Samsung Galaxy S4 review

Is the Samsung Galaxy S4 still a worthwhile buy?

Samsung Galaxy S4 review
Evolution, meet revolution

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The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a phone that I still really, really like. The combination of still-capable innards, one of the market's best screens and a clever design ethos all combine to make a decent shout for the handset you should be buying if you don't want to splash out top money for a phone.

It's slick, it's fast and is still a really strong contender in so many ways. The 13MP camera remains one of the best I've seen on a phone, with rich colours and texture the way forward.

The fact that a two-year old phone can still hold its own is testament to how impressive the S4 was when it first came out. The Galaxy S6 might run rings around it performance-wise, but take cost into consideration and it would be difficult to say which one offered the best value.

I still get peeved at the persistent design criticisms thrown at any phone manufacturer that deigns to not make its flagship out of metal. Yes, the Galaxy S4 doesn't feel premium, but what you're giving up in feel you're getting back in weight, a removable battery and general hardiness - the combination of Gorilla Glass 3 and a plastic shell mean this is one tough cookie.

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

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 and a fine mid-range alternative to the pricey S5 and S6 that have followed it.

We liked

The Galaxy S4 seemed to be a boring iteration of the S3, and I was 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.

Samsung even struggled to best it to any significant degree with the Galaxy S5. We've seen a glimpse of the Galaxy S6, but the full verdict isn't in yet.

The screen remains out of this world. Even at a lower PPI the 5-inch display dominates the immediate competition. I love how Samsung has evened out the colour by default, so the usual 'OMG, the colours are too over the top!!!' 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 - I liked the top end features and the sheer snapping power enabled 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 that rewards you for playing with it - and in today's over-sanitised smartphone world, being able to discover features is a 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 I'm 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 phones that appeared at the same time, there are still some niggles that I can see being problematic.

Samsung feels that the Galaxy S4 needs to eat up over 6GB of your 16GB allocation (on the base model) for a more 'feature rich' OS, which makes it one of the worst on the market for internal space, so be ready for that before you shell out for this ageing handset.

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. A microSD card is essential.

But the biggest problem I have is with the supposed 'innovation' Samsung continues to bring 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 line-up or stock Android on the Google Nexus phones and you feel that Samsung is coming up with ideas for the sake of something new. I 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.

I'm also a bit worried about the price, as it's quite high for a phone that's over two years old - particularly with so many older handsets and budget phones on the market now.

Final verdict

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 continues to be a fine device in its own right, with an upcoming software update to Android 5.0 Lollipop and a number of bonus features that keep it feeling fresh in today's market. 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, but pertinent. Yes, it's plastic, and yes, compared to the competition you wouldn't pick it out as a looker. 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 the entire current mid-range contender on the market. I'm still slightly amazed that Samsung hasn't gone a few steps further with the design after the S3's criticism.

TouchWiz remains a little too complex for its own good. The simplicity of HTC Sense shines through, and the HTC One is a superior mid-range 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 Samsung Galaxy 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 let's put the "which phone is better than the other" notion aside for now. The Galaxy S4 is a good smartphone that won't let you down for a variety of tasks.

First reviewed: April 2013

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.