When you’re sitting on top of the world, what do you do? Do you pay tribute to what got you there by repeating your greatest hits? Or do you use that new freedom to try something different? In the case of Samsung and the Galaxy S4, it leaned more towards the former. But is it too much of the same, or an improvement on a successful formula? Read on, as we review the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Featherweight class

When I first picked up the Galaxy S4, I was surprised at how light it was. It feels at least as light as the iPhone 5.

But this is, of course, an illusion. The Galaxy S4 is a full 16 percent heavier than the iPhone 5. But since the GS4 is much bigger than Apple’s handset, the relative weight of Samsung’s phone feels extremely light.

So even though you’re getting a huge phone with a spacious 5-inch display, you aren’t getting a heavy brick. Far from it.

Plastic ... and sexy?

Much has been made of Samsung’s continued use of plastic. After all, these mini-computers we call smartphones cost hundreds of dollars. Shouldn’t we expect Jony Ive’s anodized aluminum? Or at least the Nexus 4’s sparkly glass?

This is a subjective question that we can’t answer for you. And why should we? Choice is a good thing. Exercising that is half the fun of buying a new gadget.

But my take is that the GS4 looks great and feels great. If it covers both of those bases, does it really matter whether it’s made of plastic, glass, or peanut butter and jelly?

One bonus that a plastic exterior gives you is a removable battery. Good luck finding a glass or aluminum smartphone that lets you do that.

In hand

Okay, so it’s light. But does it feel good in hand? Yes. Despite its huge size, the Galaxy S4 doesn’t feel remotely bulky.

Some huge phones feel oversized to me. Take the original LG Optimus G, for example. But the Galaxy S4 doesn’t. It comes down to thickness, weight, and build. The GS4 is light, thin, and made of plastic. A phone like the Optimus G – despite being smaller in other dimensions – is heavier, thicker, and made of glass. Your hand feels the difference.

When you’re making a huge smartphone, you want to do anything you can to make it feel comfortable. You want your customers to forget that it’s almost a phablet. And much like it did with the Galaxy S3, Samsung hit that nail right on the head.

Eye candy

Here at Gizmag – and elsewhere in internet-land – you’ll see experts and amateurs alike nitpicking over minor differences between the displays of high-end smartphones.

But I’m here to tell you that no matter how good the screen in any other smartphone is, it doesn’t matter. You won’t be disappointed with the Galaxy S4’s screen. I promise. It’s outstanding, and I don’t have a single complaint about it.

On a technical level, we’re looking at 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080) spread out over 5 inches. That’s a ridiculous 441 pixels per inch (PPI).

You can’t notice a huge difference over ~320 PPI phones like the iPhone 5 or Nexus 4, but it’s still better. I moved the GS4 to within a few inches of my eyes, and I still couldn’t differentiate individual pixels. It’s insanely sharp.

Sharpness isn’t everything. But colors look accurate and vibrant here too. Maybe it’s the extra pixels, but this is the first Super AMOLED screen I’ve seen that doesn’t have a surreal hyper-saturated look. Colors definitely pop, but they don’t look too saturated anymore.

The bottom line: there are other smartphone displays that will also blow you away (take the HTC One, for example). But I can’t imagine anyone being remotely disappointed with the GS4’s screen.

Performance optimized

The Galaxy S4 is as fast as you would possibly need a phone to be. I tested the US version that has a quad core Qualcomm chip. It isn’t technically as fast as the global version with an octa core Samsung chip.

It doesn’t matter. This is the fastest phone I’ve ever used. When we talk about fast smartphones, we often say that apps open instantly. This time instantly is taken to another level. Press the icon, and – bam – you’re in your browser, email, or Angry Birds.

Benchmark junkies will sweat minor differences between the two versions of the Galaxy S4, the HTC One, and whatever the next super smartphone is. Forget all of that. I can’t imagine any app you could possibly use anytime soon that would need better performance than the Galaxy S4 delivers. It’s that good.

Software goodies

At its core, the Galaxy S4 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. Yes, Samsung gave us the latest version of Android (a rarity in Android land that we'd like to see more often). Being Android, the Play Store, Google Maps, and Google Now – and much more – are all in tow. That's a good thing.

But what about the Samsung specific software? The company took some flak for cramming a billion gimmicky software features into the Galaxy S4. Maybe they were even trying to mask how minor a hardware update it really was. So, after using the Galaxy S4, what’s the verdict?

Well, I’d still say that most of the new software features are a bit on the gimmicky side of the fence. But the beauty is, it doesn’t matter. Because none of them get in the way if you don’t want to use them (carrier crapware apps, on the other hand, can get in the way ... but that isn’t necessarily Samsung’s fault).

Some of the new TouchWiz features are cool – and potentially useful. S Translate isn’t that different from other third-party translation apps, but it’s still nice functionality to have baked in. S Health can help you track your steps and physical activity – no Jawbone or Nike Fuelband required. Smart Pause freezes videos when you turn your head away.

Multi-window support returns, after appearing in the Galaxy Note 2 and Galaxy S3. The biggest drawback is that it only works with a few select apps (mostly from Samsung). Rooters can hack it to work with all apps, but your typical non-hacking customer is left with a limited batch.

One of the most interesting new features is Smart Scroll, which lets you scroll through web pages and emails just by looking. In my tests, it worked well – but it seems to be tracking head movement more than eye position. It also doesn’t work system-wide. Still, it’s pretty cool to scroll through an article just by tilting your head.

Gimmicky? You bet. But it’s still pretty fun, and useful enough that I left it – and most of Samsung's other kitchen-sink software features – turned on.

Battery life

I didn’t put the Galaxy S4 through explicit battery tests, but I can say that it easily lasted a full day – even with some heavier-than-usual use for testing.

This is really no surprise. Its 2,600 mAh battery holds more juice than most other (non-phablet) smartphones. The quad core Snapdragon processor seems to be doing its part too.

I tested a T-Mobile model, and they don’t yet have LTE in my area. Having LTE may or may not affect actual battery life (probably not by much). I also can’t speak for the global octa core model.

But fear not: 99 percent of customers shouldn’t have a thing to worry about with battery life. Enjoy the phone all you want, charge it during the night, and you shouldn’t run into any problems.

Camera

I was more than happy with the Galaxy S4’s camera. Its 13-megapixel rear shooter took excellent pictures. Great color, extremely sharp detail ... these are all par for the course in modern high-end smarpthones. The GS4 is no exception.

I’ll let the sample shot above speak for itself (but note that our images get downscaled a bit for the web, so the original shot actually looks sharper). You can also see more sample shots in this article’s image gallery (above).

Storage woes?

One thing to keep in mind with the Galaxy S4 is that its advertised storage isn’t what you’ll get. Actually, this is the case with any kind of computing device, but it’s a bit more noteworthy here.

See, all of those nifty apps that Samsung threw in take up space. So on the 16 GB model that I tested, I ended up with roughly half of that for actual use. A bit deceiving? Probably.

But, fortunately, there’s sort of of a remedy – that doesn't require buying a more expensive 32 GB or 64 GB model. Because the Galaxy S4 also has a microSD card slot. You can pick up a 16 GB microSD for about US$12. The SD slot supports up to 64 GB of extra memory.

So, yes, it’s a bit of a bummer that storage is left so cramped just from the operating system and Samsung goodies. And you still can't move apps to the SD card. But you can save images there, as well as moving other random files and media. Not a perfect solution, but it also might make the storage issue less than a travesty.

Wrap-up

The Galaxy S4 is just about the perfect smartphone. It and the HTC One (and possibly the iPhone 5) are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, vying for the “best smartphone” prize. But the differences really come down to personal preference.

Because the GS4 checks all the boxes you’d want checked in a high-powered 2013 smartphone. Display? One of the best. Raw power? Unprecedented. Software features? Some are good, some are kinda silly – but none of them hurt anything. Battery life? Camera? LTE? Great, great, and yes.

Should Samsung have made the Galaxy S4 a more radical departure from the Galaxy S3? From a customer’s perspective, it’s easy to demand that year after year.

But really, it might be an unreasonable request. After all, the look and feel of Samsung’s Galaxy line is now in the iPhone stratosphere of recognition. From a business perspective, there wasn’t enough incentive for Sammy to scribble too far out of those extremely successful lines. HTC made a bolder move in terms of design. But it had to. The survival of its business depends on that phone providing something new and different.

So feel free to look at all of the top smartphones of this year, sweat the differences, and ask yourself which features and details are best for you. But also know this “minor” update of Samsung’s is pretty hard to beat. Others may stand shoulder-to-shoulder with it, but nothing stands head-and-shoulders above it.

... and if you want to read more on how the GS4 compares to its biggest rival, check out our in-depth Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One comparison.