There’s often some debate about how long you need to spend with a phone in order to truly know it, and while reviews for many devices often only take a week or two to complete, there’s something to be said for spending an extended period of time with a device.
For the last 30 days I have spent an equal amount of time with the Verizon Wireless versions of the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8, and I walk away from the experience feeling quite different from how I felt going in.
For the last two years, Samsung and HTC have released flagship phones right on top of one another that have remarkably similar internal hardware. What sets these two devices apart is the the way they approach the physical elements of a smartphone. HTC prefers smooth metal surfaces and a UI that is uniform, smooth, and works hard for the user. Samsung prefers glossy plastic with hard lines and a UI that is loud, flashy, and is crammed full of features that you could spend days playing with before reaching the end of the list.
HTC claims to be targeting users who care about a premium look and feel to their device, while Samsung is quite clearly focused on putting their hardware is as many hands as possible. So what happens when you actually live with one of these phones, and in what ways could these two manufacturers learn from one another?
Durability over time
I am mostly against cases on my smartphones. Manufacturers spend a ridiculous amount of time making the phone look and feel a specific way, and the first thing most of us do when we buy one is put a big clumsy TPU case over it with our favorite color or sports team plastered across the back. Of course, the obvious downside to going au naturel with your smartphone is what happens when you drop it. While I didn’t do it on purpose like the folks in those charming drop test videos, accidents do happen and because I’m clumsy they tend to happen a lot.
The upside to Samsung’s glossy plastic is that it looks significantly less broken when you drop it. One nasty spill on the asphalt and the HTC One M8 is irreparably scuffed and scraped. The beautiful hairline aluminum finish to the M8 is vulnerable to everything. Flash drives and keys in your pocket are enough to cause damage as well, so you really are better off having your phone in a case if you own an M8.
The Galaxy S5 is far from indestructible, but you can hide it a lot better. The only noticeable damage on the S5 after suffering through a month with me as the owner is a dent and a crack on the back of the phone from when it slipped out of my hand and glanced off a set of concrete steps. Yeah, I really am that clumsy.
For the last two years, HTC has been trying to convince everyone that megapixels don’t matter. Their Ultrapixel shooter performs incredibly well in low light, but at the end of the day it is still a 4MP sensor. This year’s model comes with a new depth sensor that gives you some cool new options when playing with photos, not to mention a ton a great software with their Zoe mode, but it is still only a 4MP sensor. Samsung, on the other hand, has a ridiculously capable 16MP shooter and a terrible UI for actually enjoying the time you spend taking photos. These two cameras sit on opposite sides of a fence, and they do so to such extremes that no matter which one you pick there are tradeoffs that feel unnecessary.
I would love to say that either of these cameras are point and shoot, by which I mean you can be in a situation where you take a picture without putting a lot of effort into composition knowing that the photo will be usable when you look later. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. The HTC One M8 still relies on tap to focus in order to get a decent shot, and the camera really doesn’t handle rapid movement particularly well. Samsung isn’t much better – in Auto Mode there’s a random chance that Samsung will tell you to hold the phone still while it tries to take a photo, and if you try your luck in manual mode the end results are often hit or miss.
Galaxy S5 (Left) and HTC One M8 (Right)
That having been said, both of these phones are capable of capturing beautiful photos and videos. Most of the same features exist on both handsets, though clearly some work better on one phone or the other. The depth sensor features on the HTC One M8 are slightly more reliable than the software only approach you get from Samsung, but neither of them are truly reliable. The larger MP count on the Galaxy S5 means you can crop and zoom with minimal distortion, while attempting either on the M8 is almost always asking for disappointment.
If I had to choose between the two cameras on a daily basis, I found myself reaching for the HTC One M8 more often than not. While the phone had a lower MP count I found that the faster focus and smoother UI made a big deal in using the camera. Samsung’s phone will absolutely get better photos if you do a side by side comparison, unless you take a lot of low light photos, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable to use.
Samsung and HTC have both done great things to update their interfaces over the last year. The Galaxy S4 and original HTC One both had UI faults, basic things like what happens when you take a screenshot or how the phone behaved when you launched the photo gallery. These experiences have largely been dealt with, and now Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and HTC’s Sense interface both do a great job offering a decent experience. They both still handle specific elements very differently, though, and I think ultimately HTC handles many of these elements better than Samsung.
Both Samsung and HTC have separated many of their apps so they can be individually updated in a way that is much faster than the system level updates we’re so used to seeing in Android right now. Samsung keeps their apps in house, updating them through the Samsung App Store, while HTC makes them available through the Google Play Store. The benefit to HTC’s solution is that several of their apps can now be installed on other phones, but for the purposes of an individual user these experiences might as well be the same. Personally, I prefer the Play Store route, but Samsung solved the problem their own way and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Physical buttons versus on-screen buttons is a personal preference, and Samsung’s deliberate decision to make the button layout on their phone reversed from every other phone out there is frustrating to anyone switching handsets, but to most people it doesn’t matter at all. The fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy S5 is a joke, but pressing the button to wake the phone is just as convenient as the double tap or swipe-on features that HTC has implemented on their phone. Also, between HTC’s BoomSound chin and Samsung’s big unfriendly button there’s extra space on the bottom of either phone, so really the act of waking and using these handsets is so similar that it doesn’t really matter.
Samsung and HTC approach launchers from very different perspectives. Samsung has used the side scrolling, paginated view for as long as I can remember, and the S5 is just the natural evolution of that experience. The same goes for their settings, all 900,000 of them that you can access from Quick View, scrolling through the top notification panel, and dragging your finger through the mile of individual setting in the actual menu for it. HTC, on the other hand, opts for simplicity. Their launcher has options to allow for folders, sorting alphabetically, or even simplifying the grid down to 3×4 instead of the more common 4×5. Both setups are great for customizing your experience, but HTC’s offering is significantly easier to get in and out of.
At the end of the 30 days with these phones, I found myself curiously unable to offer a definitive reason for why I would choose one over the other. When a notification tone goes off, or when I want to take a photo, I reach for the HTC One M8 first. If I were asked to recommend one phone or the other, which happens with increasing frequency, I wouldn’t have one answer for everyone. These are two incredible phones that are more than capable of delivering great experiences. They both have gimmicks that don’t necessarily pan out, but they also have incredible features that make a big difference in how you use them.
If you’re just comparing these two phones, you really have to use them first. Hold each in your hand and decide which feels better, use the camera and decide which is more comfortable, and give a quick flick through the UI to see if you prefer HTC’s soft focused approach to Samsung’s chaotic but brilliant color palette.