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hiawatha bray | tech lab

iPhone’s still on top, but its smartphone rivals excel

A salesperson demonstrated the new Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge smartphone.Eric Risberg/AP

“Just buy an iPhone.” I’ve been saying that a lot lately, to inquisitive strangers and friends. No hesitation, no reluctance. Just buy an iPhone.

I’m surprised by my own certainty. I’ve used and loved an HTC One Android phone for the past two years. But I got an Apple iPhone 6 last fall, and it’s no contest. The iPhone’s faster, lighter, and thinner, with a big bright screen, excellent battery life, and a marvelous camera. Game over.

Or not. Here come some new Androids, from HTC and Samsung Corp., to complicate matters.

The HTC One M9 is as elegant as ever, but with a snappier processor, a much-improved camera, and excellent stereo speakers.


The Samsung Galaxy S6 brings a sleek new body, an inventive user interface, and a fingerprint scanner that actually works — usually.

My Android’s two-year contract is about to run out. Last time that happened, I staged a showdown between the original HTC One and Samsung Corp.’s top Android handset of the time, the Galaxy S4. The S4 became Samsung’s biggest hit ever; consumers worldwide bought 40 million of them. Yet I picked the HTC One and have never regretted it.

It’s a much tougher choice this time, thanks to Samsung’s desperate need for a comeback. Last year’s Galaxy S5 wasn’t quite a flop, but pretty close, mainly because it offered so little improvement over the S4. Besides, many consumers bought Samsung’s phones for their massive screens. Last year’s enlarged iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models eliminated that advantage.

So Samsung realized it could no longer settle for minor tweaks. Its new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge represent a major overhaul. Gone is the flimsy plastic feel of earlier Galaxy models. This time, we get rock-hard Gorilla Glass front and back, fitted into a rigid aluminum frame. At last, a Galaxy phone feels like it was built for grownups. You can’t pop them open and put in fresh batteries, and there’s no slot for extra memory. But the success of the iPhone proves that few people care.


HTC One M9.

The more expensive of the two, the S6 Edge, sells for around $800 (though all carriers offer a variety of payment plans) and features a screen that wraps around the sides of the phone. The right edge of the screen becomes a mini-display that will show time, temperature, or message notifications, or a color-coded list of your five favorite people, so you can instantly phone them or fire off e-mails. Samsung’s famous for useless gimmicks, like controlling the phone with hand gestures, but the Edge display is a well-honed exception. Still, it adds $100 to the price.

The “basic” S6 edition, at about $700, lacks the edgy screen but packs in all the other high-end features. For instance, there’s a 16-megapixel camera that takes excellent photos in low light. And while the S5’s fingerprint scanner requires you to swipe, the S6 responds to a simple touch, just like the iPhone. It’s not quite as consistently reliable, but it usually works.

Later this year, the upcoming Samsung Pay service kicks off. Just like iPhone 6 users, S6 fans will be able to pay at retail stores by tapping the phone against a payment terminal. That’s when the upgraded fingerprint scanner will really pay off. And Samsung Pay is supposed to work with millions of old-school credit card readers that can’t accept Apple Pay.


The latest HTC One, priced at around $700, is a less dramatic upgrade, perhaps because these phones had fewer flaws. We get a sleek aluminum body, a slightly larger touchscreen, and an even better set of those fine stereo speakers, the best I’ve ever heard on a phone. And unlike the S6, HTC squeezed in a micro SD slot for up to 128 gigabytes of extra memory.

By far, the most meaningful improvement is on the back of the phone. The original One’s camera takes hideously discolored photos in low light. The latest model comes with a much better 20-megapixel camera that takes sharp photos in all lighting conditions. Still, it doesn’t quite match the low-light performance of the Galaxy G6.

I could happily tote the new HTC phone around for the next two years. But I don’t think I will. With its superb build quality, first-rate camera, and the promise of Samsung Pay, the Galaxy S6 has leapfrogged my former favorite. For a committed Android user, it’s the one to choose.

And yet, I’ll keep on recommending iPhone 6, which does just about everything, and just about perfectly. Exciting though they may be, the Samsung-HTC wars are a fight for second place.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.