Samsung Galaxy S4 Review: The Best Android That's Not Nexus

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Samsung is the world's largest smartphone maker, dominating Android and with a tiny market share in Windows 8. The Galaxy S4 is its flagship Android smartphone, going up against the iPhone, Nokia's ( NOK) highest-end Windows Phone 8, and BlackBerry.

There are two things almost everyone want to know about the Galaxy S4:

1. How does it compare to the other current ultra-high-end Android smartphone, the HTC One?

2. How does it compare to the Nexus, which is Google's ( GOOG) own interpretation of Android?

The Galaxy S4 is made from plastic. If that sounds too proletarian, too unsophisticated for you, just say it is made from polycarbonate.

Unlike the HTC One, which is of similar size, the Galaxy S4 feels reasonably good in the hand. The major distinction vis-a-vis the HTC One is the Galaxy S4 isn't slippery.

I can't emphasize this enough. At least in my book, the first and most important characteristic of any smartphone is that it must feel secure in the hand. There is nothing worse than walking down the street with a smartphone in the hand, hardly being able to concentrate on anything else because it feels as if it may slip out of your hand at any moment.

The Galaxy S4 passes this test; the HTC One doesn't.

Okay, now that I've beaten this horse deep into the ground, what's the next consideration regarding the physics of the Galaxy S4? Well, it's too big.

This is something it has in common with the HTC One, among others. Slippery or not, the fact is that both the Galaxy S4 and HTC One are too big for easy one-hand use.

The scenario is this: Holding the device with one hand and trying to touch something on the screen too far away with your thumb, you risk hitting something else on the screen with the rest of your thumb or where the palm of your hand meets the thumb.

These inadvertent touches lead to errors of various kinds, which then take time to backtrack and resolve. In essence, I think all of these major Android vendors would do themselves a favor by making versions of their flagship phones that have screens between 4.2 inches and 4.5 inches. Screens 4.7 inches to five inches are simply becoming too much, even with thinner bezels.

One can certainly appreciate the ergonomic work done by both Apple ( AAPL) and BlackBerry ( BBRY), and their 4-inch and 4.2-inch touchscreen smartphones. They feel better in the hand because they conform to realistic use cases.

I am not saying that all of these companies such as HTC and Samsung shouldn't make smartphones sized between 4.7 inches and 6 inches -- as some of them currently are -- but just that they should also make variants containing equally high-end components and resolution screens in the 4.2- to 4.5-inch range.

I have big hands, and I agree that the iPhone is too small with its four-inch screen. However, these other devices from HTC, Samsung, LG and others at 4.7 inches and up are also too big. There is a happy medium, and it is not being properly addressed by most.

The Samsung has further physical advantages vis-a-vis the HTC One. The back is removable, exposing, among other things, the nicely sized 2,600 mAh battery and MicroSD expansion slot. Anyone with a screwdriver can dis-assemble the Galaxy S4. It is repairable. In contrast, the HTC One is sealed and if there's a problem you had better have a deal with HTC or your operator to get it fixed if it breaks some time before the end of your two-year contract.

One additional benefit of Samsung's removable backside is that it can be replaced with one that integrates hinges to support a front cover. This is the best case of any smartphone in the industry, I think. It opens up like a book -- sort of that original iPad cover from 2010 -- but it improves on the design by including a small window showing notifications, the time and a couple of other noteworthy things. Absolutely brilliant.

On the software side, the Galaxy S4 is mostly no good. The software is based on Android's standard ("Nexus") 4.2.2 version, but it has been molested in more ways than I could count even in an article longer than the one I am allocated here.

For starters, Samsung has replaced the three soft menu buttons on the Nexus with one hardware "home" button and two soft ones: "menu" and "back." This is different from both the Nexus and the HTC One. For someone frequently jumping between these devices, it is jarring.

Imagine if one maker of Windows PCs made the right-click on the mouse into a left-click and/or removed it altogether, perhaps replaced by a "go back" soft button somewhere on the trackpad. Switching between PCs you would go absolutely crazy. Well, welcome to Android!

Once you have shaken your head in utter disbelief about these nonsensical and arbitrary interface changes away from standard Nexus, we must also note the laundry list of "special effects" that Samsung has baked into Android. These relate to finger gestures, eye-tracking and the like.

Frankly, I get a headache just thinking about describing even a couple of these gimmicky features. For example, you can make things happen on the screen not by touching it, but by stopping your finger an inch or so before the display and do your business "in the air."

Who asked for this? A Martian? No normal person, I suspect. It's a solution in search of a problem. Either way, I doubt than anyone buying this device will ever use it.

There is one of these Samsung-specific features that I thought might be useful, however, and that was the ability to split the screen into two. In other words, windows!

I was looking forward to testing that one. Well, I couldn't figure out how. When Samsung finally invents something that sounds useful on the software side, it has made it so difficult to find that one would have to read the manual. No, I didn't read the manual. I never do.

There is one good thing I found in Samsung's software and that is the relatively simple thing of including an extra row -- for numbers -- in the keyboard. This means that when you enter things such as a user name and password, you don't have to switch forth and back between many characters. It saves a lot of time and frustration. Everyone should copy this simple thing.

Despite these software flaws, I pick the Samsung Galaxy S4 ahead of the HTC One because of the superior hardware situation. The Galaxy is not as slippery and it is repairable. In addition, it's got that superior case, a function of the removable back.

What about the comparison with the Nexus? Long-time readers of this column know that when it comes to Android, I prefer a Nexus almost every time. The current Nexus doesn't have as good hardware as the Samsung Galaxy S4, but the Nexus is also over six months old and will be replaced perhaps soon.

Despite the fact that the Samsung Galaxy S4 has the best hardware in the industry right now, I continue to recommend the Nexus to anyone who is buying Android. If you wait a little bit, you will also be rewarded by an improved Nexus that could narrow or even close the hardware gap currently in the Samsung Galaxy S4's favor.

Equally important in the Nexus' favor: the way it is sold. You buy the Nexus without any carrier-specific software ("crapware") and it is SIM-unlocked. You can then trek into your nearest Wal-Mart ( WMT) and pick up a SIM card from T-Mobile that gives you data, SMS and 100 minutes for circuit-switched voice for $30 per month, with no contract. This will save most people well over $1,000 over the life of the two-year contract.

Here is what Samsung should do: Make a Nexus version of the Galaxy S4. That would be the ideal smartphone in the Android world today. Until then, we buy the Nexus that actually exists.

At the time of publication the author was long GOOG, AAPL, FB, BBRY and NOK.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.