The battle lines have quickly been drawn between two of 2013's hottest Android smartphones -- phones that, by the way, not a whole lot of people have actually touched yet -- the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4. The HTC One is just now going on sale in parts of Europe. We're still waiting on any U.S. carrier to announce availability for either of the phones.
We've been using the HTC One for a week now. (I've been using it as my main device, actually.) And we got to spend some time with the Samsung Galaxy S4 on Thursday in New York City. And we got to put both phones up against each other.
Know what? Folks are going to have a tough decision to make.
Read on for some initial thoughts on the Samsung Galaxy S4 versus the HTC One.
Other links you need to know
HTC One and Galaxy S4 video comparison
Two ends of the manufacturing spectrum here. HTC's gone (nearly) all aluminum with the HTC One. Samsung's using what feels like the same plastic (polycarbonate, you'll hear them say) as in previous devices. Both have their merits. The HTC One certainly feels more futuristic -- a metal unibody construction usually does. The Galaxy S4 isn't quite as sleek in its design (it's actually lost a little bit of the curve of the Galaxy S3), but that's not to say it's not also a looker. It's also nearly the exact same size as the Galaxy S3, so it's a got a pretty familiar feel to it. In terms of smartphones currently available, it's like the Verizon Droid DNA (or HTC J Butterfly outside the U.S.) compared to a slightly more squarish Galaxy S3.
The debate over whether metal is better than plastic isn't going to subside anytime soon, and that's a good thing. HTC's done wonders with the design of the HTC One, and I like it a lot. (Though I think it's a tad too tall for my taste.) Samsung done well with the GS3 design, and it's not rocking the boat too much with the GS4. There's no real wrong answer here. Try them both. If one feels better than the other to you, then go for it.
I do prefer the button scheme on the Galaxy S4, though. If you're going to have a home button -- and all Android phones do -- it needs to be in the middle. It's the most-used button on the phone (next to the power button, perhaps). It needs to be in the middle of the phone. Samsung still has a dedicated menu button. I'm not crazy about that idea -- Google long ago told app developers to stop designing apps with menu buttons in mind -- but I'm also a realist. Most devs haven't updated their app designs, and a menu button provides a better experience than the big black bar you get at the bottom of apps on HTC phones. The back and menu buttons smartly disappear when not in use on the Galaxy S4. Nicely designed.
Turning to the display, I've been pretty impressed with both. We'll need more time with the Galaxy S4 to be 100 percent certain, and I've preferred the Super LCD displays that HTC uses over Samsung's Super AMOLED displays. But packing in more pixels usually cures what ails ya. As both displays are 1080p, it's kind of a wash, at least at a glance. It'll be interesting to how "Samsung Adapt Display" makes a difference in everyday use.
We'll need to spend more time before properly commenting on hardware performance, but both phones have relatively the same internals. Well, that depends on where you live. Some versions of the Galaxy S4 will have Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 600 processor -- same as the HTC One -- and some will have Samsung's new Exynos 5, which boasts eight cores. So we'll have to see. (Also, the software we used on the Galaxy S4 was very pre-production, less finished than what's on our HTC One.)
It's worth a reminder that the Galaxy S4 has a removable battery and microSD card slot. If those are important features to you, that helps make your decision.
If we had to describe HTC and Samsung's software philosophies in a single sentence, it'd be this: HTC puts more emphasis on design, whereas Samsung packs in more features. That said, Samsung's "TouchWiz" user interface continues to improve. It's still not my favorite UI (I'm more of a stock guy), but it's getting better. I'll need some more time with the GS4, but I think TouchWiz might also be a little more intuitive to use for normal consumers. We'll have a better read on that after using the GS4 in real-world scenarios.
HTC's big bullet points for the HTC One are the camera (with its UltraPixels, Zoes and Video Highlights), BoomSound (which is a combination of the excellent front-facing speakers, Beats Audio and other tweaks), and BlinkFeed (bringing news and social updates to your home screen). Those are going to be big marketing points. Samsung's new features in the Galaxy S4 maybe don't have the same marketing-friendly names, but there are so many useful bullet points it's damn near overwhelming. (I recommend reading the official Galaxy S4 press release for the full rundown.)
HTC and Samsung do overlap a little bit. HTC's "Video Highlights" automatically parse your images and create highlight films. Samsung does the same with "Story Album." You can replicate HTC's BlinkFeed with an app like Flipboard. But BoomSound is as much hardware as it is software, and the HTC One definitely wins on that front.
Samsung's got more gimmicky features, but that's not to say they're not interesting or useful. "Air Hover" and "Air Gesture" -- which let you hover your finger over certain things to preview them and wave to scroll through items or trigger actions -- are at least fun, and they might very well change the way you use your phone. Sony's experimented with that before, but Samsung's the one bringing it to the mass market. Same for "S Health," wherein the Galaxy S4 takes features from apps like Endomondo or Run Keeper and makes them an integrated part of TouchWiz, helping to keep track of your daily routine. Throw in the optional S Health accessories, and you've got an impressive fitness suite that's already a part of the phone.
Or look at it like this: On the software side, Samsung and HTC essentially are trying to do the same thing -- most normal consumers don't customize their phones like you or I. So HTC has BlinkFeed for news and social updates, baked into the phone. Both the HTC One and Galaxy S4 will help organize and share your pictures. But the Galaxy S4 has so many more fun features and is light years ahead in making the phone and integral part of your daily routine. They're calling it a "Life Companion," and that might not be that far off in this latest iteration.
The bottom line
We're not going to solve this argument today. And the fact remains that there are folks in the Samsung camp (a lot of 'em), and folks in the HTC camp. And that's cool.
What we've experienced thus far are a couple of really good Android smartphones. And we can't purchase either of them yet. For all the blustering from the likes of HTC (and others) looking to steal some of the inevitable Samsung thunder, none of it matters until we can buy a phone.
You probably won't go wrong with either of these phones. They both have their merits. A lot of it comes down to personal preference. Nothing wrong with that either. Plastic or metal. TouchWiz or Sense. Great camera with a lot of features, or a great camera with a lot of different features.
This isn't going to be an easy decision.