Galaxy S4 revisited: 7 weeks later, does the phone still impress?

Google's stock Android version of the Galaxy S4 lands in less than a week, and that means the time is nigh for contemplative comparisons.

Galaxy S4 Revisited

Since it's been about seven weeks since I reviewed the original Galaxy S4, I decided to revisit the phone to reacquaint myself with it and see if my impressions had evolved. I spent a few weeks living with the device back in April, but it's been a while -- and fresh eyes can often deliver a fresh perspective.

So, without further ado, here's what I've found while carrying the GS4 around for a second round:

• I won't sugarcoat it: The phone's build quality is still a little "blah" for my tastes. Some people love the plasticky approach; others don't. I fall into the second camp. To me, holding the GS4 feels like holding a toy, particularly after using some of the other high-end phones on the market right now.

• That said, the plastic casing's strengths -- both figuratively and literally -- are quite apparent. When I bring the Nexus 4 to the gym, for instance, I make a point of being extra cautious and putting a hand on my pocket whenever I lie back on a bench or climb up onto a bike; with the amount of glass on that phone, I sure as hell don't want to drop it. With the GS4, on the other hand, I worry less; the phone is by no means bullet-proof, but a scuff on plastic is less detrimental than a crack on glass.

• I'm pleased to see that the Galaxy S4's performance has gotten less bad since my last experience with the phone. At its debut, the GS4 was plagued by jerky animations and laggy processes. The jerkiness is now largely gone, thanks presumably to a small system update Samsung sent to the phone shortly after its launch. The lag is still an occasional problem, though -- particularly in places like the phone's Gallery app, where it often takes several seconds for folders to load.

• The GS4's camera is every bit as good as I remember it. It may not excel at low-light performance as much as the HTC One does, but it's a great all-around shooter and the kind of device I'm happy to have in my pocket when a memorable moment occurs.

• The buttons -- oh lord, the buttons. There's not much I can say on that subject that I haven't said before, but between the awkward physical/capacitive combo and the inclusion of a dated Menu key instead of a standard Android 4.x multitasking button, using the GS4 feels like using some weird mix of an iPhone and a 2010 Gingerbread device (which, let's be honest, was probably one of Samsung's original goals when it came up with this configuration in 2010). After using a Nexus device with Android 4.x-level virtual buttons and even HTC's non-ideal capacitive-based setup, returning to Sammy's blast-from-the-past mishmash is anything but enjoyable in terms of user experience.

• Speaking of Gingerbread-reminiscent experiences, TouchWiz is almost unbearable to use -- and I think my time away from it has made me resent it even more. Aside from the general mess of the UI, it's the little things that drive me crazy:

Galaxy S4 Volume Warning

the action-requiring "loud music" warning that appears every time you turn up the volume while wearing headphones, the "how to clear defaults" notification that comes up every time you tell the phone to open a link in a particular app, the visually overwhelming notification pulldown that can't be cleaned up. You get the picture.

A custom Android launcher can mask some of Samsung's worst software sins, but short of rooting your phone and replacing the ROM entirely, these smaller annoyances can't be avoided -- and man, are they ever annoying.

As for the GS4's plethora of custom software features, I'm somewhat divided. A few of Samsung's additions are actually useful and/or fun, and I've legitimately missed having them around -- additions like the phone's Multi Window mode, which I was longing for a few weeks ago while watching a YouTube video and wanting to look something up in Chrome at the same time, and the easy-to-use animated-GIF-creation tool Samsung added into the Camera app (I actually used it for a Google+ post just the other day).

I continue to think, though, that the vast majority of the Galaxy S4's features fall on the gimmicky side of the spectrum -- flash for the sake of flash. Smart Scroll, Air View, Air Gestures, Smart Pause? Yeah, they were all novel to play around with once or twice (and they sound great in ads), but in terms of real-world use, I haven't missed any of 'em -- nor have I felt compelled to use them since I started carrying the phone again.

All in all, I'd say my impression at this point is pretty consistent with my original conclusion: The Galaxy S4 is a perfectly decent device with a lot of good things going for it. For some people -- those who prefer a plastic-based build, need a removable battery or SD card support, or just have unconditional love for the Samsung brand -- it's a phone that'll certainly satisfy. For consumers without those sorts of specific needs, though, I think there are other less heavily marketed devices that offer meaningful advantages over the GS4 and provide better overall user experiences.

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The big question now is what kind of user experience the phone's hardware will deliver when coupled with pure Google Android software -- and we should have an answer soon. Samsung's "Google Experience" Galaxy S4 is slated to launch next Wednesday, June 26.

Stay tuned for my thoughts and impressions once I've had a chance to use that device.


Samsung Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One and Nexus 4: Which should you get?

Samsung Galaxy S4 deep-dive review: A real-world evaluation

Samsung Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One: Camera shootout!

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