Samsung Galaxy Note 4
As phablets continue to become the norm, perhaps it's appropriate that the quintessential phablet took a big step forward this year. At first glance the Galaxy Note 4 may look like a minor update over its predecessor, but it's Samsung's focus on the finer details – especially its more responsive S Pen – that make it one of the best mobile devices we've used.
Apple iPhones 6 and 6 Plus
Apple finally joined the big smartphone party in 2014, and what an entrance it was. The 4.7-in iPhone 6 and 5.5-in iPhone 6 Plus combine three of Apple's favorite things: light, thin and aluminum. Combine that with excellent cameras, Touch ID fingerprint sensors and iOS 8, and you have Apple's two best phones – by a very wide margin.
Motorola Moto X (2nd-gen)
Motorola may not be as popular as Apple or Samsung, but the transitional company (Google recently sold it to Lenovo) delivered one hell of a handset in the 2nd-generation Moto X. It doesn't break as much new ground as its 2013 predecessor, but it does combine the same core ingredients with higher-end specs and aggressive pricing (US$500 full retail, $50 on-contract).
Google/Motorola Nexus 6
Motorola had several big releases in the last few months, and none were bigger (in a literal sense) than the Nexus 6. The Lollipop-running handset is as much small tablet as it is big phone, with a screen that's about 9 percent bigger than the Galaxy Note's. And though Google axed the bargain bin pricing we saw in the Nexus 5, the Nexus 6 is still a little cheaper than its rivals from Apple and Samsung.
HTC One (M8)
HTC didn’t reinvent the wheel with the One (M8), but it did manage to improve upon its excellent 2013 predecessor. With a curvy and premium aluminum design, along with HTC’s subtle and sophisticated Sense 6 UI, the M8 still holds up well nine months after its launch.
Also worth a look ...
LG G3: Its slightly laggy out-of-the-box performance dampened our enthusiasm a bit, but LG's latest flagship has a dazzling Quad HD display, a great balance between phone size and screen size, and one of the best cameras of any phone we handled this year, with its laser-based auto-focus.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Though it was later upstaged by the Note 4, the GS5 is still one of the top flagships of the year, with its impressive camera and IP67 water resistance.
Motorola Droid Turbo: It may not be the sleekest-looking phone we've handled, but Motorola's third phone in this roundup is a specs monster that offers some of the longest battery life you'll find in a smartphone. If it were more widely available (it's a Verizon exclusive), it could have very well snuck into our top five.
Samsung Galaxy Note Edge: If pricing weren't an issue, you could argue that this Note 4 variant was the best phone of the year. Its curved Edge Display is fun, convenient and possibly a glimpse of the future. But the phone's sky-high pricing (~US$400 on-contract, ~$900 full retail) puts a big damper on its value proposition.
If you're wondering how (most of) these phones size up, you can read more in our latest Smartphone Comparison Guide.