In Canada, earlier this year most of us said goodbye to 3 year contracts and hello to 2 year ones. This has had an interesting effect on how we buy phones and how carriers subsidize them. Previously, when 3 year contracts were the norm, carriers were willing to subsidize phones more heavily. This meant most phones sold where either expensive top-of-the-line models or cheap entry level ones.
However now that weíve bid adios to 3 year contracts an interesting thing has happened. Carriers now have two tiers of 2 year contracts. In order to get carriers to subsidize phones like they used to youíll now need to spend ore per month. If you want a more affordable plan you can still get a phone but it wonít have all the bells and whistles unless youíre willing to spend a lot more on the phone.
So now thereís a demand for more affordable smartphones which are better than what youíd usually get on prepaid. Itís the rise of the mid-range phone.
For $149 you can get the cappuccino with 4 shots of foam Samsung Galaxy S4, but it will cost you each month. If you donít want to spend so much per month youíll have to settle for a cup of Tim Hortons coffee GS4 Mini which also costs $149. So whatís the difference between the 2?
Itís hard to really nail down the GS4 Miniís competition. I expect to see many more Ďminií type competitors soon but right now itís real competition are last yearís flagships like the Galaxy S III, LG Optimus G and Motorola RAZR HD LTE. The problem is that all of the phones I mentioned are a lot bigger than the Mini and as youíll find out, the size is one of the best things about the Mini.
The most notable difference is that the Miniís screen measures 4.3Ē across vs the 5Ē on the GS4. 0.7Ē doesnít sound like that much, but when you hold them side-by-side the difference is huge. Iím not going to bother listing measurements, just look at the picture:
The Mini fits perfectly in my hands - barely, while the regular GS4 is more than a handful (literally). Iíd say the Mini is actually the more pleasant phone to use in this regard.
The Mini makes do with a 960x540 display while the GS4ís has a full 1920x1080 pixels.
Aside from the screen, they have fairly different specs. The Mini has a dual-core 1.7Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SoC while the GS4 has a quad-core 1.9Ghz Snapdragon 600 SoC. You get 1.5GB of RAM on the Mini while the fullsize has 2GB of RAM.
Letís compare the battery sizes based on screen size. The GS4ís screen is about 37% biggerÖ Guess how much bigger the GS4ís battery is - yup, 37% - Is it a coincidence?
The big brotherís camera has a full 13 megapixels of resolution while the baby bro makes do with 8 megapixels.
So not only is the Mini smaller in size, itís features are slightly downsized.
As far as display quality goes, the Miniís screen is just a smaller, lower resolution version of the GS4ís. Colour, black levels, viewing angle and brightness are exactly the same. It has the GS4ís Ďgood but not greatí outdoor performance.
Now I already mentioned that the GS4 has a 1920x1080 display while the Miniís is a more modest 960x540. So the GS4ís is much sharper than the Miniís right? Yes and no. The Miniís display has a pixel density of 256PPI while the GS4ís is over 40% higher at 441PPI. So that means itís 40% sharper right? Yes, but the thing is, when you hold the phone at normal viewing distance, once you go north of around 300-350PPI the increase in sharpness isnít really noticeable.
Practically speaking, while the GS4 screen is sharper, it doesnít LOOK that much sharper. There is a difference but itís small. Even when I have them side-by-side, the Mini still looks pretty darn good.
I already mentioned the little one has a 8 megapixel camera while the regularís has 13. Iím not sure what size of each phoneís sensor is, but even if you donít take into account the extra resolution the GS4ís camera is better but only by a very tiny amount.
The Miniís camera has slightly more noise and is slightly worse in low light but again, the difference is very minor.
The GS4ís camera isnít class leading but itís still a very competent one. That means the Miniís is also pretty good.
You canít shoot video with both cameras at the same time like you can with the GS4. For sure itís a fun feature but one I rarely use so itís not a big loss.
You also get a slower burst mode which means the Mini misses out on some of the GS4ís tricks like eraser mode (shoots lots of frames and compares them so you can remove users that are moving around) and Drama shots (takes lots of frames of a moving subject and then places them throughout the scene).
These are cool features but again, losing them isnít a deal breaker. Still, the Mini can shoot at a useful 3 frame per seconds.
You can shoot 1920x1080 video with both but only the big guy has a stabilization option. Donít worry though, itís not real optical stabilization like on the HTC One/LG G2/lots of Nokias Lumias but rather digital stabilization, like on the iPhone so when things get shaky, the GS4 blurs things to smooth out video.
Both phones phones feel very similar. They have glass fronts and polycarbonate (plastic) bodies with removable battery covers. I guess the Mini is slightly more solid when you twist it because it has a smaller foot print. The difference is not the sort of thing youíd notice unless you had them side-by-side.
The Mini fits perfectly in my hand and can be used with just one hand easily. Look at how far my thumb reaches across the screen when I have a tight grip.
My thumb can almost reach across the full width of the screen with the Mini.
With the regular GS4 I can only reach halfway across.
I already said it before but I prefer using the Mini because itís a much more manageable size. With the exception of the LG G2 and maybe the Sony Xperia ZL (not the Z or Z1), phones with 5Ē+ screens are too big.
Both have the exact same finish so thereís a pattern underneath the glass/clear coat.
The GS4 is one of the worst phones around right now in the usability department because the large screen means you always accidentally press the softkeys when you reach across the screen or even just hold it in landscape mode. Unfortunately, the mini suffers from this too (so itís more a Samsung design issue) but itís far less severe. Based on this alone, Iíd recommend the Mini over the regular. Either way, I strongly recommend you get a case with a lip around the edges for either phone.
IR blaster, microphone, headphone jack.
8MP camera, flash, speaker
The battery cover is removable. Underneath youíll find the MicroSD and MicroSIM slots.
In terms of software, both ship with Android 4.2 with Samsungís Touchwiz on top. I wouldnít be surprised if the full size gets priority when it comes to Android updates. Android updates are always a tricky thing to figure out. Unless you DIY, youíre basically up to the mercy of the manufacturer and your carrier. There are a number of factors that determine how likely your device is to receive updates.
First and foremost is the deviceís positioning in a manufacturerís lineup. If itís a flagship device it will likely receive updates.
A deviceís popularity also matters and Iím talking on both a manufacturer and carrier level. You can have a phone that sells really well in other countries, but if your carrier hardly sells any you probably wonít get an update and if you do it will only be a 0.0.x version type update.
You also have to consider how far a device is into itís lifecycle. The GS3 used to be Samsungís flagship device, however itís been out for almost a year and a half so itís less clear if it will receive any more updates.
The GS4 is definitely a flagship, high volume device around half way through itís lifecycle, so I wonít surprised if it got updates. Iím more on the fence about the Mini since itís not a flagship device. I would be slightly surprised if it went higher than 4.2.
Before you bring up a manufacturer, I want to point out that in the last year or so, Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony have all released major updates for their flagship devices. The GS3 went from 4.1 to 4.2. HTC One went from 4.1 to 4.3. LG upgraded the Optimus G from 4.0 to 4.2 and the Xperia ZL went from 4.1 to 4.2. The only recent flagship missing from the list is the Motorola RAZR HD LTE. Iím just saying that manufacturer isnít as important as it used to be.
In terms of Samsung-i-ness, the GS4 gets all the latest tricks; Air View, Air Gestures, Multiview, etc. The Mini lacks these features but to be honest, when I use a GS4, those are the features I turn off because theyíre not useful. With the exception of multi-view these features are either too hard to use, not useful or donít work well enough. Multi-view (2 apps on the same screen) is useful but on the Miniís not-that-large 4.3Ē it doesnít work that well so in that sense, youíre not missing anything software-wise.
I was a little surprised that the Mini has an IR blaster which you can use to control your TV. If you asked me which features Samsung would strip from the GS4 to make the Mini I would think the IR blaster would be at the top of the list.
Samsung includes remote control software but itís only useful if you subscribe to TV service (like Cable, or TV over DSL, etc). Instead of interacting with an on-screen remote control you choose what you want to watch using an on phone programming guide and then the Mini sends the signals to your TV. Itís not useful - let me correct myself - itís completely useless if youíre like me already cut your cable because itís ability to display an on-screen remote is extremely limited.
Otherwise, itís got the usual Samsung fare including S-Beam which is sort of useful if youíre sharing large videos, pop out video (no longer a Samsung only features but useful none-the-less), a decent camera app (as long as youíre not using a Motorola or Nexus phone this is the norm)
The Mini has 1.5GB of RAM vs 2GB on the regular. The extra RAM can make a difference if you switch tasks a lot while playing demanding games. Otherwise it falls into the category of Ďnice to have but not essentialí. If it only came with 1GB of RAM I would complain but 1.5GB is good enough.
I hate benchmarks, while theyíre a useful tool for figuring out how a phoneís performance compares with anotherís, they do a bad job of telling you if a phone has ENOUGH performance. Throw in the fact that companies sometimes cheat in benchmarks and now theyíre even less relevant. I guess on the other hand, they help you determine how future-proof a phone is.
Okay, now itís time to bore you.
While the Mini has a more modest dual-core SoC vs the quad-core on the GS4, most apps donít make use of more than 2 cores anyways, so as you can see in the web browsing benchmarks, the full fat GS4 has very little advantage over the skimmed milk Mini.
In terms of graphics, in off-screen tests the GS4 has twice the performance, the problem is that the GS4 has to push 4x the resolution. So, double the performance and quadruple the resolution should mean that the GS4 has half the real-world performance right?
According the graphics benchmarks, on-screen (real world) performance is virtually tied. Strange how things work out.
Itís kind of funny, the GS4ís display has a super high PPI but when you look at the benchmarks, a lot of performance is being thrown away in order to push pixels which have very little effect on image quality given the size of the display. I mentioned that after 300-350PPI there is very little impact on screen quality. Well letís assume the magic number is 341PPI - the GS4 has 441PPI so it has to process graphics for the extra 100PPI, so youíre basically wasting 23% of the GS4ís graphics performance.
Still, progress is good - even if itís the result of a silly specifications arms race. Hopefully eventually weíll figure out a use for the extra PPI.
Out of the box there is about 11.3GB of storage available for usage - just to give you an idea how much space the GS4ís extra features take up, it only has 9.6GB available. You can think of the GS4 having 1.7GB of extra Ďstuffí you have to turn off anyways. If you watch a lot of videos you can add MicroSD cards to either phone. 64GB cards should work fine in either device.
While the Miniís speaker isnít as loud as the GS4, the Miniís speaker sounds better. Itís tighter and less sloppy sounding.
If you store a lot of videos on your phone both have video players with decent codec support and a pop out video feature where you can watch them in a small window that hovers over your other apps.
As a Phone:
RF performance and sound are similar on both phones. The GS4 has an Ďextra volumeí setting. When you enable that it has a slightly louder earpiece.
The Mini lacks the GS4ís Ďextra volumeí and noise reduction features.
Where the GS4 really leaps ahead is speakerphone volume. The GS4 has one of the loudest speaker phones out there. The Mini on the other hand is pretty quiet. The Mini on max speakerphone volume is equal to the GS4 at 50% - Iím not exaggerating here.
The low speakerphone volume is the worst thing about the Mini. Itís so bad that you should skip the Mini if you use the speakerphone regularly.
Even though the Mini is small, Samsung didnít skip on the LTE support. While running some speed tests I couldnít help noticing that it supports 2600Mhz so if youíre on Rogers (and to a much, much lesser extent Bell) youíll get speeds of up to 100Mbps. Of course, the point here is not that it can get up to 100Mbps but that it supports a different LTE band so if the Ďregularí LTE on the AWS band which most devices on Bell/Roger/TELUS support ever gets congested, well you have a different band which you can use - on Rogers and Bell anyways.
Battery life is similar to the full sized GS4. As long as youíre not gaming constantly it should make it through the day. However, if you want it to last all night too youíll need an extra battery or charger.
Samsung has removed just enough from the Mini that most buyers will wonder if theyíre missing out. The problem is that thereís still enough left over that the Mini is still a really great phone.
Youíre not really missing out on anything really important. Yeah it canít shoot pictures and video from both cameras simultaneously, it doesnít burst as fast, doesnít have Air Gestures, Air view, a quad-core processor, and a full HD display but the thing is, most of these features are either, not that useful or not needed given the Miniís smaller screen.
So youíll probably say, ďOkay, I still might use them occasionallyĒ. Where the Mini pulls head big time, is that itís a much easier phone to live with. Itís easier to use because itís a much more reasonable size. While it still suffers from some of the GS4ís usability issues, itís not as bad.
One of the reasons why the Mini exists is to cater to customers who want a Samsung and canít afford the GS4. At the same time, they removed certain features so that most people would still pay extra for the GS4.
The problem is in the process of making a smaller phone, theyíve made it a much easier to use phone. So much so that Iíd recommend everyone skip the GS4 and go straight for the Mini. This miniature phone is a giant killer.
I'll give it a solid 4 out of 5 Howies.
- perfect size
- nice display
- decent camera
- No on-screen menu buttons result in accidental button presses
- quiet speakerphone