The Galaxy S III proved that a single Android handset could be just as successful as the iPhone. With the Galaxy S4 ($249 for Sprint), Samsung has moved the goalposts by providing a bigger, more vibrant screen, a speedier quad-core processor and the sharpest camera we've seen on a smartphone. With a bevy of powerful features ranging from motion gestures and a camera mode that erases strangers to a built-in pedometer, the Galaxy S4 rarely fails to impress. But is this flagship phone the right one for you?
The first thing we noticed about the Samsung Galaxy S4 is how surprisingly light it felt in our hand, despite its generous 5-inch display. At just 4.6 ounces, this phone is significantly lighter than the 5.1-ounce, HTC One and even a tiny bit lighter than the 4.7-ounce Galaxy S III. At 5.31 x 2.69 x 0.25 inches, the Galaxy S4 is slightly wider and thinner than the 4.7-inch HTC One (5.31 x 2.63 x 0.28 inches).
The S4 has light-up, capacitive back and menu buttons and a physical home button below its screen. The volume rocker is on the left and the microUSB port sits on the bottom. Reaching across the device to hit the menu button on the left side of the home button was a stretch for our thumb, but overall we'd say the S4 is fairly easy to operate with one hand.
Available in white or black, the S4's polycarbonate (plastic) shell simply isn't as attractive as the metal chassis on the HTC One or iPhone 5. However, the Galaxy S4's chrome- colored sides, rounded edges and smooth back are elegant and clean, especially in the Black Mist colored model, which has a subtle dotted pattern.
There is a benefit to the S4's plastic back. Because the panel is removable, you can replace the 2,600 mAH battery and add/remove a microSD card for up to 64GB of additional storage, a feature HTC and Apple don't offer.
The Samsung Galaxy S4's 5-inch, 1080p Super AMOLED screen offers some of the most bold and colorful images we've seen on any smartphone. When we played a full HD trailer for "The Avengers" on a Galaxy S4 and compared it with the HTC One and iPhone 5, every color from the green on the Hulk's skin to the glowing blue device in Tony Stark's chest and the red in Thor's cape was much more alive on the S4. Even the green that appeared on the "Preview notice" screen of the trailer seemed much deeper on Samsung's AMOLED display.
However, because of its higher PPI and brighter backlight, fine details like scars on Nick Fury's face were a bit sharper and more prominent on the HTC One. Viewing angles were about equal for the two devices; both were impressively wide.
The S4 screen's brightness level of 446 lux is a big improvement over the Galaxy S III's 222 level and higher than the 299 lux category average. Still, the HTC One's screen (459 lux) is a bit brighter. As a result, the Galaxy S4's screen was more difficult to read in direct sunlight while text and graphics were easy to make out on the HTC One.
You'll never mistake the Galaxy S4 for a portable boombox. Whether we were playing AC/DC's the guitar-centric "Back in Black," Rick James' bass-heavy "Super Freak" or Michael Jackson's drum-focused "Beat It," the single back-facing speaker produced tinny, unpleasant output. By comparison, the HTC One's dual stereo speakers provided rich, pleasing playback on all the same songs.
Operating System and UI
The Galaxy S4 runs Samsung's TouchWiz UI on top of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. Unlike with stock Android, which has virtual buttons for back, home and recent apps with menu buttons built into the apps themselves, the Galaxy S4 has physical buttons for menu, home and back. Also unlike with stock Android, if you wish to see the recent apps list, you need to hold down the home button and, if you want to activate Google Now, you must long-press the menu button.
The notification drawer contains a scrolling list of 19 quick settings buttons, which control everything from the Wi-Fi to the eye and gesture controls. Hitting a box icon in the upper right corner of the screen shows all of the buttons and allows you to reorder them by dragging. Although the options may be dizzying to some, we appreciated having all of these choices just a swipe away.
One of the best features of Samsung's TouchWiz interface is its Multi Window Mode, which allows you to split the screen between two apps at once. When you long-press the back button, a sidebar appears with a list of about a dozen Multi Window-compatible apps, including Chrome, Email, Gmail, Google Maps, Facebook and Twitter, that you can place onto half of the screen. We particularly enjoyed running the email client and browser side by side.
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.
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 ode, 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.
Samsung's Air View feature allows you to get a preview or other details about an item by simply holding your finger near the screen without touching it. Using Airview, we were able to see a set of thumbnails by hovering over a folder in the gallery, preview email messages by hovering over our inbox, and even view recent headlines in Flipboard. We particularly enjoyed magnifying sections of a Web page by hovering over the browser.
Smart Scroll and Smart Pause
Whether your fingers are dirty or touching your phone screen just seems too 2012 for you, you can actually control a few S4 apps with gestures or simply by shifting your gaze. Unfortunately, we had to be very deliberate in both our hand and eye movements.
Using Smart Scroll, we were able to scroll on several Web pages by looking at the bottom of the screen to go down and the top to go up. However, we found that we had to tilt our neck quite a bit, making the process tedious. We found the that tilt scrolling ode, which works by moving the phone itself, wasn't always responsive. The Smart Pause feature successfully stopped videos from playing when we were not looking directly at the screen.
Samsung's Air Gestures enable you to perform a few actions by waving a hand in front of the S4's camera, but only work if your hand is a few centimeters away from the sensor.
Air Call Accept allows you to answer an incoming call by waving in front of the phone, which worked well in our testing. Air Jump, which allows you to scroll up and down Web pages, felt awkward because we had to wave up to scroll down.
Perhaps the most useful gesture is Air Browser, which allowed us to cycle through images in the gallery by waving back and forth. Air Browser also switches tabs in the browser and moves back and forth between songs in the music player. We had no problem changing tracks in the music player with a wave of our hand, but we wish we had the option to continue Air Browsing through our tunes as we used other apps.
WatchOn And Samsung Hub
Like the HTC One and LG Optimus G Pro, the Galaxy S4 comes with an infrared port and software for controlling your TV and cable box. The bundled WatchOn app provides a compelling program guide, which makes it easy to find good stuff to watch. Changing channels was as easy as selecting the thumbnail for the show we wanted.
However, unlike on the Galaxy Note 8.0, which gives you a universal search that queries the Samsung Media hub, YouTube and TV listings at the same time , the S4's app annoyingly segregates the content into two different tabs: "On TV" and "Video." When we did a search for "Captain America," we got a link to watch it on Netflix and cable listings from the "On TV" tab, but the "Video" tab just showed a bunch of unrelated movies and TV shows that contained the words "captain" and "america."
The Galaxy S4's S Translator app helps you translate foreign language voices, email messages or paper / 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 translated either as audio output or text. In a quick test, we were able to speak a Chinese language phrase into the microphone and watch as it was accurately translated to English by the app. S Translator also has a list of preset phrases tourists might want to use, such as "here is my passport."
S Translator functionality is also built into the email client. When we received an email written in simplified Chinese characters, we hit the menu button, selected "translate" and saw the text of our email appear in S Translator. The app failed to autodetect that the characters were Chinese, but correctly translated them after we set the input language.
Using the Optical Reader app, you can also point the camera at foreign language text and have it translated by hovering over the characters or taking a photo. However, when we pointed the Galaxy S4 at a Chinese language textbook, it took a very long time to translate each word and sometimes it gave us the definition of just one character out of a two- character word. LG's QTranslator, which appears on its Optimus line of phones, performs the same task smoothly and accurately, as does Camdictionary, a third-party app available in the Google Play Store.
The S4's optical reader app can also scan a business card and import the data into your contacts menu, but it does a poor job of assigning information to the correct fields. When we shot a photo of a contact's business card and tapped the "Add to contact" button, the software assigned the contact's Name field and phone number to the right fields, but confused his email address and Web address. The app also failed to detect the name and job title on our personal business card and threw several pieces of information into the address field.
Samsung includes a helpful collaboration and entertainment feature called Group Play on the S4, which allows you to share music, documents, and photos from your phone or play competitive games with users on other phones via Wi-Fi direct. During a briefing with Samsung, we had a chance to try out the music-sharing feature, which allowed us to play a song using friends' Galaxy S4s as speakers. This seems like a fun party trick, but nothing more.
Whether you're trying to lose weight or just maintain an active lifestyle, Samsung's preloaded S Health app can help you keep track of your diet and exercise. After entering our vitals, the app gave us a recommended amount of daily calories to consume and burn and offered several options to keep track of our health, including a health diary, food tracker and exercise tracker.
We found the Walking Mate feature most useful because it acts as a pedometer that, in our tests, reported that we'd burned 56 calories just by walking to the deli down the street. The Comfort Level feature uses sensors in the Galaxy S4 to measure the temperature and humidity of the room you're in to tell you whether it's comfortable or not. While it was useful to get this data directly from the phone, we don't need a phone to tell us we feel too hot right now.
The 13-MP rear-facing camera on the Galaxy S4 produced the sharpest and most vibrant photos we've ever seen on a smartphone. When we shot images of a Manhattan skyline with the Galaxy S4, colors like the green dome on top of a building and the gold in a skyscraper's spire really popped while the same scenes were much duller and less detailed when we shot them on the iPhone 5 and HTC One. Some may find the images almost too colorful, as the blue in the sky and white stone on building facades were a bit more electric than they appeared real-life. However, the HTC One made the same bright green dome appear in a lifeless greenish-gray tone and, on the iPhone 5, the dome looked whitewashed by the sun.
Not only were the colors more vibrant and the white balance better on Samsung Galaxy S4, but images were a lot sharper and contained a lot more detail than its competitors. When we shot an image of a building facade, some lines in the wall were not visible on the 4-MP HTC One that were shown on the iPhone 5 and highly detailed on the Galaxy S4. The blue sky in our cityscape picture showed noticeable pixelation on the HTC One, but it was completely smooth on the Galaxy S4.
The Galaxy S4's superior image quality was also evident in indoor photos. When we captured images of some toys on a shelf, the blue in a Grover doll's fur and the red in Mickey Mouse's outfit were noticeably sharper and more vibrant on the Galaxy S4 than the HTC One and iPhone 5.
Samsung's camera can even take fantastic photos at dusk. When we shot some images of traffic and of the Empire State Building during sunset, image quality was strong on Auto Mode, but much brighter and more colorful after we switched to Night Mode.
The Galaxy S4's rear camera can shoot 1080p video that's also sharp and colorful as its photos. When we filmed a street with cars driving down it, the yellow of cabs and the red in some scaffolding really stood out and even objects that were blanketed in shadow were clear and detailed. When we shot a video of the same area at the same time with the HTC One, the grilles on the cars seemed hazy and washed- out.
The 2.0-megapixel front-facing camera took sharp, colorful images of our face. When we took a picture under the fluorescent lights of our office, our red facial hair appeared vibrant while fine details like the pores in our skin were easily visible.
Samsung packs the Galaxy S4's camera software with a bevy of uniquely powerful features you won't find on its competitors. When we took a picture of co-workers using Best Face Mode, we found it easy to select each person's widest smile; tapping on their faces gave us a list of thumbnails to choose from and then combined them into one image.
Designed to get rid of all the strangers who accidentally walk across your vacation photos, Eraser Mode works by actually shooting five shots and then replacing moving objects with the background behind them. When we took several photos both on a rooftop and on a crowded Manhattan street, the software almost always accurately identified the errant person and filtered them out automatically.
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves filming with Animated Photo Mode, which captures up to 9 seconds of video and converts it into an animated GIF. When we shot an animation of three co-workers dancing, we then used the editor, which appears to freeze two people while the person in the middle was left moving (to the right). Here's another GIF sample that worked well and one that did not.
Drama Shot takes multiple pictures of someone moving across the frame and turns them into a single photo with the person appearing in several places at once. When we shot a friend dancing across a rooftop, the drama shot looked great, and we were able to pick the images to remove from the frame.
We weren't particularly impressed with Sound & Shot, a mode that captures 9 seconds of audio to go with your still image. We were able to accurately capture an image of a co-worker singing, but found the output awkward to look at and were only able to share the silent JPG with other devices.
Dual Camera Mode captures with both the front-facing and rear- facing cameras at once. The idea is that you can insert yourself into stills for video using a box or other shape of your choice (including a heart, a crystal ball or a postage stamp). When we captured a Dual Camera Mode image and video of ourselves talking to a co-worker, the output was attractive enough, but we had to be careful about how we held the Galaxy S4 to avoid getting our fingers in the frame of either camera.
Samsung's Story Album monitors your photo-shooting activity and sends you notifications suggesting you turn your photos into attractive virtual flip- books. Creating an album was as simple as tapping on its thumbnail, typing in a name for it, choosing a layout style, hitting the "create" button and deleting or captioning the photos within. You can order a printed photo album, which ranges in price from $14.15 for a small softcover book to $31.15 for a large hardcover.
Sprint's 4G LTE network is still in its infancy, serving 88 markets in the United States with 170 more to come this year. Though it hasn't officially launched in New York, we were able to get a 4G signal in the Kip's Bay neighborhood, where the Galaxy S4 averaged a reasonable 8.6 MBps down and 2.5 Mbps up. In a 3G-only area of New Jersey, the phone managed 1.3 Mbps down and 990 Kbps up.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 delivered solid incoming and outgoing audio when we made calls to friends on Sprint's network. The speakerphone feature was also loud and clear.
While international Galaxy S4 models have Samsung's new Octocore Exynos processor, the 1.9-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 CPU in U.S. versions offers plenty of performance. Whether it was processing complex photo effects or playing a 1080p video in a window while zipping around the track in Riptide GP, using the S4 was completely smooth.
On Quadrant, a synthetic test that measures overall performance, the Galaxy S4 scored a strong 11,308, far above the 3,949 smartphone category average, but a little less than the Snapdragon 600-powered HTC One's mark of 12,378 and the LG Optimus G Pro's score of 12,075.
When we ran the AN3DBench graphics test, the Samsung Galaxy S4 scored a solid 7,570, much stronger than the 7,127 category average, but slightly behind the HTC One (7,747) and LG Optimus G Pro (7,556).
In side-by- side tests with the HTC One, the One was slightly faster than the S4 in loading its camera (1.2 versus 1.7 seconds) and apps like "Angry Birds" (17 versus 18 seconds). We also noticed some lag when returning to the home screen, but disabling the S Voice shortcut for the home button in settings sped things up.
Sprint makes sure to preload the Galaxy S4 with its fair share of crapware, including Sprint Music Plus, Sprint TV & Movies, and Sprint Zone. Lumen toolbar annoyingly inserts itself at the bottom of the browser and shows icons for Facebook, Twitter, Apps and Share. The phone also includes links to download a Telenav Scout GPS navigation, 1Weather, CBS Sports and BaconReader apps.
MORE: 25 Android Apps You Need
When we tested it over Sprint's not-yet-launched 4G LTE in New York, the Galaxy S4 lasted a mediocre 5 hours and 49 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing on 40 percent brightness. When we enabled Power-Saving Mode, which throttles the CPU down and limits screen power, the phone lasted a very similar 6 hours and 5 minutes, about on par with the 6-hour smartphone category average.
In an area with 3G only, the Galaxy S4 lasted an above-average 6 hours and 50 minutes. In Power-Saving Mode over 3G, the HTC One lasted a whopping 7 hours and 50 minutes, but we're still waiting to test a model with 4G LTE.
Because Samsung's battery is removable, you can always carry a second unit with you. And though the company doesn't sell extended batteries, it's likely that higher-capacity third- party batteries will be available.
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. AT&T sells the phone for $199.99 with a contract while T-Mobile offers it with a down payment of $149.99 and $20 per month for 24 months ($630 in total). Sprint's plans start at $79.99 per month for 450 minutes of talk time and go up to $110 for unlimited talk time.
With its sharp and feature-rich camera, innovative gestures and powerful apps, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most impressive smartphone on the market today. We also like that Samsung delivers a rich full HD 5-inch display in a fairly light (albeit plastic) chassis. The only real strike against the S4 is its average battery life, though you should be able to upgrade its battery or carry a spare.
Those looking for a brighter screen and better sound should consider the HTC One, which also sports a more premium (but heavier) aluminum design. However, if you're looking for the best combination of features ever in a smartphone, look no further than the Galaxy S4.