Samsung Galaxy S4 review

The Galaxy SIV is here - but does it pack enough of a punch?

Samsung Galaxy S4 review
Evolution, meet revolution

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Many people will have jumped straight here to see what we think of the phone, so we'll get the salient points out of the way first.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a phone that we really, really like. The combination of powerful innards, the market's best screen and a clever design ethos all combine to make a really strong contender for the handset you should be buying when you wander into your local phone emporium.

It's slick, it's fast and it wipes the floor with the competition in so many ways. The 13MP camera is one of the best we've seen on a phone for getting that picture, with rich colours and texture the way forward.

We're getting really fed up with the design criticisms thrown at any phone manufacturer that deigns to not make it's flagship out of metal. Yes, it doesn't feel as premium, but what you're giving up in feel you're getting back in weight, removable battery and general hardiness - the combination of Gorilla Glass 3 and a plastic shell mean this is one tough cookie.

The trend for cases is such that users aren't even getting the full force of the design either - we don't think that they should be necessary, but a lot of people are protecting their high investment. We spoke to a chap that went for the HTC One for design reasons, then showed us the huge case he carried it around in.

That's not to say Samsung couldn't do better with design on the S4 - there's a lot more to wish for here - but it's a much more solid version of the S3.

We liked

The Galaxy S4 seemed to be a boring iteration of the S3, and we were ready to be fully nonplussed by it. But you then realise that deep in the Samsung labs they took apart the older version and then upgraded it in nearly every way, so this really is very, very good Galaxy S3 here.

The screen is out of this world. Even at a lower PPI the 5-inch display dominates the competition. We love how Samsung has evened out the colour by default, so the usual 'OHMYGERD, the colours are too over the top!!!1!' argument is mostly moot.

It's clear, bright and vivid, and there's very little it isn't great for.

The camera upgrade is impressive too - we liked the top end features and the sheer snapping power allowed for some simply divine pictures. The whole user interface was improved as well, which was a nice touch forward, although it still over-complicates things.

TouchWiz is an Android skin (Android 4.2, don't forget) that rewards you for playing with it - and in today's over-sanitised smartphone world, being able to discover features is a real treat to a lot of users.

Battery life is strong, 4G is a real step forward in speed and the addition of a microSD card slot is what we're looking for in a phone still. Hear that, HTC and Google?

We disliked

While the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a much better phone than the S3 and most of the competition, there are still some niggles that we can see being problematic.

For a phone that's so quick to run through nearly every task we were a little upset to see how long it takes to load a gallery up. This problem is compounded with a microSD card, and the more stuff on there, the more the phone has to parse.

It got to the point where we were embarrassed to show off the photos we had taken as it just took too long to get them up.

We were initially worried about the 9GB of internal space - Samsung tells us that the Galaxy S4 needs to eat up over 6GB of your 16GB allocation (on the base model) for a more 'feature rich' OS - but a software update has freed some more of that for use, which helps a lot.

One of the worst messages you can get on an Android phone is telling you there's no space for new apps, as many will simply not know what to do. Thankfully, that message is less likely to happen now, even if you're one that downloads loads and loads of games.

But the biggest problem we have is with the supposed 'innovation' Samsung has brought to proceedings. Air View, Air Gestures, Smart Scroll - these are all cool in their own way, but all are flawed or overly complex, marring the overall simplicity of the device.

Compare that to the HTC One or stock Android on the Google Nexus 4 and you feel that Samsung is coming up with ideas for the sake of something new. We really do laud the sentiment, and you can just turn it all off - but then you've basically got a faster Galaxy S3 with a better screen and camera.


Make no mistake - the Samsung Galaxy S4 is far, far more than a Galaxy S3 'S' - Samsung may be copying Apple according to some people, but it's not as brazen as the Cupertino brand in flogging the exact same design with a slightly uprated processor and calling it a new phone.

The Galaxy S4 is a great, great device in its own right, re-inventing what it means to own a brilliant smartphone in a number of ways. The gestures are cool, the touch-less experience amazing at times - in short, it's a wonderful phone you want to pull out of your pocket again and again and again.

The design issue is overblown. Yes, it's plastic, and yes, compared to the competition you wouldn't choose to spend $900 on it for the chassis. But it's a very solid device that belies that exterior and shouldn't be discounted for it, although it still feels like the cheapest of all the top end phones on the market - we're slightly amazed that Samsung hasn't gone a few steps further with the design after the S3's criticism.

TouchWiz is getting a little complex now, though. The simplicity of HTC Sense shines through, and the HTC One is a superior device in many ways because the innovation is based on things users want. Where Samsung brought the ability to wave to move photos, the HTC One made the speaker better.

Where the S4 lets you scroll with your head, the One lets you take photos in low light. The latter feature is slightly offset by the S4's auto Night Mode, but you get the picture.

But screw all the 'which phone is better than the other' notion for now (we'll get to that in our best mobile phones piece) the Galaxy S4 is a stunning smartphone that won't let you down for a variety of tasks.

Although we will admit, it's not as good overall as the HTC One, especially when you factor in the design.

But there's no doubt Samsung will have to make a big step forward to keep users interested with the Galaxy S5, but for now we love the S4 and would be proud to have it in our pocket.

Gareth Beavis
Formerly Global Editor in Chief

Gareth has been part of the consumer technology world in a career spanning three decades. He started life as a staff writer on the fledgling TechRadar, and has grown with the site (primarily as phones, tablets and wearables editor) until becoming Global Editor in Chief in 2018. Gareth has written over 4,000 articles for TechRadar, has contributed expert insight to a number of other publications, chaired panels on zeitgeist technologies, presented at the Gadget Show Live as well as representing the brand on TV and radio for multiple channels including Sky, BBC, ITV and Al-Jazeera. Passionate about fitness, he can bore anyone rigid about stress management, sleep tracking, heart rate variance as well as bemoaning something about the latest iPhone, Galaxy or OLED TV.