The best phones in the world run Android. The best Androids ore this Samsung, Sony and HTC. Sophie Charara finds out which is best of the best… of the best.
A smartphone is the most important weapon in your gadget arsenal. That means choosing the right smartphone is pretty damned difficult — and this is especially true today. You see, not long ago we would have automatically recommended the iPhone; it was the best option on many levels, so the only decision to make was how much built-in storage to plump for. But now that Android rules the roost, with its widgets, smart multi-tasking and ever-improving app roster, there are dozens of great gadgets to consider. At the very top of 2013’s Android tree are the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z, recently joined by the Samsung Galaxy S4, sequel to the most successful Android ever. We already know that they’re each superb handsets; what we want to determine is which is superb-est of all. So let’s crack on…
Here’s how we got rid of non-essential handsets to handpick Android’s finest
1. OS Android 4 is 2013’s most innovative smartphone OS, so rival platforms are out
2. Specifications: Quad-core CPU, 16GB+ storage and 4G are essential for a flagship device G
3. Screen size: We’re looking at big screens: 4.5in or greater, with at least 1080p resolution
What we tested
Sony Xperia Z
By taking tasty titbits from its well-stocked TV and camera larders, slapping a slab of full HD screen on top of it, then making the whole thing waterproof, Sony’s made a phone to lust after. About time, too.
Samsung Galaxy S4
The future. The bestseller. The thorn in Apple’s side. The S4 was supposed to be many things but even we couldn’t predict how much tech Samsung would be able to pack into one handset. Is any of it actually useful, though?
The One sets a new standard in design and rocks new simple and lovely Sense 5 UI. With the unique UltraPixel camera also on board, it’s not afraid to forge its own course through Android’s choppy waters.
And what didn’t make it in
LG Optimus G Pro
A 5.5in full HD screen, 4G and quad-core Snapdragon innards sounds about right for a superphone scrap. But LG’s long-in-gestation flagship still doesn’t have a UK launch date.
Huawei Ascend P2
It’s billed as “the world’s fastest 4G phone», but with a quad-core brain and sleek design, the P2 has a lot more going for it than just speed. But its screen is a ‘mere’ 720p. Rubbish, eh?
Google/LG Nexus 4
The Nexus 4 just can’t compete with the 1080p brigade and also offers far too little storage. So despite its incredible price and impeccable form factor, it misses out this time round.
What a 2013 Android needs to nail to earn Stuffs approval
You might have noticed the smartphone race to become all-screen, so obviously these flagships will live and die on the strength of their displays. Colours, contrast and detail are all important, but being readable in direct sunlight and reacting swiftly to the touch are also crucial.
Our feelings towards any smartphone could be plotted on a graph with the number of times we have to reach for the charger along one axis. So much so that ‘how’s the battery life?’ is often the first question we ask. We know we can’t have our nifty new features cake without it eating into battery life, but our phone dying by lunchtime isn’t acceptable either.
This is the second question we ask. We’re not looking for a compact cam squeezed into a smartphone (although we’d take it if we could get it) we just want a quick and easy-to-tweak camera interface for daytime pics together with settings to dive into when we’re feeling snappy. Oh, and excellent indoor and low-light abilities.
The inevitable sprucing up of Android by each manufacturer can have a big impact on how your OS looks, what it can do and how smoothly each smartphone runs. How do the speakers sound? Can it multi-task without running home to mother? And will you use extras such as an IR blaster?
SONY XPERIA Z £410 (16GB) ★★★★★
Film freaks and telly addicts should feast their eyes on the Z
Sony’s decidedly grown up Xperia Z would no doubt look down its nose on the S4’s over-the-top showmanship — if indeed it had a nose. As it is, this slab of serious sound and vision smarts is all about subtlety. Its discreet design manages to make both the S4 and HTC One look like exhibitionists, and despite this quietly solid build it’s actually waterproof, able to survive up to half an hour submerged — trust us, we’ve checked.
Head on, the Z’s 1080×1920 Reality Display matches the HTC’s, but while movie buffs will appreciate the stellar contrast and natural colours, the One is easier to hold and the Z disappoints as soon as it’s tipped even slightly to each side. Still. Sony has some big advantages — the Music and Video Unlimited on-demand services are excellent, especially if you’re committed to a Sony set-up at home already, sound is punchy (through decent cans) and battery life is very good. Plus, the Z’s 13MP camera borrows a Superior Auto mode from Cyber-shot compacts meaning that on-the-fly snaps look great with minimal effort.
Yes, it lacks the raw power of the S4 and the iconic good looks of the One, but for music, movies and all-round use — with the added bonus of waterproofing — the Xperia Z is a top phone.
1. All the Z’s ports, including the headphone socket, are covered by flaps to keep it waterproof. Challenge a mate to find the microUSB port in the name of hijinks.
2. The Z feels blockier and bigger than the other two, so it’s not one for the teeny of hand. Then again, its tempered glass looks lovely and feels premium.
The Z is a visual treat: text on ebooks and web pages looks phenomenal and with the exception of slightly faded blacks, colours are top notch in apps and movies. Off-angle it looks atrocious, which is a real shame. ••
Standby for victory The Xperia wins on standby skills: with the data-killing Stamina Mode on, it’ll only drop by 1% overnight. You don’t use it at night, right? It also lasted a very respectable 7.5hrs in our video rundown test. ••
Exmor of the same With the Samsung (probably) using Sony’s 13MP Exmor sensor in its own camera, it’s not surprising that there’s little between them. Both take superb macro shots with accurate colours but the S4 is more versatile. ••
No lagging doubts
Unlike the S4. Sony’s lightly customised version of Jelly Bean is blissfully lag-free. It also multitasks and games like a pro, despite being clocked slower than its rivals. Lacks a killer feature to help it stand out though. ••
SAMSUNG GALAXY S4 £480 (16GB)
Raw power, ingenious touches… and just a bit too much plastic
We’re not going to lie: we haven’t used most of the S4’s clever tricks for days. The eye-tracking Smart Scroll and hands-free Air Gestures are a great fit for tablets, but with phones we want to dip in quickly. So let’s concentrate on the important stuff instead.
That’s an easy thing to do, because the S4 is an incredible smartphone. Its 5in, 1080p, 441ppi screen is mesmerising, if sometimes unearthly; the 13MP camera is reliably brilliant; and its Multi-Window splitscreen feature makes Sony’s floating small apps look ancient. It’s also a phone you can grow with: it has a swappable battery and a maximum of 128GB of storage if you plump for the 64GB model and expand with microSD. You can even use it one-handed, just about.
The TouchWiz skin, running on top of the latest Android 4.2,2, isn’t the most subtle and there’s plenty of guff to ignore, but its notifications pull-down is shrewdly useful and the fitness-tracking S Health app is faultless. Touches such as bringing up Spotify and Music player icons when you plug in earphones are equally clever.
Performance is super-quick, but it’s not without crashes and glitches. More chronic still is the S4’s sub-premium, plasticky feel: it simply doesn’t have the pride of ownership of its rivals. A brilliant phone, then — but not our winner.
Big, responsive and with barely a nano-whisker between the pixels and the glass, the S4’s display will wrestle your attention to the ground and sit on it like Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan on a rampage. So why isn’t the Samsung our screen of choice? Put simply, the problem is colour. And while there are tons of adjustment options, none of them nail it. Your homescreens will look most eye-catching in Dynamic, but for everything else you’ll want to stick to Standard, where colours still look slightly oversaturated but deep blacks make up for it. Movie mode, on the other hand, looks washed out and smudgy next to the superior displays of the Xperia Z and One. And who wants to keep switching between modes anyway? At least the S4’s screen is great outdoors, as it doesn’t have such a thing as a low brightness setting. ••
It’s all in the detail
Based purely on its camera, the Samsung would be the phone we’d take out with us. That’s partly because the handset is a dandelion-light 130g, making it speedy to set up shots with, but also because it regularly gets the best results. When zoomed in, the S4 picks out the most detail and the most accurate colours. For low light there’s less in it the One can take shots in impressively dark conditions, even if they are pretty noisy. The Samsung’s 1080p video footage is the sharpest and cleanest on test and with a little practice, tricks such as Eraser Shot can be handy in various situations. One thing to bear in mind after a session taking panoramas and creating animated GIFs with Drama Shot is that the S4 produces the largest image files of the lot, so it’s a good idea to boost the storage with microSD or get in the habit of making auto back-ups. ••
Power and the glory
A software update has improved the S4’s performance, but it’s still prone to crashes and glitches. That aside, the quad-core 1.9GHz Snapdragon processor is unerringly gutsy, allowing for seamless, real multitasking and smooth gaming. ••
Win some, lose some
The swappable 2600mAh battery is the biggest here, but then that 5in full HD screen needs plenty of fuel. The result? You’ll generally get more than a day out of it, but if you hammer 4G and high-end games that figure will obviously be lower. ••
We hit the home button 100 or so times a day, so well done Samsung for keeping it front and centre. Sony’s button looks great, but it’s a stretch to use.
The S4’s LED indicator glows red when it needs charging and for missed calls but we prefer the way the HTC’s peeps through its top speaker grille.
A life less storagey?
It’s easier than ever to live life in the cloud — but beware.
In a world in which you can stream music from Spotify, store docs in Dropbox and watch TV on iPlayer, you might think onboard storage doesn’t matter. But apps still take up space, as do HD movies. All of which makes the S4, with its 64GB version and option to add 64GB more, the obvious choice for the giga-greedy.
HTC ONE £500 (32GB) ★★★★★
The best of Android, iPhone and Windows all rolled into One
Hands-down the HTC makes the best first impression of the three. Cool aluminium, a painstakingly crafted build and easy to hold curves elevate it to Apple levels of smartphone design. But style like this doesn’t come without a price: there’s no removable battery or even a microSD slot.
So why are we still grinning? The sharpest screen on test at 468ppi remains the one to beat, with superb viewing angles, natural but vivid colours and pure whites. Sense 5 is also the neatest, smoothest Android skin here. More importantly, it’s never once shown any sign of slowing down during testing.
Stills and video taken with HTC’s innovative UltraPixel camera are excellent, there’s an IR blaster to control your telly, and while battery life is a bit disappointing, it at least matches the S4 and Xperia in lasting the whole day.
Every phone has its foibles but they’re hard to find on the One. It’s as desirable as an iPhone, offers a supremely capable Android experience and — with BlinkFeed’s news stream and Zoe’s «living photos» — even squeezes in a nod to lively Windows Phone-style updates. You can’t get a better mobile than this right now.
Sense tweaks to get you started: swap your app drawer to a 4×5 grid and uncheck foreign languages in keyboard settings. You’re welcome.
We love the One’s screen and 4.7in is plenty big enough for us. It’s supersharp, using an SLCD display as opposed to the S4’s PenTile. That makes for crisp text, plus crank up the brightness and it’s also the best outdoors. ••
Zoe is the best if you’re worried about lasting the day. The Power Saving mode really does come in handy. ••
Ultra by name…
HTC recently rolled out an update to its UltraPixel cam. UP is great in low light, but as it’s only 4MP you can’t zoom far. ••
As good as it gets
The One runs as smooth as an ice cream-powered Merc, with not a hint of lag whether you’re hammering big games, flicking through apps or browsing the web. Those front-facing speakers sound great, too. ••
THE WINNER IS HTC ONE. Despite a mighty onslaught from the S4, the One is the phone we’d buy. But the S4 has taught us some sage lessons.
For one, we need to update the list of tech our smartphones have swallowed up like huge, rainbow-coloured, full HD sharks hungry for gadget small fry. So, it’s farewell to fitness trackers, motion sensors, barometers…
For two, it’s reiterated that the most important gadget decision you’ll make all year will be what your next smartphone is. And the key is going for the one that gets right what you need it to get right.
For storage and camera (just) it’s the S4. For media and waterproofing, go for the Xperia Z. But for almost everything else — using apps and games, browsing, messaging and sheer pride of ownership, it’s the HTC One. See, we just made your decision easier.
+ Now add these
Mophie Juice Pack for HTC One
It’ll add a bit of bulk to your HTC, but this Mophie pack designed for the HTC will double the One’s battery, and give it some extra protection to boot.
£90 / mophie.com
Cambridge Minx Air 200
The One’s speakers are fine on the go, but this outstanding Bluetooth-and WiFi-streaming speaker will turn it into your main home source component. £430 / cambridgeaudio.com
If the silver HTC One takes your fancy you’ll love these similarly styled KEF cans, which look great, sound fantastic and come with an in-line remote.
£250 / kef.com
For starters, we’d wager, the return to form of iOS…
It’s now more than a generation since a phone running iOS topped our list of mobile masterpieces. Since the HTC One X beat the 4S in July 2012, it’s been Android all the way; the iPhone 5 didn’t spend a single week at No1. But the tide could soon change. With Jony Ive in charge of software design at Apple HQ, a more alive-feeling refresh of iOS looks certain. That, together with a few tweaks to the iPhone’s hardware — a sharper screen? Tougher finish? Battery life? — would make choosing your smartphone platform a real brain-melt. And then there’s Windows Phone 8: the new Lumia 925 looks impressive, and the OS is due an 8.5 update towards the end of 2013. A few more choice apps and it could be a contender. But then, Android 5 should soon arrive on the rumoured Motorola ‘X’ phone… and move the goalposts all over again.
HTC One ★ ★★★ The most desirable Android handset ever, running more slickly than any rival and with a screen to make you swoon? Yes please. £500 (32GB)/htc.com
4.7in, 1080×1920, 468ppi Super LCD
Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdrag n 600 @ 1.7GHz
4MP,1080p (rear); 2 1MP (front)
Bluetooth 4.0, aptX, microUSB, NFC, 3G, 4G
137.4×68.2x 9.3mm, 143g
Samsung Galaxy S4 ★★★★★ The S4 prioritises power, storage, battery and camera skills over looks, making it the most supremely useful phone ever. £480 (16GB) / samsung.com
5ln, 1080×1920, 441ppi, Super AMOLED
Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon firstname.lastname@example.orgGHz
13MP,1080p (rear);2MP (front)
Bluetooth 4.0, aptX, MHL2.0, NFC 3G, 4G
136.6×69.8x 7 9mm, 130g
SonyXperiaZ ★★★★★ The Z has next to no flaws: it’s beautiful built, with a stunning screen and media smarts aplenty. If films are your thing, get it. £410 (16GB) / sonymobile.com
5in, 1080×1920, 443ppi, TFT
Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 P o @ 1.5GHz
13.1MP, 1080p(re r), 2.2MP (front)
Bluetooth 4.0, MHL, NFC, 3G 4G
139x71x 7.9mm, 146g