When Google released the LG-made Nexus 4 late last year, it went toe-to-toe with the leading hardware of the time at a fraction of the price. Now we've got our hands on the HTC One, one of the first big flagship phones of 2013, so how does the Nexus stand up against this latest round of hardware?
We've been using the Nexus 4 since launch, and though we've only had the HTC One for a little under a week, there are more than a few areas where it's clear HTC has pulled ahead. But these things are never as simple as comparing spec numbers, so head past the break and check out our comparison video to find out more. We've also got more words and pictures if you're into that sort of thing.
We're still quite enamored with the Nexus 4 and its glass-centric chassis design. Sure, it's a magnet for scratches, and it's going to break more easily than something made of plastic or metal. But it feels great in the hand, and the rubbery soft-touch area around the edge makes the phone easy to grip.
Despite all that, we have to give the HTC One the win when it comes to build quality and industrial design. Its space-age aluminum unibody is just that good. We're suckers for metal phones, and the HTC One is the best metal phone we've ever used. The curved, tapered back makes it more hand-friendly than the iPhone, and we'd expect it to be a good deal sturdier than any glass-backed device. When it comes to build quality in the Android space, it's no exaggeration to say that HTC has raised the bar with its latest handset.
The HTC One sports a 1080p SuperLCD3 panel, while the Nexus opts for a traditional IPS screen at 1280x768 resolution -- a little over 720p. Both displays measure in at 4.7 inches, and both look great -- they're bright, easily usable in daylight with good color reproduction. But the HTC One pulls ahead in brightness and color accuracy, not to mention resolution. Colors on the Nexus are a little cooler in places, and we've also noticed the touchscreen on the HTC One seems a little more sensitive than LG's offering.
Nevertheless, we're still quite happy hopping back on the Nexus's near-720p IPS display. The difference between 320 pixels per inch and 468 pixels per inch isn't something that immediately jumps out, and even side-by-side the Nexus holds up really well.
Processors and performance
The Nexus 4 packs a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset at 1.5GHz -- arguably the most powerful chip of 2012. The HTC One takes a step beyond this with a Snapdragon 600 SoC, said to be 20-30 percent faster than the S4 Pro, with a faster-clocked Adreno 320 GPU to boot. In practice the HTC One is a little snappier than the Nexus -- apps seem to load faster and the device seems more responsive to touch.
But it's a difference you're only ever going to notice if you've got the two side-by-side, and we're perfectly happy using either. Though the HTC One may be the speedier of the two, the Nexus 4 remains an incredibly powerful smartphone.
The two phones have taken very different paths in their button placements. Being a Nexus device, the N4 opts for on-screen keys -- back, home and task-switching, while HTC has just back and home, abandoning the capacitive task-switching button found on previous HTC One-series handsets. That means you'll have to double-tap the home key to reach the task-switcher, which isn't a huge deal, but it's a point worth highlighting. (Google Now, incidentally, can be reached by long-pressing the home key.)
You'll also have to deal with the ugly on-screen menu block should you load an app that requires menu key functionality on the HTC One -- not the case on the Nexus, which conjures a smaller menu button in the bottom right corner.
So on the whole we feel that the Nexus 4 handles its buttons more elegantly. The three buttons you need are just there, and you don't have to deal with long-pressing, double-tapping or dealing with black bars in older apps.
Sense 5 versus stock Android 4.2
Historically, HTC Sense has been one of those things internet denizens and tech pundits alike have loved to complain about. And some of it's been deserved criticism -- earlier versions of Sense focused on animations and graphical finery at the cost of performance.
Sense 5 is a different beast, however. The entire UI -- most noticeably the home screen launcher -- has been completely redesigned. A new font, new, minimalist design language and a new home screen archetype based around the BlinkFeed news-scrolling area and a redesigned app drawer. We're not crazy about the HTC One app drawer (though there are ways to customize it into something more user-friendly) -- but we've found BlinkFeed to be useful enough when we need it, and easy to dismiss when it's not.
And as for performance -- well, we've already mentioned that the HTC One is probably the fastest Android phone we've used. The days of Sense slowing down otherwise speedy phones is well and truly over. Equally, we think the new Sense is just as attractive as stock Android, and maybe just a little more user-friendly, with features like Get Started and BlinkFeed squarely aimed at "civilian" smartphone users.
But we're also fans of the pure, unsullied stock Android experience, and the Nexus has the advantage of being Google's reference phone and being first with updates. It's also running Android 4.2, whereas HTC's stuck on 4.1.2. Both are Jelly Bean, and we'd argue that the HTC One doesn't miss much by not being on 4.2. But if you want to be on the bleeding edge of Android, Nexus is the place to be.
Nexus devices have never thrilled us with their camera quality. The Nexus 4's is decent, but can't stand up to other flagship phones, despite unique features like Photosphere's 360 degree panoramas, and low-light performance is decidedly shonky.
The HTC One packs HTC's new "Ultrapixel" camera tech -- larger pixels on the sensor designed to capture more light. The trade-off is a lower overall megapixel count of just 4MP. That means the HTC One is the clear winner in low light and video recording, also thanks to its optical image stabilization tech. We're still coming to our own conclusions as to where the HTC One's camera stands in the grand scheme of things, but relative to the Nexus 4, we feel the One is a better fit for most smartphone users. HTC's "Zoe" shots, which grab a few seconds of video alongside a burst capture, add to its credentials in this area.
It's also worth noting that the HTC One shoots photos in 16:9 orientation, as opposed to the Nexus's more standard 4:3. And the One's wider-angle lens means you'll capture a wider view of scenes if you're shooting in this widescreen aspect ratio.
Comparison shots: HTC One shots on the left, Nexus 4 on the right
We're still completing our battery tests on the HTC One, whereas we've had almost four months with the Nexus 4. But in our few days of testing, we've found the HTC One's battery life to be roughly comparable to the Nexus 4 -- that's to say it's pretty good. Our first proper day of testing got us just under 14 hours of moderate to heavy use both indoors and outdoors on Wifi, HSPA and LTE. That day included a good deal of photography and video recording, making this figure all the more impressive.
That's about equivalent to what we get form the Nexus 4, so we're more than happy with the battery life we're getting from both handsets.
The bottom line
The Nexus 4 was a good phone four months ago, and a good phone it remains today. And there are many reasons to pick up LG and Google's stock Jelly Bean-powered beast, not least of which is its price. At £240 in the UK and $300 in the U.S., it's heavily subsidized through the Google Play Store. The HTC One, of course, is pricier, but that gets you a better screen, sumptuous build quality and LTE connectivity.
As with every device, there are software trade-offs to be made. The Nexus is pure Android, and for some people that's the pinnacle of smartphone software. We're more pragmatic than that, and we've come to enjoy using Sense 5 in recent days, despite its wonky button setup.
We like both the Nexus 4 and the HTC One an awful lot and we'll still probably carry both. But when it comes to daily driver time? We're leaning -- pretty strongly -- towards the One. It takes a lot to pry us away from a Nexus, but that's exactly what HTC has done with its latest flagship.
- HTC One discussion on the Android Central forums
- More HTC One content
- HTC One unboxing
- Inside HTC's BlinkFeed
- HTC One versus iPhone 5
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