Samsung Galaxy S4: Fast & Full Of Features, But Still Too Plasticky [Review Roundup]

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As you may have noticed already, the embargo on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 was lifted today, and reviewers from all corners of the web are weighing in on the latest Android flagship. Given that the handset succeeds one of the most successful Android phones of all time, many of you are likely to be itching to find out what it’s like.

We’ve put together a review roundup to give you a snapshot of what those early reviews are saying about the Galaxy S4, and to help you decide whether the handset will be worth your hard-earned cash when it goes on sale in the coming weeks.

It’s easy to see the Galaxy S4 is an evolution of the Galaxy S III; it looks very similar, with the most change being the addition of a new 5-inch 1080p display. There are some significant improvements on the inside, too, and Samsung’s latest TouchWiz user interface adds a whole host of new software features.

David Pierce of The Verge believes those improvements makes the Galaxy S4 a powerhouse, with a great camera and solid battery life. But the handset’s all-plastic design leaves much to be desired.

The Galaxy S4 is a very good phone in most respects — it has a stellar camera and solid battery life, blistering performance and an impressively useful complement of software features. It’s a technological achievement — there’s no question about that.

[…] I don’t need more cores, more gigahertz, or more software features that ostensibly help me use my phone more easily. I need a phone that feels good in my hand, looks good on my desk, does everything I expect it to, and gives me no reason to think it won’t last the life of my two-year contract

[…] That’s why, when my contract is up in June, I’ll probably be casting my lot with HTC instead of Samsung.

AllThingsD’s Walt Mossberg agrees with this. He believes that the Galaxy S4’s hardware shines in many areas, but like Pierce, he’s disappointed with its design.

On many key hardware specs, the Galaxy S 4 shines. Its screen and camera resolution beat the iPhone 5’s and I found its pictures to be slightly better than those from the Apple phone, which is nearly a year old. Its removable battery gave me a full day of use.

But the plastic body felt a bit insubstantial to me and the mono speaker on the rear was only fair. Oddly, I found the sound via headphones to be too soft in some cases, though voice calls were clear.

[…] If you’re a nut for lists of new features, love Samsung or crave an even bigger display, the Galaxy S 4 may be for you. It’s a good phone, just not a great one.

Mashable’s Christina Warren doesn’t seem too concerned with the Galaxy S4’s build quality, or the many features Samsung has packed into its new TouchWiz UI. It may feel cheap to some, but Warren believes its internal hardware makes it the “best Android phone ever.”

I would have almost preferred if Samsung focused on half of the features it put into the phone and really made sure they were awesome, rather than throwing everything into the mix.

[…] Still, I can’t find many hard issues with the Galaxy S4. It’s undoubtedly the best Android phone on the market right now (unless you are absolutely reliant on a pure Google experience). Part of what makes it the best is that it’s from Samsung — the runaway leader in Android phone sales. Buying a Galaxy S4 — much like buying an iPhone — means buying into an ecosystem of accessories, supported apps and lots of fellow apps.

Brad Molen of Engadget was impressed by the Galaxy S4’s battery life, its display, and its smooth performance. But he also says that the handset isn’t that exciting, that it doesn’t feel “fresh,” and that many of its new software features don’t actually solve any problems:

In drawing our conclusion of the Samsung Galaxy S 4, we find ourselves at an interesting junction: while our geek senses keep tingling at the thought of so many market-topping specs contained within the same chassis, we also aren’t overjoyed, per se, with excitement. The design doesn’t feel fresh, especially not next to the HTC One, but we can’t deny that it’s an improvement over the GS3. On the plus side, it has better battery life, the same smooth performance and beautiful display, and a few diehards will like its inclusion of microSDXC and a removable battery cell. Software-wise, Samsung’s brand-new features are innovative and clever, yet most of them don’t solve any actual UX problems; they seem impractical and are (in some cases) less convenient than tried-and-true methods we’ve used in the past.

Gizmodo’s Brent Rose did a lot of comparisons with the HTC One in his Galaxy S4 review, which is undoubtedly its biggest competitor on Android right now. He feels that if it wasn’t for the One, the Galaxy S4 would be the best phone on the market right now; he praises its battery life and its new 1080p display.

But Rose admits that a lot of the Galaxy S4’s software features are a little gimmicky.

Big surprise to nobody: the software is not up to snuff. Let’s ignore for a moment that all of the “innovative” banner “features” mentioned above are at best useless and at worst annoying. The rest of the UI ain’t much better.

In terms of design and build-quality, the One just feels like it’s one or two tiers above the S4. There’s simply an “Oooh!” factor that the S4 lacks, and all of Samsung’s bells and whistles can’t hide it.

[…] The S4 is far from a bad phone. In fact, were it not for the HTC One, it would be the best Android phone you can buy. And one can’t help but think that had Samsung poured all of its innovation into maximizing the practical user experience—instead of highly ignorable gimmicks—it might have taken the crown.

Finally, Jordan Crook of TechCrunch says that Samsung is “clearly making strides” where specifications and innovation are concerned, but says that not all of the new features work well.

At the end of the day, it’d be foolish to think that the Galaxy S4 isn’t a top-notch phone. Where specs, performance and software innovation are concerned, the company is clearly making strides. But in playing with this phone for a while, adjusting to the new features, trying to make the most of them, and sometimes failing miserably, I keep returning to the idea of “Keep it simple, stupid.”

That rule seems to have been lost on Samsung. Yes, Air View is a breakthrough, and the camera features are fun and interesting, but anything that requires an easy mode is missing something.

So, there you have it. The Galaxy S4 is undoubtedly an impressive smartphone, and like its predecessor, it’s likely to be another terrific seller. But it appears the many features Samsung has packed into its TouchWiz UI can be a little overwhelming, and it’s hard to ignore the device’s cheap plastic build when it’s going up against the svelte, aluminum HTC One.

It seems many overlooked the Galaxy S III’s plastic build because it was such an improvement over the Galaxy S II. But that’s not entirely the case with the Galaxy S4. The design changes aren’t as big this time, so it’s easier to focus on what might’ve been.

If you’re already a fan of TouchWiz and you don’t mind plastic smartphones, you’re like to be delighted with the Galaxy S4. But if build quality means more to you, maybe it’s best to look elsewhere.