*Updated as of 25th April 2013 - The article was was published as a preliminary review without a conclusion on the 24th April 2013. This page was added after our battery tests were completed, allowing us to conclude our article in proper.
Answering the Big Question - Is It Any Good?
Is the Samsung Galaxy S4 worth buying? Unfortunately, it's not a resounding yes this time round and it depends on your priorities from a new phone. Perhaps our expectations were too high after the mega success of the Galaxy S III, but we definitely expected more from its successor. The lack of an octa-core processor in the Singapore edition of the Galaxy S4 takes away much of the wow-factor of this new device.
Same Design, Too Many Frills?
Design-wise, Samsung brings nothing new to the table. ASUS, HTC and Sony have stepped up their game with their respective flagship devices. The ASUS PadFone Infinity sports a chassis made up of aerospace-grade aluminum while HTC introduces "zero-gap" construction with the One. The Sony Xperia Z is impressive with its OmniBalance and splash/dust resistance design.
Samsung, on the other hand, decided to stick to its plastic construction because the company has to take into consideration how quickly and efficiently it can manufacture the device knowing that demand is likely to be very high. Granted that it is the only phone vendor besides Apple to be raking in astronomical profits from the sales of its smartphones, its design and use of materials are increasingly dated. We will acknowledge that Samsung has managed to create the only flagship mobile device that's super slim and still offers a removable battery design. It has its advantages, but the disadvantage is of course the choice of material used. Despite the use of plastic, even the design is identical. On first appearance and handling the Galaxy S4, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason as to why consumers should fork out big bucks when the competition offers better-built devices at similar price points. Is it perhaps for its 'soft' features?
The Galaxy S4 does offer a long string of software features, but from our trials, we wonder if any consumer will actually use all of them. It seems to us that Samsung is placing its bets on all these 'innovative' software functions and hoping that one or two will take off in a big way. We cannot deny the fact that some software features such as Smart Stay and Direct Call are somewhat practical, but the majority of the newer functions are somewhat superficial and may not be necessary for most users.
Strong Performance and Accessory Options
On the performance front, the Galaxy S4 certainly met our expectations. The Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS coupled with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor delivers the closest actual user experience you can get to a pure Nexus device. Camera imaging performance is commendable and is one of the best from the current crop of top tier phones. Battery stamina too is well ahead of the competition. Its 5-inch Full-HD Super AMOLED display may look impressive, but we've seen other 5-inch displays of comparable quality with more natural representation of colors. AMOLED displays tend to make the display overly vibrant - great for enjoying the device, but photos shot with the phone may appear dull when seen on other devices like a TV or PC that aren't equipped with AMOLED screens.
If there is one area that Samsung has made progress in, it would be the ecosystem of accessories. Instead of leaving the lucrative market opportunity to third-party vendor. Samsung takes things into its own hands by offering its own accessories such as the S View Cover, flip cover, protective cover+, pouch, extra battery kit, wireless charging pad/cover, Bluetooth headset, stereo headset, HDTV adapter and even health/fitness accessories. If you are going to get the Samsung Galaxy S4, you have no shortage of ready accessories to choose from. However, actual availability of the full suite of accessories in each country can vary. In Singapore, only the S View Cover and Flip Cover accessories were confirmed at the local media launch event.
Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a typical high-end Android smartphone that improves upon its predecessor, but it's not quite the "S4" we expected. In our opinion, it's probably more apt to label it as the "Galaxy S III Plus" from the improvements offered in this newcomer. Perhaps if the local edition of the Galaxy S4 were to utilize the Exynos 5 Octa mobile processor, that would have been enough reason for tech savvy folks to pounce at the first octa-core mobile processor based smartphone. It's also a pity that design innovation is not in tandem with the rest of the improvements we've seen in the device, and we certainly hope the company addresses this in their next flagship model.
To Buy or Not To Buy?
Having said all of that, should you get the Samsung Galaxy S4? Well, it really depends on your priorities, so here's our recommendations based on a few key aspects:-
- If you are looking for a more durable phone or a refreshing phone design, the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z fit the bill. The Xperia Z's strength lies in its IP55 and IP57 ratings, which indicate the highest levels of dust and water resistance. Simple but classy design is yet another understated hallmark of the Xperia Z. On the other hand, the full metal body of the HTC One offers a unique looking rugged build, while it's curved back makes it comfortable to grasp.
- Should you want to consider your next flagship device based on the best user interface, look no further than the HTC One smartphone and its HTC Sense 5 user interface with the HTC BlinkFeed. Simple, elegant and straightforward summarizes the UI. Further to that, it offers an interesting photo and video shooting interface with the HTC Zoe function. On a side note, the HTC One has the best speakers on any smartphone to complement its multimedia experience.
- If you are looking at an Android smartphone which delivers great all-round performance, we highly recommend the Samsung Galaxy S4. Just look at the sheer number of software features, great battery life, superb imaging performance and smooth operation on the Galaxy S4, and you will know the rationale of our recommendation.
- Existing Galaxy S III and Note II users would likely have a hard time deciding if upgrading to the Galaxy S4 would be worthwhile, but unfortunately, there's not a whole lot to be gained. All three phones look very similar, while any differences boil down to the internal hardware and software features available. Taking reference from Samsung's track record of software upgrades, it is likely that some (but not all) of the new software features will be available to existing Galaxy S III and Note II devices.
On another note, this marks the first time in three years that a Galaxy S flagship device missed out on our coveted Editor's Choice Award. The Samsung Galaxy S II and Galaxy S III led the competition with clear margins, but it's not as apparent with the Galaxy S4 this time around. Don't get us wrong, the Galaxy S4 is still a good advancement and it will likely entice older smartphone users (such as the Galaxy S II owners) looking for a device with great all-round performance. But having considered the current competitive landscape, from our perspective, Samsung's next true Galaxy has yet to arrive - at least from the local landscape perspective.
If you are planning to get the Samsung Galaxy S4, do check out our telcos' price plan comparison. The Samsung Galaxy S4 (16GB) will be available from 27 April at a retail price of S$998, which is a tad higher than the S$968 HTC One (32GB) and S$988 Sony Xperia Z (16GB).