Apple vs. Samsung: Who's Winning Now?

Editor in Chief
Updated

"Hey, we've been making big-screen phones for years!" "Big deal; we're already on our sixth smart watch." These are just some of the things I picture Samsung execs saying aloud as they watched Apple's big event unfold.

Although Apple is dominating the news right now, it's easy to forget that Samsung recently held an event of its own, during which it showcased two new smartphones and a virtual-reality headset. Samsung also has a new smartwatch on the way. It's a good time to take stock and evaluate which company is winning the innovation war. 

Smartphones

The iPhone 5s was already the best-selling smartphone. But with the iPhone 6 (4.7 inches) and iPhone 6 Plus (5.5 inches), Apple now has a duo in its lineup that will compete directly against the Samsung Galaxy S5 (5.1 inches) and Galaxy Note 4 (5.7 inches). The Galaxy Note Edge will be a more premium option than the Note 4.

MORE: iPhone 6 Hands-On — The Plus Steals the Show

It's clear that Apple and Samsung are concentrating their efforts in different areas. For the iPhone 6, it's all about the bigger and more beautiful Retina HD displays and better camera. Focus Pixel technology promises much faster autofocus in both photos and videos. I was stunned by how quickly Apple's device changed focus from one subject to another during a clip of kids playing by a pool.

Both iPhone 6 handsets boast more attractive and solid anodized aluminum designs with rounded edges. The Galaxy S5 is all plastic, but it's water-resistant. The Note 4 and Edge have metal frames but soft-touch plastic backs.

Apple deserves credit for doing a better job than Samsung of making it easier to activate one-hand mode. All you need to do on the iPhone 6 is double tap (not press) the home button to put items within easy reach of your thumb. On Samsung phones, you need to activate a setting.

The iPhone 6 Plus isn't just bigger than the iPhone 6; it also does more with its larger display, as several apps work in dual-pane mode. However, the new Galaxy Notes do this, too, and all of the latest Galaxy phones let your run two different apps side by side (not so with the iPhone 5s). Samsung also has the edge on screen resolution across the board.

MORE: Galaxy Note 4 Hands-On — New King of Phablets

The Galaxy Note Edge innovates with a curved secondary Edge display that shows your favorite apps, notifications, sports scores and more. Don't forget that only Samsung's phablets offer pen input, which feels more natural with this generation.

Apple seems to have the edge in the fitness and health department. Although the Galaxy S5 and Note series sport a heart-rate monitor on the back, Apple's devices promise to keep better tabs on your activity via better designed apps, a more accurate M7 motion co-processor and a barometer that can track your stair climbs. 

Who's winning? Draw. The iPhone 6 strengthens Apple's smartphones in areas where the company was already beating Samsung, including camera quality, design and mobile payments (see Unique Innovations, below). But Samsung is also pushing the envelope by refining technologies Apple doesn't offer, like pen input, while experimenting with new ones (Edge display).

Smartwatches

The Apple Watch is the smartwatch everyone has been waiting for. And you'll have to wait longer, as the wearable won't hit stores until early next year. However, based on what I know so far, the Apple Watch beats Samsung's latest and greatest in some key areas.

If you assume the Tizen-powered Gear S is Samsung's latest flagship, the Apple Watch runs circles around it in terms of design. Apple's device, made of forged stainless steel, is a thing of beauty. Plus, it's more compact than the Gear S, whose curved design comes in only one size.

MORE: Apple Watch Hands-On — Worth the Hype?

I also like having a combination of a digital crown (dial) and touch screen on the Apple Watch. The Gear S and other Samsung smartwatches rely more on swiping. 

The Apple Watch will come in two sizes, to fit those with small and large wrists: one with a 1.5-inch display and another in 1.7 inches. Both watches use sapphire crystal screens for unparalleled scratch resistance. The Galaxy Gear S sports a bigger, 2-inch curved AMOLED display, but it's more unwieldy to both wear and put on your wrist.

While Samsung offers plenty of choice in the smartwatch arena, there's more fragmentation. You have one device running Android Wear (Gear Live), one running a proprietary OS (Gear Fit) and a few running Tizen (Gear Neo, Gear 2 and now the Gear S).

The Apple Watch will come in multiple flavors, but they'll all be running the same OS. There's the Apple Watch (basic model), the Apple Watch Sport (more durable and lighter) and the 18-karat-gold edition.

The Apple Watch is a more social device, too. You can digitally poke another Apple Watch wearer with a tap, and they'll feel a haptic vibration on their wrist wherever they are. You can also draw a quick note, have a quick walkie-talkie conversation or even share your heartbeat.

MORE: Samsung Gear S Hands-On

Samsung's Gear S has some things going for it. With its built-in 3G connection, you'll be able to make calls and get GPS data without needing your smartphone. Apple's Watch pulls ahead in the fitness department, promising more accurate heart-rate monitoring while you move.

What about apps? Samsung says the Gear S will have 1,000 apps at launch, but I expect Apple to surpass Samsung in terms of quality and quantity once developers take advantage of the SDK. For instance, Starwood hotels will let you unlock your hotel room with a tap of your Apple Watch. (No more key cards!)

Who's winning? Apple. Based on early impressions, Apple should take the lead in the smartwatch war. It looks like a more polished experience, and there will be more choice (both in terms of device versions and apps) without confusion. 

Unique Innovations

Apple and Samsung are taking two very different big bets on the future. For Samsung, it's about virtual reality. Created in partnership with Oculus VR, the new Gear VR headset promises to re-invent entertainment. During a demo, I was wowed as I got a front-row seat at a Coldplay concert. As I turned, I could see the audience's reaction, which made the experience more immersive. You'll also be able to take virtual tours in a whole new way.

The Gear VR, which will reportedly cost $199, is powered by a Galaxy Note 4 device that snaps into the headset. Its powerful Snapdragon 805 processor will enable a whole new way to play games. I loved the space shooter I tried, taking aim with my eyes as I spun around in my chair while firing with the onboard touchpad. Samsung will also offer an Android-compatible gamepad.

MORE: Gear VR Eyes-On — Virtual Reality Goes Mobile

Apple's potential game-changer is more practical: Apple Pay. Using NFC and a secure element in your iPhone 6, you'll be able to buy items at more than 220,000 stores with just a tap. Macy's, McDonald's, Walgreens and Disney are among the heavy hitters already on board. Apple Pay is also coming to the Apple Watch, which will be even more convenient.

Apple Pay will also extend to the Web through various partners, such as Target. As someone who goes to Panera a lot, I like that I'll be able to pay for items even before I arrive. OpenTable fans will love that they'll be able to pay their bill via Apple Pay right from the app at participating restaurants.

Who's winning? Samsung. Apple Pay could change the way we all shop, but the Gear VR makes me more excited about the future.

Bottom Line

Samsung likes to talk about "relentless innovation," which is a double-edged sword. Following this mantra enabled the company to be first in big-screen phones, and the Galaxy Note 4 and Note Edge up the ante. However, Samsung seems to be moving too quickly in the smartwatch arena with too many options, leaving the door open for Apple's more focused and refined-looking competitor. 

Right now I give Apple the overall edge. The Gear VR could literally change the face of entertainment (assuming Samsung and Oculus get enough partners on board), but only Apple has the influence to pull off something like Apple Pay. Despite making strides, Samsung’s ecosystem for partners and developers simply isn’t as strong. Nevertheless, Samsung deserves more credit than it's getting for taking more risks.

Mark Spoonauer is the editor in chief at Tom's Guide and has been following the Apple-Samsung War since the original iPhone and Samsung Instinct. Follow him at @mspoonauer. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+