Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone

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Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone

Formidably fast four-core phone.

Samsung’s latest and greatest smartphone, the Galaxy S4 has landed in Australia to a huge amount of marketing fanfare - the kind required to make it stand out in an increasingly crowded market that’s populated with some pretty amazing devices.

Was it worth the wait? Well, those who expected a bendable or radically new design compared with Samsung’s earlier S3 premium Android phone will be disappointed. The S4 has a slightly tweaked design that’s the same height as the S3 at 136.6mm, but it’s been put on a diet and is a tiny bit lighter, thinner and not as wide.

We’re talking fractions of millimetres and grams shaved off which isn’t noticeable for most people, however.

Overall, the look and feel of the S4 is pretty good. Samsung persists with a removable lid at the back for access to the SIM, memory card and battery, which feels thin and cheap when taken off. Once the rear cover is snapped back on, the S4 regains its premium phone feel.

The version iTNews tried out was the 16GB one in charcoal grey for Vodafone NZ, with LTE as well as 3G. Samsung makes 32 and 64GB models of the S4 too, but these won’t be sold in Australia and NZ. Not such a big deal, as you can bump up internal storage with micro-SD memory cards.

Even though the S4 is about the same size as the S3, there’s plenty of new stuff inside the phone.

The Australian and New Zealand markets get the LTE 4G version which sports a 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor with four cores and not the mad, eight-core Samsung Exynos variant which is a rare sight currently.

Apparently, the Exynos processor that runs half the cores at 1.6GHz and four at 1.2GHz is quite a bit faster than the 1.9GHz model, which by itself is really quick.

On the Antutu benchmark, the S4 scored 24,357 points, making it ten to twenty per cent faster than the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z respectively; the latter two being snappy performers too.

On the multimedia side, high definition video looks very good on the 1080 screen and Samsung uses the Apt-X codec from UK company CSR in the S4, which provides great audio quality over Bluetooth.

Playing back video and otherwise making the S4 work hard does heat up the phone a fair bit though, with a hot spot just underneath the camera on the phone.

As for the 13 Mpixel camera with an f/2.2 lens it’s not bad at all in broad daylight, taking sharp images with lots of detail and low noise. Video at 1080p also looks good, and the microphone captures sound reasonably well. At night however, images tend to be noisy and grainy but that’s the case for most phone cameras.

Sample 100 per cent crop from the Galaxy S4 at ISO 50 1/396s, f/2.2; credit Juha Saarinen

There's a huge range of photo filters and effects too with the S4, and some of them, like the multiple exposure mode that takes several images and lets you pick the best one, are actually useful too.

Multiple cores and high performance notwithstanding, the S4 lasts a long time with a 2,600mAh battery. During the review period, it would easily go almost two days between charges despite heavy use.

The software offering for the S4 is enormous with innovative features such as gesture and eye tracking, voice control and more. Enabling them all made for a fun if sometimes confusing experience, as the phone reacted to physical input in an unexpected way.

Unfortuntely, some of the sensor-driven features such as Air View and Air Gesture both only worked sporadically during the short review period, but when they did they proved totally unique and excellent for middle class dinner party tricks.

A universal TV remote that works with non-Samsung sets is included, ditto Garmin’s Navigon navigation software, 50GB worth of Dropbox cloud storage plus a raft of Samsung applications that the much too short review period didn’t permit exploration of.

This is on top of the usual Google app fare, including the latest Android 4.2.2 operating system that sits beneath Samsung's TouchWiz user interface customisations; Android purists may disapprove of these, but Samsung's added value with TouchWiz which works well, especially for task switching with pop-in sidebar and other enhancements.

Speaking of software, one killer feature that iTnews was very keen to try out isn’t ready yet: KNOX or partitioning of the phone into personal and business personae. 

According to Samsung’s local representatives KNOX will be available as a software update, but they don’t have a date for when it’ll arrive. Nor is there an explanation as to why such a crucial feature wasn’t ready when the S4 was shipped.

Could the delay be related to all apps for the KNOX side of the phone only being available from Samsung’s App market, and required to be signed? We hope to find out soon.

A brief look at Samsung’s App market showed it now has some really rather interesting apps. Pity then that it would stop loading frequently and had to be stopped and restarted manually. Having both Google and Samsung App markets on the same device feels like overkill too and increases Android fragmentation.

There’s no doubt the Samsung Galaxy S4 is  a technological tour de force with more features than most people will know what do with. In some areas such as the software, however, the S4 feels like a work in progress and could do with further polish but for under $900 outright, the phone represents very good value indeed.

It's fast, full of features and not too expensive. The Samsung Galaxy S4 improves on its predecessor S3 in every respect, but it's a shame about some of the software bugs.

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