Two years ago, when you bought your last phone, there's a good chance you thought about buying the Samsung Galalxy S II before spending your money on an iPhone. This may not be the case again this year. The South Korean manufacturing giant has been through an immense brand evolution in this short time, so much so that the Galaxy S4 is probably at the top of your new phone shopping list.
Those familiar with last year's Galaxy S3 will spot it immediately. The S4 looks a lot like its predecessor. There are a few key differences you can easily point, but overall, the S4 breaks no new ground for Samsung design.
It is marginally slimmer and lighter, both of which are good things, but we are speaking about teensy, incremental changes in both metrics. Next to its closest competitors though, the differences in size are far more noticeable. It is a featherweight in the hand compared the Nokia Lumia 920, for example.
Since its launch, there has been a lot of criticism levelled at Samsung's decision to use plastic for the body of its flagship phone. Many spectators believe this gives the phone a cheap feel that belies the phone's premium hardware -- and price tag. There is another way to look at this, though. The plastic chassis on the S4 is the reason it is so much lighter than other phones, which many will find more comfortable to use. We agree Samsung could have considered different plastic finishes, like a rubber-feel finish perhaps, but ultimately we would prefer a comfortable-feeling phone to a good looking one.
Whatever you think about the phone with the power off you are likely to forget once the superb display turns on. This 5-inch AMOLED screen is the centrepiece of the Galaxy S4, and is worthy of all the praise it has earned thus far. With a 1080p resolution (1080x1920 pixels), the screen on the S4 is amongst the sharpest we've seen to date, and the AMOLED screen tech offers up rich blacks and truly vibrant colours.
It avoids some of the previous pitfalls of AMOLED screens too, with whites seeming more white and less blue than on previous Samsung phones; though this issue is not entirely behind them. If you open a new web browser page you can still see a slight blueish hue across the screen, though it is far better than on previous models.
The practical design of the phone follows in the footsteps of last year's Samsungs, with a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top of the phone, volume and power buttons on opposite sides of the handset, and a micro-USB port on the base.
The battery cover is removable, giving you access to the handset's 2600mAh capacity battery unit, a micro-SIM slot and a space for expanding the handset's internal memory with a micro-SD card.
Like all other Android smartphone makers, Samsung takes Google's platform and adds its own flavour to it. HTC has the Sense UI, Samsung calls theirs TouchWiz, and as far as their custom UIs go, TouchWiz is on the more cluttered, confusing end of the spectrum. Though, it does have a few neat tricks.
On the face of it, TouchWiz looks and operates like Google's own vision of Android. There are home screens, plus a separate app drawer, which in turn is split into 'apps' and 'widgets'. You can swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal new notifications and gain access to 'quick settings' like toggles to switch Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth on and off. You can also long-press on a toggle to enter the settings menu for this item.
Painfully, you can't long-press on home screen widgets and icons to move them around. Instead you need to press the 'menu' button, select 'edit' and enter a separate screen editing mode. Perhaps if you are new to Android phones you might not mind this extra step, but for everyone else who is used to being able to quickly shift icons about, this editing system is a nuisance.
The air up there
One of Samsung's top-line innovations for the Galaxy S4 is the introduction of a number ways to control the phone without touching the screen known as 'Air Gestures'. The Galaxy S4 phone now has three sensors on the front of the phone, above the screen, used to track a number of elements. You can scroll through a webpage using only your eyes, answer a phone call by waving a hand over the screen, or preview the contents of a media folder by hovering a finger a centimetre off the glass.
You might be surprised to learn that these futuristic features all work reasonably well. The hand waving gesture is picked up by the sensors most of the time, finger-hovering takes some practice, but works more often than not. The 'eye-scrolling' tool works better than the rest, but it does require you to recalibrate your eyes with the sensors each time you use it.
Though there is merit in being first to market with new input methods, none of these are any easier than touching the screen with a finger. Sure, there is the added advantage of not smearing the screen with oily fingerprints, but we guarantee the inconsistency will have you headed for the 'Off' switch. Thankfully, Samsung makes deactivating these features simple with toggles in the Quick Settings.
Samsung has earned a place in the trophy cabinet for having developed some of the best smartphone cameras in the past few years; the camera in the Galaxy S II remains one of our favourites. It's latest efforts continue in this vein, even if the results are less consistent.
When this camera works well, the photos it takes are genuinely superb. Colours are punchy, without being garish or grotesque, and the detail in the photos is spot-on. But we've found the auto-focus to be a bit temperamental and a number of our test images have turned out just out of focus, annoyingly. It also struggles with mixed lighting temperatures more than its predecessors, so lights just outside of the range of the lens bleed noise into the frame and wash out the colours in photos.These are fairly regular problems, and are minor points against an otherwise excellent camera. But with smartphone cameras, you want to able to quickly point and shoot. The iPhone 5 excels at this, while the Galaxy S4 takes a moment's more preparation for each photo.
With a quad-core 1.9Ghz processor, the Galaxy S4 is the fastest phone we've seen so far, on paper. Happily, it is also among the fastest phones in use, too, though the Galaxy S4 phone is working on a lot of different processes, even in standby mode. There is the Air Gesture controls, all the sensors that power them, the S Health pedometer (which you may or may not have switched on). All of these background processes chew away at the speed potential for the phone, so it's not uncommon to see a few stutters and pauses in everyday use.
For the most part though, the Galaxy S4 offers as smooth and responsive an experience as you can hope to find on a phone at this time. The home screens don't just follow commands, they actually seem to follow the gestures; pages turn in time with your finger, options appear as the button is pressed.
In benchmarking tests, the S4 is nearly always the current leader of the pack. There are a few examples where it is pipped at the post -- the LG Optimus G bested it in one BaseMark 3D rendering test, but otherwise the Galaxy S4 proves to be the king of the heap.
When it comes to battery life, Samsung is among the best of a bad bunch - no one is blowing us away with really outstanding battery performance. Samsung has increased the capacity of the battery unit between last year's S3 (2100mAh) to this year (2600mAh) but this difference accounts for the extra power the larger, higher resolution screen needs, and not much more.
With similar daily battery use, the S4 lasts just as well, if a little better, than the S3. We can easily get through a business day with automatic syncing switched on, and can even push another half a day if necessary.
In our battery endurance tests, the S4 performed well, but unremarkably. It managed just over five-hours of continuous web browsing on a WiFi connection and about seven-and-a-half hours looping a 720p video file.
You are free to believe the hype. As smartphones go, the Galaxy S4 is among the best examples this year. It's fast, has an amazing screen and is feature-packed (though some may argue it is more gimmick-packed). The camera is top-notch -- though probably not the market's best smartphone shooter -- and the battery life is above average.
Those looking for a Samsung phone that really pulls away from the competition won't find that in the Galaxy S4. TheHTC One is very much on par with Samsung's efforts, though the pros and cons for each of these phones different from category to category. The Sony Xperia Z is also an excellent option, with a similarly sharp and colourful 1080p resolution screen.
With this year's phone so close in desirable design and core specifications, it might be Samsung's software bonuses that help you make up your mind. The addition of the S-Health app and built-in pedometer is a very nice touch, and some of the photography ideas are quite cool too. Plus, we love the lightweight body of the Galaxy S4, though we can see why some describe it as feeling cheap.