The past couple of months have seen a dizzying array of “hero” smartphones hit the Australian marketplace. They’re all around the same kinds of price points outright or on contract, so which one should you pick? This week: Samsung’s feature-packed Galaxy S4.
Smartphones of 2013: Blackberry Z10
Smartphones of 2013: Sony Xperia Z
Smartphones of 2013: LG Optimus G
Samsung’s been nipping at Apple’s heels in the smartphone market for some time, and it pulled out all the stops with the all-plastic Galaxy S4. Not just in the glitzy launch events, which spanned a frankly painful Radio City Music Hall unveiling but even in a local launch that must have cost a pretty penny
On the plus side
The recipe for the S4 has been very carefully laid out. For a start, take the Galaxy S3, because the two phones are, at a physical level, remarkably similar. Then take a whole bushel of tiny but heavily greased ferrets, dosed up on caffeine and then placed on tiny rotating wheels underneath the S4’s excellent Super AMOLED display. At least, that’s how I’d like to think Samsung put the S4 together.
The core hardware within the Australian version of the Samsung Galaxy S4, a 1.9GHz quad-core processor underneath a 1920×1080 441ppi Super AMOLED display is excellent. General performance is as slick as you could want. For those who love the benchmark numbers, the S4 blitzes the field with a score of 3222. Simply put, there is no faster smartphone you can buy — or at least not yet at a hardware level.
It’s also blessed with an excellent camera for a smartphone; a 13.0 megapixel shooter that delivers good photos in most environments. Likewise, the inbuilt IR remote works well, and it’s Bluetooth and NFC compatible.
The S4’s 2600mAh battery is also a standout feature. I used the Galaxy SII as my day to day phone for a very long time because the battery life was excellent, but I could never say that about the SIII in either its 3G or 4G variants. So I was concerned with the S4 that I may be in for the same kind of experience, but thankfully that hasn’t been the case. The S4 battery is removable, which is a plus for some, and lasts a decent chunk of time. In my testing I have managed to exhaust the S4 within a day, but only when I’ve been really hammering it with every kind of battery draining app.
On the minus side
There’s no getting around the plastic construction of the S4. I’ve had mine in a case pretty much since the review sample turned up to help protect it, but even beyond that, it just doesn’t feel as well built or as premium as a hero phone in this day and age should. Compared to even a mid-range phone like the Optimus G or Xperia SP, the S4 feels cheap — which it isn’t.
Samsung’s thrown a little bit of everything into the S4, which should give it incredible broad platform appeal, but for two problems. Firstly, many of the apps don’t work well, if they work at all. Smart Scroll, Air Gestures and Smart Pause are incredibly twitchy little beasts. I’ve covered the issues with S-Translator previously. Dual Camera is notably a feature that sounds good on paper — being able to take a photo of yourself as well as your subject and have it superimposed on the single shot — but it’s one that adds to the complexity of the shot and will rarely produce results that are actually pleasant. The added sting here is that all of these apps are pre-installed on the S4, taking up more than half the storage space on the Australian 16GB model, and you can’t uninstall them.
Then there’s the frankly insulting way that Samsung treats its Australian customers when it comes to customisation. Android is an operating environment that benefits from its flexibility… unless you’re an Australian customer of Samsung. Infuriatingly, Samsung won’t even say why they’ve taken this seemingly minor but irritatingly stupid step, but if you buy an Australian S4, you’re limited in what you can do without switching launchers.
The Galaxy S4 presents me with a quandary. On the one hand, the underlying hardware is excellent. It’s fast, it’s responsive, it has a great screen and a good camera. It should represent a home run for Samsung on that basis alone.
On the other hand, the S4 is littered with crapware, bizarrely crippled by local firmware and wrapped in a plastic shell that compares unfavourably to the prevailing design trends of premium hero phones. There’s talk of a rugged S4 Active as I write this, but whether we’ll see that in Australia — either officially or in a 4G variant that works with Australia’s local networks — is entirely unclear.
Likewise, Google has announced it’s doing a Nexus-ified version of the S4, but that’s for the US market only. That wouldn’t have happened if the S4 wasn’t a good device, and with a little luck a compatible ROM may be built up from that to truly harness the S4’s exceptional power.
So what does that leave us? The currently available plastic body S4 is a great phone, but it’s one that could arguably be a whole lot better with only a few minor tweaks. I wouldn’t use one without a case — especially given its performance in drop tests — and it represents Samsung slipping just a little in my estimation. The Galaxy brand had led the way in Android smartphones, but now it’s just sitting with the best in the pack, rather than being the absolute leader.