Smartphone Shoot-out of 2014 Part 1: Flagship Phones

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Apple has just launched the iPhone 5S and 5C. This promises to be a game changer. How do the phones for 2014 stack up? TwentyFirstTech will be doing its first shoot-out to help you decide on your next smartphone. First up: The flagship models.

For part 2, go here.

The Phones

1. Sony Xperia Z1

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This new flagship Sony wonderphone is not only incredibly thin, but also the only phone here that claims to be water resistant to 1m, dust proof, and shatter proof. Sony managed to squeeze in a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 in there with a 2.2GHz Quad-Core Krait 400 CPU and an Adreno 330 GPU. Its camera is 20.7MP and has turned out pretty impressive pictures because Sony is using tech from its camera lines.

2. Nokia Lumia 1020

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The first thing that stands out about this phone is its gigantic camera. It totes a 41MP camera with a Zeiss lens, a rather big sensor at 1/1.5″, and a whole series of complicated manual controls that compress a full-fledged DSLR into a phone. We’re expecting some really great pictures from this one.

3. Galaxy Note 3

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This new phablet from Samsung packs in a massive 5.7 inch Super AMOLED screen at full HD, and a whole slew of S Pen features that have proven themselves hugely popular. With 3GB of RAM, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, with a quadcore chip set that is running at 2.3GHz, this phone is no slouch either. Perhaps most impressively it can capture video at the new 4K standard, and that certainly makes your phone future-proof. Worthy of mention is that this phone will launch with the Galaxy Gear, Samsung’s new smart watch (Samsung is cutting $100 from the price of the watch if it is bundled).

4. Galaxy S4

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This seems to be the most dated phone in the entire shoot-out but it remains a significant consideration for those who prefer a phone with a less overblown screen size. This is running the previous iteration of the Snapdragon line, the S600, clocked at a slightly lower speed of 2.2GHz. The other variant has Samsung’s very own Exynos Octa Core chip, each clocked at 1.9GHz. It also shares the same amount of RAM as the Lumia 1020 and the Xperia Z1 – a healthy 2 GB. Its unique features perhaps include a huge array of sensors including a thermometer and barometer, lots of gesture controls, and Air View which lets your finger hover over an icon to access a preview.

5. iPhone 5s

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This is the reason we launched our shoot-out in the first place. The ‘S’ line of iPhones have been widely derided as merely incremental upgrades but is it the same story this time? It sports an upgraded A7 processor which runs on 64-bit architecture, which is unprecedented on a smartphone, has a thumbprint sensor in the ubiquitous home button, and has made a very significant camera upgrade to an already fantastic camera.

So let’s get started shall we?

Processing Power

The iPhone used to be the laggard in this department. The Android phones made the leap to quad-core first, had far more RAM, and were higher on the benchmarks. In terms of processing prowess alone, the Galaxy Note 3 is the most powerful, packing in 3GB of RAM along with a slightly higher clockspeed than whats in the Sony Xperia Z1. The S4 is also in the same ballpark (For Benchmark speeds, please refer to a more detailed article coming out later).

Only the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5S remain on dual-core systems, and people have always incorrectly used this to justify Android’s superiority. It is worth noting though that the iPhone was never really a slouch. With the power of Apple’s flawless hardware optimization, apps run smoothly and rarely lag unless heavy processing power is required. By contrast, even the flagship Android phones usually choke up due to the wide array of GUIs and systems it needs to run, with the Samsung’s TouchWiz the largest culprit.

Now that the iPhone 5S is on a 64-bit architecture, it theoretically should come into it’s own. However, as Jean-Baptiste Quéru (former Google software engineer) puts it, these changes will probably take over a year to be visible.

In the immediate future, this will make zero difference for consumers. Applications that ship today will continue to be compiled as 32-bit, so that they can run on all the other iOS devices as well. Since the iPhone 5S is likely to be faster than all those other iOS devices as well, there’s little point right now optimizing an application for the iPhone 5S, everything that runs well enough on an iPhone 4S or iPhone 5 or iPhone 5c will run well enough on an iPhone 5S as well. Optimize for the low end, and the high end will take care if itself.

It is unlikely we will see the sort of performance boosts Apple is claiming because the 64-bit architecture only comes into its own at more than 4GB of RAM because that’s when 32-bit slows down. Such tasks haven’t been made for the smartphone, at least not yet. Additionally, the iPhone 5S is unlikely to have more than 2GB of RAM even though it has not been officially announced due to the fact that Apple has always managed to do more with less, as evidenced by the sole gigabyte of RAM in the iPhone 5, which is still a powerful device.

This being said, the iPhone should still be butter smooth but because we have no benchmark figures, the Galaxy Note 3 should take this section on mere technicality. However, it is unlikely you will notice the difference because all of these phones are ultra fast.

Winner: Galaxy Note 3

Camera

Apple has always been a strong performer here because its not just the megapixel count that matters. Because we will not go into a very in-depth analysis of photo quality, a lot of the stuff here will be based on personal experience (I have owned both an iPhone 5 and am using an S4 so it should be fairly accurate).

Larger pixels will generally yield a higher quality capture as light has been able to flow freely through them without being dominated by noise. But pack too many into a sensor without increasing the chip size significantly, and nothing changes.  While S4 images look slightly sharper than the iPhone’s, its low-light performance leaves much to be desired. It also faces a lot of trouble with the white balance which the iPhone does not.

The Samsung pair thus look to be the worst performers here despite the Note 3 being the only one which is 4K capable. This is because the images posted by the new iPhone 5s are simply incredible because they upped the sensor size, and have a dual LED flash (one warm, one cool so that images look more realistic). In any case, 4K displays are still quite some time away.

The iPhone camera is a decent snapper, with it’s main strengths lying in it’s capture speed, focusing times, and general image quality. It is, however, not the best in any single field, but combine it’s whole package and you’ll get a formidable foe. When it lags, it lags behind marginally, and has surpassed every device in some way, until recently.

The Sony and the Nokia both have ridiculously high pixel counts but because the Nokia has a larger sensor (1/1.5″ compared to 1/2.3″) and far more pixels plus a Zeiss lens it can produce ridiculous amounts of details with marginal noise. While the Sony Xperia Z1 is no slouch, as you can see in this article, it simply cannot reach the sheer height from which the Lumia 1020 dominates. Sony is making progress, the largest outside Nokia, but it is not enough to dethrone the 1020.

Winner: Nokia Lumia 1020

Screen

Galaxy S4: 440 ppi, 5″ 1080p Super AMOLED

Note 3: 386 ppi, 5.7″ 1080p Super AMOLED

Xperia Z1: 440 ppi, 5″ 1080p Super AMOLED

Nokia Lumia 1020: 332 ppi, 4.5″ 768×1280 AMOLED

Apple iPhone 5S: 326 ppi, 4″  640×1136 Retina display.

Apple used to have the most beautiful screen around with the first retina display. After continuing it with the iPhone 5 and now the iPhone 5S, the major gripe is it’s sub-720p resolution, a far cry from the full HD displays of competitors. Loved by some, but hated by most, it’s still 4 inches. Majority of consumers have clearly indicated they want larger screens, and the rest of the phones here have more brilliant, larger, and sharper screens. However, in the midst of all these pixels, what matters is the pixel density (ppi). The Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z1 smash the opposition in this field by a healthy margin, with the iPhone 5 lagging the furthest behind. Regardless, all of them will still look gorgeous, as pixel density hardly makes a difference after 300 ppi.

What is also quite important are the viewing angles. As always, the iPhone 5S has dominated. Changing the viewing angles hardly brings a change in colours, but does cause a considerable drop in contrast. The Lumia 1020 also performs well, giving good viewing angles, but suffers from a colour change when changing the angles. The worst performing, however has to be the Xperia Z1. Even with its Triluminos Full HD Bravia display, it still cannot match the viewing angles as the rest of the bunch. The S4 and Note 3, though, crush all competition easily. Their superior blacks, viewing angles and sunlight legibility prove an unassailable match to anyone. However, just on pixel density alone, I’ll give this to the S4.

Winner: Galaxy S4

Software

The Android v iOS war has been raging on for the longest time. So we will just be telling you what’s new on the table.

The new iOS 7 looks gorgeous and refreshing but it also brings with it some features that the iPhone has been lagging for quite a while. Air Drop is Apple’s take on NFC (which doesn’t require the business of tapping phones), and the quick access bar to critical phone controls like Bluetooth is finally here. Along with that, we get a new boost to security in the form of a thumbprint scanner which replaces the need for passwords. This is great because the constant password prompts can be a real irritant.

But these innovations are not revolutionary. With the sole exception of a well-postioned thumbprint scanner (the Atrix had a very bad position), Android can do all the things iOS does and more. In other words, nothing has changed. If you want a smooth operating system that looks beautiful but with limited customizability, go with iOS. If you want the bells and whistles the latest tech can bring you, in a slightly less polished form, but with far more freedom for you to play with, take Android.

Verdict: Draw

Aesthetics

The new iPhone 5S in its grey, gold, and silver option looks even more gorgeous than ever. Its completely flush surface goes with the flat look of iOS 7, and the ring around the home button probably looks better than ‘the one ring which rules them all’. Apple has always known for building a premium product, with a focus on it feeling good.

The Samsung products, even with the new leather backing on the Note 3, still look cheap. The only real contender here is the Xperia Z1 which feels really premium as well.

Its really your personal preference, but I think the iPhone 5S looks gorgeous and is a leap above all phones and is an undisputed winner here.

Winner: iPhone 5S

Bells and Whistles

I could not come up with a more specific category for this, because all the phones have their unique cool features. Let’s evaluate how useful they are.

The S4 has tons of features that might or might not be useful. From Smart Scroll, to Smart Pause, to S Fitness, it has a whole series of sensors like pedometers and barometers. Their usefulness is limited because they often not work well but the fact that such care has gone into the user experience is an interesting take.

The Note 3 has lots of helpful S Pen features which allow for efficient multitasking which is great for people trying to replace their tablets.

The Xperia Z1 probably has the most useful unique feature. Its been proven to last 30 mins while submerged under 1m of water, is tested to be dust proof, and has a shatter proof screen.

The Nokia’s hardly unique, but potent feature is really its camera and it’s a really good one at that.

The iPhone? A thumbprint sensor….. While this seems really lame compared to the rest, we must give the guys at Cupertino a little more credit. Apple has stuck strong to its philosophy of not putting in more features than necessary. A thumbprint sensor embedded in the home button is to be honest quite smart. As said earlier, the Motorola Atrix had a fingerprint sensor, but a poorly located one, hence falling out of favour with majority of the crowd. The positional convenience is a huge amount of value-add because there will be no need to key in passwords any more. It really is a ‘wow’ factor!

However, in the end the most useful features belong to the Xperia Z1. You can manhandle it, dunk it and do whatever to it that you fancy, but tough luck trying to spoil it.

Winner: Xperia Z1

Wrap-up

We’ve gone through multiple technical aspects and we’ve proven that in every single technical way, the iPhone cannot match-up. Where is does shine is in it’s hardware optimization. As an Apple die-hard turned Samsung supporter, I’d be the first to doom Apple to an ever-decreasing market share. However, Apple has always been a market leader, not a follower. There is a distinctive Apple style, and it works, as it has for the last few years. This new iPhone 5S is distinctively Apple, and as an option above the rest of the phones reviewed here, it actually makes sense.

We’ve reached a state in technology where its no longer a matter of which phone is better. It is about which fulfils its intended purpose. If you are a productivity warrior, the Galaxy Note 3 is the obvious choice. If you really want a good camera, go with the Lumia 1020. If you manhandle and mistreat your device, do look at the Z1.

For most though, the hard part is deciding between the Galaxy S4, Xperia Z1, and the iPhone 5S because all target users who want something that just ‘works’. In the past, the Galaxy S4 would have been the obvious choice but the iPhone 5S takes simplicity to the next level. It now possesses key features which Android used to have a monopoly over. Now if you get an android, you have to face massive lagging, fragmentation, and weaker security for not much more. Apple has upheld their baseline. Being chock full of features for the sake of having them is useless if the user experience is compromised. Their new phone with just two ground-breaking innovations in power and security shows that Apple still can work their magic, and that is all the consumer needs to know.

Because the iPhone 5S looks fantastic, brings 64-bit to the phone platform, and is an all-round performer, I’d gladly trade my Galaxy S4 for the phone which rules them all. The iPhone is king again.

Verdict: iPhone 5S

UPDATE: For part 2 of this shootout, do have a look over here!

Full Specifications on:

Sony Xperia Z1: http://www.gsmarena.com/sony_xperia_z1-5596.php

Galaxy S4: http://www.gsmarena.com/samsung_i9500_galaxy_s4-5125.php

Galaxy Note 3: http://www.gsmarena.com/samsung_galaxy_note_3-5665.php

Nokia Lumia 1020: http://www.gsmarena.com/nokia_lumia_1020-5506.php

iPhone 5S (not available): This is the iPhone 5 link: http://www.gsmarena.com/apple_iphone_5-4910.php

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19 thoughts on “Smartphone Shoot-out of 2014 Part 1: Flagship Phones

  1. I love Apple!!! Apple is the best!! that’s why I bought 200 euros of Apple shares when the Apple 5s was announced. The Iphone 5S is simply a beast. I love your article, especially the part about the cameras. It heartens me to see how much effort and trust you put in yourself to take upon the task to take many many photos with both phones before coming to us with an accurate conclusion!!! I love you blog and hope to read more.

    This is really my online tech magzine.

  2. Wow mate. What an interesting article. I’m sorry if I speak in horrible English because I’m french and I’ve only been in England for a few years. I admire the detail as to how you compare the different depths regarding the different aspects. I would never have been able to write such a succint article.

    On a side note, I feel that the Z1 is the way to go, with it’s innovative design and hardware capability. I’m stilll weighing in a decision for the Note 3 though, the Gear does entice.

    Good job mate! hope to read more!!

    1. Wow you seems to have collected quite an international fanbase here. I found this blog pretty easily after googling. It must be generating quite a hype here in Italy!! I loving the Iphone 5 at the moment and hoping to jump on the 5S. I’m praying Fifa 13 is still compatible with it. My friend says it isn’t. but I just scored a goal in 42 seconds in my Italian FA cup So I hope it works!!!

  3. hello there, i am from ghana/ i loved to reads yours article, hopefully you can do more the same like these… thank you for this posts … hopefully i can affords my iphones in ghana

  4. Hello, good to see you have picked Apple over the fellow competitors. For me, I have a minority stake in the company, so its good to see Apple still leading the way in this industry. Could you contact me at tinyurl.com/sheeshee and we can further discuss our views on smartphones?

  5. 读了这则报章报道,我感触良深,对这报章报道的作者称不绝口。他精心制造了一篇充满丰富内容的新闻,让大家大开眼界,开阔视野。所谓,“百尺竿头,更进一步”。这作者应该再接再厉,奋发图强。我相信这作者大有前途,有很多潜力去发挥。

  6. Nice site and article 🙂 Personally, I feel that the LG G2 is worth a mention too, and by the way the S4’s S600 is clocked at 1.9GHz while the Octa is at 1.6…there is a Korean version though, that runs the Snapdragon 800 at 2.3GHz. Cheers!

      1. I think this is very biased, towards the Iphone.

        I don’t see any mention of the fact that if you drop you iphone of any model, you’re more than likely going to fuck up your front or back glass, sometimes both! which is very costly.. my brother recently replaced his back, for a week later to drop it again and shatter the front!

        And viewing angles i don’t find important on a phone.. who doesn’t look at their phone on a direct angle 95% of the time? i have the Z, Z1 and ZU and viewing angles aren’t a problem because a NORMAL person looks at a personal handheld device (a phone) directly!

        Yes, the z range has poor viewing angles, but how are viewing angles important on a personal device? a tv, yes a phone, NO, so the Z1 will by far win the screen category if you take that into account.

        now for the camera, yes the nokia has a huge 41mp camera.. BUT it would only really be used to it’s full potential if you know all the camera jargon, and when to use what settings (which i know nothing about) but then you get the Z1’s Superior Auto, which is near on perfect in MOST situations, the nokia camera i over complicated and is really only useful to someone who has advanced knowledge of cameras and all that comes with, and in that case they would more than likely have a high end camera which puts the nokia to shame anyway!

        Iphones may ‘feel’ premium, especially the latter models, but they break so easily, and even on their own some times! i have dropped my Z1 down 4 flights of stairs it went down all of them and only got a few scratches and a chip or two in the side – and if i take my screen protector off i no longer have any scratches? if that was an iphone, you’d be best off getting another phone, and pretty much the same with the samsungs which feel cheap and nasty and overall are.

        I have seen countless people using their iphone, nokia or samsung with a broken screen, and i haven’t seen a single Z range with a broken screen.

        Oh, and to add into that – my cat can unlock my supposed fingerprint password with it’s paw.. pawprint sensor anyone? iphones for ya.

        1. Hi, Jimmy.

          Now before I begin, I will preface my reply in saying that I am a huge fan of the Xperia Z1 and own one myself (as you can see in the About section of this site). But, as with all devices, they cannot be perfect. Let me address each of your points one by one.

          About dropping your phone, I agree that the iPhone is a really fragile device. However, the iPhone 5S still scores 5.5 on the breakability test by Square Trade, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/iphone/10327795/iPhone-5s-more-breakable-than-old-iPhone-5.html) compared to the Samsung Galaxy S4, which scored 7, where the higher the value, the more breakable the device. While the Z1 is certainly better than the iPhone in that aspect (based on personal anecdotes, as Square Trade has not tested it yet), it cannot be the sole deciding factor in superiority.

          Next, let’s see the viewing angles. In my daily usage, I find that I am not able to look at my screen at a 90 degree angle all of the time. This is especially prevalent in the morning rush hour in the train. Sometimes, it is more convenient for me to look at the device at another angle as well. In these cases, the Z1’s screen does let me down, but I find it acceptable. However, when comparing multiple phones, it must be taken into account what differentiates each device. Even if viewing angles did not matter (although I believe they do), we had to look at all the differences in each device, and when doing so, it is plainly obvious, as good as the Z1’s screen is, that the Z1 does not have a superior screen to iPhone 5S.

          Following that, we arrive at the camera. Yes, the Xperia Z1 is easier to use in the Superior Auto mode, but when you are looking to get the greatest shot, you will delve into the settings of the camera. Here the Lumia 1020 far exceeds the device. One thing also to be noted is that megapixels do not win camera shootouts on their own, it is the sensor size that plays a big role too. A larger sensor enables more detail to be captured, and the 1/1.5″ sensor of the Lumia 1020 certainly does more than the Z1’s 1/2.3″ sensor. The better shot in the end will be produced by the 1020. Saying the Z1 is superior to the 1020 is akin to saying that a compact camera is better than a DSLR. Yes, the compact camera is easier to use than the DSLR, but the better photos are produced by the DSLR. You are arguing a different point than superior camera. Instead you are talking about the ease of use of the Z1, which I agree is better than the 1020, but the better camera is that of the Lumia 1020.

          I agree you might find iPhones far more fragile than Sony’s Z range, and I personally feel the same way, but that alone does not warrant the Z1 placing higher than the iPhone 5S.

          Finally, about the fingerprint sensor, I respectfully am unable to believe your claim that your cat has successfully unlocked the iPhone 5S which you secured using your own fingerprint. Unless you provide a video, I will still believe that to be a novel and secure way to lock your device.

          That being said, in all circumstances I will still buy the Xperia Z1 again and again if I had the money, because in my personal opinion, I prefer the customizability of Android, ruggedness of Sony, an excellent camera and a screen no larger than 5 inches. So that will be my defence of the flagship shootout, which was written by Timothy.

          Also, do look out for my long-term Z1 review that I will be posting later today. I hope you like it!

          Cheers!
          Shikhar

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