Samsung's Galaxy S 4 might be one of the best smartphones around, but it is only a small upgrade over the Galaxy S III.
The new flagship phone, which is called the GS4 for short, began selling late last month and is a solid smartphone with top-of-the-line technologies and simple-to-use features. But with no new mind-blowing features, it may not be worth the upgrade.
There is a lot to like about the device though, particularly for those looking for a new smartphone. Let's start with my favorite part: the camera.
Samsung outfitted the GS4 with a 13-megapixel camera, and it is a dramatic improvement over the 8-megapixel camera found on the GS3. The new phone takes photos with very vibrant colors and extreme detail. The quality of the photos is so good it made me want to take more shots. Video quality was also superb, and Samsung has improved the quality of the front-facing camera from shooting 720p HD videos to full 1080p HD. So if you use your smartphone to take a lot of photos and video and you care about the quality, the GS4 is a perfect choice.
But it's not just the quality of the pictures that makes the camera on the GS4 standout. It's also the software. Samsung has thrown in a ton of features that make shooting with the GS4 fun and effective. For example, there's a mode called Dual Camera that lets you take a photo or video using both of the phone's cameras at the same time. My friend and I used that feature to shoot the Hollywood sign from Griffith Observatory while also adding in a "selfie" of ourselves to the image.
Other useful and fun camera modes include Best Photo, which lets you take a series of pictures and save the best one; Drama, which stitches together a series of action shots into one image that shows a person moving in front of the camera; Animated Photo, which lets users shoot a video and make a part of it still while another part moves in an animated loop; and Eraser, which is a great mode for shooting in crowded places because it will take multiple photos, stitch them into one and erase the people moving in the background.
The next highlight on the GS4 is its screen.
The GS4 has a 5-inch, 1080p HD screen, which means it's slightly larger but a lot better than the 4.8-inch, 720p HD display found on the GS3. The combination of the GS4 screen's crystal clarity and size makes it great for watching videos and reading articles. But the best part is that even though the screen is bigger on the GS4 than on the GS3, both phones are basically the same size. The two devices are just as tall, but the GS4 is actually narrower and thinner than its predecessor. It's also noticeably lighter.
Now that we've talked about size, let's talk about my least favorite part of the phone -- its exterior. Samsung once again chose to build its phone using plastic; Apple and HTC, the creators of the other top two smartphones now on the market, went with aluminum for their devices. The glass front of the GS4 looks attractive, but the back looks cheap, has an ugly design and gets dirty easily. Besides that, the plastic is very slippery. It may not pop out of your hand, but it doesn't feel or look as high quality as the iPhone 5 or HTC One. At the very least though, the back of the GS4 does come off, letting users quickly replace the battery when needed and insert a microSD card if they'd like.
My other qualm with the GS4 is that some of the new software features Samsung threw in don't always work as they're supposed to.
For example, Smart Scroll, a feature that can detect when you are reading an article, lets you scroll up and down by simply tilting the phone forward or backward. It's a neat idea, but there were a few times when the GS4 incorrectly sensed I wanted to scroll upward and shot me to the top of the article when in fact I was just trying to read the next word.
A software feature that I liked was Smart Pause, which pauses a video when you look away from the screen and un-pauses it when you look back. I couldn't really tell how helpful this feature would be day in and day out, but it's there if you want it and it does work with some apps, including YouTube. To my disappointment, though, Smart Pause did not work with Netflix when I tried it.
Samsung also went back and improved S Voice, its counter to Apple's Siri voice assistant. S Voice made its debut on the GS3 and it was practically unusable last year, but on the GS4 you can turn to S Voice if you need to call a contact or find restaurants nearby.
Another set of new features that Samsung added are air gestures, which let you control some small aspects of the device by moving your hand over the screen. The most useful of these air gestures is one that lets you scroll through photos in your Gallery by waving your hand in front of the device. It's a great trick, but it's not perfect. Sometimes the phone would scroll backwards when I passed my hand slightly near the screen.
The rest of the phone's software runs quick and smooth. Using the latest version of Android, 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, on a 1.9Ghz quad-core processor, the GS4 jumps from app to app rapidly.
But for all of the accomplishments the GS4 achieves, it manages to leave you slightly disappointed. The GS4 feels like a scoot, rather than a step, forward for Samsung, and that's a bit of a disappointment in a cycle of new devices filled with big releases by Apple, HTC, Google, Nokia and even BlackBerry. There are years when Apple simply improves the internal guts and software of its devices, but the iPhone is already regarded as the top dog -- and that's not where Samsung is yet. Last year, Samsung took a giant step forward with the GS3, and it could have delivered a knockout punch with the GS4. Instead, Samsung chose to go with slight improvement.
Most carriers are charging more for the GS4 than they are for other top devices. Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile each charge $50 more for the Samsung flagship than they do for the iPhone 5 and the HTC One. Only AT&T manages to keep its price -- $200 with a two-year contract -- on par with the other two top devices. From a consumer perspective, how do you justify charging $50 more for a plastic phone than you do for devices built using aluminum?
If you buy the GS4, you'll be happy with your device, but there are at least two other smartphones that are cheaper, just as good and look much better.