Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review:

Reliable multicarrier, midrange contender

Image quality on the front-facing 2-megapixel camera was pretty poor, exhibiting a lot of digital noise and duller colors. Moderate your expectations accordingly when it comes to video chats.

All sample photos were taken using automatic mode and can be clicked to enlarge to their full resolution.

CNET Español's video producer was shot indoors in artificial lighting. The entire image has a soft focus I wasn't looking for. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Special delivery! The camera struggled with backlit lighting, completely washing out the background. The subject's face is once again out of focus. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Here's a close-up of those flowers. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This shiny magnetic toy looks sharper and more colorful in photos taken with other smartphones. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This phone's strong flash illuminates the studly expressions of CNET's Eric Franklin and Jason Parker in a dim indoor spot. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can check out studio shots taken with other smartphone cameras in this comparison gallery.

Call quality
Call quality sounded very clear on Sprint when I tested it from several locations and several different calls around San Francisco. I didn't detect any blips, cutting out, or white noise. Voices sounded warm, human, and true to type, with only a hint of fuzziness. Volume was loud enough only at maximum levels in a relatively quiet office, so you'll probably need to boost the volume through an onscreen control, or strain to hear. My chief testing partner also said that I sounded terrific, like I was calling from a landline.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (Sprint) call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone quality wasn't quite as high when I tested it at hip level. Although volume didn't drop, a good sign, voices sounded pitched and nasal, and there was a little buzz. Again, in louder environments, you'll need to increase volume through an onscreen control or get somewhere quieter. On his end, my call partner said that volume didn't drop, but that my words sounded indistinct. He much preferred speaking through the standard earpiece.

Performance: Data, processor, battery life
The Galaxy S4 Mini's overall performance will vary entirely by the strength of the carrier's network in your area. For example, the Sprint version I tested was plagued by slower 3G speeds and network connectivity issues that sometimes interfered with getting online when I wasn't on Wi-Fi. 4G LTE winked at me once, only to disappear forevermore.

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Diagnostic tests taken to calculate network performance and processor speed. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You'll find Sprint's diagnostic speed scores for San Francisco in the screenshot above, but keep in mind that your experience with your carrier and area may differ dramatically.

Much more constant across providers is the 1.7GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 MSM8930 chipset. Here, the S4 Mini is right in the middle of the field, where you'd expect. It brings home a very solid Quadrant benchmark score in the 7,000 range, compared with the 1,200 range and above for quad-core handsets like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One.

Navigation goes off without a hitch, and for the most part, the S4 Mini has all the moves of a smooth operator. I did notice, however, that graphics were far choppier on my usual test game, Riptide GP 2, than I've been used to with quad-core devices. Gameplay was also slightly diminished by comparatively poorer response rates.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini Times on Sprint (3G)
Install CNET mobile app (5MB) 3 minutes, 26 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 11.5 seconds
CNET mobile site load 18.2 seconds
CNET desktop site load 41 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 28 seconds
Camera boot time 2.7 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot 3.5 seconds, autofocus and flash;
0.7 second without autofocus

One sign that this phone is indeed a lesser version of the S4 is in this Mini's 8GB internal storage, which brings you closer to 5GB total. Thankfully, the up to 64GB extra that you can add will shoulder the weight of a lot of photos, movies, and books. The S4 Mini has 1.5GB RAM.

The S4 Mini has a rated talk time of 12 hours (over 3G) on its 1,900mAh battery, which is pretty good. There's a lot you can do on this phone to more rapidly drain the battery, mostly when it comes to extra gestures and settings, so my advice is to use them judiciously or learn to carry a charger around. Still, the battery should easily last you a full workday with moderate use. We'll continue to examine the Mini in our in-house battery drain tests.

According to FCC measurements, the S4 Mini has a digital SAR of 1.08 watts per kilogram.

Buy it or skip it?
Samsung's Galaxy S4 Mini is a wonderful all-around midrange device that offers a fair number of features for its smaller, more scaled-back stature. That said, this may or may not be the right phone to buy. Assuming that carriers continue to sell the Samsung Galaxy S3 (it should be free with a new contract), which phone to get is pretty much a toss-up. The advantage of the Mini is that it runs the more up-to-date OS right out of the box and is closer to the front of the line for getting Android 4.4 KitKat.

Then there's the question of how the S4 Mii compares with other $100 on-contract "Mini" phones, like the HTC One Mini, Motorola Droid Mini, and iPhone 5C.

Hardware specs are especially similar between the One Mini (AT&T), Droid Mini (Verizon), and S4 Mini, though there are slight differences, like the One Mini's and Droid Mini's 16GB capacities and no external storage versus the S4 Mini's 8GB capacity, but expandable storage.

For my money, I prefer the HTC One Mini's beautifully crafted design and the OS experience. If you desire NFC and an IR blaster for changing TV channels, get the S4 Mini. If you'd like a more basic experience that places hardware design first, HTC should be your choice.

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