Mid-range battle of 2014: Samsung vs HTC vs Sony vs LG vs Nokia

Following our 2014 Flagships shootout, we decided something was lacking. Not everyone can afford flagship phones, or simply are more budget-conscious, and so we’ve decided to launch our second shootout for 2014 smartphones: mid-range offerings.

Most people looking for mid-range phones either cannot afford flagships, or they don’t use their devices enough to warrant paying the prices for flagships. If you are one of these people, or want a mid-range phone for whatever reason, read on.

First and foremost, a little about the warriors.

Samsung Galaxy S4 mini

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Hardly a small phone, even with the mini suffix, the Galaxy S4 mini has dimensions of 124.6 x 61.3 x 8.9 mm, and weighs a feather-light 107g. It has a dual-core Snapdragon S400 clocked at 1.7 GHz, an Adreno 305 GPU, a 1900 mAh removable battery, 8 GB expandable storage (of which only 5 GB is usable), 1.5 GB RAM, a 4.3 inch 540 x 960 pixels AMOLED screen, an 8 MP camera and LTE capabilities. It certainly is no slouch, but the screen resolution is an instant disappointment.

HTC One mini

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Just like the S4 mini, the One mini is also not a small phone. It is bigger and thicker than the S4 mini too, at 132 x 63.2 x 9.3 mm, as well as heavier at 122g, although most of that is due to its unibody aluminium build. This mid-ranger packs a dual-core Snapdragon S400, like the S4 mini, but clocked at a lower rate of 1.4 GHz. It also shares the Adreno 305 GPU with the S4 mini. Aside from that, it has a non-removable 1800 mAh battery, 16 GB non-expandable storage, 1 GB RAM, a very nice 4.3″ 720p Super LCD display, HTC’s own 4 MP UltraPixel camera and LTE support. Immediately the lower clock rate of the S400 here will raise concerns, as you will read later on.

LG Optimus F5

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Similar to the S4 mini, the LG Optimus F5 was only just released to the Singaporean market, but other parts of the world have been selling this device since May. Not only that, its specs are the weakest of the five. It is the second shortest device here though, at 126 x 64.5 x 9.3 mm. It also weighs 131g. This one sports a relatively lowly clocked 1.2 GHz Snapdragon S4 pro, especially since it is an Android device, as Android phones can severely lag at low clock speeds. It has the oldest GPU as well, the Adreno 225. Together with that, it has a 2150 mAh battery, 8 GB expandable storage, but a disappointing display – a 4.3 inch 960 x 540 pixels IPS LCD. It does however, have a sub-par camera at 5 MP. It also comes with LTE connectivity.

Sony Xperia SP

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The Xperia SP is arguably the strongest device here on paper. It is larger (though only wider in the One mini’s case), thicker and heavier than the previous two droids, measuring 130.6 x 67.1 x 10 mm and weighing 155g. This one chooses to pack the significantly more powerful dual-core Snapdragon S4 pro clocked at 1.7 GHz, an Adreno 320 GPU (shared by the Xperia Z, Galaxy S4, and HTC One) a comparatively huge (in terms of power) non-removable 2370 mAh battery, 8 GB (5.8 GB usable) expandable memory, 1 GB RAM, and a relatively colossal 4.6 inch 720p TFT display. It also has an 8 MP camera and LTE support. Watch this one carefully, as it is looking to be the strongest.

Nokia Lumia 625

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Specs wise the Lumia 625 is still a decent device. It is also the largest and heaviest, with its dimensions at 133.3 x 72.3 x 9.2 mm and weight at 159g. It has a dual core Snapdragon S400 clocked at 1.2 GHz, an Adreno 305 GPU, a 2000 mAh battery, 8GB expandable storage, 512 MB of RAM and the largest display of them all – a 4.7 inch IPS LCD. However, its screen resolution is a mere 480 x 800, a resolution of phones manufactured in 2011. I have a mid-range device from 2011 myself, and even that has a 480 x 800 pixels display. Still, this has an LTE radio.

So, those are the contenders and a brief introduction to go alongside each of them. Let’s get started, shall we?

DESIGN AND FUNCTIONALITY

The HTC One mini is doubtlessly the best looking device here, but looks aren’t everything. None of these devices is poor looking, in fact, with the S4 mini and One mini riding on the designs of their larger siblings. The Xperia SP, Optimus F5 and Lumia 625 also look good on their own. The One mini, though, has a large trump card up its sleeve – two actually. The first is the obviously premium looking and feeling aluminium unibody. However, HTC has smartly decided to encapsulate this phone in a polycarbonate frame around the sides, which prevents dents and chips in the aluminium. The second trump card is the superior set of front-facing BoomSound speakers. These speakers provide unquestionably the best sound in this shootout, no question there. However, the One mini has to rely on a mere two buttons, unfortunately, which means each button is assigned multiple functions. The home button is actually fulfilling three functions, a tad too many for our taste. Not only that, the power button is placed at an unusual location. Not only is it placed at the top, HTC have decided to place it on the left, which even Apple doesn’t do with its iPhone. They also have decided to do away with the IR blaster that the One has, docking further points from the One mini in this field.

The Galaxy S4 mini is the smallest out of all these devices, yet still has a multitude of features. As is obvious, Samsung has decided to keep the design the same as their S4 flagship, which might not really be the best choice given that many lament its already low-end feel. Nevertheless, it does have an advantage over the One mini in the fact that it has a hardware home button and capactative back and menu buttons. Not only that, the power button in the S4 mini is placed at the right, exactly where the index finger of the left hand rests when using the phone, as well as where the right thumb rests when using it. In today’s smartphone market, users buy depending on familiarity. This power button design is the most common in all smartphones, so that’s another plus for the Galaxy S4 mini. Also, where the One mini lacks, the S4 mini provides with an IR blaster. Aside from that, Samsung is still (thankfully) keeping itself in the minority by having removable rear covers that allow swapping out the battery. Another bonus for the S4 mini is that it has a micro-SD card slot, allowing you to store your music, movies and whatever you fancy on it.

The LG Optimus F5, like the S4 mini, is housed in an all plastic casing. Similar to it too, it has the power button on the right hand side, and the volume keys on the left. It’s main navigation keys – the standard back, home and menu keys – are capacitative buttons at the bottom of the device. It is not exactly a good looking device, but not an ugly one either. The rear has a nice looking pattern, but at the end of the day, it’s plastic. This one doesn’t have an IR blaster however, but it will not be sorely missed – after all we still have remotes. Just like the S4 mini, the Optimus F5 also has a removable rear cover for easy access to the battery, and it also has a micro-SD card slot, however it only supports micro-SD cards up to 32 GB of storage.

Moving on, we arrive at the Sony Xperia SP. While it certainly is not as good looking as the One mini, it still looks more exciting than Samsung’s overplayed and LG’s bland design choices. It feels very nice in the hand, featuring a pleasant matte plastic on the back and a co-molded aluminum frame running all around the body. The plastic gives you a good grip in the hand, but the phone slipping out of your fingers is quite out of the question – the device’s thickness will ensure that. The front looks like the Z1 and previous Z, which is not a bad thing at all. The most distinguishing feature of this device from its brothers is the transparent notification strip at the bottom of the phone. This notification strip acts as a notification LED, and Sony has dubbed it the Ambience light. The Ambience light illuminates to match your currently selected theme, or the dominant color of the image you are currently looking at in the gallery. It also works in the Walkman music player, lighting up along with the beat of the currently playing track. Thankfully, if you don’t like it, Sony has provided the option to disable it. Not only that, the Ambience strip can also act as a caller ID of sorts. You can set it to pulse differently and in varying colours whenever anyone calls, allowing you to know who is calling even when the phone is face down. As for the buttons, Sony has gone with on screen ones, an advantage over the S4 mini as these will never spoil. No IR blaster as well, but neither does it have a removable battery, even though it has a removable back cover. It does, however, have a micro-SD card slot, hence storage will not be too much of a problem. This is also the only Android phone here which has a hardware shutter key. This is exciting, as this means greatly reduced shake when taking a photo.

Last but not the least, we arrive at the Nokia Lumia 625. The only non-Android offering here, it doesn’t offer much over its competitors aside from its OS. The phone has a matte finish at the back, and this rear cover is customizable. Nokia is kind enough to include an extra back panel in the box in case you grow tired of your current one. While it provides good grip like the Xperia SP, and feels more premium than plastic, the removable back cover does not allow you to replace the battery. Nevertheless, a 2000 mAh battery should be more than enough to fulfill your needs. The Lumia 625 doesn’t stray from the design of the other Lumias, with a rectangular design with gently tapered edges. The Lumia 625 has three capacitative navigation buttons, the back, Start, and search buttons, which are located at the bottom of the phone. Aside from that, the Lumia 625 is the second device here to have a hardware shutter key. That, and the power and volume buttons are all located on the right side of the phone. It also has a micro-SD card slot for expandable memory, but as with all Lumia devices, lacks an IR blaster.

Winner: Sony Xperia SP. A close second would go to the S4 mini, but even though the SP does not have an IR blaster or removable battery, its looks, hardware shutter key and Ambience strip take the cake for us. We know the HTC One mini looks drop-dead gorgeous, but it lacks too many features to be considered top.

DISPLAY

The only two devices here with a high resolution screen are the HTC One mini and the Sony Xperia SP, but it remains to be seen if it will be any of them who will be winning this bout.

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The Galaxy S4 mini is the only one using an AMOLED screen here, which gives the most vibrant of colours. However, the problem with most AMOLED screens is that it rarely gives a realistic colour, as vibrant as it may be. Samsung has decided on a 4.3″ size for this phone, but unfortunately, the screen resolution has been dropped to a measly qHD (540 x 960) which amounts to around 256 ppi, meaning it’s not quite as sharp, but the Super AMOLED panel gives it an edge in other aspects of the image quality. Just like its bigger brother, the S4 mini has Samsung’s screen modes settings that let you tune down the effect and get the natural and realistic looks of the LCD screen, but more often than not, it is still better to have an LCD screen itself. Not only that, leaving an AMOLED screen switched on for long durations at one go may cause pixel burn ins. The AMOLED display here is not the brightest, but provides an extremely good contrast ratio. It also performs superbly in the sunlight legibility department, mainly because AMOLED screens are less reflective than their LCD counterparts. Finally, its viewing angles are more than acceptable, but may be overshadowed by the HTC One mini.

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In terms of screen resolution, it seems that while HTC and Sony move on to 720p display on their mid-range devices, the Koreans seem stubborn on keeping it at qHD resolution. Yes, just like the S4 mini, the LG Optimus F5’s screen resolution is only 540 x 960 pixels, which is not something to be proud of in this day and age. Moving on, the Optimus F5 utilises an IPS LCD screen, which turns out to be brighter than the S4 mini’s AMOLED. It also has a decent contrast ratio, but not as good as the S4 mini’s. Unlike the S4 mini though, which can provide true blacks with its AMOLED, the Optimus F5 manages an acceptable 0.31 cd/m². It also has quite poor sunlight legibility, and under a hot noon sun, text is barely visible due to copious amounts of reflection. Its viewing angles are just decent, as contrast and color fidelity do not remain high at the most obtuse angles. Therefore, the display content looks pale when not viewed at a direct 90° angle. What is also extremely disappointing is that there is no ambient light sensor, which means that you will have to adjust brightness manually – there is no auto adjustment.

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The same can be said when talking about Sony’s Xperia SP. Even though the Xperia SP is multitudes ahead in terms of screen resolution – a healthy 720p – it is a severe laggard in terms of viewing angles. Sony has decided to use a TFT LCD display. The TFT screen is backed by the Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2, which enhances contrast and sharpness, brings down noise and saturates colors to make them more pleasing to the eye. The reds in particular tend to really pop out. While everything looks brilliant, and true to life (looking at you Samsung), the Xperia SP is also not particularly the brightest. Hence, its sunlight contrast ratio drops a lot. The blacks are sufficiently deep, but not as good as the S4 mini. However, to the naked eye, there is barely any difference.

SONY DSC

The Nokia Lumia 625 is a major culprit in terms of screen resolution, just like the LG Optimus F5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 mini. However, where these two devices use a qHD screen, the Lumia 625 is not even at that level. It instead uses a 480 x 800 screen, the mid-range resolution of two years ago. As mentioned above, I have a mid-range device at this very screen resolution, and to see this screen resolution still being used today is frankly disappointing. The phone also only provides decent contrast ratios and viewing angles. It is certainly not acceptable for Nokia to be using this screen in their devices today.

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HTC, though seem to have got everything right. They have fit a nice 720p Super LCD2 display, with only a 4.3 inch diagonal, allowing the pixel density to rise to 326 ppi. The black levels are sufficiently deep too, at 0.15 cd/m². It is the brightest of the lot by a large margin, allowing sunlight legibility levels to soar. Granted, the reflectiveness of the SLCD2 are higher than AMOLED, the difference between two is not too large, even though the One mini is somewhat behind. Viewing angles are brilliant, with only the extremes causing colour saturation to rise. Finally, due to the nature of SLCD2, the One mini can produce extremely realistic colours.

Winner: HTC One mini. The One mini makes no mistakes here, and only falls behind the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini in the Sunlight Contrast ratio due to SLCD2’s reflectiveness. Nevertheless, true to life colours and high resolution allow it to run out an easy winner here.

BATTERY LIFE

Every phone has a heart inside of it, but each one is different. Battery life is one of the most important items to look for in a phone, so let’s have a look at these devices’ battery lives.

In terms of talk time, the Galaxy S4 mini with its 1900 mAh scores a healthy 13 hours and 10 minutes, 9 hours and 47 minutes for web browsing and a whopping 13 hours 12 minutes for web browsing. If left on standby with hour of calling, browsing and watching video daily, this phone will last you a huge 54 hours. This is certainly an extremely good showing, especially with the fact that you can remove and change the battery of this device.

The HTC One mini does not have a particularly good showing here, scoring 12 hours and 4 minutes for talk time, 8 hours and 12 minutes for web browsing, and compared to the S4 mini, scores a paltry 7 hours and 23 minutes on the video playback test. However, that might be due to the fact that the One mini has a smaller 1800 mAh battery, and needs to support a higher resolution screen. In the same endurance test as the S4 mini, the One mini scores a decent 40 hours.

The Sony Xperia SP, however, seems to be in a league of its own for the talk time test, scoring a massive 19 hours and 49 minutes. However, it falls behind the S4 mini as well as the One mini in the web browsing test, scoring only 6 hours and 18 minutes. It manages to outscore the One mini marginally in the video playback test though, scoring 7 hours and 27 minutes. It does have an impressive standby performance, scoring 51 hours.

The LG Optimus F5 fare slightly better overall though, scoring a respectable 12 hours and 43 minutes in the talk time test, 7 hours and 33 minutes in the web browsing test, and 8 hours and 4 minutes on the video playback test. Most of this, however should be attributed to the fact that it has a sufficiently large battery, running at a lower resolution than the One mini and Xperia SP. It scores 49 hours in its standby performance as well, pushing the One mini further down.

In the face of the Nokia, though, all these talk time test figues seem insignificant, because it is here that the 625 manages to score an unprecedented 30 hours and 58 minutes, a healthy four hours more than even the Sony Xperia Z1, Sony’s flagship. Windows Phone’s poor power management does show itself though in the web browsing and video playback test, where the Lumia 625 only scored 7 hours and 7 minutes, as well as 6 hours and 29 minutes respectively. It did score 51 hours in the idling test though.

Winner: This is absolutely no contest, as the S4 mini takes it by a mile. Being able to idle for the longest, and scoring the highest in the web browsing and video playback tests (winning this one by a huge margin too), it is really no question which device will keep you connected and entertained for the longest. Not only that, the S4 mini also suports swapping out batteries, so you can effectively double your battery life by simply carrying a second of the slim battery in your pocket.

USER INTERFACE

The user interface of all these devices, even the Android ones is vastly different. Each manufacturer has decided to customise their device separately, with Samsung using their TouchWiz 5 Nature UX 2.0 (what a mouthful), LG using their Optimus UI 3.0, HTC with their Sense 5.0 (soon to be updated to 5.5), and Sony with their most memorable UI, Sony UI. Nokia, meanwhile is unable to customize Windows Phone 8 at all due to Windows Phone not even supporting such levels of customizability like Android does. Who is best? Let’s find out.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 mini uses the latest TouchWiz 5 Nature UX 2.0. It is hated by many for looking too tacky in terms of its icons. Not only that, it can be quite confusing to navigate in TouchWiz, with Samsung insiting on splitting all the settings into different categories. It does provide you with a nice kitchen sink quick toggles in the notification bar, which is extremely useful. Samsung does like to use clear, defined lines in their icons, with most of them having varying colour, which is where many complaints to TouchWiz’s tackiness come from.

Here is a video showing off the UI (video by GSMArena):

For the LG Optimus F5, the Optimus UI 3.0 finally has a lock screen which is customisable, allowing you to choose which apps and info you want direct access to. You can have up to seven home pages for your apps and widgets, and many of the settings are adjustable (such as: how long the touch-sensitive buttons stay lit, whether or not the phone tracks your eyes to keep the screen lit, transitions between the home pages, etc.). It also, like Samsung’s TouchWiz provide you with a kitchen sink of quick toggles in the notification bar. However, not many are a fan of the extremely cluttered, confusing, and generally tacky notification bar. It is possible to remove many of the shortcuts above, but that takes a fair bit of work. Nevertheless, it can be done within fifteen minutes.

Here is a video of its interface (video by PhoneArena):

HTC is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing of the various Android UIs, using dark grey, black and white as the main colours for their Sense 5.0. It looks extremely clean as well, with each icon with clearly defined edges. Their notification bar is lifted from stock Android, which is also another huge bonus as it is customizable without being too ‘in-your-face’ about it. Sliding down the notification bar reveals the standard quick toggles that Google has implemented, with the standard WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode available as options. However, the most defining feature of Sense is their BlinkFeed addition. This is set as the left-most home screen where news and updates are congregated from news sites. You can also login to your Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts and view your social network updates on BlinkFeed. However, if you do not like BlinkFeed, you can definitely hide it, but deletion is out of the question. Another quirk of HTC’s  sense is that scrolling in the app drawer is done vertically (up and down) rather than all other UIs, where scrolling is done horizontally (left and right).

Here is a video of Sense 5.0 (from GSMArena):

Next, we arrive at Sony’s Xperia SP, which utilizes Sony’s UI, with Sony having dropped the TimeScape UI nomenclature a few devices ago. It is widely considered the closest to stock Android in terms of functionality, but Sony has completly overhauled the interface design as well. The backend software optimizations, combined with Project Butter, give you as smooth a ride throughout the Xperia SP UI as you can expect thanks to the powerful dual-core chipset and graphics. This UI might not be the most appealing as it decides to rename basic apps like the Gallery and Music to Album and Walkman respectively. Pulling down the notification bar gives you a list of toggles (Sound, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Mobile Data). There’s also a quick shortcut to the settings menu.

Here is a video of the UI (from GSMArena):

Finally, we arrive at the Lumia 625. The Lumia 625 is the most limited in terms of customizability here. The Lumia’s homescreen (which cannot have a wallpaper) consists of tiles which may be direct launches to the application, or simply shortcuts to other menus. There is also the Live Apps service allows apps to display notifications and images. You can set one app to display big notifications (“detailed status”) and up to five more apps to show less (“quick status”). You can also move the tiles around and resize them to either of three sizes (quarter, normal and double size). Selecting the quarter size will turn the tile into a static tile. It is certainly very minimalist in its design, but the OS itself is limited by lack of apps, functionality and customizability. The 625 also comes out of the box with the Windows Phone 8 Amber Update, add a few features like FM radio support and a new camera lens (more info on that under the camera section), but lacks the upgrade which shows the clock and some notifications, while the phone is locked.

Here is a video of the Windows Phone device’s UI (from GSMArena):

Winner: HTC One mini. It provides an extremely clean and gorgeous interface, together with Android’s customizability and added functions. Not only that, BlinkFeed’s addition as the default home screen means that to get up to speed, one only has to unlock the phone. The stock notification bar is also a plus.

PERFORMANCE (ANDROID)

This is where it matters to a lot of users, and this is usually where all the deal breakers rear their heads. It is no use having a phone that looks good, or does all kinds of things without being able to be used smoothly. Who will rise or fall? Find out more below.

(Note: The Lumia 625 has all but 2 separate tests as there are no other cross-platform benchmark services available for WP8 and Android. Also, due to its extremely recent release, the LG Optimus F5 has not been benchmarked yet, though we will update it as soon as scores are out.)

First and foremost we kick the performance tests off with Benchmark Pi.

Benchmark Pi

The S4 mini and Xperia SP vie for the top spot here, with the S4 mini eventually coming out top. The HTC One mini, though, has an absolutely horrible performance.

Linpack

In Linpack, the S4 mini once again bests the other two competitors, and by a large margin too. The One mini though, loses out narrowly to the Xperia SP.

Geekbench 2

Geekbench shakes up the order a little bit, but only the top two. The Xperia SP manages to win this, with the S4 mini second, and the One mini a very distant third.

AnTuTu

In AnTuTu, perhaps the most comprehensive review out of them all, the Xperia SP comes out with a very impressive victory, scoring more than Samsung’s previous flagship, the Galaxy SIII (15000). The S4 mini itself is not too shabby, finishing just under the SIII’s score, but again the One mini has an abysmal performance.

Quadrant

Here the story repeats itself, with the Xperia SP top, S4 mini a not too far second, and the One mini at an absolutely disappointing last.

GL Benchmark 2.5 Egypt (1080p off-screen) GL Benchmark 2.7 T-Rex (1080p off-screen)

In the two GL Benchmark tests, the Xperia SP absolutely obliterates the competition, outscoring the second finisher by scoring two times higher. Yet again, the One mini disappoints.

Epic Citadel

In Epic Citadel, however, the One mini’s prospects seem to light up. While it does not finish first – that seems to be the Xperia SP’s job – it does manage a very respectable narrow second place. The S4 mini itself is not too far behind either of them too.

Sunspider (lower is better)

In SunSpider, the Javascript browsing test,  the Xperia SP manages to displace the Lumia 625 by a kitten’s whisker, with a difference of only 22 ms separating them. Very close behind is the S4 mini as well, and the One mini, while last, is not miles behind unlike other tests (exception being Epic Citadel).

BrowserMark 2

BrowserMark 2 is where the S4 mini manages to wrestle back best performing device from the Xperia SP, beating it by a handy 49 points. The One mini, though, does not perform well again, but the Lumia 625 is struggling severely here.

Vellamo

Finally, in Vellamo, the Xperia SP shows that it was merely taking a breather, absolutely crushing the other two devices. Surprisingly, the One mini is not last here, and manages to be closer to the Xperia SP than the S4 mini is closer to it.

Android Winner: Without a doubt, the Xperia SP wins the performance tests by a mile. It finishes top in all but three out of eleven tests, and sometimes grinds the competition to dust. The S4 mini is not too bad itself here, but the One mini is absolutely pathetic in this aspect. Not much could be commented about the Lumia 625’s performance though.

PERFORMANCE (WINDOWS PHONE)

The Lumia 625 gets its very own performance section mainly because comparing two hugely differing operating systems is not really a performance benchmark, but serves to show which OS can be better optmized. Not only that, the Windows Phone 8 OS does not share any benchmarks with the Android ecosystem, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t do side-by-side comparison. Comparing the Lumia to the other devices would be akin to comparing Apples vs Oranges (pardon the pun).

Anyways, let’s get down to business. For the sake of comparison, we will be benchmarking the Lumia 625 against its other Lumia siblings.

The Lumia 625 runs a steady dual-core Snapdragon S400, just like the other Lumia devices, but it runs the MSM8930 (1.2 GHz, Adreno 305) variant. The Lumia 520, 521, 620, 720 and 900 run the MSM8227 (1 GHz, Adreno 305), while the Lumia 820, 920, 925, 928, 1020 run the MSM8960 (1.5 GHz, Adreno 225) variant.

This small System-on-chip (SoC) variation does have a small impact on performance, which is also apparent in the benchmarks results below:

wpbench625
source: allaboutwindowsphone.com/

Impressively, the Lumia 625 manages to outperform the Lumia 720, which is towards the higher-end of the mid-range Lumia spectrum, as well as the original 9-er Lumia 900, which used to be Nokia’s flagship. It was to be expected, however, especially with the fact that the 625’s S400 has a higher clock speed than the 520, 720 and 900.

As allaboutwindowsphone.com puts it:

In terms of real world usage, this translates to third party apps opening ever so slightly quicker on the Lumia 625, when compared to the Lumia 620, but not quite as quickly as on the Lumia 925. You’ll only ever notice this if you do a side by side comparison, because there’s really not a lot in it. Some operations in resource intensive apps (e.g. PhotoSynth) will also be impacted, but again it’s not something you’re really likely to notice in day-to-day usage.

The relatively small performance difference between high-end and low-end Windows Phone devices is one of the strengths of the platform, tying in with its consistency and cohesiveness as a whole. It can make the high-end devices less attractive in value terms (e.g. why buy a Lumia 925 when I can get 95% of feature set on the Lumia 625), but that’s more because the low-end devices offer terrific value, and misses the point that high end devices are more about the quality of experience (e.g. better camera), design (slimmer), and materials (fashion-like).

Users should also not worry about the 512 MB RAM on the Lumia 625, as Windows Phone is much more efficient in terms of architecture than Android. The phone will still be buttery smooth many years down the road.

CAMERA

We have come a long way since the camera phones of old. The Siemens S65 – my second phone – was the world’s first cameraphone to break 1 MP – with a then whopping 1.3 MP camera. Now, however, the game has changed. It is no longer only about the megapixels now. The general public now knows that sensor size is as key to good images as are megapixels. A cameraphone is always useful to have, and in today’s world, where we find it increasingly important to snap photos for just about everything, a good cameraphone is also required. Let’s see which of these phones can successfully step up and deliver the best camera performance.

First to the batter’s plate is the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini. This device has an 8 MP camera, which is generally a good performer in all categories, but not the best in all. Its camera interface looks generally pleasing, with the capture and setting buttons taking up little of the space (all images courtesy of GSMArena).

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Tapping on the gear icon brings up the following menu, where you can change the digital metering, ISO, exposure value, white balance toggle Anti-shake, geotagging and other settings.

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Tapping the ‘Mode’ button brings up the various scene selectors, with some quirky ones such as ‘Beauty Face’. The default display of these scene selectors is in a carousel mode with accompanying text descriptions, but it can be switched to a more accessible grid view if you would like so.

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With the camera interface done, let’s move on to the actual camera quality. The images are surprisingly better than expected from a mid-range phone, and we suspect that it is the post processing doing most of the job. Images are good, without too much noise, and enough detail is present. It does not have lossless digital zoom, however, so try to avoid zooming to take photos.

Auto Mode:

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HDR Mode:

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360 degree Panorama Mode:

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Not forgetting video capture, we also look at the S4 mini’s video samples (from GSMArena).

The S4 mini is capable of recording 1080p Full HD video at 30 FPS, and stores them in MP4 format. You can capture 6MP (16:9) photos during recording as well, but images come out with very different image processing from what you get from the still camera – the contrast and saturations are boosted way up and there’s a good deal of oversharpening. However, the S4 mini, like its elder brother, struggles in focusing at a single point, having to get its autofocus to kick in multiple times, even when aimed at the same spot.

Next up is the HTC One mini. The One mini is a special case here, using the least pixels of them all – a 4MP UltraPixel sensor. Its sensor size (1/3 inch) is the standard for most phones in this price range, but uses much bigger pixels. The positive about this is that bigger pixels have better performance in poor lighting conditions, but the negative is a lower resolution. The One mini does have a very fast f/2.0 (aperture) lens, which improves low-light performance immensely, but it lacks Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) like its larger sibling.

The interface is shared by all up to date HTC devices here, and is clean like the S4 mini’s. The viewfinder is not blocked too much, and the setting icons are at their respective corners.

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Just like the HTC One, the One mini also comes with Zoe,  a mode on the camera that takes 0.6 seconds of HD footage before you press the shutter button and three seconds afterwards, meaning you get a ‘moving photo’ to give all manner of information about what’s actually been happening. There is an indicator at the bottom of the screen that tells you if you are in Zoe mode, so don’t worry about accidentally using up more space than you want to.

The camera is just decent in daylight, with noticeable noise when upscaling even slightly. Problem is, the low resolution limits detail even further, so you might be frustrated when you see you are getting unneccessary grain repeatedly. Colour reproduction is mostly true to life, as you see in the images (courtesy GSMArena) below.

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HDR mode:

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Panorama mode:

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However, even as HTC crows about the One mini’s performance, it is quite disappointing, with huge amounts of noise even in low-light conditions. Frankly, it is not any better than the S4 mini’s low-light performance.

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We then take a look at the One mini’s video capabilities. The HTC One mini can shoot videos at up to 1080p resolution at 30 FPS. It has an HDR option for the video, but note that the frame rate falls to 28 FPS, if you enable it and the field of view gets narrower in this mode. If you prefer frame rates over quality, you do have the option to shoot at 720p quality at 60 FPS. All video is recorded in MP4 format, as is standard today. Other than that, videos are okay in terms of fine detail, but not spectacular. Colors are slightly off (oversaturated), but not as much as most other phones produce. HDR mode is also available for video.

Here is a 31 second sample (from GSMArena).

Now we come up to the Sony Xperia SP. The Sony Xperia SP is equipped with an 8 megapixel camera that can produce still shots with a maximum resolution of 3264 x 2448 pixels. However, if you use the default Superior auto mode, you only get 7 MP 3104 x 2328 shots instead. To those confused between what are the differences between ‘Auto’ mode, and ‘Superior Auto’ mode, let me try and clear it up for you. In Superior Auto mode, the phone tries to set every single setting according to what is senses, including color saturation, contrast, and metering mode among other things. The regular auto mode only sets the exposure automatically, but lets you fiddle with the other settings if you prefer.

The camera interface consists of two panes. The right one holds four virtual buttons – a shortcut to the gallery, video and still shot shutter keys, and a primary/secondary camera toggle. On the left you get the shooting mode selection key in the top corner, followed by three customizable shortcuts. The final shortcut here opens the drawer with all available settings for the given shooting mode. The problem here is that the viewfinder is quite limited in terms of screen real estate. The on screen navigation buttons are not helpful in this either.

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What’s really nice is that Sony has provided you with an option on what happens when you press and hold the hardware shutter key. You can either set it off, set it to launch the camera, set it to launch the camera and take a photo, or set it to launch the camera and start taking a video. This can be really important when you need to take photos quickly, but do not want your battery to be drained by keeping the camera on for long.

When it comes to the images themselves though, the Xperia SP disappoints. The colours are severely oversaturated, with average dynamic range but good contrast. The oversaturation is particularly pronounced on the red channel, resulting in occasional clipping and red objects coming out pink. More importantly, though, the Xperia SP sensor resolves an unsatisfactory amount of detail and produces pretty noisy images.

Superior Auto mode:

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If you do switch to the regular auto mode and play around with the settings, images are slightly better, but detail is still extremely insufficient.

Auto mode:

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The video recording is much better than the still image quality though, so the camera is not a total loss in the Xperia SP. This device, like the previous two can record 1080p Full HD video at 30 FPS. What came as a disappointment for us is the fact that even though the Xperia SP is able to capture still shots while recording video, it only produces images at 1 MP resolution. This is unforgivable, given that the S4 mini and One mini both produce much higher stills while recording video.

Regardless, here is the Full HD video sample (from GSMArena):

Following that, we have a look at the LG Optimus F5. This device has a quite low resolution count of 5 MP, without the alleged benefits that the HTC One mini’s UltraPixels provide.

Even more so than the HTC One mini, the Optimus F5 suffers from extremely noisy images even in daylight. Combine that with the lack of even an LED flash (yes, this phone has no flash), this means that all you’re going to see at night are grains. The white balance is awful, sharpness is gone out the window and the image is prone to blur. The Optimus F5 pales in comparison to other recent entry-to-mid-level mobiles with 5-Megapixel cameras, as you will see later on with the Nokia Lumia 625.

The images below (first one from PC World Australia, and other two from fatducktech.com) show the photos of this abysmal camera.

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Night mode:

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As you can see, you’re not going to be using this phone for the camera at all. If you like taking photos on the go, steer well clear of this device.

We did manage to get our hands on to a Full HD video sample of the Optimus F5, but the results are not much better. Colours look oversaturated, and exposure varies wildly whenever switching subjects, often taking many seconds to settle down.

Last, but not least, we look at the Nokia Lumia 625. While this also only has a 5 MP sensor, as with Nokia’s track record, the camera is still quite decent, while the same cannot be said about the LG.

The camera UI is pretty simple – you have your viewfinder and a couple of controls on the right. Those are the still/video camera toggle and the Lens button. On the left you have an arrow that takes you to the images taken with the camera, alternatively you can do a swipe gesture too.

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Pressing and holding the shutter key launches up the camera, but unlike the Sony Xperia SP you do not have an option of immediately taking a photo or video. Not only that, launch is quite slow – even if the camera UI comes up quickly, the camera itself is not ready yet. Windows Phone devices also have this interesting camera feature called ‘Lenses’.

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Lenses are an interesting take at feature add-ons, enhancing the camera functionality without making a mess of third party apps each with its own UI. Lenses are accessible directly from the native camera app (they show up in the list of installed apps too if you want to pin a Lens to the start screen).

Nokia has preloaded the Smart Cam lens, which is by far the most powerful, plus the Panorama, Cinemagraph and Glam Me lenses.

Cinemagraph creates photos that are mostly static, but a part of them is animated. You have to hold the phone steady while shooting. When you’re done, the Lens will offer two (sometimes three) areas that can be animated and when you pick an area, you can tweak the animation, trim it, and set the loop pattern.

Nokia Smart Cam uses Scalado technology (Nokia owns the company) – it shoots multiple photos and lets you pick which one to save (a sort of burst mode). You can also pick the best face and cycle through each facial expression a person made while the camera was snapping photos. The third option is Erase, which will remove moving objects (e.g. someone walking in front of the landmark you’re trying to shoot just as you press the shutter).

We now move on to the image quality itself. As we said earlier, the Lumia 625 performs surprisingly well, all things considered. It only has a 5 MP sensor, and we weren’t expecting much after the Optimus F5’s poor performance. Still, there is more noise than the S4 mini, and in some occasions, the Xperia SP. Colours are pretty much true-to-life, and exposure and contrast are well managed, as seen in the images samples (from GSMArena) below.

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It also it pretty good at macro images, so we have decided to include one sample here.

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The video recording of the Lumia 625 is also quite good. The Nokia Lumia 625 captures 1080p videos at 30 FPS, which are pretty smooth, with lots of detail. Colors are accurate and contrast is good too. The continuous auto-focus sometimes is too sensitive though, but it’s nice there is an option to turn it off. Unfortunately there is no touch focus option, you have to rely on the auto-focus for the video. As good as it is, however, it cannot match the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini.

Here is a Full HD video sample (from GSMArena):

Winner: Sorry, Nokia, but the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini is the winner here. It has an extremely friendly user interface, provides you with more features, one of which (video touch focus) is essential, and generally produces nicer images.

CONCLUSION

Each device has its own strengths and weaknesses here. The S4 mini has a removable battery, the One mini looks impossibly gorgeous, the Xperia SP is properly fast, the Optimus F5 is really cheap, and the Lumia 625 is a very good alternative to Android smartphones.

We cannot recommend you one single device, as everybody has different needs. For those looking for a long-lasting, decent resolution entertainment and social device, the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini can be the perfect phone for you. It aced the battery tests, and it also has a removable battery, so you can replace it if you so wished. It also has the best camera out of all these devices, so you can share good looking photos with your friends and family.

Those looking to show off your phone to those around you, you can go for the One mini. It looks brilliant, has the best display, and has the best looking user interface. If you simply want to get a smartphone, but are not looking to use it beyond the ocassional web browsing and making it a fashion accessory, the One mini might be a good choice.

If you are like me and demand good performance from your devices, as well as being easy to use, the Xperia SP is the phone for you. It raced ahead in the performance benchmarks, and provides a good usability factor in the hand. It also looks quite nice, although not at the level of the HTC One mini.

If you are on a really tight budget and would like LTE connectivity in an Android device, the LG Optimus F5 is quite a good choice. It is a mediocre device that will get you through until your next mobile upgrade after two years.

Finally, the Nokia Lumia 625 is also a very great and inexpensive deal for Windows Phone fans. You get LTE connectivity in the package as well – a package that is a decent performer in all categories. It also looks trendy, with the option of swapping back covers similar to fashion accessories.

Thus, I leave you with these final words – each device is a winner in its own category, so it is really up to you to decide what you will be using it for.

3 thoughts on “Mid-range battle of 2014: Samsung vs HTC vs Sony vs LG vs Nokia

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