Review: Samsung Galaxy S4, a quick flirtation with a great (but not earthshaking) phone

I only had three days with Samsung’s latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S4. That’s not nearly enough time for me to do a proper review, so instead consider this a preview and commentary on my very fleeting flirtation with a great phone.

Most Android manufacturers would sell their firstborns to be in the position Samsung is in after releasing the Galaxy S3 last year, which according to the company has sold more than 30 million units worldwide. So how did the Korean manufacturer tackle the enviable challenge of topping its bestselling device? By making small improvements which have refined an already solid phone, and then chucking in a few very gimmicky extras that feel like last minute requests from a marketing department in desperate need of things to put on the box.

At a glance:

Operating System: Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean)

Display: 5-inch 1080 by 1920 pixels (441 pixels per inch)

4G Capable

Camera: 13 Megapixels

Processor: Quad-core 1.6 GHz

Price: $1145 (cheapest price on PriceMe for 4G 16 GB)

The S4 looks and feels almost exactly like its predecessor, put the two next to each other and you might end up walking away with the wrong gadget. The S4 is thinner, but not so thin as to feel flimsy or sharp in your hand.

The Super AMOLED screen is all kinds of gorgeous. Everything I threw at the 5-inch display, it threw right back at me in dazzling clarity and vibrant colours. Side-by-side with an iPhone 5, I wouldn’t be able to pick out any differences in quality. Screen technology has come to a point where pixels per inch increases just aren’t noticeable (although if you’re counting, the S4 has the iPhone 5 beat by about 100).

A 13 megapixel camera on the back and a 2 megapixel forward facing camera make up the S4’s photography arsenal. The camera has some interesting settings for people who like to play with artistic filters (or enjoy adding floating faces and heart shapes to their images). I’m not one of those people and found the manual settings more than sufficient for taking some fantastic photos, even in low-light areas like restaurants at night. This camera is a food Instagrammer’s dream device.

The New Zealand version of the S4 has a quad-core 1.5 GHz processor instead of the beastly octa-core found in some other markets. I can’t imagine what eight processors bring to the table for a smartphone, but if it’s double the speediness and fluidity the quad-core version provides I’ll be blown out of the water. Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) is preloaded onto the device, but it has Samsung’s custom Touchwiz user interface applied over the top which some people don’t like (I’m not so fussed, Touchwiz is no where near the worst manufacturer overlay in the Android world).

I don’t have much to say about the battery. Three days definitely wasn’t enough to give it a real go.

While the core of the smartphone (the display, processor, operating system and camera) are fantastic, some of the periphery just seem plain odd. For instance I don’t see why Samsung spends so much time talking up its Group Play feature which lets you create a shared audio system with friends (if they own the S4 too that is). I guess as a technologist and geek I shouldn’t complain about a phone with tonnes of features,  but at the same time things like S Health, Drama Shot, Story Album, etc are areas that would previously be catered for by third-party developers. Their inclusion out of the box is a big screw you to that community.

Verdict:  I’m not blown away by the Samsung Galaxy S4, but I am impressed that they’ve taken the winning design of the Galaxy S3 and further refined it. If I had more time with this phone I might have found some flaws that were deal-breakers, but in the same token I might have found even more things to like about the device.

The S4 has thrown a wrench into my original plan to buy a Sony Xperia Z. It hasn’t won the battle, but has definitely given me reasons to reconsider. I guess now it’s up to the HTC One to win me over, otherwise I may have a decision as to what my next phone will be.

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