The Samsung Galaxy S line has produced some of the best smartphones over the years, and the Galaxy S4 lives up to its legacy. Some consider it an evolutionary step from the Galaxy S III, others would go ahead and call it a revolution, there's the third kind too who insist it's a mere rehash.
Without getting into the semantics, we believe the S4 to be a worthy update over its predecessor, which was already one of the most capable smartphones around.
Let's run it down: the big 5" screen fits into a very compact body (same footprint as the Galaxy S III and slimmer), the new 1080p Super AMOLED matrix offers a significant improvement in image quality, the 13MP camera is one of the best around and, performance-wise, the Galaxy S4 will probably hold the crown until the Galaxy Note III comes around.
Before moving on, we have to discuss the two versions of the Galaxy S4. One is the I9500, powered by the Exynos 5 Octa, and the I9505, the LTE-enabled Snapdragon 600 model. This review is based on the I9505. Early benchmarks suggest the I9500 will have a slight edge, but how that will impact the battery performance is unknown at the moment.
Samsung's drive to offer the best Android software package borders on an obsession. Launching the Galaxy S4 with the latest Jelly Bean version is a good start, and we really like some of the home-brewed TouchWiz features. The complete list of options is so long that half of them may take unsuspecting users a while to discover. Now, a good portion of those are only gimmicks that still need a lot of work, but there are some real gems too and it would be a pity to miss those.
Anyway, the camera is the other thing we liked about the Galaxy S4, besides the screen and processing power. It has a simple interface and while it's not groundbreaking in any way, it combines the best from mobile cameras and has the image quality to match.
The Galaxy S4's competition is out in full force. The HTC One has a slightly smaller (but still excellent) screen, an optically stabilized camera, and killer looks - the only thing the Galaxy S4 seemingly lacks. We already did a dedicated shootout with those two, so you might want to check it out.
The Sony Xperia Z also earns compliments for its looks and adds the rare feature of an IP57 certification (water and dust resistance). If you prefer compactness over waterproofing, the Xperia ZL offers the Z specs in a shorter body (and adds an IR emitter). The Xperia's 5" screens leave something to be desired, however.
The HTC Butterfly didn't get to sit in the HTC throne for long before the One came in, but the bigger screen and traditional camera make it a good alternative. The LG Optimus G Pro is more of a Note challenger, but if you're not afraid to go big, it successfully stacks up against the Galaxy S4 on almost every front.
The Asus Padfone Infinity adds a 10.1" tablet dock to the S4-like specs to make sure you really get your money's worth from that powerful chipset and advanced OS (Android 4.2). The Infinity should be on sale not long after the Galaxy S4 hit the market, but its €999 price tag is only worth considering if you really need a smartphone and a tablet and you never plan on using them both simultaneously.
The Oppo Find 5 and ZTE Grand S come from makers that are rising in popularity and offer flagship specs, without the premium name tax. Finding either of those in your local stores can be quite hard, though.
While the Samsung Galaxy S4's exterior might be its Achilles' heel, we can't blame Samsung for sticking with the Galaxy S brand image it spent so much resources trying to build (that phone sold over 50 million units too, so being associated with it cannot be too bad).
With the sheer number of excellent flagships to choose from, if you are looking for the best smartphone, you had it better than ever. There's no need for choice anxiety either, as the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a safe bet as long as you can get past its increasingly dated design or you need that IP57 certification.