Under the microscope: Samsung Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One
May 16, 2013
When you’re shopping for a new smartphone, sometimes there's one clear choice. Other times, there are so many options you don't know where to start. But then there are those times when it comes down to two. You know, a good old fashioned duel. Many smartphone shoppers are going through that now, with the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. After spending several weeks with both phones, let’s revisit this comparison – and see if we can help you with the big decision.
Look and feel
If you follow popular opinion, this is no contest. The consensus is that the HTC One is one of the most gorgeous phones ever made, and the Galaxy S4 is too much like its plastic predecessor, the Galaxy S3. Is there anything to this line of thinking?
Well, like many other things, it comes down to your taste. If you equate more expensive materials with “better,” then yes, the One’s aluminum beats the GS4’s plastic hands-down.
But your own decision doesn’t necessarily have to follow that. I personally don’t mind plastic phones. The GS4’s outside does feel cheaper than the One, but it’s also lighter. It also has fun bonuses like a removable battery and a microSD card slot. The One doesn’t have either.
No matter where your preferences lie, though, it’s hard to deny that the One is quite the looker. It often gets compared to the iPhone, but I think the One’s design is in a class by itself. The iPhone 5 also has an aluminum unibody design, but it feels more familiar. It’s like a stretched-out aluminum version of the iPhone 4S (and iPhone 4). The One is both striking and not quite like anything we’ve seen before.
The One’s back might be its most memorable side ... it’s a sloped silver frame with dual horizontal seams near the top and bottom. But the front is just as impressive, with silver bookends sandwiching the screen and black bezel. Those speaker grilles add something too (more on that soon).
If you’re going for thin, the Galaxy S4 wins (it’s 15 percent thinner). If you’re going for light, the GS4 also wins (it’s 10 percent lighter). To me, the Galaxy S4 feels more like 20 percent lighter – because it's a longer and wider phone than the One.
Holding both phones in hand, the One feels both heavier and more compact. That’s not to say it’s a beefy phone (it isn’t, by any stretch) – but you’ll know that it’s made of metal. Again, not heavy. Just more ... solid. And dense.
One thing that may or may not be an issue with you: I’m more casual about using the GS4. What I mean is that I’m almost too aware of the One’s premium build, and worry more about dropping it. I’m more carefree with the GS4 because a) plastic is less likely to get chipped and nicked if I do drop it, and b) if anything happened to its back, I could just get a new battery cover.
I don’t get too hung up on power button placement, but I’d give the nod there to the Galaxy S4. Its power button sits on the phone’s right side, protruding a bit. The One’s power button is on the top left edge, and doesn’t really extend from the phone’s surface at all. It can be a little tricky to find when blindly reaching for it.
Navigation buttons are probably more important. For the One, it’s just two capacitive buttons below the screen: back on the left, and home on the right. An HTC logo (that doesn’t do anything) sits in between. On the GS4, there’s a springy physical home button in the center, with a capacitive back key on the right, and a similar menu key on the left.
I can’t say I preferred one layout over the other. Maybe your familiarity with your current phone will dictate your favorite. But I’ve been regularly switching back and forth between these two phones, and I always adjust to each layout pretty quickly.
Both screens are outstanding, so I won’t dwell too much on this. Your eyes won’t make out an individual pixel on either 1080p screen.
The GS4’s Super AMOLED screen has more vibrant colors than the One. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Well, if you want realistic colors, go with the One. If you want larger-than-life colors, go with the GS4.
Screen size is another matter. Both displays are spacious, at 4.7” for the One and 5” for the GS4. But those diagonal measurements don't tell the whole story. In terms of screen area (a much more telling measurement), the One gives you 88 percent as much real estate as the GS4. It isn't a huge difference, but I like having that extra space. It’s big enough that I haven’t bothered much with tablets lately.
In fact, screen size joins weight as the two biggest advantages I’d put in the Galaxy S4’s column. The One holds its own in most other categories, so those might be the two main reasons for anyone to choose the GS4 over the One.
But this isn’t the time for jumping to conclusions. We’re just getting started ...
On paper – including in benchmarks – the Galaxy S4 has the slight edge here. In Geekbench, it scored 3224 to the One’s 2973. In Quadrant Standard, the GS4 tallied 12066, while the One came in at 11774.
But this is a good example of why I don’t like to put too much faith in benchmarks. Despite the GS4’s higher scores, the One feels a bit faster and smoother. I chalk this up to the HTC One’s software having less bloat. Sense 5 is leaner and more focused than Samsung’s TouchWiz, and everything just purrs – without the slightest hesitation.
That’s not to say that the Galaxy S4 feels slow. On the contrary, it’s also a ridiculously fast phone – maybe faster than any mobile device you’ve ever used. It just that when you use both phones back-to-back, the One feels a bit more responsive.
On a technical level, both handsets run the same processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon 600). The GS4’s is clocked a bit higher: 1.9GHz to the One’s 1.7GHz (that explains the benchmark results). Of course there’s also that octa-core version of the Galaxy S4 that many countries get. I haven’t yet tested that version.
One area where the GS4’s superior benchmarks could play a role would be if you rooted your phone and flashed a custom ROM. At least in theory, more scaled-down software (like Cyanogenmod, which is built from stock Android) should give the GS4 the nod.
... but most of us will use the phones on their out-of-the-box firmware. And there it is advantage: HTC One.
In the grand scheme of things, the One’s leg-up in performance might not be big enough to base your decision on. But if you were completely torn, sitting on the fence? It might be just enough to push it over the edge.
Software: Sense vs. TouchWiz
Both phones, of course, run Android. You get Google Play, and its thousands upon thousands of apps. The GS4 runs on the newer version of Jelly Bean (Android 4.2). But it was a pretty minor update over the One’s Android 4.1, so there shouldn’t be too much to worry about there.
More important are HTC’s and Samsung’s respective skins that sit on top.
HTC Sense 5 is, as we already mentioned, leaner and simpler than Samsung’s TouchWiz. Sense is professional, sophisticated, understated. It still fits HTC’s old “quietly brilliant” motto. You’ll see lots of off-whites and grays, which provide a nice backdrop to make colors pop.
When you get animations with Sense, they’re more subtle than fancy. Ditto for the default notification sounds. The One’s menus are fewer in number and shorter in length. The essentials are there, but it’s all more concise. Sense 5 is thoughtful precision.
With the GS4, you feel like Samsung threw in as many software features as it could think of ... gimmicky or not. TouchWiz is bright, colorful, playful, and dense. You’ll see more blacks than on the One (no doubt because its AMOLED display lends itself more to deep blacks).
It would be exhausting to detail all of the GS4’s software features, but we’ll hit a few:
There’s S Health, which serves as a pedometer (and overall diet and exercise tracker) that you can easily access from your homescreen. I used it for tracking mileage on walks, but didn’t need a “life companion” for other kinds of health tracking. It’s there for you, though, if you’re into that.
There’s also Air View, which lets you preview a few select ... things by hovering your finger over your screen. I enjoyed it, but it only works in several places. Video scrobbles and Flipboard feeds were the only places I used it. Interesting and novel, but hardly worth basing your decision on.
Then there’s Air Gesture, which lets you control a few other things by waving your hand, Jedi-style, above a motion sensor (which lives on the upper right of the phone’s front face). I had fun swiping to different screens with my hand while moving homescreen icons. You can also answer phone calls with a wave – great for messy cooks.
Like most of the GS4’s features, it’s fun for a few minutes ... but isn’t something most of us will use every day.
Instead of throwing a million novelties against the wall, HTC focused more on one new feature: BlinkFeed. If you want news and social feeds on your homescreen, BlinkFeed delivers. I personally don’t need that, so I pushed it to the background (you can set a different panel as your default homescreen).
BlinkFeed is a well-made feature ... it just isn’t a game-changer for me. It also has a limited palette of feeds. I only found three tech sites that I could add. I’m obviously biased towards Gizmag, but there are also lots of other great sites that BlinkFeed won’t let you add. So much for diversity.
I’m also not sure if I agree with HTC’s decision to use BlinkFeed as one of the centerpieces of the One’s marketing campaign. I mean, it’s basically a more limited version of Flipboard ... on your homescreen. Nice enough, I guess. But we already have Flipboard, right?
One area where HTC’s lean and mean approach backfires is with quick settings ... or the lack thereof. If you want to toggle something like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or brightness on the Galaxy S4, just slide down on the notification shade and tap a button.
On the One, you have to dig into the main settings menu. It doesn't take long to get there for most settings, but it’s nice to have those settings just one swipe away on the GS4.
What better way to compare cameras than to jump right into some sample shots?
First, outdoor lighting in direct sunlight:
Both look terrific. Sharp, with vivid color.
But if you crop that same shot to zoom in closer, you’ll see finer detail from the Galaxy S4:
A 13-megapixel camera will do that. The One’s camera has other advantages, but pixel count isn’t one of them. The limits of its 4 MP sensor show a little bit when you zoom in extremely close like this.
Now still outdoors, but in the shade:
Again, a good start for both. The doggie statue looks crisp and clear in both shots.
But let’s crop that to get a closeup view:
Interesting. It’s still close, but I’d give the edge here to the One. As you gradually take away light, resolution – the GS4’s biggest advantage – takes on less importance.
Now let’s move into some moderate indoor lighting:
The GS4’s shot looks a bit brighter, but its colors also look too saturated. The One’s colors are more accurate.
Now let’s take a blown-up section of that one:
Without great lighting, both have some noise. I might give the One the edge here, as it has slightly better contrast. The GS4’s shot still looks overly-saturated.
Now let’s turn the lights way down, and take a stab at some dark indoor lighting (with no flash):
The winner here is obvious. The GS4’s shot is pitch black, while the One lets in enough light to show us the subject.
Now the same setting, only with flash:
The GS4’s flash is definitely brighter. The One's doesn’t scream “flash photography” quite as loudly, but it could afford to be a bit lighter.
Overall, I’d say the One is the clear winner for low-lit conditions. It lets in more light and has better contrast under mid-range lighting. And it’s much better under the worst of lighting conditions.
... the Galaxy S4, meanwhile, is sharper in ideal outdoor lighting conditions. Its flash also pumps out a bit more light. But – much like its screen – the GS4 camera’s colors lean more towards hyper-saturation. This became more evident the darker it got.
Camera lenses, sensors, and resolution are only half the story. What about camera software?
It should be no surprise that the Galaxy S4 has a ton of camera software features ... some useful, some gimmicky. One of the most valuable is “best photo,” which takes a burst of photos and lets you immediately choose your favorite (the rest are automatically discarded). The One has its own version of this too.
“Best face” is another potentially useful GS4 feature. Take a series of group shots, and it lets you use only the best faces from everyone.
“Beauty face,” meanwhile, applies some kind of real-time surface blur to portrait shots. Basically it softens the appearance of skin, hiding imperfections (because you can’t let the world know you aren't perfect).
“Drama Shot” is good for sporting events or other shots with moving people or objects. It scatters multiple shots of the moving subject over the unchanging background.
There are other standard features like HDR and panoramas. Then it goes to the gimmicky extreme, with novelites like “Sound & Shot” (records a few seconds of audio with your still shots) and “Dual Camera” (layers a front camera shot inside a rear camera pic ... or vice versa).
Oh, and did I mention the GS4’s Instagram-like filter effects? Yes, the photography features – much like the GS4’s software features in general – are exhaustive ... and maybe exhausting. The good news: you can ignore any of them you don’t want. The bad news: well, we'll get to that in a minute.
The One’s camera software is more standard. It lets you do HDR, panoramas, night mode ... more nuts and bolts, and less gimmicky, than the GS4’s camera toolbox.
But much like HTC focused on BlinkFeed as the big Sense feature, it also honed in on one big camera feature: Zoe. HTC describes Zoes best:
- ... a simple click of the shutter button captures up to 20 photos and a 3-second video image, including the last second of images before you tapped the picture button.
BlinkFeed didn’t do much for me, but Zoe did. The short videos can be nice in their own right, but they also make it easy to capture that ideal still shot. After shooting, you can scrobble through the frames and save any (or all) that you like best.
HTC’s image gallery view is also impressive. Your Zoes and still shots come to life in animations, dramatical pans and zooms, and vintage effects. It’s much better than it sounds. It’s a software algorithm creating something that (sort of) resembles a little work of art. And it’s all about your life.
You can also upload your Zoes to HTC Share, an online service that shares your masterpieces – with a presentation that’s similar to the One’s Gallery app. I’m not really into that kind of thing. But if you are, HTC Share gives you yet another way to share your images and videos with friends and family.
I’m not sure which phone “wins” in terms of camera software. If you want more-more-MORE! then it’s all about the Galaxy S4. If you’re happy with Zoes and a great gallery presentation, then go with the One.
For the battery test, I continuously streamed Netflix with the brightness turned all the way up. Mobile data and Bluetooth were off, Wi-Fi was on. GPS and location services were on too.
In this high-intensity test, the Galaxy S4 went from fully charged to empty in almost exactly five hours. The One lasted about 4 hours 20 minutes before checking out.
These testing conditions are obviously much more extreme than you'd normally have. When you’re looking at a typical day – you know, not streaming Thor for hours on end – both phones should be in great shape.
My experience of using the One and GS4 in a regular day played out similarly. Both lasted a full day with regular use (web surfing, a few calls, some navigation, streaming music, sleeping in pocket ...). I didn't notice the Galaxy S4 lasting longer, so it's possible all that crazy software sucks up a little extra juice.
If you need unusually long battery life from a phone, the Galaxy S4 has one more advantage. You can remove its battery, and swap it with a spare. No such luck with the One ... though you could buy a battery case or external charger if you got really desperate.
We normally wouldn’t bother giving speakers their own section. But one of these phones happens to have the best speakers we’ve ever heard on any mobile device.
That would be the HTC One. Its “BoomSound” speakers are louder and bassier than other phones, including the GS4. They’re front-facing too, which makes so much sense I’m not sure why other manufacturers haven’t done it.
Would you listen to Sgt. Pepper while sitting behind your favorite pair of subwoofers? No? Then why put your smartphone’s speakers on the back?
Not much to say about the GS4’s speakers, other than they’re what you’ve grown to expect from other smartphones. You know, a couple of tiny slots on the back of the phone. They get the job done. But they aren’t in the same class as the One’s excellent BoomSound speakers.
Quite the stink has been made of the Galaxy S4’s cramped storage. See, after all of TouchWiz is accounted for, the 16 GB model gives you about half of that for usable storage.
The good news is that the GS4 has a microSD card. So things like videos and photos can move there to free up some space. But – unless you’re rooted – you can’t install apps on the GS4’s SD card. If you keep lots of huge console-like games on your phone, that 8-9 GB could fill up quickly.
One option is to pay more for the 32 GB or 64 GB Galaxy S4 (assuming they’re available on your carrier). Or you could just buy a different phone.
The base model of the HTC One – which sells for cheaper than the GS4 on many carriers – gives you 32 GB of free space. Its usable storage is around 25 GB. You can also throw down for the 64 GB edition of the One.
Many categories in this comparison are filled with gray areas, where the winner depends on what you’re looking for. Not storage. The HTC One is a better buy in that department. Period.
I think these are the two best smartphones you can buy right now. Not just the two best Android phones, but the two best smartphones. Neither is perfect, but the nice thing is that their strengths and weaknesses are pretty clear.
Want a bigger screen, lighter build, and as much software as you can cram into your phone? Go GS4.
Want a premium design, better low-light photography, and the best damn smartphone speakers you've ever used? Then it's all HTC.
Of course there are about a million other factors, and we can't possibly cover every aspect of these two powerhouse phones. We could write a novel here. But this should set you off on the right foot, and at least give you an idea of the different worlds that each phone will transport you to.
... and if you're leaning towards the GS4, but want to consider another top Android phone, you can always peruse our newest Under the Microscope comparison, pitting the Galaxy S4 vs. the Moto X.Share
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