Samsung Galaxy S5 vs. HTC One (M8): Which phone reigns supreme?

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Credit: Michael Homnick

The phone market is a polarizing, fanboy-laden wasteland. There is one phone that must be the best, and then every other phone has to be garbage. Of course, that’s nonsense: it’s perfectly reasonable for two competing products to both be quite excellent, and that’s exactly what we have with the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8).

If your phone is getting a little long in the tooth and it’s time to upgrade, you don’t care that they’re both good. You don’t need two phones, you need to know which one of these hot flagship handsets is better than the other. So let’s put a stake in the ground and declare a winner as we compare two of the most popular phones of the year.

Build quality and design

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Jason: I can appreciate that the water- and dust-resistance of the Galaxy S5 is useful, but I can’t stand the flap over the USB/Charging port that it necessitates. I feel like the M8 can survive a rainstorm just fine. I like the lighter weight of the GS5, but the One’s metal body and curved shape feel a lot nicer in my hand, and it’s more durable. I want to say a removable battery is something I care about, but in truth, it’s a feature I never use. Oh, and the M8 puts the headphone jack on the bottom, where it belongs. The One wins this category hands-down.

Flo: I happen to like the look and feel of the Galaxy S5, more so than the aluminum finish on the HTC One (M8). It’s easy to hold and because it’s a bit shorter than the One, it fits better in my pockets. I really like the pearly iridescent backing on the white variant of the Galaxy S5, too.

But I’m a reckless smartphone user. I often drop my phone on the floor at the train station and in the parking lot, and it’s usually buried under a pile of things somewhere in my room. The HTC One (M8) will last through the harshest beating, but its long narrow chassis just won’t fit in my pocket. So if you don’t have small pockets, go for the M8.

Blake: With a design that feels like a step forward from its predecessor, the One line has never looked more premium. The all-plastic and six-month-old LG G2 looks miles better than the Galaxy S5, but putting Samsung’s latest flagship next to the M8 is just a no-brainer.

What I really appreciate about the GS5 is its water and dust resistance. It’s a direction that I’d like to see more manufacturers go in, but I’d ultimately be willing to sacrifice this for a design like the M8.

While there is a lot more to consider, I really don’t see much of a contest. The M8 takes the cake here.

Winner: HTC One (M8)

Performance and battery life

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Jason: The GS5 is slightly faster, and has slightly better battery life. Emphasis on slightly. In real-world use, both are so responsive and fluid that I can’t really tell a difference. No matter what the benchmark charts say, I can’t recommend making a purchase based on performance. It’s a tie.

Flo: They both have Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processors and they were both beaten in many tests by the iPhone 5S in Anandtech’s benchmarks. If getting a phone with the highest performing specifications is a priority, you’re looking toward the wrong platform. To reiterate what Jason said, this is very much a tie between the two.

Blake: Both phones share the same Snapdragon 801, 2GB RAM, and other nearly identical specifications. Both have batteries that will last you a full day, with the Galaxy S5 managing to squeeze out just a little more juice.

After using the M8 and the GS5 enough, the performance differences between the two seem negligible. Never once have I felt like one of the smartphones was slowing me down compared to the other. 

Winner: Tie

Cameras and camera software

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Jason: This one is tough. No doubt about it, in well-lit conditions the Galaxy S5 takes better pictures with the rear-facing camera. And it takes much better video, always. But the HTC One (M8) excels in two areas I particularly care about: low-light performance, and a vastly superior front-facing camera. I find the M8’s camera software better combines speed, ease-of-use, and advanced features. The GS5’s rear camera is definitely better, but software and a superior front camera make this a tie.

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The HTC One (left) and the Galaxy S5 (right) perform differently in low light.

Flo: I’m obsessed with taking selfies and the HTC One’s 5-megapixel front-facing camera is the best front camera I’ve ever used. The One is also great for weekend nights when I’m at the bar with my friends because of its low-light capabilities. Basically, the One is a phone for narcissists, and I don’t sweat over the limitations of 4-megapixel UltraPixels because I don’t use my phone for super-serious photography. That’s what my beloved Canon T3i is for.

Blake: The Galaxy S5 has a solid 16 megapixel camera that produces some great photos but can’t compete with the One (M8) in terms of low-light performance. On the flipside, the M8 camera’s photos should be limited online sharing, or you’ll find yourself in a pixelated mess.

As far as camera software is concerned, HTC and Samsung went in different directions. The M8 has a ton of features in the camera software, most of which are elegantly tucked away for when you want to dig in. Unsurprisingly, Samsung’s camera software, while oozing with features, is an in-your-face mess.

There’s going to be a lot of personal preference involved when it comes to choosing one of the two smartphones solely based on their cameras, so this is another tie.

Winner: HTC One (M8)

Display and Audio

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Jason: I’m giving this to the HTC One (M8). That Galaxy S5 has one heck of a nice screen - bright, detailed, great color accuracy and saturation, and great viewing angles. While the M8’s display doesn’t quite match it, it’s still quite excellent. HTC’s audio quality just kills Samsung’s, though. The stereo speakers are louder and clearer, and placing them on the front of the device instead of the back simply makes sense. The M8 even sounds much better during a simple phone call.

Flo: The HTC One (M8), hands down. Just last weekend I was using the device as a portable boombox to stream Digitally Imported while painting a room. It lasted through many hours of streaming and I didn’t even need an amplifier to hear my music.

While the Galaxy S5 has a (super!) bright and vibrant display, the audio funnels through one little speaker on the back. You’ll be fine if you like to watch videos on the train with headphones on, though.

Blake: While the HTC One (M8) ships with an impressive display, it can’t match Samsung’s Super AMOLED HD display. Samsung nailed it in the screen department.

There is absolutely no contest in the audio department, as the front-facing BoomSound speakers on the M8 murder the GS5’s tiny speaker on its backside.

While I’d take the GS5's display over the M8’s any day, I’d also probably be willing to live with a less impressive display for the best audio quality you can find on any smartphone available, period. 

Winner: HTC One (M8)

TouchWiz vs. Sense 6

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Jason: TouchWiz is better in the Galaxy S5 than in past Samsung phones, but it’s still a bit of a mess. The “grid of circles” approach to Samsung’s software doesn’t fit in with the Android aesthetic. And even though Samsung pre-loads less bloatware on the GS5, there’s still a lot of stuff on there you might not ever use. HTC’s reskinning of Android uses a lighter touch, and it’s got a better keyboard and better treatment of the lock screen and phone app. I also find myself instantly addicted to the M8’s double-tap to wake and Motion Launch gestures. HTC’s software is simply more streamlined and useful, while Samsung is still trying to do all the things. I have to give HTC points for committing to timely software updates on all its phones for two years, too.

Flo: I echo Jason’s sentiments about TouchWiz. It’s a huge improvement over its predecessor, but there’s still a bit of bloatware to account for. HTC’s Sense 6 is light, fresh, and extremely flat. HTC stripped its UI of any and all aging artifacts. David Ruddock of Android Police tweeted it best:

This one goes to HTC.

Blake: One of the first things I do to any Android phone after the initial setup is install Nova Launcher to rid myself of any custom skin. That said, if I were to choose between Sense 6 or TouchWiz, it would probably be the latter.

I’ve always had trouble using Sense as my daily driver for a prolonged amount of time when using HTC phones, for whatever reason. Blinkfeed is great to use but not enough to stay with Sense. This isn’t to say that TouchWiz is much better, but I do appreciate some of the new design elements that have gone into TouchWiz this time around.

Sorry HTC, it’s TouchWiz for me.

Winner: HTC One (M8)

Unique features

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Jason: I have fun with the UFocus effect on the M8, but the GS5’s faux-depth-of-field effect is nearly as good. Frankly, most of the things the fancy Duo Camera does are gimmicks I’m not likely to use more than once or twice. The always-on step counting in the One works really well, while the GS5’s S Health features, while vastly more complete, are also wildly inaccurate. I can’t get the fingerprint scanner to work half the time, and my success rate with the heart rate monitor is worse. Download booster is a neat idea, even if mobile data is expensive and 3 of the 4 major carriers disable it. The fast charging and waterproofing are the most useful new features of the GS5. I give Samsung the win here, not because it’s unique extras are fantastic, but because HTC didn’t really pile up the M8 with a lot of novel stuff so much as focus on getting core features right.

Flo: The HTC One (M8) isn’t full of gimmicks, and that’s what initially attracted me to it. Its Smart Sensors work remarkably well and have been opened up to other developers to utilize, so I’m looking forward to see what comes out of that. As for the Duo camera, I still haven’t used it in any sort of real world scenario, though I mostly just take pictures of my cat—and selfies, of course.

I do wish that the One had the fingerprint security on the phone like one the iPhone and Galaxy S5. Also, the Galaxy S5 supports the ability to shout out “Okay, Google” to launch Google Now. This one goes to Samsung. 

Blake: HTC One (M8) gets this round. The unique features on the M8 are more useful than what you’ll find on the S5. Instead of a fingerprint sensor and heart rate monitor that work half the time, the M8 comes with a secondary depth sensor on the camera and some really cool tricks that might be less novel but at least work consistently.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S5

Overall

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Jason: I would be happy carrying around either phone in my pocket. Both are a lot faster than last year’s models, with much longer battery life, and refined software. But I simply enjoy using the HTC One (M8) more. It has a tangible premium high-quality feel, and software that seems deliberately and carefully crafted. With the Galaxy S5, I constantly run into something that seems half-baked, or included just for the sake of adding features (like the heart rate monitor). HTC’s menus, settings, lock screens, dialers, keyboards—the regular stuff that doesn’t get headlines but is used every day—looks and feels better than Samsung’s. And I can’t get past the fact that a $600+ phone shouldn’t feel as plasticy and cheap as the GS5. The fact that you get a 32GB M8 for the price of a 16GB GS5 just tips the scales further in HTC’s favor.

Flo: If you read my review, you know that I liked the Galaxy S5 for a number of reasons and I often suggest Samsung's variant over any other to technophobic friends. But if you're serious about your smartphone and want a flagship that's fast, well-made, and has a perfectly capable camera, the HTC One (M8) is your pick.

Blake: While I’ve been rooting for the HTC One in almost every section of this comparison, I’ll tell you that I already bought a Galaxy S5. I might return it, but it was a purchase I made, nonetheless.

Outside of the display and camera, there’s really nothing that should keep someone from getting the HTC One (M8). It looks, feels, and sounds better than anything Samsung has ever produced. It also ships with double the storage for the same price, which is something to consider.

Overall Winner: HTC One (M8)

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