Apple released two new smartphones this year — the premium iPhone 5s and the lower-end, plastic-backed iPhone 5c. The two phones are aimed at different audiences, but while the 5c is novel because of its colored plastic shells (pink, green, blue, yellow or white) the inside of it is much like the iPhone 5. Apart from a better camera and better battery life, however, the 5c and 5 are basically two peas in a pod.
The 5s, however, comes with a few new bells and whistles befitting the company’s normal mid-cycle upgrade. A faster processor, combined with a zippier iOS 7 operating system, makes the 5s very, very snappy. That alone might make it worth an upgrade for someone with an iPhone 4S or older, as might the phone’s improved camera. The 5s also has a new feature for the iPhone: a fingerprint reader in the home button that can be used to unlock the phone or buy apps from the iTunes store.
The 5s and 5c are dependable, albeit with four-inch screens that don’t follow the trend of larger screens for Web browsing and streaming video. But as always, the biggest thing Apple smartphones have going for them are a wide range of apps and an easy-to-use operating system — making it a good option for smartphone owners of any stripe.
Get it: If you want an easy-to-use smartphone
Skip it: If you want a big screen
Price: From $99 for the 5c; $199 for the 5s
One of the primary competitors for the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy S4 in many ways is the antithesis of Apple’s smartphone. It has a large screen — five inches — that reflects changing user tastes, and is packed with so many features that even dedicated users may not be able to get through all of them. These include some useful features, such as options to control the phone by motion or to have it automatically pause videos when a user looks away. It also includes some interesting but not very useful features, such as a camera mode that’s supposed to make consumers look a bit prettier.
But there’s no denying that the Galaxy S4 is an excellent phone with a lot to recommend it. Samsung has put a lot of thought into its design, upping the build quality of the phone — even though it is still plastic — to eliminate the occasional creaks that plagued earlier iterations. Its screen is not only big but bright and very capable of showing off streaming video at its best. Battery life takes a slight hit because of that big screen, but it’s possible to get through a day of normal use without having to top off. Just keep the charger on the bedside table.
All in all, while the phone’s many features can be a little confusing, particularly for first-time smartphone owners, there’s no denying that it’s in the running for the best Android phone on the market.
Get it: If you want a premium Android phone
Skip it: If its five-inch screen is too much for you
Price: From $99.99, varies by carrier
This phone, from Motorola, has a lot of features that sets it apart — and it aims to let you set yourself apart from other phone users, as well, by letting customers build their phones to order. The Moto X is assembled in plant in Texas, meaning that customers are able to have a lot of input in exactly how their phones look, to better reflect their personalities.
Part of the fun of getting the Moto X is going through the MotoMaker, a designing Web site that lets you pick the phone’s front and back plates and accent colors. Users can also customize their phones by getting an engraving or picking a wallpaper.
The Moto X has a couple of distinguishing software features, such as one that lets consumers twist the phone in a particular way to bring up the camera rather than having to fuss with lock screens or pass codes. Still, its hardware isn’t quite on the level of premium phone such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Apple’s iPhone 5s — it simply isn’t going for the same market. The Moto X is a firmly mid-market phone, and its recent price drop to $99 better reflects that audience.
Get it: If you have a lot to express
Skip it: If you’re looking for a lot of premium features
Price: From $99.99
The phone for Android purists, Google’s Nexus 5 comes with an undiluted version of Android. Because it was made by Google specifically to show off exactly what its operating system can do, the phone is very fast and has none of the “bloatware” that other manufacturers put on Android phones, which can keep them from running at optimum speed.
With the Nexus 5, Google has made several improvements over the smartphone’s predecessor, including improvements to the five-inch screen that makes it very good for viewing video, running apps and doing a lot of Web browsing. And its partnership with LG for this phone means that it looks good on the outside with a sleek body that comes in black or white.
Battery life on the Nexus 5 is a little short — heavy use means it will definitely need a plug-in when you get home from work — but it’s a trade-off you may be willing to make for all the power under the hood. For people who like the flexibility of Android and want a phone that can be run through its technical paces, the Nexus 5 is a smart choice.
Get it: If you want to stay on the cutting edge of Android
Skip it: If you’re just not that into Google
Price: From $349
One of the flagship phones for Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, the Nokia Lumia 1020 stands out in large part because of its excellent camera. The 1020 uses a combination of hardware and software to take some of the best mobile snaps on the market.
The Lumia 1020 comes white, black or yellow, and sports a noticeable lens on the back that makes the phone ever-so-slightly thicker than some people may like. However, the lens bulk is more than offset by the quality of pictures you can get from the phone — if that’s a feature that matters a lot to you.
Software-wise, the Lumia 1020 runs Windows Phone 8, which has a tile-based navigation system that should look familiar to anyone who has updated a PC operating system in the past year or so. Windows Phone, on the whole, suffers from a dearth of apps compared with Apple and Google, though it does work well with Microsoft products such as the cloud-based storage system SkyDrive as well as Microsoft Office apps. Having a Windows Phone may be a step too far for folks who are used to the layout and app selection on competing phones. But if you’re interested in a good phone camera, it’s certainly worth looking at the Lumia 1020.
Get it: If you’re a mobile shutterbug
Skip it: If Windows Phone is a deal-breaker
This behemoth of a phone measures in at a pocket-straining 5.7 inches, which easily tips it into the phone-tablet hybrid category for devices known as “phablets.” Ridiculous names aside, this is a phone that aims to get some serious work done, with a built-in stylus and multitasking features that let users run two apps simultaneously. As with its larger sibling, the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 edition), users can also convert handwritten notes to text or even use them to create contacts in the address book.
The construction of the Galaxy Note 3 has been carefully planned, with a leatherlike back — complete with stitching — that gives the phone a premium feel. It also holds the distinction of being the only phone on the market that will pair with Samsung’s experiment in wearable computing, the Galaxy Gear watch. Still, the phone is of such a size that it feels faintly ridiculous to hold up to one’s head, and a headphone or Bluetooth receiver should probably be included in any stocking that accommodates this phone. For those who don’t have a tablet and aren’t sure they want to buy two mobile devices, the Note is a neat compromise. But if you’re looking for an understated phone, look elsewhere.
Get it: If you have a lot to get done
Skip it: If you own a tablet
Price: From $199.99, varies by carrier