Grandroids: Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z, HTC One

By | May 15, 2013

Sometimes the planets just align in the world of smartphones. In the space of a couple of months, we’ve seen three flagship phones released that seem so similar in specification that they could have been cast from the same mold. They all have 1080p screens and stupid-fast quad core processors. So: what’s the difference? Which one should you buy?

Firstly, from a performance and utility perspective, there’s nothing between these phones. They all do everything you’d expect from a top-end smartphone, and they all do it screamingly fast. You will not be disappointed to own any of these phones.

Forced to pick their differences, here’s how I see it broken down in a few key areas:

Screen

Sony Xperia ZWhen I first saw the Xperia Z (the first of these phones I laid eyes on), I was absolutely floored by its display. 1920×1080 pixels on these screen sizes is frankly bonkers: you cannot pick out an individual pixel, and the huge space for rendering browser content is wonderful. But. But but but. Compared to the HTC One and Galaxy S4, the Z is just missing something. Slightly washed out perhaps? Poor viewing angles? Not a showstopper, but enough that you can easily feel the difference.

The Galaxy S4 screen isn’t without fault either: it’s incredibly bright and punchy, to the point of being offensive. If you get one I highly recommend going into the display settings and changing the display to “Movie” mode. Colours in that mode are more realistic and the screen becomes more comfortable to look at.

Out of the box, the HTC One’s screen is the best of the bunch in my opinion.

Apps and Launchers

All of these phones run Android 4 and have the Google Play store available to download any apps you may desire. However: they take different approaches to the out-of-box experience. The Xperia Z is the most “vanilla”, with a standard-ish Android launcher populated with a few specialist Sony apps.

HTC goes a bit further with their Flipboard-esque Blinkfeed homepage, from which you can swipe to get at, again, a standard Android icon based app launcher. Blinkfeed looks nice, but I think if I was to use the HTC One as my main phone, I’d replace the launcher with something more standard and fill it with the widgets I’d like to use, rather than having stuff pushed at me.

Samsung’s launcher is fairly vanilla, but it comes out of the box packed to the gunnels with … crap. I’m sorry but there’s no other way to put it. I understand Samsungs intentions here: they see that a large number of Android users don’t really install apps or use widgets, so they’re lending a helping hand: here’s your fitness app, and your photo gallery app, and here’s a voice thing, and a translator, oh and a note thing, and … and.

For a user who doesn’t know that the Play Store exists, this might be useful. For readers of this article, and most experienced Android users, this just means removing widgets and uninstalling Samsung crapware until you can make some space and install the decent apps you need. It reminds me, in a bad way, of the crapware that comes loaded on Windows PCs.

Camera

I want to love HTC’s approach to the camera on the One. The science nerd inside me says that having fewer pixels on a small sensor means bigger “photosites”, less noise, and better response in low light. However, the comparison posts that have popped up seem to show that the Galaxy S4 camera blows pretty much everything else out of the water in all but the crappiest lighting conditions.

As with other aspects, the HTC One and Xperia Z cameras are perfectly fine, and will serve you ok for quick snaps, but if you want the best photos out of your smartphone, then the S4 is the way to go.

Physical Design

Samsung Galaxy S4 Physically, the Galaxy S4 is just shit. The first experience out of the box has you removing the flimsy, bendy back cover to insert a battery. The feel of that cover just gives me no confidence in the build quality of the phone. Once on, it also feels sweaty and slippery. Compared to the HTC One and the Xperia Z, the Galaxy’s physical look and feel just fall well short of what we’ve come to expect of a modern flagship smartphone.

If looks and build quality don’t matter to you, this is not a problem. But even considering the S4’s other fantastic qualities, the physical feel of the phone is almost enough to put me off.

In comparison, the HTC One is probably the best looking and feeling phone of this size that I’ve laid hands on. The weight is fantastic, and the feel in the hand is just right. It’s solid enough to give you confidence while not being chunky, and the blend of curves and hard edges make for a great hand-feel.

Likewise, the Xperia Z looks stunning. An obsidian-black monolith, sealed all around with milspec waterproofing, the thing just wants to be touched. The water resistance is a welcome addition: being able to rinse a phone under running water is not something I expected to like, but after doing it a few times I wish I could do it to every phone I’ve owned.

Unfortunately the convenience of a washable phone comes with downsides: every time you want to charge the Z or plug your headphones in, you have to fiddle with the (thankfully well-engineered) port flaps. I’m not positive if the waterproofing remains in effect with the flaps open, but I’d guess not.

If I had to pick one of these three phones purely on looks, it would be the HTC One. If I was a tradesman or regular watersports participant, I’d go with the Xperia Z.

Conclusion

HTC oneIt’s bloody hard to pick a winner from this bunch. They each have their upsides and some very minor downs. The HTC One camera is a disappointment but it looks smashing; the Samsung feels cheesy but is incredibly light and has a fantastic camera; and the waterproof Z could come in very handy, while Sony have also done amazing things with the modding community.

Forced at gunpoint to pick a phone, I’d take the HTC One, but I’d not be at all upset to take home any of the three.

As usual, I’m happy to answer any specific questions in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “Grandroids: Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z, HTC One

  1. Nick Rockel

    I’m looking to upgrade from my Windows 7 phone and wondering if in your opinion the Nokia 920 is worth considering, or is it just not in the same league as these phones?

    Reply
    1. Ben Post author

      The 920 is a fantastic phone. With the 925 just announced I’d tend to wait, because the 925 fixes the 920’s fatal flaw: weight. It’s a total porker.

      Otherwise, the high-end Nokia Windows Phones are absolutely great.

      Reply
  2. rob_nz

    Yeah, it’s a good time in the high-end Android phone market.

    I love the look of the HTC One and it would probably be my pick as well if I were in the market.

    I would like to see some smaller offerings as well, with the same build quality. Something a bit gruntier than the GS3 Mini

    I currently have a work-issued GS2 which is plenty for my needs for some time to come I think. (Although at the time I would have preferred an HTC Sensation – solid unibody and all)

    I was initially a bit skeptical about the flimsiness of the GS2, but I put it in a slim carbon-fiber back shell IMAK case on day 2, which stiffened it up considerably and gave it a much more solid feel (not to mention protection).

    It’s never been out of the case in about 18 months, so the battery cover etc haven’t been an issue.

    The various vendor UI’s are not an issue for me, as the first thing I do on an Android device is install Nova launcher and Smart Keyboard Pro. It only takes 30 seconds from the Play store and I get a pretty much standard Android launcher that has a few nice extra options (like backing up the desktop layout).

    If you want something a bit funkier, try GO Launcher, with the Steampunk theme (But definitely get the separate Steampunk Clock widget) :-)

    Reply
  3. Tech Geek

    You are right HTC One would be a great pick even Sony Xperia Z is a darn good phone, there’s no two ways about it. There’s a really crisp screen, the waterproof shell, a strong effort at making usable media apps and a quad core processor under the hood. But still it is far behind its peers. So it gets bronze in our review. Now top two in market. Where Samsung Galaxy S4 is full of features apps and tech , its poor build quality as compare to this range phones like HTC One or IPhone 5 leaves S4 at 2nd position in this comparison So only Silver for Galaxy S4. Now the winner the HTC One is a masterpiece from HTC. The build quality is superb which gives quite a competition to Iphone 5, and enshrines a really top-notch screen that really takes the fight to Samsung. Boom Sound and Ultrapixels are novel and useful concepts, and the Zoe functionality brings a twist to cameraphone use. This phone is really a best android phone in market for 2013.

    Reply

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