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?

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Samsung's Galaxy S4 boasts a 5-in. 1080p Super AMOLED display. That's quite a boost from the Galaxy S III's 4.8-in. 720p display; Samsung managed to shrink down the device's bezels to make space for the larger screen while maintaining the same basic frame size.

At 441 pixels per inch, the Galaxy S4's display looks quite good: Colors are bold and brilliant, images are pleasantly crisp and text is sharp and easy to read. The screen is somewhat oversaturated but noticeably less so than with past Samsung devices. Like most Samsung products, the phone's autobrightness mode -- which is activated by default -- is rather wonky and tends to keep the display too dim regardless of your environment; in order for the screen to look its best, you'll need to disable that setting and manually set the brightness level yourself.

The Galaxy S4's pixels-per-inch measurement, it's worth noting, is slightly less than that of the HTC One -- but we've reached the level here where such a difference isn't really noticeable to the human eye. What is noticeable is the difference between the AMOLED display technology Samsung uses and the LCD technology HTC employs.

The Galaxy S4's AMOLED screen has deeper, truer blacks but less pure-looking whites than the One's LCD display. The GS4's screen also suffers in sunlight: While the One's LCD panel remains perfectly viewable even in the most glary conditions, the Galaxy S4's AMOLED display is often difficult to see outdoors and practically useless in direct sun.

One area where the Galaxy S4's screen really shines is in pressure sensitivity: The phone has a somewhat hidden "high-touch sensitivity mode" that -- if you can manage to find it -- will allow you to use the device's touchscreen with gloves on. I tested it using medium-thickness winter gloves and found it worked fairly well; the screen's responsiveness was a bit hit and miss, but considering most smartphones won't recognize glove-covered input at all, the capability will be a welcome addition for anyone in a cold climate.

The button factor

System navigation buttons are a key part of the Android experience -- and while Google moved to a virtual, on-screen approach for such functions with its Android 4.0 release in 2011, Samsung continues to stick with a dated and rather peculiar hybrid button configuration on the Galaxy S4.

For folks who are used to Samsung devices, the phone's physical Home button flanked by capacitive Menu and Back keys won't be much of a shock. But compared to the native Android experience, the setup presents some significant disadvantages.

The first relates to Samsung's decision to include the Menu button -- an element Google removed from the platform at the start of the 4.0 era. The old-style Menu button was eliminated for a specific reason: On button-free devices, a special onscreen icon signals the presence of functions related to the OS or to specific applications -- functions like accessing advanced settings in Gmail, requesting a desktop version of a website in Chrome, or viewing your list of installed apps in the Play Store. In Samsung's setup, there's nothing to let you know when those options are available unless you think to tap the Menu button at the right time.

Samsung's setup causes some core system functions to be similarly hidden, like the app switching tool -- a useful utility that lets you jump directly from one application to another. In devices that follow Google's design recommendations, that tool is accessible via a persistent on-screen icon; on the Galaxy S4, you have to long-press the physical Home button to find it -- an action that won't be obvious to most users.

Philosophical matters aside, the Galaxy S4's capacitive keys are frequently not lit up during use and thus impossible to see. And the mix of physical and capacitive buttons creates an awkward usage scenario that's anything but ideal: As I noted when reviewing the Galaxy S III, once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring.

Sounds like a lot of nitpicking, I know -- but all it takes is 10 minutes with a device that follows Google's Android 4.x-level design guidelines to see how big of a difference these seemingly small details make in the overall user experience.

Under the hood

The U.S. model of Samsung's Galaxy S4 runs on a cutting-edge Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.9GHz quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. With that sort of horsepower, I've been surprised to see that the phone's performance suffers from subtle but noticeable hiccups.

The GS4's system animations are frequently jerky, for instance -- like when the phone is returning from an app to the home screen -- and some actions take far longer than they should to process. I've counted as many as eight to nine seconds after tapping a folder in the Gallery before it actually opens. And these things haven't been isolated, one-time occurrences; they've happened regularly, regardless of what other services the phone has been running or how much time has passed since a restart.

What's most baffling is the fact that the HTC One, which I found to have near-flawless performance, uses the same exact processor -- clocked slightly lower, in fact -- and the same amount of RAM as well. The only logical conclusion I can draw is that something having to do with Samsung's software is gumming up the works.

To be clear, the Galaxy S4's performance isn't all bad -- for the most part, apps usually load quickly, Web browsing is swift and smooth and the system doesn't feel terribly sluggish -- but for a flagship phone with this level of hardware, any amount of jerky or lag-laden performance is disappointing.

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