Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review: Reliable multicarrier, midrange contender

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini 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.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

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.

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.)

Editors' note: The rating reflects the Sprint version of this device, and could change when we review the phone on other carriers.

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