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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Samsung Galaxy S4 Review

This past March when Samsung announced the Galaxy S4, I had been using my Samsung Galaxy S3 for only 6 months. I remember the anticipation while waiting to hear all the details of the new S4. But once the cat was out of the bag, I was a little disappointed because the S4 didn’t seem like a huge step forward in features or design. I didn’t buy one and am still using my S3, which has been serving me very well. But when Verizon offered to send me a loaner of the S4 to try out for a few days, I was happy to take a look to see if it was a worthy upgrade from my S3. Here are some quick impressions of Verizon’s latest flagship Android smartphone.

My time with the Samsung Galaxy S4 made me think about the main criteria that I consider before upgrading to a new phone. Here they are in no particular order:
  • Looks and style updates
  • Hardware feature updates
  • OS updates
Let’s see what the Samsung Galaxy S4 offers for each of these criteria.

Looks and style updates

Am I being shallow and materialistic to care about looks and style? Heck no! What is the fun of upgrading to a new phone if it doesn’t look a little better or different than the one you were using before? This may be one of my biggest disappointments with the Galaxy S4… it just doesn’t look that much different from its predecessor. Above on the left is my S3 and to the right is the S4. Other than the fact that mine is blue and the loaner is white, they are very similar right?
Only when you look closely you notice that the S4′s display is slightly larger than the S3′s. It offers 1920 x 1080 resolution vs. 1280 x 720 resolution on the S3. Besides having more pixels, the colors look slightly more vivid to my eyes and a tiny bit brighter.  I also noticed that whites look more white on the S4 than my S3. These are subtle differences though.
A really close look at the phones will also reveal an updated home button, which is more rectangular on s4. You have to admit that it would be really easy to mistake one phone for the other.

Case in point… One morning before Verizon even started offering the S4, a co-worker came to my cube and handed me his shiny new phone. I said “Congrats on the upgrade…” and almost said “Congrats on the upgrade to the S3″ because that’s what I thought it was until I tipped it to the side and saw the brushed chrome sides and realized it was an S4. FYI: the sides aren’t really made of metal, they are plastic.
Flipping the S4 over reveals a larger camera lens with an LED flash below it. The S4 is also thinner than the S3 and feels lighter in hand. It’s a solid phone, but feels a little toyish because it doesn’t have a lot heft to it. Like the S3, the S4 is a slippery little sucker. You’ll either want a case that provides better grip, or you can do what I did with my S3 and put Egrips Non-Slip Strips on the back.
When it comes to the looks and style updates, the S4 doesn’t bring anything very new or different to the party. That said, I think the S3 and  the S4 are both attractive phones. Other than being slippery and almost too light weight, there’s nothing about the look of the S4 that I don’t like.  I’d love to see Samsung try using metal sometime though…

Hardware feature updates

The S4 has several updated features under the hood that aren’t obvious to the naked eye, such as a processor update from 1.5Gz dual core to a 1.9 GHz quad core. That sounds impressive, but I honestly didn’t notice a huge difference in overall speed. The phone is very snappy, but flipping back and forth between apps, scrolling and launching apps felt about the same as doing the same steps with the S3. 
Other updates include the battery capacity boost which has been increased to 2600mAh vs. 2100mAh in the S3. I was able to enjoy more than a full day of active use without needing to charge, so this update gets a big thumbs up from me.
Another thumbs up goes to the update to the capacitive display. There is a new setting that increases the touch screen sensitivity so you can interact with it even while wearing gloves. This is great for winter use! I was able to test it and it worked great.
The camera has also been updated to 13MP, which is up from 8MP in the Galaxy S3. I’ve been happy with the photos taken with my S3 and wasn’t disappointed with the S4 during my review period. Unfortunately, I some how managed to lose the sample shots that I took, so I can’t include any in this review, which is disappointing because I had fun playing with the various creative features that the camera app offers like the Sound and Shot mode which captures a few seconds of sound when you snap a photo. The Drama mode was also fun to play with. It stitches together several consecutive shots and puts them in one image. This is fun to play with for action and sports photography as you can get all the action in one shot of a baseball player sliding into home. The S4 has a problem that is shared by almost all smartphone cameras; low light shots are not impressive. The S4 does have a great flash though, so that helps a lot.
I guess I should talk about using the S4 as a phone ;) But nothing has really changed or been updated on that front. This phone makes and receives calls just fine. No issues or complaints noted while I was testing it.
So for the S4′s main hardware updates, the list short and sweet. There’s a processor update, battery capacity, increased camera megapixels and display sensitivity. All of those updates sound good, but the only one that I really noticed was the better battery life when compared to my S3. If was winter, I’d include the display sensitivity, but I didn’t really use that feature except to test it.

OS and software updates

Most of the changes to the Galaxy S4 come by way of OS and software updates.
The S4 has the latest Android OS version (v4.2 Jelly Bean) along with Samsung’s Touchwiz additions which bring a metric ton of extra gee-wiz features. I’ll just talk about a few of them like a home screen starter mode for smartphone newbies which makes it easier to navigate and use the phone.
Multi-window – Originally offered on the Galaxy Note line of devices, this feature offers a dual pane view where you can open 2 apps on the screen at one time. Unfortunately it doesn’t work with all apps… but it can be useful for quick lookups or copying and pasting between apps. In all honesty, I probably would use this more on a tablet than a phone… even with the S4′s 5 inch display, it’s still a bit cramped to put up two windows at once.
Story Album – Let’s you create a quick scrapbook from photos in the gallery based on time, people and location. You can then print the album through an online service to get a physical hard copy.
S Health – Samsung’s take on the Fitbit and Jawbone Up. The S4 becomes a pedometer, a food tracker and an exercise tracker. It works pretty well and is one less thing to carry around and charge if you want to keep track of your activity and calories. There are supposed to be accessories to go along with this app like a wireless scale, activity tracking wrist band and a heart rate monitor. No word when they will be available though.
Then there are all the new gestures… I never use the gestures on my S3 and didn’t find a real urge to use them for very long on the S4. Yes, they are fun to try out for a few minutes or when you’re trying to impress someone while demoing the phone. But after that, they kind of seem pointless. At least to me. Some of them don’t even work in all the apps, which is really annoying. And some just give me a headache like the Smart Scroll which is supposed to watch your eyes as you’re reading a page and then automatically scroll the page up when your eyes reach the bottom of the page.
The OS and software updates far outnumber the hardware updates on this phone. This doesn’t really surprise me because other than screen size, processor speed, battery and memory capacity, what else can we really add / upgrade any more? If I would pick one thing out of that list that really matters these days, it’s battery life… We’ll always want more of that. But faster processors don’t seem to matter that much and screens can only go so big before our phones stop fitting in our pockets.

Is it worth upgrading to the S4 if you already have an S3?

In a word, no. Even if I were able to upgrade my Samsung Galaxy S3 right now, I’d wait. There just aren’t enough reasons to switch in my opinion. Of course, I’d switch to the Samsung Galaxy S4 in a heartbeat if someone wanted to give me one… for free. ;)
Also, if I had any phone other the S3 and was wanting to upgrade, the S4 would be my first choice. Whenever someone asks me which Verizon Android smartphone to buy right now, I tell them go for the Samsung Galaxy S4. It’s a snappy performer with all kinds of fun features added in to keep you entertained and productive.
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