Samsung Galaxy S4 – hands-on review

We get our paws on Samsung's new flagship smartphone – and wave them over it, as we try out its new Air View and Air Gesture features

Samsung Galaxy S4 – hands-on review

Samsung's Galaxy S4 certainly has 'guns' in the specs department. With a 5in, 1080p screen and ludicrous processing grunt, it has more than enough power to stand its ground against the likes of the Sony Xperia Z and HTC One.

This we expected. But is the Galaxy S4's lengthy list of new features enough to make it your favourite new smartphone? We gave it a test-drive at Samsung's 'Unpacked' event to find out.

Samsung Galaxy S4 – Design and build

Looks familiar, doesn't it? The S4 retains its predecessor's polycarbonate design, looking like an S3 that's had a run-in with an iron. This is mixed news – it feels toy-like compared to the HTC One, but the curved edges make it much more comfortable in the hand than the angular Sony Xperia Z. It's a 5in phone for people who aren't sure if they like 5in phones.

The only other changes are a marginally thinner bezel and a new IR sensor on the front – which is the key to a host of new gesture-based controls (more on those later). Contrary to rumours, the microSD slot and and removable battery remain.

Samsung Galaxy S4 – Display

There were two concrete certainties about the Galaxy S4; that it would be rectangular, and that it would have a 5in 1080p screen. Samsung couldn't let the Sony Xperia Z spearhead 5in displays for long, and at first glance the the Galaxy S4's is the superior display of the two.

It has better viewing angles, and the Super AMOLED colours seem to pop even more than its predecessor. It doesn't quite match the HTC One's pixel density, but that advantage isn't discernible unless you plan to glue the phone to your forehead.

The 1080p display comes into its own when reading text. A quick scroll through is even more enjoyable than usual. We didn't quite have enough time with the Galaxy S4 to judge its photo-editing and film-watching credentials – but at least you know your 1080p videos will be reproduced pixel for pixel.

Samsung Galaxy S4 – Camera

While rivals like the HTC One attempt to differentiate themselves with Ultrapixel cameras, Samsung has bolstered its 13MP camera offering with software features. We really like that Samsung has adopted elements of the Galaxy Camera interface such as the mode menu wheel, but the other features have either been done before or aren't hugely useful.

Eraser Shot (which gives you the option of removing background photo-bombers) looks handy for serial users of burst mode and the option of ordering a physical Blurb photo album is nice, but Sound Shot (adding sound to photos), dual video recording and the Cinemagram-esque Cinema photo border on being clutter.

Samsung Galaxy S4 – Air Gesture and Air View

The most impressive new features of the Galaxy S4 are Air Gesture and Air View. They're the kind of innovative software touches that Apple used to spearhead, and work surprisingly well.

Air Gesture lets you swipe through web pages, photo galleries and the like with a wave of your hand. Your hand movement needs to be quite emphatic and it's perhaps more suited to tablets, but if used occasionally it looks a handy way to prevent your screen from getting clouded with fingerprints.

Even better is Air View. In compatible apps (of which there are currently few), it lets you hover your finger over a tile for a few seconds to preview information. That delay is crucial in making sure it doesn't intrude accidentally, and in the new version of Flipboard it feels like an intuitive, frictionless way to navigate data-heavy apps.

Samsung Galaxy S4 – Accessories

Samsung's newfound love for our 'S-Health' has prompted the arrival of new accessories including an S-Band, Body Scale and Heart Monitor, which we didn't get to try.

But our favourite new accessory is the nifty S-Cover case – close it and the phone automatically displays crucial info like time and battery life through a postbox-style window on the front, allowing the case to protect the rest of the screen. Another fine, Apple-style touch.

Samsung Galaxy S4 – Verdict

The Galaxy S4 is one of the best smartphones we've seen and a fine riposte to the Sony Xperia Z and HTC One. But its familiar styling and polycarbonate build is a mixed blessing – while the plastic build and curved edges make it comfortable in the hand despite its size, it feels somewhat dated next to the aluminum and glass frames of the HTC One and Apple iPhone 5.

Though those phones are the gold standard for smartphone design, the S4 is leading the way when it comes to new interface technology, with the likes of Air Gesture and Air View. In use, they feel like the kind of innovations Apple is known for – and while they're not perfect, they feel potentially useful enough to be more than just gimmicks to show the in-laws.

With the processing grunt to keep it future-proofed for a good while and help its battery life cope with ever-burgeoning demands, the S4 certainly has the potential to duke it out for the top spot in our smartphones Top 10. We'll let you know it it does in a full review very soon.

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