HTC One M8 vs Samsung Galaxy S5: 2014's big-hitters compared

25 Mar 2014

We now have full details of  the major Android phones of the year: the Samsung Galaxy S5, which was announced out at MWC in Barcelona in February, and the HTC One M8, just launched at events in London and New York. The big question is, how do they stack up against one another?

Design and looks

The Samsung Galaxy S5 looks largely the same from the front as last year’s S4, but from the rear it’s all change. This time around, instead of a hard gloss finish, Samsung’s flagship comes with a soft-touch plastic rear covered in a grid of dimples, and there’s now a wider variety of colours to choose from.

When we had some hands-on time with the phone at the launch event, we weren’t taken with the new design at all: with those pin pricks on the back it looks like a high-tech teabag, and the less said about the gaudy new electric blue and rusty bronze colours the better.

The HTC One M8’s redesign is far less contentious. It takes last year’s chiselled aluminium chassis, softens it and adds a considerable amount of sophistication. It’s still made from the same metal, but this now wraps seamlessly around all the edges, making for a phone that’s more comfortable to hold.

The M8 is also leaner than last year’s model, but it’s the new finish that really attracts the eye. It’s a dark, gunmetal grey, which has been polished to a luxurious satin finish, so the texture of the metal shows through in horizontal striations. The M8 will be available in gold and “Arctic Silver” as well, but we think most people will opt for the attractive gunmetal model.

Result: a clear win for the HTC One M8

Display

Both phones receive a bump up in screen size, but the change isn’t dramatic. In fact, Samsung’s baby only gets a 0.1in boost to 5.1in. With the Galaxy S4 and S5 sat next to each other, we would find it tough to tell the difference.

The HTC’s upgrade is slightly more impressive, going up in size from 4.7in to 5in. This does mean it’s slightly taller than its predecessor, but only by half a fingernail.

Both phones keep the same Full-HD resolution as last year's models, and each is topped with Corning’s scratch and shatter-resistant Gorilla Glass 3. As ever, though, the LCD technology used is different. Samsung employs a Super AMOLED panel, and although HTC wouldn’t be drawn on the precise name of the technology, when we put the question to company representatives, they said it was “similar to IPS”.

Each technology has its own strengths and weaknesses. Because each individual pixel has its own light source, AMOLED panels such as the S5’s boast perfect contrast: in other words black is perfectly black, and images leap from the screen in a way other technologies cannot match. Other LCD technologies rely on global backlighting that’s always on; black is produced by the liquid crystal pixels blocking this light.

That means the HTC One M8 won’t match the S5’s punchy contrast. However, the upside is that IPS panels usually have higher peak brightness levels than AMOLED panels, making them (potentially) easier to read outside.

Either way, the screens on both phones look excellent from what we’ve seen so far. We haven’t yet had the chance to measure either with our colorimeter, though, so we will post an update when we’ve put both through their paces.

Result: a tie

Cameras

Samsung and HTC diverge hugely when it comes to camera technology. On the Samsung, we have a 16-megapixel snapper, with a 1/2.6in sensor, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. That’s a 3-megapixel boost over last year’s model (to the rear camera), but the resolution isn’t the big story with the S5; it’s the revamped autofocus system that steals all the headlines.

For the first time in a phone, the Samsung Galaxy S5 employs phase-detect autofocus, in combination with the contrast-detect method employed by every other smartphone. It’s a system that, until now, was used only by DSLRs and mirrorless compact system cameras. Why is this exciting? Because phase-detect autofocus is quicker, more accurate and locks onto its subject with less of the in-and-out “hunting” you get with so many smartphone cameras. Samsung claims the camera in the S5 focuses in 0.3 seconds.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 also uses a new type of backside illuminated (BSI) sensor technology called ISOCELL. This is supposed to improve quality by reducing the electrical crosstalk between pixels that occurs with standard BSI sensors. The idea is to both reduce noise and improve dynamic range.

Other additions include 4K video recording at up to 30fps, new HDR image processing that allows you to preview the HDR live onscreen and shoot HDR video, plus a selective focus mode that allows you change the point of focus or add extra blur to the background, mimicking the bokeh you’d get in a photo shot on a DSLR with its lens set to a wide aperture.

HTC takes a completely different tack. It’s sticking to its “ultrapixel” guns, with a camera that boasts a 1/3in sensor and a lower 4.1-megapixel resolution. HTC claims that larger pixel sites gather more light for better sensitivity in low light. The HTC One M8 can’t shoot video at 4K resolution, but with 4K TV and monitor ownership still in its infancy, that isn’t too much of an issue.

The big change is that HTC is adding a second rear-facing camera, just above the main one, for capturing “spatial information”. The idea behind this is to allow you to capture images that can be “refocused”, a bit like the Lytro camera we reviewed last year. It’s also possible to apply special filters based on this spatial data, such as desaturating the background with a tap, or converting photos into parallax images that move when you tilt the phone.

In practice, when we tested this at the launch event, the results were a bit hit and miss, with ugly ragged edges between areas that were in and out of focus when we attempted to change the point of focus, but then we also found that to be the case with the S5’s selective focus tool.

We were very disappointed, however, to discover that because the depth camera and main camera must stay in alignment, the HTC One M8 no longer has optical image stabilisation, which could have a detrimental effect on photos shot in low light.

Result: the Samsung Galaxy S5 streaks ahead

Performance critical components and battery

Under the hood, both phones feature the latest mobile processor from Qualcomm – the Snapdragon 801. In the Samsung Galaxy S5 it’s clocked at 2.5GHz, while in the HTC One M8 it runs at 2.3GHz. For gaming, both share the same graphics core – an Adreno 330 – and there’s 2GB of RAM in support.

Alas, we were unable to get benchmark results out of the S5 in Barcelona. At the M8 launch we did manage to run some tests: the results suggest similar performance levels to the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact. Given it has a higher clock speed, it’s fair to assume that the Samsung Galaxy S5 will be a touch quicker.

When it comes to battery capacity, the S5 has a 2,800mAh power pack, while the HTC One M8 has a 2,600mAh unit. It’s impossible to predict the results of battery tests at this stage, but it’s good to see that both manufacturers are paying attention to stamina with the introduction of “ultra” battery saving modes on each handset.

Result: Samsung will probably edge it

Other hardware and practicalities

You’d expect nothing less than perfection from two of the most anticipated handsets of the year, when it comes to wireless comms support, and so it proves. Both phones support 4G, both have 802.11ac wireless, there’s also Bluetooth 4, NFC and an infrared transmitter for remote control over your TV and set-top box. The S5, however, delivers something extra: the ability to join your 4G and Wi-Fi connections together for faster downloads.

Both phones come with a base 16GB of storage, expandable via microUSB. It’s good to see HTC drawing level on this count, however the S5 remains the more practical phone thanks to its removable battery. This allows users to carry spares, or replace the standard battery with a higher capacity model, such as the one deputy editor Darien Graham-Smith wrote about earlier this year.

Elsewhere, the S5 mimics the Apple iPhone 5s by adding a fingerprint reader to the home button, allowing users to unlock the phone, or make a PayPal purchase at the swipe of a digit. It also has an optical heart-rate monitor on the rear of the phone, below the camera lens.

Result: another win for the Samsung Galaxy S5

Software

The biggest differences between Samsung and HTC’s flagship smartphones remain on the software side of things. Although both phones have made the move to Android 4.4 KitKat, their heavily modified interfaces remain poles apart.

Samsung’s TouchWiz interface is as colourful and feature-packed as ever, with a few visual tweaks here and there. HTC remains wedded to Sense, which hits version 6 with the launch of the M8, and BlinkFeed, its vertically scrolling feed of news and social networking updates. Again, HTC has made a handful of visual tweaks, but there’s nothing particularly dramatic.

Result: a tie

Preliminary verdict

From what we know about the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8 so far, the S5 looks to be the strongest contender. The M8 is the more attractive device, with its sumptuous new metal finish and slimmer, sleeker profile, but the Samsung Galaxy S5 packs in more features, and has the most useful technological and practical improvements. We can’t wait to get them both in our Labs for more in-depth testing.

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