After using the Samsung Galaxy S4 for a year and using the recent Galaxy S4 Android 4.4.2 update for almost a month, here is my long term review of an excellent Android smartphone that is available for as little as a penny when you find the right deal.
Users that need the latest and greatest should stop reading now and buy the Galaxy S5 which comes with an improved camera and a slightly bigger display, but if you just want a good smartphone that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg on a contract the Galaxy S4 is one of the best options available.
Major carriers like AT&T and Verizon sell the Galaxy S4 for $99 to free on contract and Amazon is continually offering deals that drop the contract price to a penny. Keep in mind that Galaxy S5 deals already drop the price of the new phone to $99 on contract so if you are looking to buy the Galaxy S4 in 2014, you should not be paying more than $50 if you are signing a two-year contract.
This Galaxy S4 review focuses on the performance a year after the original release, with the current competition in mind and a look at who the Galaxy S4 is best for.
Galaxy S4 Design
The Samsung Galaxy S4 design is plastic and glass. The back of the Galaxy S4 is made of hard plastic, not the soft textured material found on the Galaxy S5 or Note 3 and not the metal of the iPhone 5s or HTC One M8.
Some users can’t stand plastic phones, but a year later the plastic back looks great even without using a case for most of that time. The plastic back pops so that i can add a second battery or an extended battery as well as a Micro SD card. These options allow for a low up front purchase price and the ability to add 32GB of more storage for photos and videos for just $20 later on.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 does not feature a water-resistant design but there are multiple waterproof Galaxy S4 case options available that can protect the phone while around water.
This is a relatively thin smartphone with a silver trim on the edges and thin bezels that help keep the overall size of the device manageable with one hand use in mind. There is a volume rocker on the left and a power button on the right as well as a physical home button on the front with two capacitive buttons. There are an array of sensor on the front of the device to enable software features like Air View and Air Gestures. There is also an IR port on the top that pairs with a remote app to control an HDTV and home theater. The rear facing speaker delivers decent sound, but can’t match the HTC One or HTC One M8 front-facing speakers.
The Galaxy S4 features a sturdier build quality with a more premium feel than the Galaxy S3, but it is not as nice as the Galaxy S5 that features a dimpled soft touch back.
Galaxy S4 Display
Samsung packs a 5-inch display into a smartphone that is almost the same size as the Galaxy S3 and boosts the resolution to 1920 x 1080. The result is a very nice looking display that is a joy to use for reading, browsing, gaming and watching movies and TV shows.
Samsung sticks with a 1920 x 1080 resolution on the Galaxy S5, but bumps the size up to 5.1-inches and delivers marked improvements in quality. If you want the best looking mobile display, go for the Galaxy S5.
Even though the Galaxy S5 takes home the title for best smartphone display from a testing group, the Galaxy S4 display isn’t hard to look at. The display is bright enough to use in most situations, though it can wash out in direct sunlight, like many smartphones. It is possible to use the Galaxy S4 display with gloves on.
Samsung includes several options to change the Galaxy S4 display from dynamic to movie and professional photo mode and an option to automatically switch between the best settings. There is even a reading mode that can automatically turn on when launching Kindle or Google Play books.
Galaxy S4 Performance
For being a year old the Galaxy S4 performs well. After a troubling Galaxy S4 Android 4.4.2 lag problem appeared in March a full reset restored snappy performance to the Galaxy S4.
I am able to switch between apps quickly and use the phone for day-today tasks and even mobile gaming without slowdowns that a Galaxy S3 exhibits.
WiFi and 4G LTE connections are reliable on the older software and on Android 4.4.2 which is available for AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. The Verizon Galaxy S4 Android 4.4.2 update is in the works.
Galaxy S4 Camera
The Galaxy S4 offers a 13MP camera that includes a variety of camera modes to combine the front and rear camera, show motion and remove unwanted objects from a photo.
The Galaxy S4 camera is capable of taking good-looking photos in a variety of environments, light conditions and of differing subjects. Check out the Galaxy S4 photo sample comparison for a closer look. The Samsung Galaxy S5 features a 16MP camera that focuses faster than the Galaxy S4.
The Galaxy S4 camera is capable of shooting 1080P HD video and can shoot in slow motion and fast motion. The Galaxy S5 is capable of shooting in 4k and can shoot HDR video with live previews.
The Galaxy S4 battery life is good, and i am able to get through an average day, but using the phone as a personal hotspot drains the battery very quickly and on days with heavy use the Galaxy S4 needs a charge in the early evening. This is using the same battery as when I purchased the Galaxy S4 in April 2013.
Galaxy S4 Software
The Samsung Galaxy S4 software is part of the overall experience and a reason this phone is still a good choice in 2014. Several carrier versions run Android 4.4.2. This is the same as the Galaxy S5, but the Galaxy S4 does not come with all of the same software features and the new look.
Users do get access to important features like Multi-Window mode which allows users to run two apps on-screen at the same time so it is possible to chat and watch a video at the same time for example.
Other software features leverage hardware and sensors to let users hover a finger over the display for a preview or to wave a hand across the display to see notifications or switch to a new photo in the gallery.
There is also an option to keep the display awake while you are looking at it, automatically pause videos when you look away and even to scroll when you tilt your head or your phone. Keeping the display on when you are looking at it works, and is great, but in practice I use the other eye control support sparingly if at all after the first month of owning the phone.
Who Should Buy the Galaxy S4?
If you plan to use the Galaxy S4 on a contract be sure to look at Galaxy S5 deals before settling on the Galaxy S4, and make sure you look for Galaxy S4 deals online instead of going straight to a carrier store. For more on each feature check out the original Galaxy S4 review.
If you don’t need a slightly bigger, and much better looking, display or a water-resistant design the Galaxy S4 delivers a good smartphone experience and it will very likely see at least one more Android update from Samsung that could add some Galaxy S5 features.
If you can find a used Galaxy S4 or a pre-paid Galaxy S4 at a good price the phone is worth picking up and it definitely delivers a better smartphone experience than you will find on free and $49.99 smartphones that most carriers push in retail stores.