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Gadgets & Home Improvement

Exclusive: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

Having first seen the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone in New York during the announcement six weeks ago, I was sold on the large 4.99-inch screen and more defined box shape in a slimmer form factor
The Straits Times - April 24, 2013
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Exclusive: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

By Sherwin Loh

Having first seen the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone in New York during the announcement six weeks ago, I was sold on the large 4.99-inch screen and more defined box shape in a slimmer form factor, even if I questioned the South Korean giant's continued use of a plastic rear body.

But as I toyed with the S4 at the preview, I realised that most consumers probably would not care much about the external build or internal hardware. After all, most of the discussions on how this phone stacks up against other flagship devices such as the Sony Xperia Z and HTC One so far - and no doubt after this Saturday's local launch - have centred on whether the extra features matter.

My answer is they do and the S4 wins on some, as it sacrifices on others.

Of the three flagship phones, it is the only one that offers a removable, replaceable battery, hence the need for a thinner, plastic cover.

Only the Xperia Z and S4 offer expandable microSD card slots, and while the One has the best design of the three, due to its aluminium unibody, the metal heats up under prolonged use such as when one is watching videos and playing games. The One also sports a slightly smaller 4.7-inch screen.

Minor differences aside, this is where the new features come in and puts Samsung ahead in my books. While some might call them gimmicky, no one can accuse Samsung of plagiarism as it is taking risks by introducing some nifty features.

Gesture and motion controls sound weird but they are the ones I really appreciate. They are so simple that I am surprised no one seemed to have thought of them before.

The first one allows you to answer calls by moving your hand back and forth across the screen. It might not make sense on a day-to-day basis, but for those connected to Bluetooth or handsfree headsets while driving, you no longer have to look and reach for your phone to take calls.

Simply hover your hands over the screen and the call is answered. This also worked at night in the car.

If the phone is on standby, placing your hand over the screen will enable Quick Glance, as the screen lights up to reveal missed calls, messages and battery life. This beats pressing the power button and swiping the screen, just to check for incoming notifications.

Otherwise, the Smart Alert motion will make the phone vibrate when you pick it up, informing you if there are messages. No activity means you do not have to turn the phone on to check.

Then there is Direct Call. If you have a missed call, or are looking at an SMS message or have a contact listed on screen, placing the phone near your face will make the phone dial that number.

Otherwise, there is an Air View feature that makes it easier to browse messages. A pop-up box will appear when users hover a finger over a message in the SMS inbox, revealing the contents within. This also works for folders in the Gallery and Samsung's own Email app, though not for the Gmail one.

Not everything is worth the effort though. There is a gesture control to scroll through photos in the Gallery or skip tracks in the music player, but if the screen is already on, why bother moving your hand when a swipe does the trick?

And unless you are jogging and have the screen turned on, and want to scroll through songs without staring at the screen and losing momentum, allowing gestures for this makes little sense.

Realising this, Samsung has made these features optional and users need to turn them on one by one in the Settings page.

But with so many features, the phone does not always register an option immediately and I found myself having to reboot the phone several times during the set-up process, to ensure that each one works.

And even then, not everything works well.

There is a Smart Pause feature that tracks your eyes when they move away from the screen - to pause video playback. It starts again when a pair of eyes are directed back at the screen.

I found that lighting plays a huge role in enabling this feature, and if a user wears glasses, the multiple reflections of the light source against the screen and glasses can throw the sensors off.

The S4 also introduces Group Play, which enables any S4 to connect with another S4, to share files, music and play games via a private network.

With two S4 units, I started Group Play in one S4 and used a second S4 to join the group that the first one created.

With files, any that I opened from either device could be seen on the other phone. To copy the file from one phone, I simply had to save the open file on the other phone.

It was the same with photos, as I selected 24 to be shared via Group Play. On the second phone, the same list appeared and I could choose to save one photo, or all 24 at the same time.

All files are saved in the Group Play folder, so users have to move them to the respective folders in their phones for easy access.

The interesting thing is that these files are mirrored across both devices during the share, so I cannot choose to view one photo on one phone, and another on the second phone, unless I save the files locally.

The music sharing feature is slightly different, as either phone can start playing a song, which the other phone is then able to play back as a second speaker.

Once this is done though, the phone that triggered the playback would be the master device and be able to control the volume of any other connected S4 units, even if the owner of the other S4 changes the volume manually.

The range of this music play is also pretty far, as both phones I tested were able to maintain a connection about 10m away.

For games, there are only two with multiplayer modes. While the S4 units can share files, an active data connection cannot be shared between phones using Group Play.

Next comes the camera. The multiple features are very impressive indeed. (see report on page8).

Built-wise, the phone still has curves on all corners, but I prefer the flat metallic sides here compared with the curved ones on the Galaxy S III. Measuring 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm, the S4 is more streamlined and weighs a mere 130g.

As with the Galaxy series of devices, the power button is on the right, with volume controls on the left. The 3.5mm headphone is at the top, while the micro-USB slot is at the base. A single Home button rests at the bottom of the screen.

This is also the first phone to have Samsung's full HD Super Amoled 1,920 x 1,080 display, at 441 pixels per inch. The screen is a beauty, offering vibrant colours and sharp tones.

Processor-wise, Samsung has three versions of the device, with two powered by its own eight core Exynos 5 Octa-core chip, at 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz. Singapore will get the one running on Qualcomm's Snapdragon at 1.9GHz.

The Quadrant Standard benchmark placed it at 12,194, which is on par with the HTC One.

For battery life, the 2,600mAh battery clocked in 6hr 13min under LTE use and managed to last me the better half of a day under real world use.

Alas, while I was keen to test out the fitness accessories such as the activity band, they were not available for testing yet.

Still, there is plenty to like about the Galaxy S4 and Samsung has outdone itself this time.

sherwinl@sph.com.sg

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