With flagship phones coming to market at around the same time on many of the same carriers, Samsung and HTC are gearing up for another fight. Last year, the Galaxy S3 and HTC One X battled for supremacy and this year the HTC One and Galaxy S4 are duking it out. They share many attributes in common and each claims superiority in most of the same categories: design, display, camera, software. Comparing them side by side reveals that while both are excellent smartphones, one of them is superior.
The fight over which of these flagship phones has a better design started almost the moment the Galaxy S4 was officially unveiled a few weeks ago. Immediately there were complaints that the phone was “still made of plastic” and assertions that the HTC One “feels a little more premium” due to the metal unibody design. Does metal trump plastic? Not automatically. They both have assets and drawbacks.
With the metal unibody One, HTC crafted a beautiful phone with just enough flair to be eye-catching but not so much to look tacky. It’s a finely detailed device, from the gentle curve of the back to the speaker grills on the front. The laser cut edges add some industrial chic and it does look slicker than Samsung’s phone, but the hard edges also make the One just a little less comfortable to hold than the Galaxy S4. And even though the unibody design looks good, it does not include a removable back, a user-accessible battery, or an microSD card slot.
The Galaxy S4 does have these features, and while they don’t add to the aesthetics of the phone, they are important practical design elements. Does the polycarbonate plastic make the S4 feel less premium? Well, no. Not really. It definitely doesn’t feel cheaply made, and the curve of the back is more comfortable in your hand. Plus, the plastic is what makes the S4 almost half an ounce lighter than the One. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s noticeably light.
Overall, the HTC One is a more attractive phone and would easily win this round if looks were all that mattered. However, the Galaxy S4’s design is more accessible and has better button placement, making it a touch easier to use and deal with one-handed. Those are the kinds of things that matter in the long run.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S4
Ever since HTC kicked off the big screen phone trend with the Evo, display sizes have creeped up in size every year, a few tenths of an inch at a time. The Galaxy S4’s 5-inch screen is 0.2 inches bigger than last year’s model, but the HTC One is holding steady at 4.7 inches. The difference is apparent when both phones are side by side, not so much when just using them. Both screens are high quality and high resolution with wide viewing angles. The One’s whites and colors pop a bit more brilliantly than the S4’s, otherwise you’ll get a similar experience watching video, surfing the web, reading, etc. with both.
The Galaxy S4’s advantage comes from the extra technology Samsung added to the display. It can detect fingers hovering a few millimeters above the screen and is sensitive enough to be used with gloves on. This ties in with the Air View feature, which not only looks cool but also increases efficiency by allowing owners to peek into emails, attachments, and more without having to open them fully.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S4
Interface and Software
HTC and Samsung share a desire to cover up stock Android as thoroughly as possible with skins that change the look and sometimes the functionality of the operating system. HTC’s Sense is more elegant and visually appealing than Samsung’s TouchWiz, which comes across as somewhat toy-like in its look. Both interfaces bring extra customization to Android and better widgets right out of the box, all with the purpose of making the Android OS more efficient and easy to use.
Samsung went a little overboard with TouchWiz on the GS4 as well, shoving so many features into it that it’s almost impossible to use every one of them. The ability to tweak and customize things so deeply will appeal to many Android fans but frustrate others. Still, we prefer this to features you can’t turn off, like HTC’s BlinkFeed Home screen. It’s not for everyone, but it’s not possible to remove it.
Winner: HTC One
Movies, Games, and Music
Big, full HD displays are awesome for playing games, watching video, and reading books since text stays crisp, even when it’s tiny. And the quad-core processors on both phones ensure smooth playback and high framerates. With all else being equal, the media battle comes down to audio quality. Even though Samsung has a history of producing excellent media players, the company hasn’t made audio a priority in the Galaxy line the way HTC has with their phones. Every time you play a song, a game, or a video on the HTC One, Beats Audio kicks in to enhance the audio quality and the result is impressive. The S4’s audio isn’t bad, it just pales in comparison to the One. HTC also gets props for placing two stereo speakers on the front of the phone. Sharing video and music with friends is far better when everyone can hear the audio, even in a noisy environment.
With so many people using their smartphone as their portable music player, the HTC One easily wins this round by taking audio seriously.
Winner: HTC One
If you just go by the numbers, the HTC One would seem to have a big disadvantage in this category. The rear-facing camera on this phone has four Ultrapixels (basically giant megapixels) whereas the Galaxy S4 has a 13-megapixel shooter. That gap seems pretty wide, but HTC consistently delivers good cameras on its flagship devices. We often point out that megapixel counts aren’t what really matters with camera quality, does the One prove this point?
Comparing pictures taken by both cameras, the HTC One’s are less crisp and detailed when viewed at full size than the S4’s. Indoor and low-light shots from the One are noisier, as well. That said, for a 4-megapixel/ultrapixel camera, the shots are quite good and often impressed us. Most smartphone camera pictures end up being shared on social networks where people aren’t looking at the full resolution. But if you are interested in images that are good enough to print, the Galaxy S4 is the better choice due to the higher resolution and the crisper quality.
Both phones feature camera apps that make taking pictures easy and fun with added enhancements and good number of settings and options. The One’s most prominent camera goodie is HTC’s Zoe, which takes simultaneous video and pictures that can be combined with others to make fun short video albums that are perfect for sharing. If you just want to take stills, the camera app has a nice list of options such as HDR, panorama, white balance, and more. The Galaxy S4 doesn’t have anything exactly like Zoe, but it has about a million other features. Check out our deep dive into the camera app for all the details. Once again, all these features may be overkill and every owner isn’t going to use them all on a regular basis. We like that they’re available and easy to understand and use.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S4 (But One is a close 2nd)
Performance and Battery Life
On the inside, the Galaxy S4 and HTC One have very similar hardware: quad-core processors (at least, in the United States), 2GB of RAM, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and IR blasters for controlling TVs and related devices. Performance is about the same as well; each scored within a few points of each other on the Quadrant benchmark and are smooth and speedy in actual usage. Battery life is an issue for both and neither phone was able to last longer than 9 hours with heavy usage. The S4’s battery is user replaceable, at least, so owners can swap out one battery if the phone dies. Still, we wish that wasn’t necessary for either. A smartphone battery should easily last a full day with heavy usage.
Overall winner: Samsung Galaxy S4
The Samsung Galaxy S4 edges out the HTC One in this competition, mainly thanks to the phone’s design and hardware. It’s more comfortable to hold and use. While we appreciate many of the software features Samsung packed into the S4, HTC’s more balanced approach there gives the One an edge when dealing with Android.
How would you score the phones in each category? And which one will you choose?
(Article originally published 3-14-2013. Updated on 4-26-2013.)