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

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.
May 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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Drama shot

 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.

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Joshua Vergara contributed to this review.