04/23/2013 06:12 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Samsung Galaxy S4: Where the smartphone excels, what needs work

Making a hit phone isn’t too different from making a hit movie or video game — as long as you don’t mess up the basics and do add in a few new improvements each time out, you should continue to find success. And so it goes for the Galaxy S4, the fourth iteration of Samsung’s highly successful smartphone series.

By delivering the same popular features from previous models with a few additional bonuses, the S4 is the equivalent of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: It’s a successful franchise on cruise control.

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I’ve had a few days to play with Samsung’s new flagship smartphone, which is being released through just about every Canadian carrier on April 27. Here’s how it compares to previous models and other devices on the market.

The looks

Esthetically, the S4 looks and feels similar to the S3. It’s slightly bigger than its predecessor, but also a tad lighter at 130 grams, and feels good in the hand.

With a five-inch screen, it’s bigger than the comparatively diminutive iPhone 5, but also a good deal smaller than the gigantic Samsung Note 2.

The super AMOLED screen is sharper than the S3's thanks to a bump-up in resolution. The S4 now boasts full high-definition 1,920-by-1,080 pixels, or 441 pixels per inch. In real terms, everything on the screen — movies, photos and text — looks very crisp.

If there’s a complaint to be made about the feel, it’s that the phone is "plasticky." Competing phones such as the iPhone 5 and HTC One feel more high-end because of their use of lightweight metal casings.

The guts

Samsung had initially teased people with the possibility of an octa-core processor — that’s eight to the non-Latin — but the S4 model being released in Canada will only have four cores (or quad, for the Latin inclined). Octa-cores are reportedly being reserved for Asian and African markets that lack fourth-generation LTE wireless coverage.

Four is plenty of processing power for much of what the average person wants to do. A good showcase for that power is the new picture-in-picture feature, which uses both of the phone’s cameras to create a single image or video. You can shoot using the back-facing 13-megapixel camera, but also simultaneously add a small inset of yourself into the photo or video with the front-facing two-megapixel camera.

It’s a little gimmicky and difficult to use — it is, after all, tough enough to line up and frame just one photo, never mind two at the same time on different sides of the handset — but I’m impressed with the fact that the phone has the horsepower to pull it off without a hitch.

The main camera itself is pretty good and packs in a number of nifty software features, like the ability to create animated GIFs or record up to nine seconds of sound to accompany a still photo.

However, the S4’s camera does prove that megapixels are not the only factor to be considered when it comes to taking high-quality photos. When compared against the two phones with the best cameras on the market — the iPhone 5 and the Lumia 920, both of which have only eight megapixels – the S4 still isn’t quite as good. Its photos are not quite as sharp or detailed as those snapped by its rivals.

Otherwise, the S4 has pretty much all the other hardware that’s expected of a high-end Android smartphone these days. It has LTE connectivity, near-field communications (NFC) for one-touch media sharing and — hopefully some day — mobile financial transactions, and expandable memory. The various models come in 16, 32 or 64 gigabytes, with a microSD slot for accommodating up to 64 GB more.

Battery-wise, the S4 is about par for the course with most smartphones, meaning that with notifications, various connections and push email turned on, it’ll be tough to make it through the day on a single charge. The phone itself has a relatively large battery, but power users are likely going to need some sort of external charging source. Either that, or they’ll have to remember to carry a charging cable around.

The controls

If you’ve used an Android smartphone — or any smartphone, really — the controls and layout of Samsung's newest phone are undoubtedly familiar. The S4 runs Android Jellybean 4.2.2, which really isn’t all that different from other recent versions —same grid of apps, same horizontal swiping to get to additional screens.

Samsung has added an “easy mode” home screen, which greatly simplifies the whole interface into just a few big icons. Veteran smartphone users wouldn’t be caught dead using it, but it’s a nice feature for people who are upgrading to a smart device for the first time.

Samsung pushed the S3’s gesture and motion controls as one of its major selling points, and those are back in spades here. The list of possible controls is pretty long. You can set your phone to answer calls when you wave your hand in front of it, take screen captures when you swipe your palm across the screen, pause videos if you look away, and so on.

These settings are entirely subjective — each user is bound to find some they like and others that are useless. I actually quite liked the ability to take a screen grab with a simple swipe, but I couldn’t imagine wanting to wave the phone around to answer a call.

The S4 also dabbles in eye tracking. With this feature turned on, you can read up and down a web page simply by looking up and down it — the phone follows your gaze and scrolls along.

It requires you to be a little obvious — you sometimes have to actually move your head to get the screen to scroll — but it’s a feature that can come in handy in situations where you’ve only got one hand free, such as when you’re carrying a package or riding a bus and holding on to something for balance.

Otherwise, I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed typing on a Samsung device and the same is true here. I generally find the keys to be too close together or not big enough.

The S4 compounds the problem by being almost all screen, with a very small bezel around it. I found myself frequently hitting the back and menu buttons by accident as a result. It’s a frustration that power typists won’t like.

The frills

Every Android phone maker has had to add in their own proprietary bonuses in an effort to distinguish their devices. Some of the ones Samsung has come up with are better than others.

I liked the WatchOn feature, which is an app that turns the phone into a remote control for your television and PVR. Not only does it work with competing brands — my television is an LG plasma — I was also amazed at how quickly and easily it made the connection. All you have to do is select your make and, in the case of the PVR, your TV service provider, and bam, it’s ready to go.

I was also fond of Story Album, which is a nice way to look at your photos. The app lets you select pictures, then displays them in a sort of digital album where it randomly places them into frames and grids. You can, of course, look at the full photo by tapping on it.

I had high hopes for the S Health app, which uses the phone’s built-in pedometer and weather sensors to track your fitness and comfort levels. But I didn’t find the temperature readings to be very accurate, and the pedometer was way off. It somehow counted me as taking more than 100 steps while I was in bed sleeping. On the plus side, I should be losing weight in no time with that kind of tracking.

The S4 also has a Group Play app, where you can stream photos, music and documents and play games with a number of other people. I saw this in action at a demo and it was impressive, but in reality it’ll be something of a rarity since you’ll have to find a bunch of other S4 owners to really take advantage of it.

Similarly, I wasn’t able to test Samsung’s recently unveiled Knox feature, which effectively creates two profiles on the phone — one for personal use and another for work that can be controlled by your employer. It’s similar to BlackBerry’s Balance feature, in that employers can field their own apps and remotely wipe their own data, but it’s still rare to see in action given its newness.

The verdict

Industry analysts have joked that the S4 could actually be called the S3S, a play on Apple’s naming conventions where incrementally improved phones get the “S” suffix while the real big next steps get an actual new number.

The assessment isn’t entirely off. The S4 is very much an incremental step over the S3 — it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.

That said, it’s still a good phone that is likely to do well, just like another Harry Potter movie or Call of Duty game. It’s a solid choice for people with older phones who are looking to upgrade.

Samsung’s Galaxy S series has so far proven to be Apple’s main competition, with other smartphone makers struggling to catch up to the two behemoths. The S4 will continue that rivalry, with the ball now firmly in Apple’s court.