On a budget this year? Have a look at these 2013 flagships!

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Many of us don’t have the financial capability to purchase the latest and greatest devices, so we often settle for the mid-range devices. However we here at Twenty First Tech don’t feel that’s the only option – you still have the previous generation flagships to look at, and that’s what we’ll be doing here today. Ready to purchase a phone but unsure of which one? Read on!

Last year the world saw exciting new releases of smartphones, with a combined total of nine smartphone and phablet devices alone being released. 2014 is also gearing up to be an interesting year, and eyes are on Samsung to kick-start the slew of new flagships with their Galaxy S5, set to be released in April (have a look at the rumours surrounding the S5 here). Sony is also supposedly rumoured to release the Z2 at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) next month in Barcelona, a news which we are looking at sceptically because it would make no sense to churn out rushed flagships every 6 months. HTC’s M8 (One+? One 2? The One?) has also been making the rounds and announcement and release seems imminent, with HTC’s Facebook page putting out an image slating “change” is coming tomorrow. In all probability, this might just be a colour variant of the One Max.

UPDATE (18/01/14): Well, not a One Max colour variant, but it’s the HTC One in Champagne Gold.

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The caption on HTC’s page was “Change is coming your way this Saturday. Stay tuned to find out more. #HTChange”

In early 2013 we saw the Xperia Z, Galaxy S4 and non-flagship HTC Butterfly, and the HTC One release. Recently the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, LG G2, Sony Xperia Z1 and Nexus 5 were launched, but we’ll only be looking at the former flagship devices as the prices for the latter have mostly remained around RRP. So, let’s have a look at the three devices.

THE DEVICES

Sony Xperia Z

Sony-Xperia-Z5

Next, we have the Sony Xperia Z. Released in February, it was the second device to sport a Full HD 1080p display, behind HTC’s Butterfly. Spread over 5 inches, the Xperia Z featured IP57 certification, which meant it was water resistant up to 1 meter and 30 minutes, as well as dust resistant. It also looks stunning, using aluminium and glass in its construction. It’s specs are as follows:

  • Quad-core 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro
  • Adreno 320 GPU
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 5 inch 1080p TFT LCD display (Mobile Bravia Engine)
  • 13 MP camera, 2 MP front facing
  • 16/32 GB expandable storage, micro-SD card slot (up to 64 GB)
  • 2330 mAh battery

HTC One

HTC One_Silver_3V

The HTC One runs a newer chipset in comparison to the Xperia Z, and hence is priced a little higher. It however, is the most gorgeous Android device on the market, though the Sony Xperia Z1 combines both looks with the latest specs. The front-facing BoomSound speakers on the One result in crisp, and wonderful audio playback. Even though it is 10 months old, the One has a very capable set of specs, and they are just one generation old.

  • Quad-core 1.7 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S600 processor
  • Adreno 320 GPU
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 4.7 inch 1080p Super LCD display
  • 4 MP UltraPixel camera, 2.1 MP front facing
  • 32/64 GB non-expandable storage
  • 2300 mAh battery

Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung-Galaxy-S4-44358_2628

Finally, we have 2013’s most popular device – the Samsung Galaxy S4. Released the last out of all these devices, it is still not going for very cheap. It’s price has been slashed however, after the introduction of the S4 LTE+ variant, which has the S800 processor and Adreno 330 GPU. What’s nice is that the LTE+ variant is priced the same as the HTC One at telcos, even while it has the newer specs. Being a Samsung device though, the S4 is full of bloat and made entirely out of cheap plastic. Nevertheless, its specs pack a strong punch.

  • Quad-core 1.9 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S600 processor
  • Adreno 320 GPU
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 5 inch 1080p AMOLED display
  • 13 MP UltraPixel camera, 2 MP front facing
  • 16/32/64 GB expandable storage, micro-SD card slot (up to 64 GB)
  • 2600 mAh battery

DESIGN AND BUILD QUALITY

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From left: Galaxy S4, HTC One, Xperia Z

Here the Samsung Galaxy S4 immediately falls behind. With a design that inspires no one, looks the same as who-knows how many other Samsung devices, even with the least size and thickness, it is not a good looker. Not only that, it is made completely out of plastic, which gives off a really cheap feel and you’ll never stop to think that your device actually used to retail for $1000. ]

The Xperia Z is a stunner. With Sony’s OmniBalance philosophy introduced with this device, Sony want their devices to have symmetry and clear, angular lines. Sony certainly has achieved it, but the device is a little wider than the other two, but that’s really no issue. The glass covered front and back panels go along excellently with the rubberized edges and the glossy blue plastic bits on the sides. While the various flaps might concern some with their durability, they have not broken, even after a year of usage. If they do break, Sony will replace them for a nominal fee if the device is out of warranty.

The HTC One though, looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The first smartphone to use an aluminium unibody (no it’s not the iPhone 5), it is properly good-looking. Whether you purchase it in black, silver, or white, the device looks and feels like it could be worth so much more. The front facing BoomSound speakers also add to the aesthetic appearance as much as they do to enhance the audio experience. Here there is unquestionably only one winner.

Winner: HTC One

DISPLAY

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From left: HTC One, Galaxy S4, Xperia Z

While the One is the same physical size as the Xperia Z and S4, 0.3 inches of diagonal screen estate is actually taken up by the front-facing BoomSound speakers giving it 4.7 inches of display size compared to the S4’s and Z’s 5.0 inches.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the only one here to utilise an AMOLED display, while the Xperia Z and HTC One both use LCD. The difference there is that the HTC One uses an IPS LCD display, which is better technology than the Xperia Z’s TFT LCD. In terms of colour reproduction though, the HTC One and Xperia Z are miles ahead of the S4 due to the AMOLED display presenting over-saturated colours that might look more vivid, but are not accurate.

In terms of viewing angles though, the Xperia Z is utterly poor. Contrast compression starts occurring at just 5 degrees from the viewing axis, so forget about watching a movie while you cook or sharing it with your friends. The Galaxy S4 is much better than the Xperia Z in this aspect, however the display begins to take on a green tint as you view it at more obtuse angles. The HTC One is an excellent performer here. There is no hint of contrast compression at all. Even at angles beyond 45 degrees, images and text was still brilliant.

In terms of brightness too, the HTC One completely outclasses the Xperia Z, and more so the S4. At full brightness, its white levels are exceptionally high, making it easy to see text on screen. However its contrast ratio under sunlight is much less than the S4, and slightly more than the Z. All in all though, the winner should still be really clear (pun not intended).

Winner: HTC One.

BATTERY LIFE

On paper, the Galaxy S4 should have the longest lasting battery with the 2600 mAh of capacity, and it does. It’s removable battery can last for 69 hours off the charger if you spend an hour each calling, web browsing and playing back video. Otherwise it takes 18, 7.5 and 12.5 hours to deplete the battery by simply calling, browsing the web and playing back video respectively.

In comparison, the HTC One’s in-built battery scores 48 hours in the first test, a much poorer showing than the S4. The story is not much different in the individual tests. It took just 13.5 hours to deplete it via 3G calling, and 10 hours of video playback. It does score much better in the web browsing test though, managing to take 10 hours to go to 0%.

The Xperia Z’s in-built battery performs similar to the HTC One, scoring 48 hours in the first test as well. In the individual tests though, it is spectacularly bad. It only scored 16, 6.5 and 5.5 hours for the 3G calling, web browsing and video playback tests.

Sony has included an ace up its sleeve, though. There is a Stamina mode which temporarily turns off all non-cellular transmissions when the display is switched off. This means that there will be no pesky wake-locks by Facebook Messenger using up your LTE or WiFi. The Galaxy S4 here performs superbly, and deserves to win (we’ve been hearing reports of the S4’s battery life reducing after the 4.3 update though).

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S4.

USER INTERFACE

In terms of the User Interface, the HTC One and Xperia Z launched with Android Jellybean 4.1, and the S4 with 4.2, but all three have received their 4.3 update.

Samsung has christened their User Experience (UX) as TouchWiz Nature UX, and it is by far the worst of all the major smartphone manufacturers. It’s colour palette is all over the place, icons look stuck in the world of 2.3 Gingerbread and functionality is severely curtailed. The device is also chock-full of useless features that take up close to 7 GB of storage space. Only two truly work as planned 90% of the time – Smart Stay and Smart Pause. Another gripe is that Samsung insists on having a menu button, and places the back button on the right. They also have a physical home button which runs the risk of spoiling. Here’s GSMArena’s demo of the S4 UI.

HTC has named their UX as Sense, and it is a very nice looking interface. The main colours are dark, and most of the text and notification icons are white. Unlike Samsung who fail to understand complementary colours, HTC seems to do so very well. Icons are also nicely polished and go with the whole modern look that HTC is pursuing here. However HTC has just two capacitive buttons for navigation – the back and home button. Each button fulfills multiple purposes, something we don’t like. Here’s GSMArena’s demo of the HTC One UI.

Sony has not given their UI any name after having dropped the TimeScape moniker. It is the cleanest and most functional interface we’ve seen directly after stock Android. Sony has gone with an angular look for their UI as well – the folder icon and app drawer are both square. The icons meld with the whole overall look of the UI which can be altered via a few themes. They have also followed Google Design Guidelines and have included software buttons, with the back button on the left, home button in the center and task switcher on the right. This is contrary to what HTC and Samsung have done. Here’s GSMArena’s demo of the Z’s UI.

All in all, Sony’s UI pleased us the most, with HTC coming close, and Samsung’s being an extremely poor one.

Winner: Sony Xperia Z

PERFORMANCE

If decisions were made based just on the specs of the devices, the S4 would be the winner here. With a one-generation old quad-core processor clocked at 1.9 GHz, it has the most raw power. The HTC has the same chipset but clocked at 1.7 GHz, while the Xperia Z uses and older one clocked at 1.5 GHz.

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Playing around with the devices, you quickly come to realise though, that the S4 is not the fastest device – not by a fair margin. The quickest instead is the HTC One. With very little bloat occupying the RAM processes, it manages to be buttery smooth, but not as quick as the late-2013 flagships. Following that is not the S4, but actually the Xperia Z. Even with the weakest processor out of the three, it still manages to feel smoother than the S4, again mainly due to the RAM processes not being bogged down by unnecessary applications.

The S4 on the whole gives off a sluggish feel, with overplayed animations and regular lag in nearly all processes. Running multiple resource intensive apps also becomes a hassle as the RAM is too overloaded, and results in many apps crashing. The 4.3 update has made the HTC One and Xperia Z quicker, but it has had the complete opposite effect on the S4. Lag is rampant, and apps crashing will become part of your daily life with the device. The S4 is one device we don’t recommend for a fast user experience. In conclusion, the HTC One takes the cake here.

The Sony Xperia Z is still fast, but its lower clocked and even older processor let it down.

Winner: HTC One

CAMERA INTERFACE

Coming to the camera, we’ll have a look at the interface first. The HTC One has a nice and clean interface which carries on elements from its normal UI.

Taking still images and recording video is done all the same place; you just have to tap on the respective button. Settings are easy to access and are quite varied, though not as much as the Lumia 1020 allows you to. HTC has included a very interesting mode called Zoe. Simply press the shutter and the phone automatically takes up to 20 photos and a 3-second video. This works because the camera is buffering the action so you can even capture photos from a second before you press the shutter. This mode will take up quite a lot of storage space though, so pay attention to the Zoe icon if it’s there. The camera is one place where we can say that we like what the S4 does. The UI is clean and easy to use. Just like the HTC, the still and video capture buttons are both there together.

Settings are easy to access and to change.

For the Xperia Z, things are largely similar. The UI consists of two panes on the left and right.

Sony recommends you to use the Superior Auto mode, because it requires the least effort – the phone guesses everything from exposure to ISO and gets the image right most of the time, albeit with the images a little oversaturated as you will see. Concluding this section, we couldn’t really come up with a definite winner, as all three devices do nothing wrong, although they don’t introduce anything new either. It’s a tie.

Winner: TIE

CAMERA PERFORMANCE

Now we come to the camera performance section.

Still Photography Samples:

The Sony Xperia Z has a 13 MP resolution camera, but the Superior Auto mode shoots at 12 MP.

Superior Auto:

Auto:

As you can see, both sets of photos are really nice. Level of detail is high, and exposure values are perfect. The Superior Auto mode tends to oversaturate the image though, but that’s not much of a problem if you’re not chasing the upper echelons of smartphone photography (if you are, you’ll need to spend more).

Next, we move on to the Samsung Galaxy S4. It also has a 13 MP shooter.

The images are really nice. Photos have a lot of fine detail and very little noise. Colors are accurate if slightly oversaturated and white balance is somewhere between neutral and cold. The S4 preserves detail in the shadows, sometimes at the cost of detail in the highlights, though HDR will fix that.

Now we arrive at the HTC One‘s camera. In a controversial move, HTC have put in an UltraPixel camera with a 4 MP resolution. Each pixel in the image is much larger – for reference, it is about twice as large as one in the iPhone 5. The One also has Optical Image Stabilisation, and on paper the UltraPixel and OIS combination should help in the night shots.

Day:

In good lighting, resolution is a sore miss. While colours are good, there is very little resolution and noise is ridiculously high for the day. Initial units of the One had a purple fringing, but later units corrected that. Still, it pays to beware of a defective unit still circulating.

Night:

At low light, the One performs superbly compared to the Z and S4. While the picture quality is not as good as the Z1, Nokia 808, Lumia 1020 and 1520, it is still remarkably good. Yes, the images are noisy, but colour is well reproduced and the amount of light is really amazing.

Video Samples:

Here is the video sample from the Sony Xperia Z, which records up to 1080p video at 30 FPS:

HDR On:

HDR Off:

The Xperia Z’s video have really nice detail, and autofocus is really smart. Colours are reproduced very accurately, and with HDR on you get even more detail and correction for oversaturation that is sometimes visible.

Moving on, we arrive at the HTC One, which can also record 1080p video at 30 FPS.

HDR On:

HDR Off:

The camera features continuous autofocus and you have the option to lock the focus during video recording, if it hunts too much in dynamic scenes. The videos, of course, benefit from the Optical Image Stabilization as well. Videos have plenty of detail and the noise is very low. Colors are slightly off, but the built-in OIS makes videos so steady that the overall look is pretty impressive. HDR mode is more useful than on the Xperia Z, as you get more detail without having a fake look appear.

Finally, we arrive at the Samsung Galaxy S4, which also shoots videos at 1080p at 30 FPS. You can do slow-motion and time lapse videos. Slow-motion videos can go up to 8x slow down, but resolution drops to 800 x 450 and framerate to 15fps. Time lapse videos can speed things up to 8x, with resolution and framerate remaining at 1080p @ 30fps. It does lack a HDR mode for video though.

The S4 has good amounts of fine detail and little noise. Colors and white balance are similar to those in still images, overall accurate but slightly oversaturated and with a cooler white balance. Thing is though, the SIII shoots the same level of videos – there’s barely been any improvement.

Here the winner was a close call, but it eventually falls to the Galaxy S4. Both videos and images are really good, slightly more than the Xperia Z’s. While the HTC One has the best night still images, its daytime photos are not close to what the Xperia Z and S4 produce.

Winner: 

Samsung Galaxy S4.

CONCLUSION

Can there be only one winner? In our 2014 Mid-range battle, the results were too close to call, but here we think we can announce a victor.

Drumroll please… And the winner is… the HTC One!

how-to-solve-HTC-One-problems

The HTC One is a perfect blend of a really good flagship device. It has powerful specs, and while the processor is clocked 200 MHz less than the S4, the overall performance is the smoothest out of the three.

Its design is also something that every designer wishes to create. A premium aluminium unibody didn’t use to be the hallmark of premium devices, but thanks to the HTC One it has become so. Even the iPhone followed suit!

The display is also fantastic and you’re never going to be disappointed with it. It’s UI is also really nice, with a nice blend of Sense and stock Android functionality, and even though it has just two navigation buttons, you can get used to it. It’s not perfect, but for the price it’s retailing for, it is really capable.

While the camera left something to be desired, it is miles better than any other new mid-range device available on the market. The night shots and OIS are really impressive, though the UltraPixel gamble didn’t work out in the day.

Sony’s Xperia Z is also an extremely amazing device, especially considering that it is the cheapest of the three here. Purchasing this is still a good buy, but in comparison to the HTC One, it doesn’t stand a chance. The hardware is also one generation older – Sony should have waited till February for the Snapdragon 600.

The Galaxy S4 has the right hardware, but its design – both of the software and hardware is really poor. Samsung doesn’t have any reason to continue with the design considering that it is not striking or beautiful in the first place unlike the other two devices here. The TouchWiz UX is also really poor, and the worst part is that it bogs down the hardware. It is not a device I’d recommend purchasing at all.

If these devices do not satiate your hunger for a new smartphone, check out our Best of 2013 article for the best devices from last year.

I genuinely hope that this comparison could help you, especially if you’re on a budget. If you liked it, do share it with your friends over Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter!

Until next time!

4 thoughts on “On a budget this year? Have a look at these 2013 flagships!

  1. The Oppo Find 7 phone will be THE device to own.
    It blows away all those mentioned in your above review.
    Its released here in China in next few weeks.

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