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Galaxy S4 vs iPhone 5: battle of the idols (video)

Battle of the idols: we pit the Galaxy S4 against the iPhone 5 in our versus comparison. We’ll look at build quality and design, displays, specs, and software features to see which phone is better. What do you think?
May 10, 2013
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The rivalry between Apple and Samsung is the stuff of legends. But there’s a rivalry in the tech world that is even fiercer – that between the fans (or fanboys) of the two companies.

What’s with the iPhone and the Galaxy S line that makes people go for each other’s jugulars? Is it because they embody very different philosophies? Is it because Samsung and Apple have gone to great extents to create and maintain hostility between the two camps? Regardless of the answer, one thing’s for sure – millions of people love the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5, making this Versus probably the most interesting confrontation of 2013.

Without further ado, let’s pit the Galaxy S4 against the iPhone 5 in our versus comparison. We’ll look at build quality and design, displays, specs, and software features, in an attempt to see which phone is better. In a hurry? Jump straight to the video comparison.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

To get the obvious out of the way, it’s darn hard to compare two devices that are so different as the Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5. And the difference is the most visible when it comes to design. Samsung’s device features smooth curves, a huge screen framed by slim bezels, and a mesh like pattern on the plastic back cover.

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The iPhone’s design is more industrial, with sharper lines and a sleek, cold metallic feel to it, conferred by the aluminum unibody. Of course, it’s much smaller that the Galaxy S4, a trait that has come under criticism lately, as smartphones push the upper limits of screen sizes.

Samsung’s choice of materials for making its flagship devices has been debated ad nauseam, so we won’t insist on the “plasticky” feel of the Galaxy S4 that some people loathe with a passion. The iPhone may feel more premium, but there are many other, more important, factors that should influence your buying decision, that “premium feel” seems almost trivial. With that said, the aluminum unibody of the iPhone makes it very robust, as our drop test has shown you.

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It may be more fragile, but the removable back plate of the Galaxy S4 enables it to offer two important features – a microSD card slot and a removable battery. If these two features are high on your shopping list, the Galaxy S4 is the way to go.

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It’s almost impossible to call out a winner here, simply because picking between the design of the Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5 is largely a matter of personal preference. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

The difference an inch can make

Apple has stubbornly stuck with a smallish display on the iPhone, leaving competitors to serve the increasing number of customers looking for an expansive visual experience on their phones. While the iPhone 5 is taller than previous versions, its display is still just 4-inch across, which makes it seem almost inadequate alongside the Galaxy S4. We do realize that some people prefer compact phones, but in our book, the larger display of the Galaxy S4 is a major plus.

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The display of the Galaxy S4 is not only larger than the iPhone 5’s, but also comes very close of beating it in terms of quality. As we reported a few weeks ago, the display experts at DisplayMate gauged the AMOLED panel of the new Galaxy S4, and found that it’s as good as or better than the display on the iPhone in many ways. For context, the same experts criticized the Galaxy S3 for its lack of brightness, inaccurate color reproduction, and overall lower quality when compared to the iPhone 5.

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Apple’s device may still be king in certain areas (color calibration is almost perfect), but the full HD display on the Galaxy S4 is giving it a serious run for its money. When drawing the line, both phones have excellent displays that will satisfy all but the most picky of users.

The specs war that wasn’t

iPhone fans have long got accustomed to say that specs don’t matter, the experience does. And that may be true, ultimately, but specifications sheets still give us a pretty good indication of what a device is capable of.

On one side, we have Apple’s homegrown A6 processor (made by Samsung, for irony lovers) with two cores clocked at 1.2GHz. A PowerVR SGX 543MP3 GPU and 1GB of RAM complete the picture of a device that doesn’t shine through raw power, but does deliver a very smooth user experience. The version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 that we reviewed features a Snapdragon 600 processor, an Adreno 320 GPU, and 2GB of RAM, which on paper (and in benchmarks) should crush the iPhone.

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The S4 certainly beats the iPhone in the Geekbench benchmark, but the difference in real life use is almost unnoticeable. Why is that? Because Apple does a very good job at optimizing iOS for the iPhone hardware, while iOS app developers have a much easier time adapting to one hardware configuration, instead of dozens, as it happens on Android.

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While both phones work buttery smooth, the specs junkie should focus their attention on the Galaxy S4. Not only it’s more powerful in terms of raw performance, but the S4 features an SD card slot, a removable battery, NFC, an IR blaster, a thermometer, a barometer, and a few other sensors. The iPhone 5, by contrast, seems bare of features.

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We’ll include here the discussion about accessories. If you’re coming from a previous Apple device and you have several accessories already, the iPhone 5 (plus an adaptor) might be a good choice for you. If that’s not a problem for you, we don’t see any reason why you’d choose an iPhone over the more feature-rich Galaxy S4.

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Battery and cameras

One of the perks of having a larger device is the larger battery capacity. Indeed, the 5-inch Galaxy S4 has a whopping 2600mAh battery, the biggest in its class, and close to double what the iPhone 5 offers at 1440mAh. However, thanks to the smaller display, smaller resolution, and better optimized hardware, the Apple device usually manages to get users through a day of light to moderate utilization. With more intensive use, however, the iPhone 5 is often depleted before the evening.

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The Galaxy S4 is able to power through one day of heavy use without breaking a sweat, and is likely to resist up to two days with light to moderate usage.

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In terms of quality, the cameras on both the Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5 are excellent. The iPhone is well known for the quality of its optics, while the 13MP sensor on the Galaxy S4 lets smartphone shutterbugs take clear and detailed images.

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The most notable difference when it comes to cameras is the inclusion of special features in the photo apps on the iPhone and the Galaxy S4. The iPhone features two special modes, Panorama and HDR, which simply doesn’t compare to the wealth of features that Samsung baked into the camera app on the Galaxy S4 – Eraser, Drama Shot, Shot and Sound, Cinemagraphs, dual recording, HDR, and panorama.

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iOS vs TouchWiz: a familiar story

As one of the most popular mobile operating systems, iOS suffers from a major problem – people know it too well. Save for a few major additions, like Facetime and the notification shade, iOS has remained mostly unchanged since its early days. While constancy can be good, it can also lead to boredom and fatigue, which may explain why many iPhone users are switching to Android. iOS 6 provides the smooth, super-polished experience that people expect from Apple products, but overall, the OS feels static and a bit dated.

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TouchWiz is another well known mobile operating system, that people tend to either hate or love. The colorful and cheerful interface, with its bubbly design, can be a joy to use, but many prefer a more understated and elegant design. The implementation on the Galaxy S4 doesn’t bring any major changes to the overall design language of TouchWiz, but Samsung compensated with a number of new features. Air View (control the phone without touching it), S Health, Group Cast, Eye Pause, Eye Scroll, and WatchON are some of the most important new features, with staples like Multi-Window multitasking making a comeback.

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The Galaxy S4 doesn’t bring any revolutionary features to the table, but it does offer some new and potentially better ways of using your smartphone. Yes, you might live happily without them, but you may also find that they are the best thing since sliced bread. It’s a matter of personal preference really.

Hands-on video

Pricing and final thoughts

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Apple iPhone 5 are similarly priced, despite the fact that the iPhone is more than six months old. In the United States, you can get the devices for about $700 unlocked, and on contract, they will typically set you back $200.

So, which one’s better? The Galaxy S4 has better specs, a nicer display, a bigger battery, more software and hardware features, and a better camera. Unless you absolutely dislike plastic, TouchWiz, or large phones, you’ll be better off choosing the Galaxy S4. The iPhone 5 is a great device, but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels so limited compared to modern Android smartphones.

How does the Galaxy S4 compare to the iPhone 5? Answer our poll and tell us your opinion in the comments.

[poll id=”286″]