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Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Still worth buying in 2017?

Our Rating :
£159.00 from
Price when reviewed : £600
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You can still buy a Samsung Galaxy S4, but the smartphone world has moved on and you can do much better these days

The Samsung Galaxy S4 was a great smartphone in its day, but although you can still buy one – for around £170 to £200 – that doesn’t mean you should. Our advice would be to opt either for a top-quality budget handset like the Motorola Moto G4, as this currently costs less than a new S4 and is much faster overall. The Moto G4 also has excellent battery life and the latest version of Android, which the S4 is currently lacking. As a result, you’ll be missing out on lots of new Android features by opting for the S4.

If you want to spend a little bit more and get something even faster than I’d recommend the OnePlus 3, which costs £329 but has all the speed and general longevity as this year’s major flagships. Both are considerably more capable phones than the elderly Samsung Galaxy S4. If these options don’t float your boat, take a look at our pick of the best smartphones on the market in 2017.

Samsung’s flagship S-series smartphones roll off the hype-production line on a yearly basis with unerring accuracy. They go on to sell in huge numbers, but the relatively small gap between releases means that one quickly blurs into another for most people. The Samsung Galaxy S4 was the 2013 model and even a couple of years on it looks pretty smart and is still very capable, but should you buy it today?

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Design and build quality

The Galaxy S4 isn’t really a phone to show off with; not that it doesn’t look rather pretty, but more because it’s almost unrecognisable from both its predecessor and successor unless you look up close. The S4 appears to have the usual white plastic finish, but look closer and you’ll see a fine diamond pattern beneath the gloss surface.

It’s a nice touch, and one subtle enough to avoid accusations of unnecessary bling. It manages to avoid attracting fingerprints too, so you won’t need to incessantly polish it to keep it looking clean. The silver trim around the edges might look like metal, but it’s actually plastic as well.

Samsung Galaxy S4

^ We rather like the subtle new pattern, but it’s far more pronounced on the Black version

Given its big 4.99in display, the S4 is surprisingly svelte. It measures just 136.6×69.8×7.9mm and weighs only 130g. 2014’s phones have slightly larger screens, packed into slightly larger bodies, but the S4 still looks like a modern smartphone.

This is largely thanks to its very thin screen bezels, both down the edges and at the other end. This puts the screen just 2.5mm away from the edge of the device and it’s becoming hard to imagine this distance getting any smaller without seriously compromising the survivability of the handset when dropped. The sides have been squared off, compared to the S3, which makes it easier to grip though it looks a little chunkier for it.

The areas above and below the screen are now far smaller, which has significantly reduced the amount of space for the physical home button and touch sensitive menu and back commands. This could have made them awkward, but the button needs an appreciably lighter press and we had no trouble hitting the touch-sensitive controls.

Samsung Galaxy S4

^ The screen fills the handset like we’ve never seen before

Despite having a removable rear cover, which has advantages we’ll discuss later, the S4 doesn’t suffer overly for this practicality. The rear panel fits snug against the body with no flex or shift. When in place, the handset feels like a single piece of tech. It looks somewhat flimsy when removed, but we’ve taken it off many times without cracking or breaking it.

The Galaxy S4 is among the best-looking plastic phones we’ve ever seen, something you could still claim today. It’s a decent evolution from the S3, ironing out plenty of the minor flaws that its predecessor had. These include a USB port that didn’t look very well cut out and a rear case that had quite a loose fit; with the S4, it feels that much more finished and as though more attention has been paid to the detail.

Having said that it’s a very conservative design. Purely from a look and feel perspective we prefer the aluminium HTC One. The curved back and sharp corners make it look far more striking than the rather amorphous blob of the S4; plus HTC has squeezed in a pair of front mounted speakers onto the One, as we’ll discuss later. However, as a piece of practical engineering, the S4 is simply superior, because it fits a noticeably larger display into a similarly sized handset. You simply can’t get more screen than this in your pocket for the size or weight – everything else heads into phablet territory.

The S4 is better designed from an ergonomic point of view too. The power button at the top of the HTC One is beautifully designed, doubles as an IR blaster and responds reliably when you press it – once you’ve got the hang of where it is. The problem is its position; having pressed it with your forefinger, you can’t then reach the buttons below the screen with your thumb. The S4’s right-hand-side power button has a far more traditional and boring look, but at least you can use the handset one handed without having to shift your grip constantly.

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Display

The S4 was the first smartphone to use an AMOLED display with a Full HD resolution. Measuring 4.99in across this gives it an on-paper pixels-per-inch figure of 441, up from 306PPI on the Galaxy S3. As always, it’s worth noting that the display uses a pentile arrangement of subpixels – with two colours per pixel, rather than three – which means its actual resolution is less than equivalent LCD displays.

This is less of a problem on a Full HD display than it was previously. The high number of pixels-per-inch makes the lack of refinement, usually apparent on the edges of text, practically unnoticeable. Furthermore, the incredible contrast you get from an AMOLED display more than makes up for any small perceivable loss of detail.

In practical use, there’s far less difference between this and the LCD HTC One than their technology would suggest. The pentile pixel arrangement doesn’t seem to noticeably effect detail on the S4, while the contrast on the HTC One was also excellent. The colours on the S4 are a little richer at any given brightness, but then the HTC One is far brighter at its maximum setting, handy on sunny days – although run it that way all the time and your battery life will be severely diminished.

Speaking of brightness, Samsung’s controls are far better, with a brightness slider always present on the notifications drop-down menu. This also lets you tweak the auto brightness settings, allowing you to have it a few steps brighter, or dimmer, than the variable default. By comparison, the HTC One makes you dig in the menus to adjust it and offers no such tweaking of the auto setting

Having said all that, the biggest difference is simply that the S4’s screen is bigger. It’s not a huge deal when using apps day to day, sending texts, or hammering out a quick email, but for browsing desktop website sites, playing games and watching video clips it’s a big plus.

The S4 may have a bigger, higher resolution screen than its predecessor for enjoying such content but the audio from its speaker hasn’t improved by the same degree. The speaker is still a rear-mounted, mono design and so you have to carefully position your hands to avoid muffling it accidentally. Sound quality isn’t bad for such a speaker, but if you like to entertain yourself and friends with your handset then the HTC One’s front stereo speakers are far superior.

While we’re talking audio, the HTC One (and Xperia Z) also have FM Radios, which is missing from the S4 for the first time in the series. A disappointment, and one that may sway some radio fans.

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Performance

In the run-up to the launch of any exciting new smartphone or tablet, much is made of the exact nature of the hardware contained and its processing power. For the Samsung Galaxy S4, the talk was of an eight-core CPU, though the reality turns out to be far more complicated than that.

Yes, there’s an S4 (the GT-I9500) with a Samsung designed and produced Xynos eight-core CPU, but that actually consists of a four-core main CPU and a four-core low-power CPU, which the handset switches between in realtime to maximise performance and battery life. It’s an idea that’s been around a while, ARM calls it big.LITTLE, but it’s good to see it finally implemented on a quad-core flagship device.

But, and it’s a big one, that eight-core Galaxy S4 isn’t the one you’ll be buying in the UK. Instead, when you turn on your shiny new S4 the first thing you’ll see is that it’s a GT-I9505 handset, which uses a Qualcomm designed quad-core chipset instead. This is because the other model doesn’t include 4G/LTE support, something that Samsung obviously feels is key for a new handset launching in the UK.

Given that there’s no option to buy the eight-core S4 unless you import one yourself and pay full price for it plus hefty import duty, there’s little point in comparing the two in detail. We haven’t been sent an I9500 for testing, but looking at reputable sources online it appears to be a little quicker with slightly improved battery life.

We’ll be looking forward to seeing a big.LITTLE device released in the UK then, but the Qualcomm chipset in our version of the S4 is no slouch, even now a year-and-a-half after release. It uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset which runs at 1.9GHz. Browsing the web felt smooth and responsive, with a SunSpider score of 1,100ms being quicker than current budget handsets, and not for some more expensive phones launched of late. The GeekBench 2 benchmark showed the S4 hit 3,227, again a bit behind modern phones, but ahead of the latest budget wonders like the Moto G. In use, everything feels incredibly slick, apps launch quickly and everything flows along, very impressive stuff.

The S4 also uses the same Adreno 320 GPU as the HTC One. It’s a pretty powerful chip, hitting 50fps in the recent 3Dmark Ice Storm test, and managed almost 30fps in the far tougher Extreme version of the same test. Newer hardware is faster still, but you’d have to be keen on playing the most taxing 3D games to notice any difference.

Beneath the removable rear cover is a rather large-looking battery, with a hefty 2,600mAh capacity. The results though were even more impressive than that figure might suggest. In our continuous video playback, the S4 managed an impressive ten hours and 43 minutes, a score we’d largely attribute to its more power-efficient AMOLED display.

It’s a respectable score but it’s outdone by the latest phones, with the S5 managing a massive 17 hours. That said, the S4 will get most people through the day without a problem. Its removable back means you can switch out the battery if required too. Samsung sells spare batteries and an official charger for them too.

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Storage

Behind the cover is the Micro SD slot, which can take a card with a capacity of up to 64GB. Such a card will cost you about £35, with a 32GB card costing around half that. And you’ll want one to store your photos on, as the S4 only comes with 16GB as standard, of which only a measly 8GB is immediately available for your use, we managed to quickly clear another 1GB, but we still reckon a memory card will be a good idea for most users.

Of course, many people prefer to store much of their data in the cloud now, and Dropbox is Samsung’s preferred partner. The handset comes with two years of free storage with a huge 50GB limit. Disappointingly for anyone who’s making a quick upgrade from an S3, buying the new handset doesn’t reset the two year time limit on this offer. The S4 handily backups all your camera shots to your Dropbox account automatically when a Wi-Fi connection is available.

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Camera

Samsung has opted for a 13-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor and the resulting images are excellent. There was plenty of fine detail to be seen in our still life tests and exposures were consistently well judged throughout the varying light levels. The relatively big resolution also helps when cropping images without resulting in too much pixellation.

Samsung Galaxy S4

Taking the camera out and about in the spring sun also produced good results. Its exposures dealt with the strong contrast created by the sunshine, and colours looked accurate. It also has a 20-shot burst mode that’s activated by simply holding down the shutter button. The front camera has a 2-megapixel BSI sensor and takes pretty decent little snaps too.

Samsung Galaxy S4 sample shot

^ We saw good results across our range of test shots …

Samsung Galaxy S4 sample shot

^ … this ^1:1 pixel crop shows up some nice detail in the fur

Samsung Galaxy S4 review: Photo modes

There’s lots more to Samsung’s new camera than good image quality and specifications, though. With a raft of playful extras that should provide at least momentary amusement and possibly a lot more than that.

Dual shot

By far our favourite of the various fun photography modes is dual shot. The concept is actually quite simple, the S4 uses both the front and back cameras to simultaneously capture two images, which it combines into a single image.

Now you might just ask why not just take two shots and fit them together later, but that would miss out on the immediacy of Samsung’s take. This way you take one picture, hit share and get a great shot up on Facebook, plus your smug, smiling mug in one easy step. It’s the next logical step for the much-beloved ‘Selfie’ style of photography, and unless Samsung has a patent we can see this appearing on every other smartphone by next year.

Now Samsung’s take on Dual Shot is to put proud parents in the shot with the mewling darlings – not a bad idea given that one parent is often noticeably absent from a whole holiday’s worth of snaps. In practice, though we found it a great little creative tool, the ability to juxtapose two images together on the fly is great fun and can create some quite striking compositions.

You can change the size and shape of the second, superimposed image, with various shapes or just a plain box. It will even take the two full images and tag them side by side into a super-widescreen effort – good for more serious efforts or adhoc vistas. You can also switch the cameras around at a tap, making you fill the screen with just a small image of your surroundings to add context.

Samsung Galaxy S4 photo modes

^ There’s a good range of frames for the shot-in-shot mode

Best of all, it just works, what you see is what you get. It can be a little hard to line up at first, but you soon get used to it and then you’re away. It even has its own shortcut, so no messing with the mode menu to activate it.

The fun doesn’t end there though, as Dual Shot can also be used with video. You get all the same options as to how it combines the two images and the ability to switch. It really adds something to short clips and could be great for those who love to shoot and talk to the camera.

Animated photo

Samsung is trying to get in on the craze for GIF animations with this clever mode. It takes a short video clip, identifies moving parts from the results and then allows you to freeze or animate those while the rest of the frame remains still. You can choose how the animations loop and where the start and end points are. Once you’re done you can then upload the results to Facebook or share it online.


The Eraser effect could be useful, as it lets you remove unwanted moving elements in a shot by combining five shots together. For example, you could remove someone who walk across the background of the shot.

Samsung Galaxy S4 photo modes

^ Remove moving elements from a shot, like people or cars

It sounds good, and it works in terms of the results, but it’s not useful in practice. First, you have to activate the mode before shooting, it can’t be used retroactively from any run of burst shooting. Of course with such pre-planning you could easily just reframe the shot or wait for the moving object to pass by – it’s moving after all. A rough-and-ready content aware fill feature, as seen in Photoshop Elements, would be far more useful, allowing you to remove moving or still elements after shooting.

Drama Shot

Drama Shot creates an action-effect shots with multiple instances of the same moving subject, see below for an example. Although it creates a still image it looks to be using the video function to create it, rather than burst shot. It captures a short clip and then picks out frames which it combines into a single shot.

Samsung Galaxy S4 photo modes

^ This basic example shows how it works

The effect is a bit hit and miss, it’s rather fussy about getting the subject to move across the whole frame and about you keeping the camera dead still while it captures it. You can use tick boxes at the bottom to add or remove instances of the subject to get some control over the finished image. The resulting image, in 16:9 aspect ratio, was 1,888×1,062 – good enough for posting online, but not great for printing if you’ve put a lot of effort into a shot.

Sound and shot

The most straightforward of the oddball shooting modes, Sound and Shot simply captures 9 seconds of audio with the image. We’re not quite sure what the point is over simply capturing a short video clip and the fact you can’t share the combined image and audio online makes it even more pointless.

Best Face and Best Photo

Two variations on a theme. Best Photo simply takes a short burst of eight shots and then you can pick which of them (if any) you want to keep by putting a thumbs up on a thumbnail. It’s a great way of getting the best shot using burst mode, but without cluttering your phone with loads of almost identical images.

Samsung Galaxy S4 photo modes

^ Even given a choice sometimes it’s hard to choose a ‘best face’ – not the S4’s fault though

Best Face is a variation on this, with face detection used. It takes five shots in quick succession and then you can choose which face you want from each shot. It allows you to combine the exposures so that in a shot with multiple subjects you can get them all smiling and with their eyes open. Genuinely handy for group shots.

In both modes, it’s quicker than the S3’s take on the same functions, with the thumbnails appearing almost as soon as the last frame is snapped.

Story Album

A separate app from the camera but one that allows you to select pictures from your gallery, or have them selected for you based on GPS location and date, and then create picture albums from them. Initially, these are just virtual albums that you can page through on your phone, but you can also order physical copies if you wish directly from the handset.

Samsung Galaxy S4 photo modes

^ Layouts can look a bit messy if you’ve been abusing Dual Shot heavily

You can add or remove photos from the selection, add captions and change to one of six different layouts/themes. It all works fairly well, but you can’t fine tune it in the same way as you can with many online album creators.

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Main display size5.0in
Native resolution1,920×1,080
CCD effective megapixels13-megapixel
Internal memory16384MB
Memory card supportmicroSD
Memory card included0MB
Operating frequenciesGSM 850/900/1800/1900, 3G 850/900/1900/2100, LTE 800/850/900/1800/2100/2600
Wireless dataGPRS, EDGE, HSDPA, LTE


Operating systemAndroid 4.2.2
Microsoft Office compatibilityN/A
FM Radiono
AccessoriesUSB Charger, headphones

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