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

Samsung's Galaxy S4 has a lot of attractive qualities -- and a lot of baffling downsides. Is it the right phone for you?

Some things in this world need no introduction. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is not one of those things.

Sure, "Galaxy S" has practically become a household name. And sure, you've probably heard all sorts of hype about this latest Samsung model. But trust me: There's more to the Galaxy S4 than meets the eye.

I've been using the Galaxy S4 in place of my own personal device for well over a week now -- and I can confidently say that while the device has its share of eye-catching features, it isn't the end-all Android phone for everyone. Don't get me wrong: The Galaxy S4 has plenty of attractive qualities. But it also makes some serious compromises. The question is whether it all adds up to a package that makes sense for you.

So join me on this detailed tour of the Galaxy S4 and see what the device is like to use in the real world. By the time we're done, I suspect you'll know if your future belongs with this phone -- or in a galaxy far, far away.

(The Galaxy S4 is available now on AT&T for $200 with a new two-year contract, Sprint for $250 with a new two-year contract, T-Mobile for $150 down and a two-year payment plan, and U.S. Cellular for $200 with a new two-year contract. It'll launch on Verizon Wireless on May 30 for $200 after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a new two-year contract.)

Body and sound

One thing's for sure: For better or for worse (depending on your perspective), the Galaxy S4 looks and feels distinctly like a Samsung phone. At first glance, you might even mistake it for last year's Galaxy S III; the phone shares the same basic size, shape and form as its predecessor.

While the Samsung Galaxy S4 has its share of eye-catching features, it isn't the end-all Android phone for everyone.

The Galaxy S4 is actually slightly narrower and thinner than last year's model, at 2.7 x 5.4 x 0.31 in. It's a hair lighter, too, weighing 4.6 oz. compared to the GSIII's 4.7 oz. body. Beyond that, the phone is a bit less curved than Samsung's previous-generation device, with a flat back and more square-like shape.

But you'd really have to be looking closely to notice those differences. In terms of design, the Galaxy S4 is very much in line with what we've seen from Samsung before, with a plastic-centric construction and almost toy-like feel. The phone's back has a shiny, candy-shell appearance; pull on it from the right spot and you'll realize it's actually a thin panel that peels away to reveal the phone's internal battery compartment.

The benefit of the plastic casing is that it allows you to access and optionally replace the battery; it also makes for a lightweight and relatively durable frame. The downside is that it makes the phone look and feel rather cheap next to more elegantly constructed devices like the all-aluminum HTC One and glass-centric Nexus 4.

(The Galaxy S4 is available in either "Black Mist" or "White Frost," by the way -- and yes, those colors are basically just black and white.)

Comparisons aside, the Galaxy S4 feels nice if a bit insubstantial in the hand. The back panel is slick to the touch but not difficult to hold. The rear camera creates a slight bump in the phone's back, as does a small speaker grille located at the bottom-left of the device.

The Galaxy S4 has a silver-colored trim around its edges that's made to look like metal (though it, too, is actually plastic). The left edge holds a silver-colored volume rocker while the power switch sits on the phone's top-right side -- a natural position that's easy to find with your fingers. The top of the phone houses a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the bottom holds a micro-USB port that doubles as an HDMI-out with the use of a standard MHL adapter.

The Galaxy S4's speaker -- housed behind that aforementioned single grille on the device's back -- is adequate but underwhelming: Audio played through the phone sounds hollow and tinny and tends to be muffled by your hand (if holding the phone) or a table (if the phone is sitting flat on a surface). That level of quality is pretty typical for a smartphone speaker, but the superb front-facing stereo speakers on the HTC One, which I reviewed previously, left me a bit spoiled and expecting more.

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