[toc]One of the great things about running a tech website like Ausdroid is that the team and I get to play with some cool gear. Where this benefits you, the reader, is that you can benefit from our access to a wide range of devices and our insights into each, and make a more informed decision before potentially signing a two year contract for your next smartphone.
This is especially the case with the flagship devices for 2013 released so far: Sony’s Xperia Z, HTC’s One and Samsung’s Galaxy S 4. While the reviews of these devices have been done by three separate authors – myself, Graham and James respectively, it’s less common that the same person has spent extensive time with all three.
Well, I have, and if you’re planning on dropping some coin to buy one of 2013’s smartphones, you’ll probably want to see how these devices compare across a number of areas. I’ve spent at least two weeks with each device, and in the case of the Xperia Z and Galaxy S 4, four weeks. With this insight, you can hopefully make a more informed choice.
Let’s get started.
You can read the reviews from our guys here:
Unsurprisingly, the reviews of each device were overall quite positive. There’s a lot to be said for the quality of handsets we’re seeing on Android these days — Sony, HTC and Samsung have clearly invested huge amounts of money in developing quality products, and the smartphones of 2013 are evidence of this. Each has their downsides though. None are perfect.
Call performance.. because these are phones!
I added this new section in response to a couple of comments received via social media. First and foremost, phones are phones, and it just so happens that smartphones have become so, so much more. It’s easy to forget that these things can actually be used to dial numbers and call people, and communicate by voice.
I have to say, I really haven’t noticed a difference in call quality, signal reception or in-call audio quality between any of the Galaxy S 4, One or Xperia Z. They all seem to lock on to carrier mobile networks as well as each other, and equally, the audio quality and speed at establishing calls is all much the same. This has become such a basic function of a phone that it’s easy to overlook, except when it’s done really badly.
The only comment I’ll make here is that while the Galaxy S 4 and One have quite loud earpiece volume — such that you can happily carry on a conversation while walking down a busy city street — the Xperia Z I do seem to recall was a bit quieter, and I would struggle to hear some conversations particularly with loud background noises.
If you’re keen on the Xperia Z for every other reason, you might want to see if you can make a test audio call on one in a somewhat noisy environment — the average shopping centre should provide a good testing ground — and make sure that you can hear the other party well enough. In my experience, it was just a little too quiet.
For those that like a speakerphone, and let’s face it, like them or not they do have a place, the HTC One had louder audio output and was somewhat clearer, but this is a fairly subjective judgement; I had no problems using the Galaxy S 4 as a speakerphone either, it’s just that the HTC One was louder, and thus easier to hear without straining.
Verdict: HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S 4.
There’s not a lot between between these phones. The Galaxy S 4 and One have the same chipset – a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 – with Samsung’s model pulling ahead with a 1.9 GHz Krait 300, while the One follows at 1.7 GHz, and the Xperia Z with a 1.5 GHz processor. These are small differences, and unsurprisingly, the performance differences from a user perspective between the three handsets are virtually non-existent.
The chart we’ve done up shows the benchmarking for these three handsets, together with two of our older favourites, the Nexus 4 and Samsung Galaxy S3. While the Galaxy S4 and One are closely matched, the Xperia Z falls behind quite markedly.
Our hands on experience doesn’t really bear this out — in real world use, the three phones are as snappy as each other in the areas that matter. Web browsing performance is fast, emails and social networking work well, and the phones switch rapidly between apps, games and media playback.
However, each has its quirks. For example, I found that the Xperia Z had an inexplicably laggy keyboard experience regardless of which keyboard I used (stock or a replacement). Other users have told me that they didn’t really notice this issue, so I guess your mileage may vary.
The Galaxy S 4 has occasional laggy moments, and this has been broadly attributed to the overheads caused by Samsung’s TouchWiz software. It’s cumbersome and a bit slow, but for every day use, you’re not going to notice issues from it. HTC’s One doesn’t have the same stuttery lag as the Galaxy S 4 exhibited, feeling much smoother and more consistently fast across the board. I haven’t found any obvious lag or stutter on the HTC One in the time I’ve been using it.
While the Galaxy S4 and HTC One are closely matched I feel the HTC One pulls ahead.
Verdict: HTC One
Let’s face it the camera on a smart phone is often one of the most important and most commonly used hardware features. Given that people like to be able to take photos of their most candid life moments, the smart phone, which is in people’s pockets most of the time, is often used to capture these events.
Having used all three smart phones, I felt that there were two real standout performers, and one that just wasn’t up to scratch. The Sony Xperia Z took consistently great photos, and the photos that I took during a review were of a high standard (if I do say so myself). Those of you to follow Geoff on Twitter or Instagram have probably seen some fantastic photos that he is taking with the Sony Xperia Z.
The HTC One, with its ultrapixel camera, also takes fantastic photos, especially at night. While it’s daytime performance is not perhaps as good as the Xperia Z, it is nonetheless still a fantastic camera, and for capturing photos on the go it certainly does a good job.
The Sony Xperia Z has the same megapixel count as the Samsung Galaxy S4, clocking in at 13 megapixels. However, that is where the comparison stops.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 camera is plagued by slowness — it was my experience that when pressing the shutter button, the Galaxy S4 would often take up to a second before the shutter would actually drop, thus taking a photo. It wasn’t so much a case of outright lag, as I could clearly see the Galaxy S4 was doing something, but it wasn’t taking the photo. No, the auto-focus on the Galaxy S4 isn’t super quick (or good), which tends to delay the shot being taken, and tends to degrade the quality of the resulting shot.
Unfortunately, I did not have all three of these phones at the same time. However as you can see above, we’ve presented some photos taken from all three handsets. You can judge for yourself which was better, but if you want a camera that can take a quick snap and do a good job of it in a flash, you’ll be looking to avoid the Galaxy S4.
In terms of features, each handset offers a number of choices. The Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, offers a wide number of photographic effects, such as beautiful face, action shots and a night mode that works quite well. HTC One takes the action shot, from the Samsung Galaxy S4, just that little bit further with a feature called HTC Zoe.
HTC Zoe allows you not only to create action shots showing a sequence of movements in the one frame, but it also allows you to take 20 photos in the space of three seconds, allow you to select the best photo from the range taken. If you’re focusing a moving target, or a small child, you’d know that it’s all too easy to miss the best photo — fast movement can cause you to miss the shot. With HTC is Zoe, this isn’t really a problem — it’s easy to capture the best shot.
You can read more about the special features in the respective device reviews.
Verdict: HTC One or Xperia Z
Anyone who knows me well can tell you just how much media I consume on a weekly basis. I read the news, I read tech blogs, I listen to podcasts, I listen to streaming radio, saved music, and I watch movies on the go. Why? I commute a lot, and I listen to music while I work.
Funnily enough, I’m not alone — many people enjoy the media features of their Androids. From a technical standpoint., there’s nothing between the Galaxy S4, One and Xperia Z. They can all play music, and they all have delightful screens to read and watch media on. While the Galaxy S4 sports an AMOLED display, and thus can (arguably) show more vibrant colours and blacker blacks, I really haven’t noticed a huge degree of difference between all three … at least insofar as front on viewing goes.
In my review of the Xperia Z, I smashed it for its viewing angles — in fact, unless you’re viewing the Xperia Z straight on, the display quickly washes out and becomes difficult to view.
Take this example: sitting in a chair in front of a desk, with your phone of choice on the desk, lying flat, in front of you. The Xperia Z would leave you just about unable to see the image. The One and Galaxy S4 would be in a tight race: both offer great viewing angles from any perspective around the device. In fact, if it weren’t for the glare from the highly reflective screens, you could probably see both the One and Galaxy S4 from almost side on just as clearly as you could from front on.
Besides this — which may not matter too much to you, as most of us read and view media from a mostly-straight-on perspective, there’s nothing much between them. They’re equally good at displaying text and moving content, and equally enjoyable to watch movies on. Yes, I tried on all three.
Sound-wise, there’s equally nothing between the devices, so long as you’re using some form of headset, be they earbuds, earphones or even bluetooth headsets. We’re well past the time when audio output was a genuine differentiator between smartphones, and I can’t fault any of these devices for their faithful reproduction of quality audio, even at eardrum shattering volumes.
All handsets support NFC, so if you’re using a nifty pair of NFC headphones (which use NFC to pair, and Bluetooth to play audio) you’ll be in luck. Bluetooth audio quality across each handset was the same — more than good enough, though the discerning ear will notice that a wired headset will always offer (slightly) better sound.
If you’re someone that likes to watch a movie in bed (for example), without using a headset, then there’s really only one choice. Both the Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z have tinny speakers that are (primarily) designed for use as a speakerphone, and playing your ringtones and notifications. For listening to audio, they’re both annoying and rubbish — they face away from you, and they’re not particularly loud.
The HTC One, with its BoomSound front-facing speakers, has this aspect of media playback down pat. Not only are the speakers front-facing, so you can hear the sound more clearly without having to cup the phone with your hand, but there are TWO of them, so you can enjoy your movies or whatever in stereo sound as well. Until you’ve tried this, you won’t appreciate just how good it can be.
That said, there aren’t too many circumstances where you’d want (or where it would be socially acceptable) to listen to media without headphones, so it might not be a huge deciding factor for you.
Verdict: HTC One with the Samsung Galaxy S4 a very close second. Xperia Z, with its relatively poor display, just can’t win here.
An important consideration is just how long you can be away from the dreaded charger before your phone starts to beep, flash and eventually turn itself off. Androids have, in the past, suffered from fairly ordinary battery performance, but with bigger batteries and more efficient chipsets, 2013’s phones are certainly a leap ahead from what we’ve seen in the past.
Each of the handsets sports a giant battery — the Galaxy S4 wins with its 2600 mAh Li-Ion, the Xperia Z follows with a 2330 mAh Li-Ion, and the HTC One has the smallest of the lot, a Li-Po 2300 mAh power source. You might think that this would give the HTC One the lesser performance of the three, but it’s not quite that clear cut.
Firstly, we’d like to show you some figures from a fairly respectable authority on battery testing. GSM Arena does a thorough battery life test with each of its reviews, and while we give our batteries a smashing, we don’t do it quite as well as they do.
|Device||Talk time||Web browsing||Video playback||Overall|
|Samsung Galaxy S4||13:53h||8:42h||10:16h||63h|
|Sony Xperia Z||16:03h||6:36h||5:39h||48h|
By way of explanation, the first three measures should be self explanatory — they are measures of how long, from a full charge, each phone will last on each activity – making a voice call, browsing the web and playing back a video. The overall rating was derived by measuring how long each handset would last with an hour each day of calls, web browsing and video watching.
As you can see, the Galaxy S4 pulls ahead of the HTC One by a good 15 hours overall, and this is (one can conclude) by virtue if its better performance (i.e. sipping less battery) while in standby mode. However, on active use, the scores are much closer. Both the HTC One and Galaxy S4 have over 13 hours talk time, and approximately 10 hours video playback. On the web browsing front, the HTC One lasts almost an hour longer than the Galaxy S4.
So, in real world terms, what does this mean? Basically, each of these handsets can last you a full day without needing a charge, and my experience backs this. With three or four syncing email accounts, social media push notifications, an hour of music in the morning, calls, SMS and Instant Messaging during the day, and probably another hour of music at night, there was still plenty of charge to see you well into the evening. I really can’t fault any of the handsets here.
However, if you’re the type that doesn’t really use your smartphone for all that much apart from the odd call and text messaging, or if you’re trying to extract maximum life from your handset deliberately (e.g. you’re away from power and need to stretch it out), the Galaxy S4 is going to pull ahead. In any other situation, they’re pretty much a dead heat.
Verdict: Galaxy S4, with the One and Xperia Z a close second.
Build quality and physical aspects
This really comes down to personal taste.
In the hand, the HTC One feels like a premium product — machined from a single piece of aluminium, much like Apple’s higher-end laptops, the HTC One feels every bit the superphone that it is. It’s cool, smooth and metallic, and just loves your hand.
The Galaxy S4 is no less a superphone, but its construction would leave you thinking otherwise if you didn’t know what was under the hood. The Galaxy S4 has a glossy plastic back, and is prone to becoming slippery with the oils and whatnot from your hands from regular use. While it has a metallic trim around the edge, the back is plastic, and it really does feel a bit flimsy and cheap (especially when you remove the cover to insert a SD card, or change the battery).
The Xperia Z shares the HTC One design, in the sense that it has a non-removable battery and a more solid feel. However, my experience was mixed. The edge design and materials made the Xperia Z a little uncomfortable to hold and use single-handedly. There isn’t much in the dimensions — the three phones are within a millimetre or two of each other in width — but the Xperia Z just feels wider, and thus, less comfortable to hold and use.
In terms of weight, all three are comfortable here — the Galaxy S4 is lighter by virtue of its more plastic composition, but in the hand, the difference of 15 grams or so between it and the One or Xperia Z is neither here nor there.
In terms of comfort in your pocket, a highly subjective measure, the HTC One just feels nicer in the pocket. It’s thicker than the other two handsets, and much the same in height and width, but despite this, it feels thinner, and less prominent when carried in the pocket of a pair of business pants. This probably has a lot to do with the rounded back – while it’s 9.3mm thick in the middle, it’s much less on the sides.
Verdict: Too close to call. The HTC One feels like a better construction, the Galaxy S4 is nice and light, and the Xperia Z is comfortable, except for its feel in the hand when used single-handedly. There’s no clear winner, but do try the Xperia Z before purchase — it won’t suit those with smaller hands.
While not something that will be of much interest to the average consumer, it’s something that the more technically inclined might be to now. While the Galaxy S4 launched with the very latest version of Android (Jelly Bean 4.2.2), both the Xperia Z and One launched with Jelly Bean 4.1.2. Are there major differences between these two versions?
In short, not really.
While you can read about the extensive list of changes from Android 4.1 to 4.2 here, the reality is 4.2 doesn’t offer too much that 4.1 doesn’t, and you need to bear in mind that that some of the features that Jelly Bean 4.1 doesn’t have by default are none-the-less implemented in the handsets released by Sony and HTC.
The most noticeable feature you miss by forgoing Android 4.2 is lock-screen widgets, but these are a mixed bag in my opinion, and not having access to these really doesn’t harm the Android 4.1 devices all that much.
Insofar as updates are concerned, Samsung have a reasonable record of updating devices to new Android versions, and being their number 1 flagship of 2013, you can safely bet that when the next version of Android comes around — Key Lime Pie 4.3 — the Galaxy S4 will receive the update.
There are rumours that HTC is preparing for a June release of an Android 4.2 update for the One, but to be honest, we haven’t heard anything recently about this. We’re hoping it arrives, and we’d dearly love to see an Android 4.3 update once it’s released, but HTC aren’t quite as well known for timely software updates. It’s a flagship. We’ll see what happens.
Sony is the unknown quantity here — on one hand, I’ve not personally heard anything about an Android 4.2 update for the Xperia Z, but on the other hand, Sony’s version of Android 4.1 is pretty close to stock (by comparison to the One and Galaxy S4) so the update might not be so involved for them to roll out.
As I always say to a prospective smartphone buyer, if you’re concerned about having the latest and greatest software, stick with a Nexus device, because you can’t be guaranteed that an OEM handset will receive an update to anything beyond what it sells with.
Verdict: Too close to call. However, if you must have the bleeding edge right now, Galaxy S4 is the leader.
Other factors — general software, packaged apps, standout features, etc
A smartphone in 2013 isn’t a smartphone unless it includes a gimmick or two, and there’s no shortage amongst the One, Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z.
The Xperia Z did have some vaunted selling points, and strangely enough, they were all hardware-based. The Xperia Z is IP56 certified which means that it’s designed to protect against dust and water incursion. During my review, I dropped the Xperia Z into my fishtank for twenty minutes or so and it suffered no ill effects. Its other hardware ‘feature’ (though it’s by no means unique to Sony) is NFC One-Touch pairing — marketed as allowing you to easily pair the Xperia Z with a range of wireless devices such as headphones or external speakers — it’s a cool idea, but it’s not really unique to Sony. Any handset with NFC is usually compatible with these One-Touch devices, and indeed as I write this, I’m using a pair of Sony’s MDR-1RBT headphones, paired via one-touch with the HTC One.
Samsung and HTC have focused more on software/hardware integrations for their selling features. I don’t propose to go into them at length, because the Galaxy S4 at least has a good number of selling points that may be of mixed value to the end user. Features like S Health are interesting but unlikely to be a deciding factor in purchasing a Galaxy S4. However, there are a lot of these, and you should check out the Galaxy S4 review for more information about everything that’s packaged with this handset. The true gimmicks, like Air View, Air Gestures, Eye Tracking and other things really are — in my opinion — party tricks, and are unlikely to be in regular use by any Galaxy S4 owner.
HTC and Samsung have both decided to include IR blasters in their 2013 handsets, which allow you to easily control your TV, Home Theatre and other media devices — basically anything that can be controlled with an IR remote can be commanded from a One or Galaxy S4, though I have to say the Galaxy S4 WatchOn app does a much better job of this — and supports a much wider range of devices — than the One’s TV app, which really can only control your TV, cable box and home theatre. The TV app on the One can — with some mucking around — be made to control your BluRay or DVD player, but it’s not nearly as intuitive as Samsung’s approach.
We’ve already mentioned HTC One’s front-facing BoomSound speakers, and they deserve another mention here. Initially put down as a bit of a gimmick — let’s face it, the name is a bit corny — they really could be a major selling point / standout feature if you’re into media consumption. They’re just that good.
Samsung is let down a bit by being the tall poppy. Let me explain. Those of you who don’t live under rocks will know that Samsung and Apple have been involved in suing the pants off each other for a couple of years now, and many people commented at the time that the Samsung Galaxy S III was the first Samsung phone designed by lawyers. Funny though it may have been at the time, this might have had some truth to it, because in 2012, a software update to the Galaxy S III saw users lose the ability to customise their dock icons, something that virtually every Android launcher allows you to do. Samsung restricted this, however, and that restriction carries through to Galaxy S4 handsets sold in Australia — you can’t customise the dock without installing a third party launcher, or worse, installing a ROM from overseas on your Australian handset to unlock the functionality. It’s inexplicable, and it’s rather annoying.
This aside, Touchwiz itself is inconsistent and arguably child-like. In some places, it leaves the Galaxy S4 looking like it’s running Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and in others, a mish-mash of Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. James commented in the Galaxy S4 review on this inconsistency, and while the Galaxy S4 is otherwise capable, the complete lack of consistency in Samsung’s user interface design just makes no sense.
HTC Sense, on the other hand, has been much hated upon by Ausdroid for quite a number of years now. In the early days, HTC Sense was just awful. It was slow, bloaty and basically a poorly executed port from the Windows Mobile platform. Fastforward to 2013, and HTC Sense is nothing of its former self. Not only is the user interface and experience consistent on the One, but it actually (in my opinion, anyway) enhances the Android experience. It’s not slow, it doesn’t lag, and while some parts of it are a bit questionable (Blinkfeed really shouldn’t be a thing), overall it looks and works fantastically.
If the accessory market is something that may swing your smartphone choice, you would be insane to look beyond the Galaxy S4. Samsung’s Galaxy line has been around for a few years now, and with that established market there’s a flourishing accessory market to go with it. Finding cases, adapters, cables, vehicle mounts and whatnot is as easy for a Galaxy S4 as for an iPhone, but the same cannot be said for the One or Xperia Z. This will probably change a bit in time — maybe moreso for the One — but I wouldn’t count on it.
Verdict: HTC One, because the software is good without being over the top, the ‘gimmicks’ are actually useful, and there is a reasonable accessory market, albeit not as large as Samsung’s.
Community Support – Modding, rooting, etc.
No roundup on Ausdroid would be complete without a bit of a look at the community support. Android is nothing if not flexible, extensible and modifiable, and while many consumers might not really care too much about this, it is something for the more technical audience.
You’ll be happy to know that the basics are supported across the board. With each of these devices, you can:
- Root your device;
- Install a custom recovery; and
- Install custom ROMs.
Some make this a little easier than others. Sony are well known for supporting the developer community with source code for various bits and pieces, and more recently, releasing an entire AOSP tree for the Xperia Z. Samsung and HTC don’t quite go that far, but HTC offers its official boot-loader unlock site which facilitates easy modification of your device’s software, and Samsung doesn’t require that much to modify its software.
The process for modifying each handset is not particularly difficult. From my experience, HTC’s hardware is probably the easiest to get into and tinker with, and the Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z would be a close second.
In terms of actual developer support, each handset has a number of custom ROMs (or operating systems based on Android) available. Some are stock ROMs (i.e. taken from what’s on the handset at launch) that are modified to increase performance, battery life and reduce wasted space, and yet others are based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) which delivers are closer-to-vanilla Android experience, with various tweaks. Big names include CyanogenMod and AOKP, and these are available on each of the three handsets, though some platforms have a more stable build than others.
For sheer variety of ROMs, my prediction is the Galaxy S4 will pull ahead, and that’s because it’s already sold (roughly) twice as many handsets as the HTC One. I don’t know whether you’d prefer the Galaxy S4 or the One if you’re looking at custom ROMs, because the major custom ROMs will run equally well (give or take) on both handsets, so at the end of the day, your preference will probably come down to hardware or other features. Bear in mind though, the so-called “gimmicky” features, like Samsung’s S-Apps and HTC’s Zoe, together with their respective Camera apps that complement the hardware being used, will NOT be used to full capacity by AOSP based custom ROMs, because the support just isn’t there.
Verdict: Subjective; will depend entirely on what you want, but Xperia Z has fewer custom ROM choices.
This wrap wouldn’t be complete without a round-up of the three handsets’ technical specifications, and for this we’ve prepared a nifty table setting out each of the key specifications for the Galaxy S4, One and Xperia Z.
|Galaxy S4||One||Xperia Z|
|Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean||Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean||Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean|
Super AMOLED HD
|4.7″ Super LCD 3||5.0″ TFT|
|1920 x 1080|
|1920 x 1080|
|1920 x 1080|
9.3 mm * see note below
|130 grams||143 grams||146 grams|
|1.9 GHz Quad-Core Krait 300 (AU model)||Qualcomm APQ8064T Snapdragon 600|
Quad-core 1.7 GHz Krait 300
|Qualcomm MDM9215M / APQ8064|
Quad-core 1.5 GHz Krait
|Adreno 320||Adreno 320||Adreno 320|
|16GB / 32GB / 64GB||32GB / 64GB||16GB|
microSD card slot
|Yes, up to 64GB||No||Yes, up to 32GB|
|13 MP, 4128×3096 pixels,|
autofocus, LED flash, 1080p@30fps, HDR, video stabilization
Simultaneous HD video and image recording
|4 MP UltraPixels, 2688×1520 pixels, autofocus, LED flash, 1080p@30fps, HDR, video stabilization,|
Simultaneous HD video and image recording
| 13.1 MP, 4128×3096 pixels|
autofocus, LED flash, 1080p@30fps, HDR, video stabilizer,
continuous autofocus, video light,
Simultaneous HD video and image recording
|Li-Ion 2600 mAh||Li-Po 2300 mAh||Li-Ion 2330 mAh|
|Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n,ac, dual-band, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct,|
|Wi-Fi 802.11 a/ac/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot||Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot|
|Yes, v4.0 with A2DP, EDR||Yes, v4.0 with A2DP||Yes, v4.0 with A2DP|
|GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900|
HSDPA 850 / 900 / 2100
HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100
LTE 800 / 1800 / 2600
|GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900|
HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
LTE (market dependent)
|GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 – C6602, C6603|
HSDPA 850 / 900 / 2100 – C6603
HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100 – C6602
LTE 800 / 850 / 900 / 1800 / 2100 / 2600 – C6603
|Yes||Yes (Market dependent)||Yes|
|April, 2013||March, 2013||March, 2013|
* Note amount Height, Width and Thickness: I have given the One the ‘best’, even though dimension-wise, the Galaxy S 4 is less thick, and otherwise virtually the same dimension. The reason for this is simple, and yet subjective. This is because, to me, the One felt slimmer and smaller in the hand than the Galaxy S 4.
As you can see, we’ve delved quite deeply into what each of the flagship smartphones of 2013 have to offer, their pros and cons, and the differences between them. If you’ve read this far, you’ve done well — there’s about 4,700 words before this point. Equally, you’ll be expecting me to give some sort of verdict on which of these smartphones has been, in my opinion, the best.
Third Place: Xperia Z
I don’t want to harsh on Sony too much, but the reality is this — the Xperia Z is not the best smartphone of 2013. It just can’t be. Sony wanted it to be so much more than it worked out being. Sony’s John Featherstone told me at the launch event for the Xperia Z that they wanted to bring back the wow, but in my opinion, they didn’t. They continued on the meh. Sony fell into the same kind of trap that HTC did in 2012 .. Sony released many different Xperia models, as HTC experimented with releasing variants on the One brandname, which it re-used in 2013. The Xperia Z was clearly a class above its previous handsets, but even then, it just wasn’t remarkable. It didn’t launch with the latest Android, it didn’t have the best screen, and while it did have a pretty rocking camera and great battery life, it just didn’t have any stand-out features that made it great, nor that would go further and put it higher than the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4.
The Xperia Z was a good phone, but it wasn’t great. It’s not on the top tier anymore with the major telcos, and it just isn’t that interesting compared to the newer handsets. If gimmicks are your thing, you’ll note the Xperia Z really doesn’t offer anything. It’s a solid handset in a solid package, but that’s all it is.
Second Place: Galaxy S4
There, I said it. I don’t think the Galaxy S4 is the best phone of 2013; it comes second to the One. Why?
I love the Galaxy S4. Truly, I do. It’s great hardware in a great package, and it has the mass-market consumer appeal that will see not only huge numbers of sales, but will also see a huge array of accessories and third party support. Go into any JB HiFi, Dick Smith, Harvey Norman, or any other electronics or phone retailer, and see if you can spot the groups of smartphone accessories on sale. There’ll be a huge wall of iPhone 4/4s/5 accessories, followed by a grouping of Samsung accessories, then a small ad-hoc range of accessories for ‘Other’. You have no idea how hard it is to find accessories for handsets other than Samsung or iPhone models — in some places, they just don’t exist.
But accessories don’t make the phone. Once you take away the glitz and glamour of being a big seller (and it will probably sell the most handsets of any Android handset this year), you can consider what the Galaxy S4 offers, and more importantly, what it doesn’t.
The Galaxy S4 offers quick performance, a great phone to hold in the hand, a huge variety of packaged applications and tools that would mean you could happily use the handset without ever downloading an app from the Play Store if that’s your thing.
In the end, it was a really fine decision that put the HTC One ahead, and so without further delay, here’s the HTC One.
The Winner: HTC One
HTC was once the king of Android phone handsets. They released the first reference device — the HTC Dream — and a good number of decent handets after this, through to the first Nexus device, the Nexus One. Without handsets of the quality HTC gave us, I have no doubt at all that Android wouldn’t be today what it is.
HTC lost its way, and nowhere was this more apparent than what happened last year. It released a slew of handsets that were, almost universally, pretty ordinary. When I used the One XL, I couldn’t believe it had been released to market. Battery life was non-existant, multi-tasking that had long been an expected feature of Android was missing, and HTC Sense was still an abomination. I was glad when I dropped the handset from my pocket and smashed it in the door of my car ‘by accident’. It should come as no surprise, then, that with HTC’s lacklustre performance of late, their financial results are currently really poor. HTC is pegging much on the success of the One, and if current results are anything to go by, HTC might not be dead just yet.
In my opinion, the One offers mostly everything that the Galaxy S4 does, plus a little bit more.
It has a powerhouse CPU, a big, bright screen, plenty of onboard storage (with options up to 64gb — although, no SD card support), and built-in apps that really do add value. It has a great operating system (Android 4.1.2, while not the newest, still works well) and a great interface on top. I never thought I’d say that about HTC Sense, but on the One, it actually feels like it belongs, and it enhances the Android experience rather than getting in the way of it.
But it’s not just these things that make the One a great phone to have and to use. It feels fantastic in your pocket and in your hand. It’s unobtrusive, and while it only comes in two colours, they look every bit as premium as they should. It has all day battery life without having to scrimp, and it isn’t burdened by a tonne of software options that you don’t need, and that just slow everything down. The Galaxy S4 offers a lot of customisation options — maybe more than the One — but most of these are fairly useless, and won’t be touched. It offers a lot of smart gesture controls, but these equally are a good way to drain a bit of battery life without adding much by way of utility. Sometimes its better not to have everything bar the kitchen sink. Sometimes its better to have a slightly more minimal feel, being still feature-rich but eschewing endless options, customisation and silly gimmicks.
Samsung will sell more Galaxy S4s than HTC will sell Ones, and you don’t have to have a crystal ball to see it. However, this isn’t because the Galaxy S4 is the better phone. It’s because Samsung spend far more on advertising and marketing (by several orders of magnitude I suspect), and basically shove the Galaxy S4 in the face of would-be Android adopters. For someone coming from the relatively locked-down world of iOS, the Galaxy S4 presents a friendly, approachable face, and because of this (a) Samsung got its pants sued off by Apple, for allegedly copying many elements from Apple when it shouldn’t have done so and (b) it will nevertheless sell a lot of handsets, because it looks and feels familiar.
To the end user, the fact that you might have the same handset as 10 million other people due to good marketing doesn’t mean much. In fact, it’s completely irrelevant. What matters is the quality and usability of the handset itself, and for this, for all the reasons I’ve set out above, the HTC One takes the prize.