Nexus 5 vs. HTC One

Two different approaches to making a great phone

Each time a Nexus device is released, it garners quite a bit of attention. And rightfully so, when Google releases its own phone once a year it's a pretty big deal for Android enthusiasts. Once the dust settles on all of the new device news, we start to compare it to other top-notch devices that are at the top of everyone's minds.

We kicked things off with a comparison that most were drawing before the Nexus 5 was even released — the LG G2. Next up, I'll be looking at the Nexus 5 side-by-side with one of the most popular devices of the year, the HTC One. These are very different devices, each with their own strengths — let's take a look at how they compare.

Hardware

Nexus 5 vs. HTC One

It's hard to disagree that HTC set the bar higher than any other manufacturer when it released the HTC One. The solid metal design is crafted with extreme precision, and feels just about as good as it looks. On the other end of the spectrum, the Nexus 5 is definitely a plastic phone. While the white model we have here might be a bit more noticeably plastic with its glossy edges, in either color you won't get the premium feel of the HTC One.

The Nexus 5 fits a larger screen into a nearly identical footprint

There are slight differences in ergonomics as well, with the HTC having large bezels to accommodate capacitive buttons and BoomSound speakers, as well as a top-mounted power button that can be difficult to reach. The Nexus 5 fits a larger screen into a nearly identical footprint as the HTC One, and with side-mounted power and volume keys can be a little easier to manage in the hand.

We're still convinced that something is magical about the screens HTC sources for its devices. There's no better example of this than the SLCD 3 panel used on the HTC One, and we find ourselves using it as a benchmark for what all screens should look like. At 4.7-inches and 1080p resolution it's insanely crisp, and even though the Nexus 5's 5-inch 1080p screen has drastically improved over the Nexus 4, it just isn't quite there yet — the One still looks a touch brighter to our eyes, with more accurate colors. We're happy to say you won't be disappointed by either screen.

The HTC One still takes the cake in terms of look and feel for a smartphone

While we can see the merits of both designs, if you're not put off by the little extra weight of having a metal phone, we think the HTC One still takes the cake in terms of design and feel. There's a level of precision and quality shown on the One that you just don't find on the Nexus 5. We still wish that HTC could have gone with a side-mounted power button and something more traditional in terms of navigation buttons, but it's hard to find any meaningful faults in the One's design.

Specs

Nexus 5 vs. HTC One

You're getting very comparable specs in either one of these phones

In terms of the spec sheets, these phones are pretty well matched up. We've covered the fact that the screens and overall sizes are very similar, but there really are few differences at play here. The HTC One uses a Snapdragon 600 processor, while the later-released Nexus 5 has the newer 800, but both are paired with 2GB of RAM and generous storage options — although the One comes out on top by having a 64GB model available in some areas.

You'll be getting 802.11ac Wifi in both cases, along with plenty of sensors you expect and the same 2300mAh capacity Lithium-Polymer battery. The camera specs may be the biggest breakdown in spec differences, but we'll get to that in its own section below. 

The HTC One may have been released several months before the Nexus 5, but these are both completely capable devices from an internal specification standpoint.

Software

Nexus 5 vs. HTC One

Being a Nexus device the Nexus 5 will always have the "advantage" of being the next point release of Android ahead with KitKat, but HTC isn't at all far behind now having pushed Android 4.3 updates to nearly all HTC Ones. Even with the new features in KitKat, there are very few functional differences between what the Nexus 5 and HTC One can accomplish.

Sense 5.5 is a very refined experience, but the Nexus 5 offers something new all together

HTC has put a ridiculous amount of time and effort into making Sense 5.5 feel like a consistent and snappy system, and the work has paid off. Not only do you get headline features like a great camera interface and gallery, but system-level features like better sound output and scrolling. In the end it really has to come down to your own preference here. If you're a fan of Sense you'll feel right at home on the HTC One and enjoy many of the new features — and if you're looking to hop onto the bleeding edge and like that "Stock" look, the Nexus 5 will greet you with a great new launcher, refreshed design and perfect integration with Google services.

While we're comparing the Nexus 5 to the original HTC One that runs Sense 5.5, we'd be remiss in our comparison if we didn't mention that you can buy an HTC One Google Play edition that runs nearly identical software to the Nexus 5. It's only a matter of days before that model receives the update to Android 4.4 KitKat, bringing in all of the same features that differentiate the Nexus 5.

Comparing cameras

Nexus 5 vs. HTC One

The HTC One's camera may be faster, but the Nexus 5 can offer better pictures

HTC's move to a large pixel "UltraPixel" 4MP camera in the One may be one of the boldest moves in smartphone cameras in recent memory. It tried to break the mold of "bigger is better" when it comes to megapixel counts on phone cameras, and with OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) and some clever post-processing it actually made a compelling argument. The Nexus 5 goes a more traditional route with an 8MP shooter and a basic camera software suite, but keeps the OIS around to help with steadying your shots.

In our head-to-head tests, we found the cameras to actually be very comparable to one another. While they each excelled in different areas, we found they also had an equal number of faults. The HTC One's camera starts up, changes modes and captures pictures faster in any mode, making the Nexus 5 just look sluggish in its time to the first shot. Speed is important, but so is quality, and we found the Nexus 5 to consistently offer better pictures in nearly all scenes.

Nexus 5 camera sample HTC One 5 camera sample

Nexus 5 (left) and HTC One (right)

One of our biggest complaints about the HTC One is the over-processed look it gives pictures, and while we know that comes out of necessity with only having a 4MP camera it just comes off looking wrong to our eyes. In both auto and HDR mode, the One took consistently brighter pictures than the Nexus 5, but did so at the expense of adding lots of processing and grain to pictures — often over-exposing them far more than we'd like.

The Nexus 5 pictures looked more natural, with a better range of colors and accurate exposure

Although it took darker pictures when compared side-by-side to the One, we found the pictures coming out of the Nexus 5 to be more true to life, leaving shadows where they should be and highlighting other parts just the right amount. The difference is even more dramatic in HDR+ mode, which seems to gather a drastically better range of color than the HTC One's HDR mode.

For all of the great results we've been seeing out of the Nexus 5, it still comes up short in terms of speed and versatility. There are far more adjustments, shooting modes and options on the HTC One that can help overcome the limitations of a 4MP camera, and in the end the one that's best really comes down to your needs. The Nexus 5 better suits us because we're looking for the best possible image quality rather than versatility, but that may not be the case for everyone.

The bottom line

Nexus 5 vs. HTC One

In the end it's hard to argue against buying either one of these phones today, even though one is a handful of months older than the other. Across hardware, software, specs and camera quality, the Nexus 5 and HTC One are very comparable, each one edging out just slightly in different categories.

If you want some of the best phone hardware (Android or otherwise) out there today, you still can't go wrong with the HTC One. And with the latest Android 4.3 and Sense 5.5 update, and KitKat on the horizon (and even closer if you choose a Google Play edition), you're getting one of the best software experiences as well. The camera isn't on the bleeding edge as it used to be, but you're still getting a capable shooter with tons of software features to back it up.

In terms of pure value, the Nexus 5 comes out way ahead at $349 unlocked, or even at $399 if you want the bump in storage. It also offers a refreshed and redesigned software experience with fantastic Google service integration, as well as the best camera performance of any Nexus phone to date.

Between these two phones it's a toss-up on which one to get, and it really comes down to which features suit you best. In either case, you're going to be getting one of the best Android phones available today.