Samsung Galaxy S4 – same again, please

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The Korean manufacturer’s new flagship super phone boasts plenty of software innovations, a quality screen and a good camera and capabilities, but are all the extra bells and whistles worth your money?

Samsung’s new flagship has arrived but aside from some knockout specs and intriguing software offers, it doesn’t feel like anything new.

Samsung has long pumped out devices to see what will stick and it has been known for some ‘interesting’ choices – the Galaxy Camera is one example.

The S4 packs powerful hardware that matches up to the offerings of rivals, and the software Samsung is debuting feels like it could be revolutionary in the near future. At the moment, however, the S4 just feels like a higher-specced S III rather than anything ground-breaking.

Samsung have stuck with the plasticky-looking – and plasticky-feeling – cover. This is unfortunate because while the handset is instantly recognisable, the same worries about durability that occurred with the S III are still there.

Back flip

We were able to bend the back cover into an arc. While this might not be bad in terms of the phone surviving some warping and bending, it doesn’t do much to reassure the casual owner that dropping the handset on the ground won’t crack the entire cover.

However, the screen is covered by Gorilla Glass 3, providing decent protection.

Design-wise, the S4 is basically an upsized S III – the same white frame, central physical button and moulded back cover. It measures 136.6 x 69.8mm and is super slim at 7.9mm, weighing in at 130g – that’s light enough to be noticeable when you pick the device up, and slim enough that despite the size, holding the phone is comfortable, also thanks to the rounded corners that Samsung have retained from the S III.

It’s a fine-looking device that stands out from the general smartphone offerings by avoiding the ‘black rectangle’ look that some rivals have fallen prey to, but Samsung certainly hasn’t taken any chances with a new design.

The Galaxy S4 has a big screen at five inches but it’s not huge compared with rivals (the Xperia Z is also five inches, the HTC One 4.7 inches), and while it’s slightly large to be making calls with, it doesn’t feel or look like a brick being clamped to your head.

The screen resolution is impressive, coming in at 441 pixels per inch with resolution of 1,080 x 1,920 pixels – that’s top-end specs. Images look good, with clear, detailed pictures and text, plus incredibly vivid colours. In fact, speaking of colours, the S4 seems to suffer from the S III’s tendency to have slightly overblown colours – everything looks a bit too saturated.

Rammed with memory

When it comes to processing power, the S4 is no slouch. Our review unit was running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.9GHz quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM – that’s a pretty hefty chunk of power. There’s also a huge amount of RAM – this phone should be able to leap any fences it comes across.

There was much supposition about what CPU the device would eventually ship with, since one of the options was Samsung’s new chipset, the Exynos 5 Octa eight-core processor, billed to use four ‘big’ cores for power and four ‘little’ cores for lower-level tasks, improving energy and performance. However, the UK and many other markets instead shipped with the Snapdragon CPU, with Samsung saying functionality would be the same, no matter what your processor.

At any rate, the CPU runs like a breeze for browsing and general app loading, particularly when running on a 4G SIM – loading is smooth and quick, and there isn’t any hesitation when switching between different apps.

Nevertheless I did notice a slight lag when trying to boot up S Translator from an email, and in fact when using this app in general, which could become quite annoying if trying to use it, as Samsung posits, to interact with locals in a foreign country – ain’t nobody got time for standing around waiting for some weird tourist’s phone to load.

Gaming with Temple Run 2 also had noticeable lag between load screens and the phone heated up quite quickly, although not to a painful extent.

Problems

The big issue with the S4 is that we had to test two units – the first unit’s screen stopped working about a week in. From turning off and on without a hitch the night before, to a screen that completely failed to display, bar a feeble flicker to the right when touching the power or central, back and list buttons – the phone still responded, the screen just didn’t. Samsung organised a replacement review device and shipped the malfunctioning unit off to its labs.

Fortunately, the replacement device performed as it should have – at least in that it had a working screen. So while something to keep an eye out for, it’s possible this was a one-off malfunction. Or that this reviewer generates an EMP field.

At any rate, the Galaxy S4 runs the latest version of Android, 4.2.2 or Jelly  Bean, with Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface, which means you’ll be seeing both Samsung and Google’s presence, being asked to sign in to both company’s accounts and seeing a double up of preloaded apps, which can feel like your device has a split personality.

This is a slick operating system which the S4 ran smoothly, and comes preloaded with some of Samsung’s bloatware, like Samsung Apps, which purports to have the pick of apps, but didn’t have Twitter.

Samsung’s own offering of video and music applications are useful but nothing revolutionary – however, Samsung’s Air Gestures won’t work with the Google music offering, Play Music, but only with Samsung’s Music application. Samsung’s answer to Siri, S Voice, didn’t work wonderfully well on testing, but to be fair, Siri also has problems with accents.

The phone comes with 16GB of internal storage with microSD expansion options up to 64GB, which is plenty to be getting on with.

Full article in Mobile News issue 540 (June 3, 2013).

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