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

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Samsung is the world's largest smartphone maker, dominating Androidand with a tiny market share in Windows 8. The Galaxy S4 is itsflagship 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 Androidsmartphone, the HTC One?

2. How does it compare to the Nexus, which is Google's ( GOOG) owninterpretation 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 feelsreasonably good in the hand. The major distinction vis-a-vis the HTCOne is the Galaxy S4 isn't slippery.

I can't emphasize this enough. At least in my book, the first andmost important characteristic of any smartphone is that it must feelsecure in the hand. There is nothing worse than walking down thestreet with a smartphone in the hand, hardly being able to concentrateon anything else because it feels as if it may slip out of your handat 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 thenext consideration regarding the physics of the Galaxy S4? Well, it'stoo 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 aretoo big for easy one-hand use.

The scenario is this: Holding the device with one hand and trying totouch something on the screen too far away with your thumb, you riskhitting something else on the screen with the rest of your thumb orwhere the palm of your hand meets the thumb.

These inadvertent touches lead to errors of various kinds, which thentake time to backtrack and resolve. In essence, I think all of thesemajor Android vendors would do themselves a favor by making versionsof 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 thinnerbezels.

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. Theyfeel better in the hand because they conform to realistic use cases.

I am not saying that all of these companies such as HTC and Samsungshouldn't make smartphones sized between 4.7 inches and 6 inches -- as someof them currently are -- but just that they should also make variantscontaining equally high-end components and resolution screens in the4.2- to 4.5-inch range.

I have big hands, and I agree that the iPhone is too small with itsfour-inch screen. However, these other devices from HTC, Samsung, LGand others at 4.7 inches and up are also too big. There is a happymedium, 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 sized2,600 mAh battery and MicroSD expansion slot. Anyone with ascrewdriver can dis-assemble the Galaxy S4. It is repairable. Incontrast, the HTC One is sealed and if there's a problem you hadbetter have a deal with HTC or your operator to get it fixed if itbreaks some time before the end of your two-year contract.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was looking forward to testing that one. Well, I couldn't figureout how. When Samsung finally invents something that sounds useful onthe software side, it has made it so difficult to find that one wouldhave to read the manual. No, I didn't read the manual. I neverdo.

There is one good thing I found in Samsung's software and that is therelatively simple thing of including an extra row -- for numbers -- inthe keyboard. This means that when you enter things such as a username and password, you don't have to switch forth and back betweenmany characters. It saves a lot of time and frustration. Everyoneshould copy this simple thing.

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

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

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

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

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. Untilthen, 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.

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