I’ve always been a fan of Samsung.
The first Samsung product I remember having (and loving) was my GX-TV that I had in 6th grade. That TV was what I played N64 on for a long time as well as going head to head with my brother on his OG Sony PlayStation (the 90’s were a fun time for us). Eventually the speaker wires wore out from the constant opening and closing of the speaker flaps and we got rid of it.
As I got older, I gravitated towards Samsung products. I was lucky enough to get a LCD TV for my birthday a decade later and I ended up choosing a Samsung. My iPhone (3G) display and onward was (probably?) a Samsung manufactured display and when I finally decided to try Android as a daily driver, it was the Samsung Galaxy Nexus that I bought.
I grew to really enjoy stock Android on the Galaxy Nexus, which almost made up for the horrible camera that phone was graced with. Coming from an iPhone 4 at the time, it was a pretty clear step backwards in terms of quality and speed. My experience with that camera, on Android, taught me that I really needed to pay attention to camera specs and certain other aspects when I purchased an Android phone (an iPhone, not so much).
Fast forward a year later and I was using an HTC One (which I had to replace twice in 6 months due to hardware failures) right before Jules and I decided to switch to a different carrier. As part of the switch, we traded in our phones and got to select new ones. In the interest of cost (with going back to stock Android a nice bonus), I ended up going to the LG Nexus 5. This happened right after the (infamous?) issues with the Nexus 5’s camera were addressed by the Google team themselves. So, the camera on the Nexus 5 was pretty great for an 8 megapixel shooter.
2 months later I end up winning a Samsung Galaxy S4 (thankfully on the same carrier). Like everyone else in America, I was bombarded with ads about how the S4 was a great camera, beats the iPhone, cures diseases, blah blah blah. So I decided to make it my daily driver and put the hardware and software to the test using the Nexus 5 as a comparison. I focused on some of the areas that I really care about (like camera quality, hardware build, battery) and not on other things that I don’t (like cellular bands). Since I assume the S4 will be sold (albeit at a lesser price) for the next year or two, this review could be helpful for people deciding to upgrade.
This is one of the most important parts of a phone for me. The camera (which I use daily) can make or break a phone experience. The S4 has some nifty features with a great sensor but is (slightly) overshadowed by misleading specs. Mainly, the camera does not shoot in 13MP out of the box- it defaults to 6MP! You can shoot in 13MP, but it is a 4:3 format (think Instagram square) and (comparably) a huge file size. Granted, the S4 does have a MicroSD card slot that supports up to 128GB cards (a rarity these days) to help deal with those huge file sizes. But, for all intents and purposes, I am shooting at 9.6MP at a “standard” 16:9 aspect ratio. It is very tough to tell the extra 1.6MP different from the Nexus 5 which shoots at 8MP by default.
(Samsung S4, tweaked with Snapseed)
(LG Nexus 5-stock)
Once you realize this fact, it tends to taint your view of the phone itself. One of the other big issues I had with the camera was surrounding the gallery app. For the first week of using the phone, the gallery would not load any of my pictures. The app would load, but all black. After a week, it somehow resolved itself, but the performance is still pretty slow compared to the Nexus 5.
(Samsung S4- Animated Photo sample)
However, there are some cool features that Samsung did on the software side that could be viewed as either gimmicks or neat features. Besides the now typical “Scene” modes that both the Nexus 5 and the S4 have; the S4 also has a variety of modes not usually seen in stock camera apps:
Beauty Face (automatically enhances portraits of people)
Best Face and Best Photo (takes multiple shots in succession to get the best shot of everyone)
Sound & Shot (dubs a short sound recording when you are looking at a picture)
Drama (merges multiple shots, usually of something moving, into one photo)
Animated photo (making certain parts of the photo move, GIF style)
Eraser (erasing stuff by taking photos quickly in succession)
This is a ton of features for a camera app, let alone a stock one. I believe you can get these features through other apps, so I wouldn’t say that this should drive you to buy an S4. But having them built-in does allow people to experiment when they normally wouldn’t (as its a “default” feature, not an app you have to buy/download). These features seem to be aimed at a user where the cell phone is their primary/only camera device.
The “handfeel” on the S4 is just terrible. The stock battery panel is a slick piece of plastic that just feels slippery. Before I put a case on the S4, I was worried every time I picked it up that it would go flying out of my hand. This is compared to the Nexus 5 which is also plastic but has a nice soft touch finish that gives it just the right amount of friction without being too tacky.
In terms of size, both phones are practically the same. The Nexus 5 is a hair thicker but this is probably due to the fact that it has built-in wireless charging while the S4 doesn’t (you can get a specific backpanel for it, but it increases the thickness of the phone). Both displays are sharp and vibrant with notification lights. The Nexus 5 is slightly easier to view in daylight compared to the S4 (which is critical for taking photos outside).
Neither device is great on the battery life front for heavy continued use. The S4 clearly has an advantage in this department with the replaceable battery (and even increasing the battery life but that also increases the battery/phone size). Haven’t tried the wireless charging aspect of the Nexus 5 (I don’t have a wireless charging pad) so I don’t know if that is worth it or not. Aside from playing Ingress (which will destroy your battery life on any device), both will last most of a typical day away from the wall charger.
The Samsung S4 is the only Android phone I’ve had that tends to choke during what I consider to be normal/typical tasks. Taking a photo? Prepare to have your music skip a beat during the process. Playing Ingress? Watch the S4 struggle to keep up while the Nexus has no problem. Want to take a picture quickly? The S4 takes longer to load the Camera AND its Gallery application compared to the Nexus 5. Rebooting? The S4 takes almost twice as long to reboot than the Nexus 5. Considering the specs on these phones are pretty similar, there is no way that I can explain the drastic difference in performance. It probably resides in the TouchWiz camp.
(LG Nexus 5)
When I first got into Android/the Nexus program I thought the main driver was always the prompt OS updates and the general “freeness” from company skins. While the hardware has lacked on the Nexus line for years (and still does, depending on who you talk to), it seems that more and more, the lack of a skin can offer wonders. Comparing hardware specs on the surface from the Android camp just doesn’t cut it anymore. A device can be very similar on paper but wildly different in real life. I recommend the S4 if you want space, extra battery life, and a better accessory ecosystem than the Nexus 5- but at the cost of performance. Go the Nexus 5 route (or wait till the new model is launched in June this year) if you want flexibility and performance at the expense of battery life and camera quality (barely).
(Take a guess!)
Don’t get me wrong, I am super appreciative of winning the S4 from Techfye (that made this hands on review possible)! I still plan to use the S4 as my daily driver for the time being as I continue to force myself to get used to the TouchWiz skin (which I may or may not be successful at doing). Reviewing has always been something that I am passionate about (especially technology) and when I can, I love to! If you have found this review helpful, please share it/tell me.