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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The Galaxy S4 does do well when it comes to stamina: The phone packs a removable 2,600mAh battery that's generally provided ample juice to get me through the day. Results will obviously vary based on what you're doing, but with a few short voice calls combined with scattered Web browsing, social media activity, camera use, audio streaming and the occasional video streaming (about 2.5 to 3 hours of total on-screen time), I've found I can usually squeeze in around 13 to 14 hours of use before the phone starts giving me low battery warnings.

The Galaxy S4 ships with 16GB of internal storage space, which -- after factoring in the operating system and various preinstalled applications -- leaves you with just under 10GB of actual usable space. (Both 32GB and 64GB models are also expected to be available from some U.S. carriers, though specific plans for their release have yet to be announced.) The GS4 has an SD card slot as well, allowing you to add up to 64GB of external space.

In terms of data connectivity, the Galaxy S4 supports both LTE and HSPA+ networks. If you're using the phone on AT&T or T-Mobile, it'll connect to LTE by default but automatically drop down to HSPA+ when you're in an area without LTE coverage. On Sprint and Verizon, the phone will resort to the carriers' far slower 3G-level networks when LTE isn't available.

I found voice quality on the Galaxy S4 unit I tested -- a Sprint-connected model -- to be A-OK: I could hear people loud and clear, and those with whom I spoke said my voice was easy to hear and no more annoying than usual.

The Galaxy S4 does support near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data exchanges. Despite some initial reports to the contrary, however, the phone does not provide native support for wireless charging; Samsung says a special back plate will be sold separately that can add such functionality to the phone, but the company is not providing any specific release date or price for that accessory as of now.

Cameras

Want megapixels? The GS4's got 'em: The phone's rear camera has a whopping 13 megapixels -- but as we've seen with the HTC One, more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean more quality.

The good news for the Galaxy S4 is that its camera is capable of capturing some great-looking images. The GS4's photos aren't always completely true to life in coloring, but in most lighting conditions, they're sharp-looking and well-suited for sharing or physical printing. To my eye, HTC seems to have a slight edge in overall quality, but the GS4 generally holds its own and maintains a close race.

The exception is photos taken in low-light environments: The Galaxy S4, unlike the One, struggles to capture much of anything in very dim conditions. The difference between the two phones in that regard is immense.

(You don't have to take my word for it: Click over to my Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One camera gallery to see side-by-side samples and compare for yourself.)

The high megapixel value means the GS4's images are large -- up to 4128 x 3096 pixels in size. Those dimensions allow you to zoom in closely to images; they also open the door to larger physical prints (the One's photos, in my experience, started showing subtle quality loss around the 8 x 10 mark when printed). On the downside, larger dimensions mean files take up more storage space and will take longer to transfer to cloud backup services or social networks.

Samsung's Galaxy S4 Camera app is easy to use and packed with features -- some of them interesting and some just plain silly. One mode allows you to create animated GIFs from photos, for instance, while another lets you take a series of photos and then pick the best face from each individual person in your group to get a final image in which everyone is smiling. Both options work surprisingly well, though it takes a little practice to get good at them.

The same can be said for the GS4's Eraser mode, in which the camera captures five consecutive photos in order to let you "remove" an unwanted object from the background. The effect works well enough, but you'd have to think ahead to enable it; if you're taking photos in any other mode and fall victim to an unwanted photo intruder, you're going to be out of luck.

Other Galaxy S4 camera features sit more on the gimmicky side of the spectrum -- like a Drama mode that allows you to capture multiple photos of a moving subject and merge them together into a single Sports Illustrated-like action sequence. It sounds neat in theory, but I found it works only with multiple attempts and when the action is carefully staged for your benefit.

Then there's the really silly stuff, like Sound and Shot mode -- an option that lets you record up to nine seconds of audio to go along with a still picture. The audio has to be recorded at the time of capture and can't be exported into any standard format, meaning you can only play it back on your phone or another Galaxy S4 device. In other words, it's kind of like a video -- which the Galaxy S4 can capture at 1080p quality -- only in this case, it's using a still picture instead of moving images and audio no one else will be able to hear.

Equally gimmicky is the GS4's Dual Camera mode, which allows you to add a small floating photo of your face from the phone's 2-megapixel front camera onto an image you capture simultaneously with the rear camera. The photo of your face is superimposed over the main image in a small, cheesy-looking frame. I'm not sure what to say about that beyond a short and simple: "Why?"

The Dual Camera function can also be used for video chatting, but only if you're chatting with people on Samsung's proprietary ChatOn service -- which was nowhere to be found on my review unit.

Also curiously missing from the mix is Google's Photo Sphere -- a useful feature of the current Android platform that lets you capture interactive 360-degree images and share them with friends. For some reason, Samsung has stripped this functionality from the GS4's anatomy.

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