HTC One vs Samsung Galaxy S4

HTC One vs Samsung Galaxy S4

It could be argued that the smartphone and tablet market is in a bit of a rut. The rush of awe that new product releases used to produce hype arguably peaked a generation ago, with the Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S III. Our collective responses to the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 has certainly been far more laid back.

As we’ve touched on in recent months, however, today’s phones do have a humungous pool of horsepower from which they can draw. What we’re really waiting on is for designers to make use of that power to do interesting things once again.

Both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One are what we’d classify as unreasonably fast. Whether it’s browsing the web, downloading, installing and firing up apps and games or taking photos, neither ever leaves you waiting. But while the One and S4 are actually pretty similar under the bonnet, they have two quite different philosophies of design in almost every other area.

If these latest smartphones were dog breeds, the S4 would be the happy Beagle – the one who loves to go anywhere and do anything, but who perhaps isn’t the brightest crayon in the pack. By contrast, the One is a marvellously sleek and well-groomed Doberman; it’s perhaps not as flexible, but it excels at what it’s built for.

The real one?

The One isn’t the first HTC phone to carry that name – last year we saw the One X, XL and X+ – but it’s perhaps an indication of how proud HTC is of this particular model. So what makes this One so special?

As a package, there’s a lot to like here, with a robust aluminium and plastic body, front-facing speakers and a big 4.7-inch screen. We’d argue that its best asset is perhaps its speed. Despite the Galaxy S4 technically being faster with its CPU clocked around 10% higher, the One often just feels smoother and quicker than the Samsung in use. HTC’s designers have upgraded the company’s Sense skin (now numbering version 5.0) and combined with that new hardware, it infuses a real element of fluidity into using Android.

While Samsung has again gone with ‘colourful and friendly’ for the S4′s general look and feel, HTC has opted for a more subdued, corporate chic style for its latest user interface (UI). That has mostly paid off and resulted in a phone with a slightly more mature and understated appeal.

The S4 is a tad slimmer and lighter than the HTC One, but the cost is arguably the former’s greatest weakness; a mostly-plastic chassis.

The HTC One’s chassis is reassuringly built ­- a mix of aluminium and plastic.

The core components

Elsewhere, while the One may not pack as many software bells and whistles as the S4, it does at least get most of the basics right.

The Super LCD 3 screen is incredibly bright, clean and consistent. While its colours aren’t quite as vivid as on the S4′s AMOLED display, in side-by-side comparisons the One’s extra brightness makes it significantly easier to read in direct sunlight.

The One is also more physically reassuring than the S4. Though it’s only marginally heavier than the latter (143g versus 130g), there’s a comforting heft to HTC, with that curved aluminium back sitting flush against your palm in use.

And HTC’s front-facing stereo speakers also do live up to the hype – they’re the best we’ve heard in any smartphone, providing fuller audio than their size would seem to allow.

The Sense keyboard, too, is generally fantastic. It supports both tapping and tracing, and performed admirably in both modes, being both lag-free and producing few mistakes. However, that said, we still prefer Swype, which has better features for correcting earlier typed words.

The BlinkFeed widget can pull in news and social updates from a variety of different services and sites.

The One isn’t bereft of neat new software either and HTC has put one app in particular, called BlinkFeed, front and centre. BlinkFeed is a large, tiled widget that’s set to be your default home page. It’s designed to give you a constant stream of updated news and social info, and it can pull in content from your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Flickr accounts, as well as from a preselected range of news web sites. If you’ve used the Flipboard news app on iOS or Android, you’ll find BlinkFeed is pretty similar. It generally works well, if news and social updates are what you’re looking for on your home page. And if they’re not, just a few taps will let you set any other page as the default home screen.

We’re also fans of HTC’s driving mode, which switches your home screen to large icons for accessing things like navigation, music, phone and voice control.

The HTC One’s Driving Mode gives you large, easy-to-press buttons and helps keep distractions to a minimum.

Likewise there’s a ‘Kid Mode’ option, which lets you set up a little sandbox area populated with specific apps and games. This means you can safely hand your phone over to smaller children without worrying that they’ll delete all your contacts or buy $6,000 worth of Smurfs in-app purchases.

The one to beat

Samsung’s philosophy with the S4 isn’t exactly a new one. This isn’t a revolutionary phone – for the most part, it’s just a faster, more full-featured and visually squarer version of its predecessor. In trying to improve on the S III, Samsung seems to have just thrown in as many ideas as possible to see what works. There is perhaps a whiff of desperation to this approach and the company hasn’t quite pulled off everything it’s tried to achieve.

Despite that, the S4 does have one specific thing going for it that could make it a better choice, for some users at least, than the HTC One: flexibility. That comes from a couple of features in particular. The ability to remove the battery means road warriors can carry a spare, and the microSD slot allows you to add more storage for things like photos, music and videos. But more than this, if you’re an inherent tinkerer you’ll like the fact that Samsung offers more options for finetuning and turning features on and off on the fly. There’s a gargantuan widget in the notification tray with 20-odd buttons for accessing certain phone features, from typical things like adjusting brightness or turning Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and screen rotation on or off, to enabling the phone’s newer features like gesture support and smart scrolling.

Like turning phone features on and off on the fly? Samsung’s got you totally covered. 

Fill ‘er up

Samsung hasn’t made any radical changes to its TouchWiz front end for Android this time around; it looks much the same as it did on the S III. Most of the big changes come in the form of discrete apps – such as the exercise and nutrition tracker called S Health – and specific OS and UI features.

On the downside, all those options can leave the S4 feeling cluttered, something that begins from the first time you power it up. For example, of the five default home screen pages, Samsung’s left you with room for four app icons. That means there are 76 spots taken up by Samsung’s own preinstalled apps and widgets. It clearly wants to show off all the new features it’s bundled in; however, it’s a bit like moving into a new home and finding that the previous owners have left all their furniture behind, and that it’s stacked from floor to ceiling.

The S4 comes chock full of Samsung apps, but much of that is arguably bloatware that you’ll never use.

What works & what doesn’t

Samsung’s new apps do largely deliver on their potential – we found ourselves using S Health’s pedometer function quite religiously. The deeper UI features are a bit hit and miss, though. Smart scrolling, which is meant to let you tilt your head to scroll things like web pages up and down, just doesn’t work consistently enough to be of any use, and it only works in Samsung’s own apps. Likewise, eye tracking only sometimes works. The ‘Smart stay’ feature, which is also on the S III, is meant to detect your eyes to prevent screen rotation in certain circumstances, like if you’re lying down on the couch or in bed. Except that it works a little too sporadically for you to be able to rely on it.

What’s also perplexing is that Samsung’s Android keyboard seems to have gotten worse since the S III – or the autocorrect part of it at least. It’s quite telling that Samsung’s turned it off by default because when you turn it on it’s a serious mess. The main problem is that it seems to try to correct spelling as well as grammar. In our testing, it replaced ‘the’ with ‘a’ (and vice versa), ‘and’ with ‘an’, ‘isnt’ (typed without the apostrophe) to ‘own’, and there were many more issues. Even with autocorrect turned off, punctuation is harder to use than it should be, hidden under one key and requiring a long press and sometimes multiple taps to find what you’re looking for. Thank goodness Android supports third-party keyboards.

That AMOLED screen

It might not sound like there’s a lot of difference between a 4.7 and 5-inch screen, but compared side by side, that extra 0.3-inch becomes pretty clear. Samsung has squeezed that screen into a body that’s almost the same width (69.8mm compared to 68.2mm), so in terms of pocketability there’s no disadvantage there. The S4 also generally provided marginally richer colours than the One in our tests, and the detail shown in dark movies and images was also higher, thanks to better contrast. The one downside is that the S4′s AMOLED isn’t quite as consistent and clean – peer closely and you’ll likely notice dark vertical patches in some screen areas.

Build quality

It’s possible to argue that when it comes to long-term durability, the S4 is likely to come off second best. While the fibreglass frame should keep it intact, over time chips, scuffs and accidental drops will take a toll on its painted plastic chassis. This is where the ceramic and aluminium shell used by the HTC One will undoubtedly wear better.

Camera comparison

If judged purely on specs, the S4 would seem to be the clear winner when it comes to the rear-facing camera: it packs a 13MP model, compared to a measly 4MP in the One. And while the S4 can capture more image detail, it doesn’t always take the best shots. That’s primarily due to one factor: the default metering mode. The S4′s camera is set to take the lighting in the whole scene into account before it takes a photo. That works in many situations, but it fell over in extremely low-lit shots, as our image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge attests.

The HTC One uses spot metering, so when you tap to focus on an object, it tries to compensate to ensure that this particular area is correctly exposed. Unfortunately, that often results in other areas of the photo being under or overexposed.

The One has a significantly wider-angle lens, so it captures a larger area. That’s not always what you want, though, especially in a camera with a lower megapixel count. Whether you prefer the S4′s closer-in shots is a matter of personal choice.

From a feature perspective, these are both well-equipped cameras with heaps of options to let you adjust your shots. Samsung’s is slightly fiddlier to use, however, as you have to turn on special filters or effects before you take a photo.

The S4′s higher-megapixel camera often provides better balanced photos, but didn’t win every contest.

Under the bonnet

Both phones use fairly similar hardware. They share the same GPU and CPU, though the latter is clocked marginally faster in the Samsung (1.9GHz versus the One’s 1.7GHz). That results in slightly better benchmark results in most areas; in games, for example, it can actually be up to 15% faster.

When really pushed, the S4 does drain its battery a little bit quicker. However, on less demanding tasks the S4′s bigger battery ultimately holds up quite strongly; streaming ABC News 24 with the screen at 50% brightness, the One lasted 7:35 hours, whereas the S4 went an extra 90 minutes, for a total of 9:05 hours. That’s the longest any phone, bar the humungous Galaxy Note II, has lasted in this test.

The S4 also drained slightly less juice in an idle test (connected to 4G), chewing through 8% of its battery in 12 hours, compared to 11% on the HTC One. That means by and large, the S4 should last a bit longer in everyday use and that’s something we found subjectively, too. However, both of these handsets can last a working day with moderate use. 

Which one?

Ultimately, it’s at a bit of an impasse. Which phone you prefer will largely come down to personal choice. The HTC One is a well-built and superbly slick handset that gets most of the basics right – its camera is the only really notable weak spot, though it’s not overflowing with features either.

Conversely, the S4, isn’t quite as reassuring in its build quality, but it offers more flexibility and is slightly more open to tinkering and expanding, thanks to a microSD card slot and a broader range of software options and features. And that bigger screen, slightly faster performance and potentially longer battery life don’t hurt its appeal.

If push came to shove, we’d give the gong to Samsung, but it’s an exceedingly close call. What’s encouraging is how quickly HTC has managed to turn around its fortunes with a solid alternative to its Korean rival. We can’t help but think that if Samsung had gone with a metal body on the S4, the result wouldn’t have been quite so close.

General system performance


Geekbench 2

Samsung Galaxy S III


Samsung Galaxy S4 4G





Gaming performance


GFXBenchmark 2.7 – T-Rex Offscreen

GLBenchmark 2.5.1 – Egypt HD

GLBenchmark 2.5.1 – Egypt Classic

Samsung Galaxy S III




Samsung Galaxy S4 4G









Battery life


W-Fi video streaming (ABC News 24)

Gaming (GLBenchmark 2.5.1)

Recharge time

Samsung Galaxy S III




Samsung Galaxy S4 4G








NT = not tested. All battery tests performed with screen at 50% brightness.

Phone face-off

See these two hot Android handsets go head-to-head in our exclusive video review.



Price: Varies (from $60/ month on 24-month contract)  |  Web:

Critical specs: Android 4.1.2, 4.7-inch Super LCD 3 screen at 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, 4G/LTE, 32/64GB onboard storage, 2,400mAh non-removable battery, 4MP/2MP (rear/front) cameras, 802.11b/g/n/ac support, 143g.

Samsung Galaxy S4 4G

Price: $899  |  Web:

Critical specs: Android 4.2.2, 5-inch AMOLED screen at 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, 4G/LTE, 16/32/ 64GB onboard storage, microSD slot, 2,600mAh removable battery, 13MP/2MP (rear/front) cameras, 802.11b/g/n/ac support, 130g.

Screen tech under the microscope

While both the S4 and One’s displays are 1080p, the underlying display tech is radically different, as you can see from these microscope images taken at 200x magnification.

While the HTC One’s Super LCD 3 screen uses the standard red/green/blue (RGB) stripe arrangement to make a single square pixel, with its AMOLED displays Samsung has experimented with a variety of RGBG (red/green/blue/green) arrangements as the younger technology has advanced. These PenTile Matrix screens have previously been criticised for not being quite as sharp and clean as their LCD counterparts, but the S4 seems to have finally solved most of those problems.

A lot of that has to do with just how tiny those individual red, green and blue subpixels now are – there are over twice as many in the Galaxy S4′s 1080p screen compared to the Galaxy S III’s 720p display. However, Samsung has also radically changed the shape of those sub-pixels, moving from oblongs to circles, which helps avoid jagged or fuzzy edges even further. AMOLED still maintains its advantage in other areas, such as contrast and colour gamut.

The one area where LCDs still have a clear lead is in overall brightness and that’s something we saw clearly when we compared these two phones in direct sunlight. The One was significantly brighter and easier to read on; the S4 looked very dark and dull by comparison.

For more updates on tech products & trends, follow us on facebook, twitter or RSS.