Producing nonstop hits is hard for anybody not named Arcade Fire. Consistently putting out innovative, game-changing creations is just difficult. There’s only so much room for change. Sometimes you might not even want to change. You see this kind of thing in phones a lot. Apple tends to stick to a tick-tock model that saves the innovation for models without an “S” in the name. These days, it looks like Samsung is doing the same.

The Galaxy S4 is definitely evolutionary rather than revolutionary in the same way as its predecessor. The Korean manufacturer knows it struck gold with the last model and has kept most of that design around for a second go-around.

After a few weeks of quality time with their latest flagship, we have finally reached a decision on its merits. Is the Galaxy S4 good? Does it introduce anything new and amazing? Should I buy this? Read on to find out.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Review

Hardware

In the past, we’ve knocked Samsung for making phones that feel cheap and plasticky. The company tends to prefer mass-producible materials, even at the cost of quality.

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The Galaxy S4 thankfully leaves that behind. When we picked up the phone, we were shocked at how solid it felt. The S4 is the first Galaxy S flagship that really feels like a well-built machine.

The body is still made of slick white polycarbonate, but it’s the metal frame around the side that makes the difference. Holding onto it gives the phone a sense of durability that past models didn’t have.

Despite its solid nature, the S4 is light and easy to hold. Despite clocking in at 5 inches of screen, the device is easy to handle. Its thin profile makes it easy to slip in and out of pockets.

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The screen dominates the front side. It’s a massive Super AMOLED screen with a 1920×1080 resolution. That leaves a ridiculous 441 pixels per inch for your viewing pleasure, and it is a pleasure to look at this phone. The size, vibrant colors, and density make TouchWiz pop off the screen. Fonts in particular look amazing on the Galaxy S4. The smooth lines and fine-grained detail make apps like Reddit Sync an absolute joy to use.

That’s not to say that the screen doesn’t have issues. The first strike is its size. 5 inches make it hard to reach the top left corner of the screen without shifting your grip on the phone.

The second is its heavy power usage. In battery tests, the S4 had no trouble lasting all day with room to spare. The replaceable 2600 mAh unit usually performed well, but the large screen consistently drained the most battery.

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Below the nearly bezel-less screen are the three navigation buttons. The capacitive menu and back buttons stand beside a hardware home button. We found it interesting that despite Google’s push to remove the menu button from phones, the flagship phone from their biggest partner keeps it.

Moving on, the sides of the device bear the usual power button and volume rocker. Samsung moved both down in order to keep them within easy reach, a smart decision. All the buttons are metal and feel nicely clickable. There’s no stickiness or finicky responses when interacting with the S4. It’s a nice change and shows some maturity in design.

The phone has a series of sensors including a 2 megapixel front-facing camera, a barometer, thermometer, humidity gauge, notification LED, NFC reader and motion detector. No, humidity gauge is not a typo.

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The back side holds the main camera. The camera performed spectacularly well at a concert with some friends. In normal lighting, the S4 takes phenomenal shots. We found ourselves taking pictures just to see the camera in action.

The combination of the S4’s stellar camera and screen make looking through your shots in Gallery immensely rewarding. You don’t realize just how good that shooter is until you see the results in 1080p.

The hardware on the Galaxy S4 excels. We could use less plastic, a slightly smaller screen and capacitive home button, but those are minor quibbles on something without any real problems.

Network

The Sprint Galaxy S4 is a hard phone to judge when it comes to network connections. On one hand, it comes connected to Sprint’s blazing-fast new LTE network. We did some speed tests while passing through Chicago on our way to the aforementioned concert.

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LTE kicks ass. We got 14125 kbps down and 5152 kbps up. In real-world usage, web pages rendered as quickly as their servers could stream the data down to our phone. Internet browsing was fast and smooth, without any of the usual lag you see on Sprint airwaves.

Speaking of lag, this brings us to the problem with Sprint. If you don’t live within range of LTE (like us), you’re stuck on their aging 3G network. We couldn’t get more than 1742 kbps down and 622 kbps up. That’s okay, but it’s certainly not LTE.

The Sprint Galaxy S4 has a great data connection, provided that you’re within range of LTE. If not, the experience noticeably worsens.

Performance

Quadrant 12472
Vellamo 488
AnTuTu Benchmark 24569
Sunspider 0.9.1 766.9ms (lower is better)
CF-Bench 24226

Samsung did not skimp out on its processor. The Galaxy S4 rocks a quad-core 1.9 GHz Krait CPU. While the American edition missed out on the new octa-core big.LITTLE processor, its younger brother is more than capable.

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In everyday use, the S4 was like lightning. Its 2 GB of RAM can keep an absurd number of apps stored in its memory before clearing any. Between that and the killer CPU, this phone felt seriously fast. Switching between apps, editing Google Docs, and anything else we could throw at it went off like a charm.

The S4 deserves a nod for being gaming-friendly. The 5-inch screen and heavy processor make playing games that much better. We tried a Nintendo 64 emulator that worked flawlessly.

The downside of all this is the battery cost. Playing processor-heavy games (especially that emulator) cuts into that percentage in the status bar. Other than that understandable issue, the S4 has fantastic performance.

Software

We’ve looked at TouchWiz once or twice before. To summarize our thoughts, TouchWiz is good. It’s the first manufacturer skin that we like and don’t mind using. It adds a lot of neat features you won’t find anywhere else.

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Samsung does a good job of differentiating itself from stock Android with multi-window, S Pen, and a ton of awesome camera features. We also pitched S Voice against Google Now, though the latter one won that matchup. There’s also a Help app and simple mode for beginners, something we’d like to see in stock Android.

The manufacturer goes too far in some places, though, and feels the need to add unnecessary or spam-filled apps that can’t be removed. Mandatory bloatware is never OK, and the S4 doesn’t get a pass from that.

Overall, TouchWiz is still good. Were we to keep this phone past our review, we would probably keep it on the stock ROM. Samsung offers a lot of good stuff you won’t get on CyanogenMod.

Hackability

Sadly, the Galaxy S4 is not in hacking shape as of this review. There is still much to be desired in terms of community support and custom ROM quality.

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Let’s start with the good news. The S4 is a popular phone available on a wide amount of carriers worldwide. This puts it into the hands of a lot of Android developers who will help contribute custom ROMs, modifications, and other fun hacks. In addition, its flagship status guarantees this device mainstream support from the major third-party ROMs like CyanogenMod and AOKP.

We also liked how easy the Galaxy S4 is to root. The process is painless and simple. Even installing a custom recovery doesn’t take more than a few minutes. Kudos to Samsung for not putting up any unnecessary barriers here. Everybody likes unlocked bootloaders.

In the future, there will likely be excellent support for the S4. The bad news is until then, users are stuck flashing buggy nightlies with a lot of development work left to do.

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We flashed a CM10.1 nightly for testing. Obviously, one ROM’s problems are not the problems of other builds, but it’s a good representation of the state of development for the S4 right now.

Although the nightly was smooth enough, it had some issues with dropped calls and lag. As much as we like seeing Holo on the S4’s amazing screen, we’d give it some time before leaving the stock ROM.

Although CM10.1 looks nicer than TouchWiz (and offers must-have features like SMS quick reply), it lacks some stock features. The camera is especially anemic, and the lack of multi-view is disappointing.

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Will the custom ROM experience be good on this phone? Yes, but not yet.

Down to the Main Question – Would I Buy a Samsung Galaxy S4?

To be honest, this review was more nitpicky than we anticipated. There’s little wrong with the Galaxy S4. The screen could be smaller. The buttons could be capacitive. TouchWiz could remove some of the bloatware. Other than that, this is a superb phone. The hardware, software, processing power, and screen are amazing.

At this point, it feels like Samsung is taking a victory lap with the S4 after breaking so much ground with the S III. They know how to make a high-quality phone for the masses that doesn’t compromise anything (except maybe the software).

If we were to buy a new phone today, we would probably buy the Galaxy S4. It’s just that good.