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Apple’s iPhone 5S or Samsung’s Galaxy S4: Which is the best smartphone?

In truth, after all the many leaks, Apple’s iPhone 5S announcement last week was short on surprises. There were even the requisite subtle jabs at Android. Like it or not, the smartphone market has changed a lot in recent years. Android devices outsell Apple, and the company most responsible for driving Android sales forward is Samsung. This South Korean manufacturer is probably the only phone maker other than Apple that inspires an almost-cult-like following.

The Galaxy S4 was released to almost universal acclaim earlier this year, and remains the top selling flagship Android device. The question we’re asking here is: Did Apple successfully parry Samsung’s attack with the 5S, or has Android now pulled out ahead of the iPhone?

iPhone 5S vs Galaxy S4: Dimensions and build quality

The iPhone 5S has hardly changed at all on the outside when compared to the iPhone 5. It is still an extremely thin and light phone at just 7.6mm thick and 112 grams. The 4in screen keeps the device small and easy to handle. It’s also a very premium-feeling device. Apple loves to talk about the precise way the components fit together and those striking chamfers, but it’s not just talk. The iPhone 5S is actually a lovely piece of technology.

The Galaxy S4 (GS4) is definitely a high-end phone, but it doesn’t really feel like one. The GS4 is made of a slippery plastic housing that only gets slipperier the more you handle it. It has a much larger surface area with the 5in AMOLED screen.

It’s not much thicker than the iPhone 5S, though – just 7.9mm. However, it weighs 130 grams. That’s light for a big phone, but still more hefty than the iPhone. Imagine how heavy it would be if it wasn’t made from plastic.

The iPhone 5S comes in gold, white, and space grey. Yes, just straight black seems to be missing. The Galaxy S4 is out in white, black, blue and red, with purple, brown, and pink versions on their way.

Apple’s more understated approach to colour choices seems more compelling to us.

iPhone 5S vs Galaxy S4: Hardware specs

The iPhone 5S is packing a new Apple A7 system-on-a-chip (SoC). The company is famously tight-lipped about the details of its ARM chips, but Apple claimed in its keynote that the A7 was “up to twice as fast” as the A6 (which is in the iPhone 5). That would be a serious performance gain, but leaked benchmarks point to a more modest (but still impressive) 31 per cent performance boost.

Apple is also using a new coprocessor called the M7. This is a little slice of silicon that lives apart from the main SoC. Its job is to process accelerometer and gyroscope input while the phone is asleep or doing other things. It will allow apps to track your movements without draining the battery. One example cited is fitness apps, but that’s just the start.

Samsung’s baby runs on a more conventional Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core SoC (in the UK and US). It’s clocked at 1.9GHz and it really screams. It doesn’t have any of the nifty coprocessor magic phones like the Moto X (over in the US) and iPhone 5S are using, but the GS4 does have a big 2600 mAh battery to make up for it.

The GS4 is still 32-bit like all other smartphones, but this is more of an abstract distinction. It will be relevant for hardware and app support in the future, but not right now.

Apple has stuck with the 4in 1136 x 640 Retina display from the last generation. This is a very nice panel with almost perfect viewing angles. The Galaxy S4 has a 5in Super AMOLED that holds its own and then some – the colours are more vibrant and it’s 1080p. When you look at the pixel density, the iPhone loses out with 325 pixels-per-inch (PPI), while the GS4 is up at 440 PPI.

One of the few new bits of hardware Apple added in the iPhone 5S is the fingerprint reader under the home button. The Galaxy S4 doesn’t have an equivalent feature. Anyone with an iPhone 5S will be able to unlock the phone automatically just by touching it, and that could be an excellent improvement to the overall user experience.

Samsung makes the best overall cameras on an Android device, and the Galaxy S4 set a new standard. This 13-megapixel sensor captures incredible detail, and it even performs well in low light situations. Samsung has reached an almost Apple-level of focus accuracy too. The iPhone 5S sticks with its 8-megapixel camera, but takes a page from a different Android OEM’s playbook.

The iPhone 5S has larger pixels instead of cramming more small pixels onto a larger sensor. The 1.5µm pixels are larger than previous phones, which allows the iPhone to take in more light. That means better low light images, and faster exposures in good light so you can capture movement better. It also has an f/2.2 aperture to assist with gathering all that light. It’s the same thing HTC is doing with its Ultrapixel sensor, which has 2.0µm pixels, but is only 4-megapixel.

iPhone 5S vs Galaxy S4: Software

This is where things come down much more to personal preference. We can benchmark chips, or look at the PPI and viewing angles of a screen, but there’s no objective measurement of whether Samsung’s Android implementation is better or worse than iOS 7. With software, it depends on what you need to get out of it.

Android in general is more open than iOS. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 is currently running version 4.2, which is only one version behind (until KitKat is out). Samsung would prefer you didn’t think about the Android version, though. It has layered its own software and service on top of the Google experience. Some of it works well, like the enhanced camera interface. Some other features, like Smart Scroll and S Voice, are simply not a good user experience.

The Galaxy S4 is probably going to get one more timely update, maybe to Android 4.4 KitKat. That said, “timely” in the world of Android OEMs could mean some months down the line. After that, Samsung will have moved on to new devices and the GS4 will get less attention. It might see one more major update after its successor comes out.

The iPhone 5S is going to come with iOS 7 pre-installed, but the majority of Apple devices have access to this now. Getting the 5S assures you of at least two years of updates with most of the features intact. The iOS 7 update is a big departure, so there might be major changes to look forward to.

The iPhone 5S fits perfectly into the Apple software ecosystem. If you use iTunes, have an Apple TV, or keep an iPad on the coffee table, this phone will mesh with your life. Airdrop lets you easily share files between Apple devices, for example. The new lost iPhone locking capability is also a very cool feature that Samsung doesn’t quite replicate. The app ecosystem is also more compelling than it is on Android (for most users).

In most other places, iOS 7 has caught up to Android, at least on paper. The notification drawer is much better, the multitasking UI has live screen previews, and settings are more accessible. Opinions are sharply divided with regard to the design of iOS 7. Some love it, and some hate it.

Apple has made some big software improvements this time around, and Samsung can’t continue to rely on the intrinsic appeal of Android to carry it forward. Some of its unique features are falling flat, and even the top Android OEM can’t afford to give Cupertino that kind of opening. Just like every year, the iPhone 5S is the best iPhone yet. The user experience has always been above reproach, but the 5S is catching up to Samsung in the feature department.