If there’s one handset that challenges the iPhone’s dominance on the minds of customers, then it has to be the Samsung Galaxy S4.
Sure, the HTC One is well loved, Sony has found form again with the new Xperia range, and Google’s Nexus 5 offers simply the best value for money of any top tier unit, but in sheer volume of sales the S4 has got them beat.
Released in the summer of 2013, the S4 is packed to the gills with bespoke features that Samsung has somehow crammed into the elegantly thin frame. In many ways it’s a strong iteration of the wildly successful S3. The screen is marginally bigger at around 5 inches, and while this does feel large and somewhat cumbersome in the initial hours, the glass acreage soon becomes a comfortable place to interact with the device.
In fact the first thing you notice is just how much of the phone is screen. The side bezels are minuscule and the lower portion of the unit where the home and two softkey buttons live is also small. This does cause a few issues as you need to readjust the position of the handset quite often to be able to hit the back button. Over the first few days I found that I touched it by accident with part of my hand pretty regularly, which became something of an annoyance. Putting a case on the unit (which I would have done anyway, as phones are expensive and get dropped a lot) instantly solved the problem by shielding my fleshy thumb from the button. After that I found the S4 a very enjoyable experience.
All that gorilla glass gives you a portal to the internet that makes watching Youtube videos and playing games a far more enjoyable past-time than it is on my iPhone. The colours are rich, text definition crisp, and the handset is very fast in pretty much any task. The size also makes reading books, articles, or general web browsing far more enticing than on lower-res or inch-challenged rivals. Over the two weeks with the device I definitely found myself using the S4 more for these sort of things than my old iPhone 4S. Actually, going back to my little stalwart after testing bigger phones can often be a little disconcerting. I adjust in a day or two and then it’s business as usual. But after the S4 my iPhone now has the permanent feeling of being too small for many of the things I want to do. I realised that I never really fire up my Kindle, Pulse, or Youtube apps on the iPhone, instead saving it for my iPad. With the S4 this wasn’t the case. Interesting.
One of the main reasons for my love affair with my 4S is the amazing camera. The camera on the S4 is very decent, producing photos that look rich and sharp. It also comes with a multitude of modes that can turn a normal shot into a GIF, multi-exposure image, or (bizarrely) put an image of the taker in the corner. In practice they can be a bit hit and miss. The multiple exposure setting is a kind of action shot, meant really for high speed action. The thing is if you move too quickly then it can’t quite catch the moment, too slowly and you end up blurry. When it gets things right though, the results are quite fun.
Here’s a couple of examples of what can be achieved quickly with just the in-built modes.
The typical user will probably play about with these modes when they first get the device, then set them aside and stick with the excellent auto mode. Which would be no bad thing.
Here’s a couple of standard shots that show off the camera in normal use.
In the end, for most of us, all we want from a phone is that it’s easy to use, fast, takes cool pictures, and has a good screen. The S4 delivers on all these demands, and stacks a lot of extras on top. There are a number of special features such as eye tracking, and touchless control, but these all felt a bit clunky and pointless. Then there are the elaborate, but again in many cases superfluous although admittedly fun, camera modes. All of this takes up space on the storage and would be a big downside if it weren’t for the fact that Samsung includes a micro SD card slot so you can cheaply expand your internal space. Not many manufacturers do this any more, so it really is an important feature to note, especially if you want to carry your music or video collection around on your phone.
The S4 also has a removable battery, so you can replace it when the phone gets older, or carry a spare if you’re a heavy user. You might not need one though because I was very impressed with the normal day-to-day battery life, rarely finding myself below 20% when it was time to go to bed.
I wasn’t convinced about big phones until my recent experience with the Nexus 4. The Galaxy S4 has taken that curiosity and turned it into a full blown love. It’s hard now to go back to the iPhone, knowing that out there somewhere is an S4. Yes it’s plastic, but so is the new iPhone 5C. Yes it’s big, but it’s also slim and light, so this becomes an advantage. Yes it’s Android, but that’s another major plus these days. The S4 is simply an excellent phone that’s great to use, and the screen is lovely. In truth, this was the hardest one so far to send back.