Recently I moved “up” from the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (just Gnex from now on) to the Samsung Galaxy S4 (just S4 from now on) – both on Verizon. You can read my write up on the Gnex here.
I’ve been asked to give my opinions on the new S4 and while I covered it on my podcast, Passenger Seat Radio – I think a written review is in order.
Why the Upgrade?
Let’s start with WHY I upgraded. Over the last 18 months, apps have gotten bigger and more hungry for power and resources. The GNex was starting to get slow and laggy. I was constantly fighting with battery life; even with the extended battery – to the point where I bought a SECOND extended battery and an external charger for it.
Plus – let’s be honest … I like getting new tech and new toys and my family and friends rely on me to get the latest and greatest and review it for them (and probably provide tech support later).
Perfect excuses to upgrade my phone.
The LTE 4G S4 comes equipped with a 5″ Super AMOLED HD display featuring a Gorilla Glass 3 screen. It is pretty much accepted that the S4’s 1920×1080 is one of the best (if not THE best) quality screens on any cell phone you can buy today.
The body isn’t much bigger than the screen at 5.28″ x 2.75″ x .31″ and the whole packge weighs in at a mere 4.59oz. Those used to toting around older phones with heavy extended batteries will appreciate the light weight of the unit.
Under the hood, you’ll find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.9ghz Quad Core processor backed with the Adreno 320 GPU. Memory checks in nicely with 2GB RAM plus a 16GB internal storage solution. A microSD card in the battery compartment can add tons more super cheap storage (although you’ll have to pull off the back to change/add it – but no battery removal is required).
Power is provided by a beefy 2600 mAh Lithium Ion battery and charging is provided by a standard microUSB style plug. This plug also does double duty for OTG access and MHL (HDMI) video out for mirroring your screen to a TV. The battery is fully user accessible by simply popping the back off the phone.
Along the edges you’ll find the power button on the right, volume rocker on the left and oddly, the headphone jack at the top (which is nice for me, since my angled car charger always blocked the headphone jack).
The device also includes an IR blaster.
We’ll be talking about the camera shortly in its own section; but suffice to say – it is 13MP with flash and “Zero Shutter Lag”. A rather impressive 2MP front camera is also on-board.
The construction of the phone seems solid enough; despite being plastic. I personally prefer plastic over “metal”; I’m a sucker for the lightweight feeling. The phone feels slick in the hands, though – rather begging for some means to improving one’s grip on it. A simple silicone sleeve would solve that.
The phone comes with Android 4.2.2 and is capable of receiving OTA updates. Samsung’s latest “manufacturer shell”, TouchWiz is front and center installed.
When it comes to shells like Touchwiz, it’s really a matter of personal preference. Motorola has their “Blur” and HTC has their “Sense” shell. These shells are designed to extend the functionality of the underlying Android OS and give manufacturers a means of differentiating their phones from other manufacturer’s by providing a unique look and feel experience.
Out of the box, you’ll get things a lot of Android fans use custom ROMs for; like notification toggles and other niceties. Most of these we’ll be covering under The Samsung Extras below.
Touchwiz is – IMHO – currently the least offensive of the manufacturer’s shells. It actually offers a lot of extras but doesn’t hold your phone hostage at every turn. Sure, it comes loaded with uninstallable esoteric apps; hoping to offer a broad appeal to the masses but many of them are actually useful as well.
Don’t forget – this is Android. If the Touchwiz launcher isn’t enough for you – you can always use something like Nova Launcher to give yourself more power and control. The default launcher is pleasant enough, but enjoys implementing a lot of white space I’d prefer better served with holding more icons/content.
Cell phone cameras are quickly gaining a foothold in our daily lives. For special events, planned evolutions? A real, point and shoot or DSLR is going to be the way to go – every time. But for those of us that chronicle day to day life with photos of opportunity and chance – a top notch, feature-filled cell camera offers a lot of value to the device we’re already going to be carrying around anyway.
The 13MP rear camera definitely ranks on the top 5 cell phone cameras out there (Google it). HTC One and Lumina have better low light sensors while the iPhone can apparently take as good or better photos depending on the situation. It becomes very subjective over time – depends on what you tend to shoot and where you tend to do it. Check out this article for comparison pics.
You can discuss megapixels and CMOS all day long, but in the end – what most people care about are the features the camera offers.
Probably most important to discerning customers these days is the inclusion of HDR (High Dynamic Range) modes. This simply means the camera takes three shots of the subject at different exposure levels – then uses the “best” parts of all three images to create a final image. This is very useful for taking higher quality shots of heavy contrast scenes like landscapes, portraits in sunlight and low-light/backlit scenes. While this feature is available in AFTERMARKET camera apps, it is nice having it as a built in mode on the S4.
Along with common shooting modes like Sports, Night, Panorama, etc. there are a couple of interesting shooting modes like Eraser, Animated Photo, Best Photo and Drama.
Eraser takes five shots of your scene – and it will attempt to find one to use as a “plate” to remove any object that moves during the shot. It works well, but a tripod would make it more useful.
Animated photo let’s you shoot a short video and using a similar “plate” system above – “freeze” parts of the screen and only allow certain things to move. An odd mode, but sort of fun to play with.
Best Photo simply shoots 8 shots – you pick the one that actually didn’t have someone blinking, wasn’t blurry, etc.
Drama again uses the plate system to take 5 shots of a fast action event and shows the subject only, superimposed 5 times on the same plate. I had limited success with this.
Effects processing like sepia, B&W, cartoon, etc. are available in some shooting modes; you don’t have to wait for the picture to be taken – the process is shown in real time on the screen. These modes also work for video recording.
One of the nicer features rarely mentioned in reviews is the picture in picture mode. Inset yourself using the front camera right onto the photo. Use cool frames and effects on the front camera picture; heck, with a little work, you could insert yourself as a ghost into another picture. You see the effect in real time and you can make the pic in pic smaller or larger. It is pretty cool!
If you elect to have voice control turned on, you can use your voice to say SHOOT or RECORD VIDEO and the phone camera will comply. Really useful for shaky hands or if you have a compatible tripod handy. Would be great for shooting pics outside when it is cold and you want to keep your gloves on (that would be taking pictures of the Las Vegas’ Bellagio’s water show at 9pm at night during the last week of December).
The camera interface is easy to use, pleasant and offers help along the way. The normal subset of features are available including anti-shake, photo/video sizes, default exposure values, etc.
The Samsung Extras
Samsung commercials work hard to try and show off innovative features that the S4 has that other phones do not. We’re going to look at some of these (but not all) and discuss just how useful they can be.
The Eye Gimmicks
The first three items are what I call “eye gimmicks”; that is, by using the front facing camera’s ability to “see” your eyes – the S4 can perform certain functions. It seems to me that having the front camera “always on” for this sort of thing would cause a big hit on the battery and performance – but I haven’t tested this. I tend to leave these off; the good news is that all the features are toggleable right from the notification window toggles.
This feature promises to know when you’re looking at your phone and to NOT dim the screen or put the phone to sleep. It works, provided the environment is decent so the phone can see your eyes.
YouTube fanatics rejoice! If you’re watching a youTube video and have this feature turned on? The video will auto pause when you stop looking at the phone – and resume when you go back to it. Perfect for watching full-length TV shows only while you’re stopped at red lights. I’m kidding. Or am I…? Regardless — the feature works, but only with youTube and the Samsung Video app. If you use VLC or MX Player Pro? You’re out of luck.
The promise is that while you’re looking at something on the phone, you can tilt the phone to scroll around – the device using your eyes as a center point. I’m still trying to figure out why I would use this – other than perhaps reading a LONG web page while the phone is sitting on my desk (tilting your head slightly up and down also scrolls). Again, the feature only works with apps that support it; like Samsung’s internet browser (but not Chrome or other browsers).
Now that they eye stuff is out of the way, let’s look at what might be extremely useful to many users.
Possibly the #1 Samsung bonus is Multi-Window; an app agnostic split screen multitasking feature that allows you to split the screen in half – putting one app on the top and one app on the bottom. Yep, surf while you watch YouTube. Have a web page up for reference while you’re typing into a chat window. It works, and works well. For a “power user”, this should be on the top of the list for reasons to own this phone.
Air View uses the capacitive properties of the screen to allow you to “hover” your finger over the screen and get a response. Think of it like hovering over something with your mouse pointer on Windows – and having more info pop up. Or maybe even RIGHT CLICKING something to get additional options. It’s a crying shame it only works in designated Samsung apps.
In their browser, hovering zooms a spot on the page. In the Gallery, hovering a folder will pop up a 9 pic preview of what’s inside. Hovering a picture in the gallery thumbnail view will show you a bigger version of the picture. You get the idea. While only partially useful as a “Samsung only” feature, I can see it being lifted, borrowed and hijacked into the OS properly at some point. See this (and the related Air Gestures) in this video.
I skipped out on the “stock” apps; Email, ChatON and Text Messaging. I use Gmail, Hangouts and Google Voice respectively. I’ve peeked at other reviews that say these apps are just fine – but I simply cannot be bothered at this point to set them all up 🙂
I used the default browser long enough to try the Smart Scroll – but immediately fell back to my standard browsers; Chrome and Boat Browser.
The default music player does the job – but there are easily 100 better music apps out there you should probably be using instead.
The default Video player has a couple nice features (like the above mentioned Smart Pause) and animated previews of your videos when browsing. Forget about playing MKV or other formats. 🙁
The calendar app is remarkably clean and functional – so much so that I haven’t even installed Google Calendar yet (don’t worry, it syncs). The Air View feature helps give you a “day at a glance”, too.
S Memo is a very nice “note taking” app; type, write, record and keep all your “notes” in one spot. You probably already have an app for this – but if you don’t? It is a nice pack in.
Optical Reader is Samsung’s answer to Google Goggles. If you need it? You’re probably already using Goggles.
A built in language translator, S Translate supposedly works pretty well (require internet connectivity) but you must be signed into a Samsung account to use it – so I didn’t try it out. Many apps like the Samsung Hub require a Samsung account to sign into. I decided to pass on that for this review.
Story Album allows you to create “scrapbooks” of your photos and send them off to be printed. Supposedly it’s pretty basic; I use web services to do the same thing – so I didn’t test it.
WatchON is the build in app to use the IR blaster to control your home theater. It tries to be a little too smart for it’s own good; acting as an “activities manager” (like Logitech controllers) vice a good, solid universal remote control. Fortunately, there are several, paid apps that provide a better methodology of controlling equipment. Still, this gives you a nice taste of what is possible.
Samsung has included a “health” app called S Health for tracking exercise, food consumed, etc. Again, if this is something you wanted, you probably already have a huge investment in time and energy in another dedicated application. It’s worth noting that there are accessories available similar to the Nike Fuel-band that back-syncs to the phone if you chose not to take your S4 running with you.
The Group Play app promises to let you share music; that is, you play it on your phone and everyone else can play it through their phone … as long as it is another S4. Fairly useless here.
Samsung Hub wants to be iTunes. Badly. If you’re looking for ANOTHER ecosystem to invest in, here you go. Otherwise, enjoy whatever you currently use. Amazon’s apps are all pre-installed – so if you use that, you’re set. Of course you can always use Google Play.
The famous “pop up” apps are fine; but they are limited to a handful of Samsung only apps like the Video player that won’t play MKVs and the Internet Browser that doesn’t support Flash.
Yeah, it’s still a phone. So let’s talk about the phone. As you would expect, the contacts and dialer of the S4 a visually appealing and feature packed. Niceties abound like high-resolution contact images popping up on an incoming call. Built in noise reduction technology to make your calls clearer. Adaptive Sound – a wizard you go through with a pair of headphones on that tailors audio fidelity to your particular range of hearing.
There is also the ability to manage your call blacklist; so you can stop harassing callers in their tracks.
Call quality appears to be better than my GNex for sure – and I appear to have stronger signals with less call break up.
As a phone, the S4 gets good marks.
As with all Verizon phones, your phone comes pre-installed with unremovable bloatware such as Backup Assistant, Verizon Mobile, Verizon Tones, VZ Navigator, NFL Mobile — the list goes on and on. You’ll also get some new bloat in the way of Flipboard, Amazon’s Suite of software and plenty of Samsung’s own TouchWiz related bloat like Samsung Hub, Story Album, Trip Advisor and much much more.
As usual, you won’t be removing any of these items without rooting your phone. Even the Android “App Info->Disable” feature seems to have been circumvented (damn shame). If you’re going to want to remove this bloatware, rooting will be your only option. See Hacking Potential below for more information.
Having only used the device for a few days, I don’t have a great baseline battery number for you. I can tell you that with light use, I ended my day with 42% left after 14 hours off the charger. On a medium use day, I got down to 10% after about 10.5 hours of use.
Today, I’ve been using the device heavily while testing features for writing this review. This included a lot of camera use, Google+ photo uploading and a lot of screen-on time. I’m at 52% with 6.5 hours off the battery. Totally beats the pants off my Gnex.
This is all with the stock battery (2600 mAh). An extended battery (5200 mAh) is available here but it will add 1/3″ thickness and weight to the device, but should theoretically double your battery life. For many, this will be an acceptable way to go. Hyperion even makes CASES for the S4 with extended battery.
Since the battery is easily replacable, it’s totally possible to simply get an extra battery with charger and keep that on hand for emergencies.
Remember: the NFC capabilities of the device are tied INTO the battery. If you buy a replacement battery, be sure it has NFC built into it.
I need a battery to last from 6am to 5pm (or 11 hours) with average to heavy use. I believe this will do the job.
Having been hacking on my Android phones since my original Droid 1, I had concerns about the “hackability” of the S4. If “root” and “custom ROM” mean nothing to you, feel free to skip this part.
Hackability comes in three parts; root, custom recovery and custom ROMs. To root, the S4 requires a “flash back” to an older kernel to be flashed onto the device – then have an exploit run. After rooted, you can return to the original kernel and keep root. I’ve done this sort of thing with a LOT of phones – and on a difficulty scale of 1 (easiest) to 10 (hardest) – this process was a 4 or 5. It’s super easy to do – the hardest part is getting your computer to recognize the device properly for flashing. It is non-destructive too, so you don’t have to burn your poor phone to the ground to perform it. Recovery is as easy as installing GooManager from Google Play and flashing it right there.
Custom roms already exist – from basic AOSP type ROMS all the way to “almost stock but with a few enhancements”. Currently I’m running Hyperdrive on my S4 which is a TouchWiz-based custom ROM that has all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of the stock ROM. I’m very pleased.
The phone is widely supported by the hacking community and you can easily find help at the usual haunts.
The Dark Side
Now for the Dark Side of the S4 …
The NFC (Near Field Communications) hardware has been “upgraded”; which means if you have a whole bunch of “Type 1 Tags” – you can scrape them all off and throw them away. Samsung’s own original Tec-Tiles are also incompatible. You will need Type 2 or better NFC tags to work with NFC on the S4. I realize this affects a small number of you, but it needs to be said.
The quality of power/volume buttons doesn’t seem quite as good as my Gnex. Of course, this could be an adjustment period getting used to the new device.
As with all Verizon phones, you’ll suffer with non-removable bloatware (I understand almost 7GB of the 16GB is filled right out of the box; I think Android takes like 3GB total – do the math). Sure, you can just ignore all the Verizon, Amazon and Samsung stuff – but I really loathe bloatware.
As with all cell phones; today’s champions end up in tomorrow’s bargain bins. The S4 represents at least a top 3 phone (no matter what company you like or what OS you love) – and as such, you simply cannot go wrong with this great phone.
The camera is excellent, Touchwiz isn’t annoying and the device is a battery-frugal powerhouse sporting one of the best screens in the business.
There is a lot of fluff and “Samsung Sparkle” (a lot you’ll never use or care about) but everyone will find at least a couple of things that will enchant and delight them.
You want to hack? The S4 is ready to go; root, recover and custom ROM to your heart’s content.
Techno-snobs will have no problem throwing down the S4 in any phone war; it’s fast, capable, expandable and has a replaceable battery to boot.
Wait for tomorrow? Something will come along and dethrone the S4. Want a top flight phone TODAY? Go get the S4.