Today at Samsung’s global Unboxed event, the company unveiled the Galaxy S4. This phone represents the latest and greatest in Samsung Mobile offerings and will be the template for all high-end phones that come out between now and next year when the Galaxy S5 comes along. The homegrown apps, the extra features, and even the hardware will set the tone. Is what Samsung has to offer enticing? Is the Galaxy S4 a true leap forward or just a standard upgrade? We went hands-on to find out.
(Be sure to check out our GS4 spec comparisons including the Galaxy S4 vs. iPhone 5, Galaxy S4 vs. Galaxy S3, and Galaxy S4 vs HTC One. If you want a full rundown of features and information, check out our GS4: Everything You Need To Know.)
Design and Hardware
The most impressive thing about the Galaxy S4 isn’t that it has a 5-inch display, but that it fit that 5-inch display into a body that is slightly thinner, smaller, and lighter than the Galaxy S3. Putting the phone side-by-side they aren’t completely identical, though Samsung hasn’t deviated much from the previous generation’s design language. That’s just fine with us since the S4’s polycarbonate body is just as comfortable to hold as the S3’s is – maybe moreso, since it’s a little lighter and the curve on the edges is smoother. This is the kind of phone you’ll want to hold.
It will also be the kind of phone you’ll want to look at. That 5-inch screen sports a Super AMOLED full HD 1080p display that is both bright and beautiful. The high pixel density makes for crisp icons and text, and you won’t be squinting to see things any more than you would on any other phone. The screen gives you a great experience when looking at images, video, and games.
To back that high resolution screen up, the S4 comes with 2GB of RAM and either a 1.9GHz quad-core processor or a 1.6GHz octa-core (eight core) Big Little processor. Samsung reps said that different markets will get different processors, but had no detailed information to give us. They didn’t rule out the possibility that the U.S. could get the octa-core one, though.
Specs aside, what we saw of the performance on the Galaxy S4s at the event really impressed us. The animations and eye candy were smooth with high framerates as were games. No matter which app we used or opened, the performance remained snappy. Including the Multi-Window feature that lets you use certain apps split screen. Yep, the S4 now has that Galaxy Note feature, too.
Apps and Android
The Galaxy S4 will run on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, but you can be forgiven if you can’t tell since Samsung’s custom TouchWiz UI is in full force. Though TouchWiz offers some benefits, it did make it seem (at first glance) that the software on the S4 isn’t any different than on the S3. It looks very similar. Much like iOS, the actual look of the UI could use a facelift. Instead of looking elegant, it looks kid-esque and chunky. It doesn’t have to be this way, Samsung! TouchWiz can look classy if you just tried. Instead, there are hints of Fischer Price
Interface aside, we dig some of Samsung’s many new apps and services. Again, just as with the S3, the company rolled out a bunch of features and apps and ways to interact with the S4, some of which will improve your overall experience and some that you will never use and probably turn off as soon as you find the switch. A service we’re excited to test is the upgraded S Voice and S Voice Drive, which offers you a hands-free way to interact with your phone while in the car. Not only can you get navigation and call answering, but also texts read to you and the ability to dictate and send texts, all using voice. The voice recognition is so powerful on the S4 you can even use it to carry on a conversation with someone in another language with S Translate. That app is capable of both voice-to-text and text-to-voice and works with over a dozen languages.
S Health has a particularly attractive design. This is Samsung’s all-inclusive health app. It even uses an onboard humidity and temperature sensor to tell you if you’re in a “comfortable” environment or not. At 78 degrees and 50 percent humidity, the hall where we tested the S4 was not our ideal environment, and the S4 told us as much. S Health also lets you track your food, exercise, and can even check your glucose levels, among other things. The interface is suspiciously similar to Wii Fit, but that’s not a slam.
There are many gesture-based features that allow users to wave their hand over the S4 and swipe or tilt the phone to scroll that we found less than easy to pull off. They’re a little silly, to be honest and few people will probably use them. But hey, they’re optional features so, no harm. That the screen is now extra sensitive so that it works with gloves (Nokia and Huawei welcome Samsung to the club) and can also sense a finger or hand hovering over it. This is cool and keeps up with the likes of Nokia and Huawei, we’re just not sure these features are necessary or will be used.
Samsung is also still focused on multipoint connectivity. There are apps that connect several S4s to each other and the S4 to a media hub in the home plus all the AllShare connectivity from the last generation. If all your friends have Samsung phones, you should have no trouble getting them to all talk to each other. If they don’t, then these features are mostly useless.
Samsung spent the most time on the camera and camera-related services, and the company right to be proud of these offerings. The rear camera is 13 megapixels backed by a flash. In our limited time with it, the camera seemed like a decent shooter. The robust camera app is almost exactly the same as the one on the Galaxy Camera, and that is a very good thing. The wealth of settings and scenes make it easier to take a good shot even if you’re not camera-savvy. Samsung seems to think the pictures will be good enough for professional printing since the Story Album app (see below) will not only make a digital album but can be turned into a physical one for $10 – $30.
Among the cooler in-camera features is the ability to take up to 100 shots in 4 seconds and not just pick the best one, but combine several into one image. They demoed this by taking a burst shot of a little boy twirling as he tap danced, then put five of his positions together into one picture. Very cool.
A new feature that will look familiar is dual camera recording and picture taking. Just as we saw with the LG Optimus G Pro, the Galaxy S4 can record using both the front and rear camera. Samsung adds the ability to shoot still shots in this mode as well. While this might not seem like a particularly useful feature, we do like that dual camera is also available in the ChatOn app for video calls.
Another familiar feature is the ability to record sound and a tiny bit of video along with a still image. Where have we seen this before? At the HTC One launch event. Again, we’re not entirely sold on the usefulness of this, but if it’s easy to share or send, maybe people will use it?
We Can’t Wait
Though the Galaxy S4 is stuffed full of some features and apps you probably don’t need or want, it’s also chock full of features and apps you will. Plus, that slim, slim body coupled with a large, gorgeous screen is very tempting. We’re hoping against hope that we get the power of that eight-core processor in the U.S. version, whenever it comes out. Samsung said the S4 would launch at the end of April, but didn’t specify if that meant all countries or just the first ones. And pricing? Ha! None of that. We do know the phone will come to T-Mobile, at least, though it’s not a stretch to assume that Samsung will continue their “all carriers get the same phone” strategy it employed for the last two major launches. No matter which carriers it comes to, we’re looking forward to the Galaxy S4.