samsung galaxy s4 redux

January 15, 2017

My second Android handset was the Samsung Galaxy S4 on AT&T, my first being the HTC myTouch 4G on T-Mobile. I picked up the Galaxy when I switched from T-Mobile to AT&T some four years ago. At the time I wanted a more up-to-date Android distribution on my handset. The myTouch was left at Android 2.3, while the S4 was released with Android 4.2.2 (Jellybean) installed. Before I walked away from Samsung the S4 was upgraded to 4.4, then finally to 5.0.1 where it is today.

This weekend I uncovered both my wife’s S4 as well as mine in a drawer, where all our past cellphones have been tossed. I was getting ready to donate the older feature phones to a charitable cause, but held back doing the same with the Galaxies. I had to trade in the HTC for the Samsung, so I didn’t have it lying around. The “uncovering” triggered what finding old tech always does, a desire to see if it still works. Sure enough when I hit the power button it still had a 25% charge and it came on back up.

During the day I managed to charge it back up 100%. While it was on the charger I went out to the Android Play Store and updated about 3o apps. It took a while to get everything taken care of, and I had to delete a few because they kept hanging during the upgrade process. But by the time it was all finished everything was updated and I was off and exploring how well the S4 still operated. Because this phone is no longer on AT&T I removed the SIM card and disabled a few more phone-centric applications. As a historical footnote I disabled every AT&T app on this phone that was a functional duplicate of both Samsung and Android apps, and poor duplicates at that. And for those who still use an S4 and need a new battery they can depend on, I replaced the batteries in both S4’s with the Duracell Ultra CEL11327A which I purchased at a local Batteries Plus. That’s one of the really nice features of older Samsung phones, the ability to replace the battery by peeling off the back cover.

One of the apps that was still on the phone was this quaint little gem that informed me that the S4 was “affected by Certifi-gate vulnerabilities.” I have no idea when I downloaded this app, but I do remember downloading a test app when the Stage Fright exploit was all the rage. The app was supposed to test if you were vulnerable or not, and surprising, the S4 wasn’t. Or at least not my exploit. This current vulnerability smells like a marketing vulnerability to sell mitigation tools and services (the text at the bottom, “Protect your organization from mobile threats,” is a dead giveaway).

Anyway, after cleaning out the few apps that stubbornly refused to update (they hung) and updating everything else, as well as removing the Samsung-phone-centric apps, including the dial links on the main screen, the S4 settled into being Samsung’s version of the Apple iPod. Using a mix of Android-only and some third party apps (Netflix, for example) I found I could stream video as well as make reasonable use of the device. That’s when I could sit back and really use the device, and compare it to the Apple iPhone 7 Plus that’s my main driver phone.

Mini Comparison

  • The Duracell Ultra in the S4 is rated 2600mAh. The iPhone 7 Plus internal battery is rated 2900mAh, which is surprisingly not all that much greater. I say surprisingly because the iPhone 7 Plus is certainly larger than the Galaxy S4. And yet I was able to go the entire day with streaming, web surfing, and working with Instagram and Facebook with about 40% battery left at the end of the day. I’m sure I could have drained the battery completely with a heavier load, but that’s not the point: the point is that, for my usage, there’s little practical difference between battery life in the four year old S4 and the one year old 7 Plus.
  • The S4 screen is still bright and clear. It won’t show the same amount of information that 7 Plus’ screen will show, but it’s still quite pleasant to work with.
  • The S4 is still quite capable of cleanly streaming Netflix and of running the latest Netflix app. I watched segments of several Netflix movies on both devices, and when held a reasonable distance away from my eyes, found watching them equally pleasant. The sound was equally pleasant, but that conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m a 63 year old heavy metal rock listener who’s hearing is shot to hell due to too loud a volume level in my younger years (Led Zeppelin in particular).
  • I swapped Google Hangouts for the built-in SMS app, partly to shut up the alert that kept popping up about being unable to download a message, partly to move as many Google Android apps onto the phone. When I made that substitution all my older text messages showed up on the local Hangouts, and I’m glad it did. I found old texts from a few folks that were still important, as well as photos they’d sent me.
  • I moved data worth keeping up to my Google account via Google Drive. I now use Drive, rather than iCloud, to tie all my devices together. For my use cases, I find Google Drive much better than iCloud.
  • I used to play EA’s SimCity Buildit on both iOS and Android, until Google updated my 2013 Nexus tablet to Android 6.0.1, at which point it’s so slow as to be nearly useless for anything. The S4, with Android 5.0.1, has much better response, but SimCity is still slow and not nearly as enjoyable as the iOS version. And that’s fine, as for general consumption (streaming, web, social networks) the performance and response is just fine.

The upshot for me is that the S4, while it may be behind the 7 Plus, isn’t that far behind. It goes to underscore what many others have discovered with PCs and now smartphones, and that for general use just about any smartphone made since 2012/2013 is Good Enough. The only real issue with Android phones is the difficulty of keeping the OS up to date with the current release. That was the primary reason I switched to the iPhone 6S Plus in 2015; I got sick and tired of watching security fixes pushed out by Google not being pushed along to my S4 through Samsung and AT&T, while watching just about every iOS device get timely updates directly from Apple. I might break down and root the S4 and flash it with a more current AOSP/Android ROM, but that would ruin my ability to unlock the S4. I’ve got the AT&T code to unlock mine, but it requires I insert a different carrier SIM into the phone while running with the stock AT&T ROM. Choices, choices.

I’ve got an embarrassment of riches when it comes to mobile devices, so I don’t know if I’ll be spending much more time with this device. And I’ve ordered yet another smartphone, a factory unlocked Lenovo Moto G4 Plus with Android 6.0.1 installed for international use in Japan and Korea (it arrives 18 January, and I’ll write about it then, including why I felt the need to purchase it). But before I put it away again and forget about it for another year, I wanted to see how well it worked. It may not be a flagship phone anymore, but as a mid-tier contemporary smartphone, it’s more than adequate. Which helps to explain why the market is flattening the way it has and driving towards the bottom, the way the PC market has done.