Under the microscope: Samsung Galaxy S4 vs. iPhone 5
May 29, 2013
It’s a tricky business, comparing iPhone and Galaxy smartphones. Too often the conversation disintegrates into fingerpointing, one-upmanship, and sermons from the Church of the Holy Fanboy. But when it comes down to it, we're talking about two great smartphones. Some people will prefer one, some will prefer the other. Who cares? The only important question is which is better for you? Let’s do our best to help you answer that, with our in-depth comparison of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Apple iPhone 5.
Big and small
When we compared the Galaxy S4 to the HTC One, we were looking at a relatively minor difference in size. Not here. The GS4 is over 10 percent taller, and about 19 percent wider than the iPhone 5.
It’s a big difference. Though we can’t definitively tell you which you’ll prefer, I personally think the benefits of the Galaxy S4’s size outweigh its drawbacks. I spent several months using the iPhone 5 as my main phone. But after using the GS4 on-and-off for about a month, the iPhone just feels undersized in comparison.
If you have very small hands, you might lean towards the iPhone’s smaller build. It’s also easier to reach your thumb all the way across its screen. If you really want to nitpick, wearers of skinny jeans will find the iPhone easier to pocket.
There’s also something to be said for easily wrapping your fingers around the svelte iPhone. Its size is great for those times when you snap it out of your pocket to take a few pics. The iPhone 5 harkens back to the days when smartphones were PORTABLE computers. Most Android phones today are more like portable COMPUTERS.
But I don’t think the Galaxy S4's size is too big of a concern for most of us. And, as we’ll soon find out, that larger size leads to some big advantages that can make the arguments for the iPhone’s smaller size sound petty.
Light and lighter
The iPhone 5 is about 14 percent lighter than the Galaxy S4. Make no mistake, though: both phones are certified featherweights.
In fact, the GS4 beats the iPhone in relative weight. When you look at each phone’s surface-area-to-weight ratio, the Galaxy S4 is actually 11 percent lighter.
The iPhone 5 is the lightest high-end smartphone you can buy right now. The Galaxy S4 is the lightest big high-end smartphone you can buy right now.
Plastic vs. aluminum
Of course you can’t mention weight without talking about build materials. The Galaxy S4’s exterior is made of plastic, while the iPhone is made of more expensive anodized aluminum. There’s been a lot of angry internet debate over whether smartphones made of aluminum and glass are inherently “better” than those made of plastic (as usual, a consensus wasn't reached).
In my experience, though, the GS4’s build does feel a bit cheaper in hand. I’d rate the iPhone 5’s aluminum unibody construction as second only to the HTC One in terms of having that “premium” allure. The iPhone 5 only looks slightly different from the previous two iPhones, but it’s still a great example of Apple’s obsessive attention to simple, unified design.
On the other hand, the Galaxy S4’s plastic chassis opens the door to fun goodies like a removable battery and microSD card slot. It’s nice to be able to swap batteries on the go, or expand your media storage without buying a new phone. The iPhone 5 doesn’t offer either of those perks.
The iPhone’s button layout hasn’t changed since the 2007 original. We’re looking at a lone physical home button below the screen. The power/sleep button sits on the top right. Volume buttons and the silence switch sit on the upper left side.
The Galaxy S4’s buttons are also unchanged from its predecessor, the Galaxy S III. It too has a springy home button below the screen. Unlike the iPhone’s circular and depressed home button, the GS4’s is elongated and raised. The GS4 also has a capacitive menu key to the left of home, and a capacitive back key sitting on the right.
With only the one navigation button (home), the iPhone makes you rely on on-screen cues for finding your way around apps and iOS. The GS4's ever-present back button eliminates any confusion there. Its menu key can also be handy for quickly finding settings screens.
Like overall size, screen sizes are also radically different. Measured diagonally, the iPhone 5’s display is four inches, while the Galaxy S4’s is five inches. Both have 16:9 aspect ratios.
But diagonal measurements are misleading, and don’t really tell the story. A much more relevant measurement is screen area. So here’s the only screen size metric you need to know: the iPhone 5 gives you 63 percent as much screen real estate as the Galaxy S4.
If you were buying property, it would be obvious which was the better value. Do you buy the lakefront property that sits on one acre, or the one next door that sits on 6/10 of an acre? The realtor selling the smaller property might claim that its size is “just right” (as Apple does with the iPhone 5 ), but you probably wouldn’t take that very seriously.
Of course you don't have to hold lakefront property in your hand or put it in your pocket, so the metaphor only goes so far. But the only tradeoff to the GS4’s screen size is the phone’s larger size. As we already mentioned, though, the Galaxy should still be comfortable for all but the tiniest adult hands (and the tightest adult pants). I see screen size as a huge advantage for the Galaxy S4. Your opinion, naturally, may vary.
Screen size, though, is only part of the equation. There’s also screen quality. But here too the scales tip towards Samsung’s side of the fence.
The Galaxy S4 has 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) resolution, at 441 pixels per inch (PPI). The iPhone 5 has 1,136 x 640 resolution, at 326 PPI. Maybe a more telling way of looking at it, though, is that the iPhone 5 has 35 percent as many pixels as the Galaxy S4.
The perceived difference, however, might not be quite as big as these numbers would suggest. The iPhone 5’s pixel density is approaching that supposed threshold where your eyes can't differentiate between individual pixels.
... but it isn’t quite there. The Galaxy S4's display most definitely is. When my eyes look at the Galaxy S4, they see a sharper display. To me, it’s just a hair behind the HTC One for the prize of Best Smartphone Screen. The iPhone 5 is probably a couple steps behind both of them.
We’re also looking at different display technologies. This is one area where the iPhone’s IPS screen might have an advantage over the GS4’s Super AMOLED. Expect more realistic colors from the iPhone, and ultra-vibrant (not as realistic) colors from the GS4.
Both screens are excellent. But the Galaxy S4’s is much bigger, much sharper, and leaning a bit towards hyper-saturation. Take that as you will.
If you look at the numbers, this looks like a blowout for the Galaxy S4. Its processor has more cores (four to the iPhone’s two), and is clocked higher (1.9 GHz to the iPhone’s 1.3 GHz). The GS4 also doubles the iPhone's RAM (2 GB to 1 GB) and scores much higher in benchmarks (3,224 to the iPhone 5’s 1,664 in Geekbench).
When you’re using both phones, though, the performance difference doesn’t feel that big. In fact, I can’t say that anything on the iPhone 5 feels a whole lot slower than it does on the GS4. That isn't a knock on the GS4's performance: it's outstanding. It's more a testament to Apple's hardware and software integration. It makes the iPhone zippier than you'd expect it to be.
But don’t mistake this for the old days, when Android phones looked better on paper, but still lagged behind the buttery-smooth iOS in real world use. Android has caught up in the last year (more on that in a minute), and you’ll see it first-hand when using the Galaxy S4. It’s ridiculously fast and as smooth as you'd want it to be.
Of course there’s also that octa core Exynos version of the GS4 (sold in some parts of the world). I only tested the quad core Qualcomm version sold in the US, but it’s a safe bet that those eight cores won’t give you anything to worry about either.
The bottom line: despite the GS4’s overwhelming technical advantage, the iPhone 5 holds its own in most casual day-to-day use. Though the GS4 still has the edge, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything to complain about with either phone’s performance.
You could write a book on the differences (and similarities) between iOS and Android, but we’ll just hit on a few key points here.
Right now, iOS’ identity is as the reliable, you-know-what-to-expect platform. If you’ve ever used any iPhone, everything will be familiar. Just about everything you do is simple and obvious. It “just works” like it always has. The inconsistent Apple Maps is one big exception, but you can easily fix that by downloading Google Maps from the App Store.
That doesn’t mean that Android doesn’t also “just work.” For all of the platform’s improvements over the last few years, I think the most important was “Project Butter.” Introduced last year with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, it got rid of the choppy, laggy UI that old Android phones were known for.
When combined with blazing-fast quad core (or octa core) processors, Android phones are now on the cutting edge of mobile performance: not just on paper, but, finally, also in actual experience.
Keyboards are one area where I think Android has a huge advantage over iOS. It’s a bit baffling that Apple still uses the same tap-only keyboard that shipped with the first iPhone – with no option to change it. Android trace keyboards like Swype and SwiftKey aren’t for everyone, but once you get used to them, they can make hammering out text much faster and easier than on the iPhone’s antiquated keyboard.
If we’re breaking down the sheer number of individual software features on each phone, Samsung has gone out of its way to win that battle. The company threw everything under the sun into the new version of TouchWiz, and the result is an insane batch of software features.
We have everything from Air Gesture (control a few select features with a mid-air gesture) to Smart Pause (pause a video when you turn your head away). We have Air View (preview some items by hovering a finger over the screen) and the highly-marketed Bump (share photos or files with another nearby Galaxy via NFC).
The question is how many of these features you’ll actually use for more than a few minutes. For most of us, I’d say very few, if any. There’s a reason the GS4’s software has been repeatedly branded as “gimmicky.” You get the sense that Samsung threw in most of these features just to differentiate the phone’s marketing. An understandable move, but also not something to base your decision on.
Fortunately, you don’t have to mess with any of the gimmicky stuff if you don’t want to. And even more fortunately, what’s left is an attractive and playful UI (TouchWiz) on top of an excellent, up-to-date mobile operating system (Android 4.2 Jelly Bean). All in all, I found very little to complain about in the Galaxy S4’s core software.
iOS’ feature list isn’t as extensive (or gimmicky), but it also isn’t doing much to help sell us on the iPhone. Siri has, in my opinion, been far surpassed by Android’s Google Now. You can also use Now on the iPhone, but it’s confined to the standalone Google Search app, with no system-wide permissions.
Apple Maps, the marquee feature of iOS 6, has been an embarrassment for Apple. Passbook (a one-stop shop for gift cards, boarding passes, and other similar items) hasn’t really caught on. iCloud and Photostream syncing can be handy if you use multiple Apple devices, but they can also be slow and inconsistent. iMessage and FaceTime make it simple to keep in touch with Apple device-owning friends and family, but their functionality can be duplicated by third-party apps on Android.
At this point, both iOS’ App Store and Android’s Google Play are chock full of great apps for just about anything you could imagine.
The App Store still has an advantage in terms of gaming, but that’s shrinking. Sometimes hot new apps still pop up in the App Store before moving to Android, but that also happens much less than it used to. For the most part, you have nothing to worry about with either marketplace (just try the Windows Phone Store or BlackBerry World if you want something to worry about).
So when you get to the heart of the software battle, you’re basically left with the old iOS vs. Android dilemma. Because I don’t see either of these phones’ unique software features being obvious, universal must-haves.
If you aren’t already in one of those two ecosystems, try each of them out and find which works best for you ... and try to filter out the feverish fanboy rage you’ll hear from both sides.
On a technical level, the Galaxy S4 sports a 13-megapixel rear camera, while the iPhone 5’s rear shooter has 8 megapixels.
... but why blabber on about specs when we can look at some sample shots?
Here is each camera in direct sunlight:
It might be hard to tell when viewing on the web, but in the originals, the GS4’s shot looks a little bit sharper.
Let’s crop those same shots a little closer, to see how they hold up:
Here you can see more clearly the finer detail from the Galaxy S4 shot.
Now let’s look at an outdoor scene taken in the shade:
As you can see, the Galaxy S4 handles the lighting a little better.
Now let’s crop those to get a closer look:
The GS4’s shot still looks brighter, though the iPhone’s still has plenty of detail.
Now let’s move into some moderate indoor lighting:
Interesting. I might give the very slight edge here to the iPhone. It’s a hair brighter, and I’d say the contrast looks a bit better too.
... and let’s crop those shots:
The iPhone’s shot still has slightly better contrast. But it also has a bit more noise under the lower lighting.
Now let’s move into an extremely poorly-lit scene:
Neither handled that very well. Both are unusable. Of the two, though, the iPhone’s at least gives us a hint of what we’re looking at.
By the way, the HTC One handled this same setting much better (see the camera section of its comparison for samples). The One’s handling of extremely low lighting easily beats both of these phones.
And finally, let’s turn on the flash in that same low-lit setting:
Pretty close. Both scream “flash photography!” Otherwise the GS4’s shot has a bit sharper detail and slightly deeper colors.
So which camera is better? I’d say the Galaxy S4 has the edge, but not by much. It gives you more detail under the best of conditions, which isn't surprising considering its higher pixel count. The GS4's camera also holds up well under moderate lighting. The iPhone is slightly better under terrible lighting, but you’re still much better off with a flash under those conditions.
The Galaxy S4 also has a ridiculous amount of software-based photography features. Like other TouchWiz features, some can be handy, but more often they're marketing-friendly gimmicks. For a detailed breakdown of the GS4’s photography goodies, skip to the “Camera software” section in our comparison of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One.
Here’s another area where, on paper, the Galaxy S4 looks like it would have a huge advantage. It packs a 2,600 mAh battery, while the iPhone 5’s battery holds a mere 1,440 mAh.
But my tests found the discrepancy in actual battery life to be much smaller than you'd expect. I looped a Netflix movie on each device, with the battery starting at 100 percent. Brightness was turned all the way up. Mobile data was turned off.
In this extreme conditions test, the Galaxy S4 completely drained in almost exactly five hours. The iPhone 5 lasted four hours and forty-six minutes.
How does Apple squeeze nearly as much uptime out of a battery with much smaller capacity? It's likely the display. Remember when we said that the iPhone 5’s display had only 35 percent as many pixels as the Galaxy S4? Well, each of those pixels needs some power to do its thing.
Under regular, day-to-day use, I found both phones to easily last a full day. The Galaxy S4 probably held up a bit longer there too, but I don’t think you’ll have much to worry about with either phone’s battery.
... and don’t forget that you can always buy a spare battery and swap it out in the GS4. You can’t do that with the iPhone.
If you listened only to marketing, you’d think storage options were identical. Both phones are sold in 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB models.
But all of those wacky software goodies that Samsung threw in take up space. A lot of space. When all is said and done, the 16 GB Galaxy S4 only gives you around 9 GB of usable storage. The 16 GB iPhone 5 gives you about 13 GB of usable storage.
You can cancel out some of that with the Galaxy S4’s microSD card slot. You can easily move photos, videos, and similar media to an external memory card (sold separately). Unfortunately, though, Android no longer lets you move apps to SD storage. So after downloading a few big console-like games, you could see that 9 GB of usable storage filling up awfully quickly.
So the clear advantage here goes to the iPhone. You could always just buy the 32 GB or 64 GB Galaxy S4 to solve the problem, but at that point, you’re also paying a lot more upfront for your phone. We prefer solutions that don’t nearly double your upfront cost.
So which phone is better? Well, we're going to leave that up to you. But, if nothing else, this should give you an idea of what each phone’s strengths and weaknesses are.
The Galaxy S4 has a big and beautiful screen, blazing-fast performance, and a slightly better camera. It isn’t as light as the smaller iPhone, but when you take its size into account, it’s as light as you'd ever need it to be.
On the other hand, the GS4 has lots of gimmicky software features that you probably won’t use. You can ignore them, but that might be hard when you see your available storage quickly dwindling away.
The iPhone 5, meanwhile, delivers Apple’s trademark simplicity and slick design. It fits easily into any hand, and its aluminum and glass build trumps the GS4’s plastic in the “premium” department. If you’re already familiar with the iPhone, there’s no learning curve for using the latest model.
But on the flip side, the iPhone’s screen is extremely small compared to the GS4. And though it’s hard to complain about its Retina Display, it isn’t nearly as sharp as the GS4’s 1080p screen.
Of course we can’t touch on every aspect of these two phones. And the iOS vs. Android debate only opens up a whole new can of worms. But this should at least nudge you in the right direction. That is, the right direction for you.
If you're leaning towards the GS4 but want to throw a newer Android phone into the mix, check out our latest Under the Microscope comparison, pitting the Galaxy S4 vs. the Moto X.
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