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Samsung Galaxy S 4 vs. HTC One vs. Sony Xperia Z vs. LG Nexus 4

By Ryan Whitwam

Will Samsung dominate the Android smartphone market for another year? Let's compare the current crop of flagship Android phones from Samsung, HTC, Sony, and LG.

After dominating the Android world in 2012, Samsung is in a good spot to take 2013 as well with its new Galaxy phone. The Samsung Galaxy S 4 was just unveiled in New York, and it has all the makings of a killer cutting-edge smartphone. But Samsung is just the most recent company to reveal a next-generation flagship phone, and with strong products from the likes of HTC and Sony, the competition this year is going to be tight.

Let’s take a close look at how the Galaxy S 4 compares to the LG Nexus 4, HTC One, and Sony Xperia Z.

Hardware

Front and center on all these devices you’ll find a sizable display that puts any phone older than a few months to shame. Samsung announced a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED panel, which works out to 441 pixels per-inch (PPI). The main advantage here is the deep, inky blacks of an AMOLED display. The colors are also going to be very vibrant. Samsung hasn’t specified if this panel uses a PenTile subpixel arrangement, but if it does, there might be subtle distortions at lower brightness levels.

HTC chose to go with a slightly smaller 4.7-inch LCD panel for the One, but it is also 1080p. That’s 469 PPI, if you’re keeping track. HTC has a reputation for using amazing displays, and I expect this phone to be no exception. It will be sharper than the GS4, but might have mildly more washed-out colors.

The Xperia Z also has 5-inch screen at 1080p, but it’s LCD. The pixels are very tight, but this display has a narrower viewing angle than many competing screens. The Nexus 4 has great viewing angles thanks to LG’s ZeroGap tech, but it’s only 720p. It’s a good display, but the GS4 will best it.

Samsung is still going with a polycarbonate (read: plastic) body. The company touted how thin and light the device will be, and it is impressive -- 7.9mm thick and 130g. HTC might be making the biggest generational leap with the HTC One. It has an aluminum unibody design and fully integrated rim antenna. It’s a little heavier at 143g, though.

Sony and LG both have a lot of Glass on their devices, but Sony seems to do a better job of making it durable. The entire body of the Xperia Z has a water-resistant coating that will keep it from frying if it gets a little wet. It’s also quite an attractive phone overall. The Nexus 4 is pretty, but a little more fragile.

The Xperia Z is 146g and the Nexus 4 is 139g. This is why the GS4 is plastic -- it's big, but still lighter than competing phones. It might feel a little cheap, but Samsung knows most buyers will get a case anyway.

Inside, all these devices are rocking 2GB of RAM, but the ARM processors are going to be quite a mix. The Nexus 4 and Xperia Z both run Snapdragon S4 Pro chips. This is a 2012 chip, but still plenty fast. The HTC One will have Qualcomm’s next-generation Snapdragon 600, a quad-core part that brings significant performance improvements.

Samsung was being a little evasive about what ARM chip the Galaxy S 4 will have during the event, but its own product pages confirm there will be two different variants. A version running the eight-core 1.6GHz Samsung Exynos Octa will probably be the international flavor. This is basically two quad-core chips -- one high-power and one low-power. The (probable) US version of the GS4 will have a Qualcomm processor, most likely the Snapdragon 600. So, the HTC One and Galaxy S 4 will be pretty closely matched in the spec race.

The Galaxy S III had a reputation for taking great pictures, but the GS4 is going to be getting a run for its money this year. Samsung announced a 13MP rear camera on the device, which is the same pixel count Sony has on the Xperia Z. It sounds from early reviews like Sony didn’t pick the best sensor, but perhaps Samsung will do better.

HTC is turning the megapixel race on its head with the One. This device uses a 4MP “Ultrapixel” camera. Basically, this is a sensor with fewer pixels, but they’re larger to collect more light. Indeed, the One is reported to have awesome low-light performance. The sharpness apparently isn’t quite there, though.

Samsung also didn’t offer any estimates of battery life, but did say the GS4 would have a 2600mAh battery. That’s quite large, and it’s removable. The HTC One has a non-removable cell, and it’s only 2300mAh. The Xperia Z is in the same ballpark with a non-removable 2330mAh battery. Even the Nexus 4 has a built-in battery rated at just 2100mAh.

If Samsung can tune the software well, this is a place to win fans. A big battery that (unlike the competition) can be replaced? That’s a win.

Software

Samsung didn’t mention Android by name at all during its bizarre pseudo-broadway event. Just like the Nexus 4, the Galaxy S 4 is going to run Android 4.2 Jelly Bean at launch. The Xperia Z and HTC One are currently on Android 4.1, but they are expected to be bumped to 4.2 at some point. Although, if Samsung is teaching us anything, it’s that the version of the OS is less important to sales than what the OEM does with it.

Samsung layered on the software features this time around, and many of them are based on novel face-tracking implementations of the front-facing 2MP camera. Last year the phone knew when you were looking and could keep the screen on, this year it knows to pause video when you look away (Smart Pause) and scroll down when you reach the end of a web page (Smart Scroll). This feature is either going to be neat, or disorientating. The GS4 also lets you erase objects from photos if you have taken several in quick succession.

Samsung also expanded the S Voice service to translations. It can listen to two people speaking any of 9 different languages and act as a go-between. Basically, Samsung invented Google Translate. This should serve as a reminder of the degree to which Google is not a part of Samsung’s marketing message. This is a Samsung product first and foremost. I should also mention, there is a reason Google doesn’t promote Translate very heavily--it makes a lot of mistakes.

Maybe you want another new way to interact with your phone, and making eyes at it isn’t cutting enough. Well, Samsung is using infrared sensors (not just an overly-sensitive capacitive sensor) in the Galaxy S 4 to track gestures above the screen. When your finger hovers above the screen, that can be detected as a hover interaction. It allows some of the S Pen features from the Note products to work on the GS4 with your finger. It looks a bit awkward in the demo, but at least Samsung is trying something new. Samsung calls this Air View.

HTC is the only other company pushing its own software experience to the same degree as Samsung. The HTC One rethinks the home screen with BlinkFeed. This is a semi-curated list of interesting content that acts as your main home panel. For novice users, this could be a useful experience. It’s like Flipboard without the hassle of downloading the app. You can disable it, but I would wager your mom would use BlinkFeed. Samsung tweaks the home screen, but it’s nothing like this.

The camera interface is one place HTC and Samsung are both directing resources. HTC emphasized HDR images, post-processing effects, and the new HTC Zoe. Zoe allows users to shoot 3-second snippets of high resolution images assembled as a video. Think Vine, but higher quality. This is mostly directed at capturing action shots.

As for Samsung, it didn’t provide any camera samples, and we didn’t hear about any new HDR features. What the company did show off was dual-camera mode. Here’s the deal: you can take a picture or video with the front and back camera... at the same time. Are you ever going to want to do that? I have no idea, but it also works with video calls. You can also record sound with your pictures to “capture the moment” better, and then allow the phone to automatically categorize pictures into Story Albums.

Contrast the HTC/Samsung approach with that of Sony, which makes far fewer modifications to Android. The home screen doesn’t do anything wacky, the camera interface is understated (but has HDR video), and it even has software system buttons like the Nexus devices. Sony seems to be focusing on hardware, and just doesn’t make a fuss about the software. It’s probably pining for the days when Sony was the king of industrial design. Maybe that’s for the best, because biting off too much can ruin the software experience.

The software on the Nexus 4 is all Google, not LG. This is Android direct from the source -- a reference design. Unlike Samsung and HTC, Google talks about the Android brand as much as possible. There aren’t as many features built into the Nexus 4 with its stock Android 4.2.2 OS, but I think it’s still going to be the best experience going forward. It's a shame most users will never get to use it.

Is the Galaxy S 4 a winner?

The Galaxy S 4 is a safe device in many ways. It takes what made the Galaxy S III successful, and makes it a little bigger and faster. Features like Dual Camera mode and Smart Scroll will be demoed in untold multitudes of carrier stores and electronics shops around the world, and people will be impressed. They might never use those features in practice, but it’s going to be a good demo.

Samsung is going to sell a boatload of devices. It matches the competition in the hardware department, and Samsung has the money to advertise the GS4 heavily. It doesn’t matter that the HTC One will probably have a nicer screen and better industrial design -- Samsung has momentum, and nothing it showed yesterday slowed it down.

The Nexus 4, while a wonderful phone, is a niche device that doesn’t have LTE and is still hard to find. And Sony? The Xperia Z is barely going to be available in the US. It’s the best device Sony has made in years, but it can’t slow down the Samsung juggernaut. Samsung has popular perception on its side. Galaxy phones are the alternative to Apple, and to borrow a phrase, this is the best Galaxy yet.