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Samsung Galaxy S4 review

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Update: The Samsung Galaxy S5 is tipped to make its debut at the MWC show in Barcelona on 24 February 2014. Catch up on everything we know so far with our Samsung Galaxy S5 rumous round-up

It’s here at last, Samsung’s biggest release for a year. The Samsung Galaxy S4 will doubtless be popular but is it the best smartphone of the year, and are the new features – and there are oh, so many of them – worth having?

The brand has not radically changed the design of the phone compared to last year’s Samsung Galaxy S3. Why would it? – the S3 was massively popular, so the company knew it had a winning design.

Even so, look closely and you’ll see definite style improvements, with straighter lines and a sleeker, more serious look to it. The S3 had swirly, curvy lines demarcating the chrome effect from the colour. On the Samsung S4 it’s all straight edges, giving a more elegant and slightly more clinical look that is at once more demure and grown-up.

And to be honest, it looks a bit more like the conventional design of other smartphones so whether this new design is better or worse is purely a matter of taste. The curves at the top and bottom edges are less tapered this time, so the corners are a touch squarer, which is also more pleasing. Less of a lozenge, more of a rectangle with soft edges.

But it’s the same gloss plastic finish, so if you’re keener on a more premium feel like the iPhone 5 or HTC One, you may feel this is a bit shouty. Even so, it’s a classier look than the S3, even on the back where the camera lens (bigger this time) has just the flash near it. On the S3 the flash was to the left of the lens, the speaker to the right. Here, the flash is directly below the lens, both centred at the top of the handset. And the speaker grille is towards the bottom and off-centre, which looks neater.

The design of the buttons has barely changed. The S3 wasn’t big on buttons, sporting only a volume rocker on the left edge and the power button on the right. These are in the same places, but this time around the power button is a little bigger. So is the volume rocker which is a little higher up on the left edge, but these are small changes but, we’d say, are all improvements.

Samsung Galaxy S4: Size and build

Like last year’s model, this isn’t a phone for petite hands. But Samsung has squeezed in a screen that’s bigger than the S3’s into a handset that’s slightly smaller (the dimensions are 136.6mm tall, the same as the S3, while the width and depth, 69.8mm and 7.9mm, are smaller).

The change in depth is particularly noticeable and means that though it’s big it doesn’t feel unmanageable. The display is 5in this year, against last year’s 4.8in on the S3.

Check out our Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Samsung Galaxy S3 specs showdown

Even so, this phone clocks in at 130g against the marginally heavier 133g last time around. Most premium smartphones these days have sealed-in batteries – without the need to finish the battery in a removable case it’s possible to maximise the size and power of the cell – but Samsung has opted for a back that pops off.

This has a big advantage because it means if you run out of juice you can pop in a replacement battery. But it can mean that the build is less persuasive or creaks annoyingly when you flex the phone in your hands. In fact, there’s precious little creak – this is a well-engineered machine.

As before there are two colours, this time white and black. Both look good, though the white looks more lively and has a gentle, subtle texturing that you only see when you look closely.

As with any smartphone, you need buttons to supplement that touchscreen. Samsung, like Apple but unlike almost everyone else, has a physical home button on the front, making it easier to wake the screen. This is especially important when the screen is as big as this phone. Reaching to the bottom of the display rather than the top right can make a palpable difference.

Even so, you can go there if you prefer as the power button is towards the top of the right edge, as usual with Samsung phones. The Home button is a more symmetrical shape than on last year’s model, though still standing slightly proud.

The headphone socket is in the conventional place on the top edge. Apple’s iPhone 5 has it on the bottom. Why should this matter? Well, if you have a protective slipcase, say, you have to remember when listening to music to slide the iPhone into it the wrong way up, which is counter-intuitive.

Better to make a statement with it, as the Nokia Lumia 920 does by plonking it on top in the centre. This left-of-centre placement on the top of the S4 is unexceptional, but fine.

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