Sony Xperia Z versus HTC One.

The HTC One is due to launch globally in the next month, so how does it compare to Sony's latest, the Xperia Z?

The Xperia Z is Sony’s best smartphone yet, and it’s one of the first major flagship devices of 2013 to hit the market. But there’s competition coming, and not just from Samsung. HTC will be launching the HTC One in Europe from the end of the month, and the Taiwanese manufacturer’s going all-out with its very best build quality, redesigned software and a new kind of smartphone camera.

So how does HTC’s latest hold up against Sony’s glass-clad beast? We’ve got comparisons in video, pictures and words after the break.

Build quality

Both the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z are attractive pieces of consumer electronics. The Xperia sports a glass back panel and sealed chassis with a soft-touch plastic “skeleton frame” around the edge. In a world of big black slabs, it is the ultimate big black slab. It’s also water and dust resistant, which is something that’s still rare to find on Western phones. As we discussed in our review, however, the Xperia Z is something of a dust and fingerprint magnet, on account of its glass back and soft-touch trim.

HTC steps things up even further, with a gorgeous aluminum unibody design and a more hand-friendly curved, back. The Xperia Z’s chassis is squared-off around the edges, jarringly so if you’re used to more ergonomic designs. So while Sony manages to execute an attractive design, HTC pulls ahead with superior ergonomics and an even better-looking chassis.

Sony Xperia Z versus HTC One.

Displays

Both the Xperia Z and HTC One sport 1080p screens. In Sony’s case, it’s the “Full HD Reality” display at 5 inches diagonally; for HTC, it’s a 4.7-inch SuperLCD3. In both cases the screens are ridiculously crisp -- the Xperia boasts 440 pixels per inch, the HTC One 468 (that’s not a difference you’re going to notice. Both too are about equal in brightness. But HTC overtakes its rival in viewing angles -- the Xperia Z is prone to washing out colors when viewed from off-center.

Bottom line -- the HTC One packs a smaller, but better-looking display.

Processors and performance

The HTC One is fitted with Qualcomm’s very latest Snapdragon 600 chip, whereas the Xperia Z is running the earlier S4 Pro. Both have quad-core Krait CPUs, so it’s decent silicon we’re talking about in either case.

But there’s a small performance and responsiveness delta there, and unsurprisingly its the S600-packing HTC One that ends up on top. Not a big difference, but a noticeable one, if you have both side by side. As we mentioned in our Nexus 4 comparison, the HTC One is about the fastest Android device we’ve used.

Sony Xperia Z versus HTC One.

Buttons

The Sony Xperia Z offers a tried-and-true Android button setup similar to that of Google’s Nexus devices -- back, home and task-switching keys as part of the screen. That gives you single-tap access to multitasking, and means you can quickly activate Google Now via the swipe-up shortcut. The HTC One is limited to just two keys, home and back, with task-switching activated by double-tapping the home key and Google Now launched by long-pressing it.

It’s not bothering us all that much in our day-to-day use of the HTC One, but we’d always prefer a multitasking key wherever possible. And as we’ve already mentioned, the ugly on-screen menu bar that appears in certain third-party apps is something that HTC needs to eliminate with urgency.

Sense 5 versus Sony’s UI

The choice between software on the Xperia Z and HTC One comes down to a decision between a traditional Android experience and brighter, quirkier and a little more unusual. Sony’s never strayed far from the vanilla Android look and feel, keeping things very basic and minimalist, with dark colors and subdued design cues. HTC on the other hand has completely reinvented its Sense UI in the latest version 5. The BlinkFeed page is an integral part of HTC’s home screen plan, incorporating everything from calendar appointments, social updates, news feeds and TV schedules.

And speaking of TV, HTC also offers some unique tricks not found on the Xperia Z, including an IR blaster and associated TV control app, with listings provided by Peel. On the entertainment side, Sony’s keen to tie the Xperia Z into its existing properties, like PlayStaiton, Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. There’s no shortage of entertainment options on Android, but if you’re already living in the Sony ecosystem then this might be something to consider.

Ultimately, we’re liking Sense 5 a lot, but a more familiar (though less attractive) Android experience may be had in Sony land, if that's what you prefer.

Sony Xperia Z versus HTC One.

Camera quality

Directly quantifying the differences in camera performance on the HTC One and Xperia Z is a near impossible task, because both phones have completely different kinds of shooters. The HTC One has a 4-megapixel “Ultrapixel” camera with super-large pixels on the sensor to allow more light to enter. Sony treads a more traditional path with its 13-megapixel Exmor RS stacked image sensor. Those are two entirely different approaches to smartphone photography, with a laundry-list of various (and very particular) strengths and weaknesses.

The HTC One’s camera tends to be a safer bet for real world use -- the kind of photography you don’t do when you’re reviewing a smartphone. By contrast, the Xperia Z’s camera could be classified as one for the pros -- in as much as any smartphone cam falls into that category. There’s a more extensive array of settings, and, it seems, a higher ceiling for the quality of shots it’s capable of taking. The Z's credentials are boosted by its excellent Superior Auto shooting mode, which intelligently switches between settings like HDR and various scene modes.

The Xperia Z’s larger megapixel count means there’s the potential for more detailed images in ideal conditions, but in real-world use the HTC One offers better low-light performance, faster capture speeds and the fact that it uses optical image stabilization means it’s better at taking steady video darker conditions too. That said, colors on the HTC One had a tendency to appear washed-out compared to the Xperia Z. But then the HTC One is better suited to macro shots and captures more fine detail. The list of differences goes on.

On the video side, we should note that both phones support 1080p HD video and HDR video. The Xperia Z handles HDR video a little more competently than the HTC One, but lacks the One’s 60fps option for regular 1080p footage.

Overall, they’re both very divergent approaches to photography on a phone, and it’s really difficult to say which one wins overall. Look for more definitive thoughts in upcoming review of the HTC One.

Sample shots: First photo in each set is from the HTC One, second from Xperia Z

HTC One shotXperia Z shot

HTC One shotXperia Z shot

HTC One shotXperia Z shot

HTC One shotXperia Z shot

HTC One shotXperia Z shot

Battery life

Neither the HTC One nor the Xperia Z offers a removable battery -- this feature is quickly becoming something of a Samsung exclusive. In any case, the difference between the performance of the Xperia’s 2330mAh battery and the HTC One’s 2300mAh juicer aren’t particularly significant. Both saw us through the day of fairly intensive use without breaking much of a sweat.

Sony offers some unique power management tricks to extend the Xperia Z’s longevity, including “stamina mode,” which allows certain background data tasks to be restricted and location-based Wifi, which intelligently toggles Wifi based on whether you’re in range of a known network.

The bottom line​

However we slice it, we’ve been more impressed by the HTC One than Sony’s Xperia Z. The faster hardware, phenomenal build quality and superior screen are all reasons to choose HTC’s latest handset over the competition.

But just because the Xperia Z isn’t quite the blockbuster that the HTC One is, doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. It’s still a great smartphone, having added bonuses of water and dust resistance and a larger screen. The Z can also boast a software experience that’ll be closer to vanilla Android and more intelligent camera software.

Given the choice -- and the matching £520 UK price points -- however, we’d have to go with the HTC One.

More