Samsung's flagship device improves in nearly every way, but delivers a tough choice due to its design decisions

Reviews of Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KSC:005930) highly anticipated flagship phone, the Galaxy S IV, went live today.  Let's take a look at the reviews from five of the blogosphere's top sites -- AnandTech (Brian Klug), The Verge (David Pierce), All Things Digital (Walt Mossberg), Engadget (Brad Molen), and Gizmodo (Brent Rose).

So what's the general verdict?

The reviewers generally say that the GSIV is a clear step up from the GS3 in every area, so for Samsung smartphone owners who like their devices, it is a clear choice.  Otherwise, the general verdict is that the GSIV's rough edges make it a tossup between it and its chief Android competitor -- the HTC One.  

The GSIV has microSD, a replaceable battery, a slightly more powerful processor, and takes better outdoor photos.  But the HTC One's camera performs better in low light, its battery life is reportedly slightly better, it has a more minimalist Android skin, and lastly it has a slicker case design.

But before we dig in, let us first recap the phone's specs, which were announced at the company's March 14 soft launch event in New York City, New York.  For utility's sake we've tossed in some comparison with some top rival devices:
                Smartphones wide
Spec comparison
[Click to enlarge]

Let's now see what the reviewers say.

II. The Reviews

  • The Verge (David Pierce)

    "Where Apple and HTC have both made beautiful, well-made, high-quality phones, the GS4 has Samsung back in the land of cheap, plasticky handsets."
  • Engadget (Brad Molen)

    "If you were a critic of the GS3's plastic construction, you'll be disappointed with its successor -- the company's continuing its long-standing tradition of keeping metal out of the assembly lines, building the frame, back cover and faux-chrome edges with polycarbonate. It's a similar -- though lower-grade and not machined -- type of plastic you'd enjoy on flagships like the Nokia Lumia 920 or even the HTC One X+, so it's nothing out of the ordinary for Samsung."
  • AnandTech (Brian Klug)

    "This is the iPhone school of thinking — you have an industrial design now that is borderline a trademark, it's selling well, and if you have something that's popular, why change it? 

    Samsung continues its liberal use of its favorite thermoplastic with SGS4, but... it tries to make its thermoplastic exteriors look like something else...with SGS4 there's now a faux carbon fiber motif going throughout, with a diamond checkerboard pattern that prevails on the front and back.

    Much debate has been made around Samsung's continued use of plastic vs. metal in the industrial design of its smartphones and tablets...There's no getting around the fact that other OEMs are bringing increasingly sophisticated materials choices to bear with their designs, and this is an obvious weak point for SGS4.

    What has improved dramatically with SGS4 are the buttons, which now are surprisingly awesome."
  • Engadget (Brad Molen)

    "The once-dominating force of a Snapdragon S4 chipset is now eclipsed by the Snapdragon 600, and we have a feeling history will repeat itself later this year as soon as the 800 is unleashed into the world. Think about it: out of the six benchmarks above, the GS 4 managed to set records in five of them, with the One (the previous record-breaker) not too far behind."
  • AnandTech (Brian Klug)

    It's immediately apparent that something is different here because Samsung is shipping the Snapdragon 600 at a higher frequency than any other OEM. The Krait 300 cores in SGS4 can run at up to 1.9GHz vs. 1.7GHz for everyone else.

    Digging through the Galaxy S 4 kernel source we see references to an APQ8064AB part...Iwe might be looking at an actual respin of the APQ8064 silicon in's clear to me that the Galaxy S 4 is shipping with something different than everyone else who has a Snapdragon 600 at this point.
  • AnandTech (Brian Klug)

    "The low level triangle tests all show significant performance gains over the only other Snapdragon 600 based phone we have (HTC One)....The Galaxy S 4 manages to outperform the HTC One by around 17%."
Battery Life
  • AnandTech (Brian Klug)

    "On WiFi the Galaxy S 4 falls behind the HTC One by an appreciable amount, however there's still an improvement in battery life compared to the Galaxy S 3....Talk time is excellent on the Galaxy S 4, with the phone delivering effectively the same battery life as the HTC One."
  • All Things Digital (Walt Mossberg)

    "Its removable battery gave me a full day of use."

  • Gizmodo (Brent Rose)

    "In decent lighting, the camera is among the best shooters out there. Images are very sharp and there's a surprising amount of depth of field. Colors are rich, though they border on over-saturation, and video quality is excellent."
  • AnandTech (Brian Klug)

    "The One's camera delivers better low light performance, while the Galaxy S 4's camera delivers better performance in well lit (e.g. outdoor) scenarios."
  • Engadget (Brad Molen)

    "In general, the GS 4 performs amazingly well, but there's a catch: when Air View and Air Gestures were enabled, we noticed the phone acting a little sluggish even in the most basic of tasks."
  • All Things Digital (Walt Mossberg)

    "I found Samsung’s software often gimmicky, duplicative of standard Android apps, or, in some cases, only intermittently functional."
  • Gizmodo (Brent Rose)

    "As we noted in our original hands-on, the S4 comes packed full of "features." There's Air View...There's Air Gestures...there's Smart Scroll...And there's Group Play...

    The most important thing you need to know about these features is that you will never use any of them. Ever. Never ever. The end.

    Make no mistake. These "features" are nothing more than gimmicks."
  • All Things Digital (Walt Mossberg)

    "My test model was running on the T-Mobile network and even indicated that it was using super-fast LTE, which T-Mobile is still building out, in some areas. But data download speeds in the D.C. suburbs averaged just 6.96 megabits per second, versus 20.81 mbps for an iPhone 5 running Verizon LTE. The Galaxy S 4 would likely be faster on Verizon in the same location."
  • Engadget (Brad Molen)

    "One of the subtlest tweaks to the design in the GS 4 may also be one of the most effective: the Gorilla Glass 3 rests just a hair below the edge of the screen. This tiny move makes the screen a tad less vulnerable than the GS3, which features glass that sits slightly above the edge. This won't guarantee your screen's safety when you drop your phone, but it at least increases the likelihood of it surviving an impact at an angle."
  • The Verge (David Pierce)

    "The GS4's 5-inch, 1920 x 1080 display is big, beautiful, and seriously eye-catching. The latter is partially a bad thing: the S4 uses a Super AMOLED panel like many of Samsung's phones, and like many of Samsung’s phones it displays overly contrasted and vibrant colors. Those colors may not be accurate — reds and oranges absolutely explode off the screen, whether they should or not — but they certainly catch your eye. And with a ridiculous 441 pixels per inch, even the PenTile display matrix I usually loathe causes no problems."
  • All Things Digital (Walt Mossberg)

    "I urge readers looking for a new Android smartphone to carefully consider the more polished-looking, and quite capable, HTC One, rather than defaulting to the latest Samsung."
  • AnandTech (Brian Klug)

    "Samsung's existing user base is likely the easiest to talk to about the Galaxy S 4. Compared to any previous Galaxy S device, the SGS4 is a clear step forward in all of the right areas...If you're a happy owner of a Samsung Galaxy S/S2/S3, you'll likely be a happy owner of a Galaxy S 4.

    It's when you compare the Galaxy S 4 to its chief technical competitor, the HTC One, that the discussion becomes more complicated. HTC and Samsung take very different approaches to nearly every aspect of their flagship smartphones."
  • The Verge (David Pierce)

    "There were two Android phones worth buying, the One and the Nexus 4. That number is now very clearly three, but I had hoped against hope that Samsung would emerge the undisputed winner. 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.

    You can have the far better-looking phone or you can have the slightly better-performing phone — and you really can't choose wrong. If the GS III is any indication, millions upon millions will choose the GS4. Me? I think design matters. Polish matters. The Galaxy S4 is fast and impressive, but it's also noisy and complex. The One is refined, quiet, comfortable, beautiful, and above all simply pleasant. I love using that phone, in a way I haven't experienced with anything since the iPhone 5. That's why, when my contract is up in June, I'll probably be casting my lot with HTC instead of Samsung."

Sources: AnandTech, The Verge, All Things D, Engadget

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