Over the past several weeks, I've had the pleasure of test driving Samsung's next big thing, the Galaxy S4. After putting the GS4 through its paces, I have a clear picture of what this device is capable of. I've covered the features of the device before, and now I'll tell you why I believe it's currently the best Android phone on the market.
As a Samsung Galaxy S3 owner, I was skeptical about just how much better this device could be. After all, it was barely a year removed from its predecessor, the user interface was generally unchanged, the hardware improvements weren't leaps and bounds greater than the GS3, and heck, they pretty much look the same.
All this being said, after 21 days with the GS4, I am convinced that it's worth the upgrade, and really does stand on its own two feet, albeit somewhat on the shoulders of its older brother.
With a slightly thinner body and larger screen, the GS4 is just as, if not more comfortable to use, than the GS3. We still have the rounded corners with the high grade plastic cover, and while many complain about "design quality," I'm not bothered by it one bit.
One of the first things we tend to do with new devices is to human-proof them, and that generally takes the form of cases and covers. While the GS4's main competitor, the HTC One, does indeed feel great—all metal body, solid corners, great finish—all that is forsaken once you slap a TPU case on it.
Even the simplest case will eliminate any perceived aesthetic deficiencies and give the device a much more solid feel, and this is where that extra thinness really shines.
With great technology comes great power demand. A constant area of concern for all smartphone users is battery life. While huge advancements have been made in smartphone technology, battery power is an area where the growth follows far behind the pack.
Samsung has done the best it possibly could given the state of power advancement. The battery in the Galaxy S4 has a larger capacity than the Galaxy S3, while not invading the form factor like some aftermarket products. Samsung also took care to provide users with easy ways to get the most out of the stock battery.
And while saving power and having a bigger battery are awesome, the biggest gift from Samsung in this department is clear, and something other manufacturers are moving away from—the user removable battery. This way, if you find yourself running out of juice daily, you can just grab a spare battery and swap it out when needed.
Another area where Samsung bucked the trend is memory. The Galaxy S4 ships with three options for internal, on-board memory—16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. Depending on your usage habits, any of these options will work.
Where Samsung differentiates itself, though, is the option to add additional memory. Simply pick up a microSD card (up to 64GB), slide it in to the slot located in the battery bay, and you've doubled, tripled, or quadrupled your storage capacity.
Samsung's much maligned TouchWiz user interface, NatureUX, is very much alive and present on the Galaxy S4. Not much has changed here from the Galaxy S3: it's got the standard grid size, a five icon dock, and TouchWiz specific widgets.
For me, all this is fine. I've never been a fan of NatureUX, but too many people use that as ammo against this device. Remember, Android offers a ton of customizations, and they are by no means limited to rooted users. I wanted more features, so I opted to use a different launcher, specifically Nova Launcher.
Changing launchers is a great way to customize your homescreens while still being able to take advantage of all the TouchWiz features you would lose on a stock Android experience. And to be certain, the hardware on this device leaves little room to argue that TouchWiz is a resource hog. Even if it uses 10X the resources of stock Android, you'd be hard-pressed to notice any ill effects.
When Google rolled out Android version 4.2.2, one of the features I was most excited about was its addition of lockscreen widgets. I love widgets; I find them incredibly useful for quick information and access, so having them on the lockscreen is a huge bonus to me.
Samsung, as most other manufacturers, uses its own lockscreens, but they did include their own version of lockscreen widgets. Available are all your TouchWiz widgets as well as many third-party ones, like my personal favorite, DashClock.
What really sets the Galaxy S4 apart from other devices is its proprietary, TouchWiz-specific features. Without these, we'd just have a very high end Nexus-type phone. Let's run down what makes this device special.
I've covered the camera features before, so I'm going to talk mostly about the use of this camera for everyday life, and those special occasions.
Features like Burst Shot, HDR, and Best Face are nothing new; we've seen them on the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy Camera. The ability to pause and start video has also come to older models (plus there's Vine) as well as grabbing pictures from live or pre-recorded video. The following are some elusive features and my take on their usefulness:
- Animated Photos
I love this feature. It is by far the simplest way to record live GIFs of what's happening around you. Often times, you won't want to make a video of something that's only a few seconds long, and that's where Animated Photos shine. Bust the device out, hold the shutter for a few seconds, and BOOM, you've got a very easily shared GIF file.
- Dual Camera
Dual Camera mode allows you to take a photo of what's going on in front of you while simultaneously snapping a shot of your own face. I thought I would use it more, but that has more to do with me than the feature. The concept is great, but it's more useful for those big group get-togethers where you don't want to leave anybody out of the shot, even the person taking it. Or, for when there's a meteor flying in front of your car.
There are a few other features that I found to be very cool concepts, but didn't find myself using all that much: Sound & Shot, Eraser Mode, and Story Album. While they're all a little gimmicky, I know I would use them if the Galaxy S4 was my daily driver. All this being said, I have no doubt that this camera is the best you can get from a smartphone, and with future software updates, it will only get better.
The Galaxy S4 is one of very few devices equipped with an on-board infrared (IR) blaster. What does this mean for you? Well, it means never losing your remote control again!
The IR blaster allows the S4 to communicate with any other device that utilizes an IR sensor. But before you get too excited, keep in mind that Samsung's remote app, WatchON, is limited to TVs, set top boxes, and select AV receivers. I am hoping for, and confident in, updates from Samsung that will expand that list.
Until then, there are apps such as Smart Remote that can bolster functionality (though the price may be a bit steep for many of us).
New "Smart" features on the Galaxy S4 are Smart Pause and Smart Scroll.
I found Smart Pause to be more of a pain, although it's intentions are good. Some may like it, but often when I'm watching a video on my phone, it's not necessary that I give it 100% of my attention. Maybe I'm trying to do a few things at once, or maybe the sound with bits of video will suffice. In any regard, having a video pause whenever you take your eyes off the screen can be frustrating, especially since it works so well.
Smart Scroll, on the other hand, I enjoyed quite a bit. You really have no idea what you're missing until you read webpages without ever touching the screen. Samsung went all out with its eye tracking technology, and it pays off in spades with this feature.
Samsung touted its new Air features as game-changers, and in a way they're right. While using Air View was hit or miss with me, Air Gestures definitely made my user experience better. Dirty hands when a call comes in? Wave your hand over the phone. Have flour on your hands but need the next page of the recipe? Just swipe over the phone like you're turning a page. Great execution here by Samsung, and I hope other manufacturers are paying attention.
S Health and S Translator are the two new "S" features on the Galaxy S4, along with a revamped S Voice. While these features are cool to mess around with initially, I didn't find myself using them at all, mainly because the alternatives are better.
S Health is pretty, I'll give it that. But unless you're going to shell out for Samsung's exclusive accessories, apps like My Fitness Pal are much more polished. As I stated before, I'm disappointed that Samsung buried the use of the GS4's weather sensors in this app.
S Translator is far and away my favorite S feature, but unless you're traveling, it's not going to get much use. Conversation mode is nice in theory, but you'd have to be talking with a very patient person in order to get proper use out of it. At present, it's limited to about 10 languages, and while more will certainly be added, it's hard to use this over Google Translate.
S Voice is still very much alive, and still one of the first apps I disabled when I had the chance. I prefer Google Now, and I certainly don't need two voice assistants.
While not a Galaxy S4 exclusive, this is one great feature if you and your friends have Galaxy devices. Simply start a group and share away, it's that easy! My favorite feature is definitely Share Music, where one person starts a playlist, others can add to it, and sound comes out of all devices.
The only major drawback is the limitation to Samsung's music app, so this will not work for Google Play Music, Pandora, Spotify, and the like. Also, if you've got a huge music collection on your device, it can be a pain to navigate through.
Other than music, you can easily share photos and files, and it's pretty flawless. That being said, improvements could be made in establishing connections between various Galaxy devices (I had to attempt a connection a few different times between my GS4 and GS3), and certainly improvements in Share Music. Look for software updates to address these issues.
While I didn't use this for anything more than to check it out, I can see why it's there: Easy Mode is foolproof. It's fantastic for people just starting out with smartphones—big, clear icons with simple navigation. This is a great way to ease in the power of this device for those who aren't as technologically inclined.
With all the speculation and constant changes in regards to actually rooting the device, I'll focus more on what you can do with root, and help you guys individually with your rooting questions and concerns in the forum.
It's your data, use it how you see fit without carriers taking more of your money. If you have an AT&T or Sprint variant, a few simple steps will get you free tethering so you can always having internet access wherever you have a data connection.
Why do I root all my devices? Initially, it was for the hotspot. But after realizing all that can be done with root, it's the little mods and hacks that really draw me in.
Wish you could rotate the lockscreen? Totally possible. Want to change the carrier label? Definitely doable. Feel like changing the look of your notification panel and status bar? There's plenty of options. Want to identify missed alerts from the lockscreen? You can. Would you like to restart in recovery mode from the reboot menu? It's easy. Like transparent weather widgets? Get them.
And you can spends hours messing with different configurations. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
So there you have it! Now to the bottom line: Would I buy or upgrade to the Samsung Galaxy S4? If I were in the market, I would absolutely buy this device. There's nothing better on the market now or for the foreseeable future.
Now, if you've been following along, you know I'm a Galaxy S3 owner, so the decision is a little tougher. Most of the software features will be carried over, but more importantly, I (like many GS3 owners) am not eligible for an upgrade through my carrier. Those two factors mean that I will probably wait for the next iteration of the Galaxy line, or until we get a permanent one to play with at the office.
That being said, if you have an older device and can upgrade, make the jump. You will not regret it.