Galaxy S4 vs Xperia Z: the best of Samsung against the best of Sony (video)

by: Bogdan PetrovanMay 8, 2013

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Years ago, the idea of Samsung ever beating Sony at anything would have been met with derision, or at least with strong skepticism. Yet here we are today, judging two competing devices from the two companies, and guess what, the once mighty Sony is the underdog, while Samsung is the undisputed champion of the smartphone world.

That’s not to say that the Sony Xperia Z is a bad device. The Xperia Z is by all means an excellent Android device that was received with favorable reviews and strong demand. But the Xperia Z’s odds of winning today’s confrontation are slim, considering the caliber of its opponent – the Samsung Galaxy S4. The Galaxy S4 isn’t just a flagship Android device, it’s an entire fleet condensed into one device. But the S4 has its shortcomings, and the Xperia Z shines in certain areas. So many customers are likely to actually prefer the slightly older and less feature-rich device from Sony to Samsung’s uber-hyped Galaxy S4.

Let’s kick off our Galaxy S4 vs Xperia Z review. Join us for the full treatment or jump straight to the hands-on video review.

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Plastic versus glass

Samsung’s choice of materials for the Galaxy S line is… controversial. But that doesn’t mean that many people won’t absolutely love the plastic-made Galaxy S4. Why? It’s a matter of taste, mostly, but the truth is Samsung created one heck of a device. The S4 sports a larger display, yet it’s actually slimmer and lighter than the Galaxy S3. Moreover, in our time with the device we found it to be handling better than any other device in its class, including the Xperia Z. The fact that the Galaxy S4 is well balanced and easy to handle is a major advantage in our book.

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Design-wise, our competitors couldn’t be more distinct. The Xperia Z has a black slate look to it, and we have to say it, its monolithic allure is quite refreshing. The angular corners, glass back, and prominent silver power button make for a sleek appearance that is guaranteed to draw the attention of people around you.

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The Galaxy S4 however isn’t likely to draw much attention with its design. In fact, many people will mistake it for last year’s Galaxy S3. That’s not to say that Samsung hasn’t improved over the design of the S3. As we said, the S4 is more compact, features slimmer bezels, and the brushed metal-like band around its edges give it a sturdy, classier look. Overall, Samsung wanted to make the S4 familiar to S3 users, and it’s mission accomplished from this perspective. We can’t gloss over the fact that the S4 is still plastic, and while opinions vary, we think that the Xperia Z has a more premium look and feel.

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One more thing – the Xperia Z is waterproof and dustproof. Is that important to you, though?

Displays: same specs, different technologies

Judging from the numbers alone, you’d be forgiven to think that the displays of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Sony Xperia Z are very similar. Both feature 5-inch 1920 x 1080 resolution panels, of a whopping 441ppi pixel density.

But the similarities end there. The Galaxy S4 features an AMOLED display of the PenTile variety; however, don’t fret if you know PenTile by its bad rap – the S4 features a new type of PenTile arrangement matrix, with diamond-shaped subpixels. As a result, the panel provides one of the best viewing experiences on any smartphone. The experts at DisplayMate have lauded it and went as far as to say that it’s very close to taking the crown from the iPhone 5 as the best display on any smartphone.

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How does the Xperia Z fare? The phone’s TFT display is no match to the S4 when it comes to viewing angles, though not all users will be annoyed by this inconvenience.

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Besides this problem, the Xperia Z has slightly less bright colors and contrast levels than the AMOLED Galaxy S4. Sony’s Bravia Engine compensates by making colors more saturated when watching video or displaying images, but Bravia doesn’t work across the user interface. To sum up, the Xperia Z features a good display (it is full HD after all), but the Galaxy S4’s is simply better.

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Uneven specs, but that probably doesn’t matter

If you like to live your life on the bleeding edge of smartphone specifications, the Galaxy S4 is probably the best you can get right now. It features a powerful Snapdragon 600 processor, an Adreno 320 GPU, and 2GB of RAM. Samsung’s phone tears through benchmark leaderboards, but remember that’s not necessarily going to mean much to you, unless you are obsessed with specs or if you’re planning to run specific processor-intensive application on your smartphone.

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The Xperia Z is a generation behind when it comes to the processor, but the difference in performance between the Snapdragon S4 Pro and the Snapdragon 600 on the Galaxy S4 won’t blow you away. The S4 Pro still is a powerful processor by most standards, and the 2GB of RAM help it run like a champ. Sure, the Snapdragon 600 will crush the S4 Pro in benchmarks, but in real life use the difference won’t be that significant.

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Both phones feature microSD slots, but only the Galaxy S4 has a removable battery. For Sony, the sealed battery was a necessary compromise in order to make the Xperia Z waterproof and dustproof. The device can safely be submerged in water (as long as you don’t forget to close the flaps protecting the slots) and can take a beating, as numerous torture tests have shown us. If durability is high on your list of nice-to-have features, pick the Xperia Z. Just don’t forgo the case, because that glass back will eventually break if you drop it hard enough.

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The Galaxy S4 outshines the Xperia Z when it comes to sensors. In addition to all the sensors in the Xperia Z, Samsung’s flagship also comes with an IR sensor, an air gesture sensor, a thermometer, a barometer, and an IR blaster. More details in our Galaxy S4 review.

Battery and cameras

In addition to being removable, the battery on the Galaxy S4 is notably larger than the Xperia Z’s, at 2600mAh over 2330mAh. When we reviewed the Xperia Z, we noticed a peculiar inconsistency in the power consumption rates, with media consumption in particular taking a heavy toll on the battery. Between this behavior and the smaller capacity, the Xperia Z will take you through a day of use in most cases.

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The Galaxy S4, on the other hand, will take you through two days of usage, as long as you don’t subject it to too much stress. Even if the battery isn’t enough, the possibility to change it with a charged unit should be a boon to power users.

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The Xperia Z’s camera is a testimony to Sony’s prestigious pedigree in camera development. The 13MP Exmor RS sensor is among the best on the market, and Sony did some good work in the software department too, with features like Superior Auto, which will pick the right settings for you depend on the scene.

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However, Samsung crushes the Xperia Z when it comes to the sheer range of software features it packed in the camera app of the Galaxy S4. A quick enumeration: Eraser Mode, Sound and Shot, Drama shot, dual capture, animated images, and more. Check our New Features Explained post for more details.

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 Software: Zen garden vs Disneyland

If you know anything about Android smartphones, we don’t have to tell you which phone is the Zen garden and which is the theme park.

Samsung’s TouchWiz is over the top, colorful, cheerful, but also a bit bloated. It packs a dazzling array of features, some of which you will certainly find useful. Perhaps the most dazzling of all is the Air View ability, which lets the user interact with the screen without touching it, but S Health, WatchON, and Group Cast are also worth checking out.

Air View

Air View

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The Xperia Z’s user interface is much more low key, and sticks in most parts to the precepts of stock Android (Ice Cream Sandwich). With its darker tones and understated design elements, Sony’s Xperia UI could prove refreshing for someone used with Samsung’s excesses.

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With that said, if you’re willing to embrace TouchWiz, the abundance of features (some of which are enabled by the presence of sensors and other hardware elements) on the Galaxy S4 makes it the more compelling option.

Hands-on video review

Pricing and final thoughts

The Galaxy S4 is available from US carriers for $199 on contract, while the Xperia Z can only be bought unlocked for now, for prices starting at $630. Meanwhile, the unlocked Galaxy S4 is slightly more expensive, with prices ranging from $675 to $750 or more. So, the Xperia Z holds an advantage in this area, and its price is likely to go down faster than the Galaxy S4’s.

To wrap up this versus, the Galaxy S4 is clearly better than the Xperia Z in many areas, but that shouldn’t put you off from trying out the Xperia Z. Why is that? Simple, plastic and TouchWiz. If these two words bother you, the Galaxy S4 might not be the phone for you. The Xperia Z, on the other hand, is anything but plasticky, while its user interface is much more simple and understated than Samsung’s TouchWiz.

What phone do you prefer? Vote in our poll or tell us your opinion in the comments.

[poll id=”282″]

Joshua Vergara contributed to this review.

  • disk Latvia

    If the z had a snap 600 clocked at 1.7 GHz and a slightly larger battery it would be perfect for me

    • klm

      Wait for Sony “Honami”
      Snap 800 , 2,3 GHz 2700 – 3000 battery and best cam from Sony

      • no rply

        wait again, u can wait for note 3…

        • David Brymer

          dont wait buy the htc one and enjoy having the best phone on the planet

          • no rply

            i know 1 is nice fone…. but i love s-pen features…….more appealing to me

  • 702Mike

    I think its kinda odd that the only reason ever mentioned for a removable battery is to change it on the fly when “power using” and running out of battery. My droid RAZR Maxx had great battery life until just a year later when the battery life was decreased from 1.5 days to 2 to 5 hours. Even though the phone was weeks out of warranty Verizon replaced the device. I’ve got my battery life back but I begged for a different phone with a removable battery which they couldn’t deliver. I’ve never looked at a phone with an integrated battery again. So clearly I’ll that the S4.

  • klm

    Sony Xperia Z

    • thank you captain obvious

    • dd

      Wtf! Is this review coming from south or north Corean?

  • Innocent Bystander

    In summary, if you use your phone while washing your dishes or forget often the phone in the washing machine: buy Xperia Z. Otherwise buy S4, better CPU, better screen, removable battery, better usability.

  • zzz

    seeing you can’t get xperia z in some countires. can you flash the xperia ZL rom on to the the xperia Z?

  • Sony Xperia Z’s design won me over. Samsung’s all plastic design was my biggest turn off.

    • teh next big thing is from plastic, sigh

    • On a Clear Day

      This great concern over plastic is so absurd – especially since most people put their phones in protective cases (at least those who are concerned about keeping them safe). What do you buy a phone for? To spend all day looking at its case?

      I will buy the S4 because it has the type of power, RAM, screen quality and size that will enable it to continue to be usable and upgrade to future iterations of the operating system for the foreseeable future – at least two or three years and still be yielding a quality of experience that will be excellent.

      Who cares – just like HTC’s silly 3D camera foray into useless feature land – about waterproof. I’ve had cell phones for forever and somehow managed never to drop it in the toilet, the sink or the ocean. Some features serve a purpose – like a removable battery with the attendant flexibility it yields – some don’t like a sealed case that precludes putting in a fresh battery. Dah.

      Sony like another reclusive company historically has embraced an insular attitude toward its users and done everything possible to make its very nice quality hardware incompatible with every other manufacturers on the planet in every which way they can. Well, people may be foolish enough to allow themselves to buy into that for awhile, but ultimately, when a better opportunity comes along that exceeds the quality and performance of a Song – or of the other un-named company – they ultimately turn their backs on the capricious companies trying to lock them in and move on to those who support their freedom and independence to do things “their way”.

      Samsung has both a better business paradigm it operates under and produces devices that easily exceed Sony’s best – why would anyone go for a Sony these days? Not much reason anymore.

  • Anirudh

    I somehow don’t wanna believe this. “Sure, the Snapdragon 600 will crush the S4 Pro in benchmarks, but in real life use the difference won’t be that significant.”
    S4 Pro will be < S600

  • Allen Themba

    The galaxy over compensates its plastics with a wide array of features that are quite interesting, but frankly, a majority of people will not use.. But the very thought that you have features ready to be explored, is more than convincing.

    • lil bit

      Would be greater if those features actually worked or were any useful.

  • Gary

    Sony Experia Z by a landslide! Much better build quality than anything Samsung offers. A lot more appealing to the eyes in the ocean of familiar looking Samsung devices.

    • Arsenal™

      lol what about the poor viewing angles?

      • Lil bit

        Yea what about them? You will never notice during normal use, the display is very comfortable with great detail.

        • Arsenal™
          • lil bit

            Lets view it head on,


            Z on the left still, then S3 and S4. Why is the boys hair a solid black on the samsungs but has details and tones on the Z?

            Im sorry to hear you have an imaginary problem with the Z, now what do you think about the real problem with loss of detail and tones in dark areas, like Samsung amoleds always had a big problem with?

          • Arsenal™

            The Z’s screen seem to be a little saturated

            i saw that the first time i held a z

            even the homescreen the colours seemed a bit saturated but samsung has the better screen IMO

          • Lil bit

            Sure, if you dont like to see details and dark grey tones, if loss of information is ok to. Would it be ok to you if a phone omitted some text as well? It’s ok if only the text is saturated enough?

      • cs098

        only in the European and north American versions which uses crap jdc not the east Asian version which uses a sharp panel.

  • Yeah, right, thats me!

    Oh well, shouldnt u all just look at htc instead – mix breed of everything there is on the market right now.

  • Arsenal™

    Galaxy S4 O.o FTW!

    Poor viewing angles let the Z down for me

    even though the Z is waterproof( which i think is a really cool feature) those flaps really annoy me :S

    • cs098

      Actually if you’re lucky you can get a version of the xperia z that
      doesn’t use the cheap jdc panel that everyone is complaining about, the
      sharp made version has great viewing angles and much better contrast,
      every bit as good as the one and the s4, but that is only available in
      japan and places near it. Which is why when I buy Sony, always buy
      unlocked in japan or hong kong.The north american and european versions
      of the xperia z have crappier screens, much slower updates and generally
      have non unlockable bootloaders

    • Christian

      comparing being waterproof over viewing angles? if you look at your phone on the side most of the time, then go to plastic S4.

  • cell nerd

    Have both, gave the girl friend the S4
    Hands down, Xperia Z
    Got to go with quality

  • i vote for XZ,, i love the design and material, if they were girls, XZ would be a princess and S4 is a (sorry) b*tch

    • Christian

      not just a b*tch.. an ugly one..

  • harrold

    Vote Up if You are a SamSheep in A Good Way. (Like ME!!!)

  • Trimaster el

    Xperia z Wins!!!!!!

  • Cosina V

    I have both and will stay with the S4 despite having voted for the Z. Both are great flagship models in different ways. Pick what’s best for you own needs. The S4 works better for me overall even though it’s plastic and has no flare! I think the next flagship from Sony will definitely win in all respects!

  • Zag

    I would wait for the Note 3 actually. I own the Note 2 and I don’t give a hoot about benchmarks…the Note 2 is way better than my sister’s S3…in fact, I was a tad skeptical about the size (like most people)…However, having used a friend’s Note 2 and another friend’s S3, I realized the Note 2 is the real deal…waiting for Note 3 now! :)

    • lil bit

      Had note 2 since its launch, and then Xperia Z since launch. Theres no way i could go back to Note 2, the Z is the real deal as you say.

  • lil bit

    Just came back to check if the Z still leads the poll, and happy to see that is had extended the lead now. Upgraded from note 2 to Z and can’t understand why anyone would want any high end Samsung over Z, Sony has the better phone now, no doubt about it.

    • lil bit

      And the Z keep on extending its lead, 778 votes now and 59% goes to Xperia Z.

  • I am gonna have to skip this Galaxy S3s

  • ryq24

    Xperia Z’s display is no match against S4. It even lose to htc one and nokia lumia phones. Display is one of Sony’s weakness.

  • Arsenal™

    am i the only one who thinks the s4 is better? :S

  • jieng

    i love the s4 but i rather go for Xperia Z because S4 in singapore SCREW UP

  • Kibhen

    Screen quality is somewhat subjective, if you want something warm, cheerful and glaring you go with S4’s screen. If you want something more subdued, natural and shady (poor viewing angle = less intrusive peeking from people) then you go with the Z. All in all, no matter what other people say, what matters most is what you want. I want the Z regardless of the S4 being the better phone.

  • Frankaro

    Sony Xperia Z, the way it looks, feels and how to use it. It’s just a very good smartphone!

  • andromax

    Plastic…plastic…and plastic…with the same design all the years. Sigh. I Absolutely vote for Xperia Z

  • Martijn

    since the latest firmware, the Xperia Z takes much better photo’s in any mode (except “superior auto”) then it did before. They don’t use as agressive post processing. Maybe a nice thing to review? (just a quick comparison)

  • Pires

    This time Sony Xperia Z will take over

  • Sony Xperia Z is anytime better phone than Galaxy S4, because it does justify its price, undoubtedly S4 loads with features and specifications but when you hold it is a sad response. Darn they (Galaxies) all look same. whether its Grand or S4 they all look same but not same in price category. They all are plastic, i liked Xperia Z design is solid and good and even price is alot less than S4.

  • jkampf

    htc one



  • RashZ

    I used Samsung for a all begins in the smartphones world … I used nexus, S3, and now its come with S4, sorry but at the end its all shitty comparing with the Sony Z and HTC One, in many fields, quality, Performance and Display … who compare the display quality of S4 with Sony is like who compare hours with donkey ….stop that plastic fans … I now have Sony Z and if i want to change it believe me i will not goo back to any products from Samsung…..

  • jj

    From South Korean or North?

  • kim yong

    Eh, what about HDR(also video), waterproof, no pentile for Z?

  • vjzne

    Hi all,

    am planing to buy xperia z but my only worry is battery it has 2300 only is it good enough? any idea how long it will come.