April 24, 2013 -- "Life Companion."
That's the phrase you see along the top of the Galaxy S4's screen when you turn on the phone. Seriously.
O.K., sure, it's a little crazy that Samsung's put its marketing tagline for its new flagship phone across the phone, but if you can see past that, it does highlight the importance of the device. While some might consider the Galaxy S4 just another Android phone in the dating pool, it's more than that, Samsung says. And that's actually true.
While Android phones have surged in popularity and even outnumber the number of iPhones being sold, it's the Samsung Galaxy S name – amongst the Droid This or Droid That on shelves – that many now recognize. Like its Galaxy S3 predecessor, Samsung's Galaxy S4 is going to be the phone to take on the iPhone (and the next iPhone) and the other current top Android phone – the HTC One.
But is the Galaxy S4 the phone to buy when it hits all the major carriers for $199 in the coming weeks? Is it the one you want to make, for better or worse, your life companion?
A Clean Design Messed Up by Plastic
The Galaxy S4 looks a lot like the previous Galaxy S3, albeit with a slightly bigger screen. And that's not a bad thing. Its smooth curved edges make it look even thinner than it really is and Samsung has shrank the frame of the screen, giving it an even smoother and uniform look.
But your impression of the phone may change once you pick it up. Like all the previous Galaxy S phones, the S4 is made of plastic. Even the sides, which look like metal, are plastic. The glossy plastic starkly contrasts with the all-metal and aluminum iPhone 5 and the HTC One; the Galaxy just feels cheaper and flimsier. The iPhone and the HTC One have stunning designs; you actually admire how the phone feels and looks in your hand. That's not the case with the S4.
On the plus side, there's a benefit to that plastic: weight. The 4.59-ounce phone is lighter than most other big-screened phones, including the 5.04-ounce HTC One.
A Screen to Touch, Not Wave At
But Samsung figures you'll be staring not at the back or the sides of the phone, but at the phone's big, beautiful 5-inch, SuperAMOLED, 1080p screen. That's a mouthful of specs, but it means you get really bright and crisp images all over the front of the phone. The HTC One, in contrast, has a 1080p SuperLCD screen, which I prefer for its color accuracy. The bigger screen can take some getting used to, but the wider size does mean a wider keyboard to type on.
If you've been paying attention to the Galaxy S4, you know there are some ways to navigate the screen without having to touch it. Using an infrared sensor and software, Samsung has added features like AirGesture, which lets you wave your hand in front of the screen to move through photos or webpages. You can also hover your finger over the screen in certain apps to see more information. And then there is Smart Scroll: Tilt the phone up or down and it will scroll in that direction.
Save for Smart Scroll, all of those features worked as promised, but they feel more like gimmicks than anything else. In the past week, I've never found myself in a situation where I found it more convenient to wave my hand at the phone rather than tap it.
Unmatched Camera Software
But the 13-megapixel camera – up from the 8-megapixel on the Galaxy S3 -- could be the phone's standout feature. It is the best example of Samsung's melding good hardware and interesting software together. The camera is one of the best I've tested on a smartphone and bests the Ultrapixel camera on the HTC One. Shots are clear, and it handles low-light situations as well as the iPhone.
Generally, the iPhone 5 did still take photos with greater detail, but it's the added camera features on the Galaxy S4 that actually make me consider giving up the iPhone.
There are 13 camera modes, most of which have been brought over from Samsung's Galaxy Camera. You can shoot video and take a still photo at the same time and also use the front and rear cameras at the same time to combine the two images into one video or image. Like this:
You can also select the Drama mode to capture a series of moving shots in one. And my favorite: you can create an animated photo or GIF (like this one).
The best part is that you can actually now find the camera settings. The new camera app has a carousel with the settings, allowing you to easily select the one you want to use on the fly. Bottom line: The camera feature set alone makes this phone worth a look.
S Many Features
But those camera features are just the tip of the iceberg when detailing all of the new software features and apps Samsung has added to Android 4.1.
You won't use or find the time to figure out many of the new additions, but others -- like its Translator app, which can translate your speech to a different language on the fly -- is useful and well thought out. Other apps like S Travel or S Health are meant to improve your life, though I just didn't find them to be as well designed as similar apps available in the Google Play store.
And that software design issue is something I took note of around the entire operating system. Samsung has reskinned Android in many places and it simply isn't as tidy as Google's orginal work. HTC's software design, however, matches its hardware design: it's attractive and polished.
Many people will find the phone's sheer number of features to be overwhelming and hard to find. For instance, I really like the multitasking feature that lets you stack apps one on top of another – i.e. e-mail on the top of the screen and a browser on the bottom – but it isn't obvious how you actually can set that up. For real smartphone beginners, Samsung has added an Easy Mode, which simplifies the entire phone, with a stripped-down homescreen and settings menu.
A Fast Phone That Lasts
In my week of testing and trying out software features, the phone was consistently able to keep up with my manic use of it. Thanks to a 1.9GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, the Galaxy S4 launches apps quickly and handles multiple tasks at the same time without a hiccup. More impressively, it is able to stich together hundreds of photos to create those animated photos and other edited photos in just seconds. You also get the benefits of fast LTE data on the AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and the Verizon models. (Samsung sent me the T-Mobile version, but since it hasn't yet lit up its LTE network in New York I wasn't able to test it yet. It plans to roll out the service this summer.)
All the while, the Galaxy was able to provide the endurance you need. Samsung stuck in a bigger battery this time around, making this phone last longer than most. During heavy days of use, the phone was able to make it through most of the day, but do remember that LTE was not enabled on the phone, which might further impact the battery life.
If you are looking for an Android smartphone, the Galaxy S4 is a great choice. It's jam-packed with new camera features, it's fast, and it has all-day battery life. Beyond all that, its software enhancements – not those gimmicky waving and tilting ones, but the other ones -- make it standout amongst all other Android phones and even the iPhone.
I just wish Samsung had put that same attention into the design of the physical phone. The HTC One and the iPhone 5 are simply better-designed and crafted pieces of hardware. But there's no two ways around it: the Galaxy S4 is a phone that you will enjoy having by your side or in your pocket. Yes, it's a life companion you won't regret commiting to.
(Oh, and yes, you can change or remove that "Life Companion" phrase on the front of the phone. You think I'd recommend it if you couldn't?)