The Target Market Isn’t Small!

Not everyone is keen on a big five-inch phone. Plenty of friends have asked me what I’d recommend as a smaller Android phone. Although the big phone segment of the market is hot right now, many people (myself included) are not appreciating the higher prices and hand gymnastics that are part of the package. Samsung realised this last year when they released the Galaxy SIII Mini, but frankly, that phone was underpowered and therefore unworthy of the Galaxy SIII moniker! Not fazed, Samsung tried again with this years “little guy” take on their successful Galaxy S4 line — the Galaxy S4 Mini.

For the last six months I’ve been interchanging between my trusty Nexus 4 and an Xperia Z. Although the Z’s bigger 5” display has it’s advantages, it’s near impossible to use one handed. Even my Nexus 4 is awkward to use without both hands and I’ve dropped it a couple of times as a result.

In the first quarter of 2013, I was treated to a Motorola RAZR M which I was sad to send back. It was that smaller phone with LTE and good performance that I could use with one hand. The only thing lacking was the camera.

So, when Samsung offered Ausdroid the S4 Mini I jumped at the chance to review it. Directly below is the compressed version of my thoughts about the Galaxy S4 Mini:

Pros

  • Ample performance
  • Bright, RGB Display
  • Comfortable one handed use
  • Sufficient speaker volume
  • Excellent battery life
  • Solid LTE performance
  • Reliable camera
  • Android 4.2.2

Cons

  • No notification light
  • Gallery has latency issues
  • Plastic back is slippery
  • Small text lacks smoothness
  • Home screen customisation is awkward
  • Smaller keyboard is tricky for big fingers

Hardware Design

This is where it gets tricky. The model we were sent for review is the GT-I9197, an Optus variant which comes in an attractive White Frost design, has a 1900mAh battery and an 8.94mm depth. The Telstra and Vodafone variants sport a larger 2100mAh battery but are chubbier with a 10.1mm depth and look less premium to my eyes with their Black Frost colouring. The white model is 8 grams lighter too, at just 107 grams, but I doubt that will make much difference to many people.

Despite being made mostly of smooth shiny polycarbonate (plastic) the body has enough rigidity to dispel any concerns about creakiness or over flexing. Just the same, I wouldn’t go sitting down with it in your back pocket! The best thing is that it can be used with one hand, no matter what you’re doing. It is slightly shorter and slightly wider than my 5th Gen iPod which means it’s dimensions are very similar to an iPhone 5/5S/5C. Although the price brackets are very different, the ease of use is about the same. It’s significantly smaller and easier to handle than a Galaxy SIII/S4.

Placement of Ports and Buttons

Along the right hand side there’s an appropriately placed power button and the backplate removal notch. The left side is host to the volume toggle with the bottom edge accommodating the microUSB port for charging, data transfer and the microphone.

On the front at the top are earpiece, sensors and front camera. The top edge is home to the headphone jack, noise cancelling mic and IR port. The familiar physical home button and capacitive keys for menu and back complete the bottom area on the front.

On back at the top are the rear camera and flash. The speaker is towards the bottom left and it has enough volume to be heard easily when in your pocket, even outside on a busy street. Despite it’s location it’s still easily heard when placed face up on a table. There’s a little raised area that keeps the sound from being muffled.

Camera

One of the best things about this mid range phone is it’s camera. It get’s pretty much the same level of optics as the Galaxy SIII with many of the newer interface improvements and some of the features of the Galaxy S4. Along for the ride are 10 of the Galaxy S4’s preset shooting modes. These include Auto, Beauty Face, Best Photo, Continuous Shot, Best Face, Sound & Shot, Rich tone (HDR), Panorama, Sports and Night mode.

These some fine grained settings too if you need them although you can generally just leave the mode on Auto and it will do an honourable job working out the white balance, exposure, focus point, etc for you. The video recorder does a good job too producing usable quality moving images for home movies or Youtube. I had no issues with the camcorder hunting for correct exposure or focus. There’s no optical image stabilisation to help with a shaky hand or in low light situations but frankly that isn’t even available on most of the more expensive phones.

The front facing camera makes light work of selfies and video chats with a level of accuracy that you wouldn’t usually find in a mid range phone. Samsung’s camera software won’t suit everyone but I think it has the majority of people covered and I will admit to being a fan of it myself. Just one exception: I couldn’t find macro controls which have always been on Samsung cameras at this level in the past. Of course, you can get that with a separate app if you need it. Ping me in the comments if you need a good recommendation. Here’s a bunch of images taken in varied conditions with the rear camera and the last one is from the front camera.

The Display Compromise

What you’re looking at here is the Galaxy Note II display scaled down from 5.5 inches to 4.3. It’s Samsung’s Super Amoled variety of display and it has the same RGB sub pixel matrix as the Note II where the blue sub pixel is larger than its red and green neighbours. Samsung do thisto increase the display’s lifetime – apparently blue lasts longer! Be still Pentile haters, nothing to see here!

One of the other things people dislike about Amoled displays is their comparative lack of brightness. Samsung have somewhat addressed this with their mini phone as it’s noticeably brighter than it’s big bro, the S4. Side by side on a Google search webpage with the brightness at full you can see the difference – I tested this myself with a friend’s Galaxy S4.

The similarities to the Note II continue with pixel density. The S4 Mini has 256 PPI while the Note II has 267 PPI. As these figures are nearly the same you can expect virtually identical text crispness when reading words on a webpage, in a book, etc. For larger texts I had no issues but for very small text it is definitely more difficult than it would be on a display with over 300 PPI.

Fortunately Samsung has 5 font size choices in the display setting ranging from Tiny to Huge. This is also adjustable in Samsung’s version of the AOSP browser (called simply ‘Internet’) via a accessibility setting called Text booster, in addition to the scaling and zoom options which are also in the Chrome browser. Personally, I would have liked to see a 720p HD (1280×720) panel in the S4 Mini but I think the qHD (960×540) panel is a decent compromise. I’m guessing Samsung wanted to keep interest in the SIII and Note’s 720p display’s by restricting the mini phone to qHD. I’m sure many of you will differ in opinion here!

On the colour front, you get all the Galaxy S4’s screen mode options in the Mini so you can set it to have different levels of vibrancy, according to your tastes. The adaptive mode is also there if you want the phone to choose what it thinks is the best mode for any given included application or function – third party apps not included. The off axis colour integrity of Amoled displays is generally better than LCD and that is no different here. In fact, I would say it’s superb in this case as the colour remains uniform despite the angle you’re viewing it from.

S4 Class Performance, almost

No, the Mini doesn’t benchmark as high as it’s bigger brother but it doesn’t really matter because it’s just about as zippy navigating around Android and most apps you’ll install. I’m putting this down to the speedy dual core processor and extra memory that only have to push a half million pixels. The S4 Mini has an extra half a gigabyte of ram compared to the quad core version of the Galaxy SIII and you can feel it. I haven’t experienced the slow down that you tend to find when you partner 1GB of memory with Samsung’s resource intensive software.

Specifically, the phone has a Qualcomm MSM8930 Snapdragon 400 SOC which has a dual core application processor running Krait 300 cores (like the Galaxy S4) at up to 1.7GHZ. It has an Adreno 305 Graphics processor and 1.5GB of LPDDR2 that’s all manufactured on a 28nm process making it super efficient. This is here for the spec junkies but if all that makes no sense to you, just take it to mean that there’s plenty of efficient power here to run your phone at a good clip throughout the day.

Opening and closing apps and multitasking (via long pressing the home button) happen without any noticeable delays. Gestures in the browser like scrolling and zooming happen with only the occasional hiccup and apps populate without much wait at all, especially on LTE ;-) The S4 with it’s more powerful graphics processor is a little smoother overall but not really much faster.

Below are some Benchmarks to give you a rough indication of performance:

Software

Here’s where it gets interesting. Rather than go through every feature and app included by Samsung (believe me, they’re vast) I’d prefer to give you some highlights and my overall feel when using it. First the good: Android 4.2.2 was the current version of Android when this phone first launched in May and released in July just prior to Android 4.3. Outside of Google’s own Nexus phones, Samsung’s Galaxy phones are generally the only brand that release on current Operating System software. As such we can reasonably expect an update to 4.3 or 4.4 before other phones that launched on 4.1.

The majority of the software is quite responsive and I can’t recall a single app crash or incompatibility problem since I started using it a few weeks ago. As I’ve pointed out in reviews of other Galaxy products the Auto brightness has defaulted to a level too low and generally wasn’t responsive enough to changing external environments. That is now fixed on the S4 Mini and it’s quite a relief and it deserves mention if you were put off by it on previous products.

While there’s been improvements there’s also areas where Samsung are still continuing to make changes that make things worse than they are with Google’s implementation. Chances are some of you will know where I’m going with this. Firstly, the Gallery. It doesn’t auto rotate! You have to wait a few seconds and then tap an icon to turn it around, EVERY TIME, for EVERY PICTURE you have in full screen mode. That’s just painfully slow and if it’s because they lost some patent war with Apple then it’s their own fault for lacking originality. Sorry but it’s awful. You can install a better third party gallery app but the result is that you can’t access it from the Camera – snookered again!

But they didn’t stop there: Trying to add icons and widgets to a Home Screen involves the most crazy, convoluted process imaginable. It helps a little that the awkward process is explained when you try to do it the normal, easy way but to this day I have to read the instructions every time because it’s so unnatural that my brain fights it. I’m not even going to try to explain it, it’s just bad and you’ll have to take it on faith or use someone else’s to try it yourself. I’ve just automatically installed Nova Launcher on my own Galaxy devices in times past to make things easier.

General navigation is mostly OK though. Home screens and the app draw both scroll smoothly with the occasional dropped frame but that’s not really a big deal. Samsung’s reskinning of the Settings Menu to break it into four categories takes some getting used to and although I prefer the regular Google version that’s only really a matter of taste.

Battery Life

Battery life has been an unexpected surprise from day one. The phone has handily outperformed any other phone I have used in the last couple of years and it did so without needing to resort to battery saving techniques. That it achieved this with a bright 4.3 inch display and a paltry 1900mAh battery is quite impressive. I setup and use all my phones the same so there’s no variance with that. However, it goes without saying that people’s experience with battery efficiency can vary wildly. I just hope that it will be as good for everyone else who gets this phone.

Galaxy S4 Mini

  • MSM 8930AB Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SOC
  • Application Processor with Dual Core Krait 300 cores up to 1.7GHz
  • Adreno 305 GPU
  • Android 4.2.2
  • 4.3 inch 960×540 (qHD) sAmoled display (256PPI)
  • 8GB internal storage + up to 64GB additional via microSD card slot.
  • 1.5GB LPDDR2 @ 533MHz RAM
  • LTE Cat 3 Dual Mode TDD/FDD: Band 1 / 3 / 5 / 7 / 38 / 40 (Optus variant)
  • HSPA+ (850/900/1900/2100 MHz)
  • GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz)
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, NFC, DLNA & Bluetooth 4.0
  • 8MP rear facing & 1.9MP front facing, autofocus cameras
  • 1900mAh Battery (Optus variant)
  • 107 grams (Optus variant)
  • 124.6 x 61.3 x 8.94 mm (Optus variant)

Conclusion

At $379 you can buy an LTE variant of the S4 Mini and pop in a prepaid sim (that’s how I’d do it) or grab one on a carrier subsidised plan starting at around $50 per month but with only 200MB of data. Outright is the way to do it if you want to get great value for money. I’m suggesting this because mid range phones often appeal to people looking to save money. From this perspective the S4 Mini is a solid choice.

The other person this phone would appeal to is someone that wants something smaller that still performs well. Frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of competition in this area and what is out there isn’t that compelling. There’s a HTC One Mini that is crafted from better materials and has less awkward software but has a slower processor and only 1GB RAM to push a higher resolution display. The Motorola RAZR M has been a good mid range phone but is a little old now and won’t see any more updates.

Samsung have a good product in the S4 Mini that will likely see more updates, accessories and support than it’s mid range peers. For these reasons I’d happily recommend it to those I’ve mentioned above and those with little phalanges ;-)

Price and Availability

Variants of the Galaxy S4 Mini are available on Optus, Telstra and Vodafone. At the time of writing, both 3G and 4G variants are available from Kogan for outright prices ranging from $369 to $389.

PhonePlansPriceHow to Buy
Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini
Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini
Telstra4 Plans available
4 Deals Available
From
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Min. Total Cost $1,416
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  • mark0Z

    Well composed review, Geoff. This phone has so often been slighted for its downgraded specs vs its larger brother – but surprisingly seems very capable a device among the mid-range (non-Nexus devices). Base storage could have been 16GB though – not sure if I had missed it, but what was the available capacity after all that TW bloat?

    • http://twitter.com/gfieldew geoff fieldew

      Thanks Mark, I quite liked it.

    • Tia

      Only just over 5GB, which is unfortunate. But as I store most of my stuff on an SD card anyway, it didn’t matter too much :D

  • Adam Sacco

    I understand that some people want smaller phones, but at that price point surely you’d be jumping on a Nexus 5 if you were looking to buy outright, and if you were going on contract you could do way better than this on for those plans.

    • Tia

      Nope. I didn’t want the Nexus 5. Sure, it has awesome specs etc, but the S4 Mini ticked all the boxes for my current needs. Buying a new phone isn’t always about having the hottest specs, but finding the handset that suits your needs.

      • Adam Sacco

        Yeah I can see it definitely making sense if you’re put off by a 5-incher and you’re going all in on Samsung.

    • Geoff Fieldew

      The case for mid range phones is rarely good on a Carrier subsidised plan. But outright for $369 it’s a good choice for people looking for a small phone. There are definitely people in the market who don’t want a 5 inch phone at any price. You are right that the Nexus 5 is a ‘very difficult to beat’ value proposition.

      • Adam Sacco

        Fair point, I was dreading a 5-inch Nexus because I was put off by the size, but when I saw how it measured up to my Nexus 4 I ended up buying one. Small bezels help but here’s hoping they don’t get any bigger!

      • http://twitter.com/gfieldew geoff fieldew

        I was also concerned about the size. Using an Xperia Z & Z1 convinced me that the bezels would need to be smaller if I was gonna enjoy using a 5 in phone.

  • Brian

    Great Review, I was considering the mini because of the compact size but some of the specs were a let down. Like you said, a 720p display with a bigger battery would’ve been perfect. Also the outright price for Australia stock should have been cheaper. It’s still $528 at Dicks Smith. A whipping $140 difference between OZ stock and Kogan but anyway…

    • Geoff Fieldew

      Thanks Brian. What are you thinking of getting now?

      • Brian

        Oh this was a while ago. I ended up getting the bigger brother, S4 haha. If it was priced lower I would’ve chose the mini (intially it was priced $550ish when it was released). Sometimes I still want a smaller phone ^^

      • http://twitter.com/gfieldew geoff fieldew

        Are you using a GPE ROM on your S4? If so, what do you think of it?

      • Brian

        I’m just using the default rom? (The TouchWiz…-_-) with the Nova Launcher. Touchwiz was laggy/slow but after using the Nova launcher, everything runs smooth. I’m trying not to use most of the Samsung’s Apps ie. slow camera, gallery app etc haha :-)

      • http://twitter.com/gfieldew geoff fieldew

        Nova Prime is my personal favourite to pop onto these sort of phones.

  • Tia

    Great review Jedi! I recently bought the “Unlocked” variant (slightly chubbier), from Harvey Norman for $498. I am still not comfortable with buying tech online that isn’t directly from Google. I was keen for a smaller phone, and decided to go “all Galaxy”, along with a Note 8 tablet. One thing to note, is that when buying cases, most third party cases seem to be made for the Optus (thinner) variant. So far, I’ve only found that the official S4 Mini cases from Samsung (that state they’re for the Unlocked version) will fit.

    I’ve set it up with Aviate as a launcher, and it’s quite awesome. I’m very happy with my new phone.

    • http://twitter.com/gfieldew geoff fieldew

      Cheers Tia. How is your battery life with the bigger version? My cousin has the S4 Mini Duos and is enjoying it.

      • Tia

        I get through a day easily. Which I’ve had to get used to, after getting two days on the RAZR HD. But I just wanted a smaller phone, as I’m using my tablet more for browsing/emailing etc.