updated 08:55 am EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
HTC One versus Apple iPhone 5s
We recently reviewed the HTC One (M8) and were left in no doubt that HTC has delivered the most cohesive Android smartphone experience yet. There is a symmetry to its physical design and its Sense 6 Android-based software that makes it the most Apple-like smartphone experience that marks it as a standout package. Yet, there is nothing especially derivative about it. HTC has done something that few, if any consumer electronics companies done, which is to truly capture the essence of Apple's hardware design and software aesthetic without simply trying to rip off Cupertino. The iPhone 5s, on the other hand, stands as testament to Apple's legendary hardware and software design symmetry. It has taken this cohesion to new levels with its SVP of design Jony Ive leading both hardware and software efforts for the first time. How do the two devices compare in a head-to-head shoot out?
The HTC One (M8) is a stunning device to behold. If people were to choose a device based on its looks alone, the HTC One stands out from the Android throng in a way that only its predecessor, the HTC One (M7) was able to accomplish. However, HTC has taken some giant strides forward over the original One, increasing the aluminum content by 20 percent to around 90 percent in total for the new model. The build quality, fit and finish is as good as it gets. However, while the original One was a little 'edgy' in the hand, the new One has a beautiful curved back that with rounded edges that makes not only look incredible, but feel amazing in your hand. On the downside, however, the new One is also noticeably larger and heavier than the model it replaces, meaning that its usability is potentially compromised depending on user.
The iPhone 5s design represents everything that we have come to expect from Apple. It is a truly premium smartphone that represents the pinnacle of industrial design and elegance. The combination of precision aluminum, ceramics and glass in a seamless design is the benchmark by which all other smartphone designs are measured. The chamfered edges, on the front and rear not only give it a jewelry-like quality, but also help to make it more comfortable to hold. It is also substantially lighter than the HTC One (112 grams versus 160 grams) and is much easier to hold and use. On the downside, it is somewhat blockier than the HTC One (M8), and is not as ergonomic in terms of its overall shape compared with the shape of your hand. Its design is also now well into its second year and doesn't represent anything new externally compared to the iPhone 5 it supersedes.
It's a tough call to say which has the better design. We think both are equally beautiful in their own right, and while the HTC One has an ergonomic advantage in terms of its shape, its larger overall footprint counter balances this to an extent. HTC has certainly matched the iPhone 5s for beauty. As much as that is no small accomplishment, we'll call this one a draw.
The HTC One (M8) centers on a large 5-inch 1080p IPS LCD 3 display that is unquestionably class leading. Viewing angles, color gamut, saturation, contrast, black levels, whites all look rich, but natural. Its pixel density is 441ppi, which while slightly lower than the 468ppi of the 4.7-inch 1080p display of the HTC One (M7), makes absolutely no difference to the end user. Surfing the web, reading documents, checking email, watching movies or browsing through BlinkFeed, the HTC One (M8) delivers in every regard. The only concern that we have is that the side and bottom bezels of the HTC One (M8) are relatively wide; the bottom bezel in particular. While this helps create room for the BoomSound speakers, it does mean that reaching every corner comfortably with one hand can be a challenge. Had HTC been able to shoehorn the 5-inch display into a body with the footprint of the HTC One (M7), we would have no such gripes.
Apple blazed the high-resolution smartphone trail when it first introduced the Retina display on the iPhone 4 with a high pixel density 326ppi 3.5-inch panel. Apple argued at the time that any resolution of over 300ppi on a smartphone would result in pixels so small, that at normal viewing distance, the average person cannot distinguish individual pixels. So while Android makers have leap-frogged Apple from the perspective of pixel density, this has not necessarily given Android devices an advantage. When it comes to all the other factors that make a great display, including gamma, light levels, color accuracy, contrast, viewing angles, and black levels (among others), the iPhone 5s continues the Apple tradition of producing an outstanding experience. For over 40 million customers last quarter alone, iPhone's with Retina displays at either 3.5-inches or 4-inches prove to be hugely popular.
In terms of subjective quality, there is nothing that obviously sets the HTC One (M8) apart from the iPhone 5s. Both displays are equally great. However, being more immersed in your content, as brilliant as iOS 7 is at putting user content front and center, the HTC One wins this battle - though at the cost of added size and bulk.
The HTC One (M8) runs the newest shipping Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, the 801. It is clocked at 2.3GHz in the US or up to 2.5GHz for certain international markets and is matched with 2GB of system RAM. Like all ARM-based chips currently shipping in Android smartphones, it is based on a 32-bit architecture running the ARM v7 instruction set. Our Geekbench 3 benchmarks show that One scores 1019 in the single-core test and 2777 in the multi-core test, making it one of the fastest devices on the market. However, it is possible that these numbers are slightly inflated as HTC has admitted to 'optimizing' the device when running benchmarks. Also embedded in the same die is the GPU, in this case Qualcomm's Adreno 330 clocked at 578MHz in either variant of the 801 chipset. It scores 28.4fps in the demanding GFX Bench Open GL ES 3.0 T-Rex 1080p off-screen test, making it one of the fastest mobile GPUs on the market right now.
The iPhone 5s is the world's first 64-bit smartphone and has taken at least an 8-12 month lead on the competition in making the transition from a 32-bit architecture last August - so much for critics purporting that it represented an 'incremental' upgrade just because it continued with the same external design. Not only that, but Apple also upgraded the entire operating system to take full advantage of the new dual-core 1.3GHz A7 chip (as well as the M7 motion co-processor) with a 64-bit kernel, while also updating all of its standard apps to 64-bit as well. Yet, it remains fully 32-bit compliant, meaning that 'legacy' apps continue to be supported giving developers as much time as they need to make the transition, if they choose. Its Geekbench 3 single-core score of 1406, and multi-core score of 2541 highlights that Apple has been able to achieve massive performance gains through the new core architecture and ARM v8 instruction set, while keeping CPU clock cycles low to preserve battery life. It's its quad-cluster PowerVR G6430 GPU, which is also Open GL ES 3.0 compliant, produces a similarly impressive 27fps in the GFX Bench T-Rex 1080p off-screen test.
Even though the HTC One (M8) is a headlining device in the Android world right now, there can be no denying that Apple has set a new performance versus watt benchmark with the A7 chip. It has also laid an impressive foundation for pushing the iOS platform further into the real of desktop computing power than any mobile device previously. It will be exciting to see where Apple takes this in the future.
The HTC One (M8) continues with its somewhat controversial 4-megapixel UltraPIxel main camera. As with the module in the HTC One (M7) predecessor, HTC has focused on developing a camera with excellent low light performance for use in typical social settings. It carries over a large f/2.0 aperture, a larger than average one-third inch BSI sensor with large 2.0 μm sensor pixels that capture up to 300 percent more light than the typical competition. In place of optical image stabilization, which has been dropped for some reason, HTC has now uses digital image stabilization. It has, however, included a new trick, which is what the company is call at 'Duo Camera' system that adds a second, 2-megapixel, camera module to the rear for providing depth and perspective. Photos can later be edited with UFocus, to create excellent bokeh-like effects that look great, while its two-tone LED system produces more natural looking flash photography. However, for more serious photography, the rear camera lacks the detail and low image noise of the competition. For most users, though, the HTC One (M8) Duo Camera is good enough and quite a lot of fun to use.
The iPhone 5s continues to be the smartphone camera that sets the standard when it comes to taking higher quality smartphone photos. The iSight camera in the iPhone 5s builds on the strengths of the 8-megapixel camera in the iPhone 5, but increases the BSI sensor pixel size to 1.5 μm, while increasing its aperture to f/2.2. While it may not capture as much light as the HTC One camera, the overall quality of the hardware and image processing software produces excellent overall results in a wider range of contexts. Apple's True Tone two-tone LED flash is excellent, and also produces more natural looking flash photography than most of its high-end competition. The quality of its images also means that if you do like printing out your photos still, you will be able to create high-quality enlargements without too much concern about image noise. If you forget to take your DSLR with you on the go, you can be confident that you will still be able to get solid results in a wide range of contexts.
As much as we like the many capabilities of the HTC One (M8), and are quite happy using its camera in typical social contexts, the iPhone 5s camera is the better overall proposition if you compare the two devices head-to-head as we are here. Judged on its own, there is still plenty to like about the UltraPixel camera, but it would go from good to great with a couple of extra megapixels. If we had an iPhone 5s in one pocket and the HTC One (M8) camera in the other pocket, we would opt for the iPhone 5s every time.
HTC has been interested in tapping into the market for users who are music lovers for some time. However, its previous partnership with Beats did not yield the results that either company was looking for and the relationship ended last year. That does not mean that HTC has given up on appealing to music lovers. Indeed, the new HTC One may well be the best smartphone yet made for music lovers. The company has rightly highlighted the incredible audio quality of its built-in speakers, which are powered by special amplifiers. It has, however, been remiss in failing to adequately highlight just how good the One is for audio playback through headphones. The new One now also sports a headphone amplifier that is powerful enough to drive large over-ear audiophile headphones, producing twice the output at the headphone jack compared to the competition. It's hardware also supports 16-bit and 24-bit lossless audio files with third-party software. If you are lucky enough to live in the US and can access Sprint's network, there is even a Harman Kardon version that natively supports lossless audio, along with some audio enhancing software called Clear-Fi that is said to boost the fidelity of lossy compressed files. A pair of limited edition Harman Kardon in-ear headphones are also included.
Until the arrival of the HTC One (M8), the iPhone 5s was the undisputed king of audio quality. It also supports lossless audio including ALAC, AIFF and WAV files and produces a very rich and pleasing sound. Tonally, the quality of the iPhone 5s sound remains absolutely first rate. Stereo separation is outstanding, while listening to music with a flat EQ through a decent pair of headphones produces pristine, sonically accurate and detailed sound. Apple has had a lot of experience developing portable music players with its iPod line and has often opted for high-quality converters in its smartphones that have helped enhance its reputation for delivering devices that sound great. While the volume of its external speaker is much improved from previous models, the iPhone 5s cannot compete with the HTC One (M8) for casual listening over speakers.
While one can debate the respective merits of the HTC One (M8) converters, versus those found in the iPhone 5s, the HTC One has takes this one courtesy of the power of its headphone amplifier. Audiophiles will really appreciate the extra output, which helps to produce the best overall sound that we have yet to hear from a smartphone. Although the regular HTC One (M8) sports the same hardware as the Harman Kardon edition and supports the same high-quality lossless audio, the additional software it sports makes it the one to get for music lovers.
The HTC One (M8) ships with the very latest version of Android out of the box, which happens to be Android 4.4 'KitKat' 4.4.2. While there is a Google Play Edition version of the new HTC One that runs what amounts to stock Android, the standard model available through carriers ships with HTC's custom Sense 6.0 overlay. HTC, thanks to Google's engineers, had an excellent base from which to start. Android 4.4 is easily the best version of Android yet, and is one of the most stable mobile operating systems out there right now. Thankfully, Sense 6 does not affect the stability or speed of the HTC One, which runs pretty close to flawlessly. Performance is fast and fluid, while Sense 6 is one of the classiest manufacturer customized versions of Android yet. There is a consistency in its look and feel right across the OS, including HTC's built-in apps, that perhaps, only Sony has been able to attain in the Android world. At this stage, it does not suffer from being 32-bit in any way, and is a pleasure to use.
The iPhone 5s features Apple's first major revamp of iOS, the somewhat controversial iOS 7. While most people agreed that iOS was in need of a refresh after going largely unchanged in terms of its look and feel, not all Apple users were ecstatic with Jony Ive's design decisions and choice of color palette. Count us as one of its fans. To think that Apple not only re-compiled iOS to fully support 64-bit processing, but also completely revamped the UI in under 12 months is quite astonishing. As might be expected, given that context, there still remain a few kinks that Apple needs to work out before you could say that it runs completely without any glitches here and there. Currently at version iOS 7.1.1, iOS 7 is starting to hum along nicely from a stability perspective, and coupled with the 64-bit A7 chip, is lightning fast in all contexts. The overall performance and features of iOS 7 give it more desktop-like capabilities than ever before.
As previously discussed, it is the symmetry between Apple's hardware, design and software that has helped it become the most successful consumer electronics company in history. Try as they might, very few, if any, have been able to match Apple's capabilities in this area. It has several unique competitive advantages that it has been able to leverage to maximum effect including designing the hardware and software in-house, but also designing its own SOCs. Given that HTC does not have anywhere near the same advantages or resources, it has achieved a remarkable level of symmetry, and indeed synergy, between hardware and software. Given the technical accomplishments in iOS 7, coupled with its bold design language, the decision must go to Apple.
HTC has not made a particular effort on this occasion to develop its own ecosystem to support the new One. It has tried in the past, but has never been able to really achieve any traction. Instead, the new One relies heavily on the Google Play Store to give users access to all of the app and entertainment needs. The Google Play Store also happens to be excellent. Although it relies entirely on a web interface, it still works very well. Being web-based, it also means that you will always have access to purchases and other content (including up 20,000 tracks of your own music) wherever you have access to the Internet. Google has worked hard to clean the Play Store of malware and improve the content selection, helping to ensure that new HTC One users will have an excellent overall experience.
As Apple has been developing the iTunes Store for over a decade. It first opened way back in April 2003, and initially only contained music for Apple's millions of iPod customers. It was also the first to develop and online app store (as we know it now) for smartphone users to support the iPhone, although this came around a year after the iPhone was first launched in 2007. The Google Play Store (then Android Market) opened in October 2008, a few months after the App Store section opened on iTunes. However, in terms of overall depth and quality of content (including the free iTunes U section), the iTunes Store remains the clear market leader. Apple's dominant position as the second largest online retailer behind Amazon, coupled with a customer base that is more willing to open their wallet to get what they want, makes Apple almost unbeatable in this space.
So while HTC One (M8) users will not be wanting for content, iPhone 5s users have access to more high quality content and more exclusives than Google Play users. Google has done a great job, but Apple has the better overall ecosystem.
When I started this piece, I honestly did not know what the outcome was going to be. Overall, the iPhone 5s emerges as the winner following the analysis, which although subjective by nature, is as objective as I could make it. Although it shipped in 2013, the iPhone 5s incorporates what is effectively late 2014 technology, helping it maintain a genuine performance advantage over even the best Android devices released in the first half of 2014. As the iPhone 5s has the most advanced mobile technology, it also makes it the most future-proof of the two devices. If mobile photography is particularly important to you as well, the iPhone 5s also represents the better device, as every other aspect of it remains at or near the front of the pack. However, HTC has produced an exceptional device in the new One, marking it as the standout smartphone in a saturated Android market. As a music lover first and foremost, I would have absolutely no reservations about making the HTC One (M8) my daily driver, despite its larger size.
By Sanjiv Sathiah