HTC One, Galaxy S4

We compare image quality on the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 rear cameras

Though they're direct competitors, the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 are two very different smartphones. That's especially evident when you look at the way they handle photography. The Galaxy S4 packs a 13-megapixel shooter with f/2.2 aperture, improving upon the 8-megapixel, f/2.6 unit in last year's S3 with the potential to capture even more detailed images. The HTC One trades sheer megapixel count for larger (2-micron) pixels on the sensor itself, allowing for improved low-light capabilities when combined with its wide-angle f/2.0 lens.

That's the basic hardware at work, but specs only go so far. That's why we've prepared a few direct comparison shots from the European HTC One (on the latest 1.29 firmware) and the international Samsung Galaxy S4 (GT-i9505). Check 'em out after the break.

Note: In each set, top (widescreen) images are from the HTC One. Bottom (4:3) images are from the Galaxy S4. Click images to expand.

Our first shot is a challenging one, with both dark and very light areas in the same image. The HTC One does a good job of evenly exposing the whole scene, whereas the GS4 defaults to center-weighted metering, meaning the outside area in the center of the shot is prioritized. More noise is evident in the image from the HTC One, however.

HTC One Galaxy S4

The same shot, taken in HDR mode on both cameras. Both have excellent HDR modes, but we think the Galaxy S4 performed best on this instance. Colors are richer and more natural-looking, and the image is more sharply focused on the Samsung device. View the image up-close, however, and you'll see some ghosting around the moving people in the GS4 photo.

HTC One (HDR) Galaxy S4 (HDR)

In this outdoor shot of Manchester town hall, the image from the Galaxy S4 has more vivid, if less realistic colors. Up close, some slight artefacting can be seen on the shot from the HTC One, on account of the sharpening and noise-cancelling algorithms being used, combined in with the lower megapixel count,

HTC OneGalaxy S4

100% crop (HTC One)

HTC One crop

100% crop (Galaxy S4)

Galaxy S4 crop

Our first macro shot -- both phones are highly capable when it comes to macro shots. The HTC One has a dedicated macro mode, whereas the Galaxy S4's "auto" mode works well for close-ups. Aside from the differing aspect ratios, the only real difference here is color. Once again the GS4 gives us more vibrant-looking colors, though they're not necessarily any more realistic than the HTC One.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

All of our night shots were taken using the phones' dedicated night modes. And no surprises here -- the HTC One runs rings around the Galaxy S4 in night shots. The S4 didn't fare too badly here, but there's plenty of noise and fuzziness to be seen compared to HTC's 'Ultrapixel' camera.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

Another daylight macro shot, this time taken upwards with a bright sky in the background. The Galaxy S4 shot appears a little less washed-out, though both cameras performed really well in this instance.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

A daylight shot through a display case of a giant Japanese spider crab. The HTC One gives us more accurate-looking colors here, though once again the S4 does a better job of eliminating visible noise.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

A daylight street scene is well within both devices' comfort zones. On account of its wide-angle lens, the HTC One captures a wider view of things, whereas the Galaxy S4 gives us a narrower field of vision.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

This macro shot didn't turn out great on either phone. On the HTC One it's slightly out of focus, on the Galaxy S4 the colors are wildly inaccurate. In our opinion, though, the HTC One captured the better-looking image, with more accurate colors and a softer background.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

A bright, outdoor scene, and once again the Galaxy S4 comes out on top thanks to its higher megapixel count.  the image from the HTC One suffers from noisy areas in spots of dark concrete. The warmer colors of the Galaxy S4 shot also make for a more pleasing image.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

Here once again we see the benefit of the HTC One's wide angle lens, as more of the building is captured in a shot taken from the same spot. 

HTC OneGalaxy S4

Of course, as a side effect of this you get very long portrait shots, as seen here.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

Another macro shot captured faithfully by both phones, however the HTC One gives us a more evenly-exposed shot and more accurate colors.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

In this shot taken on an overcast day, the HTC One does a better job of not blowing out the sky, though that's at the expense of making the rest of the shot a touch underexposed.  As before, the GS4 leans towards giving us brighter, more vivid shots, though in this instance no cloud detail is visible.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

A shot of a river on a sunny day, and as with most daylight shots, you need to view things up-close to appreciate the differences. The Galaxy S4 captures much, much more detail than the HTC One here, and though both images look good at a distance, the S4 is the clear winner when you zoom in a bit.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

An HDR photo taken in the opposite direction, with the sun in the top right corner. Edges become softer on the HTC One in HDR mode, but the resulting image looks good nonetheless, capturing bright and dark areas without any weird halo effecs. The Galaxy S4 performs even better, though. In fact, it's hard to tell that it's an HDR shot at all.

HTC One (HDR)Galaxy S4 (HDR)

100% crop (HTC One)

HTC One crop

100% crop (Galaxy S4)

Galaxy S4 crop

Here the HTC One gives us another image with a clear sky but slightly underexposed terrain, compared to the Galaxy S4, which defaults to center-weighted metering and so favors the building and ground.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

The same scene captured in HDR mode. Some halo effects can be seen on the HTC One, as well as some blurring around the edges. The GS4 captures a better image all-round here.

HTC One (HDR)Galaxy S4 (HDR)

Another couple of night shots illuminated by streetlights, and another win for the HTC One. The Samsung phone produces a fuzzier image with less accurate colors, and takes more time to do so.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

HTC OneGalaxy S4

Looking from a dark area out into daylight in "auto" mode. the HTC One blows out the brighter area in the center, giving us significantly more detail indoors. The Galaxy S4 does the opposite, giving us a darker but more accurate image.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

In HDR mode, the differences are less striking, though the HTC One still blows out the bright area at the end of the corridor. HDR mode allows the Galaxy S4 to pick out more detail in the darker parts of the image.

HTC One (HDR)Galaxy S4 (HDR)

A very close-up macro shot of some moss on a brick wall. Both are decent shots for a phone, but the HTC One seems to struggle with the very bright background.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

A daylight shot looking down at a sign. Here the HTC One gives us a more realistic looking image, whereas having a dark target in the center of the image causes things to get slightly overexposed on the S4.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

Our last night shot, and one in which the Galaxy S4 performs reasonably well. There's still a good deal more noise compared to the HTC One image, but the S4's extra megapixels allow it to pick out some subtle details in the restaurant signage that are missed by its rival.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

100% crop (HTC One)

HTC One (crop)

100% crop (Galaxy S4)

Galaxy S4 (crop)

Aside from the wider angle of the HTC One shot, the main differences in the two side-by-side captures of a shop front can be seen in the colors. Daylight images from the S4 appear slightly warmer, and the primary colors in the Galaxy S4 ad (see  the 100% crops) are far more vibrant, if not quite representative of real life. Once again, there's also a good deal more visible noise from the HTC One when viewed up-close.

HTC OneGalaxy S4

100% crop (HTC One)

HTC One crop

100% crop (Galaxy S4)

Galaxy S4 crop

Finally digital zoom. Predictably, the Galaxy S4 fares better in this area, as it's got more megapixels to play with. The HTC One image didn't turn out too badly, but you can see lighter halos around some areas, the result of image sharpening software.

HTC One zoomGalaxy S4 zoom

A few general conclusions

The HTC One was consistently quicker at taking shots than the Galaxy S4, with absolutely no shutter lag. The GS4 was less speedy at capturing images, and significant shutter lag was present in night shots and HDR shots compared to the HTC One.

In all instances the Galaxy S4 benefits from its much higher megapixel count -- around three times that of the HTC One, in fact. It has the potential to capture more detail in daylight, and it also means the various algorithms that reduce visible noise and sharpen the image have that much more data to work with. That’s why you’ll sometimes notice artefacts and other aberrations in dark areas of well-lit HTC One photos.

On the other hand, the HTC One outperformed the S4 in low light shots. (No surprises there.) It’s also much more difficult to get a blurred shot on the HTC One -- there’s very little shutter lag, and features like burst shooting are easier to get to. (Simply long-press the shutter key.)

We should consider the HTC One's excellent Zoe, Zoe Share and Highlights features too. We've missed these on the Galaxy S4, and if you're after an easy way to compile and share instant highlight reels, this is a big point in HTC's favor.

On the whole, though, the Galaxy S4 produced the better-looking images in our testing, despite its comparative weakness in low light shots. The HTC One's camera is by no means bad, but its performance is clearly weighted towards indoor and low-light photography at the expense of daylight performance. The opposite is true of the Galaxy S4, which excelled in daylight photography, and is backed up by an excellent HDR mode.

Ultimately, both the HTC One and Galaxy S4 are great cameraphones, but for different reasons. Which camera is the best fit for you depends on the kind of shots you plan on taking.

View our full-size sample shots

We've got a Google+ gallery full of full-sized versions of all these images. Check 'em out over here.