In a world obsessed with size, we are surrounded by 'minis' and 'maxis'. Some minis are very good, like the cars, and the excellent iPad Mini. Others leave you wishing they'd been super-sized.
The presentation of the Galaxy S4 Mini is comfortingly familiar. If you've read our review of the Galaxy S4 (GS4) you'd know that we loved the original, and anything like it can't be all bad. The Mini has the same basic shape and feel, just scaled down for smaller hands and even smaller pockets. The buttons are in the same position as they were on the original, it has the same earpiece speaker grille, and it has the same subtle dimpled pattern across its plastic chassis.
More importantly, Samsung uses the same Super AMOLED screen from the Galaxy S4 in this Mini version. It doesn't have as many pixels-per-inch, but it doesn't need to either with the smaller panel size. It looks like a good screen too, with good text clarity, great colour and very good viewing angles. It does have the same blueish hue that we find on most AMOLED screens, but this isn't too distracting.
It's amazing how small a 4.3-inch screen feels after using screens of about 5-inches this year. It seems like such a small difference in size, but it makes a big difference after being used to having more space to work with.
The trouble is, there is no real trade-off for the savings in size. The Mini weighs about the same as the larger GS4, and it is as thin, or thick, depending on how you look at it. This is more a testament to the hard work Samsung engineers have put in the more expensive flagship than it is a criticism of the Mini, but it's true nonetheless.
Running on the same version of Android (4.2.2) and the same version of Samsung's TouchWiz UI as the GS4, the Mini is packed with the same usability tweaks and annoying quirks as the phone we reviewed six-months ago. Pull down the notification curtain and you'll find all the same Quick Settings options, which is great. But try and and move icons around on the home screens and you'll find that you can't; not without entering into a special edit mode.
There are a few Samsung apps missing from the Mini, too. The excellent S-Health app and pedometer tool is not included in the Mini, which is a shame for the health conscious. There is the S-Translator tool, seen in Samsung's GS4 commercials, though. There's also the great Trip Advisor app that comes preinstalled.
The most obvious place where the smaller handset size impacts use is the on-screen keyboard, and the S4 Mini does suffer from tiny keys syndrome.
It can be tricky to type out a long message if you are used to quickly bashing on an iPhone keyboard: the Samsung designed keyboard just isn't as accurate when cleaning up your (inevitable) errors. Luckily, there is a 'continuous input' option in the keyboard's settings which allows you to create words by swiping your finger across the keys that make up the word you want. Weirdly, this mode is far more accurate at predicting words and far easier to use.
While Samsung is obviously saving money where it can on the S4 Mini, it has left the camera experience intact. In fact, the camera, with its 8-megapixel image sensor, is probably the best part about this handset. It is super fast to find focus and fire off off photos, and the picture quality is quite good.
It is a camera best used outdoors, as most are; but we did notice that photos taken indoors, even under good, bright lights, tend to turn out grainy and a bit blurry. With sunlight behind it, the photos were much better, with good, sharp focus and great depth.
One thing to check before you buy an S4 Mini is whether or not you are paying for a 4G variant. Samsung make both 4G LTE and 3G-only models, and if you're on a network that supports it, you should definitely use the 4G version.
Testing the phone in Sydney on the Vodafone network, the Mini performs well, with speeds at around 20Mbps for both uploads and downloads. The latency is good too, at around 35ms. We did notice some annoying fluctuations in signal strength, but this isn't necessarily a problem with the radios in the handset.
Performance and battery
The most important scaling down in the Mini has happened under the hood. Rather than use the quad-core 1.9GHz processor in the GS4, Samsung opts for a cheaper dual-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon 400 chipset, and while the number of cores in a processor isn't directly tied to performance, there is a dip between the performance of the Mini and many other phones in market.
You shouldn't seen this performance sacrifice too much in everyday use. The phone moves about the home screens speedily enough, and in and out of apps. Multitasking is fine, and apps that you switch to are responsive almost straight away.
Benchmark scores for the Mini suggest that you might see more lag while web browsing, or in apps that rely on a connection to the web, like the Google Play Store and Google Maps. These are apps that can benefit from multi-core processors, and while the Mini can handle these tasks, it does so with a little more thinking time.
Battery life for the Galaxy S4 Mini is pretty good, with about 27-hours of mixed use, and just short of six-hours of continuous web browsing on a Wi-Fi connection. In everyday use terms, the Mini will get you through a work day, and should probably survive the night if you don't have a charger handy. This is a good result coming from a 1900mAh battery, which is a good bit smaller than the battery in the GS4.
Tens of millions of iPhone users worldwide suggest there is a market for phones with smaller displays, and while the Galaxy S4 Mini has a screen slightly larger than the iPhone, it should appeal in much the same way; to people who think the 5-inch phones across the top-end of the Android market are just too big.
There is a power sacrifice to be made here, so this isn't the phone for someone who may want to push the phone with the latest 3D games or other processing heavy tasks, but for core smartphone use, like calls, browsing and social media, the Mini will do just fine.
There is an obvious cost saving too. Telco plans tend to offer the Mini for between $5 and $10 each per month, or $120 to $240 cheaper over the life of a plan. This means you can typically get the Mini for less, or choose a plan with more talk, text and data with the money you save.
At the time of writing, the Galaxy S3 is still available on telco plans, which could also be a good option for someone who wants to save some money, but doesn't want the smaller display.