Samsung Galaxy S4 review: The everything phone for (almost) everyone

Multi window: Turn it on to create a split-screen view with two apps, say the browser and S Memo note app. This neat feature first came onboard with the Galaxy Note 2 and available on the Galaxy S3 as a premium suite add-on. I like it, but a small number of vetted apps limits its functionality.

Group Play feature on the Samsung Galaxy S4
Setting up a Group Play session is pretty painless; the lead person can control aspects of the share, like volume and surround sound. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Group Play: A bulked-up and reenvisioned version of the GS3's Group Cast, Group Play can share music, video, documents, and games across close-range, ad hoc network of connected phones. Music and games-sharing works with GS4 phones for now, but you can broadcast the other content to Galaxy S3s. A much more streamlined setup process makes it worth trying out for multiplayer gaming and surround sound through the phones' speakers. Here's a closer look .

Samsung took its maligned S Voice assistant and broke out S Voice Drive , a mode specifically meant for use behind the wheel. Come back soon, we'll have a deeper review of that feature shortly.

Group Play feature on the Samsung Galaxy S4
A bunch of people can play games over Group Play, like poker, while sitting in the same room. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

S Translator: Speak or type into this extremely handy translation tool to get verbal or written assistance in one of 10 languages. It worked mostly well in my tests, though translation wasn't perfect. It's a cool app that absolutely mimics Google Translate with no additional benefit I can immediately see, apart from not having to download Google Translate. See it here in action.

Optical reader: Optical character recognition readers (OCR) have been in the works on mobile for years, and while they're getting better, most are still pretty bad. It's nice that Samsung's built-in OCR tool reads business cards and adds them to your contact book, includes a QR code scanner, and uses S Translator's back-end to read signs and menus in other languages. This one didn't work as well as I wanted. For instance, it'll capture an e-mail address to add, but doesn't seem to be able to also fill in the person's name, address, and title.

Samsung's S Translator takes more than a cue from Google Translate.
With Google Translate, S Translator doesn't seem strictly necessary, but it worked well enough during tests. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

S Health: Once again, Samsung attempts to take a slice of the pie that others have baked first. S Health is a pretty app that logs your exercise and calories. Since it's preloaded, weight-watchers might be more inclined to use it than to download something new. More dedicated fitness buffs can pair it with Samsung's new S Band wrist accessory, heart rate monitor, and body scale to sync data. Stay tuned for full reviews of the app and electronics.

S Health app
The S Health app tracks calories in and out, and can sync with compatible accessories like a fitness band and heart rate monitor. Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung Hub: The redesigned marketplace for music, video, and games incorporates Air View to pop up contextual info, like rental price. The Hub, served by 7 Digital, ties into your Samsung account, so you can also access purchases from Samsung's TVs and tablets. Now, all your purchases show up in your media gallery alongside all your other content, a significant improvement.

Knox security: The Galaxy S4 is the first phone to ship with Knox, the company's newest security layer . In a nutshell, Knox gives you easy access to your personal and corporate profiles so you can use your own phone in a business capacity.

Cameras and video

Samsung has absolutely packed its camera full of new and existing features, and I'll admit that I had more fun testing them all out than I imagined I would. When it comes down to it, though, my smartphone photography needs are simple. I want to whip open the camera app and take a really good picture or video, fast.

Samsung Galaxy S4 camera test
This phone took some beautiful photos. Josh Miller/CNET

Toss aside all the fancy modes and the Galaxy S4's 13-megapixel sensor is good. Very good. No, not every photo came out perfectly when I took picture after test picture in full automatic mode, whether because of off-target photo rendering for a shot or because sometimes you just can't overcome bad lighting. Overwhelmingly, though, I was happy with the pictures I took, and the excellent image quality inspired me to snap and share even more photos.

I was lucky that there was a lot of natural sunlight during my test period; it boosted the color and liveliness of my shots. Indoor pictures and low-light pictures didn't have the verve of my daylight photos, but that's also to be expected.

Samsung Galaxy S4 camera test
Another excellent outdoor photo opp for the Galaxy S4. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The jump from the Galaxy S3's 8-megapixel camera to the GS4's 13-megapixel camera makes a huge difference in photo size, of course. I also noticed that images I had perfectly focused still looked terrific after I cropped them, and after they had resized to fit the phone's screen. I checked them out both on the phone and again on my laptop's larger screen, both in full resolution and also resized.

I have similar compliments about the GS4's 2-megapixel front-facing shooter, which took adequate photos, both as part of a full self-shot and as part of one of the specialized camera modes. One weakness I did notice is that even when holding the phone as far from my face as possible, the objects behind me emerged in much clearer, sharper focus than my noggin.

Front-facing camera photo in the park
What's interesting about this self-portrait is how much more in focus the background is than my face. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Taking a self-portrait can be a challenge on the GS4 (and any phone); you should consider programming the volume key to trigger the camera shutter, a real help if you plan to take self-portraits to upload or send to friends (you can also do this on some other phones). I found that this method made my arm position look a lot less awkward and forced on the screen.

Samsung Galaxy S4 camera test.
I cropped this full-resolution shot of a pink flower at its focal point. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Incorporating burst mode into the onscreen camera button is one great trick Samsung borrowed from HTC. Press and hold to take as many as 20 shots in succession. You'll get your picture, but when taken like this, there's no time to readjust the focal point for each. If your subject's in motion, you may find that the clearest image is also the first. Burst mode takes a photo every 0.1333 second.

I don't like to evaluate top cameras in a vacuum. Come back later for the results of a photo shootout among top contenders, including the iPhone 5 and HTC One.

Video quality
Videos looked crisp and gorgeous when shot and played back in 1080p HD quality. I tested out video capture in both a quiet indoor spot and also on a busy downtown San Francisco street. Outside, the microphone picked up San Francisco's famous wind, but also the sounds of a street singer and passersby, in addition to my own much closer and louder voice.

Interface controls
Since there's so much going on in the camera app, any phone maker's challenge is to help you find the tools buried in the menus.

Samsung incorporated interface elements from its 16-megapixel Samsung Galaxy Camera , like the onscreen menu options at the top of the screen for dual-shot mode and for settings that include night mode and flash.

Samsung Galaxy S4 camera
The Galaxy S4's 13-megapixel camera has onscreen controls. Josh Miller/CNET

There's also the onscreen shutter button, a video button to quickly toggle to recording mode, and the Mode button that calls up a lot of other options. Press the GS4's capacitive Menu button for even more options to edit your quick onscreen choices, and to go deeper into the settings to pick things like a time, voice control, and shutter sound, as well as your photo and video resolution sizes.

Creative camera settings
Of all of the Galaxy S4's five kooky new camera settings and modes -- out of 13 total modes including auto -- dual-shot mode is my surprise favorite. Like the same feature on the LG Optimus G Pro , dual-shot mode uses both the front- and rear-facing cameras to create a composite photo or video.

Dual-shot mode on the Galaxy S4
This dual-shot mode grew on me. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

To use it, tap the double camera icon from the camera's onscreen quick settings to start it up. Then, tap the carat to slide out all eight configurations. Whichever one you choose inlays the front-facing camera image over the main camera photo. One option, split, divides the screen in half. I wouldn't recommend swapping the cameras, but you can.

Here's a pro tip: you can tap the smaller image to resize it. When might you use it? To personalize a shot or send a wish-you-were-here message.

Also seen on the HTC One, Drama is the mode you want when you have a well-planned out action sequence you'd like to take from a distance. If you position the camera right and keep it still, it compiles a series of still images into a single frame, keeping the background the same. You can check the box to add or remove which frames you'd like to include. I failed the first handful of times I tried using this mode. It helps to back away from the subject and plot your shot for subjects moving in a single direction.

I had the same trouble making the Eraser mode work. Again, an HTC One option as well, this mode compares five pictures and plays the game of "which of these things is not like the other." If a person or object clutters a few frames, but not all, the GS4 camera offers to help you remove the offender. As with Drama mode, Eraser mode requires a certain amount of premeditation to successfully use, and as of this review, I still haven't been able to make it work in real-world tests, even if someone deliberately walked through the frame.

Drama shot on the Galaxy S4
Good luck getting the clear action sequence you want using Drama mode. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Sound and Shot is one mode I really warmed up to in theory; consider it an audio postcard you'll send to someone. Instead of captioning the image, you leave up to nine seconds of a voice recording that's attached to the photo. Unfortunately, it's completely useless unless the person you're sending it to also has a GS4.

If you've ever wanted to turn your photos or short videos into animated GIFs, the Animated Photo mode is your tool. It lets you isolate any part of a mostly static video, which you "draw" on to select the part you'll want to animate or freeze. If you keep your camera steady, as I did in a video of waving flags, the tool suggests areas to animate. It looked cool and worked pretty well. Just keep in mind that you need to pick this mode first to use the tool, and that the Galaxy S4 won't save your original video in the gallery.

Testing Sound and Shot on the Galaxy S4
The limited 'sound and shot' camera setting only works with other Galaxy S4 phones. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

If you're going for a humorous or stylized video, you can play around with high-speed or slow-motion video settings. It makes sense that you can't convert a video you've already shot in another mode (like standard), but how much fun would that be if you could?

In addition to these newbie features, best photo for a group, burst shot, HDR, and panorama (Tip: try it vertically to take in a tall building) are other camera options, too.

Using the animate photo feature on the Galaxy S4
If you choose your animation scene right, the software does all the work. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Whether Samsung originated the extra camera feature or introduced it after a competitor, there's one Google Android goody that's conspicuously missing, and that's Photo Sphere , which lets you take a 360-degree panoramic image. A Samsung representative suggested that there may be a conflict with the Galaxy S4's hardware capabilities, but we'll need to confirm that's the real reason for Photo Sphere's absence.

Galaxy S4 camera test
The GS4 captured our typical studio shot with nice, even tones and plenty of detail. Josh Miller/CNET

Call quality

I'll be testing the Galaxy S4's call quality on every carrier model I can get my hands on. I made my starter calls, though, using T-Mobile's voice network inside and outdoors in San Francisco. Audio quality did not blow me away. Volume was a little low, even when I spoke from within a fairly quiet office building with the volume clicked up to the maximum output. Add the wind and road noise outside, and it became difficult at times to hear.

Voices weren't fuzzy, but also weren't clear, and a layer of white noise crackled whenever my calling partner spoke. Although my test partner sounded mostly natural, when I was indoors, I could tell his voice carried a harsh edge that made him sound a little unnatural. During one conversation, a spike of network distortion plopped a big blip into the conversation.

Now, Samsung is well aware of the volume ceiling on its phones. To counteract it, its high-end handsets include a software audio boost button you can press to amplify sound. The Galaxy S4 takes audio correction a step further. In addition to the boost mode, another button on the screen pulls up a list of esoteric audio options, including "adjust audio," a choice that requires you to tweak system settings, "soft," and "clear."

Galaxy S4 audio boosting.
There are two ways to boost audio volume on Samsung's Galaxy S4. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

My calling partner and I tested clear and boost modes thoroughly, seeing if we could reduce the white noise I heard whenever my caller spoke. He repeated the same sentence over and over again in regular, audio boost, and clear modes. Clear seemed to make voices a little sharper, also stripping out a tiny bit of vocal warmth, but it did not abolish the background haze.

When used indoors or someplace quiet, the extra volume boost button does increase sound, but also all the flaws. During outside calls, boosting the volume didn't always seem to have a noticeable effect.

A little bit of muffling and distortion on peak volumes were my calling partner's harshest critiques. I sounded comfortably loud, he said, and didn't crackle. I sounded natural to his ears during inside and outside calls.

Samsung Galaxy S4 call quality sample


The Galaxy S4's speakerphone was a solidly OK experience. It was pretty loud and not too echoey. Voices still sounded pretty natural, not hollow. At maximum volume, the handset buzzed in my hands, but the buzz was controlled, unlike previous Samsung devices that I've tried. I'd say there's been some smartphone speakerphone progress in this line. Rival manufacturers like Nokia still do a better job on the whole, but at the end of the day, I felt comfortable holding a speakerphone conversation in my relatively quiet office. I could see using speakerphone hands-free in my house (say, while cooking), or in the car if I didn't have a Bluetooth hookup.

My test partner agreed that the GS4 has a pretty good speakerphone. My slightly muffled voice was his main complaint. Other than that, I sounded about the same, he said.

One last note on call quality before we move on: the Galaxy S4 is one of T-Mobile's handsets that's equipped with HD Voice, an automatic setting that kicks in when conversation occurs between two HD Voice-enabled phones. In addition to the Galaxy S4, the HTC One and iPhone 5 are other T-Mobile phones with HD Voice turned on.

Performance: Speed, processor, battery life

A 4G LTE device with a 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor (APQ8064T processor and the MDM9215 modem to be really specific), the Galaxy S4 is one of the fastest handheld machines available anywhere. (Elsewhere in the world, the Galaxy S4 sports an 8-core Samsung Exynos 5 Octa chipset .)

Data transfer speeds will, of course, depend on the network's strength at any given moment. I reviewed the device on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, since there's no LTE yet in San Francisco. Speeds were completely expected in both real-world and diagnostic tests. Results on the Speedtest.net diagnostic app showed a downlink range in the single digits and much slower upload speeds at the lower end of the scale.

GS4 speed and performance tests
Processor and data speed results from the Quadrant and Speedtest.net diagnostic apps. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In the real world, Web sites like CNET's and others opened pretty quickly, and faster if they were optimized for mobile use. Apps downloaded easily as well. I noticed that photos took much longer to send, but chalk part of that up to the fact that at the 13-megapixel default, they're also much, much larger than 8-megapixel images.

As for the processor, let's get one thing straight. The U.S. version does go quad-core over octa-core (as does the U.K. model), but quit yer moaning; this phone is by no means a slouch. Qualcomm makes some terrifically rapid-fire processors, and this is top of the line. As I explained before, a higher number of cores doesn't guarantee higher performance , and the same principles apply to the jump from four cores to eight as it does from two to four.

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Samsung Galaxy S4 (T-Mobile)
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I played a ton of videos and games on the phone to get an eyeful of its graphical handling and speed. Gameplay was swift and responsive, and videos were completely immersive. As far as comparing the HTC One with the Galaxy S4, the One turned in the higher score on the Quadrant diagnostic test: 12,194 to the GS4's 11,381 score, although the One uses a slightly smaller-capacity chipset: Qualcomm's 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor.

In the real world, you won't find much of a perceptible difference in speediness; both phones are on fire. However, speeds and feeds addicts will want to check out Eric Franklin's gaming performance showdown where the Galaxy S4 takes on the HTC One, iPhone 5, iPad 4 , and Google Nexus 10 tablet.

At 2,600mAh, the GS4's battery is 20 percent larger than the Galaxy S3's 2,100mAh ticker, on a phone that's also thinner. However, its slightly larger screen and bevy of features requires more juice, too. Playing games and video, streaming music, and using S Voice and S Voice Drive will draw power quicker than other activities, so keep that in mind, too.

How long did the battery last? We performed two different types of tests on a total of three different phone models. In the talk time drain test, the Galaxy S4 held onto a call for a whopping 19 hours and 22 minutes. We also tested battery life using a proprietary looped video program, and ran this multiple times on three different GS4 units. The average battery life after 5 tests is just about 10 hours, 30 minutes hours, with 10 hours, 55 minutes as the high and 9 hours, 21 minutes as the low.

Keep in mind that battery capacity diminishes after extended use, and that most of these units were pretty new and relatively unused compared to later in their lifetime. As a rule of thumb, you should expect to charge any smartphone at least once a day.

When it comes to internal storage, Samsung is selling its flagship hardware in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities. The 16GB version will start at $199 on contract and go up from there. Carriers will gravitate to the 16 and 32GB options, especially since the handset also has a microSD expansion slot capable of holding up to 64GB. It's likely that anyone buying the 64GB version will need to find it unlocked or buy it online.

Accessories galore

In addition to existing docks and cases, Samsung has fashioned a handful of new accessories to play with the Galaxy S4. We'll have full reviews of the S Band, Heart Rate Monitor, and Body Scale as soon as we can get 'em.

In the meantime, let me tell you what I think of the S View Flip Cover ($59.99). The case replaces the Galaxy S4's back panel, snapping on over the battery. Then, a thin flap folds over the phone screen.

S View Flip Cover
The Flip Cover's window lets you see the time and incoming calls. Sarah Tew/CNET

The main difference between this and other flip covers is the big carved-out window that lets you see incoming calls and notifications in a specialized visual format that, happily, is prominent and easy to read. The cover also turns off the screen when you slap the cover on, a really useful and Apple-inspired benefit that saves on battery power, and there's a rainbow of color options.

However, there are some silly, entirely avoidable design issues. When you flip the cover back behind the battery cover to to use the phone, it quickly stops laying flat over the phone face and you'll likely have to smooth it down to get it to turn off the screen.

S View Flip Cover
The S View Flip Cover comes in a range of colors, including black, pink, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Sarah Tew/CNET

Folding back the cover (instead of letting it flop around) also gets in the way of the camera shutter, and might make an unintended cameo. I feel like Samsung could have anticipated what for me felt like a natural user behavior.

The cover unfortunately doesn't turn into a phone stand when you fold it back, so it won't prop up the phone when you play a video, which is too bad. For about $60 for a rather flimsily constructed flap, I'd expect a little more.

Buy it or skip it?

Samsung's Galaxy S4 is without a doubt a top-two Android contender against the HTC One , and a top-five handset when you include reps from each other major OS -- the iPhone 5 , BlackBerry Z10 , and Nokia Lumia 920 .

Android is the most feature-advanced OS by far, and the Galaxy S4 has the most diverse software extras, making it an exciting handset for intrepid smartphone users ready to dive into it all.

However, a darn long feature list doesn't make it better for everyone. HTC's premium One is the far more impressive phone physically, and has a much fresher interface design to boot. It, too, has an IR blaster to control your TV. The One's camera features, including the "Zoe" tools, are interesting in their own right, and HTC has invested tremendously in audio. The One's built-in speakers sound fantastic, and although there's no expandable storage slot, the phone starts you off at 32GB, which is plenty for most people, and double the GS4's storage at the same starting price.

As cool as some of the Galaxy S4's add-ons seem, their multitude makes them easy to miss, and there's a good chance most people will only use a fraction of them. When it comes down to core features, the Galaxy S4 still mightily handles all the essentials, and I really enjoyed using the phone. However, without all the armor of its feature minions, it might not necessarily be your top pick.

So here's my advice:

Buy Samsung's Galaxy S4 if you:

  • -Want the latest and greatest in Android
  • -Love customizing your interface or want something really pared down with Easy Mode
  • -Strongly value camera performance
  • -Thrill at fun extra camera features
  • -Require a removable battery
  • -Use a tremendous amount of storage space
  • -Want to control your TV with your phone
  • -Can live without a metal body

Skip the Galaxy S4 if you:

  • -Prize a premium, sophisticated hardware design
  • -Yearn for a fresh looking Android interface
  • -Prefer to skip most whistles and bells
  • -Seek a bargain smartphone

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  • Service Provider T-Mobile
  • Weight 4.6 oz
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
About The Author

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.