While more people than ever are flocking to big-screen phablets, some consumers still prefer a device that's easy to use with one hand. Enter Samsung's Galaxy S4 Mini, which is $49.99 on Verizon Wireless and competes directly with the Droid Mini. With a 4.3-inch display, this pint-sized version of the popular 5-inch Galaxy S4 is designed for users looking for some of the capabilities of Samsung's flagship (like the built-in TV remote) without the bulk. As you'd expect, Samsung made some trade-offs to ensure the Mini would be affordable, but did it make the right ones?
The Galaxy S4 Mini is essentially a shrunken version of the Galaxy S4. While the original S4 measures 5.3 x 2.7 x 0.25 inches and weighs 4.6 ounces, the S4 Mini is a smaller but thicker 4.9 x 2.5 x 0.35 inches and a scant 3.9 ounces. The S4's size falls between Motorola's Droid Mini, which measures 4.8 x 2.4 x 0.34 inches, and HTC's One Mini, which measures 5.2 x 2.5 x 0.36 inches. Both the One Droid Mini and One Mini are heftier than the Samsung, weighing 4.6 ounces and 4.4 ounces, respectively.
The S4 Mini owes its lighter body to its plastic chassis. The Droid Mini includes a Kevlar fiber unibody design, while the HTC One Mini comes with a more-premium aluminum back.
Though smaller than the original S4, the Mini has no other major differences in design. The power button is still located along the Mini's silver-trimmed right edge, while the volume rocker is on the left side. The Galaxy S4 Mini houses an IR Blaster on top along with a headphone jack, while a microUSB port sits on the bottom edge. You'll find a Verizon logo on top of the home button beneath the screen, a touch we could do without given that there's another Verizon logo on the back.
The rear of the S4 Mini is identical to its larger sibling. You get a camera (8-megapixels instead of the standard S4's 13-MP) with a single flash. The S4 Mini's speaker is at the bottom of this panel. Like the original S4, the Mini's rear is removable, so you can access the user-replaceable battery and microSD and micro SIM card slots.
Click to EnlargeLike the Droid Mini and One Mini, the Galaxy S4 Mini has a 4.3-inch display. However, the S4 Mini's screen offers the lowest resolution in its class at 940 x 540 pixels, whereas both the Droid Mini and One Mini sport 1280 x 720 panels. On the plus side, colors look more lively on the S4 Mini's Super AMOLED display than on both the One Mini (Super LCD 2) and Droid Mini (TFT LCD). Blues and greens popped off of the screen, and blacks looked much deeper.
During a trailer for "X-Men: Days of Future Past," the S4 Mini's color and clarity blew us away. The Droid Mini's display was a little too heavy on red, while the One Mini looked washed out.
Unfortunately, at 267 lux, the S4 Mini's display is far dimmer than the category average of 405 lux. The HTC One Mini's display came in at 405 lux, while the Droid Mini reached an impressive 540 lux. With such a low display-brightness, viewing the S4 Mini in direct sunlight can be a challenge.
The Galaxy S4 Mini's rear speaker produced some of the grainiest audio we've heard from a smartphone in recent memory. Pusha-T's "Nosestalgia" sounded flat and tinny, while Coheed and Cambria's "Flame of Error" offered raspy guitars. The Droid Mini sounded far better, giving us at least a hint of bass, while the HTC One Mini and its front-facing BoomSound speakers and Beats Audio provided the best sound by far.
On the LAPTOP Audio Test, which involves playing a continuous tone at a distance of 13 inches, the Galaxy S4 Mini reached a maximum volume of 79 decibels. That's lower than the category average of 80 dB, as well as the HTC One Mini's 81 dB. The Droid Mini offered the loudest speakers, reaching 86 dB.
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy S4 Mini has the same Android 4.2.2 operating system and TouchWiz overlay found on the Galaxy S4 and its other permutations. Unlike the original S4, however, there is no update to Android 4.3 yet.
By default, the S4 Mini's lock screen has five shortcuts (Phone, Messaging, Google Now, Email and Camera), but can be customized to your liking. Unlock the handset, and you get access to five home screens, which can be increased to a total of seven. The main home screen features a weather and clock widget, Google search bar and shortcuts to the Email, Calendar, Camera and Play Store apps. At the bottom of the screen are five customizable shortcuts to the Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Chrome apps, as well as the apps drawer.
Click to EnlargeYou don't get quite as many quick settings in the S4 Mini's notification drawer as on the S4. Whereas the larger S4 has a whopping 21 shortcuts, the S4 Mini offers just 15. So what's missing? Mostly things that are more conducive to a smartphone with a larger display, such as Air Gesture, Air View, Multi Window mode, Reading Mode, Smart Pause and Smart Scroll. None of the aforementioned features are found on the S4 Mini.
Click to EnlargeThough the S4 Mini offers the same SwiftKey-powered keyboard as the standard S4, typing on the Mini with one hand was easier. We didn't have to stretch our thumbs nearly as far to reach letters on the opposite side of the screen, which lead to fewer typos in our messages. If you get tired of tapping letters, you can always enable the keyboard's SwitftKey Flow setting to trace words. A predictive text option also improves the typing experience.
Click to EnlargeIn addition to the standard array of Google apps, including Chrome, Gmail, Google+, the Play Store and YouTube, Samsung loaded the Galaxy S4 Mini with a host of the company's own proprietary apps. Users get S Memo, the Siri-like S Voice, S Translator and the Samsung Hub store. The Included WatchOn app, which works in tandem with the S4 Mini's IR Blaster, lets you control your TV and entertainment center, as well as search for upcoming shows and movies based on your cable or satellite provider.
Verizon apps include Verizon Cloud, Mobile Hotspot, My Verizon Mobile, Verizon Tunes, VZ Protect and VZ Navigator. You'll want to avoid the last one as it will charge you a fee to do something Google Navigation does for free. Additional third-party apps include Amazon, Kindle, Audible, Flipboard, IMDb, Polaris Office 5 and TripAdvisor.
With the Galaxy S4 Mini's smaller size comes a more entry-level CPU. This handset uses a Qualcomm 1.7-GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 chip and 1.5GB of RAM, rather than the Snapdragon 600 CPU and 2GB of RAM found in the full-size Galaxy S4. Though the Mini proved relatively speedy in day-to-day usage, its less-powerful specs put it behind the Droid Mini's X8 computing system (Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU plus Adreno 320 CPU).
For example, it took the S4 Mini seven minutes and 19 seconds to transcode a 204MB, 1080p video to 480p using Vidtrim. That's nearly a minute faster than the smartphone category average of 8:15, and the HTC One (10:06). However, the Droid Mini completed the same test in 6:35.
The S4 Mini opened the game "N.O.V.A. 3" in 18 seconds, the same amount of time it took the original S4. Both times are faster than the HTC One Mini's 20-second open-time, but slower than the Droid Mini and category average (both 15 seconds).
On Quadrant, which tests a smartphone's overall system performance, the S4 Mini scored 7,895, barely beating the category average of 7,884. The HTC One Mini scored 6,155, while the Droid Mini scored a higher 8,736.
A similar theme continued on the Geekbench 3 multi-core benchmark; the Galaxy S4 Mini scored 1,087, better than the HTC One (745) but lower than the Droid Mini (1,258).
In terms of graphics performance, the Galaxy S4 Mini scored 4,915 on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark. That's better than the HTC One Mini's 4,026, but less than the average smartphone (7,374) and the Droid Mini (11,408).
Camera and Camcorder
Although the S4 Mini has an 8-MP camera, as opposed to the 13-MP camera in the full-size S4, the image quality is still quite good. In fact, most shots we took with the two devices looked nearly identical. Compared to the Droid Mini and HTC One Mini, however, the S4 Mini's photos left much to be desired.
Click to EnlargeA photo of a bouquet of flowers shot with the S4 Mini looked washed out compared to the Droid Mini. Among the three handsets, the One Mini captured the best images, offering the most vibrant colors and sharpest details. Similarly, an image of Union Square Park looked best when taken with the One Mini. Details were not only clearer, but also brighter than those taken with the S4 Mini and Droid Mini.
A 1080p video shot with the S4 Mini looked clear and lacked artifacts. Colors were also relatively accurate, though they looked too dark at times.
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The S4 Mini's 1.9-MP front camera offered clean, vibrant images. Fine details (such as the lines around our subject's eyes) were easily visible, and the color of his shirt was spot on.
Like the full-size S4, the Mini includes a host of shooting modes, including Best Face Mode, Continuous Shot, and Sound and Shot. Best Face Mode captures several images of your subject's face, letting you choose which one looks best. Continuous Shot lets you capture a series of images in succession, so that you can choose the one you like most. Sound and Shot allows you to shoot a photo and record nine seconds of audio with it.
Samsung has left some S4 camera features on the cutting room floor. You don't get Drama Shot, which lets you take multiple pictures of a subject moving across the screen, shots that the device then stitches together. You also won't find Eraser Mode or the Animated Photo Mode .gif creator.
4G LTE Peformance
Click to EnlargeThe S4 Mini rides on Verizon's massive 4G LTE network, though it doesn't get access to the carrier's super-fast AWS upgrades like the original S4 does. In Central New Jersey, we recorded average download speeds of 45 Mbps and uploads of 23 Mbps on the Speedtest.net app. When we took the handset to our office near the Flatiron building in Manhattan, however, our connectivity came to a screeching slow-down, with downloads and uploads averaging 770 Kbps Mbps and 10 Kbps, respectively.
With its 2,000 mAh battery, the S4 Mini lasted just five hours and 40 minutes on our LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE with the display brightness set to 40 percent. That's better than the Droid Mini's 5:04 and AT&T's HTC One Mini's 5:38, but about an hour short of the smartphone category average of 6:44. The original Galaxy S4 lasted a similarly short 5:25 on Verizon.
Verizon currently offers the Galaxy S4 Mini for $49.99 with a two-year contract. A 2GB per month data plan will run you $60 with an additional $40 per month line-access charge, bringing your monthly total to $100. Over the course of two years, the S4 Mini will cost you $2,449. Motorola's Droid Mini, a Verizon exclusive, can be had for free for a limited time, bringing its total two-year cost to $2,400 with a 2GB plan.
The HTC One Mini is currently available through AT&T for $99.99 with a two-year contract. Opt for a 2GB data plan, and you'll pay $95 per month, bringing the total two-year cost of the handset to $2,379.
Click to EnlargeJust as its name implies, the $49.99 Galaxy S4 Mini is a scaled-down version of the Galaxy S4. And while you don't get such features as Air View or Eraser Mode, you do get a phone that's easy to use with one hand, a built-in remote control and a capable 8-MP camera. However, while the AMOLED screen is colorful, it's not as sharp or bright as competing phones' displays, and the speaker doesn't wow.
On Verizon, we prefer the Motorola Droid Mini (free on contract), which boasts faster performance, a brighter and higher-res display, and unique touch-less voice controls. However, only the Samsung offers expandable memory and a replaceable battery. Consumers willing to make the switch to AT&T for the $99 HTC One Mini will get a less-powerful phone, but one with a better camera and audio.
Overall, the S4 Mini is a solid option for those who are shopping for an affordable and compact Android handset.