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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Beyond those items, most of the Galaxy S4's software elements err on the side of gimmicky, with fleeting novelty but little lasting real-world value. Some examples:

  • Air View. It's supposed to let you interact with content by hovering your finger over the screen without actually touching it -- but it's finicky and limited in where it can be used, and most of the processes it enables could be done far more easily by going the extra millimeter and just touching the darn screen.
  • Air Gestures. This one does things like letting you advance through Web pages by waving your hand in front of the phone (right -- because that's way more practical than simply tapping an icon on the screen). A couple of Air Gesture elements -- one in which you can answer calls by waving in front of the phone and another in which you can get a quick activity summary by placing your hand over the screen when it's off -- could be useful in certain circumstances, but they're far too inconsistent to be reliable.
  • Smart Rotation. It allegedly rotates the screen automatically to "adjust to your angle of height." I couldn't get it to work at all.
  • Smart Pause. Want your phone to stop playing a video automatically every time your eyes veer away from the screen? Me neither. But this feature will do that for you -- at least 30% of the time, anyway.

Last but not least, Samsung has loaded the Galaxy S4 up with features that duplicate native Google services -- generally in less effective ways. The company's S Voice is a significantly worse version of Google's Voice Search; it's slower, clunkier and far more limited in the actions it can perform and questions it can answer. Luckily, you can opt to ignore it and use Google's version by placing that widget on your home screen.

Samsung's highly touted S Translator app, meanwhile, is a straight copy of Google's long-existing Google Translate service, only it requires you to create and sign into a Samsung account before it'll work.

Samsung has baked its own music player, app store and entertainment-purchasing "hub" into the device, too, each of which exists alongside its native Android equivalent. It's easy to see why the company would want to push those sorts of services, but from a user perspective, the overlapping and similarly named functions do little more than cause confusion -- particularly considering most users would be better served by Google's native options, which are cross-platform and allow for content to be accessed from and synced to any device.

Whew! Like I said -- lots going on with this phone's software. A few final odds and ends to close things out:

  • By default, the Galaxy S4 uses a Samsung-customized version of the SwiftKey keyboard; it's basically a lesser version of the standalone SwiftKey app. Fortunately, the fix is easy enough: Download the regular SwiftKey app from the Play Store or snag any other keyboard you like (Swype is also preloaded on the device).
  • Samsung had discussed plans to offer a new enterprise-level security layer called Knox on the Galaxy S4. The function, however, is not currently on the phone; reports indicate the software will become available at some undisclosed later date.
  • There's bloatware a-plenty on the GS4, ranging from the standard Samsung stuff to preinstalled apps like Dropbox and Flipboard. Most of those can be disabled but not removed. The carriers pile on even more junk, which -- in the case of Sprint, at least -- can be uninstalled if you want.
  • Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention upgrades: With any non-Nexus device, it's important to remember that future software upgrades are in the hands of the manufacturers and carriers -- and Samsung, like most phone-makers, has a spotty track record when it comes to ongoing support.

Bottom line

With its established brand and ubiquitous marketing, Samsung's Galaxy S4 is bound to be a commercial success -- but that doesn't mean it's unconditionally the best Android phone you can buy.

To be sure, the Galaxy S4 has a lot of good things going for it: It's thin and light, has a sharp-looking 1080p display and has solid battery life with the option to replace the battery as needed. The phone also has an SD card slot for expandable storage, a commendable camera with oodles of fancy options and some innovative and cool software features like Multi Window and Smart Scroll.

But compared to other high-end phones, the Galaxy S4's hardware looks and feels cheap and decidedly less premium. Its display is difficult to see outdoors, its performance leaves something to be desired, and its user interface is a bloated, ugly mess. That, combined with the phone's dated and peculiar button configuration, takes a serious toll on the user experience.

In the end, it comes down to what matters most to you in a phone. Hardware design is more important to some folks than it is to others. Many of the GS4's UI issues can be covered up with a custom Android launcher. And if you're already used to the old-style Samsung button configuration, its presence here might not bother you a bit.

The Galaxy S4 isn't a cohesive, undefeatable-champion sort of device. But it is a standout smartphone with a lot of attractive elements. And despite its drawbacks, I think it's safe to say it's going to make a lot of people awfully happy.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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