The Samsung Galaxy S4 represents its poorly conceived and shoddily constructed past. Like countless Android handsets before it, the Galaxy S4 is spec and feature-rich, but limited by its cheap, flimsy hardware and unnecessarily bloated suite of proprietary software. It’s not a bad phone — in fact, there’s plenty to like — it simply lacks the level of polish and consideration found in a growing number of its competitors.
At first glance, the Galaxy S4 appears to be near-identical to the Galaxy S III, and even upon closer inspection, the variations may be tough to notice. Both are constructed almost entirely of plastic and despite a screensize increase from 4.8-inches to 5-inches, the Galaxy S4 is only slightly bigger thanks to its slimmer bezel. Instead of rounded edges and accents, the Galaxy S4 uses flat surfaces and straight, faux-metallic trim, giving it a more modern look. But any perception of the Galaxy S4 being a premium device is lost the moment you touch it. At 4.6 ounces, it’s light, which in most cases would seem like a positive quality, but when combined with its thin plastic casing, makes the S4 feel almost like a toy. What’s worse, it’s coated in a high-gloss finish, which feels slippery in your hand and gathers dirt and smudges easily.
With devices from Apple, HTC, and Nokia brandishing anodized aluminum and ceramic casing, the Galaxy S4 looks cheap and unimaginative.
But despite its lackluster industrial design, Samsung never skimps on specs and the Galaxy S4 comes loaded with some of the advanced components on the market. While the processor type will vary by region and model, versions sold in the U.S. come equipped with a 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600-series CPU with 2GB of RAM. In benchmark testing, it delivered performance gains of 22% over the HTC One and outpaced even tablets like the Nexus 10. The 5-inch display is a gorgeous 1080p Super AMOLED panel with a pixel density of 441ppi — just shy of the HTC One’s 468ppi screen — but boasting some of the brightest, most colorful visuals you can find on a smartphone. One of the drawbacks of Super AMOLED, of course, is that colors can appear oversaturated at times, but ultimately it’s a matter of preference. Despite all of its high-end specs, however, the Galaxy S4’s battery life is exceptional, making it through a day’s use without having to recharge — even with rigorous data consumption.
The S4’s highlight feature, however, is its camera. While the front-facing camera is expectedly mediocre, the rear-facing 13-megapixel camera is by far the best of any smartphone I’ve used. It produces images with an incredible level of detail and fantastic color balance. Like most mobile cameras, it struggles with low-light conditions and can be slow to focus, but in most other settings it performs exceptionally. Samsung has also bundled in a suite of photo modes that not only enhance photos for night, portraits, and HDR, but also new enhanced features, like dual-shot which captures images from both the front and rear cameras for a picture-in-picture composite. There’s also modes like Best Face, which takes five frames and allows users to find and meld those with the best expressions for a perfect shot. Best Photo acts similarly but instead of combining multiple frames, allows users to capture several images instantaneously and pick the best. Sound & Shot allows you to record a few seconds of audio with your photo, which is fun for novelty, but not especially useful.
But the Galaxy S4 also uses its cameras for more than just photography and video recording. Utilizing the front and rear cameras along with other sensors, the Galaxy S4 is capable of detecting a user’s face and certain hand motions to control apps. Smart Pause, for instance, automatically pauses a video whenever the user looks away from the screen. Air View and Air Gesture scroll through windows with just a wave of the hand or preview an item by hovering your finger over the screen. But as futuristic and cool as these features might sound, they don’t quite work as well as one would hope. The face and gesture detection tools only work with certain apps, and there’s often a delay between your motions and what appears on screen. When you wave your hand, the on-screen action lags behind and in most cases scrolls too far. Smart Pause struggles to keep track of the user and only really works when you look at the screen dead-on and turn your head sharply. All incremental motions and angles in between cause issues.
The biggest problem with the face and gesture-detecting software, however, is that it’s attempting to solve issues that don’t really exist. As a handheld device, the Galaxy S4 is most commonly resting in your palm, where a quick flick or tap of the thumb is the fastest and most precise input method. Is waving your hand or tilting your head really a better way to scroll? In all but a small array of use cases, probably not.
Similar issues carry over to Samsung’s array of pre-installed apps. As part of Samsung’s efforts to market the Galaxy S4 as a “Life Companion,” it has developed a collection of baked-in software to track your exercise and diet, share media with other Galaxy users, offer translation services while traveling, and maximize productivity. S Health acts as a pedometer, calorie counter, and exercise tracker, while S Voice is Samsung’s Siri-style voice assistant. S Translator allows you to convert written and spoken words into a select number of languages and Group Play pairs multiple Galaxy devices together to share media, photos, and more. There are also other Galaxy series staples like S Memo and Multi Window, providing hand-drawn notes and the capacity to run two app windows simultaneously in a splitscreen mode. Like the HTC One, the Galaxy S4 comes with a built-in IR blaster for control of your home entertainment center.
While each is great for bulletpoints on marketing materials, their utility, performance, and quality varies drastically. S Health offers an impressive range of functions for tracking your daily activity and diet, it lacks the powerful food and exercise data found in popular third-party apps, like Nike+ and MyFitnessPal. S Translator is also limited to only select supported languages, whereas other apps available on Google Play are more robust. My favorite of the pre-installed software is OpticalReader, which can digitize text that’s captured in a photo, translate it, or even read it aloud, but even it is only useful for very specific scenarios.
But whereas downloadable apps allow you to install and uninstall based on your needs, Samsung’s software is impossible to remove without rooting and consumes precious storage space. All told, Samsung’s software takes up nearly half of the 16GB capacity, leaving little room for media and other apps. Overall storage can be expanded via microSD and select carriers have begun offering 32GB models, but it’s still less than ideal to have valuable storage space wasted on apps you don’t use.
The Galaxy S4 is an ambitious smartphone with powerful specs and a laundry list of features. But in its pursuit of creating the “everything” device, Samsung has neglected crucial areas, like build quality and software polish. If you’re in the market for a smartphone, the Galaxy S4 isn’t a terrible choice, but for your several hundred dollar investment, you deserve better.