What the Galaxy S IV Needs to Beat the HTC One

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The Samsung Galaxy S IV is going to be a smash hit. It would take a huge leap of imagination for me to envision a set of circumstances that would torpedo this new, destined-for-greatness device, and in the post-MWC lull, I just don’t have that much brain power. Whether it’s a brilliant re-imagining of the Galaxy S line or a warmed-over rehash of the S3, this smartphone will succeed. That’s my prediction. (You may now proceed to the comments to brand me a Samsung fanboy.)

But success isn’t just a measure of sell-through and mindshare. It is, at least in part, a reflection of how much respect your product has in the marketplace – how much pride your customers take in carrying your device. That’s how Apple managed to survive its lean years: it created products that its customers loved so much, they didn’t mind dealing with the down-sides of being an underrepresented minority.

Also, the Galaxy S IV won’t launch in a vacuum: there’s a new kid on the Android block that’s begging to be loved. The new HTC One isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly attracted its share of attention; it’s already garnered an MWC Mobile Device Award, after all. The mobile world is abuzz with anticipation over the One’s beautifully crafted hardware and innovative new Sense skin. These attributes, combined with HTC’s long legacy in the smartphone space, make the new One the Galaxy S IV’s prime competitor.

So what does Samsung need to bring to the table to lay waste to its Taiwanese rival? We covered this question in a speculative piece earlier last month, but now that the M7 has been revealed as the new One, we’ve got some new thoughts. Read on to receive them.

TouchWiz Could Use A Facelift

A little under a year ago, we were comparing skins -those special UI layers manufacturers throw atop Android- and we found ourselves asking whether the new TouchWiz was better than the new Sense. Samsung and HTC had each rolled out new versions of their respective skins for 2012, and we were surprised to find that TouchWiz, which we’d always found cartoony and bloated, was actually quite usable on the new Galaxy S III. Sure, its “Nature UX” elements were overt and cheesy, but the whole system possessed a fluidity and stability we hadn’t seen before. We liked it.

What a difference a year makes. While TouchWiz still runs very smoothly, and Samsung hasn’t made any notable changes to its look and feel, the company has ported the experience to other form factors and screen sizes. The result is that the same UI layer is now running on most of Samsung’s lineup. That’s good for consistency, but it calls to the fore an undeniable truth: TouchWiz is aging quickly. It’s never a good sign when a user feels relief at a brief glimpse of the “true” Android lying underneath a UI layer, but that’s exactly what I feel every time I need to configure a new Gmail account on my Galaxy Note II and I see a glimmer of stock Jelly Bean peeking through.

Hello, beautiful.

To be sure, the grass isn’t always greener: the new version of HTC Sense isn’t for everyone. Some feel the BlinkFeed is useless, and others are calling it a ripoff of the Windows Phone design aesthetic. Whether you believe those arguments or not, it’s hard to deny that the new Sense is at least fresh. It’s new. It’s eye-catching. It’s something we haven’t seen before. None of that is true for the current version of TouchWiz, and Samsung needs to do some spring cleaning and sprucing up if it expects to keep pace with its smaller rival in the software department.

Samsung Needs A Superior Shooter

At last month’s launch event in NYC, HTC talked a lot about the camera in its new One smartphone. To its credit, the company has rejected the traditional pissing contest of megapixel-versus-megapixel, declaring that the real measure of quality isn’t resolution, but pixel size. Essentially, HTC is saying that it’s not the size of the boat; it’s the motion of the ocean.

I’ve always been attracted to alternative approaches to competition, and I applaud HTC for its efforts to shift the focus (har, har) of the smartphone camera discussion. The One’s inclusion of unique software features like Zoe, and hardware improvements like an f/2.0 aperture, keep us hopeful that the pictures it generates will be stunning enough to overcome their relatively low 4MP resolution.

That hope, though, is a little tenuous. We’re used to seeing excellent innovation from HTC cameras, but we’re not always used to seeing the best results. Despite (or perhaps because of) the company’s touting the One X’s camera as “amazing,” we were a bit underwhelmed by the shooter – and that carried through to follow-on products like the Droid Incredible 4G LTE and the Droid DNA, as well. By contrast, the Galaxy S III camera blew us away with its quality, and since Samsung used the same module in its Galaxy Note II and ATIV S, we got used to seeing great performance from Samsung smartphone shooters. With rumors of a 13MP camera in the forthcoming Galaxy S IV, we’re left worrying that maybe HTC’s “UltraPixels” might not be enough.

Industrial Design Needs To Be A Priority

The story couldn’t be more different on the hardware side of the equation. Much as it did with the release of last year’s One X, HTC has outdone itself with the build of the new One. An all-aluminum chassis and “fuselage” with precision-machined holes placed over forward-firing speakers. The much-ballyhooed chamfered edge running the perimeter of the frontplate. A huge camera lens called out by a single stylized pinstripe. The same palm-cupping, half-moon back cover as found on the Droid DNA. And topping it all off, a 4.7-inch 1080p display. Say what you will about iPhone inspirations, the new HTC One is a true beauty. Par for the course from a company whose hardware designs we’ve come to adore for their strength and boldness.

Samsung, on the other hand, hasn’t impressed us lately in terms of build quality. Its Galaxy S III kicked off a design trend that continued with the Note II and persists to this day in the Note 8.0. It’s a trend that values light weight over material selection, favoring slippery plastic over soft-touch, and chrome coatings over actual metal. Sometimes this falseness is beautifully done; in the case of the ATIV S, the true nature of its faux-aluminum battery door doesn’t become evident until you touch it. But once you do, you realize you’ve been fooled.

“I’m a fraud, but I’m a handsome fraud.”

Samsung’s corner-cutting in the name of slimming down hasn’t cost it many sales, though; the company is absolutely destroying every other Android smartphone maker in terms of sheer numbers. Maybe part of that has to do with the fact that most Samsung devices feature removable memory and a replaceable battery – something that HTC can’t claim of its own lineup. Maybe people just don’t care as much about material selection and hardware quality these days, especially in the face of a continued onslaught of Galaxy-themed advertising.

Whatever the case, the trends make clear that the eternally-beleaguered HTC has its work cut out for it. The new One is a thing of beauty in many respects, but if our initial impressions are accurate, it’s not quite the blockbuster that HTC needs to stand face-to-face with whatever Samsung is bringing to the table next week. The smaller company will have to make up the difference in advertising and marketing, both domains where Samsung, despite its halfhearted and un-funny commercials, has historically had a striking advantage. Even if the Galaxy S IV proves to be little more than a slightly-improved Galaxy S III, the latter has proven so successful that all Samsung really needs to do is churn out more of the same to continue its winning trend.

For the sake of a vibrant and healthy Android smartphone selection, I hope I’m wrong about that last point.

___

Title image source: Rahul.Charizmatic

HTC One camera image source: Wired

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!