It’s been a little over three months since we first reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S4, and a great deal has changed in that time. The phone has launched on countless carriers around the world, allowing us to experience Samsung’s latest on different networks and in different settings. Its firmware has been updated, eliminating most of the niggling performance issues we pointed out in our original review. And the Google Play edition GS4 has given us a fresh perspective on the device, as well as a new option for Android purists.
In recent months I’ve been hopping back and forth between the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, but the GS4 has never been far from my side. And it’s fair to say my overall opinion of the phone has changed since we wrapped up our review. So check past the break for some long-term thoughts on Samsung's Galaxy S4.
Plastic and PenTile
Having been a little underwhelmed by the “black mist” color Galaxy S4 I reviewed on Sprint, I opted for “frost white” when it came time to choose my European GS4 model. I’ve used assorted Samsung devices in various colors, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the manufacturer’s glossy plastic designs just look better in light colors. The smudging and fingerprints the phone invariably picks up with daily use are less noticeable, and the diamond pattern on the back cover is a little more subtle. The trade-off with the white version is that the front bezel is (rather obviously) highly reflective, which can cause visibility problems in bright sunlight.
We’ve been critical of the GS4’s glossy, plastic-based construction in the past. We’ve said it feels cheap, not as “premium” as rivals like the HTC One. I’ve even seen one or two other reviewers use the word “slimy.” And while I still prefer the way the HTC One feels in the hand, it’s worth clarifying the difference between materials and build quality. Glossy plastic doesn’t make for the best-feeling handset, but it does make the GS4 incredibly light and impact-resistant.
My European GS4 has sustained a couple of knocks, most significantly from shoulder height onto a hardwood floor. To my relief everything remained in one piece, and the plastic battery door stayed in place, sustaining a couple of sizeable impact marks in the process. I replaced it at a cost of around £10 — that’s not something I’d be able to do with a metal unibody or glass-backed device. Sometimes plastic has its advantages.
In our review I bemoaned the lack of adjustable automatic brightness levels on the GS4, and sure enough, this was fixed in a software update. (In fact, some versions of the phone shipped with this option already present.) A higher base brightness level has allowed me to better enjoy the GS4’s bright, bold SuperAMOLED display. LCD-based rivals still offer better daylight visibility, but its tough to beat the vibrance and super-vivid colors of the GS4’s AMOLED panel.
A word on storage ...
We touched on it briefly in our original review, but we should again point out the 16GB Galaxy S4’s meager amount of available internal storage. Nine gigabytes and change isn’t a whole lot of storage when you’re paying several hundred dollars for a high-end smartphone. To Samsung’s credit, it’s clawed back a little more available storage on the European GS4, and introduced the option to move certain apps to the SD card in the latest firmware. On one hand it’s an ugly, hacky answer to this particular technical problem. On the other, it’s the best solution available to users, and a pretty effective one at that.
Next time around, though, there’s no excuse for not offering a 32GB base level of storage.
Losing the lag
When we first reviewed the Galaxy S4 back in April, it had some noticeable performance issues. Samsung was taking Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 600 chip — silicon we’d already seen powering a slick, smooth experience on other devices — and delivering a much less responsive UI. On our original Sprint review unit, lag and stutters were commonplace, to the point where the device often seemed slower than the last generation of Samsung phones. Rivals like HTC, for instance, seemed to be getting a smoother experience out of lesser hardware. And it wasn’t just lag — the initial GS4 software seemed more than a little crash-happy.
Fortunately, a couple of software updates later, these performance and usability issues are mostly fixed, and TouchWiz on the GS4 is about smooth and responsive as other high-end Android handsets. It’s disappointing — puzzling, even — that Samsung shipped software in this state on a flagship product, but at least it was remedied relatively quickly.
Look at all these features I will never use
The latest iteration of Samsung’s TouchWiz software is packed a bewildering number of features — so many that there’s now an extra step in the setup process explaining what everything does. The major new additions in the Galaxy S4 include Air view, Air gesture, Smart Pause and Group Play, to name but a few.
While reviewing the GS4 back in April, and using it regularly since then, I just couldn’t shift the idea that these were features designed to sell me a phone in commercials and carrier stores, rather than helping me out once I’ve actually parted with my cash. And once the novelty wore off, I didn’t find many of the GS4’s waving, gesturing, eye-tracking tricks to be particularly useful. Tapping a screen is always going to be more natural than awkwardly holding your finger an inch or so away. The same applies to waving your way through photos. It’s just easier to touch the screen — the motion required to do so and the energy expended is smaller.
And there’s plenty more stuff I was happy to completely ignore. Story Album, for instance, aims to turn all your photos into an easy-to-navigate album, complete with location and tagging info. Instead it produces something that looks like it was cobbled together in a ten-year-old version of Microsoft Word. S Voice, though improved, continues to play second fiddle to Google Now.
Of course, superfluous features can be easily ignored, or disabled entirely if they’re not needed. If you want to take drastic measures, there’s even Easy mode, which allows you to live in blissful, sandboxed ignorance. But I have to wonder where this feature creep is going to end. Will the Galaxy S5 do everything the Galaxy S4 did? What about the Galaxy S6 after that? Surely, at some point, maintaining such a lengthy list of functionality has got to become unmanageable.
Instead, the really useful stuff in TouchWiz lies a little further beneath the surface. There’s the overhauled, Galaxy Camera-inspired camera app with a wealth of really useful shooting options, including the best panorama mode I’ve seen on any smartphone. The ingenious S Health app, which ties into the built-in pedometer to track exercise. And I don’t use WatchON, the IR-blaster-based TV app, a whole lot, but when I do it works flawlessly.
Realistically, it’s probably OK that I’m only using a small subset of the Galaxy S4’s monstrous feature set. And by the same token, it’s no great crime for Samsung to include all this extra fluff if it’s easy to ignore or disable.
But it did make the transition over to the quicker, sleeker, but less feature-packed Google Play edition firmware easier. And it was striking (if not entirely surprising) to see that this turns the GS4 into a completely different animal.
The hardware similarities between the regular GSM Galaxy S4 and the Google Play edition make flashing the former with the latter’s software almost trivially easy. And I'll be honest — when I made the switch, it was mostly for superficial reasons. I prefer the consistent, minimalist look and feel of stock Android to the cluttered, schizophrenic TouchWiz UI — and I was willing to sacrifice the handful of features I found useful to go back to the stock OS. The small but noticeable boosts in performance and battery life, too, were welcome.
As I mentioned in my earlier write-up of stock Android on the GS4, I've enjoyed using the pure, unmolested Google experience software on the latest Samsung hardware. In fact, I think the S4's hardware and Google's software combine to form one of the most compelling smartphone experiences around. In my opnion Samsung's own software design hasn't kept pace with its advancing feature set, and the vanilla Jelly Bean experience is just more pleasant to use. There's clearly an overall vision and design language behind stock Android. You can't quite say the same for Samsung's TouchWiz.
So I'm planning on continuing to use stock Android on the GS4 personally, but at the same time I realize there's plenty of stuff in the TouchWiz software that makes it a better fit for regular "civilian" smartphone users. Hopefully future versions of Samsung's UI will bring advances in design as well as functionality, so users can have their cake and eat it too.
A better phone, but is it the best?
That’s a really tough call, much more so than it was when the GS4 first launched. Pick up a Galaxy S4 today and you're getting a better phone than you were three months ago. Then again, that's also the case with the HTC One, which recently rolled out new features, and a new version of Android, in its 4.2 update.
There’s a lot about the GS4 that I miss when I hop back on the HTC One or Nexus 4, or any other device for that matter. And tellingly, it’s the less flashy features I seem to appreciate the most. Faster charging times — the GS4 supports Qualcomm Quick Charge and charges at 2 amps with the bundled charger — and longer battery life. The two-stage alarm app. The minimal effort required to take great photos. The gigantic screen in a small chassis. The fact that I can drop it without it suffering terminal injuries.
For me, the HTC One inches ahead on hardware and software design. But it's a way closer call between it and the GS4 than was the case back in April, and that's a testament to Samsung's speedy software updates. For me personally, the ease with which I can transplant stock Android onto it is also a factor.
Right now, my main SIM is in the Galaxy S4, and it's still running stock Android. That'll probably change in the future, as it's prone to in this line of work, as new devices come along. Regardless, I'd be quite happy to continue using the GS4 for the foreseeable future, even if it's not quite the very best Android smartphone you can buy.
More: HTC One, two months on
Fellow Galaxy S4 owners, how've you been finding the phone? Let us know in the comments!