Friday, 31 October 2014

Flagship fight: which Android phone wins in 2014?

My my my, what an interesting year this has been for phones.
This year, Apple really does have its work cut out for it when it comes to making a product that can beat what’s out this year. But what if you want something from the slate of Android phones out now: what’s the best Android for your money?
We’ve reviewed them all, and then some, spending time with them in our lives and used them as a real phone, so let’s see just which is better from our point of view, working this out not just in different areas, but really getting down to the nitty gritty for those of you who just aren’t sure yet.

Design and build

We’ll start with the most obvious one for all these handsets: the look, and then the feel, and they all have something different to offer here.
amsung, for instance, has taken an approach closer to what it offers in its tablets, with a plastic body, shiny faux metal trim, and a dimpled back to give the feeling that you’re holding a fabric or leather-bound handset that won’t slip out of the hands.
It’s comfortable, that’s for sure, but well built it isn’t, feeling more like plastic and less like a strengthened material like metal or aluminium.
LG has taken a similar approach, adopting plastic in the design but painting it to look metal. That’s a slightly better approach, and the G3 feels a touch stronger than the S5 and just as comfortable, but it’s still plastic.
HTC and Sony are thinking along the same lines, however, making their phones out of premium materials.
In the case of HTC’s One M8, it’s mostly made out of aluminium, and we’re not kidding on that, with a brushed aluminium making up around 90 percent of the handset’s design, with glass the rest thanks to the screen. It’s certainly schmick, and it feels fantastic and solid in the hands, too.
Sony’s Xperia Z2 has a similar approach, taking aluminium for the sides and encasing the rest of the handset in glass, making it feel very premium, similar to what Apple did with the iPhone 4 and LG with its Optimus G, the first in the G series handset.
Our only quibble with the Xperia Z2 design is that it’s so angular that it can ruin pants and jeans, as we found out when we carried it around for an extended amount of time.

Ruggedisation

Making a phone water and dust proof is now a thing, because you’re going to take it out of the office, so why not make it as durable as humanly possible?

In this year’s four flagship fighters, only two are slightly ruggedised, with water and dust resistance applied to the Sony Xperia Z2 and Samsung’s Galaxy S5. You can probably get the HTC One and LG G3 a little bit wet, but don’t expect them to perform like what Sony and Samsung have provided.

Both have protection against water and dust, but to different limits, and keep in mind, if you want these to keep resisting these elements and not succumb to a watery grave or die a dusty death, you need to leave their little plug ports closed when the particles or droplets hit.
For those unaware of IP ratings, it stands for “Ingress Protection” and is an international rating to determine levels of resistance to elements that don’t normally agree with electrical components. We’ve seen it in devices before, but up until 2013, they were generally very bulky, so its introduction in slim-line phones is a pretty serious development.
In IP ratings, the first number relates to dust or “solid particle” protection, while the second is about liquids.
Samsung’s S5 relies on an IP67 rating, and when you break that down, that means it is protected against all dust (6) making it dust tight, while the 7 means the Galaxy S5 can survive contact with water for an immersion of up to a metre.
Sony’s Z2 has an IP58 rating, which cuts back on the dust protection a bit, bringing it to mostly dust protected though some might get in, while the 8 in the IP rating means the Xperia Z2 can go beyond one metre in depth, though usually only to a maximum of three metres.
The time you spend with that phone under water will probably be small-ish, with around 15 to 30 minutes the most you’ll want to use it for at one time, but it’s still a pretty decent amount of time with a phone underwater, so that’s something.

Screen

The people have spoken, and big screens are in, with customers — and manufacturers — preferring big screens to surf the web, take photos, and generally have at their disposal, making smartphones and tablets closer than ever.
We’ve met lots of people who are ditching tablets for big screens, and in the flagships this year, there’s a minimum of 5 inches of screen real estate to work with, finding 5 inches on the HTC One, 5.1 on the Samsung S5, 5.2 on Sony’s Xperia Z2, and 5.5 on the LG G3.


All of these have at least Full HD resolution (1920×1080), with the LG G3 moving beyond that — the only phone in Australia to do so at present — featuring 2560×1440 or Quad HD (QHD), with all four supporting a pixel clarity greater — yes, greater — than Apple’s Retina-grade iPhone 5S, with each packing in at least 100 pixels more per inch.
There’s an argument, mind you, that says all of this is moot past 300 pixels per inch, with our eyes being the bottleneck, but you’ll have to let your eyes be the judge there.
Sufficed to say, all four of these phones have excellent screens, but we’d have to give the award on this one to LG’s G3 because nothing comes close to the quality offered from this one.



Performance

This is one area that should be identical, or close to it, between all the handsets, because in essence they all run on the same basic setup in this country.
As such, you can expect a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor with varying speeds (all over 2GHz, and generally between 2.3 and 2.6), the Adreno 330 graphics chip, at least 2GB RAM, and Google’s Android 4.4 also known as “KitKat.”
That’s the basic spec all the manufacturers have gone with this year, and you’ll also find a microSD slot for all of the flagships in this article, with the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8, LG G3, and Sony Xperia Z2 all support upgradeable storage on top of the 16 and 32GBs the various variants will come with.
As such, they all boast excellent performance with only a spot of lag on some of them, but not enough to cry over, so chances are that you’ll be very happy.

Connectivity

Just like how all the phones have similar specs and equally similar performance, they all pretty much have the same connection options, with the exception of one or two things.
For instance, all of these phones support 4G LTE in Category 4, meaning if you have a telco that supports Category 4 connectivity, you could see speeds of up to 150Mbps coming down and 50Mbps up. If you just have a Category 3 connection — and that’s Telstra in Sydney at the time our reviews and this article was written — you’ll only see speeds of up to 100Mbps down.
Neither are anything to sneeze at, and in our tests, all four performed excellently, with speeds ranging between 20 and 90Mbps for each of the handsets.

amsung's performance in 4G speeds is just like the others: excellent.
All support 3G as well, with phone calls still possible, too, so areas without the lovely speed boost that is 4G won’t be left with nothing.
Wireless networks is, of course, included across all of the models, with 802.11ac here, as well as backwards compatibility for the older 809.11b/g/n networks many still use in Australia.
Bluetooth 4.0 is also provided with support for the Low Energy/Smart options, as is Near-Field Communication, GPS, A-GPS, and there’s infrared in every phone except for the Z2.
The top of the HTC One houses an infrared port.
Why would you want infrared?
If you’re in the mood for some TV, feel like changing the volume on your amp or want to fiddle with the temperature on your air conditioner, an IR transmitter lets you use your phone as a remote, which is something the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8, and LG G3 all offer, but Sony’s phone does not.
MicroUSB is offered across all, as well, though Samsung’s Galaxy S5 does come with microUSB 3, which should be faster.


Battery life and charging

Battery life is one of those hard areas where it can be totally different for every person.
In our tests, the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z2 seem to lead the competition, making it to almost two days of life, while the LG G3 barely grabs a day, and the Samsung Galaxy S5 often loses out to just under a day.
To Samsung’s credit, however, it does come with an ultra low power saving mode that makes it possible to get a full 24 hours of life in those times when you have very little life to work with.
When it goes to this mode, some neat things happen, such as the disabling of connections, push and synchronisation, and even the screen going black and white, which we’ve proven doesn’t do as much as Samsung indicates, except to dissuade you from using your handset.
Charging all of the phones from these brands is handled through a microUSB port, with HTC and LG leaving theirs exposed, while Sony and Samsung have port covers thanks to the ingress protection for dust and water resistance.
LG and Sony, though, have other charging options.


For instance, the Sony Xperia Z2 has a proprietary magnetic port on the side to support its own dock format for charging, making it more convenient for bedside charging than relying on a simple microUSB port.
LG goes even further and includes the wireless Qi charging we saw on the Google Nexus 5 (made by LG) and some of Nokia’s handsets, making it possible to charge your phone just be leaving it on an induction pad.
Without a doubt, this is our favourite charging option, and if your phone supports this, you get high marks from us. All charging should be as effortless as this.

Camera

If you had the choice of carrying just your smartphone and its camera or a smartphone and a dedicated camera, most people will probably choose the former, and it’s a fact camera makers are being forced to face.
Compact cameras are going the way of the dodo — poor dodo — and smartphone cameras are replacing them, because unless you’ve been living in a cave and don’t have access to any smartphone, all of the devices out there that cost over $500 have decent cameras that can rival your regular compact, provided you don’t mind having any zoom.
The flagship models we’re looking at certainly come with decent cameras, and they’re all very capable and yet very decent.
We won’t go into the nitty gritty of each — we have reviews for that, so check the last page of this guide — but there are some things to focus on.
HTC’s is likely the first that will grab attention, technically including two cameras with different lenses for some very impressive effects. Change the focus distance after the fact, work with combined colour filters across different planes, and take high quality front-facing pictures with a 5 megapixel camera.
These are just some of the things HTC is offering in the new One, and if it wasn’t for the fact that the Ultrapixel camera on the back was only technically 4 megapixels, we’d be highly impressed.
Separating foreground from background means effects can occur on a different layer.
But it’s only a 4 megapixel camera, and that’s not a great thing to have around.
Oh sure, in low light, it’s quite nice, and the technology means you can do some really creative things, but just be weary images can’t be resized all that much on the One M8.
The same cannot be said for the others, as the LG G3 features a 13 megapixel shooter, the Samsung Galaxy S5 goes for a 16 megapixel camera, and Sony’s packs in a 20 megapixel module that can either shoot in the full resolution or pack the image with pixels back down to 8 megapixels.
An image from the Galaxy S5's camera
All three of them are great cameras, and all three offer Ultra HD capturing, perfect for those 4K TVs and monitors starting to come out, which is another feature the HTC misses out on, with only Full HD offered there.
They all have different features on top of the great cameras, mind you, and we’re particularly happy with:
LG’s laser-based autofocus, which provides speedy contrast-detection focus times relying on a small laser
Samsung’s playful image modes, many of which do similar things to the camera in the HTC One M8, and
Sony’s software for the Z2, and how it lets you flex creative muscle thanks to the sheer number of artistic effects on offer (we had way too much fun with the mosaic one, which made photos look like 8-bit video games).
Basically, all the cameras are excellent, but we’d have to say that Sony and LG felt like the best for us throughout our testing.
Shot from the Sony Xperia Z2 smartphone

One awesome extra feature

Outside of the performance, connectivity, battery, and camera, each phone has their star features that make them excellent, and while our reviews list them in greater detail, we’re also going to cover our favourite extra feature of each here, because they’re worth knowing about even in short (we’re doing this in alphabetical order, not in preference, so don’t go confusing that).
HTC One M8
Aside for the build and camera, the feature you need to know about is the BoomSound speakers, which are two very loud front-facing speakers.
These were present in last year’s One, and this year they’re louder and better, making them ideal for music, movies and the spot of YouTube you love when you’re doing nothing.
We wish all phone speakers were this good.

LG G3
LG seems to pack more extra pizzazz in its phone than anyone else, and in this handset, our favourite is support for high-res audio.
If you’re sick of streaming music services and prefer high-end sound, LG’s G3 is the only smartphone of this bunch to support 192kHz 24-bit FLAC, playing back the high-end format in severaly impressive quality if you have some equally impressive headphones nearby.
With credit to LG, this existed on the LG G2, but that phone had fixed memory, making this mostly useless, especially since an hour of audio can be over a gigabyte in size. Now with expandable memory, this is a serious reason to use this phone, and really makes you wonder why you’d bother with Sony’s dedicated portable high-res audio player.
Support for high res audio (HRA)? Yes please!
Samsung Galaxy S5
We’re going to cheat a little with Samsung and include two features here, because one is useful and the other is useless, but both are missing in action on the other handsets and are both based on the human body. Confused yet?
The useful one is the fingerprint reader, which is built into the home button and allows you to tie your fingerprint to unlocking your phone and paying for things with PayPal. That last one is especially important, and we’re keen to see it used in more apps later on down the track, as it will be harder to break than your regular PIN code.
Over in the useless category is the heart rate checker, which is a neat gimmick to tell you how elevated your heart is, but we’ll probably never use it, and honestly, it doesn’t seem overly accurate, anyway.

Heart rate monitor? The S5 has it. Whether we'll use it or not, well, that has yet to be decided.
Sony Xperia Z2
Sony seems to pack in less “wow” features than anyone else, but the one we really like is the inclusion of a camera button.
It seems so minor, but that camera button on the side lets you go from standby to the camera mode in no time at all, making it more useful as a quick shooter than any of the smartphone cameras it competes against. Pair this with the abundance of camera modes and you have a fantastic little extra.

Value

With all of this technology inside these devices, you have to wonder how much they cost, and being flagship products, the natural assumption is that they’re not cheap.
Oh sure, they’re all available on plans, and when you pay for something over the course of a year or two, that helps to spread that value, but if you decide to do it in one lump — which is how we judge value — which one is worth it most of all?
From our tests, LG’s G3 may turn out the best value altogether, packing in more technology across the board and strong performance for a recommended retail price of $799, just forty bucks more than what Sony asks for, with the Xperia Z2 fetching $759 for what it includes, while HTC makes you pay almost $900 for the privilege, fetching an RRP of $899.
Samsung does manage to push over that $900 price, and if you want to grab one of these outright, expect to pay $929. Ouch.

Cases

If you can’t accessorise your phone, what’s the point?
A highly resistant screen protector from Neon on the left and two Belkin cases on the right, all three for Samsung's Galaxy S5 handset.
We’re not huge fans of cases, but lots of people are, as they protect your purchase from the traumas of your pocket, handbag, backpack, and anything else, especially if the worst happens — heaven forbid — and they take a tumble.
In this department, Samsung seems to have the most push, with companies such as Belkin, Incipio, Otterbox, and Samsung providing a few options out there, and other brands no doubt chiming in that we’ve missed (apologies there).
The other manufacturers don’t quite have as much to work with, as LG’s G3 can be cased up thanks to LG’s own windowed cases, HTC’s One M8 has a really neat pixelating case you can use the phone through, while the Sony cases that we’ve seen are your basic wraparound or edge protectors.
HTC's One M8 case (left) and LG's G3 circle window case (right)

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that all of the products this year have impressive bones, and while their marketing budgets are also likely to help sway you, it would be hard to end up on a poor product, it really would.
Each one is excellent, it truly is, and if you’re looking for a new phone, you’ll be happy this year with either.
For our money, though, we’d choose Sony’s Xperia Z2 first, and here’s why: while LG’s G3 beats it in screen quality and overall features, the Z2 pack in a better build, a just as excellent camera with better software, and IP67 ruggedisation that lets us wash it off if it ever gets dirty.
In this writer’s opinion, those two are the best of the best this year, but regardless of what you choose, you’ll likely be satisfied.
The best test, mind you, once you’ve read our reviews and worked out which has the feature set you want is and has always been to go in store and put the phone in your hand. We can always tell you the good and the bad, but how it feels in your hands, your pockets, and what it feels like when you hold it up to your head will ultimately decide it, so read our reviews and then take those opinions into a store, because we can’t tell you how to feel when it comes to that whole physical side of things.
Now, in the order of what we think…

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