Android smackdown: Which is the best new smartphone?

Whether you prioritise design, display, battery life, a cracking camera or a user-friendly interface, not all Android phones are created equal.

The top-end smartphone market has always been a battleground, but the past two months have been particularly heated due to the arrival of the HTC One M8, Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 all vying for attention. All three represent the cream of the Android crop but which smartphone will best suit your business needs? Read on to find out.

Build quality and design

Having something that feels premium is incredibly important when you're paying top dollar on a smartphone and while all three handsets are largely identical when it comes to internal components, the same cannot be said of the outer chassis with each sporting a uniquely different look.

The HTC One M8’s seamless metal build combined with the subtle curved back and sides commands an impressive feel in the hand. From the striking gunmetal grey and brushed aluminium finish to the micro-drilled speaker grills that adorn the top and bottom of the display, nothing has been left to chance on the One M8. We lauded HTC’s exquisite attention to detail in our review and for good reason -- this is the most beautifully built smartphone to date that looks just as good as it feels.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Samsung’s plastic-laden Galaxy S5 which looks eerily similar to its predecessor. It shares the same all-plastic design as the Galaxy S4 right down to the fake chrome trim around the edges. To be fair, the dimpled back cover is easier to grip and the S5 is a bit more durable than previous Galaxy phones with an IP67 rating that makes it impervious to dust along with ability to be submerged in fresh water for up to 30 minutes. However, despite these incremental changes, the design of the Galaxy S5 is likely to be the area that receives the most criticism, and for good reason.

Sony’s Xperia Z2 follows the same metal and glass industrial design as the previous model with slabs of glass on the front and rear of the device and an aluminium banding around the sides. The Z2 also possess a sealed design that allows it to be submerged in water at a depth greater than the Galaxy S5 (1.5 metres).

Overall, the Z2 feels solid in the hand and certainly gives the impression of a premium feeling device; however, the dual glass design means that the phone is a fingerprint magnet and doesn’t quite meld into the hand like the One M8. The Z2 is also slightly bigger in dimensions which may put off potential buyers.

Winner: HTC One M8

Display

Both the One M8 and Xperia Z2 sport an IPS based LCD panel and as a result, are strikingly similar when it comes to performance. They both share the same great viewing angles and both do an excellent job of displaying content such as movies, photos and webpages.  The Z2’s screen doesn’t cope as well as the One M8 when exposed to ambient light, with visibility suffering considerably under direct sunlight.

But the Galaxy S5’s stunning AMOLED panel trumps both devices with remarkably rich and accurate colour reproduction and a level of contrast that simply can’t be matched by LCD panels. It's also one of the brightest displays on the market and combined with the low levels of screen reflectance means that the Galaxy S5 holds up extremely well even in direct sunlight. As we said in our review, the 5.1-inch AMOLED display is easily the Galaxy S5’s best feature and there really isn’t any other smartphone on the market right now that can match it.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S5

Battery life

All three smartphones are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor which keeps everything ticking along at a fair clip with minimal impact on battery. In fact, the battery efficient processor is one of the big reasons on why you can expect to get through a full day without having to reach for the charger regardless of whether you go with the Galaxy S5, One M8 or Xperia Z2. All three smartphones also come with useful power saving modes that can dramatically extend the time between charges.

Technically speaking, Sony’s flagship packs the biggest battery at 3200mAh versus the Galaxy S5’s 2800mAh and One M8’s 2600mAh capacity battery. For practical day to day use, we found the power divide to be much less with factors like the Galaxy S5’s battery efficient AMOLED display consuming noticeably less juice than the IPS panel of the Xperia Z2.

The Galaxy S5 battery is also removable, allowing you to swap out batteries when low on charge which might be an important feature for road warriors or for people who are in the habit of carrying around an extra battery. But given the ubiquitous nature of portable USB based chargers, this advantage isn’t as strong as it used to be.

Overall, the Sony Xperia Z2 edges out both the Galaxy S5 and One M8 in terms of battery life but either smartphone will still comfortably get you through a full day without having to search for a power outlet.

Winner: Sony Xperia Z2

User interface and ease of use

While all three smartphones run the latest version of Android (4.4.2 KitKat), each run markedly different overlays that reflect the design ethos of the respective manufacturers.

Samsung’s approach with its TouchWiz UI is still very much “throw everything but the kitchen sink at the user”, leading to a cluttered mess of an experience and a largely gimmicky feature set. The UI has improved slightly in look and feel from previous versions but design inconsistencies are still prevalent throughout. For example, sections such as the phone dialler screen and S-Planner calendar app still use the old TouchWiz interface while the pull-down notification shade and settings interface use the updated design. TouchWiz also comes a distant third when it comes to responsiveness, with stutters and delays weighing down the overall software experience.

The Sony Xperia Z2 and HTC One M8 on the other hand adopt a “less is more” approach with a more restrained yet useful feature set and elegant aesthetics. Admittedly, there is a bit of software bloat in the Z2’s custom UI which pushes Sony’s content delivery services, but it never gets in the way and is easy enough to ignore for those who mightn’t inhabit the Sony ecosystem.

The cleanest and fastest performing software experience is HTC’s Sense 6 UI. It is lightweight and intuitive, making it easy to use for newcomers while also offering enough features for power users.

Winner: HTC One M8

Camera

On paper it’s easy to write off the One M8’s 4 megapixel Ultrapixel camera especially in the face of the Z2’s 20.7 megapixel snapper and 16 megapixel sensor on the Galaxy S5. The megapixel deficiency is apparent in ideal lighting conditions, where the One M8 struggles to capture the same level of detail which are otherwise present in the shots taken by the Android competition.

Megapixels aren’t everything though and the One M8 is capable of producing excellent low light shots. In fact, we were able to produce more detailed shots and better overall images than the Galaxy S5 in situations where lighting was less then ideal. The One M8 also boasts a blazingly fast shutter speed and features a dedicated secondary depth sensor that adds professional looking background blur (bokeh) to shots.

The Xperia Z2’s 20.7 megapixel shooter and the Galaxy S5’s 16 megapixel camera are capable of producing fantastically detailed shots and both are equally capable of recording video in 4K resolution. The Z2’s low light performance, however, outclasses both the One M8 and Galaxy S5, putting it right at the top of the Android competition.

Winner: Sony Xperia Z2

Verdict

As an all rounder, the Sony Xperia Z2 is a cut above the Android competition. It exhibits an excellent level of build quality that is also water proof and dust resistant, runs slightly longer in the battery department and also features a superior camera.

While the Z2 is the overall winner, the One M8 or Galaxy S5 might be better option for certain types of users.

If protection from the elements isn’t paramount and you value user experience and a head turning smartphone design above all else, than the HTC One M8 is a fine choice. The One M8 also sports the loudest and richest sounding pair of stereo speakers ever to grace a smartphone, making it ideal for speaker calls or viewing videos with a group of colleagues.

However, if display quality is of the highest importance and you prefer the option of having a removable battery then the Galaxy S5 might be more up your alley, provided you can look past the woeful software and uninspired hardware design. The S5 also packs mobile Tap ’N Pay technology (supported by Westpac and Commonwealth Bank), an integrated fingerprint scanner and an onboard heart rate monitor. If these features sound compelling, then the Galaxy S5 could well be a better choice for you. 

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