Updated: October 19, 2013
Several weeks back, something rather amazing happened. I bought myself a Nokia Lumia 520 thingie, which happens to come with Windows Phone 8, the small-factor incarnation of the immense stupidity called Windows 8. While I expected all the beauty and ergonomics from Nokia, and was not disappointed, I was also most pleasantly surprised by Windows Phone, as an operating system. On a small device, the tiles actually make a lot of sense, believe it or not. Not on the desktop.
Then, since I'm sort of popular, someone gave me a Samsung Galaxy S4 and said: thou shalt review it, mate. All right. We shall do it. This attempt will balance my earlier, fairly frustrating experience with another Android-based phone last year, as well as my jolly good affair with the Samsung Note tablet. Let's see what gives.
Good for phone calls, good for assault
Samsung Galaxy S4 is a large device. It is large enough to batter other people over the head when they annoy you. Now, size is good in general, because it means you have more physical equity to do your stuff, but then, the larger the smartphones get, the more you sort of start wondering what would happen if they added another inch and another. Would we deviate into the realm of the 80s boomboxes? Would we not effectively be carrying tiny laptops near our cranial cavities, and for most people, 'tis a cavity, on account of it being empty. Anyhow, this reminds me of Snatch, Boris the Blade saying: Heavy is good, heavy is reliable, if it does not shoot, you can always hit them with it. Dat. There.
But the actual screen size is only one half of the equation. There's also the thickness, which we must account for. And then, you get all kinds of wrong form factors and ratios, and Luca Pacioli is now pissed off. Galaxy S4 is too wide, too long and too thin, and still smaller than Dedoimedo Jr., you know what I mean, but it does not fit well in your hand, because the piece that goes into your palm, for grip and support, is actually tiny, and you feel like precariously balancing something that might slip out of your hand any moment.
Compare it, if you will, with my latest book, The Broken. Now, either the book is too thick, or the phone is too thin, or both. The answer is, all of the above.
Let's do another comparison. Four phones side by side, with the increasing level of ergonomics as you wander right. The leftmost is Samsung, and it's about half as thick as the Lumia. E6 and Nokia 520 are about the same thickness. And finally C1 is about 50% thicker than either of the other two Nokia phones, and it's also the lightest and the most handsome one, as well as the easiest to hold and carry.
Finally, at the far right corner, we have a weapon of human defense, a firearm. As you would imagine, it has the best grip, totally tailored for the human hand, which tells you what handheld devices ought to be, if lives were to depend upon them. Ergo, Samsung S4 is too thin. Stylish to the max, but not fun to use, not in the dexterous sense.
Now, at this point, I should do what every attention seeker on the Web does, I should list all the technical details that this phone can do, because that's what people care. Not. It's just the geeks who do that, and the only thing important to ordinary users is the actual screen size comparison to iPhone, really. So no specs for you, you can do it on your own.
Well, needless to say, my Android experience so far was mixed. Hated it with Gingerbread on a low-end smartphone, liked it well enough on the tablet. Now here, I am once again feeling more sort of grumpy than happy.
True, Galaxy S4 comes with a fast, smooth operating system. Everything is dandy so to speak, and you have quick access to all your functions at the snap of your fingers, literally. But after having used Nokia Lumia 520 with its simple, ultra-spartan IKEA design interface, Android feels just too crowded, too colorful. Sure you can get around easily, but there are just too many options, too many settings.
Of course, this doesn't matter one bit to the common people, who are all about apps and games, and you can't beat Android when it comes to its Play Store. And yet, its a very masochistic experience.
To be able to provide you with screenshots for this review, I figured I needed some way of creating them. Not aware of the built-in phone key combo, the likes of that used in Nokia, I headed into the store to get me some apps. I tried my old, familiar friends and they did not quite work. Then I tried some other screenshot utilities, and they didn't work either. Sure, the apps all informed me how to create images using the Power + Home combo, but somehow, I didn't do it quite as well as I should have, so I wasted thirty minutes of my life, trying to figure out how to make this article more colorful. To top all that, the apps were full of advertisement, and one even tried to push its toolbar-like thingie. Another asked for upgrade before even letting me use it. Not sure if this is a standard part of the Samsung suite or the Android version or something bundled by the carrier, but it's not nice.
Now, I understand why the Microsoft Store is not flourishing, because they have very stringent requirements for developers what goes in there. On the other hand, this does not seem to be the case with Android, every single app asks permission to use everything, you get ads without end, ad nauseam, you get it, ad nauseam [sic], plus the bullshit you would expect from some 90s desktop app. This is just cretinous.
Eventually, I figured it out, obviously. So you get screenshots aplenty. Anyhow, you get a lot of applications by default, maybe even too many. You have seen some of those in my review of Samsung Note 10.1. Not a bad collection, I must admit. Although you can cut down on some of the extras.
Finding your way through the menu is moderately easy, provided you are an Android fan, and then you'll be on familiar grounds. Still, some of the advanced stuff can really make your head spin. I have to say I am really liking how Nokia did it, but then, they were always the leader in ergonomics.
One strong side of Android 4.2 is that you can toggle on/off all switches from a single screen, without having to go through the detailed text explanations. I'd say a bit like Windows Mobility Center. Each of the green-lit options translates into more battery being bled, except the Power saving, which is supposed to do the exact opposite. Oh, the irony.
You also have a decent application manager, data usage monitoring utility, and suchlike. Android is much thirstier than Windows Phone 8 when it comes to network access, but it stands to logic with Google being all about online. Then, pretty much everything requires network, because lots of the applications are hooked into the cloud, and without it, they are rather useless. You can't use maps or voice-to-text translations without network connectivity, for instance. Compare that with Nokia's fully-offline fun. Well, such is the world.
Android is much less memory intensive than Windows Phone 8, although it is not that much more responsive. However, we can't really compare the devices, because they come with totally different hardware. Moreover, Lumia 520 is supposed to be a low-end device, while S4 is a high-end monster, featuring everything. And sure, it is a stronger beast by far, but it makes little difference in day-to-say usage.
Not bad. You get full HD playback if you want, and even the screen itself features the full 1920x1080px resolution at all times, which is dandy, I must admit. Sound quality is quite reasonable. The device did not struggle with home-brewed MP3 files either, and you also get playback controls on the lock screen.
The phone camera is also fairly good. I would say comparable to the one on my E6, although the usage is extremely clunky due to the size and clumsy thickness of the device, so you are kind of not really sure where to place your thumb. But it does what it should, and for average users, it will deliver very reasonable results.
Two days, if you turn everything off. But if you start using as little as Wi-Fi, to say nothing of actual phone calls or navigation or camera, the battery will bleed to death in the matter of hours. So you might not want this thing for any lengthy car trips. To say nothing of the fact your maps won't really be there unless you give them some expensive network juice.
Compare this to twice that with Nokia Lumia 520, and about ten days of battery life on E6. But I guess that people only care about applications, and nothing else matters. And so is the business model built, on compromise and instant gratification.
Samsung Galaxy S4 is a very elegant device. Polished, good looking, semi-perforated steel casing, mighty spec, lots of goodies on the inside, a rather modern and snappy operating system, a wealth of applications to choose from, and still more. But do I feel a need to own one of these? Absolutely not.
My taste leans toward practicality. And that means a simple interface, extended battery life, lots of offline functionality, as little noise, flashiness, gaudiness, and advertisement, and finally a good, solid grip in your hand. The answer to all these is not Samsung S4, and possibly none of the popular operating systems and gadgets. For me, that would be one of the less obvious choices. That does not diminish the value or success of the reviewed unit, but since I'm doing my own test here, the results necessarily reflect my perspective on how things should be done. So all combined, Samsung Galaxy S4 gets something like 8/10. Not bad, but not my cup of cappuccino.