Samsung cast the newest stone in the battle for (perceived) supremacy of the Smartphone Wars, and the Galaxy S4 packs a punch. Big, with a display than could prove to be higher quality than Apple's vaunted Retina Display, the GS4 is chock full of Samsung-specific technologies that build on Google's Android services. We're going to compare the specs and features of the GS4 to Apple's iPhone 5.
Does Size Matter?
The short answer to this header's question is yes, size matters. Unfortunately for those who want to declare winners and losers in a binary look at the smartphone market, the full answer is that size matters differently to different people. Here, let's just look at the two devices together:
Samsung Galaxy S4 in Back, Apple iPhone 5 in Front
(This image is as close to pixel-level accurate as possible)
Some folks look at the GS4, and see that it is bigger, and pronounce that its betterness is self-evident, and woe be unto those who extoll the iPhone 5's ability to fit in their pocket or their hand.
Our spec comparison and opinion on the matter isn't going to change anyone's mind. If you're interested in screaming about this particular issue, go do it somewhere else. Seriously.
But, the GS4 brings something new to the equation. Last year's GS3 had a fine display with a 1280 x 720 resolution. It looks great, but it has a lower pixel density to Apple's iPhone 5 (306 compared to iPhone 5's 326). Physical size aside, the iPhone 5 has heretofore had the highest quality display on the market.
Samsung has dramatically upped the ante with the GS4, and that's where things get interesting. At 1920 x 1020 and a pixel density of 441, the GS4 may have the best display by every metric. We haven't seen it—remember that the GS4 won't ship for another two months—but we expect to be blown away by the quality of the display when it does.
Which leaves the preference for size. Some people want a phablet, and some people want a device they can easily operate with one hand. Your preference is all that matters, and it's a subjective area.
Our caveat here is that right now Apple doesn't address the part of the market that does want the larger screen. We expect this to change—Shaw Wu of Sterne Agee said on Friday that Apple was working on a larger product for 2014—but for now, the only phablet options are Android.
Note: Images are close to scale as we could get them.
Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean)
|User storage (GB)
|Subsidized Price (US$)
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Regionals
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, US Cellular and Cricket, Regionals
GSM, CDMA, 4G LTE
GSM, HSPA+, 4G LTE
A6 - 1.3GHz Dual Core
1.9 GHz Quad-Core
Retina Display - IPS LCD
|Display res. (pix)
1136 x 640
1920 x 1080
|Display (diag, in)
√ (up to 64GB External Storage)
|Rear camera (MP)
8, 1080p video
13, 1080p video
|Rear Camera Aperture
|Video image stab.
|Front camera (MP)
1.2 720p video
|2, 1080p video
Supports up to 1080p
|Supports up to 1080p
AirPlay (720p or 1080p)
|Video Out port
|HDMI via Adapter
|Lightning Dock Connector
|proximity, ambient light
|proximity, ambient light, temperature & humidity, Gesture
|4.87 x 2.31 x 0.3
|5.38 x 2.75 x 0.31
|Talk time (min)
|Standby time (hr)
|Black & Slate, White & Silver
|Black Mist and White Frost (Additional colors later)
|Sep 12, 2012
|March 14, 2013 - Scheduled to ship in late April)
Jelly Bean, the version of Android the GS4 is built on, is solid. Google has come a long way with Android, and we believe that Google Now is a particularly attractive service/app. Unfortunately, Samsung's proprietary TouchWiz interface sits on top of its Android devices, and it is still ugly. We're OK if you personally like it, but to us it still looks like the bastard child of Android and Windows, and we aren't OK with that.
That said, Samsung is using TouchWiz to position its devices as separate from the Android masses. To that effect, neither Android nor Google were mentioned during Samsung's awful launch event for the GS4.
Rather than talking about Google Now, Android Voice Commands, Google Play, Google Translate, Google Maps, and the other nifty Android services that are part of Jelly Bean (and on the GS4), Samsung talked about its own proprietary services built into TouchWiz. Bizarrely (to us), this includes a couple of redundant features, including S Voice and S Translator that duplicate Android services.
To be sure, we haven't tested Samsung's new software services, but our belief is that the company is playing catchup to Apple and Google both. Worse, the company is trying to reinvent the wheel in some cases. While the idea of building its own ecosystem is ambitious, we think it will take years for Samsung to catch up to where Apple is today, let alone where it will be in those same years.
For instance, S Voice loses to Siri (and possibly to Google Voice Commands), and we don't see how it will be possible for S Translator to beat Google Translate. Google has enormous server capacity devoted to this, and it contributes to Google's profiling and ad-selling business model.
On the other hand, Samsung has made it possible for video calls to use both cameras at the same time. If 0.1 percent of users use this feature more than once, we'll be shocked, but it is a cool accomplishment. Similarly, we've remained skeptical of the practical applications of Group Play (sharing content with a touch), but maybe it will take off.
Music Share, which allows up to eight GS4 devices to play the same synced song through the external speaker feels like a solution in search of a problem. We could be wrong, though. Maybe it will be so awesome that roving gangs of GS4-wielding hipsters will soon be roaming the streets of New York City and San Francisco reenacting West Side Story with a live soundtrack the rest of us will be forced to listen to.
::snap snap:: "POW!"
But, it's there. For those who want some of these Samsung-added features, they are there. Samsung is to be commended for spending resources to develop software and services that will set its devices apart from the rest of the Android universe. Who cares that it's a step towards forking Android and kicking Google to the curb? If the result is awesome, it's a win for consumers.
So who wins the OS war? Android (even with touchWiz) has advanced to the point where this is a personal, subjective issue. If you want an open, more customizable system; if you want live widgets and/or Google Now; if being able to download more types of apps is more important to you than knowing that everything you download has been curated, well then the GS4 is for you.
If you want tighter integration between the hardware and software; if you don't want to worry about the integrity of the apps you are downloading; if you want the convenience of using iTunes to manage your mobile device; if you want to use Siri; and, if you want the convenience and capabilities of iCloud, then iPhone 5 is for you.
We prefer Apple's iOS, even while acknowledging that Google Now is Android's most compelling feature today.
We've written about NFC in the past, and the reality is that not much has changed. NFC has a lot of potential, but little is being done with it by end-users. The irony remains that Apple gets lambasted by its critics for not including NFC in the iPhone 5, while it's not yet useful because Apple didn't include NFC in the iPhone 5.
Oh, life. You're such a sassy wench sometimes.
If NFC matters to you—especially if you're one of the few who has made use of RFID tags for location-based automated tasks—Samsung's GS4 has NFC and iPhone 5 doesn't.
Apple's A6 processor is a marvel of power and efficiency. The company designs its own processors and the software that runs on them, and that allows Apple to do things no other company can do.
That said, the Octa-Core processor Samsung will use in some markets is nifty. At the very least, it will close the real-world performance edge Apple has enjoyed heretofore. It could even take the lead. That, in turn, could lead some enterprising developer to design a killer app that runs better on the GS4 than any other device. We won't hold our breath.
The Quad Core processor Samsung will use in its other markets probably won't have much of an edge over the A6, despite having more cores. It's hard for some folks to grasp just how much of an advantage Apple's whole widget approach is, and we are comfortable with the fact that we aren't going to change anyone's mind.
In fact, think of it this way: No one who owns an iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4 is going to complain about their device being too slow. They're both awesome in the processor department, and they're both an example of how amazing technology can be.
Gestures & Smart Stuff
The GS4 has Smart Scroll and Smart Pause that seem like they could really be annoying. With Smart Pause, a video will pause if you look away from your device. That sounds cool, but that means that you better keep your eyes on the damned thing if you want your video to keep playing. We suspect that many video watchers will end up turning it off if they have the option.
Smart Scroll, on the other hand, could be more useful. This combines a wrist gesture with where you're looking on your screen to automatically scroll an email or webpage. This could be the kind of thing that becomes so second nature to people that devices without it (iPhone 5 and everything else) feel incomplete without it.
We'll have to see when it gets out in the real world, because it's also possible that no one adapts to it.
Air View and Air Gestures allow users to control certain aspects of their device without actually touching it. Say your fingers are greasy, but you need to scroll down a recipe or preview a how-to video. You can do those things without touching your device.
On the surface, it seems like this is another nifty-sounding feature, But it might be addressing such a niche need that it doesn't see wide use. Maybe. Or maybe it will be so super awesome everyone's gotta have it. Time will tell, but the reality is that for those interested in these features, the GS4 is the device for them.
The GS4 will monitor some health-related aspects of you. And don't you want Samsung to know when you are running a fever? Be that as it may, it seems like only a matter of time before Apple and/or Samsung subsume the kind of fitness-related features made popular by FitBit and other third party device/apps/services.
Samsung has a head start in this area with the GS4. We aren't convinced that out of the box this will be a hugely compelling issue for many people.
We haven't held the GS4 yet, but we have held and played with the GS3 and the iPhone 5. If the past is an indication of the future, the iPhone 5 has the perceived quality edge. As we said about the GS3 in September, this is not to say that the Samsung device will be a piece of junk. Far from it (we assume). We just think that if you hold both devices in your hand that most people would give the iPhone the quality nod.
Samsung hasn't announced pricing. The company is probably still trying to work out subsidy deals with carriers. Samsung has always been cranky about Apple's ability to command markedly higher subsidies for the iPhone, and it may be hoping the GS4 finally changes this...
...because the reality is that the GS4 is not going to be cheap. The new display, the larger battery, the new sensors, the R&D on the new software features...these things aren't cheap.
So we look forward to seeing final pricing on the GS4.
Samsung was strangely quiet on battery life for the GS4. At 2600mAh, the GS4 has a huge battery. It's also pushing a lot of pixels and a lot of backlighting. It's also juggling Android and an interface that sits on top of Android. And NFC. And two extra sensors. And those Air Gestures.
We suspect that Samsung will be lucky if gets the same battery life out of the GS4 as it did out of the GS3. That battery life was roughly equal to the iPhone 5, but when you have such a big device, super long battery life would be kind of nice.
That said, we think it beyond question that if Samsung had achieved a marked improvement in battery life that it would have a really bad three minute sketch talking about it in that launch event we're so cranky about.
We also think that battery power is going to make the GS4 feel hefty. Note that Samsung didn't include weight with the specs released on Thursday.
The Smartphone Wars have reached a new level. As we stated above, the GS4 is a compelling device, especially if you want a large screen. Packing 441 PPI into a full HD display on a 5-inch screen is awesome. Samsung's tagline, "Less to hold, more to see" is even more awesome. It's very, very clever.
NFC and Air Gestures (and the other related features) will also be compelling for some folks, while Google Now is the most compelling Android feature of them all, even if Samsung didn't mention it at the launch event.
But Apple has the clear edge on ecosystem with iTunes, the App Store, integration with iCloud, iPad, and Macs, and the tight integration of hardware and software. The iPhone 5's display—while possibly running behind the GS4—is no slouch. The worst thing that could be said when the GS4 ships is that the iPhone 5's display is the second best display on the market.
It's important to remember that while phablets are popular, phablets as a whole don't outsell Apple's iPhone line. Samsung outsells Apple's iPhone, but that includes a lot of cheap devices that are not phablets. Our point is that clearly not everyone wants a phablet, and if that includes you, we think the iPhone 5 is the better choice.
Lastly, consider the business models of Google, Samsung, and Apple when making your decision. Apple's tightly controlled ecosystem works better in our opinion, but Android devices are more customizable. We think Apple's App Store experience is superior to Google Play, but Google Play has come a long way.
We don't care for the fact that Google is collecting huge amounts of information about users, their habits, where they go, who they talk to, and every other imaginable factoid, but some people couldn't care less.
We prefer to pay for our apps rather than have free, ad-supported apps, but that's not an issue for some folks.
The bottom line is that open systems vs. proprietary systems are a personal choice. If you choose your smartphone based on that factor, you will be happy with either the GS4 or the iPhone 5.
Note: Please let us know if you find a mistake in the specs. We work very hard on these comparisons, but we aren't infallible and want to get it right. Use the contact form in the byline to contact the author directly.