Sony Xperia Z vs Samsung Galaxy S3 vs iPhone 5 [video]

March 19, 2013
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With the dawning of the Xperia Z, Sony hopes to crack the top list of smartphone manufacturers. For the most part, we think that it is the right step and the Z is definitely one of the most excelling devices that we have had the pleasure of handling. With its sleek rectangular flat form factor and wonderful specs within, Sony’s flagship phone is just short of spectacular, settling for pretty darn amazing instead. It deserves to be in the top 5 and in this upcoming year of 5 inch, 1080p displays on smartphones, it should be able to keep up and hold its own.

Despite Sony’s popularity in other parts of the world, its Xperia line hasn’t really taken hold in the West. While the Z is hopefully the change to that story, it might be fair enough to say that its newest phone a crossroads for Sony. So we are going to compare it to a couple other cornerstones of the smartphone market – devices that were turning points for ther own respective companies. The heaviest hitters and current incumbents in the game right now? That’s easy – the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Apple’s iPhone 5.

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Even four months can feel like a lifetime in technology, and these two devices might feel ancient in light of all the new phones coming out, but they are not only still relevant but are continuing to hold their ground. The Galaxy S3 is Samsung’s best selling phone and the iPhone 5 is the continuation of Apple’s (albeit waning) dominance, especially in the West. So how does the Xperia Z’s page turning release compare to the same instances in Samsung and Apple? We take a look in this comparison.

Okay, so we are dealing with three different phones here, so this will keep things relatively simple. In each specific category, I will list off the various aspects of the specific device and give the opinion in the verdict. We’re looking at how these phones are all different, but also what they meant to their respective companies in their time. To that end, we have to remember that these all feel (and are, to some extent) like flashbacks to an entirely different era of smartphone technology.

Design

Sony Xperia Z

There’s no getting around it – this is the biggest phone in the entire bunch. With that 5 inch 1080p screen, it has to have a larger form factor to hold all that display goodness. Aside from all that, black slate look takes hold all around the phone, looking like a thin black brick. At 7.9mm, this phone comes in second for thickness. The rectangular shape lends itself to a look that we honestly don’t find as often in mobile devices anymore, adding to its appeal. A tempered glass encases the entire phone on all sides, all kept together by a skeleton of polyamide.

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As for the button layouts, the protruding silver power button and volume rockers are all found on the right side about halfway down the phone, quite literally where one’s thumb would land. All of the ports on this phone are covered by a piece of plastic material, which helps in one of the Xperia Z’s unique features – water resistance. One undeniable fact about the Xperia Z – all of that glass covering the black body makes fingerprints look like beacons – this is a phone that requires a thorough wipe down more often than its competitors, that is for sure.

Samsung Galaxy S3

As the phone that arguably brought Android into the incredibly large mainstream spotlight, the Galaxy S3 brought with it the seemingly ubiquitous design that many phones have since adopted. The rounded body lacks the kind of rigidity that the Xperia Z touts, and sports a smaller, 4.8 inch screen in its body. As a result, the entire phone is a little smaller and is more in line with the multitudes of phones that made its size the standard (though that will change this year, it seems).

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Samsung has made the entire plastic body their signature, as it has made it onto basically all phones since the S3. Gorilla Glass covers the front panel, though the back panel has a feature that many phones have been lacking lately – it’s removeable. This allows access to the battery and SD card, but that part comes later. The button layout is, again, signature Samsung – power button on the right where the thumb lands and the volume buttons opposite it. One tactile face button serves as home, flanked by menu and back keys.

Apple iPhone 5

This is obviously the smallest phone of the bunch, as Apple took a stand against large screens and instead kept the same width of the iPhone 4 in its display. The screen is only 4 inches and thus lends itself to a smaller form that is the most grippable. Like a mixture of the Xperia Z and Galaxy S3, this is a rectangular phone that sports rigidity until the rounded corners.

iphone-5-front

This is not the glass encased iPhone 4, as the 5 instead takes to aluminum for its backing and is two tone – silver and white or grey and black, depending on the model you choose. The button layout is signature Apple, with the power button found on the top, volume rocker and silence toggle on the left and finally the trademark home button below the screen on the face. The other main change that the iPhone 5 brought was a new, rather controversial, charging port. While adapters can be used to make this phone work with past accessories, not too many people were very happy with this change.

Verdict: Xperia Z

While the Samsung Galaxy S3 is one of the cornerstone Android devices that got pretty much everything right, it is a design that has been tried and true but has become a little old. The S3 definitely shows its age after Samsung put the plastic look in basically every following device. I’m not the only one that desires a change, so hopefully the Galaxy S4 makes that happen. The iPhone 5 is admittedly a beautifully designed device with its aluminum casing, though the smaller screen will soon become less relevant. In my opinion, the Xperia Z takes this one because it brings a design that very few phones (if any) sport – that rectangular, rigid design is honestly just a joy to behold and it deserves to be seen and noticed.

Feel

Sony Xperia Z

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The Xperia Z’s flatness does make it great the handle, as the flat sides make it easy to grip. Despite there being some need for hand gymnastics, the good sense to make the button layout easy to reach (you don’t even really have to try) helps a whole lot. There is going to be a learning curve with a phone as large as this, but rest assured that there is little fear of this phone slipping from your grasp.

Samsung Galaxy S3

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With the 4.8 inch screen, this is the middle ground in this triple threat. The hand can comfortably grip the entire phone and the hand gymnastics should be natural for pretty much everyone by this time. This is the form factor that we have come to know best – the power button is easily accessible and the volume rockers or power button don’t need much fuss to reach. There is a reason that so many phones have taken on this design that Samsung made so popular – it does work quite well.

Apple iPhone 5

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Finally we have the iPhone, the smallest of the bunch. You can basically grip the entire phone in the palm of your hand and there are virtually no stretches required to reach any part of the phone. Even the power button at the top is reachable without having to move the phone in your hand any which way. Compared to the original iPhone 4, this phone is just a little taller and is the same width. This made the phone rather accessible for past users and anyone who is looking for a smaller alternative certainly has this device in their list.

Verdict: Samsung Galaxy S3

Like I said before, this is the form factor that is the standard. The sad part about the iPhone 5 is that its size feels foreign for anyone that has used any device with a larger screen. Once you get used to the larger form factors, anything smaller just feels weird. As such, I have the easiest time with the Galaxy S3. The Xperia Z is an incredible phone all around and is a beacon for the future, but 5 inch screens are still slowly making their presence known – 2013 might be the year of the bigger device, but it’s only March.

Display

Sony Xperia Z

We start with the biggest screen, with the highest resolution and the most pixels per inch. The TFT screen on the Xperia Z is a 5 inch screen that very well may soon rule the world, and it sports the 1080p resolution one would expect from it. As such, everything lives large on the Z’s screen and looks pretty darn wonderful. A great refresh rate makes it look like a tiny Bravia TV and the high pixel density at 441ppi puts it among the sharpest displays out there right now.

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As mentioned in my in-depth review, the screen did have its share of problems. Not only does Sony choose black and grey tones for most of its UI, which doesn’t really flatter the display, the colors are actually a bit washed out and lack vibrancy no matter how you are looking at it. The best experience is dead straight on, but move the phone at any which angle and you’ll see how the display washes everything out the farther you get. This is, by far, a problem that a vast majority of users will be able to look past without much difficulty, but it is a gripe nonetheless. It’s still a fun display, and all media benefits from the larger size.

Samsung Galaxy S3

The Super AMOLED display is something you either love or hate, though it seems to garner more praise than anything else. It isn’t unfounded – at 720p, this 4.8 inch screen is far from outdated and still displays media and content pretty darn well. There is a low 306ppi pixel density here that is noticeable when you compare sharpness to other behemoth screens. This isn’t too much of a problem with consumers, as has been proved, because it is still one of the most common and celebrated displays of its time.

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Samsung managed to capture the vibrancy and crisp colors that Sony missed in the Xperia Z. TouchWiz is already a very colorful user interface, but on this screen colors burst forth from the screen and punch you in the face. I guess there is somewhat of a trade off here because the Galaxy S3 screen, at its highest brightness, is dimmer than the other two phones in this comparison (something pictures and videos are unable to reproduce). Nonetheless, this is a vibrant and great display that makes you wonder what Samsung could do with a larger, 1080p display.

Apple iPhone 5

And finally we have the LED IPS display found on the iPhone 5. It’s a fact we can’t get around – this is a small screen. 4 inches in this phone is consistently being dwarfed by basically all big Android releases. It also has the lowest resolution at 1136×640, though it works just fine for a phone this size. The 326ppi pixel density is what Apple dubbed ‘Retina’ for the iPhone 5, and it does its job quite well. The display is enjoyable, though anyone looking forward to 5 inch screens will undoubtedly squint and wonder how they lived with screens this small.

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The color reproduction is about as good Apple has ever been able to put in its phones – definitely has more vibrancy than the Xperia Z but is perhaps right on par with the Galaxy S3. It is Apple’s greatest display on a smartphone, and if they finally ever do decide to make bigger screens, then the Android brethren might have to be on their guard.

Verdict: Sony Xperia Z

Call it great marketing, but my recent time with 5 inch, 1080p display phones has made the whole new system make sense. I used to scoff at the prospect of larger displays with resolutions that haven’t even been tapped enough to matter, but even blown up to meet the size, everything just looked darn good. I have to give this one to the Xperia Z because its screen is the future – 1080p done perfectly by whichever manufacturer will be incredible. The Xperia Z is unfortunately short of perfection because of its lackluster color vibrancy, but it is still the most enjoyable time.

Performance

Sony Xperia Z

Obviously this is the most advanced of the bunch, sporting the 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro processor that has been at the top of all the benchmark lists (though that should be changing soon). The tried-and-true Adreno 320 is this phone’s graphics powerhouse, and as a result, gaming is a blast on the Xperia Z. 2GB of RAM is included for multitasking and it works as well as it should.

Benchmarks are really just numbers but these numbers are pretty amazing. This is, to date, the only phone I have personally seen break the 20000 mark on AnTuTu Benchmark. That’s definitely impressive but you feel the performance in practice as the phone flies through its elements. Even if the Snapdragon S4 Pro might fade in the coming months, it still keeps up. Below is the Xperia Z’s score on Geekbench 2, which is the benchmark test I could use on all three devices simultaneously.

Samsung Galaxy S3

Yes, we want all of the best all the time from our phones, but we forget that specifications and often created to withstand at least an extended amount of time. That is the case with the Galaxy S3, which sports the Exynos Cortex A9 processor clocked out at 1.4GHz. It was the most powerful phone processor package of its time, though that has since been blown away. The Mali 400MP lent itself to really good graphics and 1GB was available for multitasking, making this phone very advanced for its time nearly 8 months ago.

No matter how much we might want the latest, greatest, and fastest in our phones, most consumers are still looking at the Galaxy S3 as a fast daily warrior. The general consumer, which Samsung did a great job of reaching in the past year, will still get a great experience in this phone – and that helps keep it relevant.

Apple iPhone 5

Apple makes its own SoCs and thus the iPhone 5 has the custom built dual core 1.2 A6 processor backed by PowerVR SGX 543MP3 graphics and 1GB of RAM. It is a package that powers some of the best that the App Store has to offer, even if it is empirically the least powerful performer in this bunch. Apple is very good at manufacturing lasting devices and the iPhone is definitely an example of that – despite the onslaught of great performers in the Android market, the iPhone remains about as good as it was when released.

You can say that optimization is key here, but that is true for software, as well. With such a controlled ecosystem for apps, Apple can help ensure that much of its app market is put together as perfectly as possible for its systems. All of this put together definitely makes the iPhone seem like it keeps up with the rest – for the most part, it actually is.

Verdict: Sony Xperia Z

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With the highest numbers and the performance-in-practice to show for it, did you really think I would pick either of the others? I am a firm believer that previously released specifications can still make the general consumer happy and if that all fits into what they want, then they shouldn’t feel the need to be bleeding edge. The Galaxy S3 and iPhone 5 are available for that very assertion. But personally, if I have to pick one of these three, I pick the most powerful of the bunch – the Xperia Z.

Hardware

Sony Xperia Z

It is here that we will look at what the phones offer in terms of extra bits – the Xperia Z, then, is one of the few top tier phones that actually provides for expandable memory. It seems to be one of the most hotly contested portions of any review; no matter what, the inclusion (or lack) of expandable memory or replaceable batteries garners some sort of big response.

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Though a SD card slot is available, there is no way of getting to the battery in the Xperia Z. So, that is about half of what the people want, but it’s more than what most phones can say they do. Aside from all this, NFC and the usual bevy of GPS, Bluetooth, and Wifi are available, as to be expected on Android devices these days.

Samsung Galaxy S3

I can’t really say it enough – while we might be getting a little tired of the Galaxy S3 and are eagerly awaiting the coming of the S4, this original iteration of an incredibly popular line of Android phones did get a lot (if not, everything) right. The sheer fact that a removable cover is available already makes it clear that the S3 includes those two big aspects people want, and yes, the S3’s memory is thus expandable and the battery is replaceable.

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NFC might not have been as big of a feature back when the S3 was released – and it’s arguably still not as big as some hope it to be – but it was nonetheless available for the marketable S-Beam technology. Otherwise, all the usual features are available here.

Apple iPhone

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I mention NFC in the Android devices because it actually isn’t available in the iPhone. For whatever reason, it was not put into the 5 and is thus a minus in their camp. On top of all that, you also aren’t able to open up the phone in any which way so the battery remains fixed and the memory has no chance of being expandable.

Verdict: Samsung Galaxy S3

You want to be able to replace your battery and expand your memory? Well, the Galaxy S3 does have both of those features among a myriad of other great features, so for sheer ability, it does get the point here.

Software and OS

Here’s where it can get sticky – all three of these handsets sport different looking and in some ways different functioning software. What this will come down to is how useful and how easy to use they are.

Sony Xperia Z

With Jelly Bean 4.1, the Xperia Z has some of the latest offerings from Google – most notably, Google Now. Aside from that, however, Sony has seen fit to make their user interface pretty easy on the eyes by keeping things simple. The black and grey tones might turn some away but it is all very reminiscent of the well received design of Ice Cream Sandwich. All these darker tones take on blue colored hues that can actually be changed in the customization window with different themes.

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A power widget helps make the most used features of the phone easily accessible, while the inclusion of Small Apps brings quick tools for the power multitasker. It is a sleek looking operating system that does well to bring some updated Google applications to the table wrapped up in a great looking (albeit somewhat derivative) interface with some Sony-esque uniqueness sprinkled on top.

Samsung Galaxy S3

Touchwiz is one of the most colorful user interfaces in the Android ecosystem, with its bright and loud icons and generally bubbly design. It is by no means lacking in function, however, as there is plenty to use in the interface. As is becoming more and more ubiquitous, the power widget in the notification dropdown helps the user easily toggle different aspects of the phone’s features. If you have updated your S3 recently, you should have access to Google Now with Jelly Bean 4.1 installed. And compared to the UI in the Xperia Z, it is far from stock Android.

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One feature that deserves mention here is the Multi-Window. Samsung took multitasking to another level by allowing a split screen functionality that puts two different apps on the same plane cut by an adjustable field in the middle. It can quite useful for people who want to watch videos while responding to e-mails or texting or browsing the web, and it was pretty unique at the time of release. Though it might not make complete sense on a smaller screen, imagine what a 5 inch screen at 1080p resolution could to with the feature.

Apple iPhone 5

And then we have iOS, which is the trademark user interface found only on Apple’s smartphones. As one of the first advanced interfaces for smartphones, it did its lion’s share of innovation and set an example for all other operating systems. Unfortunately, despite the changes that have been made since its inception, the interface largely looks the same – no app drawer, all apps are icons on the homescreens that can be organized primarily through the usage of folders, and only in the last couple iterations did Apple finally put in a notification dropdown.

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I do have to give Apple props for keeping iOS about as seamless as it possibly can be. While the iPhone might not have the best specifications, the operating system still has smooth transitions and usually continues to operate as well as it does out of the box. There is a lot of control going into how all the old and new elements play together and it seems to work out really well. It is also a pretty dead simple operating system that helps the tech-illiterate move into the 21st century. Not to say that Android isn’t accessible, either, but it doesn’t get any easier than “when in doubt, press home.”

Verdict: Sony Xperia Z

This is probably one of the most subjective categories here. Honestly, I have never really been a fan of the iOS interface. Not only has it pretty much stayed the same throughout the years, the rounded bubbly buttons and the lack of widgets keeps me from getting anymore usage from the homescreens than launching applications. While TouchWiz has quite a few great bells and whistles, it’s just too loud for me. Ultimately, the simplicity that Sony chose for the Xperia Z takes my point here. It is easy on the eyes and brings just enough from all aspects of the Android experience to remain simplistic and functional at the same time.

Camera

Sony Xperia Z

And finally, we have the cameras. As I have personally been learning with smartphone cameras as of late, the count of megapixels is only one part of the story. Sure, having great big photos might be great but if the reproduction isn’t up to par, then what good are they? The Xperia Z has the most megapixels of the bunch at 13; and for the most part, they are all put to good use. In this adequate lighting, the color reproduction yielded a cooler tone in the overall picture – something the user will decide is proper or not.

Z

The camera does have HDR and panorama modes, as well, but other than that the Superior Auto helps ensure that your frame is given the right settings for proper exposure. It seems to generally do the job quite well.

Samsung Galaxy S3

The 8 megapixel shooter found on the Galaxy S3 was given a fair amount of praise in its time, even prompting Samsung to give one to YouTube creator Freddie Wong to create an action film using its video capabilities. The photos that you get from the Galaxy S3 are pretty good, and their color reproduction actually looks much like the Xperia Z in this instance. The general tone is still on the cooler side.

GS3

All options are pretty standard on the S3’s camera – there is HDR and panorama, but because this and the Xperia Z are only on Jelly Bean 4.1, there is no Photo Sphere.

Apple iPhone

And here is where personal preference takes hold – the iPhone has one of the most celebrated mobile cameras ever, as it has been used to film even full length independent films and the pictures populated the once non-Android Instragram exclusively. Those who want some control over their photos and videos will be turned off by the lack of options – you don’t get to change the size of the picture, it is always set to 4:3, for example – but the quality that comes out of the iPhone’s optics is pretty damn great.

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People generally prefer warmer tones in color schemes, and perhaps that is where the iPhone gets the advantage. While picture details are pretty great in all devices, the iPhone opts for a much, much warmer tone than the other two in this comparison. To some, this is much better.

Verdict: Apple iPhone 5

And admittedly, I have to agree with that notion. The iPhone camera, when put up against the rest, does result in a more pleasing look. I really don’t like that I can’t change many settings in the built-in camera app, but as a photographer, I would prefer to have the iPhone compared to the Galaxy S3 and Xperia Z because it produces the most usable pictures. Apple has been and should be commended for their optics on their phones – Android (and smartphones in general) are getting better and better in the camera department, so I think the playing field should be evened out in due time.

Conclusion

And so, there you have it. A look at three of the biggest phones in the smartphone ecosystem right now. As the phone that will hopefully propel Sony into the top tier smartphone market, the Xperia Z has a lot riding on its shoulders. And, for the most part, we believe that it succeeds in what it sets out to do. So, as a turning point in a manufacturer’s life, we wanted to look back devices that set out to be what the Xperia Z is to Sony.

The Xperia Z might have walked away with the most points in this edition of VS, but there is a whole other level that we can’t forget in this triple threat comparison. What you have here is an example of how awesome the world of tech is today – three phones in three different sizes that have three different ways of fulfilling the same purposes. If having choice is paramount in your mind, you have three of the absolute best phones in the market staring you in the face here. Isn’t that great?

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The iPhone 5 is still a wholly relevant device not because of its rabid fan base, but because it still succeeds in the market due to doing a lot right in different ways. Android is maturing at an astounding rate, and while the lines of dominance are ever changing, it is undeniably wonderful that we live in an age that we can have these giants duking it out. Who wins? Well, we do.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 will go down in history as a game changer. Perhaps not because it brought so much innovation to the Android ecosystem but more because it propelled the Android platform to astronomical heights. Samsung solidified itself as one of the biggest giants in the smartphone market and it may continue to do so with the onset of the S4. Whether or not you have grown tired of the Galaxy S3, it still continues to hold up against the rest and it will take some time before it fades into history.

And finally, the Sony Xperia Z is an example of how a large form factor can work. Its screen might have its flaws, but high resolution and great pixel density makes pretty much anything look great on it nonetheless. The high specifications should stand the test of time just as much as the internals of the Galaxy S3 are, and the sleek design will hopefully make some other manufacturers take notes. Whether or not it will be the juggernaut that the Galaxy S3 was for Samsung remains to be seen – if it does, we can all say, “called it!”

Thanks for reading and check out the video comparison above. Stay tuned – we have a ton of great things coming in the pipeline here at Android Authority.

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