In the world of Android flagship phones, there's plenty of competition and even more opinions about which phone(s) are best, but it's undeniable that two of the phones that generated the most hype and attention in 2013 were Samsung's Galaxy S4 and Google's Nexus 5 (another was from Motorola – also read my hands-on comparison of the Moto X and the Nexus 5). The GS4 hit the market in Q2, while the Nexus 5 arrived just about a month ago. There's been a Galaxy S4 in my house since the summer and I borrowed a Nexus 5 from Google for almost a full month, so at this point I've a strong enough handle on the strengths and weaknesses of each to help those of you still trying to decide between one or the other.
Look and feel
Both the Galaxy S4 and Nexus 5 run towards the big end of the smartphone spectrum. It's not uncommon to shock iPhone fans with the size of the Galaxy S4, and the Nexus 5 is essentially the same size, with just a slightly more pronounced curve to its top and bottom. Google's LG-made phone is .7 millimeters thicker and both phones are also identical in weight, at 130 grams each.
In fact, the only real points of difference between the two phones in this area is in surface aesthetics, where the Galaxy S4's glossy finish and metallic sides give the phone a snappier look than the plain Jane Nexus 5. I give a point to the Nexus 5 for the material its backing is made from, which is matte, non-slick and feels just a bit nicer in the hand than the cheaper plastic feel of the GS 4 (although both are actually made from plastic).
Advantage: Galaxy S4
In most respects when it comes to specs, these two phones have nearly identical, top-of-the-line guts with great 1920 x 1080 displays at over 440 pixels per inch, 2 GB of RAM, LTE and NFC, among other similarities.
The Nexus 5 benefits from being released nearly a half-year after the Galaxy S4 simply by virtue of the fact that the more advanced Snapdragon 800 CPU was available. The Galaxy S4 has the earlier Snapdragon 600. Both processors have four cores, but the Nexus 5's 800 is clocked at 2.3 GHz, to 1.9 GHz on the GS4's 600.
The Galaxy S4 has a slightly bigger battery than the Nexus 5, but both seem to get similar use out of a charge.
However, there is a small but noticeable edge in performance for the Nexus 5 that I believe can be attributed to the combination of the more advanced Snapdragon 800, Android 4.4 KitKat and the lack of bloatware on the Nexus 5 which is found in abundance on the Galaxy S4.
Advantage: Nexus 5
The Galaxy S4 comes jammed with all kinds of software-based features and other tweaks from Samsung, from eye-tracking to all sorts of crazy gestures and other additions to the camera and S Health apps, just for starters.
A number of those TouchWiz features are undeniably neat, while others rarely seem to work as advertised, but after a few months, the reality is that almost none of them are still being used at all in my household.
The pure, stripped-down version of Android KitKat that the Nexus 5 ships with is almost the exact opposite of Samsung's TouchWiz, especially on the Galaxy S4. It's minimalist, which also makes it quicker and responsive. The one feature that Google does force on Nexus 5 users, Google Now, integrates much better with the overall experience than Samsung's comparable S Voice (find more details in my full Android KitKat review).
Technically, the Galaxy S4 offers much more in the software department than the Nexus 5, including some really nifty camera improvements, but overall this is one of those cases where less truly is more.
Advantage: Nexus 5
No contest here at all. The Galaxy S4 simply offers one of the best smartphone cameras on an Android device available today, and it's one of the few places where TouchWiz really adds rather than subtracting from the experience.
The Nexus 5, on the other hand, improves on the Nexus 4's terrible camera with 8 megapixels on the rear and 1.3 on the front, but it's not nearly enough to compete the 13 MP shooter on the back of the GS4 (the front-facing camera is 2 MP).
If a quality camera is a big part of your phone-buying decision, you might want to give heavy weight to this category, as these two phones are pretty far apart on this measure.
Advantage: Galaxy S4
Cost and availability
This is where it gets really complicated. The Nexus 5 has the distinction of being perhaps the best value in the smartphone universe at only US$349 for a contract-free model, whereas the Galaxy S4 can cost twice that much without a contract.
Of course, most people in the United States will score the GS 4 for a fraction of that on a carrier, and the Nexus 5 is also available on contract for next to nothing as well. The problem for the Nexus 5 is that it's not compatible with North America's largest carrier, Verizon, and it also doesn't play well with lots of networks outside the continent.
An international version of the Nexus 5 is an option, but conversely it won't be great for Europeans and others traveling to Canada or the US due to the same network issues. The Nexus 5 also isn't as great a deal outside the US where off-contract phones are more the norm, making it less appealing.
The Galaxy S4 on the other hand, comes in about a million variations for numerous networks worldwide, including variants like the somewhat cheaper Galaxy S4 Mini and the cheaper, bigger and slightly less impressive Galaxy Mega.
This is a category that people often give the most weight to due to each unique situation or limitation, so it's hard to make a broad judgment, but here goes:
Advantage: Nexus 5 in North America, Galaxy S4 elsewhere
Going strictly by the numbers and the five major categories I've devised for this comparison, it's just about a straight up tie between these two superphones, with your geographic location breaking the stalemate.
In general, the Nexus 5 probably makes the most sense for a North American Android fan, unless you're inextricably linked to Verizon Wireless or you need a really solid cameraphone.
For the rest of you, the Nexus 5 isn't nearly as big a bargain, which is a major part of its appeal, so you may as well spring for a Galaxy S4, unless it's really important for you to be on top of the latest version of Android software. But if that's the case, you probably already have a Nexus 5.