Every year, we wait for the major players to release their aboslute best smartphone possible. Some bring the heavy artillery to CES in Las Vegas every January. Some wait for the mobile-specific show in Barcelona, Spain, Mobile World Congress. And others, like HTC this year, choose to go it alone.
Either way, the first few months of the year are, consistently, when we can expect some of the biggest smartphone announcements of the year.
Not every company adheres to that schedule, though. Apple announces and releases its flagship in the last half of every year, typically September. Samsung doesn’t unveil its new Galaxy Note handsets until around the same time, usually October. LG has its own launch schedule, too. And Motorola. Well, not very many know what to expect from Motorola anymore, especially with Lenovo attempting to purchase the US-based handset maker from Google.
So far, this year, we’ve seen a handful of new phones. But three of the biggest smartphone makers – HTC, Samsung, and Sony – in particular, have dropped the word on their latest premium models: the One M8, Galaxy S 5, and Xperia Z2, respectively. Each of these manufacturers’ flagships are impressive in their own right. The HTC One M8 is the complete package, with a nearly fatal flaw. The Galaxy S 5 is considered by many to only be a minor upgrade over last year’s model, which was also just an iterative upgrade. Still, no one will question how capable the phone itself will be or the number of units Samsung will inevitably move. And Sony’s Xperia Z2, also just a minor upgrade, is a solid refinement from last year’s Xperia Z1, and it fixes some of the standout problems with the Xperia lineup, such as display quality issues and camera performance.
The question is, which manufacturer has the best flagship for the first half of 2014, at least on paper? Which offers the fullest, most helpful set of features and specifications? And which manufacturer is most deserving of your hard-earned cash?
Let’s break it down, shall we?
By the numbers alone, it’s an incredibly tight race between the One M8, Galaxy S 5, and Xperia Z2. The specifications are incredibly close. Just take a look at the chart below. The biggest differences are the display types, the cameras, and resistance to the elements.
Other odds and ends separate the models, but they’re mostly minor. For one, the Xperia Z2 comes with 3GB RAM, whereas the M8 and Galaxy S 5 have just 2GB. On the other hand, the M8 and Galaxy S 5 have IR blasters, while the Xperia Z2 does not. I could get painfully grainular here, but that doesn’t really help anyone, so I’ll hit the high points.
All three are 1080p, and they’re all within two-tenths of an inch, diagonally. The One M8 display is 5-inches, the Galaxy S 5′s is 5.1-inches, and the Xperia Z2′s is 5.2-inches. This, of course, causes some differences in densities 441ppi, 432ppi, and 424ppi, respectively. Does any of this matter? No. All three are so sharp, differences in size and resolution are negligible.
The bigger differences are the types of displays. The One M8 has a gorgeous S-LCD3 panel, just as its predecessor had. The Galaxy S 5, of course, uses Samsung’s Super AMOLED panel. And the Xperia Z2 has and IPS LCD with Sony’s Triluminos technology and the X-Reality engine.
What does all of this mean? All three have some of the most beautiful displays ever installed on a smartphone. Which one is best will ultimately boil down to preference. The Super AMOLED panel will be supersaturated with extremely vibrant colors. We’re told the LCD panel in the Z2 fixes all Sony’s mobile display problems of yore, such as viewing angles and weak blacks, making it one of – if not – the best mobile display yet. And most of us have a soft spot for S-LCD3 displays and how vibrant they look. You won’t be able to go wrong with any of these phones, if display quality is your top priority.
The camera situation is up for debate, though.
The HTC One M8′s 4-megapixel UltraPixel camera failed to impress Michael in our full review. It comes with a 2-megapixel depth sensor for a simulated bokeh effect, and while Michael found it cool and fun to tinker with, it doesn’t quite offset the desire for a higher-resolution camera. Full stop.
We haven’t had a chance to mess with the Xperia Z2 or Galaxy S 5 cameras at any length yet, so we have to take the numbers and the respective company’s marketing hype with a grain of salt. But we are told Sony has fixed the mediocre image sensing from the Z1 with the Z2. And Samsung has fitted its Galaxy S 5′s camera with phase detection autofocus.
We can’t speak to the actual quality of the latter two’s cameras, but we look forward to getting our hands on them and testing them out. Rest assured, all three should suffice for what most use their phone’s camera for – social sharing, which severely compresses pictures anyway. That said, if you want to do any sort of serious shooting, the M8′s 4-megapixel camera should give you some pause.
This one is pretty straightforward. The Galaxy S 5 is the most resistant to the elements with an IP67 certification for water- and dust-resistance. The Xperia Z2 carries an IP58 certification. Meanwhile, the HTC One M8 has no official certification for resistance to dust and water – HTC feels beautiful design is more important.
If you want a great and easy-to-understand breakdown of IP certifications, our own Joe Levi made the subject a little more digestible here.
That said, TechSmartt did a water submersion test, and the One M8 handled being submerged in shallow water for 30 minutes with no immediate damage. We wouldn’t suggest trying this at home.
Specifications are all well and good, but they don’t necessarily amount to much if the picture isn’t fully painted.
What has each manufacturer done to differentiate their smartphones on the software front?
Samsung is notorious for cramming in every last feature possible. The latest version of TouchWiz is no different. Michael and I recently spent time with the Galaxy TabPRO tablets, 10.1-inch and 8.4-inch models, which feature similar software. It feels cluttered, dissheveled, and conflicted. The system takes up nearly 8GB alone, for features like Smart Stay, Smart Rotation, Smart Pause, etc. But Samsung has added a few new features to the Galaxy S 5, such as a fingerprint scanner and a heart rate sensor. The fingerprint scanner is PayPal certified, and will eventually be used to confirm mobile payments, and the heart rate sensor is intended to work with Samsung’s fitness suite, such as the S Health app. The Magazine UX is also present, presenting a Flipboard-powered news and social reader straight on your homescreen.
HTC’s big features are Zoe, Duo Camera, and BlinkFeed. Like Samsung’s Magazine UX, HTC’s BlinkFeed is a homescreen-fixed social reader, integrated tiles with news and your friend’s statuses. Zoe was a major hit last year, taking your photos and videos, based on grouped timing and location, to create tiny, artistic video snippets with a seriously personal touch. They were automatic, fun to use and tweak, and a truly unique experience that we loved. And the Duo Camera is something we’re not entirely sold on yet. It’s HTC’s mixture of a 4.1-megapixel camera and the 2-megapixel depth sensor. These are used in conjunction with one another to create a faux-depth of field in photos or to refocus after the fact, sort of like Lytro, but not nearly as impressive. And lest we forget BoomSound, the extra loud front-facing speakers – HTC’s most compelling feature that we all love dearly.
Most of the Z2′s standout features come in the form of multimedia and the camera experience. For one, it’s capable of shooting up to 4K resolution – that’s not terribly impressive, considering several other phones can, as well. But it also has Timeshift mode, in which it records up to 120fps for slow motion playback.
Pricing and availability
HTC’s One M8, while announced more recenty than the other two, is the only one currently avaialble for purchase. Announced just this week, it went on sale the same day in the US and UK in an array of different models and prices: the Google Play Edition HTC One M8 is $699, the Developer Edition HTC One M8 and no-contract carrier models are $649, and contract pricing varies from $199 to $249.
The Galaxy S 5 is currently available for pre-order or pre-registration through various carriers worldwide. AT&T’s pre-order pricing is $199 or $649 no-contract, and the device will ship on April 8. It’s $660 no-contract through T-Mobile USA. The official launch date of the Galaxy S 5 in select markets worldwide is April 11.
The Xperia Z2 is slated for an April 1 launch, though rumors point to supply constraints. Sony has confirmed most pre-orders should ship in April, as planned, but there could be shortages pushing some availability back into May. Outright pricing will vary globally, but here in the States, it’s expected to hit T-Mobile for around $600 USD.
Where should your money go?
That’s never an easy question to answer. And we’re confident in saying that, for most, all three of these smartphones will be fantastic, powerful smartphones that are excessive in many ways. Sony, HTC, and Samsung have outdone themselves, and never has the race for the best smartphone be so close.
As for my own personal tastes, I’m torn. Samsung’s Galaxy S 5 simply does nothing for me. I’m not a fan of the look or design, and the overdeveloped software isn’t likely something I will ever need or enjoy. I’m a purist and prefer stock. I also prefer a great camera experience, and that is exactly why I’m so torn. HTC’s One M8 is fantastically crafted. It’s beautiful. And, on paper, almost everything is exactly as it should be – storage, display, BoomSound, battery life, and the Snapdragon 801. But the camera isn’t likely something I will be able to overlook.
Sony’s camera, if it has, in fact, been improved over last year’s Z1 camera, would perfectly suit my needs. Then again, I’ve never been blown away by Sony’s custom software, and it’s design is inferior to the One M8′s.
These three smartphones are a rolling reminder that no phone is perfect.
That being the case, if I had to choose one of these, I’d lean towards the Xperia Z2. While I don’t quite enjoy Sony’s hardware or design language as much as HTC’s, camera performance is something I rely on. And what can I say? I’m a pixel junkie.
What about you? Which of these three flagships has captured your attention most and best suits your needs and desires? Sound off in the comments section below and tell us what you think!