Smartphone Comparison Guide (early 2014)
Are you shopping for a new smartphone, and wondering which ones are the best? Maybe you've heard the buzz about the latest Galaxy, iPhone, or Nexus, and can't quite figure out which one is for you? Look no further. Gizmag is here to break down the features and specs of some of the best smartphones you can buy today.
Update: Some of these phones are now gathering cobwebs. You can jump on over to our updated smartphone guide for early 2015, to see the latest handsets.
There have been a few changes since we ran our last Smartphone Comparison Guide. Our new list, for early 2014, brings back a few oldies and also adds a few big newbies:
When you make these kinds of lists, there are lots of intangibles and subjective calls involved. But, with that said, we think this group represents the current cream of the crop. And yes, there are a few notable omissions. We could have easily included the iPhone 5c, Lumia Icon, or the LG G Pro 2. Hell, even older phones like the Galaxy S4, HTC One (M7), and Lumia 1020 are still worth a look. If you don't find what you're looking for here, we certainly wouldn't blame you for checking out some of those handsets as well.
Without further ado, let's compare nine of the top smartphones you can buy (so far) in 2014.
We have quite the variety here, ranging from the (relatively) tiny iPhone 5s to the enormous Lumia 1520. Generally speaking, you'll want to look at smaller phones if you want a light and compact device that leaves a small footprint in your hand or pocket. And of course the number one reason to consider a bigger phone is because it's also going to give you a bigger screen (more on that in a minute).
It shouldn't be too big of a surprise that the smallest phone is the lightest and the biggest phone is the heaviest. But if you want the best combination of the two, then you might want to check out the Nexus 5. It gives you a big display while tipping the scale at just 130 g (4.59 oz).
Plastic seems to be OEMs' build material of choice these days, even in this group of (mostly) high-end handsets. The only plastic holdouts are the unibody aluminum HTC One (M8) and iPhone 5s. Another (very unique) exception would be if you ordered the wood or bamboo-backed editions of the Moto X.
Though they're still plastic, the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note 3 both have soft-touch faux leather backings that are very comfortable in hand. The Lumia 1520 is made of a smooth and solid polycarbonate that has a more premium aesthetic than most plastic phones.
Remember a few years ago, when all smartphones were black? Well, manufacturers have livened things up a bit, with most of the phones in this group offering several different color options.
If variety of colors is your thing, then the Moto X is the undisputed champ. Order one from Motorola's Moto Maker website, and you can customize it in one of 620 color combinations (once you take the phone's front, back, and accent colors into account).
We have quite a variety with screen size too. Those percentages you see above show how each screen's area (a much more telling measurement than the diagonal measurements) compares to the largest in this group, the Lumia 1520.
When you're comparing the display sizes above, you'll need to take navigation keys into account. The Galaxy phones, the iPhone, and Lumia 1520 all have physical or capacitive keys living below their screens, rather than onscreen. That means they'll always let you use 100 percent of their displays for apps and content.
The rest of the phones have virtual (on-screen) navigation keys, which means you'll only be able to use their full screens when Android's Immersive Mode (which temporarily fades out the navigation keys) kicks in. Right now, Immersive Mode is limited to videos, image galleries, and a few other apps, like Pocket, Instapaper, Google Play Books, and several games.
Display (resolution and pixel density)
1080p is the resolution of the day, with only the iPhone and the two Motorola handsets going with different (lower) resolutions. All the phones here are pretty sharp, but the 1080p screens are going to look noticeably crisper.
Unless you go with the Galaxy Note, then you'd better like tapping and swiping your screen with your meat hooks. Samsung's phablet is the only phone in this group that ships with a stylus.
You can buy third-party styluses that will work on any touch screen, by simulating the touch of a finger. If you count those, then all of these phones are technically stylus-ready. But those pens typically have fatter tips, are less accurate, and lack the stylus-based software and hover-based features of the Galaxy Note's S Pen.
LG has a feature called Knock-On that lets you wake up the G2 just by double-tapping its screen. HTC added a similar feature, part of its Motion Launch series of sensor-based shortcuts, in the One (M8).
Fancy having a passcode-locked phone that you can unlock with your fingerprint? Both the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5 deliver. The iPhone's is slightly more user-friendly, as you can register your print by just resting your finger on the home button. The GS5's scanner requires a swipe over the home button.
The GS5's sensor does have an extra perk that the iPhone's can't match. Samsung's scanner lets you login to PayPal or even authorize PayPal transactions with your finger. If biometric sensors are the future of mobile payments, then consider this a preview.
Heart rate sensor
The Galaxy S5 also has a heart rate monitor on its backside, just below the rear camera. No other phone in this bunch has one of those.
While we're talking about the Galaxy S5's killer features, we can't ignore its water resistance. Its IP67 rating means it can sit in 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes and keep on ticking. You'll just want to make sure its battery and charging covers are tightly sealed before you take it for a dip.
All but two of our phones run Android. Of the Android handsets, only the Nexus 5 runs 100 percent stock ("Pure Google") Android. The two Motos run almost stock Android, with the stock UI and just a few Motorola extras thrown in. Samsung's phones have its TouchWiz UI plastered on top, the One features HTC Sense, while the G2 sports LG's (curiously similar to TouchWiz) LG UI.
The iPhone's App Store and Android's Google Play Store both have mature app libraries, with thousands upon thousands of great phone apps to keep you entertained. Windows Phone is a terrific platform, and its store is growing, but its app selection still isn't in the same league as iOS and Android. It's also the only one of the three major mobile platforms that doesn't have official apps from Google.
Soon after Apple launched Siri in late 2011, voice-based virtual assistants started to pop up on all kinds of smartphones. All recent Android phones bake in the excellent, if somewhat invasive, Google Now (which adds predictive contextually-aware notices that Siri doesn't have). The iPhone also supports Google Now, via the App Store's Google Search app ... though it isn't quite as convenient to get there on the iPhone.
Windows Phone doesn't yet have an equivalent voice assistant, but it will soon. When the Lumia 1520 gets updated to Windows Phone 8.1 later this year, it will get Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Siri.
Higher battery capacities don't always mean longer battery life, as there are about a million other factors that can come into play. We've run most of these phones through our standard test, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, and the Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8) lasted the longest – by a wide margin.
Ultra/Extreme Power Saving Mode
The Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8) both have an awesome feature that lets you stretch just a tiny bit of battery life into hours of extra uptime. Samsung's Ultra Power Saving Mode and HTC's Extreme Power Saving Mode (if you're curious, Samsung's came first) both shift your display to black & white and severely limit background processes to keep your phone up and running. It lets you stay on the grid with only a spec of remaining battery life.
The only catch is that HTC's version of this feature hasn't yet rolled out to all versions of the One M8. If you want it ASAP, then you'll want to check with your carrier to see if it's pushed the Extreme Power Saving Mode software update. All versions of the Galaxy S5 ship with its Ultra Power Saving Mode on board.
Infrared (IR blaster)
Samsung, HTC, and LG all put infrared in their phones. IR blasters let you use your phone as a remote control for your TV and cable or satellite box. It's perfect for those times when you're just too damn comfortable to get up and walk across the room to pick up your dedicated remote.
Camera megapixels (rear)
Megapixels are an imperfect measurement of camera quality, but the Lumia 1520's 20 MP PureView shooter still might be the best in this bunch. Just know that most of these phones have very good rear cameras on board.
The 4 MP sensor in the One M8 looks terrible on paper, but we found that its larger pixels ("UltraPixels") made it shoot brighter and more colorful low-lit shots than most other smartphones' cameras.
Camera megapixels (front)
The One M8 is the 2014 Selfie-Taking Champion. Its 5 MP front shooter makes for higher-res self-portraits (as the old folks used to call them) than most other phones.
The second flash that you'll find on the rear of the HTC One M8, iPhone 5s, and Lumia 1520 can help make your flash photography shots look more colorful and balanced, and less washed-out.
Three of our phones have two flashes, but what about two rear cameras? Only the One M8 carries that honor, with its second lens devoted to sensing depth. It's mostly a gimmicky feature, but it does open the door to blurred-background shots, that simulate a narrow depth of field from a much better camera (with varying degrees of success).
In 2013, we started to see lots of phones popping up with slow-motion video recording capabilities. All but three of these phones have the feature baked in. You can download third-party apps that will (sort of) do the trick for the Nexus 5 and LG G2 as well.
Near-field communication hasn't caught on the way some had expected, but it does still have a few uses – like easy pairing with accessories and tap-based settings toggles. All but two of our phones have NFC chips inside.
Do smartphone speakers need to be great? Probably not. But HTC went the extra mile nonetheless, with its BoomSound speakers in the One. Not only do they face forward, but they put out the best sound I've heard from a smartphone. For whatever that's worth.
Internal storage options are pretty standard across the board. Four of these do, however, let you expand that with a micro SD card.
Just about any high-end phone you buy today is going to be as fast as you'd need it to be. All of these handsets fit that bill, with Qualcomm's beastly Snapdragon 800/801 CPUs popping up in 2/3 of these phones.
The iPhone's A7 system-on-a-chip has the only 64-bit processor in this bunch, though that means much more for the future of iOS (and smartphones in general) than it will for your experience right now.
These are the RAM totals for each phone, with the iPhone and Moto G standing as the only 1 GB phones in this group. The Galaxy Note 3 is one of the few ARM-based mobile devices with 3 GB of RAM.
These are the original release dates for each phone. Mobile devices typically release on annual cycles, so we should see updated versions of seven of these phones in the second half of 2014.
Starting price (off-contract)
If you're buying your phone at full retail, then most of these are going to cost you a pretty penny. There are, however, three notable exceptions.
The Nexus 5 gives you high-end specs and the latest version of pure Android for a mere US$350. Ditto for the Moto X, though it cuts back a little on the high-end and adds some innovative sensor-based features in its place.
Pricing is the main reason we included the Moto G in this comparison. Its hardware is far from the cutting-edge, but we've never seen a phone at its $180 price point that's anywhere near this good. It's a rock-solid mid-range phone for a rock-bottom price – and one hell of an overall value.
Still torn? Then perhaps our individual reviews will help to clear things up: