There’s never been a better time to be in the market for a high-end Android. Global launches from HTC, Samsung, Sony and LG have all fallen in the first half of the year, bringing with them four hugely desirable handsets each with unique selling points - and crucially, each sending out a serious warning to Apple and the iPhone 5s.
Sony was first, followed by Samsung just hours later at the Mobile World Congress technology show in Barcelona back in February. But as the two goliaths struggled to meet their launch targets it was HTC who snuck through on the inside, announcing and launching the gorgeous One (M8) in early March, a full month before the others could catch up.
In May, LG finally showed its hand and announced the G3, a smartphone with a screen resolution double that of anything outside of China, but which won’t arrive on our shores until July.
We’ve assembled all four phones for what must surely be the face-off of 2014.
Sony Xperia Z2
We start this group test with the Sony, a phone that on first inspection looks and feels all but identical to its predecessor, the Z1, which arrives just six months earlier. Although the Full HD screen has grown from 5 to 5.2 inches, the phone is only slightly taller (but lighter) than before. Inside there’s a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked to 2.3GHz; its 3GB of RAM matches the LG for most memory of the bunch.
The Sony is undeniably a powerhouse of a smartphone, but its processing muscle sometimes works against it, with disappointing side effects. For example, while the phone can shoot 4K Ultra HD video, it can only do so for a couple of minutes before overheating, causing the camera app to close. Sony has no fix and instead recommends using the feature for short video clips only.
"A powerhouse of a smartphone"
Better for the Z2 is its noise cancelling technology, which uses the phone’s processing power to remove background noises like an aeroplane cabin or traffic outside when listening to music through the included earphones. Because the phone itself takes care of this, the earphones don’t require the batteries and bulky design of conventional noise-cancellers.
This neat trick, plus Sony’s arsenal of multimedia apps providing access to music, video and gaming content, make the Xperia Z2 an excellent smartphone. But for us the Sony is too chunky to be comfortably useable, and the 5.2-inch Full HD screen, although beautifully sharp and accurate, is terrible in bright sunlight. All phones struggle here, but the Z2 is markedly worse.
Some will love the squared-off and industrial design, but the sleek and curved lines of the HTC and LG have convinced us to put the Z2 in fourth place.
Samsung Galaxy S5
Next up is the Samsung Galaxy S5, a handset which had the world at its feet going into 2014. Off the back of the iPhone-beating Galaxy S3 and S4, the excellent Note 2 and 3, and a whole slew of popular tablets, Samsung’s fifth installment of its headlining S range had a lot to live up to.
And it mostly succeeded. The Galaxy S5 is as slim and light as a 5-inch handset can possibly be; it has a beautifully bright and vibrant Full-HD display, an impressive 16-megapixel camera and Samsung’s previously confusing TouchWiz Android interface has been toned down. But the phone feels half-baked.
New boss is the same as old boss - but we wish he'd get a new suit
Although fun and captivating when shown off in a phone shop, the S5’s fingerprint scanner and heart rate monitor feel unfinished and as if they weren’t thought out particularly well. The former works but can be temperamental, while the latter is just strange - a heart rate monitor makes perfect sense of a wearable gadget like a smartwatch, but not on the back of a phone.
We shouldn’t be too hard on the S5. Samsung has done a great job in cleaning up the user interface, the screen is superb and, despite the plastic rear cover resembling an elastoplast, this is the most compact phone of the four. But while it may be slim and light, the S5’s glossy plastic finish and fake chrome bezel mean it loses out on design, lacking the premium look and feel of the HTC.
HTC One (M8)
Both the HTC One (M8) and LG G3 appeal to those who want their smartphone to look and feel as good as it performs - and costs. When launching the One (M8), HTC was at pains to explain just how much aluminium goes into making the phone. Indeed, its metal chassis is a thing of beauty both to look at and to hold.
Always cold to the touch, the M8 has the air of a luxury Swiss watch to it, every surface and seam perfectly manufactured. HTC has without doubt made the best-feeling smartphone of the year so far. But more than gorgeous on the outside, the M8 packs the same quad-core, Full-HD punch as the Sony and Samsung, but garnishes it with two front-facing speakers that are way, way louder than any other phone on the market. They’ll drown out a television without trying particularly hard - it’s no wonder HTC felt the need to attention-grab when naming them Boom Sound.
Hey, good looking
Also unique to the M8 is its Duo rear camera, which employs a depth sensor to add a blurred background or foreground to images taken by the (also unique) Ultrapixel camera. The effect, known as bokeh and common on photos taken with SLR cameras, has been copied by camera apps on most of this year’s high-end handsets, but none produce results as consistently impressive as the HTC.
Unfortunately, as good as this camera trickery is, the phone is let down by the image sensor itself which, despite having those larger Ultrapixels to capture better low-light shots, can produce photos no larger than 4 megapixels. Low-light results are better than most, but otherwise the One comes up short.
But forgive the average camera, and the M8 is a remarkably good handset. Its screen is sublime, HTC’s Sense 6.0 user interface is attractive, uncluttered and a doddle to navigate, the battery will see you through a full day of average use, and storage can expanded by microSD card by up to 128GB.
An undeniably beautiful phone, we can’t help but have a soft spot for the M8. Perhaps because HTC is still seen by many as the underdog here, but also because it has build one of the best-ever smartphones. And for those who want something smaller, HTC has the equally excellent One mini 2, which we reviewed on page 23.
And so to the LG G3. Its 5.5-inch screen may tread a very fine line between smartphone and phablet, but when we saw just how stunning that quad-HD resolution is we knew the G3 was something special. Add in a pair of very narrow bezels and a low weight, and the G3 is no larger than the Sony, Samsung or HTC.
It’s an incredible feat of engineering from LG and one which creates a phone that is almost entirely screen - and what a screen it is. A resolution of 2560 x 1440 means twice as many pixels as any of the competition and a massive pixel density of 538 pixels per inch. Not only sharp, the display is also very bright, usable outdoors and simply a pleasure to look at.
Although equal with its rivals on power, storage and connectivity, the G3 has a trick up its sleeve in the form of an infrared sensor to focus the 13-megapixel rear camera. Called a laser by LG, the sensor can focus the camera in 276 milliseconds - or faster than you can blink.
"No two ways about it, LG has created a world-beater here"
The G3’s body looks great - and even the gold one isn’t as offensive as you might think - but it’s still plastic, and this makes the white model in particular feel cheap. LG has given the phone a metallic finish which fights off grease and fingerprints like a pro, but is still plastic; it can be scratched fairly easily and doesn’t have the cold-to-the-touch premium feel of the M8. That said, it’s a step above the Galaxy S5, and despite the large screen the G3 is much more ergonomic and comfortable to use in one hand than the Sony.
LG’s claims that ‘simple is the new smart’ are no more obvious than with the G3’s software, which has been tweaked to remove the clutter of last year’s G2, making way for a stripped back and simplified user interface.
Flat icons and pastel colours are the order of the day, while LG allows its own applications to be deleted if you so wish - all in pursuit of giving the users what they want. We approve.
There are no two ways about it, LG has created a world-beater here. The G3 will certainly be too large for some - we here there’s a mini version in the works - but for everyone else this is the phone of the moment. It may lack the metal build of the HTC, but it still looks the part and with its mighty screen, camera, software and processor the G3 is the best Android phone you can buy right now.