Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Two Weeks with Samsung Galaxy S4

DSC06982I’ve now had my Samsung Galaxy S4 (SGS4) for two weeks, and I just want to share my thoughts about the SGS4 from someone who’s actually using it. The SGS4 has been one of the most anticipated smartphones this year, and thanks to all the numerous previews and reviews on the Internet, you might even be very familiar with it even if you don’t use or own one. Is the SGS4 as great as the media has made it out to be?

The first time you see the SGS4, you probably want to confirm it is really the SGS4, because it looks so similar in its outward appearance to the Galaxy S III (SGS3). Of course, once you’ve learnt how to tell them apart, it’s a lot easier to differentiate between them. In the looks department, the SGS4 has become less curvy than last year’s “nature inspired” SGS3. It’s also more symmetrical and straighter too. The home button, for example, is both symmetrical in itself as well as being centered between the LCD screen and the bottom edge of the phone.

This is probably highly subjective, but in my opinion, the SGS4 has a more polished look than before. The metallic accents, though fake, lend some premium touch to the phone. It’s still a plasticky phone. But that’s what enables it to be lightweight, and despite all that plastic, the phone feels solid in the hand.

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If you didn’t know, the SGS4 is actually not just thinner (7.9mm vs 8.6mm) but also slimmer (69.8 mm vs 70.6 mm) than the SGS3, while still remaining the exact same height (136.6 mm). In the smaller body, the SGS4 has a bigger battery (2600 mAh vs 2100 mAh) and a larger screen (5.0″ vs 4.8″). The SGS4 is also lighter (130 g vs 133 g). It’s impressive engineering.

I came from the HTC One X (HOX) to the SGS4, and the SGS4 clearly feels thinner, despite the difference being just 1 mm. I think, it helps a lot that the SGS4’s back is smoother, so it slides in and out of my pocket much more easily.

While some of the competition, notably HTC with HTC One and numerous other models, have gone with non-removable batteries and non-expandable memories, the SGS4 still includes a removable battery and a microSD slot.

[Note: I’m not doing a full review of the SGS4 here, but just sharing my two cents based on my actual use of the phone. Therefore, I’m not going to be talking about features in detail, or even to list all the features. I’m assuming you pretty know several things about the SGS4 already, otherwise you should probably find a proper full review of the SGS4.]

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On the software front, Samsung puts this thing called TouchWiz on top of Android. Never mind where TouchWiz ends and Android starts, I can’t really figure it out myself. But let’s just say the software experience should be pretty much familiar to anyone who’s used a Samsung Android smartphone. Some nifty features have even made their way into other projects like CyanogenMod’s custom Android ROM.

The SGS4’s bag of new tricks include Air View, Air Gesture, and Smart Scroll. There’s also the Smart Stay which first appeared in the SGS3. These features are interesting, and definitely a good “show off” because other phones don’t do it. There’s some learning curve to work them reliably, and there’re some situations which work against them. You probably wouldn’t want to depend on them. I can see some practical value in Air View and Air Gesture, such as when your hands are oily/greasy/dirty and you don’t want to touch your phone, so I certainly hope these could be improved.

Battery life is great. Definitely way better than the HOX. Probably matching the Galaxy S II (SGS2) I used to own. On the HOX, I worry about running down the battery on a high usage day and I have to use it till late night. I don’t foresee this being a concern with the SGS4. That’s despite me turning on some of those new “Air” and “Smart” features.

The SGS4 takes pretty good pictures. Megapixels may not be everything, but I’m glad Samsung chose to upgrade to a 13MP camera instead of following HTC’s route with the HTC One. More megapixels give you room to adjust, crop, and work with the image in various ways. I’m happy as long as the sensor quality does not noticeably degrade when moving up from 8MP to 13MP. Had I really needed better quality photos, I’d use a proper camera for that.

The new camera modes are fun too. Of course, many are gimmicky, but definitely I can see myself using some of them from time to time. For example, I can include myself, using the front camera, as an insert into the photo shot by the main rear camera. It’s a nifty trick to include me, the photographer, in whatever fun moments I’m capturing.

My greatest complaint about the SGS4 is one that serious impacts user experience. It is that the software is not completely fluid and responsive as like, for example, on the iPhone. There are stutters from time to time as the screen transitions or some window animation is played. The phone works, of course. Functionality is not impacted. But the user experience is marred.

Most netizens feel, and which has purportedly been confirmed by Samsung, that the stuttering is clearly an OS issue which can be fixed by a future software update. I certainly hope so, and that it happens quickly. Funny enough, I’m unable to see this stuttering problem happening on some demo sets, but then those are identified by a slightly different product number (GT-I9505X vs GT-I9505 that is actually in buyers’ hands) and older firmware version. This is probably the single thing that prevents me from completely liking the SGS4 and recommending it without reservations.

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The SGS4 comes with the usual accessories. Notice how the cables and adapter are now all in white, despite this being the SGS4 in Black Mist. It seems like white is the new in. Perhaps I should have opted for the white. (I actually did want to change to the white, but my carrier declined to allow that for launch event.)

The SGS4 charges and syncs via micro USB, of course, and the port also supports OTG (USB host mode) as well as MHL. Pretty much what you’d expect nowadays. No MHL adapter is included, though.

The SGS4 sold in Singapore is the LTE version, with the Snapdragon processor. There is some amount of debate about the Snapdragon vs Samsung’s Exynos Octa-core processor that has been strongly marketed as a key feature of the SGS4. Sure, there will be some performance difference, but I don’t think they contribute any meaningful impact to the user experience and perceived performance. No, I’m not bothered with having a Snapdragon powered SGS4.

More importantly, it is the LTE that is most meaningful, and my key requirement upgrading from my HOX. With LTE, I can now finally enjoy true mobile broadband, instead of suffering with the 3G experience that seems to have been intentionally crippled by all the carriers in Singapore. Yes, I think it’s a conspiracy to force all of us to re-contract to a 4G plan that has significantly lower data caps.

Conclusion

What do I think of the SGS4?

It’s everything you’d expect from a 2013 flagship Android smartphone. Despite its lightweight and incredibly small profile, it still sports a 5.0″ display, removable battery, and microSD slot. The new software features are fun, and you may find some usefulness in them. However, it is marred by stuttering behaviour.

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