What could Samsung have realistically stuffed into the Galaxy S4, to make it anything more than an evolutionary upgrade of the Galaxy S3?

Because the GS3 was a cutting edge phone, and it still sells a year on.

Instead, Samsung has spent most of its time working on making that phone just a bit better. A bit more compact, with a bit bigger screen and resolution, a bit better camera and making it a bit faster. The battery has been improved, too.


The Galaxy S4; also available in black and no doubt many more colours in due course

That should be more than enough, right? But people still demand more. This promoted Samsung to deliver a crazy stage show in New York City to show off a bunch of services you never knew you needed - and probably don't.

The phone comes packed with loads of Samsung apps to compete with existing Google ones, plus an even brighter version of its TouchWiz UI - especially jarring at a time when most phones are trading bright colours for more conservative designs.

Features from the Note line now feature too, such as being able to hover a finger over the display. And there are continuations of features from the S3, such as pausing video when you turn your head and a whole range of gestures you can perform without touching the screen.


This phone also doubles up as a universal remote control, like the HTC One

Also, an integrated Infrared port turns the phone into a universal remote. And there are loads of other preloaded apps, covering travel news, aggregated news from Flipboard and Samsung's own health app that uses the hardware to monitor your movements and can be paired with an optional heart rate monitor.

There seem to be so many features that it can be incredibly daunting the first time you load up the phone. After signing in, you'll be asked to select which of these new newfangled features you want to activate from the off (you can change your mind later, thankfully).


All I wanted to do was sign in to Google. Sorry, it's going to take a bit more than that

Features on offer include things like S Beam, Air View, Air Gesture, Voice Control, Smart Stay, Smart Pause... the list goes on. Clicking on an option gives a short explanation and possibly a usage demo. If it all seems too intimidating you can opt for the simple mode. Phew.

Design

Like the Galaxy S3 and models before, Samsung still goes for a plastic finish. And it still features a removable battery cover and battery, which could be the single most important feature to some.

And with a hefty 2,600mAh battery inside, it's already way ahead of the competition in the battery life department.

Slimness is another noticeable feature of the design, yet still allowing for a firm grip that doesn't have you fearing that you'll drop it at any moment.

A central home key is accompanied by the usual capacitive keys that hide away for menu and back. That means no recent apps key (instead, you hold the home button), and no on-screen icons, which means you get to use all of the 1080x1920 pixel display at all times.

Having a display with a narrow bezel means the Galaxy S4 is actually slightly narrower than the S3, and as almost all of the frontage is taken up by the display, it makes the 5-inch screen look even bigger.

The phone is not as tall as a Sony Xperia Z either, despite each having the same size screen, but there's no water resistance or dust proofing here. Samsung apparently has a ruggedised waterproof model in the pipeline, however.

Camera

Having jumped to 13-megapixels, competing head-on with Sony's Xperia Z and ZR, Samsung is evidently sticking in the gr pixel arms race.

Thought the Xperia Z had a lot of camera modes? Well Samsung has gone to town, here, and included so many modes that it's hard to know what to choose, or even what mode you're actually using at any given time.


A selection of the main modes, before you start on picture effects or dual modes, or even HD video recording...

But spend some time to learn your way around, and you'll soon realise that Samsung has actually beaten Sony here.

And while it still loses out from having no dedicated camera button, photos are less heavily post-processed and the S4 therefore has the edge.

Get in the picture

The ability to feature your own face in the shot with the Dual Shot function is supposedly to ensure that, as the photographer, you never get left out. It's an odd feature, not least because it can be hard to get a flattering shot from the angle you're holding the phone (as anyone video calling will know only too well).

Overlaying your face, even with one of the effects that can make you appear ghost like, isn't really anywhere near close to being in the shot for real, so the best advice is to skip this feature and just ask someone nicely to take a photo of you (or prop it up and use the self-timer).


Perhaps being able to terrify others might be a good use for the dual shot function?

Other modes include attaching nine seconds of audio to a picture, or creating animated GIFs where you can select parts of your short video to be animated and parts to remain static.

Throw in some other modes like the Drama Shot, which can create a still image of you in different parts of the image, or the object removal feature to take out unwanted things from a photo, and this camera has just about everything you want. And a lot of what you don't.

Overall, though, the camera is great and you also get 50GB of Dropbox storage thrown in for two years to back all of your creations up in the cloud.

Gaming

Under the hood hides a very powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor, clocked at a whopping 1.9GHz.

Not quite of the octo-core beast that's only available in Korea for now, but it's still the fastest kid on the block. Naturallythat means it won't have any problems playing the most advanced games available or coming soon.


Samsung's own game hub isn't really necessary - but might have the odd exclusive deal

The AnTuTu benchmarks are quite clear in showing that the S4 is the king of the crop with a score of 24,888, compared to 22,496 on the HTC One, and 20,253 on the Xperia Z. In the Open GL ES2 test, it performed faster than any other phone I've ever seen.

The AMOLED display also means crisp blacks, and higher contrast levels that really make a difference to games, as well as watching movies.

With an MHL cable plugged in, you can hook the phone up to a TV and charge at the same time, or opt for the wireless route using Samsung's take on Miracast, called AllShareCast. This means connecting to many modern Smart TVs that have this feature, or third party accessories that plug into the back of your existing set.

The Good

Having such a fast processor and 4G LTE support could lead to a phone that dies in minutes. But Samsung's decision to use a large capacity battery (2,600mAh) keeps it running for hours.

AndDespite having built such a thin phone, Samsung didn't compromise further by reducing such an important element of the phone package.

There are also additional power saving options to reduce the CPU speed and reduce the screen power consumption, which keep the phone going for even longer still.


Split screen action: One of the many good features, previously seen on the Note devices

Even the use of an AMOLED screen, which has an unbeatable black level but also a reputation for poor whites and over saturated colours, isn't an issue here. Samsung allows you to make plenty of adjustments too, so you can customise the screen to however you prefer – including changing fonts.

The phone also comes with Android 4.2 installed, giving additional Google features like the Daydream mode and enhanced notifications. You can also drag two fingers down from the top to view a rather overwhelming selection of toggles, which can be customised.


Overload: Samsung makes a little too much use of notifications, including trying to get you to try out new features

If that's not enough, there's a comprehensive range of accessories, from docks and car holders, to spare batteries, and a smart cover with a small window to keep key information on display at all time.

In so many ways, the Galaxy S4 is the best smartphone on the market, but in other ways it falls short.

The Bad

The Galaxy S4 is bloated, and filled to bursting with apps and features that you may never even use (around 6GB of the 16GB model is used up by pre-loaded 'bloatware'). It's a long way from a phone with the native Android experience, such as Google's Nexus 4.

What's more, Google has just announced a 'Google Edition' of the S4 version without any of Samsung's customisation - but sadly it's not UK-bound, for now.

Samsung will also offer 32GB and 64GB versions, no doubt at a much higher price, and there is some solace in that you can add memory cards of up to 64GB to store your multimedia.

What is frustrating is that Samsung is using this phone for a longer term strategy to make it easier to migrate users to its own Tizen operating system, due later in the year.

This means creating and promoting a series of apps, most of which are not as good as their Google counterparts, simply to get you hooked into Samsung's ecosystem.

Slowing you down

Another problem is that some of the clever features only work with the Samsung apps, and having them running (such as the camera to monitor when you're looking at the screen) seems to have a negative impact on the performance of the phone too.

This is the most powerful phone on the market, yet it can stall and lag for no apparent reason. It can do so often enough to really annoy and give the impression that you're the owner of a far more basic handset.

The internal speaker is also quite disappointing, although it would be exceptionally hard to beat the HTC One without a major redesign. Even the Xperia Z beats the S4 here too.

Summary

Despite the gimmicks and reduced storage space, the Galaxy S4 is a great bit of hardware for the most part, complete with a few useful features. But many others impact on the overall usability of the phone.

It might be a great as a camera, it may play advanced 3D games without breaking into a sweat, and may have the stamina to go on for a full day, but unless you're easily impressed by the gimmicks, you'll feel that this phone is a bit of a handful on a day-to-day basis.

You should also stick to getting all of your music, games, movies, books and magazines from Google and skip all the Samsung stuff. Although the S Health app is worth a look.

The intermittent lagging can probably be eliminated by the new Google Edition, but until that's available I have to conclude that the S4 falls short of perfection.