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How I chose between the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10: I let the camera decide

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After a month with the rather delightful Huawei P9, last week I decided it was time to do my due diligence and give another Android flagship smartphone a try. The two most prominent candidates for me were Samsung's Galaxy S7 and HTC's 10, and since I figure many other people might be facing the same dilemma, I thought I'd share with you my process for making the decision. Hint: it all comes down to the camera in the end.

When you look at Samsung and HTC's spec sheets, you'll find a ton of overlap. Both the S7 and 10 have Quad HD, Gorilla Glass-protected displays measuring just over 5 inches diagonally. Both offer 4GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of expandable storage, and (in the US and a number of other countries) a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor. A home button with an integrated fingerprint sensor, a 3,000mAh battery, and Android Marshmallow software are just a few of the other commonalities. Heck, even the cameras are a perfect match on paper: 12 megapixels on the back, 5 megapixels up front, and an identical score of 88 on the DxOMark benchmark. If you're picking on specs alone, you basically can't pick. But specs, like benchmarks, never tell the whole story.

I could delve into the minutiae of using each phone on a daily basis, such as which company has the better gesture shortcuts or UI themes or ringtones (HTC, definitely), but the truth is that small advantages in either direction aren't meaningful to determining the final outcome. And besides, my colleague Dan Seifert has reviewed both phones in depth, and so you should read his Galaxy S7 and HTC 10 opinions to get a wholistic picture of each device. Ultimately, it was simply a matter of finding a camera I could trust. And Samsung had that camera.

Let's start with the classic challenge of a low-light environment. Above is a cropped area from the same shot taken with the Samsung GS7 and HTC 10. The only illumination comes from my iMac's screen and Razer Mamba mouse. The mouse's color cycling causes the variance in highlight color hitting the bottom of the headphones, but that's unimportant here as this test is about sharpness rather than color reproduction.

Look at the right arm of the headphones, look at any key on the keyboard, and you'll see a dramatic difference. You can actually read "command" and "option" and "shift" on the Samsung shot, whereas the only way to know what those keys say in the HTC photo is by knowing the keyboard already.

Stepping outside on a sunny day, Samsung once again shows better, if slightly artificial, sharpness. By comparison, the HTC 10 shot feels almost hazy. Applying a sharpening filter to the HTC photo in Photoshop makes the bricks look better and more natural than Samsung's image, however that comes at the cost of the leaves above, which start to appear grainy. Bear in mind that, like all the images in this set, this is a close crop of a larger shot, so all the imperfections of each camera are magnified.

Another illustration of the HTC haze. Over the many years I've reviewed smartphones, HTC's phones have consistently failed to properly deal with bright and sunny days. If this was a video game, I'd congratulate HTC on its light diffusion and depth-of-field processing, but it's a photo, and I'd much rather take Samsung's sharper image.

This one is zoomed way in on a shot where I think both cameras did reasonably well. Samsung's Galaxy S7 shows its prowess, however, in two major ways: it nails the correct automatic exposure and it retains greater detail with less noise than HTC's 10. You can actually see the tire tread on the S7's Mini Cooper, and the car company's branding on the hubcap is crisp and easily legible.

You could try to recover some of HTC's obscured shadow detail in Photoshop, as I did, and the 10 does inch closer to the GS7 in that case. But HTC's ultimate output is simply not as refined as Samsung's, and having to do such post-processing just to keep up with the competition is a weakness in and of itself.

I don't want to turn this into an HTC bashing exercise, so here's one area where the 10 wins. Sometimes Samsung's image enhancing and sharpening goes overboard, as this comparison illustrates. The black lettering is highlighted by an otherworldly glow on the GS7 shot, and the elastic band appears thinner than it really is. The HTC 10 gets the better, more natural shot here, although it's worth noting that Samsung strikes a better color balance: there's a distinct blue tint to HTC's photo.

Ignore the cat for a moment and focus (pun intended) on the brickwork and clock at the rear. Samsung recreates both faithfully, again relying on its sharpening boost to make those elements more legible. You might argue HTC is being more restrained in its processing, but purely as a camera that outputs the best possible image on full-auto, the 10 consistently falls behind Samsung's GS7. There's no shame in it! Few cameraphones can compete with Samsung's class-leading hardware, but I had to see it for myself.

I could regale you with many more of these slider comparisons, but instead I invite you to check out the gallery below. It compiles a wide selection of sample shots taken with the two cameras, with the Galaxy S7 on the left and the HTC 10 on the right. My conclusion is unequivocal: Samsung's Galaxy S7 camera is the clear winner, while HTC's 10 puts up a respectable performance but simply lacks the image processing to keep up. And that's all I really need to know when choosing my Android smartphone for the next few weeks or months. Everything else I can get used to, but the knowledge that there's a better mobile camera out there, anywhere, is not something I could happily live with.


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