Full HD, 1920 x 1080 is the new gold standard for Android flagship smartphones. It's here and it's gorgeous. Yes, this is still a Super AMOLED display with a PenTile matrix, but at 441ppi, pixel density is higher than the human eye can resolve even at a close 7" away from the display. Samsung has tweaked and evolved the PenTile display's uneven RGB stripe, and we can no longer see staircasing on letters or any halo effect on text. Even the unnaturally saturated colors are dialed back a tiny bit, though we still wouldn't say these are natural colors when compared to the iPhone 5's IPS display or the HTC One's excellent Super LCD3 display. But many folks love better than life colors and have grown accustomed to them through the generations of Samsung smartphones, so that's not a universal black mark against Samsung's newest flagship. Samsung includes several color setting options, and with Movie mode and to a less extent Professional Photo mode (akin to Natural mode on the Note II), you can achieve something closer to real life colors. The color temperature is a little lower than the Galaxy S III, and that means whites that don't look blue.
Since Super AMOLED displays are power hungry compared to LCD displays, Samsung is as ever conservative with brightness. When manual brightness is enabled, you can't actually set the display as bright as auto mode achieves in full sunlight. Conversely, auto mode is still too dim for us indoors in home lighting (please Samsung, change your backlight curves). So we had to disable auto-brightness indoors to avoid a dim display and turn on automatic brightness when outdoors so we could see the display. The Galaxy S4's display is somewhat more visible than the Galaxy Note II's display outdoors, and it beats the Galaxy S III outdoors by a wider margin, but it's still hard to see compared to better LCDs outdoors.
In general, whites still look a little dingy while blacks are the richest you'll see on a phone display. Contrast is superb when viewing photos and videos, though it suffers when viewing black text on a white background (web pages and ebooks) since the white background isn't bright white. This is a lovely display overall, and videos and photos look particularly good, but it's not perfect.
To compete with the Nokia Lumia 920, there's a setting that enables added screen sensitivity for those who wear gloves. As with previous Galaxy phones, there's a power saving setting that adjusts backlight based on the image displayed, and it does a much better job of keeping text (like ebooks) looking decently bright while letting video and photos shine.
Performance and Horsepower
The Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One and upcoming LG Optimus Pro are the first three US phones with Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 600 CPU. While the other two phones run at 1.7GHz, the S4 runs at 1.9GHz, though the 200MHz didn't make for significant differences in benchmarks vs. the HTC One. One exception is GLBenchmark that measures 3D graphics performance, where the S4 pulled ahead in a meaningful way. Is this one of the fastest Android phones on the market? Yes it is, and the hardware is fast enough to support the many software features and processes that Samsung adds. Has ours lagged or stuttered? Not yet, though it's not quite as fluid as the HTC One with a much cleaner OS. A very quick experience, especially if you want to convert iPhone owners, is more important than a 3% better showing on benchmarks vs. other Android flagship smartphones. Hint: we'd like to see Samsung lighten up on TouchWiz and the sheer number of background apps.
The phone has 2 gigs of RAM and 16 or 32 gigs of internal storage (at launch only the 16 version is available in the US, but we hope to see the 32 model soon on AT&T). The 16 gig model has only 9 gigs free for your use, and the rest is taken up by Samsung's software and other included apps. That's not much if you're into 3D gaming, since several popular 3D games like Bard's Tale and Batman Arkham City take up 2 to 3.6 gigs each. If you are a gamer, you may want to wait for the 32 gig model (if offered by your carrier). Honestly, now that Android has a healthy selection of excellent (and storage-hungry) games to compete with iOS, we're disappointed that Android phone manufacturers largely stick with 16 gigs of internal storage for their higher end phones. Yes, you can expand storage with microSD cards up to 64 gigs (the phone supports SDXC cards), but remember that with Android 4.0 and higher, you can't install apps to a card (that's Google's doing at the OS level, it's not a manufacturer decision). For those of you who require lots of space for videos, music and photos, the card will work perfectly to meet your storage needs; only apps must be stored internally.
Fast phones can get toasty, and the Galaxy S4, despite its plastic casing, does get quite warm to the touch near the camera, and the screen can get very warm too when playing 3D games for 15 minutes or longer (for example Real Racing 3 or Dead Trigger). We expected the metal-clad HTC One to feel hotter since metal transmits heat more readily than plastic, but the Galaxy can get equally warm. When we ran several benchmarks repeatedly over a 20 minute period, we noted that the Galaxy S4 throttled the CPU and Adreno 320 graphics chip and benchmark numbers dropped. In practice, we haven't noticed significant frame drops in games or streaming video--benchmarks are even more punishing than today's most demanding real world tasks.
||GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen
|Samsung Galaxy S4
||41 fps (GLBench 2.7 used, so results are lower)
||37 fps (GLBench 2.7 used, so results are lower)
||57 fps (GLBench 2.7 used, so results are lower)
||43 fps (GLBench 2.7 used, so results are lower)
|Sony Xperia Z
||32 fps (GLBench 2.7 used, so results are lower)
|LG Optimus G Pro
||28 fps (GLBench 2.7 used, so results are lower)
|HTC Droid DNA
||78 fps (v.2.5 used)
|Samsung Galaxy Note II
||66 pfs (v.2.5 used)
|LG Optimus G
||59 pfs (v.2.5 used)
|HTC EVO 4G LTE
|| 56 fps
|Motorola Droid RAZR HD
|| 51 fps
|HTC One X
|Samsung Galaxy S III
Software and TouchWiz
Samsung has thrown a heck of a lot of software at their "evolutionary" flagship, and while some of it is indeed gimmicky, we found a few gems like Smart Stay (a feature we love on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2) and the ability to hover a hand over the sleeping phone to see the time, missed calls, messages and battery level (Air View). Still, the sheer volume of features and their learning curve can be daunting, especially for iPhone converts and Samsung newbies. A few years ago when Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S II, many reviewers said, "it's the software, stupid" in response to Samsung's attempt to fight the iPhone. All the features in the Samsung Galaxy S4 strike me as a knee jerk reaction rather than a cohesive attempt at an ecosystem of truly valuable software. And the fact that some features (Air View, Air Gesture and Smart Scroll) work only in select apps is both frustrating and confusing. If you give a user a new way of navigating the phone, it better work everywhere, Samsung.
S Translator actually works better than Samsung's voice command and we tested it with German, French, Chinese and Spanish with excellent results. Oddly, it works much better than Samsung's S Voice (voice command software) that was meant to compete with Siri but still seems to need a hearing aid and an infusion of gray matter.
Smart Scroll? Dubious in its current incarnation and it makes me feel like a bobble head. This feature watches your face and eyes and scrolls the page down when your eyes reach the bottom of the page (at least in theory).
Smart Stay uses the front camera to determine if you're looking at the display. If you are, it won't turn the display off. Wonderful stuff and it works well.
Multi Window is another feature from the Note line and we really like it. You can have two apps open side by side (not all apps are supported) and there's a quick launcher bar that pops up to select your multi-window apps. Note: press and hold the back button to show and hide the launcher bar.
Air Gesture (wave your hand across the display to scroll)? Entertaining and futuristic, but not something I find myself using much, in part because casual hand gestures and shifting shadows switch photos or advance pages when I didn't want that to happen. A few years from now when it works better, maybe. I give Samsung credit for taking baby steps into the future of computing, even if it's not ready for primetime now. It's more fun to demo to your friends than to use day to day.
The new Watch On AV Remote with companion IR? Excellent and for some reason it lists more cable TV providers than the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 version of Watch On that came out only weeks prior to the S4. Oddly, though the app is based on Peel's robust AV remote and programming guide, just like the HTC One's TV app, the Samsung app didn't have codes for some of our relatively common gear like our Sony AV receiver, but the HTC One did. Samsung Watch On's UI is a bit less straightforward than the One's and its programming recommendations weren't as targeted. But it does integrate with Netflix, which we love. And you can even have it hang out for quick access on the task bar and on the sleep screen.
In daylight, the rear 13MP camera is superb, and Samsung's many modes and features make it a lot of fun to use. We wish it had quicker focus for photos and optical image stabilization like the Lumia 920 and HTC One when shooting video, but it takes extremely detailed and colorful photos. Low light? Not so much, though it's still better than most camera phones on the market except the HTC One. The camera has a BSI sensor, HDR mode for photos and 1080p video recording, just as you'd expect from a high end camera phone. The LED flash is quite bright and it effectively illuminates small spaces. In fact, we took a photo of a person sitting in near darkness and from looking at the photo, you'd think the room's lights were on. The front 2 megapixel camera worked well for fairly clear and bright video chats.
Samsung's new camera UI is excellent, and it's based on the new Galaxy Camera's UI. It's very easy to select between the various shooting modes and it's clear what each one does. While the HTC One has many of the same modes, their picker doesn't make it as easy to tell what each mode does. Samsung's unique Drama mode stitches together several images taken in succession: perfect for sports or fast moving children and you'll end up with a photo of your subject moving across the frame. Sound & Shot is also cool: it captures a few seconds of sound when you take a photo. Well done. These accessible camera modes will tickle your creative funny bone. The end result is that you'll likely take more photos and have more fun looking at them afterward.
For more serious photographers, there are myriad settings and tweaking them can yield even better shots; hint: turn on digital video stabilization which is turned off by default, and play with the different photo metering modes for best exposure. Those who are serious photo buffs like me will appreciate the detailed photos, good overall exposure and lack of unwanted digital processing artifacts. The average user who just wants a bright shot with good contrast will also be pleased, but the HTC One's default settings may do the job better. If you want to print photos or use them for professional applications (vertical market workers, journalists), the Samsung Galaxy S4 is hard to beat.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a removable 2600 mAh Lithium Ion battery, and that's at the high end of standard battery capacity for "normal" size phones that are 5" and under. For those of you who hate external battery packs, the swappable battery is a priceless feature. And I'm sure we'll see extended batteries that both thicken the slim phone and extend runtimes further. The Galaxy S4 made it through the day (9am to 11pm) with moderate use that included 30 minutes of calls, streaming video for 45 minutes, taking 30 photos, browsing the web, checking email and using Google Now and the bundled Flipboard app for info updates throughout the day. It does well for a phone with a large display, fast CPU and LTE 4G. It doesn't have quite the stamina of the HTC One that lasted 45 minutes longer (in a mix of actual use time and sleep time), but it far surpasses the Sony Xperia Z, whose battery life isn't a strong point. I do worry about third party apps downloaded from the Google Play Store and their interaction with Samsung's very complex software. I've downloaded just 15 apps from Google Play, and already noted a night where the battery drained 40% overnight for no apparent reason. Another night it dropped 30%, but some nights had only 7% drops. Hmmm.
The Samsung Galaxy line of smartphones is a juggernaut; like the iPhone, the next generation will sell well based simply on brand loyalty, trust and familiarity. Even so, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has a lot to offer, and though I wasn't overwhelmed with love for the Galaxy S III, the S4 is seriously tempting me. The superb camera and related features, comfortable feel in the hand, replaceable battery and software like Smart Stay and Air Gesture are hard to give up once you've used them. Our unit has been fast, and though it's not always as spritely as the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z and ZL that carry lighter software loads, it hasn't lagged seriously or sputtered in a frustrating manner. Call quality is superb, data speeds over LTE 4G are excellent and the display has those better than life colors that many love. If you choose the Samsung Galaxy S4, you won't be disappointed.
Price: $199 for 16 gig with 2 year contract, $639 without contract. Pricing varies with other carriers.
Websites: www.samsung.com, wireless.att.com, www.sprint.com. www.t-mobile.com, www.verizonwireless.com
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