As much as I enjoyed making fun of Samsung for the train-wreck of a media event they held in March to announce the new Galaxy smartphone, I have to admit that for a while now, the Galaxy line has easily outperformed virtually every other Android device on the market. I liked the S3 a lot better than the iPhone 5 and the BlackBerry Z10. Even the Samsung Note, which I had a hard time taking seriously at first because it is, without hyperbole, the size of a living room table, eventually grew on me.
That’s why I can’t recommend the Galaxy S4 without reservation. It is a great phone – the best all-round Android phone on the market right now. But it is great only because the S3 was terrific, and Samsung, in building the S3’s successor, pulled off one of the all-time achievements in not rocking the boat. The majority of new features on the S4 are either rushed, arbitrary or graduates of the Siri School Of Cool-Sounding But Ultimately Useless Gimmickry. If you want an Android phone, you should absolutely buy a Samsung Galaxy – by which I mean you should wait till the S4 comes out and then try to get an S3 at a discount.
Visually, the S4 looks like a fusion of the S3 and the Note II. Like the vast majority of touchscreen phones, it is a flat pane of glass (if you’re the sort of person whose purchasing decisions are influenced by this sort of thing, you should know the S4 has curved corners and a smooth steel border). The phone’s back cover – and, indeed, the entire phone – feels a lot sturdier than previous Galaxys, although I’m too scared of breaking my review unit to really smash it against the concrete. It did survive one five-foot fall onto the hardwood, and a couple of trips to the climbing gym, for what that’s worth.
The button setup is largely unchanged, with a physical home button at the bottom of the screen, a physical power button on the right border and volume controls on the left. The back and settings buttons, on either side of the home button, are virtual and hidden, only lighting up and buzzing when you touch them – this is something I find annoying, but you’d probably get used to it pretty quickly if you actually owned one of these devices and used those buttons all the time.
Because it is one of those areas where nobody really objects if you crank everything up to 11, Samsung has loaded the S4 with superlative processing power and other hardware specs. The Gorilla-Glass-protected, five-inch HD screen is as sharp as anything else out there (although I’d still take the Note II for watching movies, not only because the screen is bigger, but because the widescreen format feels far less wonky on the Note’s dimensions). The 1.9-gigahertz, quad-core processor is, to be honest, overkill. But the good news is that there’s probably not much you can do to make the S4 feel sluggish – for all intents and purposes, the bottleneck now becomes your network connection speeds. The S4, oddly, also packs a well-made on-board speaker. I don’t know anybody who listens to anything on their smartphones without using headphones, but if you are that person, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the S4.
Of all the hardware upgrades, the new, larger battery was the most welcome. Like the iPhone, the S4 will still conk out after two-thirds of a day of heavy usage (give or take, obviously), but with light usage, you’ll get a lot more out of it than you’d expect for such a burly, fuel-hungry processor.