Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review

There's a division in the world of smartphones. There are phones that are normal-sized and phones that are super-sized. You will like one type or the other, more than likely, and we naturally seem to fall into the latter, rather liking the bigger phones such as the HTC One, Galaxy S4 and the Note II. But what if you're not a monster-phone fan? What then?

Then say hello to the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, or from here on, SGS4 Mini or just, plain Mini. This phone is designed to offer the features of its bigger sibling but with a more compact footprint and a marginally cheaper price. It could be ideal then, but like anything, there could also be some downsides. 

Less screen, less power and less storage

The first and most obvious thing to understand is that the Mini has less power than the standard SGS4. We're not talking massive differences here, but you're certainly not getting a Galaxy S4 shrunken down to iPhone size, although the device is, in terms of dimensions, pretty close to the iPhone.

In terms of specs, what you get in the Mini is a dual-core, compared to the SGS 4's quad-core. There's 1.5GB of RAM, which is half-a-gig less than in the full-sized phone, and you get a maximum of 8GB of storage. In fact, the storage situation is slightly worse than that, because there's only 5GB available to the user.

We used to dismiss the internal storage moans of some people, especially when handsets had the option of adding a microSD card, but things are changing, and it appears that Google really wants to get away from external storage. For one thing, it's no longer possible to move apps to the SD card on a standard phone. This is a problem, because some games and the like are absolutely massive. Real Racing 3 and The Dark Knight Rises are over 1GB each, in fact, Batman clocks in at 1.8GB. Install both those games and a few other apps, some photos and you're officially done.

To access that microSD card slot, just pop the back off the phone, remove the battery and you'll see the micro SIM and SD card sockets. It's worth noting, in some regions, this handset is available with dual-SIM slots, something we'd quite like to see in the UK. 

Gorgeous screen

Although the pixel density here is lower than the SGS4, we adore this screen. The AMOLED does what it does, and has those colours that are super-vivid, this is great for normal phone stuff, but when it comes to photos and videos, it's hardly super-accurate. Even so, it works well and has plenty of brightness.

Although the screen is small, typing is okay, but you have to use one hand. We're used to the Note II, which is a two-handed affair, but try that here and you'll end up with nonsense instead of words. But the phone is small enough to use with one hand, so this all makes plenty of sense.

The detail is amazing though, and despite having only a 540 x 960 resolution 4.3-inch screen, that's still got 256ppi which is a decent amount. You could, if you wanted, compare that to the 441ppi on the SGS4, but even so it manages to look pretty stunning. Proving, we suppose, that there's a lot more to a screen than just a number.

Samsung vs. Android

Some pundits have noted that, for the most part, Samsung doesn't really want to be associated with Android. The firm does all it can to differentiate its product from the Google Android look and feel. This is something of a double-edged sword, because Samsung brings an enormous amount to its phones, and this is all stuff that's not possible with vanilla Android.

On the flipside, the look of Android with Touchwiz is not something that goes down well with everyone. For one, we get quite tired of Samsung's insistence that everything has an S in front of it. S Voice, S Translator, S Memo and, easily the worst and most counter productive: S Planner (it's a calendar). S Planner is awful to use, but you can get the proper Google Calendar app in the app store, so no harm, no foul.

Despite the silly names, almost all of Samsung's apps are really good. S Translate is well done, simple to use and you can opt to download HD voices that improve the spoken quality of translations. What's more, you can control S Translate with your voice - speak English to it, and it will transcribe what you say, and present a translation. And, the same in reverse. This is the closest thing to the Star Trek universal translator you can imagine, and it's possible now, in a handset that costs a few hundred quid. If that doesn't impress the hell out of you, you're already dead inside.

 

We've used "car mode" for navigating too, and it's clever. What it does is give you the usual S-Voice interface, but it remains permanently active, waiting for you to say "Hi galaxy" or your own wake up phrase, when you do this, you can use the phone through voice command. Ask it to find you a petrol station, and it will do so and push the answer to Google Maps. It's actually really good, and a feature that a lot of people probably ignore. It munches battery though, so be careful.

One thing that does continue to annoy slightly, though, is the Samsung notion that it must have a duplicate of every Google service. Presumably, if Samsung thought it could get away with it, it would remove the Play music, video, app and bookstores, and just use its own. But it can't do that, and keep the "Google experience" so it has two of everything.

There's a Samsung apps store, which keeps the Samsung apps up-to-date, and which you are therefore forced to use. There's the Samsung Hub, which contains the book, movie, game and music stores. This is all just the Google Play suite all over again, with vaguely different selections that add to the confusion of media rights ownership.

And then there's the Samsung account thing. You have a Google account, but Samsung also wants you to have a Samsung account. Without it, you can't access the Samsung stores - perhaps no bad thing - but it's yet another account to sign in with, and to remember the password for. It's a pain, and it's redundant.

None of this spoils the device, but it does make Apple look good, because its product has one of everything. That might be locked down too far for some, but it's a lot simpler for the customer.

Group Play

One of the features that Samsung has promoted heavily, is Group Play. The idea here is that multiple Samsung devices can be paired and combined to play music together. It's a sort of "down-and-dirty" way of making a speaker system out of phones.

Obviously, you need to have Samsung phones to make this work, and they need to be recent ones, running the latest software. In Samsung's world, this is no problem, because everyone has Samsung phones, and everyone has the lastest software. In the real world, that's unlikely.

We tested it with two recent Sammys, and the results were, honestly, a bit mixed. The pairing is easy, and you'll have them working together in no time at all. It sort of works by joining one wireless AP, and that's all fine. What we did find though, is that the music wasn't quite synced perfectly. It was really hard to tell by how much they were out, or which one was fast and which was slow, but the music just didn't sound right.

It's a nice idea, but it needs some tweaking to really be of much use.

Performance

One of the things we have noticed on the Mini, is just how slick the Samsung implementation is now. TouchWiz feels more lively and looks more pretty than stock Android, at least in some regards. Hit the multitask button, for example, and the dominant window beautifully reduces in size to show the list of recent apps. Press the one you want, and it smoothly expands. It's a small thing, but it gives the phone a really solid feeling.

Speaking generally, in terms of the way the phone runs, it feels to us as slick as the SGS4, and it's doing that on a processor that's much less advanced, and with less memory. It really is very impressive, and it means that anyone buying this phone will feel they're getting a mini Galaxy S4 experience, rather than a budget experience - which at this price would have been awful.

We also played some 1080p video, with DTS sound, and it worked. This is high-bitrate 1080p too, and we have to say that this is seriously impressive. Of course, 1080p is a bit of a waste on a phone this size, but what it does do is prove that Samsung understands what consumers might want, and it gears its devices up accordingly. So both games, and HD video work really well on this phone, and that's something that matters to us, and a lot of other people. 

Camera

As with most phone cameras, there are a lot of possible options here. There are two groups: the more sensible shooting modes, which include HDR, auto and sport, and the silly filter stuff that makes your £300 phone look like a pinhole effort from the 1900s. Filters schmilters, that's what we say, but you might use them if you hate photography and want it to die in a filtered mess.

The camera itself is nice to use. It's not a megapixel monster or anything, but the images it produces have a natural look to them, with nice colours and plenty of detail. None of that budget phone camera stuff here, just a really nice crisp image.

The front-mounted camera is fine for selfies, although any self-respecting duckface should really be pulled in a mirror, with the rear camera. It's also decent enough for video calls, like anyone bothers with those.

Call quality

One thing that really did strike us was just how good this phone was at being a phone. Calls were really nice-sounding. There was plenty of volume, and the quality was absolutely great. It's nice to use as a phone, because its size and shape lend it to being pushed against your ear. This is something missing from larger phones like the Note, and even the full-sized Galaxy S4. If you're on the phone a lot, we can't name a handset that's nicer to use than this one. 

Battery

There's something odd going on with the Mini, but the battery life - even with all the gubbins turned on - is really good. We had two email accounts pushing our mail to us, Frequent messing about with the screen on, playing Real Racing 3, forgetting to close Real Racing 3 so it was running - and playing music - for 30 minutes. We used it for text messages, and calls, and at the end of the day, it's only 38 per cent drained after 16 hours.

Now, caveat time. We used the phone, and installed a bunch of our favourite apps, but this was not like our day-to-day phone, which has all manner of things installed, and now doesn't see a day out, despite having as much as two-day capacity when new. Some of this might be battery stability over time, and some of it will be because we have a lot of stupid apps running, but even so, from a base level the Mini has impressed us, far more than other phone put in the same position.

Verdict

When it comes down to it The SGS4 Mini is a terrific little phone. Solid battery performance, brilliant sound quality and a really nice form factor make it lovely to use.

The lack of internal memory is a big issue though. While music and videos can be offloaded to an SD card, apps can't, and apps are starting to get really big in some cases. While we accept that gamers won't flock to this phone, we still think that the 5GB of internal storage is mean beyond words. This is not a cheap phone, but it has the capacity of a low-end handset. Yes, cloud storage is becoming more important, but at the same time Google appears to be pushing manufacturers away from external storage, and re-writing Android to make their jobs harder. We checked to make sure that Play Music could see SD card music, and it can, but what if Google decides to stop that in the future?

Certainly, most users will never come up against an app limit. We've only recently had it once - amusingly, on a Note II - and it's a pretty frustrating occurrence, because you have to decide what you're going to delete, and the chances are you won't actually want to delete anything.

All of that aside, the Mini remains a solidly built, likeable and surprisingly capable phone. TouchWiz and the included apps are, for us, not exactly welcome these days - we'd prefer a more "Google" look, but there is so much extra functionality here with Samsung's services that we can't argue that these customisations aren't necessary.



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