The race to become the best smartphone of 2013 is on. Two of the top contenders are the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z. But which is better? We’ve compared screens, software, design and specs to find out.
Update July 2013 - We took both these cameras out on the streets of London to see how their cameras stack up against each other. Scroll down to find out the results.
Don't fancy a lengthy read? We've also made a video comparison of the two phones, showing their top features close-up.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Release Dates
Samsung Galaxy S4 – April 2013
Sony Xperia Z – February 2013
These phones are of the same generation - the 2013 elite. However, the Sony Xperia Z arrived a few months before the Galaxy S4.
The Sony phone went on sale in February 2013, making it the first true flagship phone of the year to arrive on shelves. A couple of months later, the Galaxy S4 arrived.
A couple of months may not sound like a long time, but it did contribute to a few neat technological extras in the Samsung phone we'll get onto later.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Design
Samsung Galaxy S4 – Plastic body, removable battery cover, Gorilla Glass 3 screen surface, 130g, 7.9mm
Sony Xperia Z – Toughened glass rear and front, 146g, 7.9mm, IP57 weatherproofing
The 5-inch screens of these phones ensure they are both pretty huge. However, their design styles are quite different. Samsung has kept with the principles of its predecessors in the Galaxy S4, with a slim plastic body that is remarkably light.
Although both phones are 7.9mm thick, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has the greater impression of 'slimness' because it’s curvier. The Sony Xperia Z is relatively boxy – square edged rather than trying to forever slim down every corner as much as possible.
Despite their high prices, neither phone has quite the high-end feel of the HTC One - but the glass-topped rear of the Xperia Z trumps the plastic of the Galaxy S4 any day.
The Sony Xperia Z also has one other neat design feature. It is IP-certified, meaning it’s guaranteed to offer a certain level of waterproofing. Its specific waterproofing rating is IP57. It can be submerged in up to 1m of water for at least 30 minutes, and is fully dustproof.
It achieves this with flaps that cover all the phone’s ports. It is a bit fiddly, and the phone does not look good when they’re all flipped-out, but it’s perfect insurance if you want to watch a film in the bath.
The Samsung Galaxy S4’s stand-out hardware feature is a removable battery cover – much less impressive-sounding. This gives you access to the battery, letting you carry around a spare if you like. It also means the Galaxy S4 doesn’t have to put its memory card slot on its side. It lives under the back cover.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Connectivity
Samsung Galaxy S4 – MHL microUSB port, microSD slot, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
Sony Xperia Z – MHL microUSB port, microSD slot, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
These two phones offer excellent connectivity, both wireless and wired. On the hardware front, both phones use microUSB ports to charge the battery and transfer data. The Samsung Galaxy S4’s port is on its bottom edge, and the Xperia Z’s its top-left edge.
Both phones also have microSD card slots – missing from top-end rivals the iPhone 5 and HTC One. Nice work, Samsung and Sony.
The one thing they miss is something you rarely see in phones these days – a dedicated video output. However, the microUSB ports of both phones are MHL-compliant, letting you hook them up to a TV with the right adapter. Search the web for 'MHL adapter' and you’ll find ones that work with each of the phones. They tend to cost around £25.
One of the Xperia Z's flaps
All the wireless bases are covered. The Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z have NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and 4G.
The pair to note here are NFC and 4G – they’re the two things that are often missing. NFC is a wireless payments standard that can also be used to transfer files between compatible devices. 4G is only getting off the ground in the UK, but is available right now from EE.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Screen
Samsung Galaxy S4 – 4.99-inch Super AMOLED, 1080p resolution,
Sony Xperia Z – 5-inch LCD, 1080p resolution
Following the 2013 trend for top-end phones, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z have 5-inch screens. That is large enough to comfortably watch a film on, but is also large enough to feel absolutely huge in the hand. We recommend getting a first-hand feel of the phones before buying.
These phones’ screens are also super high-res. They have full HD displays, the same resolution as most high-end TVs. The size and resolution is where the similarities end, though.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a Super AMOLED screen, where the Sony Xperia Z uses the more traditional LCD type, with Sony’s Bravia Engine 2 panel tech.
We tend to prefer IPS displays like the iPhone 5’s over the AMOLED type of the Galaxy S4, however this time OLED wins out. The Sony Xperia Z screen is good, but not great.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 offers superior viewing angles and far superior contrast, and we noticed a disappointing amount of backlight bleed in the Xperia Z.
That said, the Samsung Galaxy S4’s screen has its problems too. Its pixel structure is not standard RGB but a type of PenTile array. Pixels share sub-pixels, resulting in reduced sharpness. It’s something that was distinctly noticeable in the Galaxy S3, but less so in the Galaxy S4 thanks to its higher pixel density. The Samsung Galaxy S4 still has a higher number of subpixels per inch than the iPhone 5.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Storage
Samsung Galaxy S4 – 16/32/64GB, microSD
Sony Xperia Z – 16GB, microSD
These phones are both storage winners, offering expandable memory. In the UK, by far the most common model of the Galaxy S4 will be the 16GB edition – and the Xperia Z only comes in 16GB form.
With a microSD card slot on-board, there’s little reason to have more. You’ll be able to get a memory card to bump up the storage to 64GB and beyond for far cheaper than you’d have to pay for a higher internal storage model.
As already covered, the Samsung Galaxy S4 keeps its memory card slot under its battery cover. The Sony Xperia Z’s one is under a flap on the top edge of the phone.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - CPU, GPU and RAM
Samsung Galaxy S4 – Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.9 GHz Krait 300 1.9GHz, Adreno 320, 2GB RAM
Sony Xperia Z – Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 Krait 1.5GHz, Adreno 320, 2GB RAM
Some Samsung Galaxy S4 variants use an 8-core processor. However, we won’t see that model in the UK.
The UK version has a quad-core 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600. This is the same family of chip used in the Sony Xperia Z. However, it is clocked a little higher in the Samsung phone – 1.9GHz instead of 1.5GHz. It’s a real game of mobile phone top trumps here, though, and the difference is not particularly dramatic.
That said, we did notice a little bit of minor slow-down at times when using the Sony phone.
In benchmarks, the minor spec upgrade shows up too. The Samsung Galaxy S4 scores 23,600 points in the AnTuTu benchmark, against around 21,000 for the Xperia Z. Both phones use the same GPU, the Adreno 320. This is a solid graphics chip, that can handle any current mobile games.
What’s just as important as the CPU power is the amount of RAM a phone has on hand. It’s RAM that’ll stop a phone from chugging when it has a bunch of apps installed. The Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z level-peg once more with 2GB a piece - the most you'll see in any current phone.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Software
Samsung Galaxy S4 – Android 4.2 with Touchwiz,
Sony Xperia Z – Android 4.2 with Sony UI
These phones both run the latest version of Android, 4.2 Jelly Bean. However, they look different because each uses a custom interface designed by their makers.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a new version of the TouchWiz interface that been used in phones for years. It looks just like the one in the Galaxy S3, but has a bucketload of new features. Top bits include:
• A redesigned camera interface based on that of the Samsung Galaxy Camera.
• Smart Pause, which pauses vids when you take your eyes away from the screen.
• Language translator S Translator.
• WatchON, which uses the phone’s IR blaster to control your TV.
• S Health, which helps you plan exercise activities
Sony’s interface has fewer bells and whistles. It’s out too look grown-up and sleek, while the Samsung Galaxy S4 interface is – with default settings – brighter and jollier. There are a bunch of pre-installed Themes in the Xperia Z, which add an array of backgrounds and lock screens for a phone facelift that only takes a few taps.
Which is better? It’s a tough call because neither is exactly stellar. They don’t fiddle with the way Android works in a particularly dramatic way, and part of us wishes we had the option of stock Android. However, we’ll give the nod to Samsung this time for its incorporation of a new camera interface, which can feel a bit underdeveloped in vanilla Android, and some fun gadgets.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Camera
Samsung Galaxy S4 – 13MP Sony sensor, LED flash, HDR mode with video, Galaxy Camera-style UI
Sony Xperia Z – 13MP Sony sensor, LED flash, HDR mode with video
The Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z use exactly the same sensor, a 13.1MP jobbie from Sony. This is the sensor seen in numerous top-end phones in 2013.
Although the sensor is a determining factor of image quality, particularly in low-light situations, it’s far from the only one. Processing and lens quality are also of paramount importance.
Samsung Galaxy S4 - Detail sample
Sony Xperia Z - Detail sample
These shots of the London skyline show clearly that the Samsung Galaxy S4's pictures are much higher-contrast. At pixel level, they demonstrate significantly more fine detail too.
Check out the scaffolding to the far left of the building next to the Gherkin - the criss-cross pattern is clearly discernable in the Samsung phone, but is reduced to an incoherent mush in the Xperia Z.
The pixel crop also shows purple fringing in the Xperia Z, largely absent from the Galaxy S4.
Although some of it may come from agressive processing rather than superior photographic hardware, the Samsung's pictures 'pop' far more than the Sony Xperia Z's thanks to the increased contrast.
Samsung Galaxy S4 - macro sample
Sony Xperia Z - macro sample
To check out these phones' macro abilities, we headed outside and got as close to nature as focusing distance would allow.
When shooting macro photos, once again the Galaxy S4 comes out on top. Picture-quality wise, the Xperia Z's focusing is softer and it can't render the same level of detail as the Galaxy S4. The Samsung's close-up shot does suggest there's some pretty enthusiastic processing going on there, although the resulting shot is not harsh-looking.
The most significant win for the Samsung in macro shooting isn't quality, though, but focusing. The tap-to-focus-and-shoot style of the Xperia Z left us with 90 percent out of focus images, as the phone failed to lock onto the foreground plant. Taking macro shots with the Galaxy S4 is far more reliable - and less stressful.
Both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z have single-LED flashes. And pretty poow low light performance in dark conditions when the flash is not applied.
These phones have truly tiny sensor pixels, so despite their fast lenses, photos quickly become noisy as the light level diminishes. The image quality observations made earlier apply to flash photos too. The Samsung Galaxy S4's shot is far higher-contrast, leaving the Xperia Z's looking milky and indistinct by comparison. There's slightly more of a colour cast to the Galaxy S4's flash, but its photos are - once again - superior.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Sony Xperia Z - Battery Life
Samsung Galaxy S4 – 2600mAh
Sony Xperia Z – 2330mAh
A super-slim phone with a massive, high pixel density screen is always going to mean questionable battery life – until phones start using different battery technology. The Samsung Galaxy S4 battery is slightly higher-capacity than the Xperia Z’s, assuming they are of the same voltage.
In testing we found that the Sony Xperia Z’s battery was pretty mediocre, generally conking out within a day of mid-level use mainly due to the hungry CPU and Full-HD screen. The Samsung Galaxy S4, on the other hand, lasted well into the night, even with slightly heavier usage. The one problem we did find with the Galaxy S4 was the recharge time, which could last for several hours without filling the battery.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z are phones of the same league. Their screens, performance and software are comparable, but in most respects the Samsung Galaxy S4 wins out. Its screen is a bit nicer, the software has some more bells ‘n’ whistles, the battery lasts longer and its camera performs better. The glass rear of the Sony feels a bit nicer than the thin plastic battery cover of the Samsung, but otherwise it’s a fairly safe victory for the Galaxy S4.