By taking top honors for user interface, special features and selection, Samsung wins big as the best smartphone brand of the year. In fact, Samsung placed first, second or third in every category except design. During the last year, we’ve praised Samsung for offering excellent and helpful extras that redefine what a smartphone can do, from pen input and split-screen multitasking to innovative gestures and camera modes. And we expect to continue to see great things from this brand in the year to come.
Over the past year, we reviewed 15 smartphones from Samsung, the most of any company. The vast majority of its devices were above average. Ten phones received an excellent 4-star rating. Flagship phones such as the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note II impressed because of their robust feature set and great performance. Along the way, Samsung also picked up six Editors’ Choice awards. The only black mark was the ATIV Odyssey, a budget Windows Phone 8 device whose substandard display and boring design left us cold.
Although it can feel cluttered at times, Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay has evolved to include an enhanced notifications area that provides access to 19 different quick settings options. This makes it easy to toggle various features (Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Smart Stay, etc.). The new Galaxy S4 also lets you interact with the device using gestures, such as waving your hand in front of a sensor to answer a call. The coolest feature for power users is Multi View, which allows you to run two apps on the screen at once in split-screen mode. The Galaxy Note II integrates pen input for taking notes, but also previewing content by hovering.
With an average battery life of 7 hours and 9 minutes, Samsung’s phones last longer as a group than its competitors’ products. The 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II offers the best endurance of any phone on the market; both the Verizon and T-Mobile versions manage longer than 10 hours on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing at 40 percent brightness. While all versions of the flagship Galaxy S4 phone lasted fewer than 6 hours, Samsung gets points for using removable batteries on all of its handsets, allowing users to either buy high-capacity replacements or carry a spare.
Samsung now offers so many features on its devices, you need a how-to guide just to keep up. On the flagship Galaxy S4, you can control the handset with gestures, such as waving to answer the phone. There’s also a built-in remote control for your TV with a WatchOn app that searches online for additional video content. A built-in health app helps to track your fitness, while a translation app supports nine different languages. Add in a bonanza of camera goodies (such as Eraser mode) and it’s easy to see why Samsung is tops when it comes to features.
Samsung’s Galaxy S4 stunned us with its 5-inch, 1080p Super AMOLED display, offering some of the boldest and most colorful images we’ve seen on a smartphone. However, its relatively low 296 lux rating put it well behind the One and iPhone 5. We noted the same issue with the Galaxy S III and the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II, both of which produced gorgeous images, but fell flat when it came to screen brightness and outdoor readability.
We love the robust selection of camera features that Samsung packs into its S4, such as Eraser Mode (for erasing photobombers), Animated Photo Mode, Drama Shot and Dual Camera Mode, which lets you use both the front and rear-facing cameras at the same time. The Note II and S III come with a slew of photo-focused goodies as well, such as Share Shot, which lets you broadcast photos to nearby Galaxy devices via Wi-Fi, and Buddy Photo Share for recognizing the faces of people you know. However, while Samsung offers the most features for photo enthusiasts, the image quality could be better. The Galaxy S4 placed fifth out of nine brands in our Camera Shootout.
Our biggest complaint with Samsung lies with its dogged use of plastic, even on flagship devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note II. The company argues that the use of a plastic chassis makes for lighter phones, but the devices look and feel cheaper than their aluminum counterparts. However, Samsung does a good job in terms of variety, releasing phones in colors such as garnet and chocolate. Samsung also offers the ruggedized Galaxy S4 Active for the more accident-prone among us.
Overall, Samsung’s phones provide above-average sound quality, and the speaker on the S4 gets plenty loud. Adele’s haunting vocals on “Someone Like You” balanced well with the piano for a pleasant experience that easily filled our small conference room. Thanks to the Adapt Audio feature, when you plug in headphones, the S4 gets even better at balancing sound, based on your hearing, audio sources and personal preferences. Samsung offers HD Voice capability on this device via T-Mobile’s network for crystal clear phone calls. But even on other carriers, we regularly enjoyed great call quality.
Samsung offers an almost overwhelming array of smartphone choices. In addition to its flagship Galaxy S4 phone and popular Galaxy Note II phablet, both of which are available on all four major carriers and U.S. cellular, the company offers a host of alternatives, from the camera-focused Galaxy S4 Zoom to the rugged Galaxy S4 Active and the Windows Phone-based ATIV Odyssey.