For the purposes of this piece, there’s a substantial difference between Samsung’s new Galaxy S 5 and the All New HTC One, and not just in terms of features. More important is the gulf in our own personal experience: we’ve spent a lot of hands-on time with the former, while the other has yet to grace our fingertips.
Even given that disparity, though, it seems clear to us that the old HTC vs Samsung question, which started back in 2012 with the One X/Galaxy S III matchup and was amplified by the HTC One/Galaxy S 4 contest of 2013, is really no different this year. The stakes may be a bit higher, the rhetoric a bit sharper, but ultimately those faced with a choice between these two Android flagships will fall into two very distinct groups.
Let’s review what’s known to us at this point.
Samsung Galaxy S 5
While the Galaxy S 5 doesn’t exactly light the world on fire in terms of innovation or new features, it definitely steps up Samsung’s game in a few areas. Whether those areas are worthwhile or not depends on your interpretation: last week, in response to my contention that the Galaxy S 5 was catching a lot of undeserved guff, Taylor Martin wrote a thorough response spelling out why the Galaxy S 5 is in fact just more of the same.
Regardless of which side of this debate you fall on, it must be conceded that Samsung did in fact improve on the Galaxy S 4′s feature set: among other tweaks, the new model offers camera improvements, streamlined software, improved battery life, and new heartbeat and fingerprint sensors, among others – and they’re all packed into a casing that’s rated for water and dust resistance.
All New HTC One
HTC’s replacement for last year’s One hasn’t made any kind of official public appearance yet, so we’ve been forced to rely on renders, sneaky photos, and one of the shadiest video leaks in mobile history to get a feel for the new device. Still, assuming what we’ve seen is reliable, we can make some relatively safe bets.
Like Samsung’s device, the All New HTC One promises some camera improvements – but HTC seems to be going about it another way. The huge “forehead eyeball” above the primary shooter on the leaked hardware seems to suggest that the company will continue with unconventional solutions to upping camera performance (rather than Samsung’s favored strategy of pixel-bumping). BoomSound looks to have survived intact despite the removal of Beats Audio, and of course the all-metal construction will no doubt impress all and sundry with its in-hand feel once again.
HTC vs Samsung (all over again)
That’s a lot of new stuff from each camp … but ultimately none of it is a surprise. Samsung’s features, newly honed and creatively-couched in refined advertisements though they may be, are still playing near (if not at the heart of) gimmick territory. Meanwhile, HTC’s improvements suggest an even more restrained evolution of its narrower strategy.
Some might call that a disappointment, a failure of imagination on both parts. Certainly neither phone looks to be reinventing the wheel, and barring an upset from a sufficiently motivated competitor like Sony, LG or Motorola, we’re no doubt in for another year of HTC-or-Samsung battles across the Android smartphone landscape. The alternative take, though, is more hopeful: these two leading brands have each fostered a pool of fans who know what they want – and now those fans will have more of the same to choose from. Except in this case “more of the same” isn’t a bad thing: it’s a honing, an amplification of the best of what’s gone before.
I can’t say with certainty that this is true of HTC’s product, but it certainly seems to be the case with Samsung’s: the glass/plastic composite backing and IP67 immersion rating alone more than make up for the questionable choice of texture pattern on the battery door, and the new interface is a slight but welcome upgrade over the eyesores that went before, with tighter responsiveness to boot. And crucially, all the “me-too” features that some Samsung customers love to gloat about are here as well: everything from the aforementioned fingerprint and heart-rate sensors to the old standbys like Smart Stay, Air Gesture and the like.
Meanwhile, the All New One’s feature expansion stays firmly in that company’s wheelhouse. This is a phone that will cater more to those looking for a high-end hardware feel, a hip and modern software experience, top-notch acoustic performance, and -in America, at least- excellent post-sale support.
Those are very different sets of priorities that reflect very different target customers – which says to me that the Android ecosystem, far from coalescing into a monolithic nightmare of sameness, actually still retains much of the vibrant diversity it’s always boasted. Sure, we could use a little bit of a shakeup in terms of form factor, and as always it would be nice to see these two flagships compete on more level ground as far as the marketing budget is concerned, but they’re thoroughly different offerings from two of the biggest manufacturers around. And though it may be shooting a bit low for 2014, that’s pretty satisfying diversity from where I’m sitting.