(Pocket-lint) - It's one of the most anticipated handsets of the year, it's the follow-up to one of the best-selling phones of last year, and it has been hyped to the extent that Samsung is starting to look like it's going to teach Apple a thing or two about generating anticipation. Enter then, the Samsung Galaxy S4.
In some ways, this device is more interesting than just a new phone. It marks an intriguing time for Samsung where the development of hardware has hit something of a wall, and this generation of phones is all about software. And so it's here that the company has invested, announcing new features and upgrading the old to look more sleek and modern.
Of course, that's not to say this phone isn't technologically advanced, because it is, and it's just about the most high-tech handset you can buy. But it's interesting to see what Samsung is doing to distance itself from the herd, and to stand out.
But enough small talk, let's look at one of the most hotly anticipated phones of the year.
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As we type this we have the SGS3 and the SGS4 on our desk. While, superficially, there's really not a lot of difference between the two, to hold, they couldn't feel more different. We really like the new, more square-feeling SGS4. At the back, we prefer the SGS3 aesthetically, although the case design of the new phone is nicer - albeit still plastic.
There are a stack more options here. Some we like, and think we might use, others we can see the value in, and some we think are ridiculous. But, if nothing else, Samsung continues to try hard, and work on new features. Many of these are unique and interesting, rather than just copies of other devices.
We are certain that the SGS4 is a better phone than the SGS3. Loads more features, improvements everywhere and very little that has got worse - you might laugh, but this does happen with successful devices sometimes.
On the negative side, we still think the battery life is a problem, and if you switch of the power-draining features, then you'll end up with the same Android phone as everyone else has, so there's not much point in that, is there? On the whole though, battery life and management seems better on this phone than the last. With normal use, we can get through the working day, so that's pretty reasonable.
As always, the sign of a good gadget is one that we don't want to give back. Our review SGS4 is being returned tomorrow, and the truth is that we're really going to miss it. It is, therefore, a product we heartily commend.
UPDATE: This review was updated to mention controversy around the internal storage capacity of the SGS4.
Samsung Galaxy S4
- A brilliant phone in almost every way
- Subtly better design than SGS3
- Loads of new gesture and eye-tracking features
- A bit complex now
- Incredibly expensive
- Not a huge leap from the SGS3
- Battery life is still bad
The good news is that Samsung has managed to do two things: it has kept the successful design of the Galaxy S range, while making it nicer than its predecessors. We really like the way the SGS4 has taken the rounded edges of the SGS3 and flattened them. Visually, it makes almost no difference - at first glance, no one will be able to tell this isn't the SGS3 - but in your hand, it feels better and, crucially, is less likely to fall to the ground.
The body of the phone is still plastic though, and that comes with its own problems. While it's light and cheap, it doesn't feel as nice as a metal body does. It also attracts marks and fingerprints more readily than other materials and we've found that, on a hot day, sweat can mean Samsung's choice of plastics makes its phones hard to hold.
In terms of layout, nothing much has changed. The home button is in the same place and is pretty much the same shape bar a minor tweak. The power button is a little longer now, but in the same location as before, and the same goes for the volume rocker on the right of the phone. The headphone socket is still at the top, and the Micro-USB socket at the bottom.
Around the back the speaker has moved from near the camera to the bottom of the handset. The flash is now beneath the camera lens, where before it was to the side. We liked the old layout, and think the new back looks cheaper. The camera lens assembly is larger too, but it doesn't upset the design significantly.
Under the rear cover, the removable battery, microSD card and micro SIM are still the same, and in the same places. You can put up to 64GB of extra storage in the SGS4 with an optional SD card, and that goes along with either the 16, 32 or 64GB models available. In all honesty, you'd be crazy to buy a high-capacity phone when microSD cards are so cheap.
The raw numbers say this phone is smaller and lighter than the SGS3, and that's impressive considering it has a larger capacity battery and a larger, higher-resolution, display. It doesn't really feel any different though, and side-by-side with the older phone, there's really nothing significant to choose between them.
It screens quality
There are no two ways about it, 1080p screens on small phones are just the bee's knees. Here, what you get is a 5-inch screen which, at 1920 x 1080 equates to 441 pixels per inch. That's a higher resolution than Apple's iPhone, and it beats pretty much everything else on the market too, although 1080p displays are becoming the norm for high-end Android devices.
Looking at it, you can tell it's special. We found that it looks best when it's allowed to shine brightly. That's something common to AMOLED displays, and at lower brightnesses, things tend to look a bit dull and lifeless. Obviously, running your phone at full brightness will kill the battery more quickly, but it does make for a more fetching device. It's also worth pointing out that in very bright sunlight, this screen can get a little bit swamped. It is possible to see it, but be prepared to hunt for some shade when the sun is brightest.
Thanks to the crazy quad-core processor, the screen doesn't have to suffer with low-bitrate, rubbish quality, video. Oh no. Throw it a high-bitrate, 1080p MKV file with MP4 encoded video and it's as super-happy as Larry. This is impressive, and it means you can use this phone to play media on your TV without the need for any other hardware. Samsung's own TVs have the ability to easily accept mirroring in this way, which is good if you exist in a Samsung-dominated world.
For everything else, the screen is great. The resolution means you can get a lot of webpage on the screen at once. The text will be small though, and while those with keen eyes will find it no problem, those who need larger fonts might find the screen size less than optimal. If that's the case, the Note 2 is an ideal choice for you, with a lower resolution and a bigger screen, it's better set up for the web than the SGS4.
Motion, voice and eye control
At some point, mobile phone manufacturers decided that although we'd all bought touchscreen phones, the absolute last thing we'd ever want to do with them is actually to touch them. So they all set about trying to invent new ways for us to interact with our telephones. Samsung has been a leader here, and while Apple got in first with really solid voice assistant tech, the Korean firm has taken voice and added motion and gestures to its arsenal.
What the Galaxy S4 has is the widest selection of non-touch controls we've seen. Some of them are better than others and all of them consume battery like it's going out of fashion.
Our favourite feature is "quick glance" which gives you key information when you reach toward the phone. We love this on the Note 2 as well, but the problem for us there was that it wasn't sensitive enough. Here, it's much more prepared to light up and tell you things when you go near it. It's ace, and we love that other apps can interact with it too - Outlook can show you when you have new Hotmail/Outlook/Live mail, for example.
We also like "direct call", which calls any contact whose details you have on screen when you raise the phone to your head, and "smart alert", which tells you about calls you missed when you were away from the phone by vibrating when you pick the phone up. It's a bit pointless, but if you're in a rush it's good to know that something worth checking has happened.
While "smart scroll" is impressive enough in theory, in practice it leaves you making some comically over-zealous head movements to get text to scroll. It works really well, but you'll look like a fool using it. Meanwhile "smart stay" which keeps the screen on when you're looking at it, is fine, but hopeless if you look away: it goes off, then you want it to come back on again. When Samsung can turn the screen on when you do that, we'll be impressed.
Our final "smart" thing worth mentioning is the video pause feature. With video playing, if you look away, it will pause and resume when you look back. This worked perfectly for us when we were testing it, and we can see this being of use when we're trying to watch a movie and Mrs Lint wants us for something.
S Voice is still a major part of the "not touching your phone" offering. It works well enough, but we can't think of many reasons to use it apart from when you're in the car - when it's actually very good. Use Samsung's driving mode, and it will sit waiting for you to say "Hi Galaxy" - or your phrase - and you can then issue it commands. For example, ask for directions to a location or, as we did, ask it to find a local petrol station.