Sony Xperia Z1 vs. Samsung Galaxy S 4 vs. Moto X: The best of Android in 5 inches or less

Let the September smartphone wars begin.

Between IFA, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 launch, and the iPhone(s aapl) launch next week, this is already shaping up to be one of the busiest months for mobile ever. And first to the plate is Sony(s sne), with its big new flagship, the Xperia Z1. The Xperia Z1 is a hulking handset with a waterproof design and a 20.7-megapixel camera sensor. It sounds impressive, but how does it compare to the Moto X(s goog) and the Galaxy S 4, two of the top Android phones of the moment?

Size matters

Let’s just get this out of the way: While all of these phones feature a display of 5 inches or less, the Xperia Z1 is a big phone. It measures 5.66 by 2.91 by 0.33 inches and weighs 5.99 ounces. That’s considerably larger than the original 5.47 by 2.79 by 0.31-inch (HWD), 5.15-ounce Xperia Z, and a little disappointing since both phones have the same 5-inch display. Sure, some of that bulk is to make way for the larger camera sensor, but the trend right now is to make displays larger, without adding considerable size to the phone’s overall footprint. Compared to other 5-inch phones like the Galaxy S 4, the Xperia Z1 feels a bit large and heavy.

Xperia Z1 comparison

The Moto X, meanwhile, is the smallest phone of the bunch. But at 4.7-inches, it also has the smallest display. Overall I’d say the Galaxy S 4 has the greatest advantage here, as it features the largest display in the trimmest design. So if comfort is one of your primary concerns, you’ll definitely want to consider Samsung.

On the other hand, Sony is offering a design feature that neither Motorola nor Samsung can match. The Xperia Z1 has been rated IP55 and IP58, which means that it is fully dust and waterproof. This phone is tougher than it looks, which makes it your best choice if you’re the type to accidentally take your phone out for a swim every once in a while.

Dueling displays

Now let’s get to the displays. The Galaxy S 4 and the Xperia Z1 are technically an even match, since each phone features a 5-inch, 1080p panel. But the Galaxy S 4 uses a PenTile pixel arrangement, which can make text and images look a little fuzzy. The Xperia Z1, on the other hand, uses Sony’s Triluminos and X-Reality display technology, which Sony claims makes for a wider color palette and automatically optimized image quality. I haven’t seen it in person, but just knowing that is isn’t PenTile means it should look a good deal crisper than the Galaxy S 4. And the Moto X display is perfectly nice, but at 4.7-inches and 720p, it doesn’t stand out.

Xperia Z1

Processing power

Now let’s look under the hood. On paper one thing is very clear: In terms of sheer power, neither the Moto X nor the Galaxy S 4 can compete with the Xperia Z, which is one of the first phones to use Qualcomm’s next-generation Snapdragon 800 processor. The Xperia Z1 uses a quad-core chip, with each core running at 2.2GHz. This part is already becoming standard for upcoming phones (like the Galaxy Note 3 and the LG G2), but it still blows away the competition from earlier this year. The Galaxy S 4 remains a good performer, with a 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chip, while the Moto X comes in last with an X8 processing system that uses a dual-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro processor.

Cameras compared

Things really heat up when you get down to the cameras. Sony is taking great pride in the Xperia Z1’s camera, calling it nothing short of “groundbreaking.” And with a 20.7-megapixel camera sensor, the Xperia Z1 certainly edges out the 13-megapixel Galaxy S 4 and the 10-megapixel Moto X. The Xperia Z1 uses a Sony G lens, with a 27mm angle and f/2.0 aperture, along with a custom-made 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor and Sony’s Bionz mobile image processing engine.

But I’ve seen camera phones with some lofty megapixel ratings fail to deliver in the past (the first round of 13-megapixel camera phones comes to mind), so you shouldn’t judge a camera by megapixels alone. I’ve used the Samsung Galaxy S 4, and it has one of the better mobile cameras out there. And the Moto X has some cool software features, like the ability to start snapping photos within two seconds of taking the phone out of your pocket. So just how much better the Xperia Z1’s camera will be, if at all, remains to be seen.

Moto X engraved

A category a bit easier to call is battery life. The Xperia Z1 features a 3000mAh battery, which is the biggest of all three phones. That means it should last a bit longer than the Galaxy S 4, which has the same size screen but a 2600mAh battery. And while the Moto X has the smallest battery, at 2200mAh, it also has a smaller, lower-res display, so it doesn’t need as much power.

Software still matters

All three phones run Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean), with customizations from Motorola, Samsung and Sony, respectively. The Moto X and the Galaxy S 4 are available in either 16GB or 32GB variants, while the Xperia Z1 is only available in 16GB. On the other hand, the Moto X doesn’t have a microSD card slot, which the Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z1 do.

And if it seems like the Moto X has consistently been coming up short so far in this comparison, it’s not because it isn’t a good phone. On the contrary, the Moto X has a lot of unique features, like the ability to custom design the phone to your liking as well as some cool software tricks like touchless control that let you active Google Now just by speaking to the phone. It’s just tough to highlight features like these when you’re looking at things based purely on specs. 

Which to buy?

So while it seems like the Xperia Z1 is pulling ahead in many of these categories, there’s one major area where it might falter: availability. Don’t forget, Sony’s previous flagship phone, the Xperia Z, only launched on T-Mobile in the United States. Sony promises to make the Xperia Z1 available before the end of the month, but carriers and pricing have still not been announced. If it only launches on one carrier again, that cuts out a significant portion of its potential audience. Motorola and Samsung both have an advantage here, as both of their phones are available (or will soon be available) on all four major U.S. carriers, and then some.

And just to be clear, I didn’t forget the HTC One. Like the Galaxy S 4, the HTC One remains a formidable Android phone months after its initial release, which is becomingly increasingly difficult to do. I left it out of this roundup because it hasn’t held up in popularity like the Galaxy S 4 has, but it’s another great choice to consider.

Galaxy S 4 Google Experience

So ultimately this is a tough one to call. If you want the latest and greatest in terms of hardware, the Xperia Z1 is your best bet. If you’re looking for something a little lighter and more user-friendly, it’s the Moto X all the way. And if you aren’t quite sure what you want, Samsung’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach might make the Galaxy S 4 the right phone for you.