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2013 Smartphone Comparison Guide

By

November 21, 2013

Gizmag compares the features and specs of the top smartphones of 2013

Gizmag compares the features and specs of the top smartphones of 2013

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The holiday shopping season is here, and that means we'll be seeing a lot of deals on smartphones. If you're going to upgrade, which handsets are the best? Let Gizmag lend a hand, as we compare the features and specs of the top smartphones of 2013.

Update: There is now a new version of this guide. Visit our 2014 Smartphone Comparison Guide for an updated group.

Meet the smartphones

There were lots of terrific smartphones this year, but we narrowed our list down to an elite nine:

  • Apple iPhone 5s
  • Apple iPhone 5c
  • HTC One
  • Motorola Moto X
  • Samsung Galaxy S4
  • Google/LG Nexus 5
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 3
  • LG G2
  • Nokia Lumia 1020

Why these nine? Well, you could easily argue that these are the best phones of the year. We also think they're the phones you're most likely to see on display in your local wireless or retail store. Plus we managed to squeeze in phones representing each of the three biggest software platforms, and six of the top hardware manufacturers. It's a Smartphone All-Star Team, if you will.

So without further ado, let's break down some of the biggest smartphones of the year.

Size

The biggest phone, the Note 3, is 59 percent bigger than the smallest, the iPhone 5s

Sizes are all over the place, ranging from Apple's relatively small iPhones to the huge Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phablet. How much larger is it? Well, the Note 3 has a whopping 59 percent more surface area than the iPhone 5s. The 5s is also the thinnest, while the Moto X and Lumia 1020 tie for thickest.

Weight

The Note 3 is the heaviest, while the iPhone 5s is the lightest

No surprise here, as the smallest phone (the iPhone 5s) is also the lightest, while the biggest phone (Galaxy Note 3) is the heaviest. Maybe the biggest surprise is that the Lumia 1020, which is on the smaller end of this bunch, is the second-heaviest. Its hybrid compact camera hardware makes its presence felt.

Build

Only the iPhone 5s and HTC One aren't made of plastic

Plastic is everywhere, with the iPhone 5s and HTC One standing as the only metallic phones in this bunch. But not all plastic is created equal. The iPhone 5c and Lumia 1020 are made of very solid and smooth polycarbonate, the Galaxy S4 gives you a light, flimsy-feeling plastic, the Note 3 simulates leather, while phones like the Nexus 5 and LG G2 have matte finishes.

Colors

The Moto X gives you the most color options, but the iPhone 5c is also sold in five hues

You can design your own Moto X from among 18 base colors (along with many more accent color combinations), and the iPhone 5c lets you choose from five colors, most of them rich pastel hues.

Display

Screen sizes have skyrocketed in the last few years

Smartphone screen sizes have skyrocketed in the last few years, and this group is a pretty good reflection of that. Apart from the two iPhones, everything is 4.5 inches or larger, topping off with the 5.7-in Galaxy Note 3. Though these two iPhones are bigger than the first five iPhones, the Note 3 gives you 103 percent more screen area.

Resolution and pixel densities are very good all across the board. Some are sharper than others, but most eyes won't notice a huge difference once you pass the 300 pixels per inch threshold. It's "plenty sharp" vs. "unnecessarily sharp."

Storage

Storage options

Everything but the Lumia 1020 is sold in more than one storage tier. The iPhone 5s and Galaxy S4 offer the most options, and the two Samsung phones are the only ones that include a microSD card slot.

Battery

Battery capacities are all over the place, though they don't reflect actual battery life

The Note 3 holds the most juice, and the iPhone 5c holds the least, but lots of other factors determine actual battery life. In fact, in our standard video streaming battery test, the 1,507 mAh iPhone 5c outlasted the 3,200 mAh Note 3 by an hour.

We haven't had any problems with the uptimes of any of these phones, and each should easily last a full day with typical use.

Cameras

The Lumia 1020 breaks new ground for a smartphone camera

The Lumia 1020 offers the best smartphone camera you can buy today. It isn't a DSLR, but it's the closest you'll get from a 2013 smartphone. The camera/phone hybrid includes optical image stabilization, lossless zoom, and a ridiculous 41-megapixel sensor. Appropriately, it also has one of the most advanced camera control apps on any smartphone, with manual settings for all your photography needs.

The Lumia is the only hybrid on this list, but that doesn't mean there aren't some other great cameras in this bunch. The iPhone 5s stands out for its dual LED flash (which leads to better-looking flash photography), solid low-lighting results, and burst mode that automatically uses the sharpest shot.

The HTC One's camera, despite only having a mere 4 MP, is excellent for low-light photography, and you probably won't notice the lower resolution unless you do a lot of zooming or cropping.

Motion co-processor

Three of the phones offer some sort of motion co-processor, so it can use motion sensors w...

Three of the phones in this list have some internal silicon set aside for motion tracking. The iPhone 5s' M7 chip lets apps and accessories track your activity without killing battery life. Though it isn't as prominently featured, the Nexus 5 and Android 4.4 KitKit have a similar function for tracking steps.

The Moto X has a similar motion-tracking processor, but it meets a different end. It can detect when your phone moves, and briefly light up your notifications on the screen (Moto calls it Active Display). You can twist your hand a couple of times to activate the camera app from anywhere. Hell, it can even detect when you're in a car, and switch to driving mode. And thanks to the motion co-processor, it does all this while still delivering very good battery life.

Stylus

Only the huge Galaxy Note 3 is centered around stylus input

The Galaxy Note 3 is the only full-fledged phablet on this list, and its included stylus (which slides right into the device) gives you a greater sense of precision in everything you do.

Samsung also threw in some truly handy stylus-based software features. Scrawl out a phone number in Action Memo, and automatically add it as a new contact. Draw a box, and fill it with a calculator app to crunch some quick numbers without leaving the app you're already in. If you're looking for a singular productivity-oriented mobile device that can replace both phone and tablet, the Note 3 is a great choice.

Software

Software for each phone

The two iPhones and the Lumia Windows Phone are the only handsets that don't have Android under the hood. Only the Nexus 5 and Moto X, though, run pure Android. Samsung, HTC, and LG all throw in their own custom software to try to differentiate their handsets.

Voice assistant

All but the Lumia offer either Siri or Google Now, for a concierge-style voice assistant

iPhones have Siri, and Android phones have Google Now (along with some crappy Siri knock-offs from Samsung and LG). Right now Windows Phone only has basic voice search and dictation, rather than a concierge-style voice assistant.

Hands-free voice

The Moto X offers hands-free access to Google Now

Voice assistants like Siri and Google Now are handy, but wouldn't they be even handier if you didn't have to touch your phone to use them? That was Motorola's thinking with the Moto X, as you can summon Google Now by uttering the keywords "OK, Google Now" even if your phone is on the other side of the room. And though it can be fooled, the Moto X also "learns" your voice, so others usually won't be able to activate it with the same keywords.

You can still use Siri and Google Now completely hands-free on other devices, as long as you have something like a Bluetooth headset or a voice-control smartwatch.

Fingerprint sensor

Only the iPhone 5s has a fingerprint sensor

The iPhone 5s' killer feature is its Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Scan up to five fingers that the phone will trust, and you'll enjoy passcode protection without the hassle of entering a passcode. You can also use your print to authorize App Store and iTunes purchases.

4G LTE

Every one of this year's bunch supports 4G LTE

It took a few years to get to this point, but just about every high-end phone you can buy today will support speedy LTE data. Of course your local carrier will still need to support it for you to get in on the fun.

Processor

Every phone in this bunch should be plenty fast for just about any need

We don't emphasize processors as much as we used to in these comparisons, as most high-end phones are way past the point of concern when it comes to performance. With that said, the iPhone 5s' A7 chip and the Snapdragon 800 in the G2 and Nexus 5 should deliver the fastest performance on this list.

The iPhone 5s also heralds the arrival of 64-bit smartphone processing, but that means much more to the future of mobile computing than it does to your experience right now.

RAM

RAM in our nine smartphones

RAM starts at 1 GB with the two iPhones, and goes up to 3 GB in the Note 3.

Release cycle

Original release dates for each phone

Most of these phones released within the last few months. The HTC One and Galaxy S4 have been around the longest, and are the most likely to spring new models on you within the next five or six months.

Starting price (off-contract)

Starting off-contract prices, in USD (actual prices may vary)

Prices will vary a bit from retailer to retailer, but these are the standard entry-level asking prices for each handset (in US dollars). The Nexus 5 delivers the most bang for your buck, but that price is only available from Google Play, and, unfortunately, they're currently backordered by two to three weeks.

Starting price (on-contract)

Starting on-contract prices, which often vary wildly, depending on your carrier

On-contract prices vary even more than full retail, so you'll want to check around and take these numbers with a few grains of salt.

The Galaxy Note 3 is a powerful mobile device, but it's also pretty pricey (especially when you consider its fake leather backing). It might only be the best choice if you want a device that can serve as both a big phone and small tablet.

The best smartphone for you?

So which is the best? Well, that's going to depend on what you're looking for. Do you want a bigger screen, or a more compact and portable phone? Do you prefer a solid aluminum finish, or are you happy with plastic? Do you prefer one software platform (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) over another? These are the first questions we'd ask ourselves before narrowing it down.

The Lumia 1020 is the wild card in this bunch. Windows Phone's app selection still isn't quite in the same league as Android's or iOS', but you also get a full-fledged camera that breaks new ground for smart phones. Just don't forget that you can now buy a DSLR for relatively cheap, and even entry-level DSLRs still handily outperform Frankenphones like the Lumia.

This is the first year that Apple gives you two new iPhones to choose from. The 5s is the better phone, but you could argue that most of its upgrades are negligible (are a fingerprint sensor and slightly better camera really worth upgrading for?). The 5c, meanwhile, is more playful, with its pastel colors, unique cases, and very solid, "unapologetically plastic" build.

All in all, this might not be an easy decision. But with more great options than ever, there are much worse problems you could have. And if you need a little extra help, you can always hit up Gizmag's individual reviews:

If you've already found the smartphone of your dreams, and are thinking bigger, then you can check out our 2013 Tablet Comparison Guide.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin covers consumer technology for Gizmag. He's previously written for Android Central, Geek, GottaBeMobile, Android Police, and The Huffington Post.
He lives in New Mexico, U.S., with his lovely wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
7 Comments

Where's the Sony?

How come there's no WATERPROOF comparison?

christopher
21st November, 2013 @ 06:58 pm PST

I am wondering why you have left out the 3rd biggest player Sony in the "world mobile market" notice I said world as I assume GM represents the world and not just the USA

Sony also has one of the top leading products to hit the Mobile market (if not the leading product) in 2013 - The Sony Xperia Z1

I am an avid follower of GM I am not in the USA, I find the reviews and authors generally Knowledgible except were it comes to mobile devices and world markets and in particular this article and the omission of probably the best mobile device to hit the street in 2013.

Now I know Sony is not big in the USA but that shouldn't stop researchers doing their homework in the world market.

Lets broaden the horizons a little and remember the readers of GM reside all over the world not just in the USA - I am assuming that is why the Sony Xperia was excluded from your article as I can think of no other reason apart from some sort of bias

Regards

Geoffxx
21st November, 2013 @ 07:03 pm PST

Will, just a few comments. Maybe you need to do some more research or I misunderstood something.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 which I use DOES have voice features, you just need to turn them on. I drive 3 to 4 hours a day and do not need to touch the phone to receive spoken text messages, respond to text messages by spoken text or to make calls completely hands free.

I can even initiate texts or calls without touching the phone. 80% of my voice commands are accurate and it gives me the opportunity to correct them.

Also, the 41 mp camera is better than my Nikon D3S because have you tried to put a DSLR in your pocket? Sure I still use my Nikon, but that is for special photos, the Nokia is always with me.

Thanks. (Ps, do you want some amazing photos?)

Gavin Keats
22nd November, 2013 @ 12:39 am PST

No Sony? also the Nexus 5 also has the OK google voice activation.

David Anderton
22nd November, 2013 @ 06:43 am PST

Gizmag is an Australian publication, not American.

TJ

KrakaTaoJones
23rd November, 2013 @ 10:42 am PST

great review but no one reviews reception capabilities of these phone. OK if you live in the cities but what about rural users.

wxcooper
23rd November, 2013 @ 11:35 am PST

Geofxx is 100 % correct...I will never buy anything but a windows phone BECAUSE it is hands free ..great while driving. My wife loves to hear a message and respond to it while never touching the phone. Same thing with calls..or telling the phone to open any app. NO other phone has these capabilities..NOT ANY...Droid comes close with OK Google now, but it WILL NOT read your text messages nor let you respond without picking up the phone.

Trust me...other smartphones SAY they can be hands free, but they are not..you have to pick up the phone and do something..and that's a pain while driving..or even at home. I have researched this for weeks.

Nokia windows phone Icon will be my next phone!

on the virge
26th February, 2014 @ 07:38 pm PST
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