We take a look at the top of the Android food chain and see who comes out king of the jungle.
Android has certainly come a long way in many shapes and many forms. Sometimes to its detriment, years of experimentation later we are at the peak of Android with manufacturers putting out the most accomplished phones in years. Sony spent few years playing form factors with plenty of variation in Android skins. They’ve settled with this year’s slab like Xperia Z series, it’s unfortunate though that Canada got stuck with the weakest ZL. Samsung has been hitting knock out after knock our after the Galaxy S2, then the S3 and now the S4. HTC might have had the most up and down journey, with just an enormous variety of phones running Android with no clear shining flagship phone. All that changes with the HTC One, the best thing that has come out of the manufacturer – ever.
All three of these phones carry a very distinct personality, highlighted by the skins of Android each of their manufacturer put on. I really hate a heavily skinned Android OS, it tends to slow down the core Android experience. However, in 2013, we have phones with incredible RAM and quad-core processors – poor performance from skinned Androids is no longer a detriment.
The S4 is the definition of an evolutionary leap from the S3. The two sets look absolutely identical, as if the engineers somehow forgot to invite the designers to all the S4 meetings. Picking up the phone though, and you’ll realize it’s thinner, lighter, and easier to hold than the S3. Somehow it still manages to pack a bigger and brighter 5″ screen. Unfortunately the grease-magnet of a plastic shell is still there too. This is a very intentional direction by the company – as all of their devices from the Note, to the Tablets are built with this same ultra-lightweight plastic. It’s a shame, because it’s kind of cheap looking.
Aesthetics aside, the core performance of the phone is nothing short of zippy. No matter what I threw at the phone, it handled rendering game, pictures and multi-tasking flawlessly. I was afraid a lot of the marketing gimmicks Samsung threw on the S4 would impact performance but that was not the case. Speaking of the gimmicks, the Marketing gurus have made a big schpeal about “scrolling with your eyes” and answering phone calls by “waving your hand”. I can confidently say it works so poorly that you should never try it in public. For people might mistake you for being a crazy person nodding violently at your phone trying to make it scroll up or down. I didn’t have much luck making the “wave” feature work either.
Battery life was good enough to get you through a day, which is par for smart phones. Average use of camera, social media apps, texting and some phone calls left me at about 35% at the end of the night.
Sony is working hard to align all their various entertainment units in to one cohesive business. Same applies to their design philosophies, as all 2013 Xperia devices follow a very industrial and deep black form factor. There’s a rough yet comfortable rubber shell canvasing the back of the device. The front is all screen, with no capacitive buttons to be found anywhere. The body is finished off by a beautiful machined aluminum power button placed perfectly across the middle of the device. A number of Xperia devices in 2013 are also completely water-proof, a very under-rated feature. Unfortunately the ZL is not one of those Xperia devices.
The ZL is running the weakest processor out of the three, and it shows in its performance. Sony’s Android skin was never “buttery” smooth, swiping screen to screen always has a judder to it. That carries in to the apps as well, as it always seems to take a moment to load an app or get out of one. It’s still manageable – not poor by any standards but not great either. The bigger concern for me was the screen quality. The screen lacks any sort of pop, with bland colors and very poor viewing angles. Things get a lot better when a video plays though, as Sony’s signature “Bravia” technology kicks in. Videos showed a lot better contrast and color quality than the Android menu screens. Why Sony can’t bring the Bravia engine to run the user interface is baffling to me.
Battery life was exceptional, certainly the best out of the three phones. Maybe it’s the lack of a brighter screen, the ZL would comfortably reach the end of an average day at 40-50% battery life.
This phone is a piece of art, single body of machined aluminum and a perfect weight distribution – the HTC One oozes premium as soon as you hold in your hand. The Sony and Samsung are ten classes below on the aesthetic and ergonomics alone. Along the front of the phone a 5″ screen goes edge to edge horizontally, accompanied by a pair of speakers either side vertically. The speakers themselves deserve special mention, not only are they crisp and loud but they are also front facing. So when you play any sort of audio, it doesn’t muffle in to your palm or desk as is the case with rear speakers. Add in the Beats Audio integration – the speakers or any audio output from this phone sounds fantastic. The Beats Audio is essentially an amplifier, that will lower the frequency of the bass (so more of it goes to the woofer), and increase the frequency of the mid-range (so voices sound clearer). The result is booming sound that still has clear vocals.
HTC made a curious decision to have a “Home” button and “Back” button, but no “Menu” button. Almost every Android phone has all 3 buttons in some capacity, but the One decided to… omit one of the buttons. These means that on some apps, an ugly black bar appears at the bottom of the screen to accommodate a “soft” version of the menu button. This is extremely jarring when you have to type, and your keyboard is about half an inch higher on the screen than it usually is. Aside from that, the HTC One is the nicest Android skin I have ever used. The machined aluminum body hardware design leaks in to the software – as menu to menu it is nothing but crisp silver and black cues. This is the most professional looking Android on the market, so much so that it doesn’t look like Android. Even with all this heavy editing by HTC, the performance of the Android is incredibly quick. UI transitions, app loading and multi-tasking are as buttery smooth as the S4. Both those phones eek a lot of performance from their quad-core processors. The screen itself is beautiful and natural, it hits the perfect middle ground where it doesn’t have the “unnatural” vibrancy of the S4 but neither is at as dull as the ZL. It has deep blacks and rich colors, the best screen out of the bunch.
The battery life is a little weak, possibly a consequence of the heavy Android skin or Beets audio integration. At the end of an average day I was usually below 30%.
I feel like it’s a crime including the ZL in a review that discusses the One and the S4. It’s a shame that Sony put this mid-range phone as its best foot forward in the North American market – they have a much better phone in the Xperia Z that would have stood shoulder to shoulder with HTC and Samsung (Editor’s Note: the Xperia Z has finally made it to Canada and is available through Bell). In any case, we are left with two phones at the top of the hill, the uber premium HTC One and the perfected Galaxy S4. At that point I believe it becomes personal preference. Both phones deliver the best performance possible, incredible screen quality and “good enough” battery performance. Then there’s the gimmicks on top where we see a divide. Personally, Samsung’s gimmicks with eye-scrolling and air gestures performs poorly and are not useful in every day use. HTC’s Beats Audio is frankly incredible, the music in my car just doesn’t sound as good without it. Samsung’s Android skin is bubbly and bright, HTC’s is sleek and metallic. HTC’s body is solid machined metal whereas the Samsung is made of plastic, and it feels like it too. It was pretty easy for me to pick a winner.
If you just want a safer, better Galaxy S3, then buy the Galaxy S4. Otherwise, if you want the best phone on the market, Android or else – then go and get yourself the HTC One. I know I am.