Samsung Galaxy S4 vs HTC One

We compare the Samsung Galaxy S4 with the HTC One, head-to-head across all the key categories

Much has been written in the build up to the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4, but now that it’s finally here, how does it measure up to its chief rival – the HTC One? Here we’ve compared the key features of both phones across five categories to give you a comprehensive overview of where each handset’s strengths and weaknesses lie.

Samsung Galaxy S4 vs HTC One

Design, appearance and practicality

This is the area where debate is most fierce. There’s no doubt that the HTC’s curved anodised aluminium chassis is the better looking of the two. Although a touch more bulky, the One is a more pleasant device to hold in the hand than the S4, and it’s the phone that feels the most luxurious.

In comparison, the S4’s shiny plastic rear panel feels cheap, and we’re none too convinced about the rather filmy plastic membrane that surrounds the camera lens. In the short time we’ve been using the S4 it’s picked up more scuffs and scratches than we’d expect.

The flipside of Samsung’s approach is that the rear panel can be replaced if you drop, scratch or scuff it, whereas you’re stuck with your HTC One if you damage it. The removable rear panel also gives access to a user-replaceable battery and microSD slot, both features the HTC One is missing.

In the end it’s a tie in this category, with the HTC One edging it on looks and quality, and the Samsung Galaxy S4 regaining ground with its practicality.

Winner: A tie

Display

Despite being lighter and slimmer than the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has a larger display: 5in compared to 4.7in. That instantly swings things in the S4’s favour, and the quality of the display is fabulous.

The 1,080 x 1,920 resolution is high enough so you can’t see the pixels, with a pixel density of 441ppi. As you’d expect from a Super AMOLED display, colours are super-saturated, with graphics taking on a luminescent quality.

The colours on the HTC’s Super LCD 3 display are a little more laid back, but in terms of all-round quality the One edges in front. Because it has the same number of pixels squeezed into a smaller space, the pixel density is a touch higher at 469ppi; more importantly, it’s a brighter screen. The HTC One’s display goes up to 481cd/m[sup]2[/sup], where the Samsung’s hits only 221cd/m[sup]2[/sup].

That extra brightness means the HTC One’s display is a touch more readable in sunlight, and in side-by-side tests, the HTC’s brighter white levels help give images, web pages and games more impact. It’s a close-run thing, but the One has the edge in this category.

Winner: HTC One

Camera

The HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 take very different approaches with their cameras. The One’s snapper only offers a resolution of 4-megapixels, which seems low in today’s market, where every other manufacturer is squeezing more in. HTC’s argument is that fewer pixels means bigger pixels and thus lower noise in low-light images. The camera also features optical image stabilisation, another feature designed to help out in murky conditions.

The Samsung Galaxy S4, on the other hand, crams 13 megapixels onto its sensor. Both the S4 and the One shoot 1080p video at up to 30fps. The S4 lacks the optical image stabilisation of the HTC One, though, instead relying on the less effective digital method.

So which is best? In terms of features the S4 is the clear winner. Although the HTC has its own novelty items – including the Cinemagram-alike animated photo feature, Zoe – the Samsung has far more, from the rather silly Sound and Shot, which records audio and pictures simultaneously, to the more useful Best Face feature, which shoots a sequence of a group of people, then allows you to pick and choose the best facial expressions for each.

Samsung Galaxy S4 vs HTC One low light camera sample

When it comes to quality, however, the differences are more subtle. In good light, the S4’s extra pixels deliver more detail, but this is only evident when you zoom right into the frame. In low light, the HTC wins, with images exhibiting lower levels of distracting noise, leading to cleaner snaps.

In terms of general colour balance and automatic exposures it’s a close-run thing, but for our money, the HTC One produces the more reliable, more balanced exposures and colours. However, the S4 makes a swift comeback, with slightly quicker autofocus and a superior macro mode. Its optical stabiliser gives steadier and smoother video footage than the S4, too.

The bottom line is the quality of both cameras is excellent; in this category they’re neck and neck.

Winner: A tie

Performance

Under the hood, the two phones have the same processor – a quad-core Snapdragon 600 – but in each handset it’s set at a different speed. In the HTC, it runs at 1.7GHz; in the Samsung it runs at 1.9GHz. Both handsets have 2GB of RAM.

In the benchmarks, that extra 0.2GHz of clock speed gives the Samsung Galaxy S4 the edge. In all but the Peacekeeper HTML5 test it finished ahead of the HTC One. You can see the figures at a glance in the graph below (note: a lower score is better in Sunspider).

Samsung Galaxy S4 vs HTC One benchmark graph

Again, though, that doesn’t tell the whole story. In real-world use, the HTC One is the slicker feeling handset, performing everything you ask of it instantly and without delay. The Samsung Galaxy S4’s UI, on the other hand, is beset by annoying pauses, juddering and odd little hesitations that, after a short while, begin to grate.

A particularly bad example of this is the Story Maker app, which is designed to produce realistic photo albums, complete with animated page turns. It’s a nice idea, but browsing albums created with the software is a frustrating business: page turn animations are, more often than not, horribly stilted, and swipes don’t always cause the pages to turn.

Winner: HTC One

Software

We’ve already intimated what we think about the software in the previous section, but it’s clear that HTC has lavished more time getting Sense just right than Samsung has with TouchWiz. For while TouchWiz in its latest incarnation is incredibly powerful, offering a huge range of features - from innovative control systems to a bundled, voice-activated translation tool, a split-screen mode and more - it feels cluttered and messy.

Say what you like about BlinkFeed – HTC’s default home screen layout, which feeds social media updates and news headlines into one, vertically scrolling list – but you cannot but be impressed by the elegant simplicity of the rest of the UI. The app drawer can be organised through the use of folders, which can’t be done on the S4, and the whole thing feels more grown up.

Winner: HTC One

Verdict

With both phones coming in dead level on battery life and at a similar price on contract, it’s pretty clear from totting up the wins in each category, which phone deserves your cash. Surprisingly, it isn’t the Samsung Galaxy S4, it’s the HTC One, with victory in three out of the five categories, and ties in the remaining two.

Overall winner: HTC One

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