Samsung Galaxy S4 review: A serious month with Android's champ

Credit: Raymond Wong/DVICE

"It's incredibly fast, but it feels cheap because it's made of plastic" seems to be the general consensus about the Galaxy S4, Samsung's latest flagship Android smartphone. That's true, as I noted in my hands-on: the GS4 pales in comparison to the iPhone 5 and even the HTC One's slick aluminum looks. But spend enough time with any smartphone and the exterior design itself fades away as you get down to using the device for what it's designed to do: work fast.

Blazing Fast Speed

If there's one word that sums up the GS4, it's fast. Depending on which model you get, you'll end up with different processor speeds. The international model comes with a blistering fast 1.6GHz octa-core processor. On the AT&T GS4 I was testing, the 1.9GHz quad-core processor paired with 2GB of RAM was still overkill. From browsing over a dozen tabs in Chrome, to firing up the camera app and shooting off bursts of 20 images with the 13-megapixel rear camera, the GS4 never slowed down. And even though the GS4 is running the latest version of Google's mobile OS — Android 4.2.2, skinned with Samsung's TouchWiz UI — I haven't restarted the smartphone once in the last 30 days on the account of an app crashing. The only time I ever needed a reboot was when the battery fizzled; it lasts around eight to nine hours a day, on medium usage, which is about what you get on most other smartphones.

It feels like everyone always touts the newest smartphones as "faster," but technical benchmarks don't necessarily equate to perceived speed. For instance, the camera on the GS4 is so speedy, my mom actually thought she didn't even take the pictures when I let her take photos with it. Gaming on the GS4 is also quite snappy. I didn't notice any lag while I was happily fragging hordes of enemies with in 3D-intensive games with a Moga Pro controller.

Bigger Screen, Same Usable Size

At 7.9mm thick, the GS4 is slightly thinner than its predecessor, the Galaxy S III. That's great, but it's virtually undetectable when it's in your hand or in your pocket. Again, yes the entire device is plastic, but in the end, you're going to be looking at the front of the device — its 5-inch display — 99.9 percent of the time, not the rear. What Samsung has achieved with the GS4 is quite remarkable. They've slimmed down the bezels surrounding the device to the point where they were able to pack in a larger display in dimensions roughly the same size as the GS III. Apple loves to tout the crispness and color accuracy of the iPhone 5's Retina display, but frankly, I prefer the larger 1920 x 1080 resolution display on the GS4 for greater visual clarity when reading text and playing games.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but the plastic design also makes the GS4 drop-friendlier. On an aluminum device, a drop to the ground means it's chipped forever. With the GS4, the few accidental drops yielded little or no serious damage. In more extreme scenarios, the rear cover just popped off. For a plastic cover, there's surprising rigidity despite its flex. Oh, and because its back plate comes off, the battery is replaceable. That's a huge advantage in my opinion that many Android smartphones seem to be moving away from.

Gimmicks Galore

Samsung calls the GS4 a person's "life companion." In addition to beefed up specs, Samsung is pushing its "Smart" features as key reasons why the GS4 is innovative and unique, compared to the competition. As I mentioned in my preview, the GS4 has a number of new features that are supposed to make the device more intelligent. Sadly, they all just get in the way.

A few notable highlights include Smart Scroll, a feature that uses the front camera to track your eyes moving up and down when reading on a page, and gestures that allow you to wave your hand above (but not touching) the display; perfect for when your hands or wet or dirty. Then there's a mode that lets you shoot images with the front and rear camera simultaneously or a "Drama Shot" mode that lets you take 100 images and composite them.

These features all sound fantastic rolling off a feature list, but the problem is that they're either completely useless, or there are apps that do the job better. After my initial run through all of the Smart features, I never once opened them up again. Not only that, but I had to actually hide the apps so they wouldn't clog up the GS4's app pages.

It wasn't just that features such as Smart Scroll and air gestures almost never worked, but leaving them turned on drained the GS4's battery considerably faster. Our suggestion: just leave them off. And as if those two points aren't insulting enough, the Smart features take up a huge chunk of storage away from the advertised capacity. On a 16GB model, you're looking at around 9GB of actual usable storage thanks to Samsung's "bloatware." Yes, you could add more storage via a microSD card, but why should I have to buy more storage because the phone's gimmicky software features hog up over half of the internal storage? That's unacceptable.

Having more features isn't what matters the most. Having features that work, and are practical on a daily basis, is what matters the most. I'll give Samsung credit for pushing the GS4 in software, but to say the company overshot with all the "futuristic" features is not an exaggeration.

Tons Of Improvements, But Competition Is Catching Up

The GS4 is a finessed tweaking to the GS III. Its screen is bigger, its specs are faster and beefier, and there's just more of everything, but Samsung won't be able to get by next year with the same Smart shenanigans. I want to see a GS5 that skips the gimmicks for features that are actually responsive and will be used.

It may also be time for a serious rethinking of what materials Samsung should use for the GS5. The also excellent HTC One makes make the GS4 look like a child's toy. Plastic, even it means tradeoffs such as sealed battery and no microSD slot, may not cut it next year.

If you ignore all of the silly "Smart" features and the "non-premium" design build, the GS4 is one heckuva smartphone. Six million people who snatched one up within the device's first two weeks of launch would agree. And if you can really spare the cash, we recommend just buying the $600 unlocked GS4 "Google Edition" that includes stock Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, and none of the Samsung gimmicks when it's available on June 26 from the Google Play Store.

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