The display and rear camera aside, the 7-inch HDX's hardware is quite similar the 9-incher's. In brief, Amazon didn't skimp on the horsepower here, which means we've got a pretty powerful little device on our hands. The usual Kindle carousel moves quite smoothly and apps load quickly. Gaming has also taken several steps in the right direction. A quick lap around the track with EA’s Real Racing 3 yields some impressive results for a budget device. Of course, the Fire still has a ways to go in title selection if it’s going to become a gaming powerhouse, though perhaps Amazon’s embrace of higher-end GPUs will help convince developers to spend a little extra time porting their offerings over to the Fire.
Web pages load in a snap, as well, thanks in no small part to the heavy lifting being done by the Silk browser. The browser also gave us a little benchmarking insight, via SunSpider. The HDX notched an impressive 553.7ms on the test, besting last year’s score of 1,767ms and edging out the Nexus 7’s 602ms (lower numbers are better here).
It also bodes well for the Fire’s app selection that we’ve found another benchmarking tool this time; the lack of testing options had previously made it more difficult to compare the device against more traditional Android offerings. It bodes well for performance too: the HDX managed an impressive 19,655 running the Fire version of Quadrant 2.1.1. Otherwise, however, we’re stuck with anecdotal evidence on this front. And anecdotally, this is a pretty snappy little tablet.
In spite of a slimmer profile, Amazon’s actually managed to up the ante for battery life. The company claims a full 11 hours with standard usage, the same as last year. And you know what? We actually came close to that, eking out 10 hours and 41 minutes. That’s 44 minutes more than the HD managed, and it’s nearly three and a half hours more than what we got with the Nexus 7. That should keep you going through nearly a full season of your favorite sitcom. And if you enable Amazon’s Reading Mode, which shuts down extra processes while you’re reading, you should get around 17 hours of life, according to Amazon. Sure, it’s nowhere near e-reader territory, but not too shabby for a full-color tablet.
One potential disappointment with the Samsung Galaxy S4 is its processor. Not that there’s anything wrong with the quad-core 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, backed by 2GB of RAM, which is fast and power-efficient. The disappointment is that the UK did not get the eight-core 1.6Hz processor that was originally mooted.
Our review sample had a modest 16GB of internal storage, and not all of that was user accessible: out of the box just 8.5GB was accessible. Handset makers generally specify the total amount of storage rather the amount available, which has sparked something of a public backlash in this case. At least you can augment the S4’s internal storage with a relatively inexpensive microSD card — a feature that’s not universally available these days.
The Galaxy S4 runs the latest 4.2 version of Android, overlain with Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface, which has become more refined with every iteration. The handset supports LTE, HSPA+ and quad-band GPRS/EDGE, along with 802.11a/b/g/n and — like the HTC One — the latest high-speed 802.11ac standard. You also get Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and HDMI output via the MHL-compliant Micro-USB port. Also like the HTC One, the S4 supports infrared, with a sensor above the screen that can be used for remote control of TVs and other consumer equipment via Samsung’s WatchON app.
The main rear-facing camera has a 13-megapixel resolution, while the front-facing one is a 2-megapixel unit; both are capable of shooting 1080p HD video. There’s a good range of shooting modes, and you can use both cameras at the same time in Samsung’s Dual Shot mode, which puts the front camera’s image in a small frame inside the main image. We’ve no idea why Samsung thinks this might be useful. Sound & Shot, which lets you record audio alongside your photos, has more potential.
In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that Samsung’s developers sat in a brainstorming meeting to come up with features they might put into the Galaxy S4 — and decided to throw in every single one. The range and number of features is huge, and for some people it may seem overwhelming. Others, of course, will delight in the variety on offer.
The S4 abounds with gesture controls and proximity features, some of which are of dubious utility. Take Smart Scroll, for example: in theory this uses the front camera to ‘watch’ your eyes and scroll through web pages or email depending on where you’re looking. Not for us, it didn’t — fingers are fine for scrolling.
There’s also Smart Pause, which stops video playing when you turn your gaze away from the screen. This worked for us, and is a much more practical and useful idea. Meanwhile, Smart Rotation is back in the realms of the unnecessary: it uses the front camera to detect the orientation of your face and rotates the screen. We find auto screen rotation just fine, thanks.
We’ll mention just one more of the many iterations of this class of feature: Air Gestures. You sweep your hand across the sensor above the screen to do things like scroll web pages, accept incoming calls or page through photos. Individual features can be turned on and off, so you can customise when it’s active. This worked well for us, and although it’s a bit of a gimmick, we rather liked using it.
There are plenty of preinstalled apps, and one we particularly like is S Translator. It does a nice job of translating the spoken or typed word between a wide range of languages. Foreign restaurant menus need never be a problem again.
Samsung is getting in on the health and fitness boom, and the Galaxy S4 has an app simply called S Health. This is a relatively basic fitness app that incorporates a pedometer, can track calorie intake if you input data manually, and can help you measure your exercise rate. It can link with external devices, and it will be interesting to see whether Samsung can carve itself out a niche in this competitive area. The Galaxy S4 has a built-in barometer, thermometer and humidity sensor, no doubt with an eye on future ‘outdoors’-style development.
For all these fancy features, one relatively basic addition sticks out for us. Samsung has taken advantage of the large screen to place a row of number keys above the on-screen QWERTY keyboard. This is a great feature and shows that sometimes the simplest features enhance usability the most.
A common problem with new high-end smartphones is poor battery life. However, we’re pleased to report that the Galaxy S4 does pretty well in this respect: we were able to get a day’s use out of the 2,600mAh battery on a moderately heavy usage pattern that included plenty of mobile web usage. Having said that, as soon we made serious use of GPS, the battery needed a mid-afternoon power boost.
The actual Galaxy S3 is still very much top of Samsung’s smartphone tree, so don’t be confused by this stripped down alternative — it looks like a slightly smaller S3 at first glance, but sits quite a few branches further down, with a slower processor, duller screen, less capable camera and a rather inflated asking price.
While it looks like an S3 from afar, pick it up and you’ll soon notice the difference. It’s a little thicker at 10mm (as opposed to 8.6mm) and the display has shrunk from 4.8-inches to 4-inches. Instead of the original’s 720p HD resolution of 720x1,280 pixels, the Mini makes do with a more conventional 480x800 pixels.
Admittedly the more advanced screen may be too big for some, but it’s a shame the Mini’s display couldn’t retain the HD credentials. It’s not bad though, and the Super AMOLED technology ensures it’s still bright and bold with vibrant colours, even if the details aren’t quite as sharp.
Features and performance
Instead of the grown-up S3’s 1.4GHz quad-core processor backed by 2GB RAM the Mini has a dual-core version clocked at 1GHz and backed by 1GB RAM. But while it may not be at the cutting edge it’s still pretty nippy in action, helped by the Jelly Bean version of Android, which is the operating system’s slickest incarnation yet. It’s running the 4.1 version though — just slightly behind the very latest 4.2 version you’ll find on the Google Nexus 4.
As usual, Samsung has added its TouchWiz interface over the top, which largely consists of some alternative shortcut icons and a few uniquely Samsung-esque widgets, like S-Planner — essentially a calendar app but with a more intuitive layout than the Android alternative. You also get Samsung’s own (rather sparse) app store and S-Voice, the Koreans’ answer to Apple’s Siri, which still has a way to go. It does okay with basic requests like tomorrow’s weather, but doesn’t have Siri’s depth and intuitive capabilities when it comes to more complicated questions.
The 5-megapixel camera can’t match the 8-megapixel snappers on the original S3 or the Nexus 4 — details aren’t quite as clear, and it takes a little longer to focus. That said, pic quality isn’t at all bad, with naturalistic colours and there are plenty of focus and exposure options to play with, as well as extras like smile shot and panorama. There’s a basic VGA quality camera on the front for video calls and video recording on the main camera can go up to 720p and it’s okay, if nothing to write home about.
For backing up your pictures and videos, it comes in 8GB or 16GB versions, but unlike the Nexus 4, you can add up to 32GB of memory via microSD card.
Despite the name, the S3 Mini has little in common with the original S3. But despite a considerably lower spec it’s still a pretty decent smartphone with a decent level of performance. However, the game-changing price point of the Google Nexus 4 (around £239) which offers a quad-core processor, better screen and camera, plus the very latest Android, makes it seem very expensive for what’s on offer.