The Samsung Galaxy S4 is Samsung’s latest flagship phone. It was a highly anticipated phone among the nerd-crowd as Samsung’s latest entry in the “who can beat the iPhone” contest. Is it an iPhone Killer? It’s up to you to decide but it’s easily among the best Android phones ever made and will make iPhone users tempted to switch.
The Galaxy S4 has a 5” screen with full 1080p resolution and a quad-core processor. That’s a lot of screen real estate and a lot of processor to go with it. The screen itself is a fancy AMOLED screen that has eye-catching colors. For a camera, it’s got a 13 megapixel rear facing camera and a 2 megapixel front facing camera. The model reviewed here runs on AT&T’s LTE network but it’s also available on other carriers. It comes with Android 4.2.2, which I’ll consider the “newest version” of Android that is currently available on the market.
Setting up the S4
I logged into my Google account and it immediately started restoring my previously downloaded (on other devices) Google apps and contacts from the Google cloud.
I went into the WiFi settings to add my home WiFi credentials so it could download apps over my cable modem instead of using cellular bandwidth and found it had already connected to my home WiFi. This is a pretty trick since I hadn’t given it my WiFi password. It appears that when I gave it my Google login, it pulled the list of saved WiFi networks off my current phone’s backup within Google’s servers. Then it connected to the WiFi right afterwards so it wouldn’t waste cellular bandwidth. Pretty darn smart and a nice timesaver.
The Samsung S4 built-in keyboard seemed really good compared to other phones I’ve tested. It was big, the buttons were small, but there were dead spaces between them. My husband is someone who still misses his BlackBerry keyboard (but not Blackberry’s OS or crappy features), he was able to type quite accurately on the S4’s default keyboard. On his previous phone, the HTC One X, he decided that SwiftKey was the greatest invention ever but has been trying to determine if the default Samsung keyboard is better than SwiftKey. The fact that he hasn’t abandoned it yet is a good sign.
I started customizing the home screens, shortcuts at the bottom of the screen, and the lock screen. I like the ability to show email, appointments, recent text messages and other alerts on my lock screen along with a clock and maybe some weather. I found some configuration parameters for the lock screen but couldn’t quite figure out exactly how to get the configuration I desired. I used the phone to Google search how to do widgets on the S4 and found a blog post with a video. I watched the video and WOW, I was blown away by the sound quality. It was quite good.
The review unit that I received came for with an iPad-style flip-cover. After looking at it for a minute, trying to figure out how to attach it, I realized that it was a case that replaced the back panel of the phone. The result is that this cover protects your screen, adding only paper-thin depth to your phone. It’s got a clear window at the top strategically placed to line up with the clock on the phone. Another neat trick is that the phone uses either proximity or light sensors to detect this case and then the phone automatically unlocks when you open the case, and locks when you close it. Smart. Really smart. Overall, I’m not sure if the case will be a full-time accessory since it might make the phone harder to handle with one hand.
While Android has built-in voice recognition, it hasn’t always been that great and there are other 3rd party alternatives like Vlingo, recently renamed Dragon. With that said, Samsung has been touting their “S Voice” application for some time and it’s included on the Samsung Galaxy S4. I gave it a try and it worked well. The voice read back to me was natural and easily understood. It seemed relatively fast (not crazy fast, but pretty fast) at matching. I compared it against Android’s built-in voice recognition and the S-Voice application read back to me who it was going to call whereas Google’s system did not. This is a big deal when trying to voice dial in the car or on the go. For this reason, S Voice gets a big thumbs up. It also served as a great reminder at how good the sound quality is on the Samsung Galaxy S4.
The Galaxy S4 comes with an app called WatchOn that turns your phone into a universal remote. I gave it a quick spin with some mixed results. First off, it was very quick to configure it to use my TV and set-top box (Tivo). I followed the instructions and was quickly in business. It shows a bunch of tiles/pictures with shows that are currently on TV. It was 11 PM and I clicked on the Daily Show. It switched the channel to the Daily Show. Pretty cool. After 15 minutes passed, I clicked on The Office and in a couple seconds, The Office was on.
The WatchOn app also allows you to configure a more complex home theater setup and add devices like a receiver/stereo for sound. I had some mixed success with my Yamaha receiver. I picked a code that seemed to work, but probably wasn’t the correct fit. My first instinct was that perhaps this app might have the brainpower to eliminate my Logitech Harmony universal remote by providing a richer experience and a full-color, internet-connected touchscreen interface. Well, Logitech has nothing to fear.
WatchOn is pretty cool, but it couldn’t really operate my Tivo reliably. If I clicked on the Daily Show twice, I somehow ended up watching a Chinese newscast about space exploration. I tapped the Daily show again and it came back. The app had a very clean interface, but was missing critical buttons like “Menu” and “Guide” that Tivo relies on. I ended up pressing buttons randomly and got myself to a Tivo menu. Then I clicked on a button to watch some other show and then the WatchOn app couldn’t figure out what to do. It was stumped. If you have a simple home theater system, maybe without a DVR, WatchOn could be pretty cool.
Here’s a thought… if the Galaxy S4 could be a universal remote, download TV Off for $0.99 and use it like TVBGone, a keychain remote control that sends “off” commands for every possible TV brand so that if you’re in a restaurant, bar, waiting room, airport lounge, or even a massive trade show, you can turn off the TVs.
The universal remote aspect of the Samsung Galaxy also allows it to control other Samsung electronics in your home. A trip through the Samsung Booth at The Cable Show provided insight on how your Galaxy S4 can be used to control everything from the lights, air, floor vacuum, and even home appliances such as the dishwasher and washer and dryer bearing the Samsung name.
I spent some time with the Galaxy S4 camera. It has a very familiar Android camera look and feel. I took some indoor pictures that were crisp and in-focus. The camera features what Samsung calls “Dual-Shot” mode where it uses both the front-facing camera and the rear-facing camera at once.
Imagine you’re standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. This mode will take a picture of what you’re looking at (the scenery, the Golden Gate Bridge) but then super imposes a photo of your face taken from the front-facing camera. Your photo has a little stamp-outline around it and the result is an attractive picture of the Golden Gate Bridge with your face as the stamp on the postcard. You can then share the resulting picture in all of the typical Android email or social media channels.
The Dual-Shot mode works even with video which is pretty impressive. You get rid of the postage-stamp frame around the smaller image and change it to one of 12 possible designs. One looks like a Polaroid instant photo, another is a cheesy fuzzy circle, another one is just a plain “picture-in-picture frame” and there’s even an option for a split-screen.
It’s also possible to switch which is the big image and which is the small image. The result is a video of a main subject where you can also have your face shown and be narrating what is going on. I can immediately see how this could be used for a ton of purposes. For example, web tutorials where you are watching a screen or tabletop and you can also see the person teaching you at the same time. Another excellent use would be for journalism or vlogging where you could be filming something outdoors and be reporting at the same time.. Imagine a huge news truck with 2 cameras, a cameraman, satellite uplink,video mixer. Poof, all crammed into this phone.
As I continue to play with the camera, I’m impressed how the Galaxy S4 screen really pops with color. It’s a 5” AMOLED screen with full 1080p display capabilities. In English, it’s a fancy new type of LED called an AMOLED. The screen uses a lot of power, but Samsung has included a beefy battery and optimized energy saving settings for you out of the box.
Near Field Communication
The Galaxy S4 also has Near Field Communication (NFC). The best way to think of this is to think of an ID badge at an office place, the kind that you just swipe above the reader and then the door unlocks. NFC in a phone enables interesting possibilities, including:
- Using your phone like a credit card or wallet, swiping the phone to pay at a store.
- Exchanging data between phones just by touching them together (or bringing them extremely close).
- Having your phone detect where it is, like on your desk at work, in the upholder of the car, or plugged in at home.
Samsung sells TecTiles, which are NFC-enabled stickers that you can attach to things and cause the phone to automatically do stuff when they’re in contact with the stickers.
I’ll dedicate a future post to the use of NFC and TecTiles. Look for it soon.
Users of Android from version 4.1 and up (including the Galaxy S4) have access to the Google Now app that searches your emails and parses your searches, automatically displaying flight status for you based on reading the email confirmation which arrived in your inbox.
If you’ve been searching for a nearby Target store on your laptop, your phone may tell you that it’ll take 10 minutes to get there and show you traffic status. It also tracks your eBay purchases, shows you sports scores for teams you’ve Googled, and other neat stuff.
Samsung’s Galaxy S4 is a solid phone with a great screen and some amazing camera features. If you’re looking to ditch your old clunky Android phone and move up to a new platform with a recent Android release, the Samsung Galaxy S4 might be the right fit for you.
Consumers who purchase their Galaxy S4 from Target Mobile receive a 5% discount for shopping with their Target REDCard. Target Mobile helps guests get up and running with their new Galaxy S4 quickly by activating their contract in-store, Additionally, Target Mobile provides great deals, free shipping on all phones with plans and 24-hour support from 1-877-myTGTtech.
Target Electronics helped facilitate the loan of a Samsung Galaxy S4 for review purposes. No additional compensation was received.