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Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone Review

MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
If we look back a few years, it’s easy to recognize that the iPhone is the milestone product which started the smartphone craze in earnest. With over 350 million iPhones sold to date, and millions more being sold every week, Apple has been leading the pack since Day One. Samsung is keen to change that.

The South Korean conglomerate’s smartphone models might not yet have the same cachet or cultural mind share as their Cupertino rivals, but the numbers don't lie. Samsung has sold over 100 million Galaxy S smartphones since 2010, and they are ambitiously aiming to sell 100 million of their latest flagship, the Galaxy S4.

After having hit the ball out of the park with the widely acclaimed Galaxy S3, it’s easy to understand why the company would be so bullish about their newest über-phone. They have a successful recipe, now they just have to improve upon it without alienating those who have bought into Samsung’s branding and marketing.


The centerpiece of any high-end smartphone is obviously the display, and Samsung have outfitted the Galaxy S4 with a real beauty. Although HTC might have been first to the market with a 1080p smartphone, via the overlooked HTC Butterfly and subsequent HTC One, the new 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display was worth the wait. Although we examine the display more closely on the next page, suffice it to say that it is really a sight to behold and it’s definitely befitting a flagship device.

At its core, the Galaxy S4 is built around the proven 28nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset. This SoC features four Krait 300 cores clocked at 1.9GHz, a dual-core Adreno 320 GPU with a 450MHz clock speed, and 2GB of RAM. What makes the GS4 unique and one of the fastest mobile devices on the market right now is the fact that its CPU and GPU are clocked higher than on any other Snapdragon 600-based device. The much lauded HTC One, for example, tops out at 1.7GHz and its GPU runs at 400MHz.

As you might know, the international version of the GS4 - the GT-I9500 - features a Samsung-designed Exynos 5 Octa 5410 chipset. Based on the ARM big.LITTLE architecture, this SoC contains four Cortex A15 cores clocked at 1.6 GHz and four low-power Cortex A7 cores running at 1.2GHz. The Exynos chip also features a different GPU, in lieu of the aforementioned Adreno part is the tri-core PowerVR SGX544MP3 clocked at 533MHz. Before you experience any angst at missing out on the Exynos version know that the GT-I9500 lacks LTE and a variety of benchmarking tests around the web indicate a mixed bag of results when compared to the Snapdragon model, especially with regard to battery life.

On the connectivity and storage front, the GS4 is also packed. As you would expect from a modern flagship device, the phone obviously features LTE connectivity, but it also supports 42Mbps HSPA+ for those who don’t live in LTE enabled areas. Thanks to a new Broadcom chip, the latest WiFi 802.11ac standard is supported – with theoretical transfer speeds of up to 1,300 Megabits per second (Mbps) – as are the usual WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n. Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, NFC and GPS + GLONASS round out some of the other noteworthy wireless links present in the device.

Although the Galaxy S4 is listed as coming in three different storage capacities, as far as we have been able to determine only the 16GB version has seen worldwide distribution. A few weeks ago, the 32GB model was made available through AT&T and Verizon in the US, but the 64GB variant is still missing-in-action.

High up on a flagship smartphone’s “must-have” list is a top-notch camera, and as such Samsung have unveiled their latest and greatest mobile camera module for this device. On the back, the Galaxy S4 features the brand new 13-megapixel sensor which is joined to a bright F/2.2 lens, with 4X digital zoom capability and an LED flash. The front-facing camera uses a 2-megapixel sensor which matches the front unit’s 1080p @ 30FPS video recording capabilities. That front-facing camera has also been utilized to create a cool new camera mode. In fact, the GS4 features a bunch of unique settings in this respect, some truly useful and others slightly more gimmicky.

As we’ve established, from a purely technical perspective, Samsung clearly have a winner of their hands, but specs alone don’t make the phone. And while they have innovated, increased, and improved just about everything in order to push the envelope when it comes to specs, there is still a lot of consistency to be found in the GS4…which is both good and bad depending on your point of view. When it comes to design, materials, and the TouchWiz elements throughout the UI, this is clearly an iterative product.


If you mistook this phone for a Galaxy S3 or a Galaxy Note 2, it would be hard to blame you. Aesthetically, the GS4 definitely shares its design language with the two aforementioned models. That is to be expected though since Samsung is trying to capitalize on what has now become a trademark look and they have really been focusing on creating a sense of Apple-like consistency across their smartphone lineup.

Looks are ultimately a personal matter, but the continued use of cheap-feeling plastics by Samsung remains a point of contention for many. Despite a fairly convincing looking chrome-coloured frame, the Galaxy S4 is entirely made of plastic. This material is great due to its ruggedness, light weight, and low manufacturing costs, but the stuff Samsung uses just doesn’t feel worthy of a $650 flagship device. This is a shame since companies like Nokia have shown that certain plastics can have great tactile feel without sacrificing all that much else. Despite this fact, there is no denying that the build quality and durability of the GS4 are excellent.


Because of its aforementioned all-plastic construction, the phone weighs in at a svelte 130 grams and it does feel very light in the hand. Also, due to the impressive work Samsung did in minimizing the bezels and actually reducing the overall dimensions when compared to the Galaxy S3, the GS4 fits very well in my medium-sized hands. However, I was always worried that it would slip out of my hands.

Although I never actually dropped the device, it was in the back of my mind every time I handled the device while walking. The back panel is just really slick and kind of gross feeling, for the lack of a more technical term. Simply put, although its comfortable it’s hard to feel confident while handling the S4 and worse, it’s just not pleasant to touch.


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The front’s bottom-most half is where you can find the prominent physical Home button. This redesigned button now features a distinct beveled edge, which makes it easily locatable with your finger, and it also now has a reassuring click to it. Quite nice.

Functionality wise this button can be held down to switch between a list of active programs or browse through various system settings. Although it seems like Samsung still hasn’t read Google’s memo about the death of physical buttons, this particular interface is perfectly implemented and it ensures that no screen space is wasted by an onscreen Home button.

One either side of the center-mounted Home button is a pair of capacitive areas which house the Menu and Back functions. When using the GS4 with a single hand, reaching across the screen for either of these buttons was too much of stretch, so a change in hand grip was often required. On the left side of the device is the ample volume rocker and on the right is the power button. Both have the same excellent beveled edges and responsive feel as the physical Home button.

At the very top of the S4 from left to right is the notification light, an IR sensor, the earpiece speaker, another IR sensor, the ambient light sensor, and the front-facing camera.


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The backside of the phone features a very thin piece of plastic, and although quite bendy when removed it is rigid when actually attached the device. Our particular GS4 came in the Black Mist colour scheme and the back of it is super shiny, almost mirror-like. Although Samsung was probably going for a carbon fiber look, the actual design is more a diamond checkerboard pattern.

The new 13-megapixel camera module creates a small hump on the back, but the protrusion is really quite minimal and unnoticeable in day-to-day use. Under the lens is the LED flash, which is quite effective as you’ll see in our camera tests. At the bottom left is a small raised cutout for the mono speaker, which ensures that the sound is not muffled when the phone is placed on a surface face-up.


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Once you remove the back cover, one of the selling points of the Galaxy S4 is revealed. Unlike many modern high-end smartphones, the Galaxy S series has a removable battery and a microSD expansion slot. The battery is a very large 2,600mAh / 9.88 Wh unit with Near Field Communication (NFC) built-in. The GS4 can support wireless charging via the Qi inductive power standard if you purchase the $90 wireless charging kit.

The microSD slot, another quickly vanishing feature among other high-end phones, allows users to install up to 64GB of additional storage space which can be accessed through a file manager or as a separate folder when hooked up to a computer. To the right of the expansion slot is the microSIM card tray.

Below the battery is the aforementioned back-mounted speaker. This might be a mono unit, but it’s very loud and distortion-free even at the highest volume levels. Although bass is obviously lacking, we didn’t find the overall sound quality to be hollow or tinny. Subjectively, we found the GS4 to be quite a bit louder than the iPhone 5, which features two bottom-edge mounted speakers, and only a touch inferior acoustically.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
Superlative 5" 1080P Screen / Expansion & Connectivity

Superlative 5" 1080P Screen



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With its 5-inch Super AMOLED display, the Galaxy S4 is the first Full HD smartphone from Samsung, and it is easily one of the very best mobile displays yet. With a 1920x1080 resolution and a pixel density of 441 pixels-per-inch (PPI), it’s unquestionably among the sharpest screens ever outfitted to consumer product.

Size and sharpness are important, but this screen is also very bright, has great viewing angles, and colours that are every bit as vivid as you would expect from an OLED display. It even has fairly crisp whites, which has historically been one of the shortcomings of AMOLED screens.

Although the panel utilizes the “dreaded” PenTile subpixel matrix, instead of the usual RGBG PenTile subpixel structure found on previous PenTile panels, Samsung have arranged the GS4’s subpixels in a unique diamond pattern. No matter how good your eyesight is, you won’t be able to spot any individual light points or jagged edges.

Although size isn’t everything, it’s definitely a selling point when it comes to the Galaxy S4. Next to the 4-inch iPhone 5 screen is easy to see how that extra screen real estate comes in handy. When viewing our site, the GS4 displayed almost 3 times as many headlines and thanks to the very high level of sharpness, even tiny text is easy to read without having to zoom in. Needless to say, watching video content was much more pleasant and immersive as well.


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So with sharpness and size out of the way, it’s time to discuss other key points like colours, contrast, brightness, viewing angles and outdoor visibility.

This is an AMOLED display, so colours are every bit as bright and vivid as you could possibly want. They gloriously “pop” from the screen in a manner that most people seem to love. However, this is fundamentally over-saturation and the Galaxy S4 is not immune to it. In order to correct this issue, Samsung have included four distinct user-selectable display modes that alter brightness, contrast, and colour saturation. Among these, the Video mode provides the most accurate calibration and comes really close to projecting an ideal and realistic image. It’s a really great new feature.

Extraordinary contrast levels are what Super AMOLED screens are all about, and the GS4 doesn’t disappoint. This screen is capable of deep, luscious black levels that really enhance viewing enjoyment. When it comes to brightness, itis a step forward when compared to Samsung’s past efforts, but it still doesn’t match what a quality LCD can do. That's just one of the current shortcomings of AMOLED technology. On the plus side, no matter what brightness level, this screen showed almost no discoloration in the white areas. AMOLED screens have often rightfully been accused of having grey-ish whites, but the Galaxy S4 doesn't carry that trend forward.

Viewing angles are simply perfect, there’s no other way to put it. Brightness and contrast don’t really change no matter how extreme the angle and there’s very little colour shift.

Outdoor visibility is good, but not great despite the S4's ability to really pump out brightness. When viewed outside in direct sunlight, the GS4’s screen was a little difficult to read since the phone’s auto-brightness feature doesn’t seem to increase brightness aggressively enough. More specifically, it never seems to ramp up to maximum brightness. However, once you increase the brightness manually, the screen is quite decent outdoors, which is at least partially due to its low reflectivity.

Protecting this lovely display is one of the first consumer implementations of Gorilla Glass 3, which Corning claims to be 40% more scratch resistant and 50% stronger than the previous version. Under that screen is also a cutting-edge touch controller from Synaptics that allows the screen to register touches while wearing thin-to-moderately thick gloves, particularly important for those of us living in Northern climates, as well as allowing for some unique new software features that we will outline a little later.



Expansion & Connectivity



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It’s almost sad that we have to mention this, one of the things that makes the Galaxy series unique is that fact that it continues to include a removable back cover, removable battery, and a microSD expansion slot. All these elements are Samsung staples at this point, and although most consumers might not actually use this added functionality, it’s nice that there is an option for those who appreciate and require these features.

With only the 16GB model of the Galaxy S4 in widespread circulation, and only 9.62GB of free space upon first boot, a microSD expansion slot could be a life-saver for some people. It allows users to install up to 64GB of additional storage space which can be accessed through a file manager or as a separate folder when hooked up to a computer. However, there are serious Android limitations to what users can place on a microSD card. Specifically, all applications must be installed on the internal memory in order to function. As a result, the external storage can only be used for music, photos, videos, and miscellaneous documents. That is a serious drawback, albeit not one that we can''t blame Samsung for.

When it comes to wireless connectivity, there are many options with the GS4. In order to wirelessly transfer data to/from the device there is Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, and Near Field Communications (NFC). We used S Beam to transfer some picture and video files over to a Galaxy Nexus (Jelly Bean 4.2.1) and it worked flawlessly. Speaking of NFC, those - admittedly very few - of you who already own Samsung TecTiles NFC tags will be disappointed to hear that the GS4 doesn’t support these NFC tags since they are based on a non-standard technology that the newer NFC chipset cannot read. Thankfully, compatible TecTiles 2 are already shipping.


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On the Galaxy S4's topmost portion there is a headphone jack, a secondary microphone used for stereo audio recording and call noise cancellation, as well as an infrared (IR) blaster. Unlike in the case of the Galaxy Note 2, we did not have any issues with the headphone jack on the GS4. Our Ultimate Ears, Koss, and Westone earbuds all made a tight connection and wouldn’t come out without a solid pull. When it comes to actual sound quality, the output was clean, loud, and subjectively terrific to our ears.

With regard to the IR blaster, yes…you can indeed control your TV, digital set-top box, and other home theater components with the Galaxy S4. Consider us surprised, but we found the procedure and setup via the Samsung WatchOn application to be user-friendly and fast, it worked great! This is great solution for those times when you lose the remote control but invariably have your phone in your pocket.

At the bottom of the phone is the centrally-located microUSB 2.0 port and the primary microphone. This port is used for both charging and data connection. It supports MHL 2.0, which permits 1080p video output and TV connections without needing an external power source, which was an annoying requirement of the previous version. The microUSB 2.0 port also supports USB On-the-Go (OTG) and USB host, so you can plug in a USB device like a flash drive, mouse, or keyboard.


LTE vs. DC HSPA+

LTE coverage is pretty well established in Canada at this point in most large to medium-sized metropolitan areas. However, there is an odd mix of 75Mbps and 150Mbps service depending on where you are and your provider. We were in a 75Mbps area, where typical speeds range from 12 to 25Mbps, but with the Galaxy S4 we were able to consistently achieve transfer rates between 25 to low 30’s. As you can see, the 42Mbps HSPA+connectivity also proved very capable. Both of these wireless connections were as fast if not faster than our home WiFi connection. As we mentioned in our Galaxy Note 2 review, you do have to be very careful with LTE (and even DC HSPA+) since you can blow past your data limit in the blink of an eye.

We experienced no issues when it came to call reception or quality, both were excellent. The Galaxy S4 valiantly held onto connections even when it was down to one bar. Many areas - like an underground parking garage - that had been dead zones with our Galaxy Nexus proved to be surprisingly operational with the GS4. The automatic switching between HSPA and LTE was seamless, there was no noticeable interruptions to downloads during the hand-offs.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
New & Improved 13-Megapixel Camera

New & Improved 13-Megapixel Camera


Samsung has been bundling an 8-megapixel camera in their flagship smartphones ever since the Galaxy S2 days. Thankfully, the image quality continued to improve over the two year span, and the 8-megapixel camera in the Galaxy S3 was widely regarded as one of the best shooters on the market. However, for this latest generation Samsung have developed a new 13-megapixel module that promises to push things even further.

Obviously, more megapixels don’t make for a better camera, and Samsung was likely nudged towards upping the megapixel count largely due to marketing considerations. However, as you will see below, they have delivered a much improved overall experience.

The new 1/3.06-inch CMOS sensor found in the Galaxy S4 is slightly larger and joined to a much brighter f/2.2 aperture lens than the one found in its predecessor. The new lens alone promises to significantly improve low-light performance, which is without question one of the most talked about mobile camera metrics at the moment. On the downside – at least depending on your shooting style - the GS4 does have a noticeably narrower and longer 31mm equivalent focal length than the wide 26mm unit found on the GS3. It should be noted that this new 13-megapixel sensor features a conventional aspect ratio of 4:3, so when taking widescreen 16:9 pictures - which is what the camera defaults too - the image size drops down to 9.6 megapixels.

On paper, and assuming an improvement over last year's 8-megapixel shooter, this promises to be a very capable camera setup. Obviously, final image quality is based on quite a number of other variables though, so let's see what the actual images and videos look like.




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Outdoors and in well-lit conditions, the increased resolution provided by the new sensor allows for some extremely detailed images. Even when you fully zoom into the pictures there is impressive detail preservation. Granted, there is some very slight over sharpening in certain scenarios and a few halos if you know where to look, but the engineers have done a great job of tweaking this camera so that it produces very pleasing images.

If you look at the sky in the pictures above, you can see that with this new sensor dynamic range has noticeably improved, and the situation gets even better with High Dynamic Range (HDR) enabled. As we’ve come to expect from Samsung, the images boast richly saturated colours. You could say that they are slightly oversaturated, but all companies seem to be willing to sacrifice accurate colour reproduction in favour of the punchier look that most people seem to prefer.



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In bright light, the auto-focus system is also super-quick and when combined with the reliable auto-exposure function it’s really quite easy to capture a moment in all its glory.

Samsung advertises the GS4 as having zero shutter lag, and while that’s generally true, it can occasionally result in blurry images when capturing rapidly moving objects. The manual focus functionality is very accurate and with the fast F/2.2 lens we were easily able to play with the depth of field to create some attractive stylized shots.

Macro focusing performance has increased considerably over the previous generation, but it can still occasionally hunt for focus. In low light situations the focusing can slow down significantly or even refuse to lock focus because due to a lack of contrast and the distance to the object(s).

Although we will touch on it again later, the pen shot is actually a good example of the GS4's low light capabilities. That particularly image was taken at ISO 1000, and as you can see, the noise isn’t intrusive and whatever image processing the phone is doing still preserves fine detail.


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Here we tried out the 4X digital zoom, and as expected the results don’t look great. Thankfully, one of the main advantages of this 13-megapixel camera is the amount of fine detail that it can capture, so you can achieve a superior-looking zoom result by simply cropping a full size image. Our zoomed in shot of the cedar buds demonstrate this ability pretty well.


Night Mode Off / Night Mode On
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For cases where the use of the flash is not possible or appropriate, the GS4 has a trick up its sleeve. The Low Light shooting mode that we first saw on the Note 2 has been carried over to the Galaxy S4, but renamed to Night Mode. We took this picture outside at midnight with the only light source being that one street light, so basically a worst case scenario.

Without Night Mode the resulting picture is a dark and noisy mess, however with it enabled the image is actually usable. It’s not exactly crisp or noise-free, but it is significantly brighter and there is still a lot of detail to be seen, like in the chain link fence. On the downside there is a shot-to-shot delay in this mode, which introduces the possibility of blur due to handshake, and it also takes a while while those multiple exposures are combined into one image during the post-processing phase.


Flash Off / Flash On
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If you’re in a low light situation, and the image is too dark, too grainy, or the phone simply won’t focus due to a lack of contrast, it is time to enable the flash. Although not quite to the level of a Xenon flash, the LED flash is very, very bright and well diffused. Images taken with it reveal a good amount of detail since the phone drops the ISO significantly.


Front-facing camera / Dual Camera Mode
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The front-facing camera produces decent quality pictures, definitely good enough for casual social media postings, but what's neat about it is the new features Samsung are using it for. As you might expect, the new Dual Camera mode uses both the front and back cameras to simultaneously take two pictures and overlays one on the other in a smaller thumbnail or even in a split-screen effect. Ostensibly, this allows the person taking the picture to reveal their expression to the moment, but from a behind the lens perspective.


Drama Shot / Animated Photo
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As mentioned earlier, Samsung has packed the GS4 with a number of different shooting modes. While some are fairly standard, like Panorama and Rich Tone (HDR), there are bunch of others that are more or less useful…but at least they work well. Drama Shot takes a series of pictures of an subject in motion an automatically combines them into on one image that reveals a static background but a cool motion trail. Animated Photo takes about 5 seconds of video and then lets you decide whether parts of the frame are frozen or animated. In our case, we just animated the entire frames and used this feature to quickly make a regular GIF within the camera app.

<object width="640" height="360"><param name="movie" value="//www.youtube.com/v/yuyaPwEDeyE?hl=en_US&version=3"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="//www.youtube.com/v/yuyaPwEDeyE?hl=en_US&version=3" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="640" height="360" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>
Yes, it was really quite windy that day.

When it comes to video, the GS4 records in 1080p at 30 frames per second, with a 17 Mbps video bit rate and 128Kbps audio bit rate. The resulting videos are stored in MP4 files using the H.264 High Profile codec and are really quite impressive, with a good amount of detail, nice contrast, and very little noise. Colours and white balance are also good, although perhaps slightly oversaturated like the still images. Video auto-focus is reliable and quick, while the auto-exposure is also accurate and is cautious not to blow-out highlights.

It should be noted that video stabilization is disabled by default, so you will want to enable that immediately. Even then, it isn't really the best stabilization that we’ve encountered. Digital zoom worked reasonably well in video mode, without too much deterioration in image quality, arguably better than in picture mode. Overall then, the GS4 is absolutely capable of recording some beautiful videos.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
Jelly Bean 4.2.2 & TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0

Jelly Bean 4.2.2 & TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0


The Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, the very latest version of the OS, and a full version ahead of what’s available for the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note II. The Galaxy S4 features an updated version of the TouchWiz skin, which maintains the Android core and the stock Google apps, but includes a ton of new functionality in the form of apps and widgets.

The preloaded apps are numerous; there’s ChatOn, Flipboard, Group Play, Messages, S Health, S Memo, S Translator, S Voice, TripAdvisor, WatchOn, and whatever apps are mandated by your carrier. There are also a bunch of new features like Smart Scroll (hands-free scrolling), Smart Pause (video pausing when you look away), Air View (preview content by hovering your finger over a link or email), etc. These features are just a small portion of a huge Samsung-specific software package. So huge in fact that although we were provided with a 16GB version of the Galaxy S4, it arrived with only 9.62GB of usable space. That’s a lot of storage being used by software and apps that many people might not want.

Being fans of stock Android, we are always a little apprehensive of skinned versions of the OS. This is especially true when dealing with TouchWiz, since it is such a heavy overhaul of the stock version's aesthetics and features. However, while the User Interface may leave something to be desired, the User Experience (UX) – which is equally if not more important – is very good indeed.


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The Galaxy S4 is turned on, you are greeted by the above lock screen by default. It just a large clock widget with Life Companion scrawled across the top of it. This is a heavily mutated version of the stock lock screen, but thankfully it is fully customizable and it does feature the widgets introduced in Android 4.2. It also supports multiple side panes, each containing one widget.

The page to the right can either be a list of your favourite apps or a shortcut for the camera interface, much like in stock Android. To the left you can have up to four side panes, where you can put the different widgets for your favourite apps. You can also enable up to five easily accessible shortcuts for the bottom of the screen.

While the basic structure of Android remains, TouchWiz is a rather complete overhaul of the aesthetics of the UI. The large widgets really change the look of the interface, making it almost look like a bright, colourful magazine. If that's not your cup of tea, every bit of it is customizable to your heart's content. As an alternative for less tech-savvy individuals, there is also an Easy Mode in the settings menu that really simplifies the whole interface allowing for basic but easy to navigate functionality.


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One of the big changes in this new version of TouchWiz is the notification panel. Although it looks similar to the past version it adds a bunch of additional toggles due to the slew of new features that have been added to the Galaxy S4. With a total of 20 toggles it's a little overwhelming at first, but it does allow for a great deal of control over all of the phone's features.

You can view these toggles by either scrolling between them in the top pane or by tapping the icon in the top-right corner, which brings you to a separate page with a full grid of them. Holding down on most of the toggles while bring up a settings page for that particular feature. Thankfully, in both viewing modes there order is full customizable, so you can prioritize those that matter the most to you on the notifications panel.

Obviously, we also appreciate the quick access to screen brightness controls. Below the brightness slider is an area which shows primary background tasks (like ongoing connections or media playback) along with a space depicting high and low level system notifications such as incoming email messages or Facebook updates. Touching upon any of the items will open up the associated application or swipe to the right and the notifications can be cleared one at a time.


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If you hold down the GS4’s Home button for one second it will bring up a multitasking screen which can be used to browse between the active applications. As usual, swiping to the right will remove an application from the list. It is a good idea to monitor this applications list in order to prevent any potential system slowdowns since open apps will just pile up there. There is also a built-in task manager for control over individual processes, where applications can be terminated or deleted and other system resources managed.


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All the included apps and widgets on the GS4 can be placed on any of the five primary pages with a straightforward drag-and-drop procedure. Above and beyond this basic function, the height and width of Widgets can also be modified as they are brought forward into the useable zones. The default Widget selection is somewhat limited but there are plenty of additional ones available online.


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We are glad to report that the Multi-View feature carries over to the GS4. Especially useful on larger screens, this split screen feature allows two apps to be displayed simultaneously. Since the app windows are fully adjustable, you can give one app more screen real-estate as needed.

At present, Multi-View only works with a small selection of apps, mostly the ones that come preinstalled on the phone. We enjoyed being able to easily take notes while reading web articles without having to toggle back and forth between apps.


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As you would expect from such a comprehensive skin like TouchWiz, Samsung have elected to completely overhaul the camera interface. Gone are the customizable toggles from the previous Galaxy phones, now replaced with an interface that takes many cues and user experience elements from the Galaxy Camera. Although the location of UI elements obviously changes based on orientation, if you’re holding the phone in portrait mode the bottom of the screen is where you find two shutter buttons, one for pictures and one for video, as well the mode toggle. In the top right is where you will find the toggle for selecting which camera to use, the button to enable the Dual Camera mode feature, as well as the settings button - which can expanded to reveal the several options like the full settings menu, flash, night mode detection, voice control, video recording mode, and sharing. The icon in the top-left corner is a shortcut to the gallery, while the floating around near the left edge reveals the numerous Instagram-like filters. None of this is really intuitive, you really have to do some trial-and-error until you learn the interface, so while this camera interface is packed with features and settings, the stock version is simply easier to use in our opinion.

When you do wander over to the Mode button, you will be greeted with twelve new photo modes. It’s a little overwhelming at first, but thankfully you can just leave it in Auto. Some of the modes are useful, like Best Photo and Best Face, in sense that they can help you select the best possible images from a group of burst shots. Some are essential, like Panorama, HDR, and Night mode. Others are oddly vain, like Beauty Face, which just blurs and softens your skin to give a weird China doll like appearance. Dual Camera mode uses both the front and back cameras to simultaneously take two pictures and overlays one on the other in a smaller thumbnail or even in a split-screen effect. Ostensibly, this allows the person taking the picture to reveal their expression to the moment, but from a behind the lens perspective. It’s pretty cool, and might see the most use among the novelty modes.

Drama Shot takes a series of pictures of an subject in motion an automatically combines them into on one image that reveals a static background but a cool motion trail. Animated Photo takes about 5 seconds of video and then lets you decide whether parts of the frame are frozen or animated, basically it’s an easy way to make fancy or regular .GIF files. Sound & Shot records a few seconds of audio with your still picture…I don’t really see the point of this one. Eraser gives you the ability to remove any background objects that were moving during a series of burst shots, but you have to actually be in Eraser mode to be able to remove the object that you couldn’t predict was going to be there in the first place…kind of counter-intuitive.

Basically, there are lot of gimmicky modes here that you might just show off once or twice, but which don’t really bring any added- value to the Galaxy S4’s overall camera experience.

In the end, there are also just too many features packed into Samsung’s camera application. We would prefer one reliable and intelligent Auto mode and a separate Manual mode with a bunch of regular camera settings for those who fancy themselves as photographers.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
Smart Features & S Apps

Smart Features & S Apps


For a while now, Samsung's been using the large array of sensors in Android devices to add new gesture and motion-based features to its high-end smartphones. These are often combined with some Samsung-specific apps or services, and although it would be exhausting to list all of the Galaxy S4’s software features, here are a few of the standouts:


Air View / Air Gesture
Click on image to enlarge

Samsung first debuted Air View on the Galaxy Note II, but back then it only worked with the S Pen. Courtesy of the latest Synaptics touch controller, the Galaxy S4 can actually detect your finger hovering over its screen.

Air View functionality basically exposes some additional information when you hover your finger over a part of the screen. It can preview things like text messages, the first few lines of e-mails, calendar entries, Flipboard feeds, give you a peek inside folders or in the picture Gallery, reveal scenes in a video timeline, or just zoom in the stock browser. You can keep your finger a pretty good distance from the screen, so it’s not hard to make sure that you don’t accidentally touch it. Air View only works in Samsung’s applications though, so that greatly reduces its usefulness.

First unveiled with the Galaxy Note II as Quick Glance, the Air Gesture feature has been greatly improved and expanded. A motion sensor near the front-facing camera detects your hands waving over the device, as well as its direction, and uses that information to answer phone calls, move between tracks in the music player, flip through the gallery, relocate icons/widgets, flip between open browser tabs, and even scroll though web sites. Once you figure out that you have to wave your hand over the top part of the phone where the sensor rests, and exactly how sensitive that sensor is, it is quite reliable. We enjoyed it simply because it allowed us to safely use the phone when our hands were wet our dirty while cooking. Once again though, this feature only works with native Samsung apps, so its usefulness is somewhat limited.


Smart Screen Features: Smart Stay / Smart Rotation / Smart Pause/ Smart Scroll
Click on image to enlarge

The Smart Screen features all use the front-facing camera for some type of facial recognition technology, both in the form of eye and head-tracking. More so head-tracking though, since the phone can’t read your gaze, it just knows whether your eyes are facing the phone, and tracks your head movements accordingly.

Smart Stay, which was first introduced with the Galaxy S3, keeps the screen from turning off when you’re looking at it. This feature has been carried over to new flagship, and bolstered by three other Smart Screen features. There is now Smart Rotation which uses eye-detection instead of just the accelerometer to ensure that your screen is oriented correctly. This is a great feature since we’ve all had experiences where the screen would erroneously go to landscape mode instead of staying in portrait when you’re lying on your side in bed or on a couch, or just keep flipping back and forth between orientations when the phone was titled at a weird angle.

Smart Pause, as you’ve no doubt figured out, will automatically pause a video when you look away and resume when you look back to the screen. There is a split-second’s delay in pausing/restarting, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker. It is neat and well executed, but it did not work with third-party media players, only in the pre-loaded video and YouTube apps.

One of the last but most talked about Smart features is Smart Scroll. This new bit of wizardry allows users to scroll through text by either tilting your head up and down or the phone itself. It’s theoretically a great idea, but frustrating in use since precision suffers. The text will often scroll past your intended target. Also, trying to bop your head back and forth feels unnatural and does eventually result in neck strain.

Obviously, all these features depend on your eyes and face being at least somewhat visible to the front-facing camera, so none work well or at all in dim to dark conditions. Thankfully, prescription glasses and sunglasses don't seem to interfere with functionality.


S Health / S Translator
Click on image to enlarge

S Health is Samsung’s novel attempt at creating a virtual fitness trainer. You start off by entering age, gender, height, weight, and level of activity, and then it will tell you what your ideal daily calorie intake is and how many calories you should burn per day. First and foremost, S Health acts as a pedometer that can keep track of how many steps you take on any given day. We suspect that this is what most people will it for, if only for novelty purposes.

If you feel like doing something more rigorous than walking, the exercise tracker has a database that will tell you how many calories are being burned while doing any number of exercise activities over a user-specified length of time. There is also a food diary that that allows you to input the number of calories you consume with each meal and track your daily intake.

The S Health app also has a Comfort Level page that utilizes the GS4’s on board hygrometer and thermometer to monitor ambient temperature and humidity. It’s a great looking and well designed app, and it is a clever way of leveraging the numerous sensors and technology contained within the smartphone in order to monitor your exercise levels. In the right - read motivated - hands, this could be a fantastic tool.

S Translator seems to be Samsung’s answer to Google Translate, and it very much mirrors its functionality. You simply have to type or speak a phrase into the phone, and it will not only translate it textually but verbally as well in your choice of 10 languages (Chinese, English US/UK, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Spanish). This translation is done in the cloud, so you will need an active data connection to make use of this feature, which is sometimes difficult when traveling to a foreign country.

The app also features Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which allows you to simply take a picture of text instead oftyping a potentially foreign alphabet. The functionality is all there, but S Translator was not as accurate as Google’s offering when it came to speech recognition. It often missed the first word in a sentence and was just not consistently reliable, at least in its French to English and English to French translations.


S Memo / S Planner
Click on image to enlarge

First of all, both of these apps share a faux leather trim near the top that looks straight out of Apple’s skeuomorphic design playbook. It looks out of place when compared to the modern look of all the other apps, so hopefully these apps get an aesthetic renovation sooner rather than later.

First unveiled on the original Galaxy Note, S Memo retains its basic functionality, which is to allow you to create memos using the keyboard or your finger. Text mode is fairly self-explanatory, but in drawing mode you use your finger as a stylus to write or draw on the screen. The app can covert your handwriting to text, but that is kind of hit-and-miss depending on how good/bad your handwriting is. S Memo also allows you to attach pictures, audio recordings, tags, calendar links, etc to your memo. Once completed you can share your memo via image or PDF file to just about any service installed of your phone, or just sync it to Evernote, Google Docs, or your Samsung services account.

The S Planner is Samsung’s replacement for the stock Android calendar. Thankfully, it is a solid, well though out app. Adding a new event, task or alarm is quick and easy, and you can break down the calendar by Day, Week, Month or Year, or by a list of all your upcoming events/tasks. The Air View feature works well in this app, allowing you to quickly see a preview of what’s happening on any given day. S Planner also syncs with the aforementioned S Memo and S Voice apps, which can actually to keep everything organized.


S Voice / S Voice Drive
Click on image to enlarge

S Voice is Samsung's answer to both Google Now and Apple’s Siri, but it’s not perfect. First of all, speech recognition is hit and miss. Whereas Google Now was basically dead-on all the time, we had to repeat ourselves often with S Voice and occasionally just could not get it to properly recognize certain restaurant or street names. Secondly, it is consistently slower at delivering results, although admittedly only by 1-2 seconds.

While the service might not be perfect, we did appreciate the drive mode, which simplifies the UI and makes the font bigger. It’s useful because you can initiate/answer/reject a call, dictate a text message (but not an e-mail!), set or stop an alarm, make a memo or a calendar event/task/reminder, control the music player, take a picture, ask a general question about the weather or directions, and even open another app. However, far too many seemingly standard queries (like "What’s 1200 minus 367") were replied with "For your safety, please switch S-Voice to normal mode and then access that menu." We are sure that Samsung has just configured S Voice Drive to be overly safety-oriented, but it did become annoying after a while.


Samsung Apps / Samsung Hub
Click on image to enlarge

In a further effort to challenge Google’s services, Samsung have included not one but two Samsung stores. While the Google Play Store and other Play apps are thankfully present on the GS4, Samsung Apps and Samsung Hub are simply the company’s attempt at making more money from its customers.

Samsung Apps has a decent selection of programs, but it’s still tiny compared to the Play Store or even Amazon’s Appstore. It’s the same situation with Samsung Hub, where you can buy movies, e-books, or games. While the Hub looks simply fantastic – it really is a beautifully designed app - it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of content as Google or Amazon’s multimedia stores, nor does it generally compete on price. Frankly, both are just bloatware are this point.


Samsung Link / WatchOn
Click on image to enlarge

Samsung Link is essentially a renamed and slightly overhauled version of All Share Play that was introduced on the Galaxy S3. This app allows users to share and sync content across multiple Samsung devices. For example, you can watch a video that’s on your phone on a Smart TV, listen to the music library that’s on your tablet from your phone or manage your PC files on your phone from every basically anywhere.

WatchOn works in coordination with the IR blaster to control your TV, digital set-top box, and other home theater components from the Galaxy S4. This app comes with a bunch of other functions too, but let’s focus on a number of the key selling points.

The setup was fast and intuitive, it asks you for your postal/zip code and service provider, and then TV manufacturer. The app quickly found the right programming codes for our devices, and it instantly worked as a new universal remote for our home theater system. You can also do this for every room. It’s a great solution for those times when you lose the remote control(s) but invariably have your phone in your pocket. The controls can also placed in the notification bar and you can add a widget to the lockscreen, both of which are great ideas.

WatchOn has other functionality too, namely in the form of an illustrated TV guide that highlights current and upcoming shows on all the channels offered by your service provider. There are also descriptions for the shows, the ability to set reminders, a like/dislike option, as well as the ability to watch the show now or record it on your DVR for later viewing.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
CPU Performance Testing

CPU Performance Testing


A smartphone “experience” can be defined by any number items from the operating system’s fluidity to app load times. However, the only way to accurately show how factual performance is through the use of benchmarks which compare one phone to another. While this may not ultimately tell you how quick a given product will feel (for example, its processor could be lightning quick but a poorly optimized OS will drag the entire experience into the gutter) it will lay out performance in theoretical terms with freely synthetic benchmarks.

In this section we are benchmarking the CPU only through the use of several scripted apps which test processing capabilities across a number of different disciplines.







Although we are still lacking a bit when it comes to devices to compare to, it’s clear that the Galaxy S4 is an extremely powerful device. When compared to the Galaxy Note II, which is powered by a quad-core 1.6GHz Exynos 4412 processor, the GS4 exhibits pretty solid performance gains across the board.

Only in the Google Octane benchmark is the gap between the Galaxy S4 and the Galaxy Note II reduced significantly, but that could be because of the GS4’s higher screen resolution, which does have an impact on web page rendering performance. All that you need to come away with is that the Galaxy S4 is one of the fastest Android-based devices on the market, second only to the Nexus 10 tablet.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
GPU Performance Testing / Battery Life

GPU Performance Testing


The graphics subsystem testing very much follows the same methodology as processor testing but in this case 3D benchmarks are used in order to replicate a standard gaming environment. Once again, the phone is put into High Performance mode and compared directly against other devices using freely available programs.




It should come as no surprise that when paired with very highly clocked CPU portion the new dual-core Adreno 320 GPU mops the floor with the Mali-400MP variants in both Galaxy Note devices, as well as the twelve-core Nvidia GeForce ULP in the Nexus 7. It should be noted that we did experience a few cases of thermal throttling when running the 3DRating Off-Screen test, which is run at a resolution of 1024x2048, when the ambient temperature was about 28 °C/82 °F. The actual running of the test was not impacted, nor was its apparent fluidity, but the results consistently dropped down to the 2,200 range instead of the normal 2,500.


Battery Testing


The most important aspect of any mobile device is how long it can remain in use on a single charge. The last thing anyone wants is to have their brand new smartphone running out of juice half way through their work day but in an age of increasing screen sizes and processing horsepower, battery life has become a serious concern.

In order to conduct two different yet repeatable tests; we settled on two scenarios. The Web Browsing benchmark involves refreshing a Flash webpage (or HTML5 site if the browser doesn’t support Flash) every 30 seconds. The video playback test uses a 720P Youtube video on a continuous loop. All of these benchmarks are done with the phone’s (or tablet’s) standard power profile.




Although the Galaxy S4 has a massive 2,600mAh battery, it is burdened with a very high frequency quad-core SoC and large power-hungry display. Thankfully though, we are happy to report that it proved to have very good battery life.

In our browsing tests the GS4 was outclassed by the Galaxy Note II - thanks to that model’s huge 3,100mAh battery – but it still allowed for over 10 hours of non-stop web browsing over WiFi and 7.5 hours over 4G LTE. The Galaxy S4 led the pack when it came to video playback, it streamed video for over 10.5 hours over WiFi and a little under 9 hours with LTE.

Our tests are obviously a little extreme, not really an optimal balance between idle and heavy workloads that would better represent every day usage patterns. Our experience with the GS4 is that it lasted a full day with regular use of phone calls, texting, web browsing, streaming videos, a little bit of navigation, and idle time. If you need even better battery life, then there’s the option to use the Galaxy S4’s party trick - its swappable battery.

When it does come time to charge the phone, you will be greeted with some speedy charge times thanks to Samsung’s implementation of Qualcomm's Quick Charge 1.0 technology. When using the bundled charger, battery levels went from 3% to 50% in 42 minutes and a 100% charge was attained in 2 hours flat.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,141
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


When it comes to the world of Android, it’s pretty clear that Samsung and the Galaxy S line have taken hold of the baton and are sprinting towards the horizon. Part of this success is due to the fact that they always use cutting-edge hardware, but also because Samsung is a company that takes the “everything but the kitchen sink” adage seriously when it comes to features. Thankfully, we were able to spend almost a whole month with this the Galaxy S4, and that has proven invaluable since it is packed with so much functionality and so many new features.

What’s particularly impressive about the Galaxy S4 is that Samsung have managed to fit a bigger screen, more powerful components, and much larger battery into a package that is both lighter and more compact than its predecessor. That’s an engineering coup if there ever was one. While the GS4 might feature a bunch of completely new parts, there is also some consistency, both good and bad.

Speaking of consistency, one of the greatest criticisms levied towards Samsung is their stubborn reliance on cheap feeling plastics in their high-end devices. This shortcoming is now especially evident when compared to other OEMs that are increasingly adopting more premium materials, like the all-aluminium HTC One. While the in-hand feel – not the build quality, that remains fantastic - of the GS4 might not be great due to the plastics used, it’s undoubtedly very durable. With this device there are no worries about cracked glass, scratched edges, deep gouges, or chipping paint. It doesn’t feel like a carefully crafted piece of jewelry, and you don’t have to treat it as such. That is a selling point to us, since eventually the uniqueness of your shiny new toy fades away and it just becomes your every day workhorse device that you don’t want to have to coddle. We will take some industrial design and tactile tradeoffs if it means we can have a more durable device with the best possible specs and the latest features.


Speaking of the specs, the Galaxy S4 delivers. The new 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display is a sight to behold. While the high resolution and 441 PPI are obviously the selling points, Samsung have also managed to considerably improve brightness while maintaining the saturated colours, deep blacks, and fantastic viewing angles that AMOLED screens are famous for. Furthermore, the new Movie Mode option is calibrated to project a less saturated and more realistic image, effectively eliminating one of few remaining flaws of Super AMOLED displays.

The rapid pace of development in the smartphone realm has resulted in some really cutting-edge mobile camera modules, and the Galaxy S4 is definitely a beneficiary of this fact. The new 13-megapixel sensor allows you to take great looking photos, some of the very best in the mobile realm at the moment, while also being as creative as you want to be thanks to the numerous features and modes that Samsung have included.

On the performance front, the Galaxy S4 is blistering, there’s simply no other word for it. As you might expect from a flagship 1.9GHz quad-core chipset, it led the way in essentially all of our benchmark tests, and real world performance was top-notch as well. Apps install in an instant and open up in the blink on an eye. Web browsing is a seamless experience, both when it comes to page loads and just zooming in/out. The Adreno 320 GPU in the GS4 proved exceedingly capable of playing every game with threw at it, and the gaming experience was not only smooth but looked fantastic on the large 5-inch screen and even on a 50-inch television, courtesy of the MHL 2.0 port’s video output functionality. Although not touched upon in the CPU and GPU benchmark sections, it should be noted that the GS4’s I/O performance is also excellent, both when it comes to in-device data transfers or when transferring data to the phone via WiFi or USB. It’s pretty clear that Samsung have outfitted the GS4 with a solid controller and class-leading NAND flash memory.

Once you actually have the device in your hand though, the hardware specs don’t really matter anymore, and it’s experience that’s important. Generally speaking, the overall performance was exemplary, with smooth animations and lightning quick application load times. Having said that, there was the very rare bit of random lag, but it was not anymore bothersome or prevalent than in any other mobile platforms we’ve used or even our PCs for that matter. No matter how powerful hardware gets, there will always be the occasional software hiccup.


When it comes to the software, spending an extended length of time with this device allowed us to get properly accustomed to TouchWiz –with its many features and apps. We can’t hide the fact that we are fans of stock Android, and it just seems needless to meddle with the top-notch work that Google’s been doing as of late. And we really don’t like the fact that our 16GB model only had 9.62GB of free space on first boot, and that you still can’t install any apps on the microSD card. However, we could see some wisdom in TouchWiz, and understood why many people love it.

The UI is still a little brash and cartoonish for our tastes, but there’s no reason to recoil in horror when presented with a device with it installed since the user experience itself is generally quite good. Furthermore, many basic functions, like phone and messaging, are arguably more user-friendly yet feature-rich than in the stock version of Android. On the other hand, the app and content stores, as well as the numerous voice services, simply aren’t competitive with the stock Google offerings. Thankfully, none of these pieces of software actually replace its Google sourced counterpart, but they can’t be uninstalled either.

With this device, it feels like Samsung packed in as many software features as it could, usability be damned. There is a lot of stuff here that you will want to have fun with for a few minutes, and maybe even show off to friends and family once or twice, but after that they do have dubious long-term usability. However, while it’s easy to say that these extraneous features should be removed or at least opted out off, it is neat that Samsung was able to develop a bunch of innovative and demonstrative features that show off the nascent capabilities of the hardware.

Overall then, this is a device that’s been executed at a very high level. With a stunning display, powerful chipset, great camera, and reasonable dimensions, the Galaxy S4 starts off by hitting all the right hardware notes. It has some noteworthy differentiating features in the form of a removable battery and microSD slot, as well as a bunch of very cool touchscreen and face tracking additions that work well enough now, and will potentially get more compelling in the not too distant future. However, it does feel cheaper than other flagship devices, there is a lot of needless Samsung bloatware, and all the features do make this a rather complex smartphone to fully master.

If you’re a current Samsung smartphone owner, the Galaxy S4 is a no-brainer. Your learning curve will be minimal due the consistency of TouchWiz’s interface and services, and you’re probably already a fan (or least tolerate) Samsung’s industrial design and choice of materials. It’s not a perfect smartphone, if such an idea can even be agreed upon, but it’s getting closer. We think that Samsung have a compelling argument for best smartphone on the market right now. If you disagree because of an understandable dislike for TouchWiz, there’s now the off-contract Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition that features the exact same hardware but without the skin.

 
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