Samsung grandly named the Galaxy S4  a “life companion” and have dropped a metric ton of marketing money on their fastest selling smartphone to date.

The “life companion” moniker has been somewhat downplayed, at least in the South African market, and for good reason. No one wants a phone that is a “life companion”, that implies responsibility, like owning a dog, who wants a phone that comes with responsibilities?

So ignoring the strange marketing and the fervent opinions of prominent people Samsung have procured to enthuse over the Galaxy S4, the simple question is – ‘Is the Galaxy S4 worth my money?’

Aesthetics

Samsung Galaxy S4 - Blue

The first thing about the Galaxy S4 is that it is made entirely from plastic. This is not a particularly good start as all its competitors – even the new BlackBerry BB10 devices – have designed their devices with some form of metal in mind. This makes the Galaxy S4 feel less high end than its equally priced competitors.

Further, the attention to build quality and fit and finish is not what you would expect from the Korean brand. For instance, the camera lens did not fit neatly in the back cover and there was a much larger gap between the  top of the camera and the case, compared to the gap at the bottom. I could not place the Galaxy S4 face down, it annoyed my OCD far too much.

Despite the initial poor impression made due to the construction choices, the Galaxy S4 is a good weight, for pocket and hand, and the quality of plastics used does appear to be of a high calibre. In my opinion, and that of many commentators, the Galaxy S4 is left in the dust by the iPhone 5 and HTC One’s all metal and glass construction, along with their premium fit and finish.

Hardware

Samsung Exynos 5

It is refreshing then to find that on turning on the S4, the screen is truly a thing of beauty. Sharp, clear, responsive and after testing Samsung’s claims, it can be confirmed that it does, in fact, work when the user has gloves on!

The screen continues to impress by introducing two seriously cool features to the world of mobile.

The first, Hover Technology. This allows the user to hold their finger above an item they’d like to select, at which time that item will zoom in and offer the user a preview. This is great, although it only works in Samsung’s proprietary applications, meaning that the hover function will not work in Android standard apps such as Gmail, as well as most third party applications you may download form the Play Store.

The second, eye tracking, which I like to call, Jedi Phone Use. This feature uses the Galaxy S4’s front facing camera to watch the reader’s eyes as they read text on the page and determine when they reach the bottom of the page, when they do, it automatically scrolls down to the next bit of info. Unfortunately this feature doesn’t work well at all. Yes, its cool and makes for great party conversation, but is totally inconsistent. It appears to track the reader’s head and this results in you having to make spastic jerky head motions to stop the Galaxy S4 from scrolling. Pity Jedi eye control sounded super cool.

Both of these features are extremely impressive in concept, it just feels as if Samsung did not spend enough time in their labs making sure they worked flawlessly and across all applications and situations.

Behind the screen lies a massively powerful processor – the so-called “Octocore Processor” because it has eight processing cores. For mobile gaming and editing photos and videos it is phenomenal. However, it feels somewhat bogged down by Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and the Galaxy S4 does not feel particularly snappy in general use.

Finally, the camera. This was hugely disappointing. The camera on the Galaxy S4 takes forever-and-a-day to launch, resulting in the moment that needed capturing to be long gone by the time it is ready for action. This makes it pretty useless for taking pictures when out with mates.

Another friendship degrading issue that arises when using the Galaxy S4‘s camera, it has the most complicated camera options and settings I have ever come across on a smartphone – yes it has a million features (like adding sound recordings to pictures) and that’s exactly the problem.

I once handed it to a waiter and had to spend five minutes explaining how to use the thing – eventually I gave up, spent another five minutes setting the it to just the right settings and told the confused service staffer just to press the capture button and nothing else that looked like a button!

From a image quality perspective, if all the stars are aligned and the light is perfect, along with you somehow intuitively setting all the settings optimally, its great. The 13 Mega Pixel sensor can offer great sharpness and very good colour but its inherent ability is completely hidden by the user interface. In low light it is pretty useless (unless you spend an age setting it to low light mode, with no flash etc.) but in good lighting it can be rather impressive. My mates on lesser cameras such as iPhone 4’s and even a BlackBerry or two, managed to capture the moment, with perfectly acceptable quality pictures, long before I could get the Galaxy S4 to work.

OS

Samsung Galaxy S4 - Sound and Shot

The Galaxy S4 runs the latest iteration of Google’s Android OS with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface overlay.

Google’s Android is a marmite OS, you either like it or you don’t. Personally, I like it.  I am far more ambivalent about Samsung’s TouchWiz interface.

TouchWiz includes one of the best Android email clients I have used, offering a combined inbox and compatibility for almost all email service providers. It also renders emails very well and offers quite intelligent smart scheduling for synchronizing with the server.

Another great feature is the standard Samsung calendar and the call options, both of which are well thought out and intuitively designed.

On the other hand, the overall graphic interface of TouchWiz leaves a lot to be desired. Simply it looks very old fashioned, like Windows 2000. Considering the status of the Galaxy S4 as a flagship device, I expected a more than a slightly refreshed Galaxy S3 interface.

Finally, voice control. This is a feature Samsung promises with the S-Voice system, it also works in their Music Player and in ‘Car Mode’. This got me very excited, I use voice commands quite a bit through Bluetooth in my car. So being able to send messages, get messages read to me, make calls, control the music player and have some control over the Galaxy S4 with my voice was a huge drawcard.

Sadly voice control in all the apps in which it is promised just does not work. I changed accents, spoke deeper, spoke higher, and spoke slower but the Galaxy S4’s voice functionality was pathetic. It comes across as a response to Apple’s Siri but designed in a weekend by people who know what voice control should do, but have no idea how to code it to do so.

Conclusion

Samsung have put a lot of money and effort into the S4. Sadly, this does not show. As a device to use every day, it is frustrating, making every promise in the world and following through on only a few. Topped off with aesthetics that are below the level of the competition and a user interface that leaves a lot to be desired. For the money the Samsung Galaxy S4 is disappointing. Samsung could have done far more. Try it before you buy it and ignore all the hype. There are other high end devices that may work better for you.

 

Brendon Ambrose – Managing Editor | About Me – Scared of: Clowns, spiders and Hilary Clinton; Dream Wing Man: Jacob Zuma; Started Writing Tech: 2005 for Gadget.co.za; Favorite cereal: Frosties; Find me on: Twitter & Facebook
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