I have to say, I thought choosing the best Android phone on the planet was going to be a much easier task. I called the HTC One the closest thing the world has ever seen to a no-compromise smartphone when I reviewed it back in April. Since I personally value a smartphone’s physical design and build materials as much as I value software and user experience, the One seems like a clear choice. But every time I was about to declare the HTC One a clear winner, something about Samsung’s Galaxy S4 would make me rethink my position. Beneath a pile of gimmicky features lies a truly fantastic smartphone with a gorgeous display and cutting-edge specs — and each time I picked it up, the Galaxy S4 grew more difficult to put down. No, this decision wasn’t going to be easy at all.
I have now been using the HTC One and the Galaxy S4 each for about four months. Opinions invariably change over time, sometimes drastically and sometimes only slightly. In the case of the Galaxy S4 and the One, I actually grew to enjoy each device more over time, which is quite rare for me.
With the Galaxy S4, time draws attention away from the majority of the phone’s gimmicky bells and whistles as the user pares them down and discovers which features are useful to him or her, and which are little more than novelties. I found nearly all of Samsung’s gesture controls to be absolutely useless in most situations, for example, but over time I grew more reliant on Air View than I ever thought I would. Features such as the ability to view message previews containing more than just half a sentence of text without having to open emails and text messages really changed my workflow for the better on the S4.
The camera is another example of an area of the Galaxy S4’s software that takes some time to get used to. There are more filter, scene and mode options than you’ll ever use and it can be overwhelming at first. It takes some time to sift through them and pick out your favorites. Once you get a feel for the interface so you can access different modes quickly, though, the S4 really changes the way you take pictures with your phone.
Finally, and most surprisingly, I have found that the Galaxy S4’s comparatively cheap feel has become less of an issue for me over time.
When choosing a device for personal use, a phone’s hardware is just as important to me as the software experience. I want the total package. Samsung has historically failed repeatedly to deliver fit and finish that match its smartphones’ user experience and as a result, I rarely carry Samsung devices when I’m not reviewing them.
With the Galaxy S4, any improvements in the quality of materials and the feel of the phone are minimal — but something is different this time around. The Galaxy S4 is so thin and the display is so gorgeous that over time, I have been able to look past the phone’s cheap feel to an extent. It still doesn’t deliver a hardware experience that even approaches the hero phones offered by most other smartphone vendors, but the thinner case makes it less of an issue.
Where fit and finish are concerned, HTC’s flagship smartphone is unlike the Galaxy S4 in every way. Samsung’s smartphone uses thin, pliable plastics, while HTC uses a beautiful aluminum unibody design. In terms of build quality, the One is as close a match to Apple’s iPhone 5 as any rival vendor has ever achieved.
This phone is impeccable. The way the back curves to sit perfectly in your hand; the way the glass face spills over the sides and continues the lines of the polished, chamfered edges; the way the micro-drilled holes that cover the speakers give the phone personality; all these fantastic design elements combine to create a truly unique and gorgeous smartphone.
Also, for those who often watch movies on their phones or who use them to play music through the loudspeaker, there is no rival smartphone on the planet that comes anywhere close to matching the audio quality of HTC’s BoomSound speakers.
To read about the HTC One on gadget blogs, the software appears to be a major pain point. Many seem to feel that the HTC One with stock Android Jelly Bean sold directly from Google for $600 is the perfect smartphone because it combines HTC’s sleek hardware with Google’s “pure” vision of Android. For most users though, this is almost certainly not the case.
Whereas gadget bloggers and smartphone enthusiasts tend to gravitate toward “pure Google,” the mass market doesn’t seem to mind vendor contributions at all. The most popular Android phones in recent history — the Galaxy S4, Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note II, LG Optimus G, and even the HTC One, which shipped about 5 million units in its first month of availability — all obviously featured very heavily customized versions of Android. And some of these phones’ most lauded software features have been features added by vendors.
Personally, I very much enjoy HTC’s additions to Jelly Bean.
Hardware is clearly the star of the show with the HTC One, but the phone’s software is a tremendous compliment to its industrial design. The dark gradients and hard angles that characterize the Sense 5 user interface fit perfectly with the look of the phone. HTC also introduced several great new features alongside the One’s new version of Sense.
Despite being my least favorite Sense feature, BlinkFeed is still a smart addition to Android. The service aggregates content from hundreds of sources including newspapers, blogs, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more to create a stream of relevant content that is always up to date. The interface matches the rest of the UI perfectly and tapping any article, photo or status update opens it in the appropriate app.
Moving on to the camera, HTC’s UltraPixel camera doesn’t quite stack up with newer class leaders like the Nokia Lumia 1020, but it takes solid photos that look great on the One’s full HD 1080p display. HTC has also added a number of exclusive camera features to Sense, and Zoe is likely the most notable.
Zoe collects 20 consecutive still photographs as well as a 3-second video each time the user presses the virtual shutter button. The result, HTC says, is a photo album that is a living, breathing gallery. Zoe will also automatically combine images and videos taken around the same time in the same location into a highlight reel that adds effects and music to a string of still photos and videos. Users can edit them if need be, but the automatically generated clips are surprisingly impressive.
And then there’s my favorite new addition to Sense: HTC TV.
As I mentioned in my review, HTC TV changed the way I watch television. Using a visual programming guide that shows me popular items as well as movies and TV shows I have already told the app I enjoy before the rest of the drivel on TV at any given time, I have completely eliminated channel surfing from my television-watching routine. It’s fantastic.
The HTC One also includes an integrated infrared blaster that has terrific range. The TV and cable box in my living room are quite far from the couches, but I have yet to have any issues with transmissions falling short.
The Galaxy S4 also includes an infrared blaster and an app similar to HTC TV, by I find them pretty much unusable. Whereas the HTC One features a sleek, intuitive interface in HTC TV and a high-quality infrared blaster, the Galaxy S4’s app is ugly and overly complicated, and the IR blaster is far too weak.
In the end, I chose the One as the better phone.
Despite all the gimmicks, the Galaxy S4 does have some great, innovative features that give it the edge over the One in terms of software in some ways. The gap between HTC’s hardware and the Galaxy S4 is far more vast than the gap between Samsung’s software and the One’s user experience, however.
In fact, the gap has narrowed significantly with the launch of the latest version of Sense.
BlinkFeed is great for people who want to stay on top of news from their favorite social networks and websites, Zoe is an awesome addition to HTC’s Sense camera features, HTC’s famous Android widgets are now better than ever, and HTC TV is a welcome change from the horrendous guide features on most modern cable boxes.
Samsung’s latest version of TouchWiz offers a number of nifty features that Sense does not, but the vast majority of them are mere niceties at best and needless gimmicks at worst. There are some new features that I actually enjoy very much, but I would give them up without hesitation in favor of HTC’s stunning hardware and sleek software.
The Galaxy S4 is an outstanding smartphone that is currently being enjoyed by tens of millions of people around the world, and the S4 and One both have real competition from Motorola’s new Moto X.
But among these and the rest of the Android phones on the market right now, the HTC One is in a class by itself.