Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The best Android phones: Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Sony Xperia S and the HTC One X

One characteristic more than any other defines what a high end Android smartphone is these days is the high resolution 720p (720 x 1280 pixel) display. In a sense, the new high resolution display does not do all that much to enhance smartphone functionality in terms of a communication or business device. The 720p display improves the smartphone as a multimedia device, greatly enhancing the way the phone presents pictures, video, drawings and games. How important that is to you is something you will have to decide for yourself. But in defining what we consider a top end Android phone for today, we do consider it as an indispensable requirement. 

If you are looking for a top of the line Android phone today, there are three options in the Philippine market: the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Sony Xperia S and HTC One X. Some readers might wonder why we excluded the Samsung Galaxy Note. It is simple really, if the Galaxy Note appeals to you, none of the three we are looking at here is necessarily a good alternative. The 5.3-inch screen of the Galaxy Note may seem only a little bigger the the 4.65-inch display of the Galaxy Nexus, but that is only when you read about it. Compared side by side, the 5.3-inch display is massively larger. The absence of the Galaxy Note in this comparison should not be taken to mean we do not think it is an excellent device, but rather with its large display,  stylus and custom software designed to take advantage of the stylus, it is sui generis. If you want the Galaxy Note, buy it, and do not worry about whether the Galaxy Nexus, Xperia S and One  is better. The Galaxy Note is in a class by itself.

On to our three contenders...

Samsung Galaxy Nexus
  • Cash price: Php30,000 via a Smart prepaid kit
  • Postpaid options: Free from Smart at Data Plan 2000
Quick specs:
  • Android 4.0 
  • 4.65-inch Super AMOLED display, 720 x 1280 pixels
  • 16 GB of storage, not expandable
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • Dual core 1.2 GHz processor, TI OMAP  3 chipset
  • PowerVR SGX540 graphics processing unit
  • 5 MP autofocus camera, LED flash
  • 1.3 MP secondary camera
  • 1080p video recording
  • HSDPA+ 21.1 Mbps
  • 1750 mAh battery, user replaceable
For many, the Galaxy Nexus is the only choice. It is after all the Google phone, offering the pure Android experience. This means it gets software updates months ahead of other Android phones and the operating system installed is free from manufacturer customizations and add-ons, which some users consider bloat. 

The Galaxy Nexus was the phone on which Android 4.0, more commonly known as Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), was launched.  It also introduced a new configuration for Android phones, with soft keys which are part of the display instead the usual dedicated physical or capacitive buttons. These soft buttons minimize when not needed by the app to allow you to maximize the display.  

In this comparison we will use the Galaxy Nexus as the reference point for our comparison.

Sony Xperia S
  • Cash price: Php27,990 MSRP but available at Php25,000 from authorized retailers with official Sony Warranty
  • Postpaid options: None

Quick specs:
  • Android 2.3, to be upgraded to Android 4.0
  • 4.3-inch LCD display, 720 x 1280 pixels
  • 32 GB of storage, not expandable
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • Dual core 1.5 GHz processor, Snapdragon chipset
  • Adreno 220
  • 12 MP autofocus camera, LED flash
  • 1.3 MP secondary camera
  • 1080p video recording
  • HSDPA 14.4 Mbps
  • HDMI out
  • 1750 mAh battery, not user replaceable
The first new entry into the Philippine market is the Sony Xperia S. Available at Php25,000 with a Sony Warranty it can be acquired for Php5,000 less than the Galaxy Nexus, and in many respects it specifications are better than the Galaxy Nexus.

Where they are different. One key difference is screen size. The Galaxy Nexus screen is 4.65-inches in size, while the Xperia S has a smaller 4.3-inch display. The Xperia S also retains the dedicated buttons rather than using on screen soft key controls. The smaller display of the Xperia S makes it more compact than the Galaxy Nexus.
  • Galaxy Nexus: 135.5 x 67.9 x 8.9 mm
  • Xperia S: 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm
The smaller size should make Xperia S feel more comfortable in hand. In my hands, both felt equally comfortable, the more countered design and slimmer profile of the Galaxy Nexus seeming to compensate for the wider girth. Still, it you find the Galaxy Nexus too wide, give the Xperia S a look.

One thing which buyers may find disappointing is that the Xperia S still runs on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) instead of Android 4.0. But we do expect the Xperia S to be upgraded to Android 4.0 in a month or two, so we do not think it is that big an issue. Hardware is not upgradeable so I will focus on that.

Xperia S advantages. The first key advantage of the Xperia S is internal storage.  The Xperia S offers 32 GB or internal storage as compared to the 16 GB of the Galaxy Nexus. In both cases, the storage is not expandable. If 16 GB (actually a bit 13 GB of usable storage) is not enough for you, the Xperia S is a better choice.

The Xperia S also has a bigger 12 MP camera, as against the 5 MP unit on the Galaxy Nexus. The Galaxy Nexus has a very good 5 MP shooter. Surprisingly the 12 MP shooter of the Xperia S is not necessarily much better than the 5 MP camera on the Galaxy Nexus. You can compare the two using GSMArena's Photo Compare Tool at this link. Still more megapixels does count, especially if you edit and crop pictures. The Xperia S camera also offers features not found in the Galaxy Nexus camera, namely image stabilization and smile detection. Both phones have face detection and panorama mode. The Xperia S also has a dedicated camera button. Sony is a top camera maker, so the rich camera related features are no surprise.

Both of these dual core phones are fast. But each has its own advantages. The Galaxy Nexus is much faster in browser benchmarks. The Android 4.0 update should improve the performance of the Xperia S in this regard. The Xperia S is much faster in graphics benchmarks being able to running the NenaMark2 benchmark at 37.5 frames per second as against 24 frames per second for the Galaxy Nexus. We would think, overall, the Xperia S is the "faster" device.

Another feature I like on the Xperia S is that it comes with a mini HDMI port, something you do not have in the Galaxy Nexus.

Galaxy Nexus Advantages. We already mentioned the larger screen, slimmer profile and the advantages of the pure Android experience. I also prefer the Super AMOLED technology used in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. If you use black or dark backgrounds it does save a lot of battery life. If you use light colored or white backgrounds, or browse the web a lot (websites mainly have white or light colored backgrounds) the Galaxy Nexus becomes a battery hog. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus radio supports HSDPA+ 21.1 Mbps as against the 14.4 Mbps radio in the Xperia S. There is another feature I really appreciate on the Galaxy Nexus, the user replaceable battery. A feature which is disappearing these days and not found on the Xperia S.

  • Cash price: Php32,900 MSRP but available at Php28,500 from authorized retailers with official HTC Warranty
  • Postpaid options: None
Quick specs:
  • Android 4.0 with HTC Sense UI
  • 4.7-inch Super IPS LCD2 display, 720 x 1280 pixels
  • 32 GB of storage, not expandable
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • Quad core 1.5 GHz processor, Tegra 3 chipset
  • ULP GeForce graphics processing unit
  • 8 MP autofocus camera, LED flash
  • 1.3 MP secondary camera
  • 1080p video recording
  • HSPDA+ 21.1 Mbps
  • Beats Audio
  • 25 GB of Dropbox storage for two years 
  • 1800 mAh battery, not user replaceable
The other new flagship which hit the Philippine this month is the HTC One X. Available from authorized distributors for as low as Php28,500 with an official warranty it is priced between the Galaxy Nexus and the Xperia S.

It is like a Galaxy Nexus on steroids. The HTC One X has a large 4.7-inch display which is a but bigger than the 4.65-inch display found on the Galaxy Nexus. But compared side by side, the One X screen is much larger since in addition to the large display it uses dedicated capacitive buttons rather than on screen keys, effectively making it more like a 4.9-inch or so display. Remember though, the on screen soft keys in the Galaxy Nexus do minimize when the app deems them not necessary.   

Given that the Galaxy Nexus has a Super AMOLED display and the One X has an IPS display, you might expect the Galaxy Nexus to have a more vibrant display. But this is not the case. The implementation of the Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy Nexus is configured to run dimmer than it does on other Samsung phones like the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note. If you like the brighter displays, the One X wins in this regard. The Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy Nexus is also of the Pentile Matrix variety. Without getting into all the details, if you examine both under the magnifying glass you will notice that the One X display is a bit sharper, even if both devices have 720 x 1280 pixel resolution displays.

The One X also has more storage than the Galaxy Nexus. Like the Xperia  S, the One X also comes with 32 GB of internal storage. HTC has in addition bundled two years of 25 GB of Dropbox storage with their phone. Storage is not user expandable.

The 8 MP camera on the One X camera also compares well with the primary camera's on the Galaxy Nexus and Xperia S. HTC also bundled a smile shutter, HDR, a panorama mode and very fast shot to shot time with an unobtrusive preview box which pops up at the bottom right rather than covering the entire display. It even allows you to take stills while shooting video. 

Ultimately, what most One X buyers are probably interested in is the quad core processor. The Tegra 3 chipset on this phone with its quad core processor and ULP Geforce graphics is beats the Qualcomm chipset on the Xperia S in all the benchmarks ran by GSM Arena by a substantial margin. Similarly, it outruns the Galaxy Nexus, in all but the BrowserMark benchmark. Earlier we mentioned the NenaMark2 benchmark, running the benchmark at 47.5 frames per second it is almost twice as fast as the Galaxy Nexus and 27% faster than the Xperia S. It is also the only phone that can run Shadowgun and Riptide with full visual effects, something that even the iPad 3 and it quad core graphics cannot do.

The One X also does have a fifth companion core, which should save battery, but best to look for battery life tests from thirds parties. We do not get review units of phones, and cannot do battery life test.

In terms of data speeds, the One X also boasts HSDPA+ 21.1 Mbps connectivity like the Galaxy Nexus, which are both faster than the Xperia S.

So, is the One X the best?

Where the Galaxy Nexus is better. Well it is a short list. The Super AMOLED display can reduce battery consumption if you use wallpaper and user interfaces over a black background, with the drawback that the AMOLED displays consume more power than conventional ones over light colored backgrounds. I also think the the Galaxy Nexus user replaceable battery is a feature most of us would like to have.

Most important to many people who buy Nexus phones is that it is the Google phone. While both the One X and Galaxy Nexus run Android 4.0, operating system updates will be available sooner to the Galaxy Nexus, with the HTC update coming a few months later.

Where the Xperia S is better. The Xperia S has the smallest display making it the more compact unit, with the drawback that it is the thickest (and actually heaviest, but not by much) of the three. 
  • One X: 134.4 x 69.9 x 8.9 mm
  • Galaxy Nexus: 135.5 x 67.9 x 8.9 mm
  • Xperia S: 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm
The Xperia S also does the best job a 1080p video recording with a 14 Mbps bit rate as against the 10 Mbps bit rate  of the One X and the Galaxy Nexus. Another worth while feature is the mini HDMI out port. The One X will have an accessory dongle for wireless HDMI connectivity, but we do not know how much that will cost yet.

Conclusion. So which is the best? If you are looking postpaid, the Galaxy Nexus wins by default. It is the only one on a postpaid plan. If you are buying the phone, the Galaxy Nexus looks a bit expensive. 31K for only 16 GB of storage and a 5 MP camera looked fine a few months ago, but there are newer and cheaper options.

If you are buying cash, the Xperia S and One X are better choices. Which would I buy? The HTC One X. While the Xperia S is a great phone, the One X looks to be the better "two year investment."  The HSDPA 14.4 Mbps connectivity and 4.3-inch display size of the Xperia S makes it look more like a circa 2011 flagship phone. Still, if you like the smaller display it is a good buy at 25K. If 1080p video recording is a very important consideration, the Xperia S does this best.  The One X justifies its 3.5K price premium over the Xperia S with a larger display and bundled cloud storage. The faster performance of its quad core processor and ULP graphics also make it more future proof. 

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