REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung's latest smartphone is full of tips and tricks to help differentiate it from the sea of other Android-operated devices. Yet these "key features" come off more as marketing gimmicks than advances in smartphone technology.

Graph for REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy S4

The recent launch of Samsung’s new Galaxy S4 flagship smartphone was interesting to attend for what wasn’t said, as much as for what was said. Google was not mentioned at all, Android was mentioned only once and even that was just as an aside.

While new hardware specifications were highlighted, the focus was very much on Samsung specific software applications and additions to Android which aim to differentiate it from flagship smartphones from other manufacturers. However from our experience most buyers will not get around to using most of these software features. They are just marketing gimmicks, that Samsung hopes will help differentiate the S4 from the sea of other Android-enabled smartphones.

Towards the end of setup process the much vaunted special features like Air View and Air gesture are presented as “key features”; though both can be switched off. To this point, not all of them are turned on by default and if a user isn’t inclined to explore settings menus then the Galaxy S4’s software features will seem not much different to a Galaxy S3. Also even when turned on some new features like Smart Scroll only work in a small number of apps eg: the stock Android browser rather than the more popular Chrome browser.

Looking at the market share split for Android phones shows that Samsung is far in front like a blazing comet with all the other manufacturers such as HTC, Sony, Motorola and LG trailing behind in its tail. Also because it waited to launch the Galaxy S 4 after the HTC One, LG Optimus G and Sony Xperia Z, Samsung has been able to ship units from day one with the latest version of Android 4.2.2 which is a very good operating system.

Corporations are like peacocks in that they like to signal how well they’re doing to competitors by showing off their plumage in a flashy way. Apart from trying to be seen to be a good corporate citizen by supporting the arts, the purpose of Samsung sponsoring the Sydney Opera House for 3 years and spending a substantial amount on a huge party for each new flagship phone launch is to signal how well they’re doing compared to other Android smartphone manufacturers.

Hardware Features

Most readers who upgrade to the Galaxy S4 will be doing so from an older and smaller Android phone or an iPhone will find the Galaxy S4 screen and data download speeds over 4G/LTE quite impressive.

Samsung engineers have designed the Galaxy S4 with a stunningly crisp five-inch 1920x1080 high resolution screen while also making the phone body a tiny bit smaller and lighter than the Galaxy S3, which had a 4.8 inch 720x1280 screen. Another engineering achievement is the increase in battery capacity by 24 per cent (from 2100mAh to 2600mAh) compared to the Galaxy S3.

Upon hearing that the Galaxy S4’s back camera had been upgraded to 13 megapixels, we were worried that this would mean larger photo file sizes but lower photo quality. However testing the camera by taking photos in a well-lit garden, low light conditions at a small bar and during a meal shows that it is capable of taking sharp well exposed photos that rival a compact camera, apart from lacking optical zoom capability.

Regarding storage, the Galaxy S4 model sold in Australia only has a disappointing 16GB on-board. After installing all our usual apps and tools we only had a bit over 7GB of space free which is not enough to fit podcasts subscriptions and a music collection as well. The Galaxy S4 supports MicroSD cards but you shouldn’t have to be forced to buy a microSD card to be able to use all the capabilities of a high end smartphone.

One Sydney-based information professional told us that compared to her old iPhone the Galaxy S4 is “streets ahead in terms of speed, ease of use, integration of apps and camera. Another major thing is the battery life - excellent - and fact that I can buy and charge a spare battery” to swap out when her phone goes flat.

Galaxy S4 Optimisation Tips

A phone with speedy specifications like a Quad Core 1.9GHz CPU should be blazing fast all the time but every now and then the phone seems to lag when opening or switching apps. We suspect that the Samsung’s Touchwiz menu and user interface overlay causes these pauses.

We were able to remove some of the perceived lag by disabling S Voice so the home button works faster and enabling developer mode so window animation scale and transition animation scale are set to off.

To turn S Voice off press the home button twice, once S Voice opens press the menu button and choose Settings, unselect Open via the home key. Readers who take a lot of photos with their phone would be advised to try the free Quickpic gallery app which is a lot faster and robust than the photo gallery apps supplied by Android phone manufacturers.

Another unwanted feature which we disabled is the annoying sound played when the phone is turned on, potentially waking up your partner or the person sitting in the airline seat next to you. We suggest finding the free SilentBoot app, once installed open it and turn Silent Boot on. Now turn the Galaxy S4 off and when it turns on again it will do so without a sound.

We love Swype-style phone keyboards which allow words to be entered by sliding your finger to connect letters in a word. By default this functionality isn’t enabled in the Galaxy S4 out of the box which is odd. To do so go to Settings, My Device, Language & input, click on the little wheel at the right of Samsung keyboard and select Continuous input.

Price

The Samsung Galaxy S4 has an Australian RRP of $899 and is available from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone on various plans or outright from retailers such as Mobicity and Kogan. With a little effort you can find outright prices around $700. Make sure you buy a Galaxy S4 model i9505 because it is better suited to Australian networks.