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Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Reliable multicarrier, midrange contender

It may not have the HTC One Mini's style or the Droid Mini's touch-free controls, but Samsung's Galaxy S4 Mini is a midrange Android 4.2 smartphone contender that's available on more carriers.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

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8 min read

Start with a Samsung Galaxy S4, shrink it down, then replace its insides with midrange components. That, in a nutshell, is the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini. And for some cell phone customers, that's just about ideal.

galaxy-s4-mini-35780481-7967.jpg
7.3

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini</b> brings a strong feature set for a midrange phone, including Android 4.2, a dual-core processor, and an 8-megapixel camera. The Sprint version has excellent call quality.

The Bad

The Galaxy S4 Mini has only 8GB of internal storage, and mediocre front-facing camera quality. Data was slow on Sprint's network.

The Bottom Line

Its reliable specs and availability on four carriers make the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini an easy-to-find midtier buy, but you should also compare the S4 Mini with its substantial competition.

Although smaller and lighter than the S4, with every spec scaled back, this Mini is no slouch. Its 4.3-inch qHD display, Android 4.2 OS, 8-megapixel camera, and dual-core processor charmed AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and US Cellular enough to commit to the smaller S4 sibling. There's a certain reliability, too, that comes with Samsung's almost cookie-cutter version of Android, which isn't quite as ornamented with software extras as the Galaxy S4 flagship, but retains a lot of its gestures and even the IR blaster for controlling your TV.

However, the processor sometimes feels sluggish, internal storage is limited at 8GB (though you can expand it by another 64GB), and the front-facing camera takes grainy photos and videos.

Read also: The five Galaxy S4s: Which one's for you?

If the other carriers follow Sprint's pricing -- $99 with a new two-year service agreement (or free, during a limited promotion, if you switch from another carrier) -- the S4 Mini is a safe bet for someone looking for an on-contract Android bargain. However, it certainly isn't alone in the "Mini" field. (For a comparison of the GS4 Mini with other "Mini" phones, see the conclusion.)

Samsung's Galaxy S4 family tree (pictures)

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Design and build
With its 4.3-inch screen and 4.9-by-2.4-by-0.4-inch dimensions, the S4 Mini is somewhat misnamed. It's just about the same size as Apple's iPhone 5S, but with a larger screen. Relative to the S4, however, and its Galaxy Note 3 kin, the Mini is indeed light (3.8 ounces), slim, and much easier to carry around in a pocket.

In terms of design, it looks just like a Galaxy S4 writ small, with the same rounded edges, physical home button, silvery sides, and slick plastic, patterned backing in either "black mist" or "marble white." For the record, I reviewed the black version for Sprint.

Just like the original, this Mini places the volume rocker on the left spine, the power/lock button on the right, the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom, and the headset jack and IR blaster up top. A front-facing camera and sensors live at the top of the display, and the phone's solidly performing 8-megapixel shooter and LED flash are on the back. You'll need to remove both the battery cover and the battery to insert a microSD card or SIM card, so I wouldn't make it a habit to swap either one often.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini
The 4.3-inch AMOLED screen has a qHD display. James Martin/CNET

The screen is a 4.3-inch qHD Super AMOLED affair with a 960x540-pixel resolution and a pixel density of 256ppi. For reference, the HTC One Mini's 4.3-inch 720p HD screen has a higher pixel density at 340ppi. You can certainly tell the difference with the two devices laid side by side, but on its own, the S4 Mini's screen looks bright in automatic mode and colorful, the way that AMOLEDs do.

Whites look a little yellower on the S4 Mini's display, and text reads slightly duller and a little fuzzier, and when you zoom in tight you will notice aliasing on the letter. Overall, though, these details won't impede daily tasks like watching videos or reading the news.

OS and apps
Samsung's TouchWiz interface for the Galaxy S4 family lies on top of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. What this means for you is an enhanced notifications shade with even more toggles you can access by swiping down with two fingers. These include features like Smart Stay, which keeps the lock screen from engaging so long as your eyes flit back to the display, driving mode, and NFC, along with system settings toggles.

Samsung's multitude of apps includes S Memo, Group Play (for creating an ad hoc media-sharing network among select Samsung phones), S Voice, and the Watch On app for controlling your TV. There are carrier-branded apps as well, and carrier partner preloads. For instance, the Lookout security app, TripAdvisor, and Scout.

The S4 Mini is slim and light; it slides much more easily into pockets than the full-size Galaxy S4. James Martin/CNET

Google apps and services are here in full force, including the new Hangouts app. These go along with essentials such as the calculator, music player, and clock. GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0 are other staples.

Camera and video
Samsung now equips its premier line with a 13-megapixel camera module, reserving the 8-megapixel shooter for the midrange set. That's still pretty impressive, and this camera (with continuous autofocus) is a solid performer.

Photos are, for the most part, sharp and capture a fair amount of detail when viewed on the phone's screen, certainly enough to share with friends through e-mail and social-networking services. Viewed at their full resolution, they're grainy and soft, lacking crispness and finer details like contrast and texture. Low-light shots taken in automatic mode will get you dark, very grainy images, but the phone does have night mode. Overall, though, I'm pleased with the quality for this category of phone.

An 8-megapixel camera is a nice touch, but takes poor low-light shots in automatic mode. James Martin/CNET

The camera app also feels like a complete, fairly intuitive experience. It offers up onscreen controls for switching between the camera and video; modes like panorama and HDR; and filters like sepia and red/yellow. There aren't quite as many tools and shooting modes as on the Galaxy S4, but the important ones are there and there's plenty to keep you occupied.

1080p HD video capture was also high-quality, capturing sounds closer to the mic and struggling with picking up subjects' voices that were farther from the microphone. Images adequately adjusted to lighting changes and played back smoothly.

The S4 Mini has a healthy complement of shooting modes, though (expectedly) not as many as the flagship S4. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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.

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.

Check out the Samsung Galaxy S4 not-so-Mini (pictures)

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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.

galaxy-s4-mini-35780481-7967.jpg
7.3

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7
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