When I was approached about reviewing the shiny new Samsung Galaxy S4 phone I was a little hesitant.
I never blogged about it but twitter followers might remember how much I disliked the Nokia Lumia 800 (Windows) phone I was given to review last year. Genuinely keen to develop a fondness for it given its sleek hardware design and high end phone camera with Zeiss lens, I tried really hard but I just couldn’t get on with it at all. Nothing about it fit the way I wanted to use my phone, access my email and calendar, engage with social media… and so many aspects of navigation and app design seemed ill-conceived to me. When I went back to the official campaign team to ask for answers, most suggestions were that I adapt to the tool, rather than it to me, and one “solution” even pointed me towards an amateur hack to fool a secondary provider into thinking it was an iPhone. Colour me unimpressed. After 3 or 4 weeks, ready to jump up and down on it until it shattered into a 100 pieces, I went back to my HTC Wildfire – less fancy, less slick but with an interface and set of tools that worked far better for me.
But the Samsung Galaxy S4 struck me as a much better option, even on paper. It’s predecessor, the S3, has proved hugely popular and early reviews of the S4 suggested it would fare just as well. The upgrades from S3 to S4 sounded intriguing. And, most significantly for me, it was an Android phone, just like my HTC.
No need to change the way I work to fit the phone, this time around!
I recently replaced my damaged HTC Wildfire with an HTC Desire (and was very disappointed to discover that a model more than three full years newer than the Wildfire performed far less well, with camera functionality amongst others severely pared back). So within months, I began mulling over replacing it again and Samsung Galaxy phones were very much on my radar. The only thing making me hesitate was the price, and with a new job under my belt, I was coming around on that too.
But serendipity stepped in and Samsung got in touch asking me to review. I accepted, hopeful of a better experience.
They arranged for me to meet British-Mauritian MasterChef winner Shelina Permalloo, and for us both to be given our new phones together. To my delight, Shelina picked Lahore Karahi in Tooting Broadway, an old favourite from when I worked around the corner for a few months and used to visit regularly with colleagues. Together, we opened our phones, already fully charged for us, and started playing with them.
Within 24 hours, I was hooked.
In that time, I had already found navigation familiar and instinctive for an existing Android user. I’d been wowed by the quality of the beautiful large screen and the high resolution display. Even more appealing once I replaced the cringe-worthy “Life Companion” slogan with “Kavey’s Phone”! And I was blown away by the sharpness of the camera and especially impressed at its focusing range on the macro end of the scale.
Don’t get me wrong, the Samsung Galaxy S4 isn’t perfect.
Although I’ve come to appreciate Air View (touch-free scrolling) – helpful when reading from an open website whilst cooking or eating, when my hands are too mucky to touch the phone without smearing food on it – I do wish it was available in all apps as I’d particularly like to use it whilst browsing twitter or Pinterest, whilst eating my lunch.
The Settings interface is confusing and poorly structured. The user manual is worse than useless and often the only way I can learn how to change a given setting is to Google for an article on a helpful tech blog.
The Gallery app that seemed clever at first glance is actually rather intrusive and also earned top place in my bad books by automatically creating album after album after album of hundreds of photos it pulled across from an old blog, my email accounts and even a few ancient Picasa albums. More web searching to find a way of removing all of those, as the Gallery menu and settings certainly didn’t offer any obvious way to turn this feature off. I managed it, eventually!
The camera was the first function to wow me when I first switched on the phone. It continues to be the one that pleases me most. In good light, it’s super sharp and as high resolution as my point and shoot camera (13 megapixels). It’s almost macro-like in how close to the subject it can still focus, which is great for food photography. All the images above, from our recent holiday in Scotland, were taken on the S4, and have been (very lightly) post-processed, same as I do for photos taken on my other cameras.
That said, it’s really not a great performer in low light, especially when there’s a strong light source also in shot, as below (which has been post-processed much more heavily to recover detail and reduce some of the noise) so won’t be as useful in restaurants as I’d hoped. It offers reasonably good control and a few useful modes including an image and sound option that lets you record 10 seconds of sound annotation after taking a picture. One control I’m missing though is flash exposure – I like to use a dialled down flash fill-in when taking portraits, and this is one area where the S4’s phone falls behind my point and shoot camera.
I love the completely daft dual camera mode which takes simultaneous pictures with both outward and inward facing cameras, allowing you to include a little thumbnail (which you can move) of the photographer in the scene captured by the main camera. It’s gloriously kitsch, even though it needs more concentration than I can muster after a strong cocktail! Of course, the dual camera also means the S4 is great for video-enabled skype calls too, making international calls cheap if one has free wi-fi available.
Drama Shot is another fun mode to play with – when activated, it takes a fast series of images of a moving subject and then auto-selects a few of them to create a collage. You can manually adjust the choices it’s made before saving the final image too, but it’s actually pretty good at selecting the best ones, going for ones which don’t overlap. It does struggle to pick out the moving subject if too close or too far from the phone, and sometimes only manages to take a single image instead of a series, but it’s a fun toy nonetheless.
On a more serious note, I have had a little play with the S Translator, Samsung’s nifty text and speech translation app. I’ve spoken to it in French and Japanese (the two languages I’m familiar with, to varying degrees) and the translation back into English has been good enough. Not perfect, but good enough. Likewise, the other way around from English to Japanese and French. I’ve tried the written text translation too, though not the image scan function. The main weakness for me is that it’s an online-only app whereas to use it while travelling, offline would be more cost-effective and convenient.
I’ve not really used the Smart Pause eye-control feature. The idea is that it’ll pause a video or movie automatically when it detects you looking away from it, but even with the S4’s great screen, video isn’t the kind of content I’d access via my phone. I have a tablet, laptop and PC for that.
Overall, I am delighted with the phone. It’s not perfect, as you can see from my feedback above, but it’s very very good and I love it!
Next task – finding a proper case for it instead of one of Pete’s socks!
Addendum: A few weeks after getting the phone, I dropped it from my back pocket, in its case, from a height of less than 1.5 feet (No it didn’t fall into the loo and yes I did feel like an idiot anyway). The screen shattered very badly and I got a glass splinter when I next typed something in using the swipe typing method. Samsung very kindly replaced my screen for me. It’s not broken since, even after drops from much higher height onto much harder surfaces, which leads me to assume a manufacturing defect with the first screen.
Kavey Eats received a review Galaxy S4 phone from Samsung.