Samsung Galaxy S4
The Galaxy S4 doesn’t feel quite as classy as its rivals here, despite its price (it’s the most expensive in our round-up) and the wealth of tech packed into its innards. That’s because Samsung has chosen to continue its use of thin plastic covers that don’t feel much different to their low-spec cousins at the budget end of the market. There’s method in the apparent madness, since it helps to keep the weight down (it’s the lightest on test at just 130g) but that gain is also likely to be offset by the fact that many people who want the best phone also want it to look and feel like the best. If the HTC One is the Ferrari of Android smartphones, the Galaxy S4 is closer to the understated charm of a Bentley, with its operational excellence hidden beneath a relatively dowdy exterior.
The five-inch touchscreen offers a resolution of 1,920×1,080p — the same as the Xperia Z and both screens offer 441ppi, though both are slightly behind the slightly smaller screen on the HTC One’s 468ppi.
Unlike its rivals, the S4 has a physical home button beneath the screen, flanked by touch-sensitive back and multi-tasking buttons. It may be an echo of Apple’s design, or it may just be something that focus groups like. Either way, it’s a comforting and reliable way to get back to the beginning if you ever get confused by the bewildering range of options.
And options there are many. Samsung’s TouchWiz interface is even more intrusive than HTC’s Touch. It’s packed with extras, including 36 preloaded apps with everything from S Health (which uses the phone’s barometer and motion sensor to track your general health) to WatchON (which uses infrared tech to turn your phone into a universal remote), many of which you can add to the programmable side bar. There’s an advanced range of gesture controls such as Smart Scroll, which scrolls through a page of text as you tilt the phone and Smart Pause, which pauses the video you’re watching if you look away — handy perhaps, but it doesn’t always work. Air View also allows you to hover your finger over the phone to bring up extra features, like the controls when you’re watching a video.
There’s also the picture-in-picture feature that allows you to watch a video in the corner of the screen while you’re doing something else, like checking your email or browsing the web.
The 13-megapixel camera marks pretty much the apex of Samsung’s steadily developing camera know-how. There’s an impressive suite of options both pre and post-shooting, which will keep the happy snappers busy, but don’t get in the way of point-and-shoot, since the automatic settings will be more than acceptable for most. Unusual modes include Eraser, which allows you to edit out unwanted moving elements in a pic, such as passers-by, and Drama takes several pictures of a moving subject and lets you combine them into a single pic with a still background. Gimmicks aside, pictures are sharp and detail-heavy and it’s certainly the best camera here.
The S4 is the only handset in our trio which was able to offer Android 4.2 Jelly Bean out of the box (the other two launched with 4.1 and promises of updates) and this should hopefully put it ahead of the queue for version 4.3 when it arrives over the summer.
HTC has always made a virtue of build quality and the One makes the most of that heritage. It’s a little smaller than the others, making it a bit more pocket-friendly, but it’s distinguished by its metal unibody casing which is the equal of the iPhone 5 for class and heavy duty build.
Its display offers an HD resolution of 1,920×1,080p — the same as its two rivals in this test, but with its slightly smaller screen measuring 4.7 inches it’s arguably a little bit sharper, delivering an eyeball-piercing (not literally) 468ppi. That detail is pretty much all in the spec however, since side-by-side they look just as good as each other.
The quad-core 1.7GHz processor is certainly fast, and it needs to be to cope with HTC’s busy Sense interface. It looks lovely with some nice, smooth animations, and extra widgets include BlinkFeed, which offers a Flipboard-type service that pulls together your favourite media and social networking updates into a magazine-style interface. The problem is you can only use the news feeds that HTC has approved and it doesn’t really offer any improvements on Flipboard, which is available for free from Google Play. The other problem is that you can’t turn it off.
The four-megapixel camera marks a departure from the norm. With other camphones upping the megapixel count HTC has pointed out that picture quality isn’t necessarily dependent on the number of pixels, and instead made great play of its large F2.0 aperture and 28mm lens. The idea is that less, but bigger, “Ultrapixels” on a larger sensor will let in more light and so result in better pictures.
It’s a good effort by HTC, which has been plagued by concerns about its relatively low-quality cameras over the years, but in terms of sharpness, vibrancy and detail, it suffers in comparison with both the Xperia Z and the Galaxy S4.
As with all of our superphones, battery life is the problem that recurs again and again. While none are likely to deliver much more than a day of standard use, the HTC One’s is the smallest, and lags just a little behind its peers.
HTC has been incorporating a very basic version of the Beats Audio processing technology and headphones into its handsets for a while now but the One takes it a stage further with good-sounding stereo speakers on the front, especially handy for movie watching.
It’s available with 32GB or 64GB of memory on board, but with no microSD card, there’s no way to augment this like you can with the other two.
Sony Xperia Z
The Xperia Z can make a claim of being the toughest of the three on test here. With toughened glass front and back it’s also water and dust-resistant. It can handle total immersion in water for up to half an hour, making it the essential choice if you’re likely to use it in the bath.
It’s also the cheapest, and though its specs are very similar to its rivals, you should be able to pick up the Xperia Z for considerably less.
On paper, the Xperia Z’s processor is the least powerful here. Clocked at 1.5GHz it’s behind the One’s 1.7GHz and the S4’s 1.9GHz, though all three are supported by a full 2GB of RAM memory. In AnTuTu benchmark it delivered the lowest score — 18,440, behind the One’s 22,420 and the S4’s 25,394 but in practise though, there’s really very little difference to the performance. They’re all very fast phones, opening apps in a twinkling and delivering consistently smooth performance when browsing, watching HD videos and even playing HD games.
The 13.1-megapixel easily outperforms the HTC One but in terms of quality it’s very close indeed to the S4. It has an impressive range of modes and features including Sony’s Exmor R sensor, designed to improve the quality of pics taken in low light, as well as touch focus, face detection and image stabilisation. It loses out to the S4 in terms of the sharpness of image (just about) and it doesn’t have quite as many features, but there’s not a lot in it. Like the other camphones here, it can also record 1080p video at 30fps and also like the others it has a two-megapixel front-facing camera for video calls.
As we’ve come to expect with high-powered smartphones, battery life isn’t great and you’ll struggle to get a full day’s use out of it. There is however Stamina Mode, which powers down all the phone’s functions when the screen goes dim. Good for the battery, but not always so good for communication, though you can customise the settings to leave certain functions on, depending on what you need doing.
Of the three user interfaces here, Sony’s is the least intrusive. The shortcut icons look different to standard Android, and there are a few unique widgets, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same as what Google intended.
The HTC One is arguably the best looking, but it lets itself down on the quality of its camera, poor battery life and lack of expandable memory. The Sony Xperia Z is the value for money choice, with specs similar to its rivals, and a tough, water and dust-resistant shell, but costing considerably less.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most expensive, despite looking the cheapest. But for the power of its processor, the mind-boggling amount of tech that it’s managed to cram in, and the quality of its camera, it’s the standout favourite.