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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User interface

The Galaxy S4 runs custom Samsung software based on Google's Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) operating system. Samsung has taken its typical "more is more" approach with the OS, trading the subdued visuals of Google's user interface for a loud and often gaudy mix of inconsistent colors and clashing elements.

Many of Samsung's UI changes are arbitrary -- swapping out a tastefully designed Android icon for a cartoony alternative or reskinning the Calendar app with tacky-looking colors -- and design deterioration aside, some of the company's modifications actually make the system less intuitive to use.

For example, on a stock Android device, you can create a folder on the home screen by simply dragging one icon on top of another. You can then remove the folder by dragging all of the icons out of it and back onto the home screen. Samsung has added extra steps into the creation process, requiring you to first drag an icon up to a "Create Folder" command, then name the folder, and then go back and drag a second icon on top of it. And easily removing a folder after you've created it? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Samsung has also tweaked the Android 4.2 lock screen widget feature with negative results. The company has effectively hidden the feature; instead of being able to swipe over on your home screen to add a widget, you first have to find and activate an option buried within the system settings to enable it. Worse yet, Samsung has made the feature completely unavailable if you use a pattern, PIN or any other level of security on your device. This is a shame, because there are plenty of lock screen widgets that enhance the user experience without compromising security -- and Galaxy S4 users who keep their devices protected won't be able to take advantage of them.

The list of changes that unnecessarily complicate things goes on and on. In the main system settings, Samsung has split things up into four categorized tabs: Connections, My Device, Accounts and More. The idea seems sensible enough in theory, but in practice, it ends up making it more difficult to find what you need. Want info about your phone's battery? Don't look under My Device; it's located under More. The same applies for the app manager and security options. Instead of scrolling through a single list to find what you want, you now have to scroll haphazardly through four.

The Quick Settings panel on the Galaxy S4.

Then there's the company's take on the Android 4.2-level Quick Settings panel: While stock Android software uses that space to provide you with quick access to commonly used commands, Samsung crams in four full rows of tiny, brightly colored buttons for every function you could imagine -- including toggles you likely won't need with any regularity, like screen mirroring, S Beam, NFC and Air Gesture.

Having more options isn't necessarily bad, but for a Quick Settings panel, this sort of "everything under the sun" approach largely defeats the purpose -- and also creates a sense of visual overload that's likely to overwhelm users. What's more, Samsung places those same functions in the regular notifications panel, creating more redundant and unnecessary clutter.

Software features

Samsung's "more is more" mentality extends to the Galaxy S4's software features; in many ways, it feels like the company tried to jam every feature it could think of into the GS4, regardless of whether it'd be practical or useful for users.

The end result is a mixed bag. Some of the stuff is legitimately innovative and valuable, like the phone's Multi Window mode -- as seen in Samsung's Galaxy Note II and other existing devices -- which lets you view two apps side-by-side on your screen at the same time. It works only with a limited number of apps, but those apps include programs like Chrome, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk, YouTube, Facebook and the system Messaging app, so it has a pretty wide range of potential.

Also noteworthy is the GS4's Smart Scroll mode. When enabled, it allows you to scroll through a Web page just by tilting your head gently up or down. Cool factor aside, it's easy to imagine scenarios in which it'd be handy to keep one hand free and make on-screen text scroll with a simple tilt of your chin.

Easy Mode offers a simplified interface.

The caveat, like with many of the Galaxy S4 features, is that Smart Scroll is very limited in where it can be used: The feature works only in a Samsung-customized version of the old Browser app (not the superior and actively developed Chrome for Android application) and in a Samsung-customized version of the Email app (not the more feature-rich Gmail application). It also doesn't work well in dimly lit environments, since it needs to see your eyes in order to function.

The Galaxy S4 also includes S Health, a program that takes advantage of a built-in pedometer as well as temperature and humidity sensors in order to offer a suite of health-related services. These could certainly appeal to the FitBit-using crowd, though their accuracy was inconsistent in my experience: The S Health Walking Mate function frequently forgot how many steps I'd taken in a day and reset itself back to zero. The pedometer function also doesn't work too well if you carry the phone around in a bag or purse instead of your pocket; in those scenarios, it tends to dramatically underestimate the number of steps you take.

The GS4 can also be used as a universal remote to control your TV and various entertainment center components. The setup process is simple and the function works well.

And the phone features a new Easy Mode that allows you to trade the typical home screen environment for one with fewer options, larger icons and an overall less daunting layout. It's certainly not something an experienced user would want, but it could be valuable if you were configuring a device for a less tech-savvy smartphone newcomer (like a parent or grandparent).

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