Consider this for a second – the current most popular Android device and the only device that has a chance of taking the title away from it are both Galaxy S phones. An impressive achievement for Samsung, whose Galaxy S3 already sold in 50 million units, a performance that will probably be outdone by the new Galaxy S4.
Widely regarded as the best Android smartphone of 2012, the Galaxy S3 is still a very good option for many customers. The Galaxy S4, however, brings a specs bump, a larger and crisper display, and a bevy of new software features.
Is the Galaxy S4 worth the upgrade from the S3? The knee jerk reaction is to proclaim the S4 a winner and call it a day. But there are some other factors at play, such as the price tag. For some users, the differences between the two phones might not warrant an upgrade.
Join us for a closer look at what sets the Galaxy S4 apart from the Galaxy S3, in terms of features, user experience, and price. In a hurry? Jump straight to the hands-on video comparison.
Design and build: don’t call it a revamp
With the Galaxy S4, Samsung had a bit of a dilemma on its hands. On one side, the 2012 “inspired by nature” design language we’ve seen on the Galaxy S3, Note 2, and other devices has become widely associated with the Samsung brand. People recognize it. But the glazed finish, rounded profile, and especially the plastic build of the S3 have also been criticized. Critics love to point out that HTC and Apple use aluminum for their flagships, and the pressure was on for Samsung to move in the same direction.
That didn’t happen, and Samsung didn’t even see fit to change the design and build of the Galaxy S4 too much. In fact, it’s relatively easy to mistaken one device for the other, especially if you’re not familiar with the telltale differences between the two. The Galaxy S4 has a bigger screen and thinner bezels, and the home button is placed centrally on the bottom bezel. On the back, the camera and the flash have been centered, and the glazed finish of the Galaxy S3 gave way to a more subtle mesh pattern.
The real story in the design department is that Samsung managed to make the Galaxy S4 a bit smaller and lighter than last year’s S3, while giving it a bigger display and a bigger battery. It’s still a plastic phone, but a very well built one.
Display: more than just more pixels
One of the weak points of the Galaxy S3 was its PenTile AMOLED display, with its relative low brightness and bluish whites. For the Galaxy S4, Samsung listened to the critics and made the display not only bigger, but also better in almost every area. The same display experts that panned the S3 have praised the Galaxy S4 for being more color accurate, brighter, crisper, and overall closer to being the best smartphone display on the market, AMOLED or LCD.
By the numbers, the resolution went from 720p to 1080p (full HD), while the pixel density jumped from 306ppi to a searing 441ppi. The Galaxy S3’s display is still very sharp, and, especially if you haven’t used a full HD smartphone before, you likely won’t ever notice the pixels. However, the differences between the two panels are profound, and given that the display is probably the most important part of a smartphone, the 5-inch Galaxy S4 is clearly superior.
Specs: bigger and better, but worth the update?
The Galaxy S3 operates very smoothly in most situations, with the Exynos 4412 processor (on the international version that we compared) having little trouble providing a lag-free user experience. For a vast majority of users, its quad-core processor and 1GB of RAM should remain perfectly adequate well into this year.
The Galaxy S4 is even better, thanks to a beefier Snapdragon 600 CPU (US version) that has four cores clocked at 1.9 GHz, as opposed to 1.4 GHz on the S3. The Adreno 320 GPU is another clear upgrade over the Mali 400 chip on last year’s Galaxy. However, the truth is that, unless you regularly play graphics-intensive games, the difference in performance won’t amaze you.
Where the Galaxy S4 does outshine the S3 is the sensors department, with Samsung seemingly going all in with an infrared sensor, barometer, thermometer, air gesture sensor, and IR blaster, in addition to all the sensors and connectivity options of the S3.
The removable battery on the S4 is 23% larger than the S3’s, and the difference shows. In our testing, the Galaxy S4 routinely carried us through one day of regular usage, which cannot be said about the S3 or many other smartphones out there.
To wrap up the section, we think the Galaxy S4 is worth an upgrade, but mostly for power users and for those who are interested in taking advantage of the new sensors.
Cameras: bells and whistles
At 13MP, the Galaxy S4 offers a solid megapixel bump over the Galaxy S3’s 8MP, but other than that, the optics and hardware seem to have remained relatively unchanged.
The Galaxy S4 compensates with the software, and then some more. Samsung integrated a host of new software features, that may or may not be useful to you, including Sound and Shot (attach sound to images), Eraser mode (delete photobombers), Drama shot (capture multiple instances of a moving object), Dual Shot (front and back camera), and a few others.
Some of these additions may eventually come to the Galaxy S3 through a software update, but until then, they do provide a reasonably good reason for an upgrade. Other than that, the Galaxy S3 is still one of the best camera smartphones out there, provided that eight megapixels are enough for you. And let’s be honest, you probably don’t need those five extra.
Software: a differentiator
Like the design of the Galaxy S4, which is pretty much a refined Galaxy S3, the design of TouchWiz on the S4 is largely unchanged. However, for some reason the larger display seems to favor the S4, making the colorful and bubbly TouchWiz fit a little better.
In addition to the returning features, such as S Voice and Multi-window multitasking, Samsung cooked up a concoction of software features that might dazzle, but also confuse the user. Thanks to the IR sensor, the phone can sense your gestures, so a hand wave can be used to answer a call or to flip through a magazine. You can set the Galaxy S4 to monitor your gaze so it stops the video when you are looking away or scrolls the page down when you look at the bottom of the screen.
Perhaps the most interesting new feature is Air View, which allows users to interact with the device without touching the screen. For instance, hover your finger over a message and a preview will be displayed. Galaxy Note users get this functionality thanks to the S Pen, but the Galaxy S4 makes it simpler.
Then there’s S Health, a suite of health and fitness apps that make use of the phone’s array of sensors to inform you about the weather when you’re jogging or to count your steps when power walking, in addition to other related tasks.
These features (and a few others) are all new on the Galaxy S4, but it’s possible that a future software update will bring some to the S3. Still, many are likely to remain exclusive to the S4, simply because the S3 lacks the needed sensors.
The question is will you make use of all these new software features?
Pricing and final thoughts
Obviously, the new phone will cost you a lot more than the device from last year. How much more? Right now, you can get the S4 for $700 unlocked, and the S3 for $400 or less. On contract, the difference is smaller, but still significant – $199 versus $50 (and soon free). Regardless of your choice (contract or unlocked), you could buy a decent tablet for the difference between the Galaxy S4 and the Galaxy S3. So, is the S4 worth it?
It depends on where you’re coming from. If you used a feature phone or an older smartphone, both the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy S4 will amaze you. In this case, the Galaxy S3 may be good enough to pocket the $150-$300 difference.
If money is no object and you want the best, there’s no doubt that the Galaxy S4 is superior in every way to the Galaxy S3. It packs a bigger punch, has a better display, and is smarter. Some would say it looks nicer too.
If you’re on the edge, think about what that extra cash will bring you. The new features and the better specs are great, but will you make use of them?
Is the Galaxy S4 worth shelling out for an update? Tell us in the poll and the comments.[poll id=”278″]
Joshua Vergara contributed to this review.