Samsung Galaxy S4 (AT&T) Review

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Pros: Fantastic camera with numerous features; Gesture recognition; Vibrant 5-inch display; Removable battery

Cons: Mediocre battery life; Screen hard to read in direct sunlight; Plastic design

Verdict: The AT&T version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 pairs a plethora of innovative features and one of the best cameras ever with a fast LTE network.

The Galaxy S III cemented Samsung as the manufacturer that could finally challenge Apple's iPhone dominance. With the $199 Galaxy S4, Samsung pushes the envelope even further, providing a bigger screen, a fantastic camera, a speedier quad-core processor and AT&T's zippy 4G LTE coverage. The Galaxy S4 is vying to be the best, with a long list of innovative features, such as motion gestures, built-in health tracking and a built-in TV remote. But is this flagship phone right for you?

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Editor's Note: Portions of this review were taken from our earlier review of the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Design

Despite the premium feature set, Samsung continues its trend of plastic bodies with the Galaxy S4. The rounded design is strikingly similar to the Galaxy S III, but Samsung was able to make this new phone even lighter than the Galaxy S III (4.6 ounces versus 4.7 ounces) despite the larger screen.

At 5.31 x 2.69 x 0.25 inches, the Galaxy S4 is wider and thinner than the 4.7-inch HTC One (5.31 x 2.63 x 0.28 inches). Additionally, the HTC One's aluminum chassis adds extra weight, making it half an ounce heavier than the S4. The Galaxy S4 is dwarfed by the LG Optimus G Pro which, at 5.8 x 3 x 0.37 inches and 6.2 ounces, is a hulking beast of a smartphone.

Available in white or black, the S4's polycarbonate (plastic) shell feels dense, but looks somewhat cheap next to the metal chassis of the HTC One and the iPhone 5. Even the rim, which is chrome in color, is the same smooth plastic that houses the phone's entire exterior. Both the white and Mist Black models have a subtle dotted pattern on the back, despite the smooth finish.

Unlike the HTC One and iPhone 5, though, the Galaxy S4 has a removable back panel for easy battery replacement. There's also a microSD slot that supports up to 64GB of additional storage, a feature also available on the LG Optimus G Pro, but sorely lacking from Apple's and HTC's flagships.

 

MORE: Top 10 Most Stylish Smartphones

 

Display

The Samsung Galaxy S4's 5-inch, 1080p Super AMOLED screen is absolutely beautiful, with bright colors and sharp images. We watched the full HD trailer for "Skyfall," and could easily make out the small details in the mountains and trees as Daniel Craig fell off a moving train. We watched the same scene on the LG Optimus Pro and the S4's viewing angles were much wider. The HTC One offered a brighter picture and comparable viewing angles.

The S4's screen was very bright, at 424 lux,  which is comfortably above the 299 lux category average. The Optimus G Pro has a dimmer 322 lux display, but the HTC One was slightly brighter at 433 lux. Still, the S4's screen was significantly harder to see outdoors with anything less than full brightness. We needed to disable auto-brightness and bump this setting to max in order to use the phone outside.

Audio

While it will never be mistaken for a personal stereo, the back-mounted speaker on the Galaxy S4 provided fairly loud audio. We played Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" and the higher saxophone notes sounded slightly tinny. Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" had a similar mechanical quality. We prefer the dual front-facing speakers on the HTC One, which offer richer sound.

Operating system and UI

The Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean augmented by Samsung's TouchWiz UI. Changes include a physical home button flanked by a capacitive menu and back button, whereas stock Android puts these buttons on screen. You access recent applications by holding down the home button and Google Now is launched by long-pressing the capacitive menu button on the S4.

There are 19 quick settings buttons in the notification drawer, enabling users to toggle everything from Wi-Fi connectivity to unique features such as Smart Scroll. These buttons can be rearranged by clicking on a tile button in the top right corner of the notification drawer.

Multitasking

The S4's large screen is perfect for Multi Window Mode, which is part of Samsung's TouchWiz interface. Long-pressing the back button opens a sidebar with a list of Multi Window-compatible apps, including Chrome, Email, Gmail, Google Maps, Facebook and Twitter. These apps can be placed onto half of the screen, allowing the application to run concurrently next to any other app. We found it useful to browse the Web and check our email at the same time.

Though we were able to view videos in Multi Window Mode, we preferred Samsung's pop-up play feature, which allowed us to play clips in a floating, draggable window that appeared on top of our desktop and other apps.

Keyboard

Samsung's virtual keyboard is one of the most accurate, comfortable and intelligent we've used. The QWERTY layout has plenty of space between the keys, which made it easy for us to avoid adjacent letter errors. The dedicated number row allowed us to enter numerals without switching modes. The keyboard also supports haptic feedback and trace typing (like Swype).

Based on the popular Swiftkey predictive keyboard, the Galaxy S4's keyboard learned from our typing patterns and, after a short time, did a great job of guessing the word we might want to use next. The phone also has a floating keyboard mode, which gives you a smaller version of the keyboard you can drag around the screen, and a handwriting mode that did a great job of turning our scribbles into ASCII text.

MORE:  5 Go-To Keyboard Apps for Android

Air View

Samsung's Air View, first featured on the Samsung Galaxy Note II, is now available on the Galaxy S4. Unlike the Note II, which requires the S Pen to utilize this feature, the S4 can display information previews, progress previews, speed dial previews and magnify Web page areas by simply hovering a finger. We were able to view a set of thumbnails by hovering over an album in the Photos app, preview email messages by hovering over a message in our inbox and even view recent headlines in Flipboard. We found the Web page magnification ability to be particularly useful.

Smart Scroll and Smart Pause

Smart Scroll and Smart Pause are two cool new features on the Galaxy S4 that utilize eye tracking to scroll through content or pause and play videos. We enabled Smart Pause while watching the "Skyfall" trailer and the video accurately paused when we looked away and resumed once our attention was back on the screen. Smart Pause only worked when we turned our head to look away; simply averting our eyes wasn't enough to stop the film.

Smart Scrolling lets you scroll through websites and emails by simply tilting your head up or down (or the device, depending on which setting you choose). When we loaded an article on NYTimes.com, we successfully scrolled down by tilting our head down slightly, and back up by tilting our head up. However, we had to be fairly deliberate with these movements.

Gesture support

Samsung's Air Gestures allow you to perform a few actions by waving your hand in front of a sensor located next to the S4's front-facing sensor. You can view important information from the lock screen, scroll through Web pages, navigate through image galleries or music tracks, move app shortcuts or calendar events to different pages and accept phone calls.

Unfortunately, Air Gestures didn't always work. The feature was most consistent while navigating images in a gallery. We could move forward and backward between pictures without issue. We also skipped tracks in the music player, though we had to be careful not to wave backward in front of the S4, which would accidentally undo our action.

We really liked Quick Glance, which showed us important information, such as time, message count, missed call count and battery level, from the lock screen. Unfortunately, this only worked about 60 percent of the time; we'd often wave our hand over the sensor and nothing would happen.

The S4 also lets users move app shortcuts and calendar items using gestures, but this proved to be more work than performing the task manually by dragging an item to either side of the screen. We needed to use two fingers, one to hold the desired item and the other to wave left or right, which was awkward and unnecessary.

Answering incoming calls with a wave of the hand worked most of the time. However, our fingers needed to be very close to the sensor for it to work.

WatchOn and Samsung Hub

Like the HTC One and the LG Optimus G Pro, the Galaxy S4 has an infrared port as well as software for controlling your TV or cable box. The WatchOn app is part TV guide and part digital video guide, providing video suggestions based on user interests and navigating to shows with a single click. We could navigate to different episodes by clicking a thumbnail of the program.

The app is separated into two main sections, On TV and Video. On TV shows listings for television shows that are currently being broadcast live, so long as the user has inputted their ZIP code and cable provider. The Video section shows suggested videos from digital video providers, such as Netflix, based on the user's preferences.

S Translator

The S Translator app helps users translate foreign language voices, bodies of text and signs in 12 different languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The audio translator, which looks almost identical to Google's own Translate app, allowed us to speak into the microphone or type in text and have it immediately translated in text or spoken aloud.

In a quick test, we spoke a Chinese language phrase into the microphone and watched as it was accurately translated to English by the app. There's also a handy list of preset phrases that might be of use to tourists, such as "here is my passport."

S Translator's engine is also built directly into the email client. Users can select the Translate button whenever a foreign language email is received and S Translator will convert the note to the reader's native tongue. We sent a note with simplified Chinese characters, which was translated correctly, although we had to manually select the original language as autodetect did not work.

Optical Reader

Samsung Galaxy S4 Optical Reader The Optical Reader app uses text recognition to perform a variety of different tasks, from work lookup to translation or business card transcribing. We opened the app and pointed it at a page with typed English sentences and the app was able to recognize individual words and provide their definitions.

We next captured our business card. While the app recognized most of the text, it didn't quite categorize information correctly. After clicking the Add to Contact button, the software assigned the person's name and phone number to the correct fields, but was confused by the email and Web address.

The Optical Reader app can also be pointed at foreign language text to get the English translation by either hovering over the word or taking a picture. It sometimes took a long time to translate text, however, including words from a Chinese language textbook. Other apps work better for translations, including LG's QTranslator on the Optimus line of phones and Camdictionary, a third-party app available in the Google Play Store.

Group Play

Samsung includes a helpful collaboration and entertainment feature called Group Play on the S4, which allows users to share music, documents and photos from the S4 or play games with other users over Wi-Fi direct. There's also a music-sharing feature, which allowed us to play a single song over multiple devices by connecting to friends' phones, which seemed like more of a party trick than something we'd regularly use.

MORE:  10 Best Samsung Galaxy S4 Apps

S Health

Aimed at rivaling accessories such as the Fitbit Flex, Nike Fuel Band and the Jawbone Up, Samsung's preloaded S Health app helps keep track of your activity levels and diet. After entering our vitals, the app provided a recommended amount of daily calories to consume and burn and offered several options to track our health, including a health diary, food tracker and exercise tracker.

We found the Walking Mate feature most useful because it acts as a digital pedometer, similar to the Moves app for iOS. When we walked to the local deli, the S4's Walking Mate didn't seem to capture as many steps as the Moves app. 

S Health also includes a Comfort Level feature that uses sensors in the Galaxy S4 to measure the temperature and humidity of the room it's in and thus judge the comfort level. While it was interesting to see these exact measurements, we found ourselves perfectly capable of sensing if we were too hot without the help of a device.

Camera performance

The 13-MP rear-facing camera on the Galaxy S4 is simply stunning, providing some of the sharpest and vibrant photos we've ever seen on a smartphone. We took images of Manhattan rooftops and could easily make out the fine details of the green dome atop a building and an adjacent skyscraper's spire. The colors were so vivid that they often seemed enhanced, creating larger-than-life images rather than attempting to capture the most accurate coloring.

The Galaxy S4's high camera quality also applied to indoor shots. We took some pictures of a variety of toys on a shelf and the blue in the Grover doll's fur and the red in Mickey Mouse's outfit were noticeably sharper and more vibrant than the HTC one and the iPhone 5.

The rear camera on the Galaxy S4 can shoot 1080p video that's just as sharp and colorful as the photos. We took some video of a busy street in Manhattan and yellow cabs and the red in some scaffolding really stood out. The S4 was also able to capture images fairly well even when they were engulfed in shadow.

The 2.0-megapixel front-facing camera also captured high-quality images. We took a picture of ourselves and could easily make out the details of our dapper beard and piercing eyes. Colors were crisp and rich.

Camera features

The built-in camera app on the Galaxy S4 has a wide variety of features which would require numerous different photo apps to replicate on other Android devices. We took a picture of co-workers using Best Face Mode and could easily select each person's most flattering face by tapping on each face and choosing our favorite from a list of thumbnails.

Eraser Mode is designed to eliminate the stranger who just photobombed your group picture. In this mode, the S4 takes a total of five pictures in rapid succession and eliminates the moving portion of the picture. We took several pictures on a rooftop as well as a crowded Manhattan street and the software was almost always able to completely identify and remove the errant person.

Animated Photo Mode allowed us to create animated GIFs up to nine seconds in length. Capturing the image was similar to shooting a video, but the camera detects moving parts of the image. We could then draw on the screen with our finger to select portions of the animated photo we wanted in motion. Unfortunately, there are no export settings, so the animated photos were often multiple megabytes, whereas an ideal GIF for online sharing is under one MB.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Drama Shot Drama Shot aims to capture a person or object in motion, taking multiple pictures identifying a moving element, and weaving multiple renderings of that object into one picture. Drama Shot looked great when we shot a friend dancing across a rooftop, and we were able to pick the images to remove from the frame.

Sound & Shot mode captures 9 seconds of audio to complement a still image. Although this feature worked as advertised, we weren't very impressed with the results. We filmed a co-worker singing, but the final result was voice along with a still image that could only be shared as a regular JPG with other devices.

Dual Camera Mode lets you take a photo using the front-facing and rear-facing cameras at the same time, allowing users to capture both a beautiful image as well as their reaction to said image. We were able to choose a frame or shape for our face, which was then placed into the picture being captured by the rear-facing camera. The pictures turned out fine, but it was a little tricky holding the device in a way that avoided blocking either camera.

Story Album

Samsung's Story Album monitors your photo-shooting activity and sends you notifications suggesting you turn your photos into attractive virtual flip-books. We were able to create an album by simply tapping a thumbnail, typing a name, choosing a layout style, hitting the Create button and either deleting or captioning the automatically curated photos. Users can order printed photo albums directly through the app, with prices ranging from $14.15 for a small softcover book to $31.15 for a large hardcover.

4G LTE

The Galaxy S4 was blazing fast over AT&T's 4G LTE network during our testing in New York City. Using Speedtest.net, we saw an average download speed of 23.7 MBps and upload speed of 3.8 MBps. We traveled to the more sparsely populated Brooklyn and got slower download speeds, 15.08 Mbps, but a much faster upload rate of 13.7 MBps.

In our real-world testing, the S4 zipped from Web page to Web page over AT&T's 4G LTE network. We were able to load NYTimes.com in an average of 3.5 seconds, ESPN.com in 4 seconds and Laptopmag.com loaded in just 4.1 seconds.

Call quality

The Samsung Galaxy S4 offered great call quality in our testing, both on our end and as reported by other callers. The speaker phone had plenty of volume and voice quality was clear.

Performance

Despite the international version of the Galaxy S4 rocking Samsung's new Octocore Exynos processor, U.S. consumers get a 1.9-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 CPU. Fortunately, this CPU still offers plenty of power for even the most intensive activities. We experienced seamless performance whether we were rendering intensive video effects or watching a video in a floating window while jet skiing in Riptide GP.

The Galaxy S4 scored an impressive 12,422 on the Quadrant benchmark test, blowing away the 4,035 smartphone category average. This is also much higher than the LG Optimus G Pro (8,930), but slightly lower than the HTC One (12,706).

The Galaxy S4 had the best showing on the AnTuTu Android benchmark, scoring an impressive 23,514. This is higher than both the HTC One (20,515) and the LG Optimus G Pro (18,568). The category average is 14,900.

The S4 was also the leader on the 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme graphics benchmarking test, scoring 6,748 against the 6,251 of the HTC One. The LG Optimus G Pro clocked a lower 5,319.

Third-party apps

AT&T included a bevy of its own proprietary applications on the Samsung S4, adding some bloat to the rich set of features provided by Samsung. There's AT&T DriveMode, which can auto-reply to messages and automatically changes the phone's settings for optimum safety while driving. This app can be set to automatically open any time you're traveling faster than 25 miles per hour.

There's also AT&T FamilyMap, which allows family members to find one another by GPS, and AT&T Navigator, Locker and Smart Wi-Fi. Also on the S4 is Mobile TV, which allows users to watch live and on-demand TV programming for an additional $10 per month.

MORE: 25 Android Apps You Need

Battery life

The Galaxy S4 delivered mediocre results on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing on 4G LTE with the phone set to 40 percent brightness. The handset lasted just 5 hours and 13 minutes, about 45 minutes shy of the 6-hour average. Both the HTC One and the LG Optimus G Pro performed better, lasting 5:55 and 5:53, respectively.

When we enabled the S4's Power-Saving Mode, which throttles the CPU down and limits screen power, the S4 lasted 5:54, still shy of the average. However, the HTC One lasted 6:20 using its Power-Saving Mode. The good news is that the S4's battery is removable, so you can carry a spare if you find that you're not getting through the day.

Value

AT&T sells the 16GB version of the Galaxy S4 for $199 with a two-year contract or users can sign up for a one-year agreement and pay $449 for the phone. Sprint sells the 16GB version of the Galaxy S4 for $249 with a two-year contract, but new customers who switch to the network will get an additional $100 credit. T-Mobile offers the S4 with a down payment of $149 and $20 per month for 24 months ($630 in total).

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is one of the most impressive smartphones on the market today, with plenty of power, a sharp and feature-rich camera and innovative gestures. The phone is also light and portable, but at the expense of design, as the S4's plastic exterior doesn't exactly scream luxury. The S4 also offers below-average battery life, so users may want to carry an extra battery.

Those looking for a brighter screen, better audio quality and a more premium design should consider the HTC One. However, if you want a sharper camera, split-screen multitasking, and a ton of fun features to show off to friends and family, get the Galaxy S4.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier AT&T
Alternate Carriers Verizon
Alternate Carriers Unlocked
Alternate Carriers T-Mobile
Alternate Carriers Sprint
Phone Display Size 5
Display Resolution 1920x1080
Form Factor Candy Bar
OS Family Android
Operating System Android 4.2.2
Networks
CPU 1.9-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
Processor Family Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
RAM 2GB
Internal Memory 16GB
Memory Expansion Type microSD Card
Display (main) 5 inches
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 4.0
Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Front Camera Resolution 2MP
Camera Resolution 13MP
Talk / Standby Time
Ports microUSB
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Size 5.31 x 2.69 x .25 inches
Weight 4.6 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website http://www.samsung.com