There are two questions asked by anyone currently in the market for a high-end smartphone. Either, Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S4? Or, which is the best phone on the market right now, the Galaxy S4 or the iPhone 5? The questions are telling in themselves who is dominating the mind space of the high end mobile phone consumer. Life would be simple if there was one direct and straightforward answer.

Unfortunately there really is not. All the reviews I have read, taken in isolation, call the top three Android phones “the best you can currently get” most skirt the obvious comparisons.  The top mobile devices available right now, in alphabetical order, to avoid bias, are:

  • Apple iPhone 5
  • Blackberry Z10 and Q10 (With Qwerty Keyboard)
  • HTC One
  • Nokia Lumia 920
  • Samsung Galaxy S4
  • Sony Xperia Z

 

 

I am truly fortunate to have played with all the above phones, some briefly, like the Blackberry Q10, and all the others for extended periods. Most are not so fortunate, so I want to clarify my thinking here and hopefully help in the decision making process.

This is partly a review of the Samsung Galaxy S4, so right upfront let me say it’s a great device, and I like it a lot. Is it the best phone on the market? The simple answer is perhaps. A quick qualifier here is it may just be the best for some, and not for others. Look again at the list above, there are three Android phones, an iOS device, a Windows Phone, and two Blackberry’s. Quite a selection and a range of mobile philosophies.

All the above phones are great devices and all of them, despite all the hype and marketing out there, are functionally very competitive. The choice of device will depend on what it is you want from a phone and for the first time, your personal likes, dislikes, and preferences.

Mobile phone technology has reached a point that mere technical specifications really do not tell the whole story, and in fact can be largely ignored.  The Galaxy S4 is the hottest most advanced phone on the market right now, it has more functionality, more sensors and more speed, than anything else currently available. Does that make it the best? The answer is yes, maybe. All the others are slower in processor speed, lower in camera pixels, and have fewer bells and whistles. That does not mean that they are in any way disqualified from being contenders for best device.

An example is the iPhone 5. In technical terms and screen real estate, it is completely outclassed by almost all of the other contenders. In actual use it completely holds its own.  Apple’s user interface and app ecosystem is still the most polished, functional, and complete out there. App for app, the iOS versions mostly have the latest features and the most integrated functionality. Give the iPhone to your Grandma and walk away, it won’t take long, and take very few support calls, and she will be happily rocking the experience. Don’t whatever you do, try that with any Android device. Her geek Grandson or son will never hear the last of the missing apps on the home screen, and other quirks inherent in the Android ecosystem.

The two latest Operating systems on the market are Windows Phone 8 and Blackberry 10. Being the latest and having almost completely broken away from anything the respective companies have done in the past, both these OS’s offer a fresh very compelling user experience. They could not be more different in actual use if they had both worked on it, yet both offer a level of integration, along with a user experience, that in many ways is light years ahead of anything Android or iOS currently offer.

Windows 8 on the Lumia 920 is fantastic, integrated, sleek, simple, and very easy to use. The Nokia apps such as maps, navigation, and Camera, make the Lumia a brilliant mobile companion and the integration into the entire Microsoft ecosystem is comprehensive and well executed.

Blackberry have also taken huge strides in their latest OS 10. If anything this OS, along with the two devices on the market at present, the Z10 and Keyboard equipped Q10, are some of the easiest to use and practically the most functional phones available. In a rush, and need to get stuff done? Nothing beats these two Blackberries. Juggling email, calendar and your social media, the integrated inbox or Hub concept, only available on the Blackberry, will keep you hyper connected and fully functional.

The little fly in the ointment with regard to the Windows and Blackberry phones, is their app ecosystem. Neither can compare to Apple or Android, who are now both equally well populated with everything you can imagine, and some Apps you would never imagine. The breadth and scale of these two App stores create a type of differentiation that is hard to match. If Apps are your thing, or if you must have the latest in Social Media, Gaming, and other random Apps, then look no further than iOS and Android. If you, like most people, use only the mainstream Apps, and more standard functionality, then the Blackberry and Windows ecosystems are more than good enough, for now, and they are developing fast.

Samsung has been on a massive winning streak of late. Fast catching up to the Apple juggernaut in many ways, including global sales and profitability. The Galaxy S4 is their latest onslaught, and a great one at that. I feel Samsung could have pushed the envelope a little further than they did on the S4. That said, the Galaxy S4 has a brilliant full HD screen, cutting edge processor, and sufficient memory to keep it all moving. The sheer number of sensors and features will be overwhelming to most, but does allow each user to pick and choose what they want from their phone, and then customise the experience around those requirements, be that sport, music, movies, games or whatever.

This is part of the upside to Android, its very customisability. For those that don’t want that level of involvement in a mobile device, I would recommend they stay clear of the Galaxy S4, and chose a more curated experience from Apple or Windows Phone, or even Blackberry. I very quickly disable the eye tracking feature, but loved the health tracking features and music hubs.

The Galaxy S4 is the best built Samsung flagship to date. It is however, not the best built device out there. If you value precision engineering and the cool solid feel of aluminium, and most importantly want to stay within the Android ecosystem, then the HTC One is an obvious choice. Feature for feature the HTC One matches the Galaxy S4. Lacking in only the Eye tracking feature, as well as one or two sensors, such as the Barometer. The HTC One also has a very different user interface, based around HTC Sense 5.0, as opposed to the Samsung TouchWiz interface that Samsung uses on the Galaxy Range.

I personally like the integration and simplicity of the HTC Sense 5.0 interface, as it leaves less to tweak than Samsung’s TouchWiz and makes for a simpler easier to use device out of the box. Many will disagree and go for the Samsung precisely because of its flexibility. As I said there is no correct answer here. TouchWiz will work perfectly for some and Sense 5.0 for others

In my testing of the latest generation of phones, that is the 2013 crop, which comprises the Sony, Samsung, HTC, and Blackberry, all have superior battery life to the other slightly older contenders. Battery life is a critical feature of any phone. Most current generation phones will give you a working day of life, with moderate to heavy use. The king of battery life was the Galaxy S4, which kept on going till 11PM most days, before dying. The HTC One, Blackberry Z10, and Sony, were next, giving up the ghost around at around 9-30 to 10 PM. The Nokia Lumia 920 followed, giving up at around 7-30 PM to 8 PM. The worst of the lot was the iPhone 5 with the battery giving up at around 6 PM at a stretch.

The camera is another feature that many will find a key decision making point. Smartphones have become the way we take the majority of our pictures. Pictures are mostly of everyday events and happenings, along with all the social media stuff we get up to, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The ideal camera is sharp, great in difficult lighting conditions, and fast enough that we don’t have to wait for your hyperactive pre-teen to slow down before we can shoot.

The Galaxy S4 has a great camera. In ideal fairly controlled conditions it is the best camera on a smart device to date, excluding the Nokia PureView 808. The 13 Mega Pixel camera is well balanced and very sharp. Colour rendition and contrast is excellent. The disappointment of the top end contenders was the Sony Xperia Z, it also has a 13 Mega Pixel camera, but always proved far less capable than the Samsung, despite Sony’s well known credentials in this area. The Nokia Lumia 920 Camera is also a great camera and consistently gave excellent results, especially with motion and in low light. The Blackberry cameras are good, and in the latest version of the software, include HDR, which can make pictures far better in challenging situations.

The two standout cameras are without doubt the iPhone 5 and the HTC One. Both cameras are technically inferior to the Samsung and the Sony, having an 8 and 4 Mega Pixel base sensor respectively. In actual use these two have no real competitors. Whip out your phone and snap away in almost any situation, the iPhone 5 and the HTC One will give you a better, more balanced and sharper picture. It may be that the software or hardware is better optimised, but the fact remains more shots taken with either the iPhone 5 or HTC One will be good to great, than those taken with the Samsung, Sony, or Blackberry.

The overall best and most feature filled smartphone camera for me right now is the HTC One with the iPhone coming a close second. The HTC One has by far the best Low light capability and the most useful features, such as the Zoe micro movie functionality that you would use day to day. If a camera is key to your decision, the Samsung is very good, the iPhone consistently great, but HTC One wins hands down by being the most consistently useful overall

All the above phones are so full of features, options and differences, that I could write a book. Save to say that all are good choices. Each device has a balance of features, operating systems, and hardware that would make any user very happy for now. Which one would I buy? That is a really hard question. Remember whatever you buy now will have to serve for two years, give or take. My picks and the two I carry all the time are the HTC One and the Blackberry Z10. I almost always have the iPhone 5 in my bag as well. Could I live with the Samsung Galaxy S4 as my main device, absolutely, though I do find the HTC and the Blackberry easier to use during a busy day.

My considered recommendation is that the top devices listed above are all great and will not disappoint. Each one has their unique aspects and each will appeal to a slightly different user. Don’t get caught up in the hype of the latest and greatest, or at least the newest. There will always be a newer device, which is faster, fancier, and more topical, than the one you just bought. Luckily we have reached a level of technical competence in mobile phones, that in choosing the one phone you actually like, and the one that works best for your needs, you won’t be making a mistake.

 

Smartphones 2013 Header

Smartphones 2013 Header

Steven Ambrose – Executive Editor, CEO of the technology and strategy consulting firm Strategy Worx and a major gadget geek. A chartered accountant by training Steven sports a history spanning from heading statups to divisions of major multinational corporations, he ran and wrote for Gadget.co.za from 2006 to 2010, and now consults on technology and its impact on business as the brainchild and CEO of Strategy Worx. For more immediate comment, views and discussion follow him on Twitter
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