A Week With The Samsung Galaxy S4

After tweeting that I was using a Samsung Galaxy S4, I had a handful of people ask that I put together my thoughts on the device, so here they are. Please note, this is not a review, just my thoughts. It’s not intended to be comprehensive or reflective of heavy personal use.

Galaxy S4
Galaxy S4

My first Samsung smartphone was the Galaxy Nexus. I liked it OK, but coming from the likes of Nokia and HTC, my expectations of build quality and ‘in-the-hand’ feel are, admittedly, quite high. My biggest complaint of the Galaxy Nexus was the plastic build materials. It was especially evident in the back cover, which was hands-down the most flimsy thing I’ve ever seen. As my friend Zach at BGR pointed out, the Galaxy S4 suffers from the same.

 

I will say, however, that the Galaxy S4 feels a bit more sturdy than the Galaxy Nexus or the Galaxy SIII (which I played with briefly) did. I also was able to use the Qi-compatible wireless charging backplate, which is obviously slightly more sturdy, so that might have contributed.

Testing TouchWiz

Galaxy S4 Screenshot
Galaxy S4 Screenshot

As the only Samsung device I’d used was the Galaxy Nexus, which ran stock Android, I had absolutely zero experience with TouchWiz, so I was slightly intrigued with that, as well. Overall, I didn’t like it. It’s extremely feature-rich – the Exchange email app benefits from a host of features that AOSP simply doesn’t have, and the camera app/interface is MILES ahead of AOSP, as well. I didn’t dive into the system apps much, but overall, from my experience, both Sense and TouchWiz dramatically improve the experience. For instance, with TouchWiz, I can send an email to a contact group, whereas with AOSP I can merely view and edit the group.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the benefits stop. Let’s start with the launcher – it’s nice, but way too……cartoony…..for me. I can’t stand square icons, and the dock requires the menu button to be on the side, instead of the middle, which is absurd. The notification pulldown, though, is where TouchWiz really kills me. For starters, even though native Android supports a 2nd panel of quick settings shortcuts, Samsung insists on taking up a HUGE row of space with these icons. Redundant and wasteful of precious space. Then, there’s a separate section for static notifications, such as WiFi, and 3rd party apps like weather and Locale. Heaven forbid you connect your headphones, as another non-dismissable notification intrudes further.

Galaxy S4 Status  Bar
Galaxy S4 Status Bar

In the status bar, there’s similar waste, with an NFC icon that’s permanent as long as you have NFC active, and ditto for Samsung’s ‘Smart Stay’ feature. You do, thankfully, get a battery percentage in the status bar, but it’s next to the battery icon, rather than inside of it, wasting additional space.

One of the features that Samsung really highlights in TouchWiz is its suite of gesture and ‘intelligence’ features, such as Smart Stay, Smart Rotation, Smart Pause, Smart Scroll, and the bevy of gestures available. I’ll be honest – most of these are genuinely awesome. As smartphones progress, they need to get smarter, and these features are a start towards that, by using the sensors available (proximity sensor, front-facing camera, etc) to react to the user.

Unfortunately, there’s just so many, and they all do different things, that I ended up not really using them. Perhaps they just disappeared in the background so I wouldn’t notice them working, but I wasn’t able to see them working, so I assumed they weren’t. And most people will do the same.

Luckily, I was able to ditch most of the annoying parts of TouchWiz without rooting the phone.

Camera

The camera is one of the big features that intrigued me about the Galaxy S4, and I was only slightly disappointed. It’s awesome, first of all. Super fast, clear, great daylight photos and pretty darn good low-light photos. The interface is easy to navigate, and the voice commands are just plain cool (you can just say ‘Cheese’ for it to snap the photo). Not much to say here – photography is definitely one of the highlights of using the Galaxy S4.

I say that I was slightly disappointed because, while the camera has a boatload of ‘modes’ that let you capture different types of photos, you have to switch to the appropriate mode BEFORE you take the photo. So, after snapping a bunch of photos, when I went to use the much-advertised ‘eraser’ feature, I couldn’t, cause I wasn’t in ‘eraser mode’ when I snapped the photo. Given that the vast majority of people who use their phone for photography just launch the camera app and start snapping, this means all those fancy camera modes are essentially worthless.

Here’s a sample of images that I took with the Galaxy S4 (all were taken with the phone on ‘automatic’ unless otherwise noted in the description).

Screen

I’m not a screen whore like my friend Stefan is, but holy mother, the screen on the Galaxy S4 is amazing. Like, blow your mind a little bit amazing. You don’t notice at first, but when you see it next to devices like the Nexus 4 or the Nexus 7, it’s just like, WOW. If you’re a screen whore, get the S4 (rhyme unintended).

Battery Life

Overall, I was impressed with the battery life. Easily got 12-15 hours, which is about what I get on my Nexus 4 with similar apps/usage/etc. The ability to add a Qi-compatible backplate for wireless charging is a HUGE benefit, and something that the Galaxy S4 has over the HTC One, as well.

Apps/Storage

OMGWTFBBQ there are a TON of pre-installed apps on the Galaxy S4. Like, ridiculous, and both Samsung and AT&T (the version I’m using) are equally guilty here.

AT&T:

  • AT&T DriveMode
  • AT&T FamilyMap
  • AT&T Locker
  • AT&T Navigator
  • AT&T Smart WiFi
  • AT&T Messages
  • AT&T Mobile TV
  • myAT&T
  • YellowPages Mobile

Samsung:

  • ChatON
  • GroupPlay
  • Optical Reader
  • Owner’s Hub
  • S Health
  • S Memo
  • S Translator
  • S Voice
  • Samsung Apps
  • Samsung Hub
  • Samsung Link
  • Story Album
  • TripAdvisor
  • WatchON

These are all permanently installed in the firmware – you can’t uninstall them. This also means that as soon as you activate your Google account on the Galaxy S4, these apps infest your Apps list in Google Play, since they’re listed in the Play Store, so Samsung/AT&T can update them. If they’re going to list them in the store, they need to make them an optional install, or at least give me the ability to uninstall them if I wish. Complete trash. Thankfully, the Galaxy S4 has plenty of internal storage, and also has a microSD card slot. It’s still ridiculous, though.

Wrap Up

As I said, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the Galaxy S4, just my thoughts after using the phone for a week. Overall, I actually quite liked the phone, and might pop my SIM back in again. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S4 that I’m using is from RadioShack (where I work), so I can’t root it. If I COULD root it, at least to fix the status bar and delete the bloatware, I’d probably be MUCH happier with it. YOU can root the Galaxy S4 quite easily, apparently, and if you own/buy one, I would encourage you to do so.

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