Samsung Galaxy S4 review: The most powerful phone we've ever tested

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CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars Outstanding

Average User Rating

3.5 stars 297 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Most powerful Android device we've ever tested; Full HD resolution; Extremely bold screen; Good camera; Some helpful software features.

The Bad Plastic build feels cheap; Design is almost identical to the older S3; Interface can be confusing; Battery life isn't great; 16GB model has limited space for apps.

The Bottom Line The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most powerful phone we've ever tested and its bold, Full HD screen is the best in the business. Its plastic construction is a drawback and some of you might find it complicated to use, but there's no question that it's a seriously good phone.

CNET Editors' Choice Apr '13

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Samsung's Galaxy S3 was one of the most popular phones of last year, rivalled only by the iPhone. It played a huge role in unseating Apple's dominance of the mobile world, so all eyes have been on Samsung to see what it will bring to the table with its next super phone.

After months of wild speculation, Samsung finally unveiled the S4 -- a phone boasting specs to make even the most ardent tech nerds draw breath. It's a 5-inch beast, packing a Full HD screen, a searingly powerful quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, a host of Samsung software extras, a 13-megapixel camera and 4G connectivity for super-fast data speeds.

In smart phone Top Trumps, the S4 challenges the competition on every level.

Naturally then, it comes with a top-end price. If you want it off contract, you'll be shelling out £580. It's being offered by all the major networks on a range of plans though. Check out our deals roundup to find the plan that best suits you.

Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S4?

If you're looking for the best-performing phone around, then yes. Samsung has taken each spec of the already excellent Galaxy S3 and given them a kick up the backside. Its 5-inch, Full HD screen is the best in the business and the quad-core processor has been supercharged to deliver monster speed.

There's an ocean-liner load of extra Samsung software on board, some of which is daft, but other elements of which are genuinely useful. Bear in mind, though, that the bundled extras result in the S4 being very complicated. If you want a simple-to-operate mobile, I suggest looking towards the iPhone or Windows Phone 8 on Nokia's Lumia phones.

There are a heap of camera tricks too that make the 13-megapixel snapper produce some great and unusual pictures. The snaps it takes are hardly ground-breaking, but will at least jazz up your Facebook page.

The phone's main issues lie in its plastic design, which hasn't seen much of an update from the old S3. If you want to strut through town, flashing your latest gadget like an entrance card to a member's club then you might be disappointed with the S4 -- people probably won't be able to tell you have the latest model.

If, however, you want the best-performing phone in your pocket, the S4 is without question the device for you. Perhaps that level of blistering performance isn't as important to you, but you do want a sleek and stylish body, in which case you should take a look at the HTC One .

Bear in mind too that now the S4 is available, the price of the S3 is likely to drop. It doesn't have the raw power of its big brother, but it's still a fantastic -- not to mention almost identical -- phone that's well worth a look if you don't mind having slightly older kit in your hands.

Design and build quality

Look at the S4 from the front and you'll have a tough time telling it apart from the S3. Both sport a big glass front, a wide home button and slim, silvery speaker grille, with the Samsung logo beneath. Take a moment to really compare the two and you will notice some differences though.

For a start, the S4 has slightly more angular corners, and the bezel is quite a bit slimmer. This means that even though the screen has increased in size, it's not much bigger than its predecessor. It has almost exactly the same dimensions of the S3, although the S4 undercuts slightly the S3's 8.6mm thickness.

Samsung Galaxy S4 profile
The S4 is a very slender beast.

There's no denying that it's still a big phone though. If you're used to the iPhone 5, or a smaller Android phone, then stepping up to the S4 will require some hand stretching. It's worth going hands-on in a shop if you're concerned your thumbs won't stretch.

It's not an ugly phone by any stretch, but it really does look very similar to the S3. It's easy to argue that looks aren't everything, but if you're forking out huge wads of money for the latest kit, you want it to be easily identifiable as such, rather than it mimicking older models. Apple's iPhone 4S was identical to its predecessor and it took some stick because of it -- although it didn't stop it selling well.

At 130g it's quite a bit lighter than the 144g of the HTC One and the 145g of the Xperia Z . That's not a big difference, but you could start to feel it if you're holding it up in one hand for an hour while you watch Netflix.

Samsung Galaxy S4 translator
At 5inches, it's a big chap. You might want to give it a try in a shop if you have small hands.

The back panel is a thin, plastic affair that lacks the sleek feel offered by the metal HTC One. It bends extremely easily as you peel it off, and you really need to force the little plastic clips to all sit flush. It feels as plasticky as the S3 and Note 2 and, if I'm honest, basically all of Samsung's phones. It's a matter of preference as to whether you like the plastic approach, but it's hard to deny that the metal mobiles have the edge when it comes to luxurious design.

Around the edges you'll find a micro-USB port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a power button and volume rocker.

Storage

Samsung has stated that the phone will be available with 16, 32 or 64GB of storage, but at the time of writing, only the 16GB model was being offered by any networks. If you want the higher-capacity models, you'll likely need to go directly to Samsung or wait to see which retailers offer it SIM-free.

It's important to bear in mind though that Samsung bundles a massive amount of extra software with the phone that takes up a lot of space. Of the 16GB storage, only 8GB is actually useable. Samsung defended this by arguing that it needs the room for all its new features, but it still sparked something of an outrage on our Facebook page, with one commenter writing "This is a scam and mis-advertising."

You can of course root the phone in order to wipe off all Samsung software, freeing up a huge portion of space, but this will void your warranty and potentially destroy your phone if you do it wrong. "For £550 you shouldn't have to void your warranty and potentially brick your phone, simply to have the advertised amount of space," another commenter stated.

There's a microSD card slot under the backplate, so you can at least expand the storage to make room for all your photos and videos. Annoyingly, Samsung doesn't let you install apps on an SD card, so gamers among you will want to keep a close eye on how many glossy games you install -- Real Racing 3 demands almost 2GB of space alone.

Screen

The 5-inch screen is one of the headline features of the Galaxy S4, thanks to its whopping 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. That's Full HD to me and you. It's an impressive boost from the 720p display of the Galaxy S3, but for most tasks, you probably won't notice much of a difference.

The S4's screen is pin-sharp, with icons and text showing no fuzziness around the edges at all. Reading long passages of text in Web pages is perfectly comfortable, and of course high-definition images look beautifully crisp.

Samsung Galaxy S4 4G
The screen is big, bright and incredibly bold.

The HTC One has the same resolution, but its slightly smaller screen size means its pixels are packed tighter. The One boasts 468 pixels per inch (ppi), which narrowly beats the S4's 441ppi, but I really couldn't tell any difference between them, even when looking close up. More pixels might mean a sharper image, but even above the 720p threshold of the S3, there's little point in choosing between them -- there's just not enough difference.

What really counts is how well it displays your photos, videos and apps. Luckily then, the S4 does a great job here, too. Its display is the Super AMOLED type found on some of Samsung's earlier phones, making it incredibly vivid.

Colours are rich and bold, almost to the point of being a little oversaturated. If it's too garish for you then you can choose from different colour profiles in the settings menu. It's bright too, but isn't quite at retina-burning levels. My colleague Jessica Dolcourt struggled a little with reflections under the bright San Francisco sunlight, although I didn't have the same issue under the grey London skies. Sadly. It easily countered our office lights, however.

AirGesture, AirView and SmartPause

To stop you covering that glorious display in oily cake crumbs, Samsung has loaded up some gesture-based navigation. AirGesture lets you wave in front of the phone to control it -- left and right to switch between items, or up and down to scroll through Web pages. It only works in certain apps though. Only in gallery was I was able to swipe left and right, and swipe to scroll works in the Samsung Web browser, but not Chrome.

It's not a critical feature by any means, but waving to move down the Web page will certainly come in handy if you're following a recipe and don't want to smear syrup on the screen.

The screen is super-sensitive which allows it to track your finger, even when it's hovering above, but not touching it. It's a feature also seen on the Galaxy Note 2, but in this instance you don't need to a dorky stylus to use it.

It worked well on the Note, where AirView brought up previews of events in the calendar and emails in Samsung's email app, without needing to actually open the items. The only thing AirView seemed compatible with on the S4 was the video player -- hovering your finger over the timeline brings up a thumbnail of that part of the video, allowing you to easily skip to the section you want.

The high sensitivity of the screen also means you can swipe around it even while wearing gloves. I tried it with a lightweight pair of wool gloves and it still worked fine. It didn't register at all with a thicker pair though, so you'll need to take those chunky working gauntlets off before using it.

The S4 also tracks eye movements to allow you to scroll down a page by tilting the phone and pause a video by looking away -- a feature called SmartPause. SmartPause worked well, pausing the video immediately when I looked away and starting again when I looked back. It's handy if you're quickly distracted by your cat jumping, claws out, onto your crotch, but it can become annoying if you're forced to hold your gaze constantly on a 2-hour movie.

Samsung software

If the S4's familiar design doesn't tempt you to open your wallet, Samsung has bundled in a bunch of extra software nuggets to help shake the cash loose. WatchOn connects your S4 to your TV service provider, showing you programme listings and allowing you to easily flick to a particular channel by controlling your TV via the infrared port.

I gave WatchOn a try on the Note 8 and was disappointed that it didn't seem to work. Testing it with the S4, I was much more successful, managing to pull up listings for Virgin Media. You can see a full channel list, or a curated selection of TV shows and movies. Theoretically, you're then able to control your set-top box with the phone and put on whatever show piqued your interest.

Samsung Galaxy S4
It's handy to see a TV guide on your phone, but it wouldn't connect to my Virgin Media box, making it redundant.

In my own use however, I wasn't able to connect my Virgin Media box (made by Samsung) to the phone. I was able to control my TV -- an improvement on the Note 8 then -- but I couldn't properly take advantage of the service. I wasn't able to spend a lot of time fiddling around to make it work, so I'll come back to this again when I take a deeper look. Even so, it's disheartening that it didn't work properly first time.

Another feature borrowed from Samsung's Note range is the ability to show two apps on screen at once. Press and hold the back button to bring up a panel, showing compatible apps. You can then select two to display at once. It's too fiddly to make it truly useful in a rush, but it's very handy for typing an address on a website into Google Maps, without needing to switch between two apps.

Samsung Galaxy S4
The S4 lets you view two apps at once. It's handy for checking information in a Web page while you write it down elsewhere.

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Where to Buy

Samsung Galaxy S4

Part Number: GS4B GTI9505

Typical Price: £580.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider not specified
  • Weight 130 g
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 13 pixels
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