|Review of the Samsung Galaxy S4|
I reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S4 immediately after reviewing the HTC One. Both phones represent the latest high-end Android smartphones from their respective manufacturers and they will no doubt compete head-to-head. The S4 looks very similar to the previous-generation S3 and in terms of hardware capabilities it really doesn’t raise the bar all that far. Still, it improves upon a phone that was the best-selling model in Samsung’s history, and so the S4 should do well in the market.
This review was updated when I actually bought an S4 for myself. My explanation appears at the end.
Last Updated: 17-Jun-2013
Before reading this review,
please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.
Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.
Unlike the HTC One, which was locked to Telus, the S4 I borrowed was unlocked and I was able to use my Rogers SIM in it. That allowed me to compare RF performance directly to that of my old Galaxy S2 LTE. As far as the phone’s ability to pick up an LTE signal on AWS, both phones perform about equally, though this is no surprise, as RF performance has become a bit of a non-issue these days with most phones sporting the same chipsets as one another. However, I did note that LTE speeds were superior on the S4 than in the S2 LTE when the signal became weak.
The S4 is the first phone to support a boatload of LTE bands (rather than just 1 or 2), including Band 7. Here in Canada Rogers and Bell (not Telus) provide LTE service on Band 7 (2600 MHz). The big deal here is that Band 7 in Canada is a 20-MHz-wide channel, which allows category 3 devices (such as the S4) to work at speeds up to 100 Mbps.
The phone prefers to camp on Band 7, but it will seamlessly switch to Band 4 when necessary. Unfortunately it has a tendency to prefer a weak Band 7 signal over a superior Band 4 signal, which sometimes results in slower speeds (especially on the uplink). It is possible to force the S4 into LTE Band 4, but doing so means you loose the ability to make or receive calls.
I have also found that when LTE gets weak the phone quickly
cycles to HSPA, but it will return to LTE promptly upon finding a useable LTE
signal on either Band 4 or Band 7. Note that this only applies to Rogers
versions of the phone, as Bell/Telus seem to have a serious network issue in
which phones are constantly dumped from LTE to HSPA for no good reason, and then
take forever to return to LTE.
Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.
During a phone call the S4 sounds
pretty much like any other Samsung model before it. The overall tonal quality is
nice, and the earpiece volume is acceptably loud. No Samsung phone is exactly
the best-sounding when it comes to calls, but I’m not sure how many people
really care about this any longer.
When switched to speakerphone mode the calls are loud and relatively undistorted, but overall this function sounds pretty much the way it does on most other Samsung models (though the volume is a bit louder now).
After hearing the speakers in the HTC One, the single back-mounted speaker on the S4 is really disappointing. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad speaker, because it actually improves over the one in the S3 and S2 models before it. The problem is that the HTC One raised the bar so high that any phone that doesn’t come close just sounds like yesterday’s news. The best we can say about the S4 speaker therefore is that it’s acceptable.
Like the HTC One, and a few other high-end phones coming out just recently, the S4 has a 1080p screen resolution (that means 1920 by 1024 pixels). Back when I reviewed the Galaxy S3 I speculated that manufactures would go nuts and build phones with resolutions higher than 720p (1280 x 720). Sure enough they did, and it just goes to show that they’ll do anything to make their phones seem better than the competition (or than their previous generation models).
Fact is, they’ve gone just a bit too far, because it isn’t possible for most people to see a difference between 720p and 1080p on a screen that is 5 inches or smaller in size. Well okay, you can see a difference if you examine the screens under a magnifying glass, but the real-world difference is so slight that it’s hardly detectable. That being said, photographs look amazingly sharp on this screen.
I suppose that so long as the GPU can keep up with the resolution increase, and so long as we aren’t paying a penalty in battery consumption, having the extra pixels isn’t going to hurt. However, I have no way of finding out if the phone might have yielded better battery life if they’d used the 720p screen from the S3 instead.
Resolution aside however, the S4 has an excellent AMOLED display. It suffers from a slight “blue shift” as you increase the viewing angle, but screen brightness is not affected as much as it is in the HTC One. It improves over the S3 display by providing slightly whiter whites and slightly higher maximum brightness.
Despite how good I found the HTC One’s screen to be however, I found myself liking the S4’s more. Perhaps I’m just so accustomed to AMOLED screens now that I equate deep black levels with quality images, but regardless of the reason, I just like looking at the S4 more than I liked looking at the HTC One. I should note however that this is purely a personal preference, and not something I can back up with empirical data.
Processor and Chipset
As with other Samsung models, the chipsets used will differ depending upon which market you buy one. In North America the phone uses a Qualcomm 600 quad-core processor clocked at 1.9 GHz, coupled to an Adreno 320 GPU (which is more than powerful enough to handle the 1080p resolution of the new screen). The S4 turns in some of the highest graphics benchmarks of all the current Android phones.
I compared app launching speeds and overall smoothness of scrolling in various situations. Yes the S4 is a bit faster than my S2 LTE, but the extent to which it wins is by a much smaller margin than you might image. For all the processor/GPU improvements we’ve seen in the two generations of phones since the release of the S2 LTE, the overall improvement has been a bit disappointing. I guess the problem is that there just isn’t much they can do to radically improve the performance of the chipsets and we’re beginning to reach an asymptote in the graph of smartphone complexity vs real-world speed. This is perhaps why companies like Samsung concentrate so heavily on added software features to differentiate their new phones.
When I wrote the original review of this phone I used the results I got from a single side-by-side comparison with my Galaxy S2 LTE on a bike ride (tracked using SportTracker Pro). I noted that both tracks were virtually identical, in that the errors were of the same magnitude and in the same places. However, since getting my own S4 I've had a chance to really test the GPS and the results had been quite eye-opening.
The GPS on the S4 is without a doubt the best I've ever used. On a drive down to the Eaton Center I ran a track of the trip, which took me through the heart of downtown Toronto. Even all of those tall buildings couldn't displace the track by more than a few meters. Compared to what I got with other phones in similar situations the accuracy was astounding.
I also had a chance to test the GPS in a thick forest with a dense leaf cover. Checking the accuracy of this track was possible using aerial photography on Bing, as it was taken in the winter and the trail I was on could be seen. There was very little deviation from the trail at all, whereas any other phones I've tried, including my S2 LTE, would go off by as much as 10 to 20 meters or more.
I also tracked a walk I went on with the S4 in my shirt pocket. I've done that in the past with S2 LTE and the accuracy of the track was rather poor, with varying amounts of error of up to 10 meters or more. With the S4 the errors were minor and rarely more than a meter. In addition, the stated accuracy from the GPS was 3 or 4 meters at all times, and so putting the phone in my pocket didn't interfere with the reception enough to matter.
I did note (when running the
GPS Test app) that the S4 would often lock on 19 to 21 satellites (of 22 to
23 available). That suggests that the chipset used can lock on GPS, GLONASS, and
Galileo satellites. The S2 LTE seemed to be able to lock on GLONASS, but not
Galileo. Clearly the more satellites the device can watch, the greater the
accuracy when there is interference, such as tall buildings or thick leaf cover.
The Galaxy S4 comes with a 13 megapixel main rear camera and a 2 megapixel front camera. Samsung has taken a completely different route from HTC in their One. As you may already know the HTC One uses a 4 megapixel sensor, which on first glance seems woefully inadequate compared to what you get on the Galaxy S4. However, megapixels tell only half the story, and depending upon where you use your camera the most often will determine which of these two devices has the better camera.
The problem with extremely dense sensors such as those used in the S4 is that they tend to be less sensitive to low light and produce more noise at the bottom end. Less dense sensors such as those used in the HTC One are much more sensitive to low light and produce far less noise at the low end. But how does this affect the pictures you’ll most likely take?
In low light, such as a dimly-lit room, the HTC One simply blows away the S4, even when you use the Night Mode provided on the Samsung. The S4 requires longer exposure times to collect the needed light, which in turns makes much more likely that you’ll blur your shot. The Best Photo mode provided on the S4 does compensate somewhat. It takes 8 pictures in rapid succession and then picks the one that’s the sharpest. Usually, though not always, there will be at least one shot in which you had held the camera steady.
But what exactly constitutes low light when you’re outdoors? Not long ago Howard Chui and I took photographs of the corner of Yonge and Dundas (kind of like Toronto’s answer to Time Square). In that situation the HTC One tended to overexpose the brighter lights more than the S4 and the higher resolution of the sensor in the S4 returned a picture that was clearly sharper than the one taken with the HTC One.
Once there is sufficient light however, the S4 shines (no pun intended). It produces insanely sharp images that even pixel-peepers will appreciate. Remember I said that megapixels were only HALF the story. We’ve seen how having a less dense sensor (and subsequently less pixels) benefits the One in low light, but that advantage goes away when light is plentiful and the high number of pixels in the S4 photos mean you’ll get way more detail. That means your pictures will be sharper and you can crop out small pieces of them and those crops will still look good. If you crop a 4 megapixel image too much, the resulting crop is just too low-res.
When it comes to features offered in the S4 camera software, some are nothing more than novelties, but many do what they advertise and in many instances they do it extremely well.
One feature that generally works quite well, and is extremely useful, is the Eraser Mode. When used in this mode the camera will take a series of photographs over a short period of time, and then compare each of those images to look for objects that moved through the frame. Once those objects are identified the software can combine pieces from multiple images in such a way to completely mask the existence of those unwanted objects passing through. The idea works exceptionally well in most instances.
Best Photo, which can be found on many cameras over the years, take a series of 8 pictures in rapid succession and analyzes them to find the sharpest. You can choose the one it picks, or you can choose to keep a different image, or even multiple images. This feature works best, as noted above, when there is a high likelihood that something will mess up quite a few of the shots, such as blur, people blinking, etc.
A similar mode, called Best Face takes that idea a step further and it is used in group photo situations. Again it takes multiple images, but this time it allows the blending of different faces to pick the best of them in each individual instance. The problem with taking group photos is that inevitably someone blinks, ends up with a stupid expression on their faces, or just looks odd in some way. Take the picture again and then someone else looks wrong. Photoshop has always been the way to go to cut and paste faces from multiple shots, but the S4 does it right inside the camera software.
The panorama features works like you’d expect, but it functions in full resolution. Take a panorama holding your phone vertically and you’ll get a resulting image that’s over 4000 pixels tall and tens of thousands of pixels wide. I’ve included an example I took of an Air Emirates Airbus A-380 on the tarmac. Zoom it to 100% and check out the incredible amount of detail in the entire picture. Click here to view that photo.
Other features are somewhat less successful, but still have their uses. Beauty Face for example examines the image and smoothes out wrinkles and blemishes in people’s faces. If you’ve ever taken close-ups of elderly people, you know how bad this can sometimes get. Rich Tone is the Samsung version of HDR, which intelligently combines elements of pictures taken at different exposures surrounding the chosen exposure. This brings up things in the shadows and prevents bright objects from overexposing.
One of the more gimmicky features (which most users will try once or twice and then forget about) allows you to use both cameras at one. The secondary image (usually of the person taking the shot) can be superimposed on the main image using a variety of framing approaches (such a postage stamp that has been franked). The idea seems to work a bit better in videos. Howard Chui made one that showed his young daughters face as she reacted to the various things they were driving by (and being video recorded on the main image).
The HTC One offers optical stabilization (which means the lens is physically manipulated to steady the image falling on the sensor), while the S4 gets by with old-fashioned digital stabilization. The latter works, but it just doesn’t hold a candle to mechanical stabilization. Neither phone offers optical zoom, which is likely to be a big deal in the coming generation of smartphones.
So which camera is best for you? It depends what you want to do with your camera. If many of your shots are taken indoors at night, you’ll probably need a camera that can work well under those conditions. For you it would definitely be the HTC One. However, if you generally take pictures with plenty of light, then the higher resolution of the S4 camera leaves those taken with the HTC One looking a bit fuzzy.
Personally, I wish I could have my cake and eat it too, but like the speakers you have to choose between one of the other. At least in the case of the camera you can make a case for liking the S4’s better, depending upon your needs.
Since writing the original review of this phone I decided to take the plunge and buy one. I therefore felt compelled to update the conclusions section of this review to explain what tipped the scales. Originally I noted that it was nearly impossible to choose between the HTC One and the Galaxy S4, because each had things it did exceptionally well. By getting one you would end up wanting the features you were missing from the other. It was this very quandary that had me in a state of indecision for ages.
In the end the choice came down to a personal list of pluses and minuses that eventually fell squarely in favor of the Samsung. However, I would like to emphasize the word PERSONAL in the previous sentence. Both of these phones are remarkable examples of the best you can get in Android as of the early summer of 2013. Unfortunately neither of them are perfect and thus you are forced to make compromises if you go with one or the other.
So, here's a sampling of the things that either attracted me to the S4, or put me off getting the HTC One:
1) The locked bootloader on the HTC One was a big issue for me, because I always root my phones and I definitely prefer to install ClockworkMod Recovery, if for no other reason than to use NANDROID BACKUP. It is possible to unlock the bootloader of the HTC One, but to do so you have go to an HTC web page to get PERMISSION, which essentially lets them know they can go right ahead and void your warranty.
2) The non-replaceable battery of the HTC One, coupled with its bonded-and-can't-be-cracked-open casing, amounts to a very troublesome situation should my battery ever loose its capacity. Even a service center can't open the HTC One, and so a spent battery essentially means I'd have to get a refurbished phone to replace the original (assuming refurbished really applies to a phone that can't be opened). While this MAY NOT be a problem to many people, especially those who tend to keep phones for short periods of time, it will certainly be an issue to whomever you pass the phone down to and may have a serious impact on resale value if you try to sell it.
3) I just can't shake my love affair with AMOLED displays. The jet black blacks of the Super AMOLED displays used on Samsung models are just too alluring to me. Even a friend of mine who bought an HTC One recently admitted to me that he really misses the great blacks he used to get on his Samsung phones.
4) The external MicroSD card slot on the S4 is useful for any number of reasons. For instance, when I do a Nandroid Backup the resulting set of files often exceed 2 GB in size and I like to copy that onto my computer. Unless you have plenty of time to wait its markedly faster to copy these files to your computer by pulling the card and inserting it into a USB port using an adapter. Secondly, it allows you to expand the storage on the phone should you want (or need) to store large files on it.
5) Even though the HTC One looks great, I really didn't like how it felt in the palm of my hand. It's sharp edges were far more annoying than the smooth rounded edges of the S4. Besides, the only part of the phone I actually look at is the screen. Refer to point 3 for that.
6) LTE Band 7 (since I'm on Rogers) is a major attraction to me. While the raw speed of the band will likely drop a little as more Band 7 devices get in the hands of users, the likelihood that it will become markedly congested in the next year is quite low.
7) The button placement on the HTC One is just too much of an issue for me. I could probably get used to it for day-to-day stuff, but I also do a lot of bike riding and I put my phones inside a hard shell that's part of a handlebar-mounted amplified speaker. With the placement of the power button on the S4 I can actually use the device while it sits safely inside this shell (plus I can just press the physical HOME button to turn on the screen). With the HTC One it's virtually impossible to get at the button to turn on the screen.
That covers the issues that come to mind, and admittedly some (or even all) of them may not apply to your situation. It does however highlight the issues in choosing between these 2 great phones. Your best bet is to do what I did and make a list of pluses and minuses for each model. Unless you're unlucky and your list comes out even, this should help you to do decide.