Phablet devices have continued to gain traction in 2013 with more manufacturers jumping on the big smartphone bandwagon than ever before.
As arguably one of the pioneers of the space, Samsung has continued its Galaxy Note line with the latest addition, the Galaxy Note 3, refining the design, improving the processing power and display, and adding a host of software features.
HTC’s latest handset is its first phablet design so far and the HTC One Max implements many of the original HTC One flagship’s stylistic accents and features into this larger form factor. The device features a huge 5.9-inch touch panel, an aluminium body and HTC’s unique UI.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3: Key specs and features
While Samsung’s initial foray into the large smartphone world with the original Galaxy Note was a bold manoeuvre, the company has since demonstrated a more cautious and conservative approach to each new iteration. The display has expanded, but only incrementally.
This is a very good thing, with the Galaxy Note 3 standing out amongst its peers as one of the more manageable large-scale handsets on the current market. The display is a reasonably sizable 5.7-inches (up from the 5.5-inches and 5.3-inches of its predecessors) but the actual chassis has not grown from the Galaxy Note 2’s proportions and even better it has become thinner, lighter (even lighter than the original Galaxy Note) and more balanced overall, while the bezel around the display has narrowed to accommodate the touchscreen panel’s expansion.
The end result is a device which is not only easier to use but easier on the eye too. Samsung’s usual flourishes are also present and correct, including a silver bezel and accents on the speaker grille and physical home key. The two capacitive controls on either side of the Home key are invisible until you tap them, which is a neat touch.
Build quality is to Samsung’s usually high-standard as there’s no flexing or give when handling the device. The back panel has been treated differently this time, rather than Samsung’s glossy finish we’re treated to a faux leather ‘notebook’ style textured effect plastic with a soft-touch feel. The skeumorphic design isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but for me it’s certainly a good deal better than the slippery old plastic and it does provide good grip together with the ridges on the chrome surround – obviously for a larger device anything to improve the handling in this way is most welcome.
The most prominent feature of any phablet is the vast expanse of touchscreen glass and the Galaxy Note 3 uses a 5.7-inch non-PenTile Super AMOLED panel with a full HD 1920×1080 pixel resolution at 386 pixels-per-inch (ppi). Visual quality is crisp and extremely colourful with the excellent contrast AMOLED is known for. Viewing angles are also robust and brightness is powerful enough that use in direct sunlight isn’t a problem at all. Generally it’s a win all round.
Thanks to the top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor onboard, the Galaxy Note 3 performs well in the speed and smoothness stakes too. The chip is clocked at 2.3GHz with 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 graphics processing unit (GPU) and it’s right up there as one of the best all-round performers of the year alongside other Snapdragon 800 models.
Storage is ample with 32GB or 64GB onboard and microSD support for cards up to 64GB and you’ve got a full range of connectivity options from 4G and 3G to Wi-Fi, DLNA, Bluetooth, NFC and MHL. Generally if you want to hook the Note 3 up to anything, including the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, there’s probably a port or protocol that can do it in there somewhere. The replaceable battery is a hefty 3,200mAh and in performance tests I found it lasted about three days with moderate use, but I suspect it could go for perhaps four at a push if you tried some clever power saving tricks.
Software is Android Jelly Bean 4.3 with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI layered on top. As well as a distinctively Samsung-style lick of paint, TouchWiz introduces a number of key features. Multiscreen adds an extra set of multitasking capabilities which work really well together with Android’s native multitasking and some of the S-Pen’s features, such as Pen Window – which allows you to draw an area of the screen for a windowed app to occupy.
While it’s not a focal point of Samsung’ marketing, the Galaxy Note 3’s 13-megapixel camera deserves plenty of praise heaped on it for its impressive visual quality, ability to shoot 4K video capture and general consistency as a highly usable point-and-shoot with satisfying results. Images are sharp with excellent colour saturation, detail and dynamic range.
HTC One Max: Key specs and features
While immediate comparisons are invariably made to the “standard size” HTC One, the HTC One Max is, in truth, more closely related to the HTC One Mini, at least in terms of exterior design and build.
It shares the same plastic bumper design as the HTC One Mini around the outer edge, something the HTC One lacks. But apart from this, all three models are largely the same on the outside – an aluminium shell with a slightly curved back panel. The front fascia has a panel at either end of the display with punched stereo speaker grilles and HTC’s BoomSound tech (which includes an amplifier). Meanwhile on the rear that panel design is continued with either end sectioned off by a plastic band.
Unlike the other HTC One devices, the HTC One Max’s middle panel is removable. There’s no removable battery pack inside, however, just the SIM card slot and, uniquely amongst its stable-mates, a microSD slot.
In the hand the HTC One Max feels very well made, the aluminium gives a premium feel and the handset is nice to look at.
Processing power is plenty capable enough thanks to the use of the same chip as found in the HTC One, which is Qualcomm’s second-in-command, the Snapdragon 600 quad-core model. It’s clocked at 1.7GHz with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 320 GPU. HTC’s optimisation prowess is such that this delivers great performance on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with HTC Sense 5.5.
Sense 5.5 is broadly similar to Sense 5 with HTC’s own font and icon style, custom menu layouts and the BlinkFeed homescreen which feeds you news, social networking and photos. The main difference is the ability to switch BlinkFeed off.
Storage options include 16GB and 32GB onboard and as I mentioned earlier there’s a microSD slot for cards up to 64GB while connectivity includes 4G LTE, 3G, Wi-Fi, DLNA, Bluetooth, MHL and NFC. It’s as well-equipped for connectivity as its rival, more or less, while the battery is a similarly large capacity 3,300mAh unit.
Last, but by no means least, the display. HTC has consistently delivered some pretty special displays on its HTC One devices and the One Max is no different. It’s a massive 5.9-inch Super LCD3 with a full HD 1920×1020 pixel resolution at 373ppi. As with other HTC SLCD3 screens this is crisp, sharp and has vivid colour and brightness. It’s great in bright light and viewing angles are wide. Unusually for non-AMOLED screens the contrast is also particularly good. It’s a pretty even match for Samsung’s touchscreen overall.
Points to consider: Practical use
While it seems odd talking about handling and practicality when both phones are larger than average, in my experience, at this scale every millimetre and every misplaced gram counts.
Consequently the HTC One Max is looking like it may have overextended itself somewhat. It is significantly larger than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. In fact the Galaxy Note 3 almost fits inside the HTC One’s display panel space if you stack them on top of each other. Not only is it, in my view, a bit too big, it’s also a good deal heavier (217g to the Galaxy Note 3’s 168g). Some users may have issues with the Galaxy Note 3 filling their trouser pocket but the HTC One Max takes this to the nth degree.
The aluminium finish on the HTC One Max, while nice and premium feeling, is also a bit slippery, which is not great for a phone that is difficult to handle at the best of times. Samsung’s faux leather effect is much grippier and actually helps the experience noticeably.
While it’s nice to see the removable back panel on the HTC One Max, the lack of a removable battery is a bit galling. Samsung doesn’t have this problem. So far I’ve also experienced problems re-seating the HTC One Max’s panel and I can see this being an annoyance for users too.
As with comparisons between HTC’s other aluminium models and Samsung’s durable plastics, while the finish might arguably be nicer from HTC, the One Max will be far more liable to unsightly scratches, dents and dings.
A key advantage of the HTC One Max is its audio quality, which thanks to the front-facing stereo BoomSound speakers is fantastic for multimedia consumption.
While I’m yet to test out the HTC One Max’s camera I have been tremendously impressed with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s imaging capabilities. On paper, things are not looking great for the HTC One Max as I wasn’t impressed by the HTC One’s 4.3-megapixel Ultrapixel setup and the HTC One Max’s configuration omits a few things, like optical image stabilisation, which really should make a substantial difference. I will be paying plenty of attention to this in my full review.
General performance is actually fairly similar for day-to-day operation. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 aboard the HTC One Max may not be the top dog but HTC certainly knows what it’s doing when it comes to optimisation and generally you should get a pretty smooth experience comparable to the Snapdragon 800 on the Galaxy Note 3.
Both phones are also doing well when it comes to battery life, sporting huge capacities which should see days of usage. Connectivity in each case is extensive and covers all that should be expected of a modern flagship.
Likewise both display panels are excellent and should please the vast majority of buyers.
At this point I am leaning towards the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. It seems to be a more manageable size and weight, and little things like the easy grip texture help too. I also believe it is the more durable option. The displays on both phones are superb but the Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s excellent camera, S-Pen and multitasking features do set it apart. While performance on each is good, the Snapdragon 800 chip on Samsung’s device should remain relevant for longer as more advanced apps and content emerge. Other perks, like the removable battery – enabling the use of spares – only sweeten the deal.