The Magnificent Seven: Smartphones That Will Rule the Holiday Season
Smartphones are the most personal and long-suffering of all gadgets. They’re with us at all hours of the day, enduring our boring conversations and clumsy drops on the asphalt, tile, hardwood… For all of their perseverance, we pay them back with love (and accessories). Then we tire of our beloved phones and toss them into the recycle bin. And upgrade. The end.
Well, not the end. It’s just the beginning, because it’s now time to find a new phone! Most of us like to stay in the same phone ecosystem for years (iOS, Android, fight!). But phones are funny that way: as much as we want the familiarity, we crave the coolest, newest, whiz-bang gadget ever. The best phones expertly balance both familiarity and innovation.
Since that balance is so difficult to pull off, there really are only a handful (pun intended) of smartphones that distinguish themselves in the very crowded marketplace. So sorry to the BlackBerry Z10, the LG G2 and the Sony Xperia Z1, you didn’t make the cut. And to the kooky Samsung Galaxy Curve Round, LG Flex and the Oppo N1, now is not your time. Check back with us in a couple years.
In 2013, it’s these magnificent seven that rule the world of smartphones. We’ve also included their Mini-Me’s, the “Plan B” if you don’t feel like going full on smarty phone (read: they’re cheaper).
Buy This for Captain Obvious: Apple iPhone 5s (2013)
What, you thought I was going to suggest the Motorola Razr? Seriously. The iPhone 5s is the mother and father of all smartphones. It has no equal in the Reality Distortion Field™. In real reality, the 4-inch iPhone 5s is a solid phone without glaring weaknesses, even if you must tolerate the new “flat” iOS 7 and its quirks. Plus, your fingerprint is saved in Apple’s servers for all time. (iOS)
Current Prices w/ contract: 16GB, $100 (Sprint); $200 (AT&T, Verizon) | No contract: $450 w/ in-store discount (Boost Mobile); $550 (Virgin Mobile)
Lowest Price on Ben’s: $100 at AT&T (contract); $450 at Boost Mobile (no contract)
Mini-Me: iPhone 5c. In reality, this is last year’s iPhone 5 in a plastic shell. (16GB: $99 w/ contract; $350 at Boost Mobile, no contract)
- Pros: The following catchphrase is uber-annoying, but you know what? It just works.
- Cons: Is it possible it’s actually getting… (gasp) boring? 4-inch display is now considered too small in some quarters. No expandable storage. May not appeal to privacy advocates (fingerprint scanner).
Buy This for Someone Who Doesn’t Like Apple: Samsung Galaxy S4 (2013)
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the anti-iPhone and has played its role exceedingly well. It’s the best-selling Android phone and second best-selling phone in the world behind… guess who. Now three years since the release of the first version, the flagship Galaxy S phone has matured into a powerful, feature-packed super-phone. The 5-inch Galaxy S4 is a classic example of that saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Android)
Current Prices w/ contract: 16GB, $100 (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile); $200 (Verizon); *Free at Best Buy on 11/28 | No contract: $560 unlocked (Amazon); $580 (Cricket)
Lowest Price on Ben’s: $500 (no contract)
Mini-Me: Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini. Just like its big brother but smaller (4.3-inch display) and weaker (dual-core processor). (16GB: $0 w/ contract; $380 no contract)
- Pros: Powerful feature set with 13MP camera, 5″ FHD display and super fast quad-core processor. Solid battery life. Lightweight and very thin. Supports wireless charging which is, let’s face it, awesome.
- Cons: Phone is on the big side, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed down the S4’s popularity. Not remarkable to behold. Still plastic feeling, but this is very subjective.
Buy This for Someone Who Buys American: Motorola Moto X (2013)
The new Moto X from Motorola (a Google company) has received a lot of attention for being assembled in the United States (Texas, to be exact). But like any other gadget, the 4.7-inch Moto X will rise and fall on the sum of its parts, instead of where or how those parts were put together. One of the Moto X’s biggest selling points is its extreme customization: all four major carriers in the U.S. now offer over 250 possible combinations of colors and accents. If you’re fine with simple black-and-white, you can currently get it on Amazon for just a penny with a 2-year Verizon contract. (Android)
Current Prices w/ contract: 16GB, Free (Sprint); $0.01 (Verizon/Amazon); $50 (AT&T) | No contract: $300 (Republic Wireless), $500 (T-Mobile)
Lowest Price on Ben’s: $0 at Verizon (contract); $300 at Republic Wireless (no contract)
Mini-Me: The just-announced 4.5-inch Moto G. It will be available in the U.S. in early 2014. ($179, no contract only)
Update [11/26]: The Moto G was released early and is now available through Motorola, starting at $179 for the 8GB model.
- Pros: Svelte and light 4.7-inch phone. Active Display feature allows you to see notifications without touching the display or pressing a button. 10MP camera. Android 4.4 KitKat now available on phone.
- Cons: Not super inspiring design, but that’s why you can customize. Display is not full HD. Plastic.
Buy This for Someone With Deep Pockets: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (2013)
Two years ago, the first Galaxy Note ushered in the age of that horrible portmanteau: “phablet” (phone + tablet). In spite of the moniker, the Note has become a wildly successful phone, and the Note 3 improves upon the series in all the right places, with a trimmed-down case but even larger display — now an eye-popping 5.7 inches. If you wear skinny jeans, you’d best move on. This is a business phone in form and function. (Android)
Current Prices w/ contract: 32GB, $200 (Verizon/Amazon, T-Mobile); $250 (AT&T, Sprint) | No contract: $650 unlocked (Amazon)
Lowest Price on Ben’s: 32GB, $170 on Verizon (contract); $600 (unlocked)
Mini-Me: That would be the Galaxy S4. Well, practically any phone for that matter.
- Pros: If you’re looking for a big phone, you’ve found it. The “phablet” concept actually works. The S-Pen stylus is very handy. 13MP camera. Long battery life (3200 mAh battery). 4K video.
- Cons: Expensive. Not comfortable to hold with one hand for extended periods. Plastic feeling at premium price.
Buy This for the Rebel: Nokia Lumia 925 (2013)
A Windows phone… wut? Yes, and it’s becoming more powerful than you can possibly imagine. The sleek 4.5-inch Lumia 925 is one of the best phones on the market, even if it’s not an iOS/Android phone. The biggest challenge it faces is unfamiliarity, but Windows Phone 8 OS is very capable. Almost all the major apps you know and love (like Netflix or Instagram) are now available for Windows phones. (Windows Phone)
Current Prices w/ contract: 16GB, Free (T-Mobile); $50 (AT&T/Amazon) | No contract: $420 unlocked (Amazon)
Lowest Price on Ben’s: $49 on AT&T (contract)
Mini-Me: The low-cost, 4-inch Lumia 520 ($0 w/ contract).
- Pros: Attractive aluminum frame. Thin and light. Microsoft Office integration. High-quality 8.7MP camera.
- Cons: Windows Phone 8 is not familiar. Display is not full HD. Average call quality. No expandable storage.
Buy This for the Cost-Conscious Trendsetter: LG Google Nexus 5 (2013)
The Nexus 5, the latest smartphone in Google’s budget-friendly Nexus series, is once again a strictly no contract phone (GSM) with a straightforward $349 price tag. It’s built by LG for the second year in a row and launched with the latest and greatest Android 4.4 OS (KitKat) before anyone else. The 4.96-inch phone is powerful despite its nondescript appearance, with 1080p video, quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and full HD Gorilla Glass IPS display. (Android)
Current price, no contract: 16GB, $349 (Google Play)
Lowest Price on Ben’s: $349 at Google Play
Mini-Me: Technically none, although last year’s Nexus 4 can be found on eBay for under $250.
- Pros: Very good value. Gorilla Glass display. 445 ppi. LTE support. Powerful internal components. Android 4.4.
- Cons: So-so battery life. No access to battery. No expandable storage. Plain-looking.
Buy This for Someone Who’s All Class: HTC One (2013)
As far as looks and build quality go, the HTC One either comes close to or exceeds the iPhone, depending on which side you’re on. Smartphone junkies have praised its sleek aluminum exterior, edge-to-edge display, and ergonomically curved back. It’s also got Beats Audio stereo speakers behind retro-styled grills above and below the screen (for landscape viewing). The 4.7-inch HTC One is also powerful on the inside with quad-core processor, NFC and DLNA support and 2GB of RAM. (Android)
Current Prices, w/ contract: 32GB, $20 (Sprint/Amazon); $50 (T-Mobile); $75 (AT&T); $80 (Verizon/Amazon) | No contract: $570 unlocked (Amazon)
Lowest Price on Ben’s: $20 on Sprint/Amazon (contract)
Mini-Me: HTC One Mini. The 4.3-inch smartphone retains most of the good qualities of its bigger sibling. ($0.01 w/ contract).
- Pros: A fantastic-looking phone that sets the bar high. Full HD 1080 display. 468 ppi (vs. 326 ppi of iPhone 5s). Excellent call quality.
- Cons: Battery life below average. 4.0MP camera is underwhelming despite UltraPixel technology for lowlight conditions. No removable battery. No expandable storage. HTC Android skin is an acquired taste.