This was the year of the “good cheap” smartphone. As parts prices dropped and operating systems matured, we saw sublime offerings from many companies, most notably Motorola and Nokia. The high-end market, too, was alive and well, with superb hardware from HTC, LG, Apple and again, Motorola. With the gift-giving season almost over, we felt it was a good time to shine a light on a few of our favourites.
Smartphone of the Year
The smartphone of the year is neither the biggest nor the most powerful. But Motorola’s “reboot,” its blossoming Google-run future, is the perfect compromise in most categories, and proves that Android can be at once beautiful, fluid and accessible.
What hooked me about the Moto X, and what a lot of prospective buyers didn’t seem to understand upon its release, was that only a handful of key attributes contribute to its success, but they are executed so well, and with such focus, that they stand apart from the feature-obsessed strategies of their peers. Specifically, integrating an always-on and context-aware notification system into the 720p Super AMOLED display was a stroke of genius, and Motorola worked with Qualcomm to deliver a suite of processors and co-processors that sip power and ensure all-day battery life.
Despite not yet sporting the latest Android update, Motorola has done a fantastic job with its software. Acknowledging that more is not always better, Motorola narrowed its focus, adding tangible value through features like Touchless Control, a superb one-touch camera experience, and Assist, an app that treats automation with respect.
In fact, the Moto X is the first Android flagship we felt would be as accessible to smartphone newbies as an iPhone, something I rarely say about the platform. And despite its tepid spec sheet, it performs just as well, if not better, than many of its peers.
Most importantly, the Moto X was the most useful and enjoyable smartphone I used this year which, to me, is greater than the sum of its parts.
Best of the Rest
Apple had a good year in 2013. While none of the its products were revolutionary, nor “Resolutionary,” in the end the company reinforced why consumers choose, again and again, the iPhone.
The iPhone 5s is a probably the best all-round smartphone on the market, hampered somewhat by its underwhelming battery and increasingly-cramped 4-inch display. But the phone offers a great ecosystem of apps and games that continues to overshadow Android in almost every respect, and iOS 7 drastically improves what was already a fast, secure operating system. Control Center alone, which provides easy access to commonly-used system settings, is beautifully integrated, and AirPlay continues to make the argument for a platform over disparate services.
Though not immediately obvious to the naked eye, the iPhone 5s also offers vastly improved hardware over last year’s model: Touch ID has proven to be a reliable and time-saving way to unlock the device and authorize app payments, but, more important, it eases users into a security paradigm that they may have been reluctant to subscribe to.
With a fantastic camera, first-rate build quality and an unrivalled ecosystem of third-party accessories, the iPhone 5s, like the Moto X, is easy to recommend because it just works.
HTC followed up with my favourite Android phone of 2012, the One X, with the aptly-named One. What amounted to a shot against the bow of conformity, HTC opted for quality over quantity in every respect, debuting a 4MP UltraPixel camera sensor with ultra-large pixels (for a smartphone), fantastic front-facing stereo speakers and a stunning aluminum exterior.
Along with software innovations, some of which, like BlinkFeed, turned out to be distractions, HTC made one of the most impressively-built and designed Android phones of the year. The company also managed to bring Jelly Bean 4.3 (and soon, KitKat 4.4) to the One before most of its competitors and the device still, months later, holds advantages over other Androids.
The UltraPixel camera hasn’t proven to be the boon to sales the company hoped for — the resolution is too low to offset its low-light advantages — and the company is in dire financial straits, but it’s hard to avoid the facts: the HTC One holds up better than most other Android phones.
There’s no denying that the Nexus 5 is the best smartphone deal of the year. For half the price of most devices on the market, you get an unlocked and hackable device with the latest Android software, updated directly from Google itself. It also performs extremely well, has plenty of memory and storage, and its rubberized exterior is far more hardy than last year’s model.
But in reducing costs, Google and LG skimped in a few places. The 2300mAh battery cell underwhelms, and there is ample backlight bleed behind the 1080p display. The camera, which has admittedly been improved since release, is still pretty weak, and speaker quality is equally disappointing.
But there are far more reasons to like the Nexus 5 than dismiss it, and Google has worked with LG to make the most accessible, consumer-friendly Nexus smartphone to date. The addition of LTE is key, but the stock Android 4.4 interface introduces a number of important, user-facing improvements to make the OS far less intimidating to first-time users.
The best Windows Phone ever also has the best camera every seen on a smartphone. Though the 41MP sensor and insanely sharp f/2.0 lens with image stabilization steal the show, the Nokia Lumia 1020 is a marvellously-built piece of technology. The matte finish is comfortable in the hand, and the 720p AMOLED display is extremely well-saturated and sharp.
Lately, though, it’s the app ecosystem that has begun to help claw Windows Phone 8 from its winter of discontent. From Instagram to Mint to GTA: San Andreas, the selection is better and the quality is higher. Nokia, too, is ensuring that users are kept happy, with its own suite of photo- and map-related apps that rival anything from Google or Apple.
The Lumia 1020 may not be the fastest device on the market, but it takes some of the best photos and video, supports wireless charging and Glance Screen, and offers a compelling alternative to anyone tired of Apple/Google dominance.
Best Cheap Smartphone of the Year
The Moto G is a revelation. It’s THE cheap smartphone to buy, and a testament to Motorola’s tight vendor relationship (and willingness to accept low margins).
For around $200, it’s possible to buy a comfortable, fast and long-lasting Android smartphone that promises not to be obsolete in a year. If you’re looking to buy a phone outright from a carrier, and are on a budget, this is the one to get.