Xperia Z vs One vs S4 - Mid-year Android flagship guide

Arguably the three best Androids
currently in the market. Image: Techradar
It's the middle of the year and anyone looking for an Android smartphone has quite a few great options to choose from. HTC, Samsung and Sony - three of the major Android manufacturers - have already released their respective flagships for the year, and choosing between them can be a bit of a challenge for someone just looking to get their first smartphone, or someone who is looking to upgrade to a flagship from a mid-range or entry-level smartphone. I wrote a post last month with some tips to help potential buyers choose a smartphone which would best suit them based on their needs and preferences. This time I will try to provide a bit more, based on specific flagships for those who are still undecided. This won't be a review, as I don't own and don't have any experience with any of the devices. This will act more as a buyer's guide based on reviews I have read and hands-on videos I have watched, which are quite plentiful to be honest (I spend a lot of time online). I know most people who are new to the smartphone market can get a bit confused with all the jargon and technical talk, so this will be a general guide with minimal technical talk, that everyone will (hopefully) be able to understand. The three flagships up for discussion; Sony's Xperia Z, the HTC One, and Samsung's Galaxy S4.

Sony Xperia Z
Being the earliest of the flagships to be released, the major downside of the Xperia Z is that it is using a processor from last year, the Snapdragon S4 Pro. While it is still one of the best mobile processors in the market, the other flagships of this year are all using a newer processor, which is better. Another common complaint about the Xperia Z is it's less than stellar screen. It has a 1080p display, which is the current standard in the market, but viewing angles have been known to be poor. Looking at the screen from any angle other than straight on exposes the flaws of the screen. Another problem with the phone is it's speaker. It's bad. That's all there is to say about the speaker. 
Looking at the display from any angle exposes a weakness
in the otherwise sharp 1080p display. Image: The Register
Despite these flaws, the Xperia Z has some pretty amazing strengths as well. The most obvious of which is water and dust resistance. This phone is the only one of the three flagships that offer water and dust resistance. Most phones that offer this level of resistance are usually rugged phones with non-flagship specs and a bulky design. Not this phone. High-end specs, water and dust resistance and a very stunning, beautiful design. The Xperia Z was, up until the HTC One, regarded by many as the best built and most beautiful Android smartphone in recent years. If you are not a fan of relatively sharp edges however, the blockish build of the Xperia Z may not appeal to you. Another strength of the Xperia Z over the other two flagships is its close-to-stock-Android software. While Sense and TouchWiz add some great value to Android, people who prefer a more simple and less altered version of Android will like what Sony has to offer. It does offer some tweaks to Android, but overall Sony's skin is much less intrusive than HTC's and Samsung's. As an added bonus specifically for the custom ROM community, Sony are probably the most supportive Android manufacturer when it comes to AOSP, posting code for their products online for download. 
The only flagship to boast water resistance as a feature. Image: Slash Gear
Pros - Water and dust resistance, solid build quality and beautiful design, the closest experience to stock Android, complete with on-screen navigation buttons.

Cons - Poor quality speakers, bad viewing angles despite a pixel-packed 1080p display, powered by last year's chipset.

The only phone with two navigation
buttons. Image: Android Central
The first thing that caught my attention when I saw the press images of this phone was the capacitive navigation buttons. I hate the fact that there isn't a standard navigation button layout for all Android smartphones. It makes transitioning from one brand to another a bit more challenging if you ask me. HTC decided to go one step further with the One, and instead of just changing the layout, they removed one button! There is no recent apps button anymore. Just a back and home button. Recent apps are accessed by double tapping home, and Google Now is accessed by long pressing home. 3 functions assigned to one button is a bit too much for me. Moving on, the phone can get quite hot when under heavy use, which is probably due to the full aluminium body of the phone, more on this latter. Another issue I have with the One is shared with its predecessor, the HTC One X, last year's flagship which I currently own, and that's the notification LED placement; in the speaker grill. The placement of the LED in the speaker grill is a great way to hide it, but it makes noticing the blinking LED much more difficult. Looking at it from an angle in a well lit environment makes it almost impossible to see the LED blinking. 

Why don't other manufacturers put speakers
on the front of their phones? Image: HTC
Speaking of speakers, the One is probably the best phone in the market when it comes to audio quality. Stereo front-facing speakers are a stroke of genius, and it's such an obvious thing to do to improve audio quality, that it makes you wonder why other manufacturers just have one small speaker on the back of the phone. The speaker isn't the only thing HTC are doing differently from other manufacturers. While other phones boast higher mega-pixel counts in their cameras, HTC are taking the opposite route; lowering the pixel count in favour of including larger pixels in the camera. Most reviews conclude that this move does not negatively affect (and in some cases, actually improves) image quality, unless you zoom-in and crop your photos, or print out large copies of your photos. For the average user who only takes photos for Facebook and Instagram, this camera is more than good enough. Screen size is also an area where HTC are on their own. Most flagships this year ship with 5" 1080p displays, the HTC One does have a 1080p display, but in a smaller 4.7" screen, making it the most dense display among the flagships. HTC Sense is a polarising issue; you either love it or hate it. It's definitely the most unique skin of Android compared to the ones on other flagships. Things like BlinkFeed and the way the dock and app drawer function make Sense a weird unique experience you won't find on any other skin or custom launcher. The biggest selling point of the One however, has got to be the build quality. Every review I read absolutely raves about the build quality. While it does cause the phone to feel really hot like I said earlier, the unibody aluminium design is acknowledged by many to be the best built Android phone this year, quite possibly ever. 

Pros - Stereo front-facing speakers, best built Android phone in recent years, 4.7" 1080p display is the most dense display among the flagships.

Cons - Aluminium body causes the phone to feel very hot after intense use, poorly placed notification LED, most unusual navigation button layout ever.

Undecided - HTC Sense, UltraPixel camera.

Samsung Galaxy S4
Spot the differences. Image: Gizmodo
This was the most anticipated Android phone of the year. Much of that was probably due to Samsung's huge marketing push for the phone, but also because of how successful the Galaxy SIII was last year. In fact, the SIII was so successful that Samsung did an Apple, and barely changed anything about how the S4 looks. If you put the SIII and S4 side by side, it would be quite difficult to tell them apart, except of course for tech enthusiasts who know every detail of every phone. It retains the same look Samsung has used for all their devices since the SIII (the NoteII, Note 8.0, Mega 5.8 and 6.3, etc). It also maintains much of the same material used to build the phone as the SIII, which of course led to criticisms of how plastic is cheap and unflagship-like. Some people may like plastic, but compared to the Xperia Z and One, the S4 feels like a cheap piece of technology. Another major complaint of the S4 was just how much storage space TouchWiz took up. The 16GB model was reported to only have 9GB of usable storage space, almost half of what is advertised. Samsung have responded to the complaints and may release a software update to address this issue in the future. Sticking to the software, many reviews criticise the S4 for showing lag from time to time, probably due to how heavy TouchWiz is.

The S4 is one of the few smartphones to still offer a removable
battery and expandable storage. Image: TechnoBuffalo
Despite the problems with the software, TouchWiz is also the S4's greatest strength, a double-edged sword when it comes to mobile technology. If the strengths of the Xperia Z and One are build quality and hardware, the S4's strength is definitely its software. The reason why Samsung are able to market the S4 (and the SIII prior) so well is because they have a lot of software features to show off. Smart Stay, Smart Pause, Smart Scroll, Air View, Air Gesture, Group Play and all the camera modes make the S4 a software powerhouse. Some will say they're all just gimmicks, some will say they don't even work most of the time, but props to Samsung for trying to make Android better with these interesting (innovative?) software features nonetheless. Sticking with software, the S4 is the only flagship to currently be on the latest version of Android (4.2.2), which it came out of the box with. Both the Xperia Z and One are on 4.1.2. The differences between 4.1.2 and 4.2.2 may be minimal, but you still get extra features like lock screen widgets and expandable/actionable notifications. Another good thing about the S4 is it offers both expandable storage and a removable battery, both quite rare in recent Android flagships. The HTC One offers neither, and the Xperia Z only offers expandable storage. 

Pros - Expandable storage and a removable battery, the latest version of Android 4.2.2, a plethora of software features in TouchWiz.

Cons - TouchWiz is too heavy and causes occasional lag in everyday use, cheap build quality, uninspired design that is getting stale with every Galaxy device that is released.

Phones to look forward to
What does the second half of they year hold for us? Quite a bit actually. Samsung proved that large phones, if done correctly, can be a huge success in the market. That is why the Note III is possibly the most anticipated phone of the second half of the year. Of course, some may argue that that title belongs to the Nexus 5 (if that's what it's called). The Nexus 4 was undoubtedly the most successful Nexus phone to date, to the extent that Google underestimated demand for it and LG struggled to keep up the manufacturing pace. Another Google phone is also highly anticipated, the Moto X. Everything we know about this phone is pure speculation. If there was an award for most rumoured phone on the internet, it would be the Moto X, which is probably why so many people are eagerly waiting to see what it actually is. 
Is this the mythical Moto X? Image: Techradar

That's the mid-year guide. Like I said earlier, I don't own and have no experience with any of the flagships, so if you want more information and more in-depth reviews, I suggest you go to any of the popular mobile tech sites out there and do your research.

Have you bought a phone this year? If not, which phone is holding you back? Which phone are you most excited for? 

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