HTC and Samsung's 2014 flagships showcase two radically different approaches to smartphone design
For many smartphone buyers over the next few months, this is the big choice — the Samsung Galaxy S5, or the new HTC One M8. While both are five-inch rectangles — more or less, anyway — running Android 4.4 KitKat, the differences are numerous and significant, representing two divergent approaches to smartphone design.
HTC emphasizes design at every turn, with a aluminum unibody and its stylish Sense 6 UI. With Samsung, it's all about the features — a water-resistant chassis, a beastly 16-megapixel camera, built-in fingerprint scanner and heart rate sensor. So how do the two compare? Read on as we pit these two heavyweights against each other. It's time for the smartphone grudge match of 2014 —HTC One M8 versus Samsung Galaxy S5.
External hardware and build quality
The HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 are two very different beasts, but nowhere are they more dissimilar than on the outside. Whereas Samsung offers a light, plastic, water-resistant design with a removable battery and replaceable back panels, HTC opts for an aluminum unibody that's heavier and less protected from the elements, but much more pleasing to the senses.
HTC's choice of materials results in a more premium-looking device, but it also presents some problems from a usability perspective. With its narrow sides and smooth finish, the M8 feels slick in the hand, making it more difficult to securely grip than most phones. By contrast, the GS5's plastic chassis doesn't feel as classy, but it's much easier to hold onto. And the use of a metal unibody also presents more opportunities for minor build differences between models. (We've noticed a few inconsistencies in joins around the various ports in the handful of M8s we've used.)
HTC's metal unibody looks better than Samsung's plastic, but it can be tougher to hold onto.
Depending on which color option you pick up, both of these phones will have one of a few different finishes. The "gunmetal gray" HTC One has a glossier texture, while the silver and gold variants are matte, like their predecessor. On the GS5 you've got a choice between soft-touch plastic on the black (or other colors, if you're lucky) model and a more standard hard plastic on the white. In the U.S., you're largely stuck with either the black or white models.
The physical dimensions of the two phones are similar, with only a tenth of a inch difference between their screens' diagonal measurements. However the M8 is taller on account of its front-facing speakers, and its screen is also positioned higher up, meaning you've got further to reach in order to hit the top of the display.
The Galaxy S5's IP67-rated water-resistant credentials mean you can use the phone in the rain or around the pool without worry, but this also necessitates a fiddly plastic flap around the microUSB port. There's a wireless charging back on the way, which will eliminate the need to use this port every day, but unfortunately this isn't available just yet. The HTC One M8, by contrast, is rated IPX3, meaning it's protected from water sprays, but little more. Daredevil videos not withstanding, we wouldn't submerge the M8.
From the outside, the choice between these two phones comes down to utility versus beauty. The M8 is a great-looking handset with a unique premium feel, while the GS5 is easier to hold, but not as awe-inspiring.
If you forced us to choose, however, we'd have to pick the all-metal HTC One over Samsung's plastic-clad offering. As we said in our M8 review, the new HTC One feels like a phone from the future. By contrast, the GS5 is very much a phone of the here and now.
The HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 are both fairly similar on the inside, packing Snapdragon 801 processors, 2GB of RAM and 1080p displays. In terms of raw specs, the most notable differences are in the camera technology — 4-megapixel "Ultrapixel" versus 16-megapixel ISOCELL — as well as the small gains in CPU speed and battery capacity offered by the GS5. On paper, at least, the GS5 offers more hardware muscle. Though as we'll discuss later, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the more responsive of the two.
|Category||Samsung Galaxy S5||HTC One (M8)|
|Dimensions||142.0 x 72.5 x 8.1mm||146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35 mm|
|Colors||Shimmery White, Charcoal Black, Copper Gold, Electric Blue||Gunmetal Gray, Glacial Silver, Amber Gold|
|Display||5.1-inch, 1080p Full HD SuperAMOLED||5.0 inch, 1080p SuperLCD3|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor
|Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor
2.5GHz quad-core CPU in Asia/China (MSM8974AC)
2.3GHz quad-core CPU in US/EMEA (MSM8974AB)
|Platform||Android 4.4 with TouchWiz||Android 4.4 with HTC Sense 6, HTC BlinkFeed|
|SIM Card Type||microSIM||nanoSIM|
|Internal Storage||16/32GB + microSD up to 128GB||16/32GB + microSD up to 128GB|
|Camera||16MP (rear), 2.0MP (front)
|HTC Ultrapixel Camera + Duo Camera (4MP)
F2.0 aperture and 28 mm lens
5MP front-facing camera
|Battery||2800mAh removable||2600mAh non-removable|
Display and sound
Both the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 feature 1080p displays — a 5.1-inch Full HD SuperAMOLED panel on the GS5, and a 5-inch SuperLCD on the M8. The screens are extremely close in quality and brightness, both excelling across the board. If we had to nit-pick, we'd point out the slightly whiter whites on the M8's LCD and the darker blacks and somewhat punchier colors of the GS5's AMOLED display. (It's also worth underscoring the S5's impressive daylight performance, delivering just as much clarity as the LCD-based competition in bright sunlight.)
It's difficult to call a winner when it comes to display quality.
There's also a small difference in button configuration between the two phones. The M8 uses on-screen keys, which gets you easier access to Google Now, as well as the legacy menu key when it's needed. The Galaxy S5 offers more screen real estate in many apps through it's use of off-screen buttons. That said, most Android apps needing full screen mode will hide the M8's software keys.
We're prepared to call it a draw when it comes to display quality. Unsurprisingly, though, the HTC One M8's loud, bassy front speakers secure it an easy win in the audio department. Samsung's traditional rear-mounted speaker isn't bad at all, but it offers nowhere near the clarity, bass and volume of HTC's "BoomSound" setup.
Software, performance and features
At the software level, the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 encapsulate their manufacturers' contrasting approaches to smartphone design. The software on Samsung's new flagship is flatter and arguably less cartoonish than previous generations, though it's still overly colorful and brimming with features. You'll need to go digging around in the phone's labyrinthine Settings menu to find them all, however — there's not the impression of being beaten over the head with features that we experienced with the GS4.
The two big, new features this time around are the fingerprint scanner built into the home key, and the heart rate sensor located under the rear camera. You'll find neither on the HTC One M8, though we have to question whether either of these features has mass appeal. The fingerprint scanner works well enough for purchase authentication, but it's position makes it fiddly and awkward to use for lock screen security, at least while one-handing the device. Likewise, the heart rate sensor is accurate enough, but if you need to regularly keep track of your pulse, chances are you're already doing so with more specialized equipment.
If you can imagine it, chances are it's a feature on the Galaxy S5.
And there are even more Galaxy S5 features to contend with on the software side. Want to turn your phone into a smartwatch-connected baby monitor? The GS5 can do that. More hover and motion-based gestures than you'll ever remember how to use? Check. A way to drain your monthly data cap even faster by pooling LTE and Wifi for big downloads? That's a thing, too. If you can imagine it, chances are it's a feature of the Galaxy S5. Whether that's good or bad (or just superfluous) depends on your own individual needs.
So the HTC One M8 has a considerable feature deficit compared to the GS5, but the software tricks it offers are well-executed and useful. Motion Launch makes it much easier to unlock the M8 without reaching for its awkwardly-placed power button. And BlinkFeed, HTC's home screen reader, is better than ever, bringing in content from more services and being more intelligent about what it shows. (Samsung offers "My Magazine," a Flipboard-based competitor, but it isn't nearly as configurable or useful as BlinkFeed.)
HTC also inches ahead on software design, with a cleaner interface with a more consistent aesthetic throughout. Samsung's latest TouchWiz UI looks much sharper than previous iterations, with flatter icons, lighter fonts and a less cartoonish aesthetic. But in our opinion HTC's Sense 6 just looks better, and it's also noticeably faster to get around and more responsive to touch. Whether that's through better software optimization is unclear, but it's a big part of what makes the M8 feel like the faster phone.
Samsung and HTC have also adopted opposing approaches to photography. HTC is capped at 4 megapixels with its "Ultrapixel" tech, delivering larger pixels on the sensor, while Samsung cranks it's sensor up to 16 megapixels, incorporating a new ISOCELL sensor designed to reduce electrical interference between pixels.
Both cameras represent different extremes of smartphone photography. HTC prioritizes low-light performance and capture speed over detail, while Samsung's camera is tilted towards daylight performance — an area in which it excels — though it's slower in low light, capturing much softer images in the process.
In well-lit scenes, the Galaxy S5 wins by a country mile.
So how do the two cameras compare? In well-lit scenes, there's no contest — the Galaxy S5 wins by a country mile, capturing a huge amount of detail with wider dynamic range than the HTC One, even outside of its excellent HDR mode. Where the M8 blows out brighter skies and underexposes shaded areas, the Galaxy S5 produces more balanced and detailed shots. And the GS5 offers a superior HDR mode, which does a better job of balancing bright and dark areas, and even gives you a real-time HDR preview of what you're shooting before you press the shutter key.
The GS5 also shoots with almost no shutter lag in daylight, even in HDR mode — admittedly, it's perhaps not quite as fast as the M8 in normal mode, but we're talking fractions of a second here. Samsung, like HTC, offers a burst mode that lets you machinegun through exposures in rapid succession — the feature works well on both phones.
Samsung's higher megapixel count seems to allow it to create better panorama and Photosphere (OK, "Surround shot") images too, and we ran into fewer stitching issues on the GS5 compared to the M8.
But the main "Ultrapixel" camera is only part of HTC's photographic equation. It also incorporates a second camera for capturing depth information, as part of its "Duo camera" setup. This lets you soften the background and add other artistic and 3D effects to shots, and as this information is captured with every photo, you don't need to do anything use these features. Samsung offers its own selective focus mode, as do many other manufacturers, but you need to switch to a specific mode to use it, and shots in this mode are slower to capture.
For the most part, the HTC "Ultrapixel" camera's strength lies in low light photography. Despite its relative weakness in daylight, it's great at capturing good-looking shots in less than ideal lighting conditions, and it does so faster than the Galaxy S5. HTC's two-tone flash also does a better job at producing natural-looking shots, whereas you'll need to manually adjust white balance on the GS5 to avoid washed-out-looking photos with a blueish tint when using the flash. And for selfie fanatics, HTC offers a higher-specced front-facing camera — a 5-megapixel unit with a wide-angle lens, compared to Samsung's 2-megapixel front-facer.
When it comes to moving pictures, both devices are competent video cameras, though Samsung pulls ahead with its 4K video support. What's more, the Samsung camera's wider dynamic range is also apparent in video footage at all resolutions, meaning you'll get clearer footage from the GS5 when shooting both dark and bright areas in the same scene.
While it's a clear win for the Galaxy S5 on image quality, it's worth giving credit to HTC's Video Highlights feature, which creates automatic highlight reels for events based on your photos and videos. Samsung offers a similar capability in the "Studio" area of its Gallery app, but it's nowhere near as full-featured or instantaneous — or simply fun to use — as HTC's version.
HTC pulls ahead slightly on battery life, though Samsung will let you swap in a new one.
With an extra 200mAh of battery capacity at its disposal, you might expect the Galaxy S5 to inch slightly ahead of the HTC One. But that's not quite the case — in our experience, the M8 seems to pull ahead slightly, delivering around 15 hours of mixed heavy use versus the 13-14 or so we've been able to get out of the GS5. The Galaxy S5's camera also seemed to take a greater toll on its battery than the M8. In any case, it's a small difference. Either handset should be enough to get you through a full working day, and then some — thankfully, improved battery life is a hallmark of this latest generation of Android phones.
One benefit of the GS5, however, is its removable battery and back panel — the former for obvious reasons, as you can swap in a fresh battery on longer days, the latter because there's a wireless charging back on the way, giving you an easier way to keep it charged through the day.
Both devices also feature their own extreme low-power mode, which cut back on display brightness (Samsung goes to grayscale, actually), CPU speed and limit you to a small subset of apps in order to eke out several hours from the last few percent of battery capacity. The rated use time varies depending on what you're doing, but based on our time testing HTC's Extreme Power Saving Mode and Samsung's Ultra Power Saving Mode, either will get you several days per charge.
Galaxy S5 versus HTC One M8 — The bottom line
The choice here isn't easy — both the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 are fantastic phones that do a great many things really well. So perhaps it makes more sense to look at their respective weaknesses.
Tallness and slipperiness aside, the M8's main functional weakness is its camera — that 4-megapixel ceiling becomes painfully apparent when compared with 16-megapixel photos from the Galaxy S5, and if you're a keen mobile photographer then that's a legitimate reason to choose another phone instead. Same deal if you absolutely must have a water-resistant phone — the M8's IPX3-rated splash resistance won't take you very far.
Rational arguments aside, the HTC One M8 is just more enjoyable to use.
The GS5's weaknesses are more nuanced. It doesn't do any one thing really badly. Its camera's low-light performance is disappointing, but not horrendous. And its software isn't as pretty or responsive as the M8's, but it's perfectly functional and usable. The same goes for its plastic exterior — it's not as dazzling as the M8's metal shell, but it's comfortable to hold, and looks and feels better than earlier Samsung efforts.
That's the rational argument. Here's the irrational (and, yes, subjective) one — the HTC One M8 is just more enjoyable to use, maybe because its strengths are in areas you notice in every second of use. The luxurious aluminum unibody has a fantastic in-hand feel, and the sharper design and faster responsiveness of Sense 6 make the M8's software a joy to use. HTC hasn't nailed every area of the smartphone experience — the lopsided camera performance is a big let-down, and the slippery shape takes some getting used to.
Nevertheless, if you forced us to choose between these two Android titans of early 2014 we'd have to reach for the new HTC One.