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Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: No midrange slouch (hands-on)

Samsung's "Mini" Galaxy S4 may be smaller, cheaper, and less premium than the full-throttle original, but it's still packed with compelling features.

Now playing: Watch this: Hands-on with Samsung's Galaxy S4 Mini

If Samsung's Galaxy S4 is more phone than you think you need, the electronics giant has just offered up the smaller, more midrange -- and surely cheaper -- Galaxy S4 Mini.

Like a decaffeinated beverage, Samsung is hoping to give its lighter smartphone much of the same S4 taste with just a little less oomph. Although the Mini has stepped-down specs compared with its flagship family, like a lower-resolution screen and an 8-megapixel camera instead of a 13-megapixel shooter, it's no slouch when it comes to the Galaxy S4's core features, like a built-in TV remote control.

As with the Galaxy S3 Mini that came before, this version is aimed more toward the mass market than the high-end sector. Here in the middle, the Mini plays the role of the lower price option compared with the marquee Galaxy S4, without sacrificing too many of the superphone's more-defining features.

The CNET crew got hands-on time with the smaller smartphone in London at the June 20 launch event, and at Samsung's simultaneous shindig in New York. Here's how it stacks up against the original Galaxy S4.

Design and build
Samsung's modest Mini is a wee bit shorter, thicker, and wider than the svelte Galaxy S4 but clearly cut from the same cloth. Like the round-shouldered original, the Mini retains its curved perimeter, metallic rim, and rectangular Home button, and also comes in black and white versions.

Specifically, the global S4 Mini stands 124.6 millimeters tall (4.9 inches) by 61.3 millimeters wide (2.4 inches) by 8.9 millimeters thick (0.35 inch) and weighs a lighter 107 grams (3.7 ounces, compared with the S4's 4.6-ounce weight). A 3G-only, dual-SIM version will weigh a hair more at 108 grams.

In our hands we can definitely say that the Mini feels much more compact than the S4. Indeed, it's something we couldn't really appreciate until physically in the presence of the tiny device. Compared with the Galaxy Note 2, the Galaxy S4 Mini looks almost as small as a BlackBerry Q10. In fact, it's dwarfed by the larger handset to the point of being comical.

The S4 Mini has an 8-megapixel main camera. Sarah Tew/CNET

The phone's screen quality is perhaps the first place you'll really notice the hardware differences between the Galaxy S4 and its little cousin. Don't expect the S4 Mini's 4.3-inch qHD Super AMOLED display to look as sharp at 960x540 pixels as does the Galaxy S4's 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution on its 5-inch screen. For all you pixel-hounds, that's a 441 pixel density on the Galaxy S4 compared with 256ppi for the S4 Mini. Indeed the Mini's screen had noticeably less impact than the Galaxy S4's when we viewed it in person.

Both Galaxy screens support the same color gamut and OLED display technology, though the Mini won't have the Galaxy S4's ultrasensitive, glove-friendly capabilities.

From the looks of it, the S4 Mini shares most of the S4 family's other physical attributes, including the location and shape of the camera, flash, sensors, buttons, and ports. It seems that the Mini sports the same subtle patterning as the S4's finish.

OS and features
Importantly, the Galaxy S4 Mini runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean underneath its TouchWiz layer. Custom interfaces like TouchWiz are notorious for stalling Android update efforts, so starting at such a current OS build is crucial for keeping a phone like the S4 Mini from falling behind the times.

With TouchWiz comes a mountain of software embellishments, like more one-touch system settings in the notifications pull-down and options like Air View, which produces an onscreen cursor when you wag your finger close to the screen.

Samsung hasn't told us exactly which extras will take root in the Mini, but it's safe to assume that it's an almost identical software build as the Galaxy S4's. Transporting its signature Galaxy-only abilities across devices is absolutely Samsung's style.

If software enhancements are your thing, the presence of these bonus features is one reason to pick the Mini over any other midtier device: you won't have the most powerful hardware, but you'll still hold onto features like Group Play, and Samsung's built-in apps. (For more on all these, check out this full Samsung Galaxy S4 review.)

We're most gratified to see the S4's IR blaster make its way onto the Mini. This little hardware bauble turns your phone into a TV remote control when paired with the WatchOn app. Top phones like the HTC One and LG Optimus G Pro share this soon-to-be living room staple, but the Galaxy S4 Mini will be the first of its class to also bail you out when your TV remote falls behind the couch.

As for connections and communications, Bluetooth 4.0 keeps the Mini current. NFC, which makes content-sharing possible with a tap, will make it onto LTE-enabled versions of the Mini. We're not sure why Samsung isn't including NFC in non-LTE Mini handsets, but it likely has something to do with cost control for different markets worldwide.

Cameras and video
Although the Galaxy S4 Mini may not deliver quite the rich detail of the S4's 13-megapixel camera, Samsung is still gifting the "decaf" device with an 8-megapixel shooter, which is no resolution to sneeze at, especially the way Samsung typically outfits its camera modules. Expect high-fidelity images and smooth 1080p HD video.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini's ports and fixtures show up in the same place as on the original S4. Samsung

The 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera should also pull its weight for casual self-portraits and video chats.

Shutterbugs will get a nice, large helping of Samsung's photo software, including Panorama and HDR modes (that's high-dynamic range), Night mode, burst shot, and several others that help pick the best of the bunch.

While the new Sound & Shot mode makes an appearance (that records an audio clip to narrate the still, but plays back only on S4 phones,) the new dual-shot mode -- which uses both front and rear camera captures in a single picture -- does not.

While it's tough to guess how well the Galaxy S4 Mini will perform all around the world, the specs do tell a promising story. First up, there are up to six bands for global LTE support, plus HSPA+ 42 speeds, and 3G and 2G fail-safes.

LTE-ready builds of the Mini won't come to every market, but if you've got LTE phones where you live, that's the version you should expect to see when and if the handset lands in a store near you. Otherwise, you'll get a 3G version of the phone, and, in some markets, even a dual-SIM device. The double-barrel configuration has its benefits, but don't hold your breath for a dual-SIM Mini to hit every country (sorry, U.S.).

Now what about raw computing power? Unlike the superpowered quad-core or octa-core Galaxy S4, the S4 Mini will pack a 1.7GHz dual-core processor under its hood. That's completely respectable, depending on the chipset's make and model, and I'll guess that most people won't miss the Galaxy S4's high-octane gaming speeds.

Smaller than the original Galaxy S4, the Mini crops the screen from 5 inches down to 4.3. Sarah Tew / CBS Interactive

The phone's smaller screen size is one explanation for the Mini's 1,900mAh battery, which should still keep the phone charged during the peak hours of the day. Unsurprisingly, there's a smaller bank of storage on this lighter device -- 8GB, with closer to 5GB for the phone owner's content. However, a microSD slot holds up to 64GB extra.

In terms of RAM, the Galaxy S4 Mini splits the difference between the S4's 2GB quotient and midrange device's 1GB capacity with 1.5GB RAM.

Which to buy: Galaxy S4 or Galaxy S4 Mini?
Without pricing or availability details from Samsung and its global partners, it's hard to make a value judgment about which is the better deal. (We'll update this Galaxy S4 Mini First Take with that information as soon as Samsung loosens its lips.)

From the looks of it, the Galaxy S4 Mini has the ingredients to deliver a very solid smartphone experience at a more affordable price, though the screen quality and battery life could flag compared with the real S4 deal. More-serious mobile gamers and camera snobs should stick with the fully loaded Galaxy S4.

That advice also goes for anyone who consumes a large amount of reading and viewing material from the phone screen. The S4's, while fairly reflective, will still trump the Mini's lower-res display.

Still, if you like the sound of a surely less expensive device that keeps most of its key features, and you don't mind some toned-down specs, hold off for the moment until more information about the Mini pours in.

This handy chart lines up the S4 and S4 Mini specs to help you decide whether to wait.

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung's Galaxy S4 powerhouse

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