22/08/2013 16:30 | By Dan Sung, contributor, MSN Tech

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review

Mid-range Android done well, if a little safely

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What is it?
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini? You really need us to explain this one? Ok. It’s a lite version of the real S4; smaller screen, smaller price.  

What’s great?
It’s very slick and so convenient to carry around that you’ll forget you even own it. The spec is also nice and high, and the screen display small but pretty.  

What’s not?
The camera doesn’t create nice results and the battery life is a bit of a worry.  

The bottom line:
Not really a phone person’s phone but worth considering if you want something fully featured that works without a hitch.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (© Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Review

With the price of flagship mobile phones creeping ever higher, it’s of little surprise that so many mini versions of the same handsets have popped up to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-some-but-not-quite-enoughs.

We all know what a cracker the Samsung Galaxy S4 is and we all know how tricky it is to pull off lite versions of these big boys without drawing the obvious odious comparisons. Nonetheless, we have high hopes for the S4 Mini, especially given that the same £350-400 handset cost can afford you the 5-star Samsung Galaxy Mega. Surely this has to be a winner too? Right?

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Pocket size

Jumping from reviewing Samsung’s largest phone on offer, the Samsung Galaxy Mega, to this micro mobile makes it tempting to talk about the sublime and the ridiculous, but the truth in this case is that it would be hard to say which was which. What we can say for sure is that trading up a phone with a 6.3-inch screen for one at 4.3 inches on the display diagonal takes quite some getting used to. It’s all felt like something of an optical illusion.

The Mega may be massive but the Mini is actually quite normal in size. After all, it has very similar dimensions to the 2011 Samsung Galaxy S II and is only 0.7 inches short of the S4 itself. All the same, while “Mini” might seem an unfair title based on the numbers, that’s exactly how this phone comes off in the hand. At 124.6 x 61.3 x 8.94mm and 107g, it’s slim, it’s compact, it’s neat and it’s every bit part of the Galaxy line of mobiles - for better and for worse. It’s unobtrusive and easy to carry around but with its plastic look and feel, and rounded candybar edges, it’s also utterly unremarkable. No one is ever going to compliment you on how it looks. It’s pretty and petite but there’s nothing either modern or remotely daring about it. Perhaps the only real interesting part is that there's a choice of three colours. Just a shame then that they're black, white and blue.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Camera credentials

For something more mid-range, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini has some really decent imaging options. You get a hefty 8-megapixel sensor for your main camera, with Full HD video recording, and a 1.9MP unit on the front for taking selfies and live chat with your friends and family. You can adjust white balance, ISO, tinker with exposure compensation and do just about everything one would expect of a modern camera app. The trouble is that the actual end product is something of a let down.

It all looks great on the Mini’s display - both before and after capture - but the blue tint of the Samsung screens has long flattered to deceive and makes everything appear far richer than what’s actually been recorded. More than just a colour saturation let down though is that the optical rig on this little device has a tendency to blow everything out at the slightest sign of a high dynamic range (i.e. a shot with a mix of light and dark areas) and, realistically, that’s the majority of the photographic situations that users will find themselves in. It means that the detail in the shadows is clear but everything else has a hazy brightness about it, and that’s a big shame given the hardware and processing potential available.

The video is a little better because the sound is handled quite nicely. The microphone picks up further away noises nicely even in loud environments and balances them very accurately against any grunts you might make from behind the camera. It’s, of course, no match for an external mic but it’s as good as it gets for mobile phone.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (© Dan Sung)

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Silky screen  

While it does no favours for the use of the camera, on the plus side, the screen of the Galaxy S4 Mini is something of a stunner. Sure, it’s not a 1080p display but, frankly, you do need it on a screen that size. The 540x960 resolution and resulting 256ppi density is easily enough to give that Retina feel. Throw in the 16 million colour technology and it’s of little surprise that the effect is so pleasing.

The potential Achilles heel here is with the Super AMOLED screen lighting mechanism that Samsung prefers to the LCD style chosen by both Apple and HTC. What you’ll often find is that AMOLEDs simply aren’t as bright. While that’s true with the Mini, it’s actually not too bad in strong summer sun. You’ll still squint but you will be able to use the thing.

One of the best features of the Samsung UI also helps out a lot at this point and that’s the Adapt Display. The aim of this clever piece of programming is not only to adjust the brightness levels of the screen depending upon the ambient light but also to tinker with the contrast and saturation levels to suit what you’re actually doing with the phone from watching a film to shooting home video.

Sadly, Adapt Display only works on the native, built-in apps but you can still choose from a number of handy presets for anything else. The results mean that watching Full HD movies back on the Mini are really not too bad at all. Unusually for mobile devices, it’s quite possible to get enough details in darker scenes to get a good view of what’s going on. The only pity for this particular situation is that the 4.3 inches of screen real estate doesn’t exactly make for a cinematic experience. If watching videos is what you want to do, you'd be better off with a bigger device. You can get away with the odd episode of The Apprentice but try anything Hollywood and you’re going to be missing the subtleties of what the filmmakers intended.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Performance perks

Despite its diminutive dimensions, the Mini has plenty under the hood. It’s actually very similar to the Samsung Galaxy Mega - a phone that almost seems twice its size. The dual-core CPU with 1.7GHz clock speed is easily enough to run Android 4.2.2 in combination with the 1.5GB of RAM available. As one would expect of the Galaxy S family, it all makes for a smooth operation with zero detectable lag no matter how numerous or complicated the apps you throw at it. That’s taken a lot of work to get right by Samsung and, as much as we take it almost as unsaid these days, it’s certainly not to be sniffed at. There are plenty of brands who do not implement Google’s mobile OS with such grace.

The downside to this little hot-rod is that small size battery needed to fit inside is small in terms of capacity as well, and it turns out that this 1900mAh unit is only just about enough to get you from dawn 'til dusk with some pretty average use. If you intend to burn the pixels long into the night, then the Mini will come up short. What’s more, consider that this is the case when the phone, and therefore the battery, is brand new. Twelve months into a two-year contract and you might only be getting 80 per cent as much life time out of a single charge. You could well find yourself reaching for the phone charger by mid-afternoon.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (© Dan Sung)

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Apps and features  

Another big selling point of the Mini is that it has most of the interesting apps and features that you’ll find in the S4 proper - most, but not all. The reality, of course, is that many of these add-ons are just gimmicks and are of little use at all.

For example, S Voice, Samsung’s answer to Siri, is present but fairly pointless. More often than not it doesn’t correctly recognise what you’re saying and it’s arguably less convenient than just using your finger anyway. It’s a similar story for S Travel, Story Album and most things that you'll find in the Samsung Hub. These are generally widgets that won’t last long on your desktop. Motion and gesture controls to navigate around the Android OS or mute your phone also sound fun but are generally less efficient than the traditional means of achieving the same ends.

The less sexy features that you will enjoy - because they work 99 times out of 100 - are the likes of Smart Stay, which keeps the screen from going into standby when you’re looking at it; S-Beam for sending files over the air to other devices via either NFC or Wi-Fi Direct; and Screen Mirroring where you can share your screen on another device, for example a television. The WatchON app that turns your Mini into a remote control and also provides TV suggestions is also very good. Beyond that selection, there’s little that won’t let you down.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Getting connected

We’ve already mentioned the addition of NFC but there’s also 4G packed into the Mini too. While we imagine neither will be used by the majority of owners in the first 12 months, they’re the kind of features that might just come into their own come 2014 as the infrastructure for both technologies grows.

Wi-Fi, of course, is something that you’ll be appreciating from the get go but, it’s worth noting that the Mini suffers from a weakness in the WLAN radio that we’ve seen before in Galaxy phones. It has a habit of dropping off the network at the further limits of the signal. That would be perfectly normal but the trouble is that it tends to do so a metre or two before some other connected devices from other manufacturers.

And for our final warning before we deliver the MSN verdict, yes, thanks for including the option of expandable storage Samsung; but, no, we don’t like that you’ve put the microSD slot underneath the battery in the back of the phone. Hot swapping your memory cards while the phone is switched on is something that’s just not possible. Still, that’s probably a sacrifice that you have to make when looking to pack so much into a form so small.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini: Verdict

There’s absolutely no doubt that the S4 Mini is a very competent phone. It works almost exactly as it should and there’s very few flaws, if any at all, that will make you regret buying it. What it doesn’t really offer though, is a lot in the way of excitement. It’s about convenience and about seamlessness of operation and on both of those things it delivers.

If you want a handset with a reasonable price that feels quite high spec, then this is probably it. The trouble is that it’s missing touches of quality to be a real first choice amongst these mini phones. The camera is almost universally considered one of the cornerstone of good mobile and the S4 Mini slips up here. The battery is also bordering on poor, and that’s another key area.

It’s hard not to like this phone but with a very average look and feel, and little in the way of big screen movie fun, it’s also hard to love it.

Four stars

Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini:Available now, from £360 SIM-free or from free on contract - check the latest prices with Bing