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Samsung Galaxy S4 or Apple iPhone 5: which should I buy?

So, there you have it: Samsung launched the Galaxy S4. (opens in new tab) Make no mistake, it's an impressive device with specifications that match or exceed the competition. But figures on a piece of paper don't speak to overall usability, and performance doesn't necessarily equate to desirability. Rather than contemplating processor clock speeds and camera megapixels, we should be asking the simple question: should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S4? (opens in new tab) Or, rather, should I buy the Galaxy S4 or the iPhone 5? (opens in new tab) It's nigh on impossible to get away from this grudge match, such is the extent to which Apple, Samsung, and their respective handsets have come to dominate the mobile industry - and the passion with which the firms loathe each other. But which comes up trumps in this particular battle?

The Galaxy S4 has a lot of potential selling points. In addition to top-notch hardware specifications, it has a bevy of slick software-based features. Following the example set by the HTC One, (opens in new tab) the Galaxy S4 features an infrared LED sensor, enabling your handset to double as a remote control in the living room. Then there's S Translate and S Health - the former is a real-time translation feature, while the latter monitors your activity and provides an insight into your health.

Elsewhere, Samsung Knox (opens in new tab) enables employers and IT departments to create a sandboxed work environment on the S4 to protect sensitive enterprise data -BlackBerry Balance is the obvious reference point here. Based on eye-tracking technology, Smart Scroll and Smart Pause are designed to allow you to stop video and scroll around pages via intuitive retina movements, while Air Gesture is a feature that lets you navigate your smartphone without actually touching the screen. All of which sounds genuinely impressive and makes it all the more puzzling that I'm thoroughly underwhelmed by the Galaxy S4 following its launch.

Of course, the iPhone 5 didn't exactly take the world by storm itself, though as with the Galaxy S4, there's a lot to like about Apple's latest handset. Siri has evolved from a precocious sidekick into a valued helper. The iOS platform is a huge selling point and offers the best overall mobile user experience out there. Though Samsung has its equivalent in Wallet, Passbook seems likely to develop into the definitive digital wallet app. So where did it all go wrong? If Samsung's new handset has so much wow factor it comes across as a bit try-hard and shallow, the iPhone 5 seems to lack innovation - it's lazy, in a word. What's more, many of its specifications, especially on the hardware front, look antiquated by today's standards.

So how come I'd rather have a 2012 Apple handset in my pocket than the brand spanking new Galaxy S4? There's no tangible way to quantify why I feel the iPhone 5 is a better phone. The accusations of fanboy-ism will no doubt flood in and, if it's the latest technology you want, then the Samsung Galaxy S4 is probably for you. But I give overall design ethos and in-hand feel serious weight and the iPhone's build quality is one of its greatest assets. Despite Samsung's best efforts to convince consumers otherwise, I think it's highly unlikely that the S4's polycarbonate body will prove at all satisfying to hold - military-grade or otherwise, plastic is still plastic. Other firms - witness the HTC One, which may well be superior to both the devices being discussed here - have opted to up their construction game this year, and it's a real shame Samsung hasn't chosen to do the same.

At the risk of sounding slightly Machiavellian, a smartphone is as much a status symbol as anything else. It's not just that the iPhone 5 is slimmer or lighter than the Galaxy S4 - more that it looks and feels like a premium product. Let's be clear: we're still waiting on our Galaxy S4 review sample, so I'm by no means trying to imply that I have explored Samsung's new flagship in detail. But in my experience, plastic doesn't speak to a person's upwardly mobile streak. Sure, the Samsung Galaxy S4 can do lots of cool stuff, some of it probably quite effectively. But it can't compete with the iPhone as a total package because it lets itself down so severely on the design front.

What's scary is that the iPhone 5 isn't even my favourite iPhone right now - that honour goes to the still-awesome iPhone 4S. The Galaxy S4 will sell shiploads, of course, but it has failed to seize the opportunity to polish Samsung's image as a manufacturer. In the long run, that may matter more than being able to hover your finger over a screen and switch browser tabs. Many consumers will no doubt wait to see what Apple delivers next - will the iPhone 5S pack a "killer feature"? (opens in new tab) - and while I'm itching to roll with a new handset, I'll probably end up taking the prudent route as well. As disappointed as I was by Apple's iPhone 5 (opens in new tab), one thing I won't be doing is moving for a Samsung Galaxy S4 - ultimately, you shouldn't be in a rush to buy either device. That HTC One, though...

For more, see our Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Apple iPhone 5 spec comparison (opens in new tab). Alternatively, why not check out our Galaxy S4 vs Galaxy S3 spec showdown? (opens in new tab)

James is a freelance editor, journalist, and writer with 10+ years experience in digital media, SEO and news writing. He has produced content on a number of Future sites, including TechRadar, ITProPortal, Tom's Guide, and T3, and was Senior Staff Writer at ITProPortal.