days ago, Maxis finally launched the 4G / LTE capable version of the device being the only one with the 4G version. Here are all the telco plans:-
- Maxis 4G version from RM 1,399 plans HERE; Maxis One Club members’ from RM 999 plans HERE; non 4G/LTE version from RM 1,249 plans HERE
- Celcom non-4G version from RM 1,338 plans HERE
- DiGi non-4G version from RM 1,199, plans HERE
- U Mobile non-4G version from RM 899 plans HERE
There are other roadshows with offers, promotions and freebies running right now for the Samsung Galaxy S4.
See Also : Samsung Galaxy S4 Goes On Sale in Malaysia
I know a lot of you are considering between the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One as both are really impressive and high profile Android flagship smartphones. I get asked that a lot.
Without sounding like a broken record and repeating myself on the points in this long-ass review post, let me summmarise the Top 3 things I like and dislike about the Samsung Galaxy S4.
Things I Like:-
- Some handy features like “Air View” and bountiful “Camera” modes for great pictures every time
- Maintains a good size that fits nicely in your hands, even with a 5″ screen
- Cheaper than the HTC One (with very attractive telco plans / outright purchase)
Things I Dislike:-
- Buggy phone with some features, functions and app not working the way its supposed to
- Way too many features that tends to be buried and hard to find; also making it bloated and slows down the phone
Final question – Should you buy it?
If you’ve been an existing or long time Samsung user, you’d feel right at home here. The TouchWiz user interface is easy to use, even for beginners. Some features can come in really handy and effective for your lifestyle and usage.
If you’re looking for another great smartphone to upgrade to and want the best, sexiest and most functional feature to suit your life – I suggest you go look at HTC One. That phone is way sexier and less bloated with features like the S4.
See Also : HTC One Unboxing and First Impression
Final word – this is a pure user review, based on my usage, my review unit, my personal preference. You be your own judge – go to the shops, pick up the phone, play around with the features, then make up your own mind. You might fall in love… you might not. Your call.