Wrapping up the year, we’re going to take a look back at the year in smartphones. Unlike our Tablet Buying Guide, there are many aspects to shopping a phone. Instead of declaring a one-size-fits-all winner, we’re going to run down a list of individual features. We’ll hand out awards to the best of the best in categories like Camera, Speakers, and Battery Life.
If you’re shopping a phone this Holiday Season, we hope this will help you make a buying decision on those features which are most important to you!
Let’s get to it!
Best Speakers: BOOMSOUND!
We’ll start off with an easy one. There’s simply no competition for the front facing speakers on the HTC One, One Mini, and One Max. Watching movies, listening to music, playing games, every media experience is improved by offering up rich premier sound, and delivering that sound right to your face. These little wunder-speakers are so good they start to rival the experience you might find on tablets and low-end laptops. You don’t resign yourself to using these speakers, you’ll want to use them.
Runners up: Galaxy Note 3 & iPhone 5S
Happily, the single speaker on the Note 3 is decently loud and decently detailed. Owing to the extra space afforded a phablet, Samsung has greatly improved multi-media on the Galaxies over the years. Everything is bigger on a Note and audio is no exception.
By comparison, Apple has to be applauded in this space by continuing to push the limits on what gear they can cram into the diminutive iPhone. In years past Apple was the company to beat, and while they no longer retain the top spot, the 5S continues a tradition of offering up excellent sound.
Best Camera: 41 million PureView pixels with Zeiss optics!
Another easy category to check off. Whatever your feelings on Windows Phone, there’s no denying that the shooter on the back of the Lumia 1020 is a remarkable piece of engineering. Not only does it have an incredible resolution advantage over the rest of the smartphone landscape, the larger sensor and Zeiss optics provide the most photographic and cinematic results you’ll ever see on any smartphone. It even bests point and shoot cameras in terms of output, and the new Nokia camera app delivers semi-pro controls over how you take pics. It’s an absolute monster, and if the camera is your most important feature in buying a phone, you’d be foolish to ignore it.
Runner up: HTC One
The iPhone has an incredibly fast app, the LG G2 and Sammy’s Note 3 have fantastic hardware, but it’s HTC with the second best combination of hardware and software this year. It might stand at the polar opposite of the resolution spectrum from the 1020 with its 4MP camera, but in a variety of situations, the large UltraPixels and hardware Optical Image Stabilization guarantee you’ll get shareable results even in challenging conditions.
Large Screen (> 5”) – Nokia Lumia 1520
Phablets are all about the audacious. Everything is bigger. It’s an opportunity to cram in the best of the best. Nokia takes the top honors dragging Windows Phone into the large screen arena with the wonderful six inch ClearBlack. Also marking the first WP with a 1080p display, this giant also incorporates Nokia’s super sensitive screen tech. For folks in colder climates you can still use your phone even with gloves on.
Runner up – Galaxy Note 3
Medium Screen (4.5-5”) – Galaxy S4
Full HD resolution. Super AMOLED display. Insane contrast, rich color saturation, this is a fantastic screen. Bright, colorful, responsive. We’ve had AMOLED displays for years now, and I still find it amazing how rich the blacks are compared to LCDs. It’s also a testament to Samsung’s design evolution that we now consider a five inch screen “normal” sized.
Runner up – LG G2
Small Screen (< 4.5”) – Moto X
A proper 720p HD screen in a 4.3” footprint bolted onto a phone which actually feels phone-like. It’s like Doctor Who technology, it feels so much smaller than you think it should. Motorola has been working on their new aesthetic under Google, and Moto X shows they’ve got the savvy to deliver a unique experience in the hyper-competitive Android ecosystem.
Runner up – iPhone 5S
Best Battery Life: LG G2 – 3000mAh = Two Day Run Time
No joke. A battery this big in a medium sized smartphone is incredible. Even just last year, we would have needed a huge bulge to cram in this much juice. I ran for 47 hours before I got a 15% low-battery warning. Think about that. Almost two full days and I still had room to spare. We’re so used to phones that require a recharge after lunch, that I didn’t trust the G2. I’d still leave the house with a spare battery, and I’d never need to use it.
Runners up: Pretty much any phablet…
Sure, the iPhone is the most power efficient, affords the longest runtime per mAh, but sometimes it’s just better to brute force a huge battery into your phone, and batteries don’t get bigger than the cells you find in phablets. Some of that juice is soaked up by the large bright screens, but otherwise you’re treated to fantastic run time.
Best Software Support: Apple
It’s a testament to how good Apple is at rolling out updates that people complain about needing to wait a couple hours to download on launch day. You can count on a good solid two years of major updates, with bug fixes along the way. In an iDevice’s second year update you might not get all the same features, but you’ll still be brought up to a current OS experience. It’s almost a contract, an unspoken agreement. They get their software in your hands better than any company we’ve seen before or since.
Runner up: Motorola
This was a last minute swap to the awards this year. I was going to put Google here, as Nexus devices used to get updates faster than any other Android manufacturer. Until now. Motorola has seriously impressed with the speed at which they delivered KitKat for the Moto X. Many people were rocking Android 4.4 faster than Nexus 4,7, and 10 owners. Myself included. My Moto X? KitKat. My Nexus 7? JellyBean. I really hope we see this trend continue.
Best UI: Windows Phone 8
I might get a little hatemail for this, but Live Tiles are going to play a significant role in the future of mobile computing. They’re simple, elegant solutions for delivering small pieces of info without ripping off Android’s widgets. It’s a clean environment to navigate without copying Apple (which copied Palm, who copied Xerox). Chock full of nice bouncy lists, and side scrolling menus, it’s snappy and responsive. Best of all it runs far faster on lower powered hardware than Android currently can.
Runner up: HTC Sense
Samsung’s Touchwiz offers up far more features, functionality, and widgets, but there’s a quiet understated aesthetic at work in Sense I happen to find appealing. It’s a unique Android experience and it’s not busy or overly candy-colored. I very much disliked previous versions of Sense, but starting with Sense 5, HTC has finally grown up.
Best Gimmicks Which Actually Work!
- The Galaxy S4 Active brings waterproofing to a premier smartphone.
- HTC One alarms now function even when the phone is completely powered down.
- The iPhone 5S Touch ID is a good solution for security conscious consumers.
- Split-screen Multi-Tasking on Samsung Galaxy Smartphones.
The Budget Champion: Nokia Lumia 520
This lil’ guy was a game changer. Initially retailing for $120, you can now find it for $70 on Amazon. These are not on-contract prices. You can buy a capable dual-core processor smartphone, with a decent camera, and the ability to add storage via MicroSD card for $70 outright. You own it. We’d never seen anything like this kind of power for this price point, and mark my words, 2014 will be a very competitive year for entry-level handsets. We can thank the 520 for starting this conversation, and we can expect Nokia/Microsoft to continue it.
Runner up: Moto G
What did I say about more competition at the entry level? Moto needs to increase their mind share, and they may have nailed the formula by being the first Android manufacturer to offer up a mid-range phone at rock bottom prices. $200 off-contract gets you a phone with hardware which would have been high-end last year. They’ve scored an early timing victory against their Android competitors, and I hope they gain some consumer traction with it.
Juan’s Personal Faves of 2013.
Apple: Well the iPhone 5S, duh. Buy that one if you can.
Android: The HTC One
Yup. More than any other Android, if I reached for something Google-powered more often than not it was the HTC One. Amazing sound, very good camera and screen, and a new more refined and tasteful Sense skin. No small feat that we were treated to a number of amazing handsets this year, and chances are if you bought a premier phone in 2013, you probably did just fine.
Windows Phone: The Lumia 1020
The 1520 is faster and more powerful, but personally, I’m falling out of love with Phablets. Then I come back to the camera and it just tips me over. The 1520 has a great 20MP shooter, but it’s a smaller sensor. The 1020’s 41MP monster is bigger and badder, and it’s completely spoiled me moving forward for future phones.
And there you have it folks. The best of the best for 2013! Did your favorite phone make the cut? What were your favorite phone features of the year? Drop us a comment below, and help us out with a share!
On to 2014, and a whole new slate of amazing technology!