After months of speculation, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has finally been unveiled at an event in New York. With a larger screen, faster processor and range of new features, it’s the company’s new flagship smartphone.
As such, it’s got more power and more up-to-date features than the iPhone 5 and pre-empts the upcoming iPhone 5S. We had people present at the launch to give us the lowdown on the phone and help us find out if it matches up to the hype.
The first thing to note is that the Galaxy S4 looks similar to the Samsung Galaxy S3, and builds on that phone’s looks. The Galaxy S4 is a little bigger, thanks to its 4.99in screen, but not as much as you might think: at 136.6×69.8×7.9mm, it’s roughly as wide as the S3, but around 5mm longer, and around 1mm slimmer.
The result is the Galaxy S4 feels good in the hand and every bit as comfortable to hold as the S3. It’s certainly not us unwieldy as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.
There are a few notable changes between the phones’ designs, including a metallic banding running around the edge of the Galaxy S4. Clearly, Samsung felt the need not to mess too much with a winning formula, but we would have personally loved to have seen an aluminium chassis, as on the HTC One, rather than the plastic used here.
The 4.99in Super AMOLED display is gorgeous. It has a Full HD, 1,920×1,080 resolution with a high pixel density of 441ppi. While that’s certainly impressive, the HTC One has the same resolution but a smaller screen, so a higher pixel density of 468ppi and the Sony Xperia Z has the same size screen and resolution, so has a matching 441ppi. What’s important is that on all three phones everything looks pin-sharp and there’s no danger of spotting individual pixels.
It’s worth noting that you can’t directly compare the Galaxy S4 to LCD-based Full HD handsets, such as the HTC One. This is because Samsung continues to use a Super AMOLED display with a PenTile pixel arrangement. Simply put, this means there are only two coloured sub-pixels per pixel instead of three. The reduced colour resolution is made up for by the excellent contrast and blacks that AMOLED provides (as well as lower power usage), but it’s a matter of taste which screen type you prefer. When we saw the phone we found its screen bright and colourful, but we’ll save a full opinion for when we can do a proper side-by-side comparison.
As expected, the screen can be operated just by hovering your finger over it, giving rise to two new features. Air View lets you hover over content, such as an email or photo, to preview it without having to open it. Air Gesture lets you change tracks, scroll through a web page or answer a call with a wave of your hand. We haven’t had chance to try the system out yet, but this should make fine-control of the touchscreen operating system that little bit easier.
Gorilla Glass 3 helps make the phone durable, although we’d still recommend a screen protector or case if you’re going to keep your phone in a pocket with sharp items, such as keys.
The phones at the event were kitted out with Exynos octo-core processors running at 1.6GHz. It’s not strictly an eight-core phone, though, as it uses ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture. The eight cores are divided in two, with four high-power, complex cores to do the heavy lifting and four smaller, power-efficient cores for more mundane tasks. The S4’s architecture is designed so that the phone can switch seamlessly between the different types of core.
However, at the launch Samsung confirmed that the UK version of the phone will have a measly four cores. The good news is that the UK S4’s Snapdragon 600 chipset will run at a faster 1.9GHz, which will hopefully go some way to making up for the cores shortfall.
The Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS certainly felt fast on the phone and web browsing was similarly as slick. We can’t imagine that things will get worse with the UK version of the phone, but we’ll have to save final judgement until we get our hands on a production model.
The battery on the S4 is an impressive 2,600mAh. That’s around 500mAh bigger than the S3’s battery and bigger than the vast majority of batteries used in smartphones today. With such a big battery it shouldn’t have any problems providing all-day power.
The camera has been upgraded to a 13-megapixel model. It has a Backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor for better low-light sensitivity, although there’s also a flash for when it’s really dark. We took a few test shots in the dark demo hall and they looked fine on-screen, but actual quality tests need to wait until we have a test handset.
At the front is a 2-megapixel BSI camera. While it can be used for video calling, it can also be used with Samsung’s Dual Camera mode, which lets you superimpose a shot from the front camera on the footage from the rear camera. In practice, this means that you can have your floating head, bordered by a postage-stamp frame imposed on the picture taken by the main camera. It feels a little gimmicky.
The front camera also serves a purpose in controlling the phone with Smart Pause. This technology knows when you’re looking at the screen so it can, for example, pause a video when you turn your head and look away. As soon as you look back, the video continues. It’s a neat way of using the cameras for more than just still images and video.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 will be available in versions with 16GB, 32GB and 64GB of storage, although it’s expandable by up to 64GB via the microSD card slot. Prices for the models haven’t been announced yet, but it may well work out much better value to buy the 16B or 32GB models, then upgrade storage as and when you need it.
Samsung has said that the Galaxy S4 will get security tracking built in. This works in a similar way to Find My iPhone, letting you track a stolen handset online.
However, while Apple’s implementation can be wiped out by resetting the phone, Samsung has got something more secure up its sleeves. By partnering with Absolute, which makes the Computrace laptop-tracking software, Samsung has got firmware persistence technology built into the Galaxy S4. In other words, the tracking software sits in main firmware and so it can survive a full hardware reset.
Security tracking is part of the Knox security suite, which is designed to make the platform more secure. It’s aimed at business users, where it will also provide a business and personal side of the phone, so that you only have to carry one device. The work mode can be locked down and managed by your company, while the personal side is yours to do with as you will; importantly, both sides are completely independent.
We’re in the process of finding out if the security tracking feature will be available to consumers, or if it will only be available to business users.
As well as what comes with the phone, Samsung is also pushing the phone’s lifestyle aspect with a selection of Galaxy S4 accessories. These range from health accessories that can monitor how active you are and your weight and heart rate, to a gamepad that you clip the phone into. There’s also a wireless charging dock, so you can charge your phone simply by laying it on the charging pad.
You’ll still have to wait a while to get your hands on the phone; Samsung’s official release date for the Galaxy S4 is 26th April, and this assumes there are no manufacturing problems, such as HTC is fighting with its HTC One. Official pre-orders for the phone are now open, as of 28th March.
PRICE ON CONTRACT WITH UK NETWORK
You’re not going to be short of networks carrying the Galaxy S4, as all the major UK networks have signed up to stock the handset.
The S4 is a 4G handset, but in the UK only EE currently has a 4G network. It’s expensive, though – if you want the S4 on a £31-per-month contract, which includes 500MB of data and unlimited calls and texts, you’ll still pay £270 upfront for the phone. If you’re willing to pay £41 a month for the 1GB 4G contract the phone will still cost £80, and even if you fork out £76 a month for 20GB of data, you’ll still have to pony up £20 for your Galaxy S4.