Under the Microscope: iPhone 5s vs. Samsung Galaxy S4
October 7, 2013
Comparing the iPhone 5s to the Galaxy S4 isn't really all that different from comparing last year's iPhone 5 to the Galaxy S4. But the 5s does offer a few key upgrades over its predecessor, so we thought it was worth hauling out the microscope to revisit Apple's and Samsung's latest flagships. How do the 5s' new fingerprint sensor, A7 chip, and improved camera stack up next to the GS4? Join Gizmag, as we go hands-on, to pit the iPhone 5s against the Galaxy S4.
The new normal?
Just like when we compared the Galaxy S4 to 2012's iPhone 5, we're looking at a big difference in overall size. Samsung's phone is ten percent taller and 19 percent wider than the 5s. Both phones are pretty thin, but the GS4 is also four percent thicker.
During the last couple of years, Android phones have completely rewritten the definition of a "normal" sized smartphone. The iPhone used to be considered the standard; now it looks very small next to its competitors, including the GS4.
If you have small hands, you might appreciate the iPhone's compact build. If you want your phone to practically disappear into your pocket, only making its presence felt when you reach for it, then the iPhone is the better choice. But on the other hand, we know people with small hands who use the Galaxy S4 daily, and wouldn't trade it for the world. As always, it's about finding your own sweet spot.
The iPhone 5s is 14 percent lighter than the GS4, but both feel extremely light in hand. When you look at relative weight (weight-to-surface-area ratio), the GS4 actually measures in at 11 percent lighter.
Construction and colors
We don't have a huge problem with the Galaxy S4's glossy plastic build, but we do think the iPhone clearly wins the construction and build quality round. It sports an air-tight body made of anodized aluminum, and looks like it could have been crafted alongside a Rolex watch (it wasn't, but it might have been crafted alongside an iWatch). Its design has become so familiar and iconic, it's almost easy to forget how seamless and intricate its craftsmanship is.
The GS4's plastic build isn't nearly as seamless, as our unit has been known to get lint and other schmutz caught around its edges and back camera lens. Hairs and crumbs can usually be cleaned out pretty easily, but by that time, the phone's high-end aura has already been diminished. That's something you don't have to worry about with the iPhone.
The only visible differences between the iPhone 5s and its predecessor, the iPhone 5, are its new home button (more on that in a minute), the dual-LED camera flash, and some new color options. Speaking of colors, Apple replaced the black & slate option from the iPhone 5 with a new "space gray" (with black front) color. The old silver and white model (pictured in this article) survived another year, and there's also a new gold and white version as well.
The Galaxy S4's plastic body (available primarily in black or white) doesn't feel nearly as solid or premium, but it does offer one practical benefit. You can pop open its backside, and swap its 2,600 mAh battery for a spare. We'll hit battery life a bit more in a minute, but being able to switch batteries in a pinch is a nice perk that the iPhone doesn't offer.
Big screen, small screen
Screen size is still one of the biggest differences between these two phones, and it poses the biggest question you'll want to ask yourself before making a decision. If you're comfortable with the Galaxy S4's feel in hand, then you'll get to reap the benefits of a much bigger display.
The iPhone 5s only gives you 63 percent as much screen area as the GS4 gives you. Or, put another way, the GS4 gives you 56 percent more screen area than the iPhone 5s does. The Galaxy S4's screen also takes up a higher portion of its front face, and provides a much bigger window peering into your apps, games, and videos.
Many customers still enjoy the iPhone's smaller screen. But five-inch displays like the GS4's offer a lot of upside, and only one potential drawback: the phone's overall size. If you're comfortable with the Galaxy S4's feel in hand and pocket, then there's really no benefit to going with a smaller screen. There are, of course, other benefits to owning the iPhone, but its small screen size alone doesn't really offer anything in return, apart from portability.
We don't think screen quality is an issue on either phone. There are, however, a few key differences. The GS4's is much sharper (441 pixels per inch to the iPhone's 326 PPI), though we're really comparing "ridiculously sharp" to "plenty sharp." The GS4's AMOLED display also saturates colors more, giving everything a sort of hyper-real look. Its blacks are also blacker, and its whites have a very slight yellow-ish tinge. The iPhone's colors are more toned down and realistic-looking.
The iPhone 5s' killer feature is invisible to the naked eye. Hidden underneath the sapphire home button is Apple's Touch ID sensor, the fruit borne of Apple's 2012 purchase of Authentec. It's the most consumer-friendly biometric fingerprint sensor that's ever been made.
When setting up your iPhone 5s, you'll be given the option to activate Touch ID. Teach the phone your fingerprint (by repeatedly pressing and lifting your finger at different angles), then set up a passcode. You'll be able to unlock your phone by holding that finger over the home button for a moment, while anyone else will need a passcode.
Touch ID lets you enter up to five fingerprints (your fingers or those of trusted friends or family). It works mostly as advertised, very quickly, and without fanfare.
As we mentioned in our iPhone 5s review, there are a couple of exceptions. If your finger gets dry or ashy, it might not recognize it. If your finger is wet, forget about it. I live in a dry climate and swim regularly, so Touch ID was pretty hit-or-miss with me. Chances are, though, it won't cause as many problems for you.
The Galaxy S4 doesn't have a fingerprint sensor, but it will soon have a similar blend of security and convenience. Once it's compatible with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch (via a software update that is supposedly coming this month), you can set the phone to require a pattern lock if out of range of your watch. So if you leave your GS4 on the subway, but still have your Gear on your wrist, whoever finds it will be locked out.
This obviously isn't quite as bulletproof a solution as the fingerprint sensor. For example, if someone stole your Galaxy Gear along with the phone, they could unlock it without a code. But once the Gear becomes compatible with the GS4, this option will be at least in the same ballpark as Touch ID. That is, if you don't mind spending an extra US$300 on the smartwatch.
Both phones have top-notch cameras (well, at least for smartphones). Let's look at some sample shots ...
Here are both phones in direct sunlight:
Now some cropped sections of the same two shots:
We see very little difference in this setting. The GS4's looks a little sharper, and its 13-megapixel sensor does have higher resolution than the 5s' 8 MP shooter.
Now let's stay outdoors, but move into some more indirect sunlight:
And now cropped sections of those shots:
Again, hard to argue with either result. The iPhone's shot looks slightly darker and more saturated, while the GS4's appears to show a smidge more detail.
Now let's move into some moderate indoor lighting:
Now let's crop those two:
Again, very close call. Not much to nitpick here.
Now we move into a very poorly lit indoor scene (note that we set the GS4's automatic night mode filter on for this shot):
The advantage goes to the iPhone, but not by an enormous margin. It's worth noting, though, that if we had turned off the GS4's night filter, its shot would have been nearly pitch black.
Finally let's take that same setting, and turn both flashes on:
The iPhone's shot looks more saturated, and has higher contrast. Both shots look very much like typical smartphone flash photography, but the iPhone's "True Tone" Dual-LED flash appears to make its look a little less washed out.
If you're going to split hairs over photo quality, then we'd probably cast our vote for the iPhone. Especially when you throw in its terrific burst mode (which automatically chooses the sharpest shot) and slow-motion video features, we'd say its camera has the edge. But the GS4's camera is no slouch at all, and you could easily argue that its quality was at least as good in all of the above samples, apart from the last low-lit shots.
Battery life comparison
On a technical level, the iPhone 5s has a 1,570 mAh battery, while the Galaxy S4 holds 2,600 mAh of juice. Based on our experience, both phones' batteries should last a full day for almost any kind of "typical" use.
In our more formal test, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, the iPhone 5s came out far ahead. It lasted about six hours and fifteen minutes. The GS4, meanwhile, only lasted around four hours and ten minutes.
Our day-to-day use didn't necessarily show such a big discrepancy between the two, but that might be because neither handset ever came close to conking out at the end of the day. The bottom line: both are solid bets in this department, but for those who want to squeeze as many hours as possible out of the battery, the iPhone wins.
As we mentioned earlier, though, you can basically double the GS4's battery life by toting around a spare battery. Power down, swap for a fresh one, reboot, and enjoy another day of battery life.
Performance and processors
We always monitor performance when reviewing mobile devices, but we aren't going to blab on about it too much. Why? Because just about every high-end phone these days is far more capable than nearly any app you can throw at it requires it to be.
Both of these phones fit that bill. The iPhone's A7 chip makes it the faster phone, and this is reflected in benchmarks. But at this point, that's almost like telling a soccer mom that this racecar is faster than that racecar. Both are extremely zippy and responsive, and likely far beyond what you'll ever need.
It's possible that, in a year or two, there will be apps and games that push both of these phones to their limits. If that day comes before these two handsets are obsolete, then the iPhone will have an edge. But most app developers want their software to be compatible with as many generations of phones as possible, so we wouldn't worry too much about future-proofing.
The most notable item about Apple's A7 system-on-a-chip is its shift to a 64-bit architecture. This is significant for the future of not just iOS, but mobile devices in general. Though the iPhone 5s only has 1 GB of RAM, future 64-bit iOS devices could support over 4 GB, making mobile devices a bit more like their desktop counterparts. This could have a ripple effect throughout the entire mobile landscape, because as Apple goes, others tend to follow (Samsung is already reportedly working on 64-bit mobile processors).
iOS 7 is Apple's first big cosmetic makeover of its mobile operating system. But the changes aren't all skin-deep. In addition to its new flat design (fewer shadows, reflections, and simulated real-world objects), you get a few new features thrown in.
Our favorite new feature is Command Center, Apple's better-late-than-never quick settings menu. Slide up from the bottom of the screen, and do things like toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, adjust brightness, or change your music track. Android phones (and jailbroken iPhones) have had similar slide-in settings toggles for years, so we'd say "finally" is an appropriate description here. For what it's worth, though, it is well done, and exactly what an iOS quick settings center needs to be.
iTunes Radio also makes its debut in iOS 7. Apple still doesn't have an on-demand Spotify and Rdio rival, but iTunes Radio gives the company a Pandora alternative, complete with computer-programmed radio stations based on your favorite artists, songs, or albums.
iOS 7 also gives you improved multitasking, which now shows you live preview cards of your open apps. AirDrop also makes the leap from Mac OS X, letting you easily share media files with nearby friends (provided they also have iOS devices).
Our least favorite part of iOS is its keyboard. After using trace keyboards on the Galaxy S4 (and other Android phones), the iPhone's tap-only keyboard seems primitive and extremely limited. Android lets you choose from a variety of keyboards, many of which have excellent predictive text and novel approaches to typing. iOS lets you ... tap. If Apple isn't going to open its keyboard up to developers, then let's hope it at least expands its own keyboard's capabilities in iOS 8.
We could write a book on the software features that Samsung threw into the Galaxy S4, but we'll just stick to a few of the most memorable. We're looking at a laundry list of features, most of which we never used after our first five minutes with the phone. Most infamous are gimmicky air gesture and eye tracking features, which we never found very useful. Smart Stay, however, which keeps your display on as long as you're looking at it, is actually pretty handy.
The Galaxy S4's similarly-exhaustive selection of camera features is a bit more practical. This includes not just the standard HDR and panorama modes, but a sports mode (simulates a much better camera's high shutter speed), a portrait mode (enhances and focuses on faces), and Best Face, which lets you, in a group shot, choose each person's best-looking face, before merging them into one final product.
The iOS vs. Android fanboy wars won't end anytime soon, and we aren't under any illusions that we're going to settle it here. Our take? Both have matured into excellent, top-tier mobile operating systems. Pick your favorite (on the most general level, iOS favors bullet-proof simplicity and Android favors customizable flexibility), and don't worry too much about what anyone else prefers.
It's hard to go wrong with either phone, but they each have their pros and cons. The iPhone 5s is light and fits easily into just about any hand, but its screen is small and the phone is only slightly changed from last year's iPhone 5. The Galaxy S4, meanwhile, has a big and gorgeous display, but its construction looks cheap next to the iPhone, and many of its software features are gimmicky wastes of space.
How do you choose? Well, we can't do that for you. But we think this will give you a nudge in the right direction, and help you to find the phone that works best for you.