Galaxy S6, HTC One M9, and the search for smartphone perfection

The real question isn't which phone is the best. It's which is the best for you.

Galaxy S6, HTC One M9
JR Raphael, IDG

Everyone repeat after me: There's no such thing as a perfect phone.

That's what I wrote at the end of my HTC One M9 review this week, and it's something we've talked about plenty of times in the past as well. Plain and simple, you're never going to find a phone without some sort of flaw. The best you can hope for -- and, let's be honest, this applies to pretty much anything in the world as much as it does to a smartphone -- is to find something with strengths and compromises that make sense for you.

That notion's never been more relevant than when discussing the merits of the One M9 and the Galaxy S6 -- two high-profile Android phones that'll go head to head when they hit store shelves tomorrow. Everyone wants to crown a champion between the two, to declare one phone or the other the absolute "winner" and the best device to buy.

The truth, though -- after living with both phones back to back -- is that it isn't so simple.

The Galaxy S6 and the One M9 are both exceptionally nice gadgets, and I wouldn't steer anyone away from either. I'd just suggest you think carefully about what kind of phone you want, what's most important to you in a mobile device, and what kinds of tradeoffs you're willing to make.

To wit: The Galaxy S6 has a sleek and attractive design, though its flat glass-based body is less ergonomic and more susceptible to scratches and cracks than other configurations (something that's true for any glass-centric phone). It's got a phenomenal display and an incredible camera -- seriously, check it out for yourself -- and it has some nice added perks like a solid fingerprint sensor, built-in support for wireless charging, and the ability to view multiple apps on-screen at the same time.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Phone

The phone also, however, sticks with Samsung's awkward hybrid button configuration instead of the more modern and platform-appropriate virtual on-screen buttons. Its user interface, while less garish than past Samsung efforts, feels significantly less polished and attractive than Google's base Android 5.x Lollipop OS. Its battery life is mediocre, meanwhile, and the device lacks an SD card slot for expandable storage -- something that may not mean much to most people but could be a sticking point for a certain subset of smartphone users.

The M9, on the other hand, has what's arguably the best all-around build quality of any phone today. Its all-aluminum body is classy and luxurious, with a gently curved back that fits naturally into your hand and is a pleasure to hold. The phone has superb front-facing stereo speakers, an SD card slot for storage expansion, and software that's generally tasteful and cohesive. You can also easily customize the looks of the UI with a new native theming system that's loaded with options and fun to use. And HTC is bundling in one free phone replacement if you damage the device or change carriers within the first year.

HTC One M9 Phone

At the same time, HTC's latest One has mediocre camera quality -- good enough for casual use, perhaps, but nowhere near the level of quality you'll get with the Galaxy -- and battery life that's passable but not great. It doesn't support wireless charging, either, and its power and volume buttons are a bit too close for comfort.

Again, it all comes down to what factors matter most to you and what compromises you're willing to accept. Me? I think there's a strong case for owning either of these devices. And perhaps just as important as any feature (or lack thereof), the two phones have very different styles. Spend a few minutes holding each in a store, and that alone might answer the question of which you prefer.

Let's not forget, too, that these may be the newest Android phones out there -- but they're by no means the only options. Motorola's 2014 Moto X still offers what I'd consider the best overall user experience you can get on Android today. Sony has a couple of strong contenders out there (though they're frustratingly difficult to find in the U.S.). LG has a promising new flagship right around the corner. And then there are the plus-sized devices like the Nexus 6 and Note 4, if livin' large is your cup o' tea.

But back to that elusive perfect phone. If we were ever to arrive at such a utopia, it'd take a little something from every manufacturer. Something like:

HTC's hardware design and build quality...

The M9's design may not be earth-shatteringly new, but damn -- is it good.

...with Motorola's more streamlined front-facing speaker approach.

Yup -- just like that alleged leak that never panned out from a while back. You might sacrifice a small amount of sound quality in scaling down from the current BoomSound configuration, but the difference (gauging by Motorola's implementation, at least) is relatively subtle. And if you ask me, it'd be worth it for a sleeker setup that'd lend itself to either a smaller footprint or a larger screen in the same size body.

Add in Samsung's display and camera setup...

From the Galaxy S6, to be specific. Most smartphone screens these days are impressive enough, but Samsung's latest effort really is a sight for sore eyes. And that camera -- yeah: It doesn't get any better than that.

...with Motorola's software.

Android at its best: pure Google Android Lollipop goodness -- the most polished, visually appealing, and pleasant to use interface out there -- with a smattering of smart and non-obtrusive feature additions sprinkled on top. Moto Display (which flashes the time and any pending notifications on the screen periodically and anytime you wave your hand over the phone) and Assist (particularly the driving element, which automatically detects when you're in a moving vehicle and switches the phone to a fully hands-free state) are two things I genuinely miss whenever I use a non-Moto device.

Plus a pinch of Samsung's multitasking methodology...

Being able to have multiple apps open on-screen simultaneously isn't something most people need very often, but having that capability can be incredibly handy at times -- like when you want to keep playing a YouTube video while also sending a text, for instance, or you need to reference something on the Web while actively composing an email.

...and Sony's stamina smarts.

Sony's latest smartphones manage to be sleek and reasonably sized while still offering incredible all-day (and then some -- even with heavy use) battery life. I don't know what Sony's doing differently than everyone else in this department, but it's working.

If only.

Until the various Android manufacturers decide to get together and create this dreamphone (yeah, right), we'll have to live with a certain level of compromise. So stop searching for that elusive utopia and start thinking about what type of device you like -- and what qualities matter the most to you in a mobile phone.

You may not be able to find the perfect smartphone, but trust me: You can find one that's really, really good -- and close to perfect for you.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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