Last year, I bought an iPhone 5. I’d been set on ditching iOS for Android at the time, but weeks of careful research had left me no closer to finding an Android handset I really liked. Then, one day, in a moment of weakness, I stepped into an Apple Store. I walked up to one of the display stands and started playing with the iPhone 5, and I realized how fast and light it was. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t make me pocket my credit card again.
Fast forward eight months, and I’m now toting a Samsung Galaxy S4. Check it out:
Okay, so I didn’t really switch phones. This thing is a loaner from Samsung. I’ve been using it in parallel with my iPhone 5 for the past three weeks, and the experience has been interesting, to say the least. I’ve always had an abstract awareness of the Android platform’s advantages and pitfalls, but I’d never before had the opportunity to spend so long with it—especially not on a top-of-the-line handset.
And top-of-the-line the Galaxy S4 certainly is. Barely three months old, this phone packs a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 SoC, two gigs of RAM, and a 5″ PenTile Super AMOLED display with a 1920×1080 resolution (PPI count: 441). There’s 100Mbps LTE and NFC and all kinds of other bells and whistles, too. The thing is almost impossibly thin and light, at just 0.31 inches and 4.6 ounces.
Coming from years of daily iPhone use, the Galaxy S4 looks massive despite its thinness. It’s imposing, and the screen crowds the front surface with its size, leaving barely any room for buttons or ornaments. Yet the resolution is so high that the PenTile pixel layout’s trademark screen-door effect is invisible. Text looks as sharp as a printed page, or close to it, and flat colors are flat, with no pixel grid anywhere in sight. That blend of screen real estate and resolution is terrific for everything from web browsing to video playback to e-book reading.
Pick up an iPhone 5 after an hour spent with the Galaxy S4, and the Apple device looks like a toy. The difference is that stark.
On the software front, the Galaxy S4 runs a version of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean customized with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. Google apps abound, and the basic behavior of the Android OS is very much intact. However, TouchWiz adds its own flavor to the stock experience, and there are plenty of Samsung-specific apps and widgets along for the ride.
I’ve never been a big fan of TouchWiz, and my weeks with the Galaxy S4 didn’t change that. The interface elements are too drab, too angular, and the sound effects are too cheesy. By default, the phone makes a watery “bloop” each time you tap on a menu item. A grating two-tone whistle lets you know about new e-mails and texts, and a new-age jingle plays whenever you unlock the device. (The jingle is accompanied by a sparkly pixie dust effect.) It’s sad, but at times, the uninspired UI and crummy sound effects conspire to make the phone seem cheap, very much unlike the high-tech device it really is. Not even Apple’s worst skeumorphic over-indulgences are quite so bad.
Samsung really crowds those home screens, too. Three of the five default ones are taken up by Samsung widgets like S Travel, Story Album, Walking mate, and Samsung Hub. Yet another home screen is filled with carrier-specific fare. The remaining screen (the middle one) is occupied by a ginormous weather app, the Google search field, and shortcuts to default apps. There’s not a single free spot for your own app shortcuts. Adding home screens or clearing up existing ones isn’t difficult, but first impressions matter—and out of the box, the Galaxy S4 doesn’t feel like a blank slate; it feels like a device borrowed from a Samsung executive.
Getting acquainted with the Galaxy S4 is, in many ways, a lot like setting up a notebook PC. Android blends flexibility and redundant clutter very much like Windows. For instance, there are at least three different ways to get into the Settings app from the home screen, and the phone ships with two different e-mail apps and two different web browsers out of the box. The notification system sometimes fills up with multiple identical Google Play icons, each one heralding a different app update. It can get a little crowded. Meanwhile, all those carrier and manufacturer widgets feel like the smartphone equivalents of Dell and HP bloatware: things bound to satisfy marketers more than users.
That’s all very different from what you get with iOS, which reminds me a lot of circa-1995 Mac OS: clean and easy to navigate, but also pared down and rigid. There’s a lot to be said for the extra flexibility Android provides, like the option to set a default web browser, change the default keyboard, automatically update apps, and manage wireless connections from the notifications pane. A handful of those features is coming to iOS in version 7 this fall, but the rest will remain exclusive to Android for the foreseeable future.
Anyway, enough generalizations about software. What’s the Galaxy S4 like to use on a day-to-day basis?
Life with the Galaxy S4
The Galaxy S4 feels a little slow during day-to-day use, I’m sad to say. It’s slower than my iPhone 5 at unlocking, at opening apps, and at switching between them. It takes longer to get to the camera from an unlocked state, and even Google Now takes more time to respond to voice searches than the same app on iOS. I expected this killer, state-of-the-art handset to run circles around the older Apple one, or at the very least to be comparably quick, but that’s just not the case. The loss in performance got frustrating at times, like when I needed to take a picture or look up something online quickly. Going from a fast phone to a slower one is never fun.
The frustration doesn’t stop there. Samsung has made the front bezel extremely thin, which means the gap between the bottom of the phone and the display is very small. That gap accommodates the home button as well as back and menu buttons that are hidden until pressed. If you use the phone one-handed for a little while, I guarantee you’ll hit one of those buttons by accident. (It’s not just me. TR’s biz guy, a long-time Android devotee, has the same issue with his Galaxy S4.) This annoyance is compounded by the fact that each button has a secondary action tied to it. Pressing and holding the back button brings up a “multi-window” tray, which collapses into a little pull-out tab. The first time I brought up the tray by accident, I had no idea how it happened, and I had to Google for a way to turn it off. Ugh.
Not even that gorgeous five-inch screen is a home run for Samsung. It’s big, yes, but it’s also noticeably dim, even at the highest “auto” setting. I could get the luminosity to match my iPhone’s only if I disabled automatic brightness altogether, which is probably terrible for battery life—and even then, the iPhone’s maximum brightness was still brighter. On top of that, the S4’s screen takes on a blue cast when viewed off-center, and I noticed some ghosting when scrolling down lists. Those may be small kinks in what’s an otherwise amazing screen, but my iPhone 5 has no such problems.
Oh, and the default keyboard is terrible. Samsung substitutes the stock Jelly Bean keyboard with one of its own design, which has inexplicably small keys and a baffling lack of autocorrect functionality. I actually made more typos on it than on my iPhone, despite the huge difference in screen real estate. The solution? Head to Google Play and download Jelly Bean Keyboard, which restores the Google default. But that really isn’t something one should have to do on a brand-new, $800 smartphone.
Put together, those deficiencies make the Galaxy S4 feel a little hamstrung by the stock software. Perhaps a third-party ROM closer to the Jelly Bean default could make things better. Such a ROM might do away with the drabness of TouchWiz and the clutter of the default widgets. It might take care of the auto brightness problem, too, and it might even resolve the accidental button-press issue, since Jelly Bean is supposed to have software buttons on the screen.
Apparently, a version of the Galaxy S4 with stock Google firmware can be ordered right from the Google Play store in the United States. That model wasn’t available to me, though, and I couldn’t root the Galaxy S4, since I had to send it back to Samsung at the end of my three-week test drive. Even if that hadn’t been the case, rooting has its dangers—like the fact that it voids your warranty. Some folks may have no qualms about cheating Samsung by restoring the stock firmware before getting the phone serviced, but a hardware failure could make that impossible. That means users who can’t easily get the stock Google version of the S4 may be better off sticking with TouchWiz and putting up with its flaws. And that’s really too bad.
There is a lot to like about the Galaxy S4. It’s thin and comfortable to hold, the display is excellent with the brightness cranked up, and the large footprint means the device doesn’t slide around in my pocket like the iPhone 5. The performance may be a little lackluster, but it’s definitely not terrible. Also, most of the software eccentricities I bemoaned can be resolved by a little tweaking and tinkering.
That said, after spending three weeks with this device, I have little desire for a TouchWiz-infused Galaxy S4 of my own. Rather, I’m eager to try the stock Google version… and to see Apple release a bigger iPhone.